December 2007

5 Industries I Want To Work With In The Happy New Year Of 2008!

happy new year planet
Greetings and Happy New Year from inside the SEOigloo to All Our Wonderful Readers and to our Amazing Planet Earth!

This morning, I found myself wondering who my husband and I would be meeting in this new year on a professional basis. Who will pick up that phone and call us and bring us into the world of their business, giving us the honor of being included in their efforts? I love getting to know new clients. I love learning about what work means to them. It’s exciting to think about all the new industries we’ll get a chance to learn about in 2008.

There are 5 industries I can quickly name within which we’d absolutely love to be doing web design, copywriting and SEO this year. Here’s my list:

1. Green Businesses
This is absolutely at the top of my list. If you’ve got an organic farm, a solar power company, a conscientious home products business, a homesteading effort, a vegan venture or anything designed to bring green alternatives and education to the public, we want to work with you. We love our planet and want to help you create a search-engine-friendly, human-friendly website that really gets that information out there to help people start taking better care of our amazing Earth.

2. Local Businesses
Local search optimization and copywriting requires its own neat set of skills and we hope to use ours in this area as much as possible in the coming year. If you’re in the business of serving your local neighbors, whether with goods or professional services, we want to work with you and teach you what local search is all about. This year, my husband and I are going to be involved in a local search research project that we believe will truly cement our knowledge about what counts when it comes to ranking well in local search. Exciting stuff! We want to support the whole concept of the community that is built around people shopping and doing business locally, particularly if it means one more quality mom-and-pop store and one less Wal-mart in your town’s landscape. We are cheering on the personal responsibility for excellent customer service that local search, and especially its component of local reviews, creates. We’re looking forward to any local SEO projects we can be part of in 2008!

3. Made In The USA Businesses
My bet is that you’re getting about as fed up as we are with the ever-growing number of news stories about lead in school lunch boxes, toxins in children’s toys and contaminants in imported foods. Anyone who knowingly puts their pocketbook ahead of public health doesn’t deserve to be called a business person. One of our proudest business associations over the past few years has been with a Virginia-based pottery house, Emerson Creek Pottery. Unlike much of the kitchenware that makes its way into American kitchens and dining rooms, Emerson Creek’s dishes and serving pieces are lead-free, made of American clay by American artisans. When you make the choice to buy from American companies like these, you are not only benefiting from the the more rigorous national safety standards of this country, but you know your dollar is going to support an on-shore business. We support the concept of work being created for American workers, here at home. The more we outsource, the weaker our nation becomes, in so many ways. If your company takes pride in that Made in the USA label, we’d be proud to work with you!

4. Handmade, Artisan and Do-it-Yourself Industries
It puts a smile on my face when I see a baby playing with a handmade rag doll or a little kid busy with a handcrafted wooden toy. I absolutely flip over photos of lovely homes furnished with artisan-made goods, and take deepest satisfaction in stories of craftspeople who spend years perfecting their skills. The self-sufficiency enjoyed by those who can work with their own hands to make both the necessities and luxuries of life is an admirable and increasingly rare thing in our civilization. If you are doing-it-yourself or want to get on-line to teach others to do-it-themselves, we’d really like to work with you. In fact, if you work with us, you’ll have the opportunity of learning about do-it-yourself SEO – a whole new set of self-sufficient skills!

5. Educational Efforts
It is our belief that the Internet’s greatest power is its ability to put fabulous educational resources at users’ fingertips. In what other era could I visit The Vatican, read a complete biography of Helen Keller or watch a Mi’kmaq man singing in his native tongue all in one evening, from the comfort of my sofa? With an Internet connection, any person can fill their life with intense, enjoyable studies of everything under the sun. We really enjoy taking on projects that are educational in nature, and of particular interest to us is the homeschooling effort being made in this country today. If your educational institution or one-man teaching effort is hoping to improve your web presence in 2008, we’d like to work with you.

Every week, I come across companies on the web who have something really valuable to offer but who are presenting that offering in a way that fails to comply with good SEO and Usability standards. I see sales copy for eBooks full of spelling errors. I see small businesses lacking an understanding of title tags and meta descriptions. I see local companies without a listing in Google maps. Let’s make 2008 great by working together!

Happy New Year Everybody!

What’s the Difference Between a Website and a Blog?

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo,

Several times in the last month, I’ve found myself explaining to potential clients the difference between a website and a blog. To some, the answer may seem old hat, but I like to get back to the basics whenever I can here on the SEOigloo Blog so that I’m making sure to address folks at all stages of developing their web skills and knowledge.

The funny thing about this question is that, rather than the answer becoming clearer as time goes by, lines seem to be getting more blurry. Technically, you could use a blogging application like WordPress to build an entire website, and similarly, a highly skilled programmer could turn their whole website into a blog, from scratch, if they wanted to. RSS feeds, Social Media, Forums and Chat Rooms seem to blend in and out of the is it a website or is it a blog question. But let’s take a look at traditional definitions to get started here, and let’s consider how these two different forms of media are of use to the small business owner.

A Traditional Website

A website is a publishing format. Using HTML, PHP, ASP or whatever language the developer likes best, a website consists of a page or series of pages which feature information about your business, information about your products, the ability to contact you via forms, other contact information, the ability to shop on your site in the case of an e-commerce business, customer testimonials, FAQs, and just about anything your business can think to say about itself. The website exists to announce the existence and nature of a business, and can also serve as a vehicle for business transactions such as sales, donations, etc.

On the user’s end, a traditional website functions as a presentation of the facts and offerings of your business, with interaction generally being limited to shopping or contacting you. On a more complex traditional website, additional opportunities might be provided for user activity by enabling the ability to vote in polls, leave reviews of products, leave testimonials or some other type of feedback – often styled UGC (user generated content). To date, however, the ‘conversation’ on the majority of traditional websites has been largely one-sided. And then, blogs came along…

Blogs – the true conversation

One of the key benefits of having a blog is its power to move your company’s web efforts from merely presentational to truly conversational. When you write articles on your blog (called blog posts) everyone who reads them has a chance to respond via the comments form at the bottom of each blog post. As you can see on our own blog, here, you can write back to me, ask me questions, share your wisdom with me, give me feedback about my article and my company.

Blogs have made it simple for businesses to make an easy and direct connection with their public, and in addition to being an invaluable way to gauge what your customer base cares about, a blog is a wonderful way to put a personal, caring, responsive face on your business. Blogs are both a marketing tool and a public relations tool. They are a way to build brand loyalty and to develop lasting business relationships that can extend your reach and increase your bottom line.

In addition to giving you an easy platform for publishing whatever is relevant to your business and interesting to your readership, the second powerful use of the blog is as a networking tool. Once you start blogging, your next task should be to begin locating other blogs in your industry – perhaps not direct competitors, but related businesses. Become a daily reader of these other blogs, comment on them, get to know the blogger, and you are well on your way to joining the big conversation in your industry. Your efforts in this can lead to increased publicity, nifty incoming links and other great perks for your company. Every time you chat on someone else’s blog, it’s an invitation for them to come on over to where you are, talk to you, bring their own readership along with them and bring new attention to the fact that you and your blog exist.

Some industries are going to be more conducive to the ‘big conversation’ environment than others. Because I work in a technology-type industry, there are literally thousands of blogs I could be reading every day. My current count of preferred blogs is more like 25, and as time has gone by, I’ve developed relationships with many of may favorite bloggers. I often write about neat things they’ve published, and they, in turn, have been kind enough to write about me and link to me from time to time. In the midst of sharing ideas, we are also sending notice and business to one another, and that’s what the big conversation is all about. There’s a very good chance you can make this happen in your own industry, as blogs have become so common for such a wide variety of industries.

So, the uses of the blog are many, and the potential for on-going, longterm interaction with both customers and colleagues is fantastic. No wonder the blogging platform has become so popular over the past couple of years!

How Do Blogs Work?

Though you could technically build a blog from scratch, most folks go with the terrific open source blogging platforms made available by great organizations like WordPress. Other well-known blog providers are Blogger and Typepad. Obtaining a blog from any of these companies is free – truly a cool thing, eh?

You’ve got 2 main options when it comes to getting a blog. The first is to set up a blog on the provider’s free hosting. In that case, your URL (your www, also called your domain name) would read something like this:
www.billshobbies.wordpress.com

The name of the blog provider appears as part of your address because you are being given a free subdomain by them.

The second option, and the one we strongly urge you to go with, is to purchase your own web hosting and your own domain name so that your blog is sitting on your property – not on a subdomain of the blog provider. This will allow you to have a domain that looks like this:
www.billshobbies.com

That’s certainly going to be an easier address for your readers to remember, and owning your own domain name is one of the most important things you can do for your business.

The cost for a domain and hosting is minimal – figure about $15/yr. to own your domain and less than $100 a year for basic hosting for your blog through most regular domain registrar and hosting companies. It’s a small yearly investment to make for the peace of mind of knowing that your name belongs to you and is not tied in with any other company’s unknown future.

We are devoted WordPress fans so I can speak about this subject with most comfort. To get a free WordPress subdomain, you’d be going to WordPress.com and registering for one of the subdomain blogs. But, I hope you’ll make the stronger choice of purchasing your own domain and hosting and then going to WordPress.org and getting a free blog there that you can set up on your own property.

The purpose of this post is not to go into detail about how you set up or customize a blog, but the basic steps involved in the process go like this:

1) Set up a database on your hosting (you must have linux hosting to host your WordPress blog)

2) Download the WordPress software from wordpress.org

3) Upload the software to your hosting server

4) Run the installation program via the instructions given to you by WordPress

5) Once you’ve installed the blog, you can use the generic theme (the look and format) provided by WordPress, or you can choose a different theme by going to a site like this one

6) At this point, if you know CSS (which controls the style of documents), you can set about fully customizing the theme you’ve chosen to use for your blog. If you don’t feel up to that yet, you can simply use one of the themes as-is.

There are thousands of ready-made WordPress themes to choose from, and you’ll be making choices not only of color and style, but also of options like a 2 column or 3 column layout, and the inclusion of widgets like calendars, advertising units and other interesting possibilities.

When your blog is setup, you will also be exploring the backend dashboard (the place you go to write your posts) and customizing things like your About page, the way your blog accepts comments, and settings to protect you from spam. We strongly recommend installing Akismet on your blog to defend you from the unfortunate oodles of spam that blogs are subjected to. And that brings us to our next important consideration.

Blogging Manners

In addition to coping with the issue of downright spam which is easy to spot because of its nonsense language, generally bogged down with links pointing to icky websites you don’t want to know exist, the blog owner needs to be prepared to deal with all-comers to his/her blog.

Your hope is to make connections with super, smart, polite folks through your blog, and part of that relationship may involve criticism of your writing, your opinions or your business, given in a helpful tone. Sometimes, however, the tone may not be pleasant. You have the option to delete any comment you don’t like, but think twice before you do this. Making the decision to blog means opening the floor for others to comment. If users correct you, admonish you, or simply tell you about a bad customer experience or dissatisfaction of some kind, your best choice is usually going to be to respond to such comments with speed and concern.

I can’t count the times I’ve watched adept bloggers deal with criticism in a way that ended up making their company look even better and more responsive than ever. What looks bad is when the blog owner strikes back with a defensive, nasty or petty reply. The best bloggers rise above any hurt pride they may have, and see negative feedback as a way to learn more about how to please their readership.

Necessarily, this means that if your company intends to use a blog as a means of promoting customer relations, you need to have a plan in place about who will respond to difficult comments and how such comments will be handled. Try to resist the urge to bury criticism on your blog – there’s nothing quite so damaging as being accused of censorship! Better to act with tact and try to turn a negative situation into a positive one by showing your willingness to talk. On the other hand, it’s crucial that you draw a line in the sand for yourself between constructive criticism and vulgar abuse. No one should have the right to abuse you because you blog.

Commenter Conduct

Just as your readers are free to say whatever they like on your blog, you are free to speak your mind on the industry blogs you visit. Bear in mind that what you say is going to reflect on you and your business. It would be a foolish plan to go make nasty remarks on a competitor’s blog. Everyone will be able to click on your username and end up back at your place and will not think well of you for such conduct.

There are finer degrees of your image as a public commenter you need to consider, too. You need to determine what types of things you are willing to discuss in public. For example, while you may be willing to share a funny story about a silly mishap at work, you might not want to make a seething complaint about what pains-in-the-neck your company’s clients are. Because everything you say on your blog and on the blogs of others is public, speak in a way that reflects well on your company’s professionalism.

Lastly, don’t abuse the comments fields of other business’ blogs. The moment you seriously start promoting any website or blog on the Internet, you discover that having links point to you is one of the key metrics that determines your search engine rankings. So, yes, you need to get links, but don’t get them by dropping links to yourself on other people’s blogs. This is a spamming tactic that no smart blogger tolerates and it’s something I see novice business owners do because they don’t realize how bad it looks and how much ill will it creates. Focus on getting backlinks on the merit of the great posts you publish on your blog. Link dropping on blogs, forums and social media sites only makes your business look uniformed and desperate!

In the end, blogging is supposed to generate community. Being a good neighbor is a good rule of thumb in this environment, and thinking before you speak (publish) is a wise habit when you’re in public, right?

Should You Have a Blog or a Website?

The answer to this depends entirely on your unique business model. If your intention is simply to publish reading materials, a straight, traditional blog may just fill the bill. Additionally, software like WordPress can be used to develop whole websites because it is so easy to customize. One of the key benefits of going this route is that blogs come with a built-in content management system (CMS) so the business owner has a very easy way to update their own content. At this point, the most common projects for us seem to be developing both a traditional website and a blog in conjunction with one another. This gives the client the best of both worlds, as we see it, and we customize their blog to match the rest of their website nicely so that the experience is very fluid for the end user. This has been an especially good solution for our e-commerce clients. Though there is currently talk of an e-commerce plug-in for WordPress, it appears to be in the works rather than quite ready to use. The development of this plug-in may change the way we do business – we may become even bigger fans of WordPress than we already are!

In Conclusion
Blogs and websites are tools. Just like a book is the medium via which an author presents his story, a blog or website is simply a platform for you to use in a way that serves your business and your clientele best. I hope that the above has helped you feel a step closer to making an informed decision about your options, and if you have specific questions about this subject, I hope you’ll comment here.

Holiday Thank You Links For Our Valued Readers!

image of peace dove

Season’s Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

It’s a funny feeling when you spend the evening writing a blog post, and just before you hit that publish button, you wonder if what you’ve written will be of help to anyone…if anyone will find your post useful enough to take the time to leave a comment. In my mind, comments represent both a recognition of effort and a thank you. The SEOigloo’s readership has been small and select in 2007, and that makes Liam and I all the more grateful for each and every one of you who has taken the time during the year to say hello to us and share your questions and wisdom via comments. We’d like to thank each of you back for taking the time to recognize our efforts!

Lori, you are are most faithful commenter here, and I’ve been so delighted getting to work on projects with you in 2007. It’s an honor to know the woman who’s running the best Montessori site on the web! And, I’m very proud to count you as a new friend this year, with whom I’ve got so much in common.

David, Liam and I are so happy that we seem to have hit it off with you from day one. We feel really lucky to have gotten to know you, and you get our vote for best new SEO blogger of 2007! Thanks for being such a good friend to us, David.

Bill, whenever I get into a conversation with industry folks and we start talking about intricacies of the algo, your name always comes up, and the first thing everyone says about you is, “Bill’s the nicest man in SEO. I can’t tell you just how many times I’ve heard people say that, and every time, I absolutely agree! Thank you so much for your generosity in this industry. You have taught us so much this past year.

Matt, you know we voted for SBS a few days ago as our absolute favorite SEO blog. I remember so clearly how excited I got the first time I visited your blog and saw that you write for the Small Business SEO. Come to think of it, I’m still just as excited about that a year later! Your skills coupled with the wonderfully friendly and cheerful way you’ve so generously chatted with us this year has made 2007 great for us. Thank you, Matt, for your camaraderie and all the nifty things we’ve learned from you!

Christina, to say that you’re running the best EL Civics site on the web falls short of describing our admiration for your skills as a small business owner. You know what makes me smile? When I make my daily blog rounds, I notice that you’ve already been to half the places I’m visiting and I just light up to see you doing exactly what a small business owner should be to learn everything they possibly can about SEO/SEM. Way to go! It’s been a great pleasure to get to work with you and know you this year.

Mike, your top Local SEO blog rules the roost as far as we’re concerned, and it has become one of my favorite stops during the past year. I am learning so much from you and have really appreciated the chance of chatting with you. I’m so hoping we can get to work together in 2008. It’s a real treat to fraternize with folks who get it that Local search is just the coolest thing going.

Joe, I’ve appreciated the couple of times you’ve come by and commented here. I really respect the fact that you devoted yourself to becoming an accessibility expert and I’ve learned an awful lot from your 2000 posts at Cre8asite. I hope I can get to know you better in 2008, Joe, and I loved the opportunity of writing for your green site this past year!

Yuri, you’ve got such sharp eyes and a mind that sees things so many people overlook. I always count on getting a new idea when I read your posts over at Cre8asite, and I have nothing but respect for someone who is doing all they can to offer great small business owner education and improve the web. Thanks for being a commenter here.

Will, I think you are our newest reader, and I’m totally thrilled to have discovered what looks to be an awesome local search blog. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and your blog better in 2008 and hope you will keep stopping in here to share what you know with us.

Sophie, one of the nicest things about the web is that it has let me meet great industry folks from all over the world. I’d not hesitate to recommend your firm as the most trustworthy web design company in Australia I know of. Thank you for taking the time to comment here!

Other commenters and friends I’d like to thank, but for whom I have no URLs (hey, guys, where are your URLs???) are Iamlost, g1smd, and Elizabeth and everyone else who has stopped by the SEOigloo this past year. I hope I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you here in the coming year.

To each of you, we send our heartfelt wishes for a wonderful, restful holiday season and a prosperous and fulfilling new year. We feel blessed to know you.

Miriam & Liam Ellis
Solas Web Design

Google Reviews Review – Google Local Maps

Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

If you own a small business that provides a local service, it’s time to learn about Google Reviews. No doubt, you have heard of sites like Tripadvisor, Yelp, and Insiderpages. These independent user review sites enable citizens to publish their opinion about local businesses. Google Reviews functions along the same line, but packs its own powerful punch by being an integral part of Google’s Local tool: Google Maps. This post offers a brief tutorial on the basic components of Google Reviews, and gives some additional thoughts and commentary on their importance in the Local scheme of things.

image of Google Maps business results

The above image shows what a Google Maps user gets when they do a query for a business in a local location. In this instance, we’re doing a search for ‘fabric store santa rosa ca’. On the right hand side of the screen, you get the nice big map, and on the left, you get a column of results as shown above. The results are each given a letter of the alphabet with ‘A’ being the #1 result. The huge red arrow is pointing to the link that will appear next to any business for which Google has found a review. These reviews come from diverse outside review sites, in addition to coming directly from Google Reviews. When you click one of those little review links, you get a pop-up over the map that looks like this:

image of Google Maps reviews

The A-G arrows designate the following components you will find in this pop-up.

A: Write a Review
This is the link you click if you would like to write a review. We’ll return to that function in a moment.

B: Stars
A review is accompanied by a row of stars with a top rating of 5 stars.

C: Outside Reviews
This arrow points to the source from which Google has pulled a review. It might be from Tripadvisor.com, Insiderpages.com, or a number of other exterior sites. When you click on these green links, they take you to the review site in question so that you can read the full text of the review.

D: Google Reviewer Profile
When a review is written directly in Google Reviews, the reviewer has a profile, and that is what this arrow is pointing to. You can click the profile link to see all of the reviews that person has created. More on that subject in a moment.

E: Full Text of Review
As with D, Google Reviews have a special blue link for reading the full text of a review written using Google Reviews. Rather than taking you to an outside source, the pop-up window simply expands to show the complete text of the review.

F: Flag as Inappropriate
As with D and E, F is a function that only applies to reviews written using Google Reviews. It gives the option to flag content as inappropriate. This might be a good function to use if, for example, you found someone spamming a set of results with an announcement to go to a competitor’s website.

G: Helpful?
Users can cast a vote as to whether any review was helpful or not, whether from Google or another source, and this is what the G arrow is pointing to.

Obviously, any local business would like to get as many positive reviews as they can, and it can be a matter of serious pride to see your pertinent business information accompanied by glowing acclaim from your patrons, but, as with nearly all areas of the web, Google Reviews is suffering from spam.

In the current, energetic discussion going on over at Convert Offline regarding the quality of user reviews, a local florist gave a jaw-dropping example of what Google Review spam looks like. If you follow that link, you will see the inglorious trail of a Google user who has written 8 identical reviews besmirching the good name of 5 San Francisco florists and 3 in other locations, giving them each only one star and advocating that everyone do business with a competitor. This user even goes so far as to put the web address of the competitor in his outrageous spam.

You would think that Google would immediately notice this foolishness and kick it out of the index of reviews, and I would love to hear from anyone who has attempted to report something like this. Did the flag as inappropriate function work for you? Did Google respond? How quickly? What humans can see automatically with their eyes may be a little more challenging to the ‘blind’ eyes of Google’s bots. If you’d like to read more about current local spam issues, I recommend this article and this one from one of our favorite Local friends, Mike Blumenthal.

Spammers aside, Google Reviews are intended to provide true accounts from customers, and the best way to see how the process of writing a review works is to try it for yourself. Think of a local business (not your own) that you like or dislike, and go find it by searching for it in Google Maps. If it’s been indexed, click the ‘write a review’ link as shown in the above illustration. You must have a Google account (for something like GMail, Adsense, Adwords, etc.) and you must be signed in to write a review. When you click the link, you’ll see the following:

how to write a Google Review

You’ll be giving your review a title, such as ‘Bob’s House of Shoes is the Best in Town’. You’ll rate Bob’s with the number of stars you think it deserves. You’ll write your review in the form provided. You can make it long or short. The main point is to make it truthful. When you’re done, simply hit ‘Save’. It may take some time for you to see your review show up, or it may be instantaneous.

How important are reviews?
One of the theories I am currently hearing most often in the Local Search world is that a business needs to be in the top 3 to really see the benefits of Google’s Local service. Why is this? Because currently, at least as I understand it, only 1% of users are actually going into Google Maps to perform Local searches. The other 99% are simply typing searches of a Local nature into Google’s organic search. An example of a Local search query would be ‘fabric store santa rosa ca’. Very often, doing a search like this will cause what is sometimes called a ‘one-box’ result to appear at the top of Google’s organic results. It looks like this:

Google Local business one box

As you will note, Google is only showing its top 3 results in the one-box. Thus, if you’re not in that top 3, 99% of the users may not discover that your business exists because they won’t ever actually enter Google Maps.

Reviews, whether from Google Reviews or an outside review site, are one of the things that determines where your business is ranked in Local. Thus, reviews are going to be very important to local businesses.

Are some reviews more powerful than others?
As Mike Blumenthal recently pointed out in his post about Google Maps reviews, Google initially seemed to be placing greatest importance on the number of reviews a business had. For example, if restaurant #1 had 2 reviews and restaurant #2 had 47 reviews, the expected result would be that restaurant #2 would rank higher. However, over the past few days, the talk has been that it may be the quality not the quantity of reviews that is carrying new degrees of weight with Google.

As I understand it, a single review from a reviewer who has written about 80 different local businesses may be more powerful than a handful of reviews that are one-offs, written by reviewers with only one review to their credit. This theory, if correct, indicates that Google is attempting to give a type of trust score to reviews. It would stand to reason, then, that your local business would do well to network with ‘power reviewers’. This might mean sending an email, a sample, a coupon, or what have you by way of striving to gain the attention of folks who spend a lot of time reviewing local businesses.

A second factor that deserves consideration is whether Google is likely to trust reviews written through their own service more than they would reviews coming from outside of Google. In late November, local business owners began noticing that reviews they had received from Citysearch.com had suddenly disappeared from their Google Maps business profiles. Google evidently decided that Citysearch data is untrustworthy in some way. The reason for this remains unknown, but it provides an object lesson for all small business owners that non-Google reviews could be devalued or eliminated at any time, hypothetically causing your Maps rankings to drop.

Because of this, I would suggest that smart local business owners focus serious effort on driving potential reviewers toward Google Reviews rather than elsewhere. I have not, at present, seen any data to indicate that a review from Google’s service inherently outweighs a review from, say, Tripadvisor.com, but Google’s tendencies toward a monopolistic view of the world do indicate to me that playing in their ballpark is always a safe bet.

Other factors that may determine the power of a review

  • Number of stars
  • Age of review
  • Number of helpfuls or not helpfuls

This last bullet point is a recent addition to Google Reviews, and indicates that Google is seeking ever new fine degrees of ways to determine relevance. However, I fear that this feature may be misunderstood by the general public. Try to define ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’. Is a review helpful only if you agree with it? If a patron gets food poisoning at the local chili house and writes a review of this, will the chili house staff go and mark the review as unhelpful? Like so many parts of the review system, misunderstanding and outright spam threaten to weaken the value of the service. Google may be using the above clues and many others to get a picture of just how valuable each review is and how much effect it should have on your business’ ranking.

Good job, Google
For just a moment, I’d like to stand aside in plain admiration of what Google has done with Maps and with Reviews. This service has the potential to be incredibly helpful, and I count myself amongst the 1% of users who is going to Maps all the time to find data I need. The user interface is fantastic, and they’ve made writing a review as easy as possible. The one drawback for local business owners who are attempting to get their patrons to leave a Google Review will be that the patron must have a Google account. But, beyond this, it really is a breeze to use this set of tools.

If you’ve yet to write a Google Review, why not try it out today? No doubt, there are numerous businesses in your neighborhood about which you’ve got something to say. Google has made it easy for you to speak up.

A Note of Caution
There really are some serious spam issues affecting Google Maps. The easily traceable, foolhardy stuff like the user leaving the 8 identical spam reviews illustrates how people will go out of their way to game the system and end up looking rather silly doing so. If you want Google Maps and Google Reviews to be of quality, use it in a neighborly way.

Even if you run the best Mexican restaurant in town, and your top competitor is a grouch with a filthy kitchen and incompetent staff, resist the urge to blast him via negative reviews. If they can be traced to you, you will be creating unnecessary bad blood in your local business community and giving competitors a sweeping invitation to retaliate with dreadful reviews of your business. Reputation management wars are never fun for the parties involved.

Similarly, think twice before leaving an enraged or unfairly damaging review of any local business. Asking yourself whether you’re seeking revenge for a small annoyance or a one-time mistake before you hit that ‘Save’ button may be a kind and just thing to do. You wouldn’t want to mar someone’s reputation unjustly. A nicer way to go would be to be honest about your dissatisfaction and make serious suggestions about how the business could improve itself. Chances are, they will read your review, and if it contains genuine feedback, they just may implement your advice.

One of the things I love most about the whole Local Search world is that it is about community. Reviews are becoming a very powerful way for each member to give their own unique input about how they would like their community to do business.

Google Maps like Mrs. Butterworth

Mrs. Butterworth
Greetings from inside the SEOigloo!

You remember Mrs. Butterworth – that strange glass woman who talked to children at the breakfast table about how slowly her syrup poured. Remember how the camera would zoom in on the steaming stack of pancakes, showing the thick, rich syrup oozing down the sides at a mouthwatering, meandering crawl? Sometimes, being slow is good…but when you’re trying to be first in the world at providing accurate, helpful local information, lacking a brisk pace means falling behind and serving up confusion rather than a tasty information treat!

I love Google Maps. In fact, I’m so enthralled with local search these days that tonight I’m launching a whole new category here at the SEOigloo blog for Local SEO. Local search is becoming increasingly important to our firm and our clients’ efforts to gain and maintain visibility on the Web. But…we’ve got some problems.

Manka's listing on Google Maps

The above is the hotel standing in the A (#1) position in Google Maps for a search for “lodgings inverness california”. With 46 reviews to its credit, it’s not a big surprise to see Manka’s Hotel and Restaurant winning this coveted local search position. The reviews span from calling it a fabulous retreat to the most overpriced let-down in town. It’s a famous destination that travelers either seem to love or hate with a passion. Only one problem: Manka’s burned down in December of 2006 – a whole year ago!

Tripadvisor.com, from which Google is pulling the majority of the 46 reviews, has an announcement that Manka’s burned down. Someone must have let Tripadvisor know this, but I have an inkling that it wasn’t the hotel owners themselves, as the company website (which is still in operation) has never been updated to make an announcement about the fire that destroyed this well-known hotel. My guess would be that a traveler let Tripadvisor know what happened, but that nobody has told Google and Google’s bots are not picking up on this announcement at Tripadvisor. There is a serious communication problem here, and a frustrating set of Maps results that would send a traveler on a wild goose chase, attempting to book lodgings at what Google Maps is citing as the #1 place to stay in Inverness, California.

A short while ago, I had a similar experience trying to locate a local doctor who had moved his office. We’d received a letter in the mail about this, but lost it. When I turned to Google Maps to find the doctor, months after he had moved, his old address and phone number were still being shown in the Maps results. Fortunately, his office had set up a phone message so that if you called his old telephone number, it told you he had moved and gave the new contact information. It was good of the doctor’s office to take care of communicating this very necessary piece of data to the patients. But, I found myself wondering if they’d bothered to let Google know about the change, or if they even know that they are listed in Google’s local search.

It would be simplest to put the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the local business owner. If they move, they ought to change their listing in Google’s Local Business Center. The problem is, because Google is pulling local listings from diverse sources, many small businesses are likely in the local index without having initiated their inclusion there. They may simply be unaware that Google Maps exists, or that misinformation in Google Maps may be sending their customers in the wrong direction instead of to their door.

In the cases where the local business owner absolutely is aware of the importance of Google Maps to their business, there will be a better chance of them being scrupulous about keeping their information up to date. But this is where we run into a problem. Google has to take that new location information submitted through the Local Business Center and have it be quickly reflected in Maps if they don’t want Maps to be misleading. Unfortunately, the word on the Web and several experiences of my own indicate that it can take weeks or months for a change of address to be reflected in Maps.

What we have here, then, is a communication problem, and its a tough one for Google. Supposing they did allow a change in a local business profile to be instantly reflected in Maps. There could potentially be danger of competitive sabotage. Pizza house A could tell Google that Pizza house B is out of business. How does Google verify that this is accurate? Who does Google trust to report on the status of local businesses, particularly if the local businesses are not aware of their own listings? Is this puzzle the cause of the slowness of alterations being reflected in Maps? In other words, does a reported change trigger some type of a ‘sandbox’ filter? I would like to know.

In the traditional Yellow Pages world, we expect business listings to be refreshed on an annual basis. We know that within the course of a year, some of the businesses listed in the Yellow Pages could move or close their doors. We’re used to the idea that the Yellow Pages reflect the state of local business at the time of the most recent publication of the book.

The Web, by contrast, is live. People expect it to be as current as the daily news. It’s one thing for a business owner to have to wait a few weeks or months to start appearing in organic/universal search. The webmaster keeps a site constantly up-to-date so that whenever anyone arrives, they are seeing the most current information about the business. But webmasters cannot directly control what is appearing in local search, Maps, onebox results, etc. The result is a potential liability for any company listed in Maps; if they ever move or change their information, there will be misinformation out there about them on the Web until Maps catches up.

Google has got some of the brightest people in the world working for them. They need to find a solution to this cause of inaccuracies in their service. I believe it’s especially important for them to discover a way to speed this process up if they are serious about replacing traditional Yellow Pages as the best place to go for pertinent local business information. The last time I looked, only 1% of Internet users were using Maps to discover local business data, but now that Maps data is being included in the organic SERPs, more and more people will come to understand and use it. I’d hate to see a few experiences like mine with the absent hotel and the missing doctor sour their opinion of this wonderful tool.

Can you think of a way in which Google could speed up the updating process?

Slow syrup is great…slow communications make a service stale.

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