August 2009

Go-To-Client And Home Businesses Out Of Google’s Local Loop

Thanks to Mike Blumenthal for pointing out what looks like it will be a gradual integration of Google’s Street View into local business profiles. I had to do a lot of searches in Google Maps before I could get one like this to appear, so I guess this will take awhile to be fully integrated. Here’s a screenshot in which you can see the Street View image and link in the More Info popup:

street view shot of business

Mike has pointed out some legitimate concerns regarding the fact that Street View frequently shows wrong shop fronts for businesses and that this may add to the confusion of Google Maps users who have been shown an image of a building that isn’t actually what they should be looking for on the street. Very true, but this new feature brought other thoughts to my mind – thoughts about the 2 categories of businesses that are clearly out of Google’s loop when it comes to local business representation.

Home-Based Businesses

According to a 2006 US census report 1/2 of US business are home-based. That’s not a number that most people would find safe to ignore, but Google Maps has more-or-less done just that by dint of the fact that they require the publication of a street address for inclusion in their local business index.

I frequently hear from home-based business owners, offering quite legitimate goods or services to their communities, who are not at all comfortable with publishing their home address on the web. There are not only basic concerns about privacy involved in this, but also the concern that people would arrive on their doorsteps, expecting to be able to meet the owner in an office or shop setting, only to find themselves interrupting the family dinner hour.

When you add to this that the new Street View feature being automatically included in the business will show a shot of the home-based business owner’s house, the challenges of this situation are only increased. This sector of American businesses – apparently 1/2 of the people contributing to our economy – will continue to be under-served so long as Google continues to rely on street addresses as an essential legitimacy metric.

Go-To-Client Businesses
These are the tutors, chimney sweeps, assisted living professionals, landscapers, etc. whose business models revolve around doing business at locations other than their own home-base. I don’t have a figure for this, but there must be millions of local businesses which operate this way and which neither have, nor need, a staffed office to supply customer service. When you need your trees trimmed, there is no reason for you to get in the car and drive to a business to request services. You just pick up the phone and dial and the workers come to you. It’s a pretty standard way of doing business for a vast number of industries.

Yet, here again, these types of companies are not invited to Google’s party unless they have a listed street address. As is the case with the home-based business, the go-to-client business owner doesn’t want to publish an address, not because of privacy concerns, but because there is no ‘office’ to send people to. It’s not part of the business model.

Google doesn’t accept P.O. boxes and if go-to-client businesses are compelled to rent virtual business addresses in order to be able to market themselves locally, the end result for the customer will certainly be a frustrating one if the customer goes hunting for a store or office that doesn’t actually exist.

This Issue Deserves Attention
I often find myself thinking that Google got involved in local business representation without a clear idea of what this would really be like. In hindsight, it seems weird that Google would decide to include only walk-in business models when such a huge number of local businesses don’t work that way in America, or anywhere else in the world. Only last week, I was talking to a mobile notary public who was frustrated to learn that she couldn’t be listed in Google’s local business index without owning a street address. It didn’t make sense to her, given how her business operates, and it doesn’t make sense to me, either. Mobile Notary Publics certainly qualify as very local in my book. Why not in Google’s?

Tensions Continue To Mount
What does a business lose when it doesn’t fit into Google’s narrow definition of local and legitimate? Obviously, it loses an extremely large opportunity for increased visibility. Of course, it is still quite possible to optimize and market local businesses via Google’s organic search using city names instead of street addresses, but it rankles that so significant a percentage of local businesses can’t make use of a feature that is supposed to be so…local.

Then again, business owners may be saved very real headaches if they are excluded from inclusion in Google’s Local Business Center. The chronic inaccuracies in Google’s index and Google’s un-neighborly policy of zero customer support have woven a phenomenal tapestry of business owner frustration, confusion and rage over the public misrepresentation of their companies by Google. Only this afternoon, I read what I believe was the darkest spin I’ve yet encountered on Google’s relationship to the local businesses they’ve elected to represent:

I’ve been trying to get help from anyone from google to clean up my googlemaps listings for three months. I have tried Google’s instructions, technical updates, and various techniques for handling duplicates, zombie listings, et al. I have still have two incorrect listings showing up in googlemaps for my business.

Silly me. I went down to the google office and asked for someone to speak with that would get this fixed. They gave me a phone number to to try 650-253-0000. I called the number and the receptionists tell you they can’t connect you with anyone and referred me back to the help forum.

I went back to the google office and asked them to find anyone that could please fix my googlemaps problem. They told me they were going to call security. I asked if security was going to solve my googlemaps problem, then they called the cops. Officer Spicely from the Boulder PD actually came to my dojo and told me if I ever went to Google’s offices again asking for technical support, they would have me arrested. Asked for customer support from google and the will have you harassed by the police.

Google maps sucks, google sucks, and Google employees better google the Boulder Grappling Academy before they come train. They aren’t welcome until they fix my google maps problem. What a bunch of clowns!

Obviously, there are two sides to every story. But, really, Google? Letting slip the dogs of war on a guy who has come to ask you to correct his business listing? I’d really like to know what actually happened at the Google office. Did the business owner do something threatening? Strike a jiu jitsu pose before the receptionist? I expect we’ll never know why Google would call out the fuzz on a local business owner who…wait a minute…came to a published local business address to ask for customer service from a company that doesn’t offer that as part of its business model. Hmmm…Maybe Google can understand the home-based and go-to-client problems I’m outlining, above. Maybe Google’s answer to their own problem is to list your address, but have armed men at the ready should anyone come visit you there. I can’t see that working for Grandma Queenie’s Dog Walking service…but, you never know.

At any rate, the response in the Google Maps Help Group from a Google employee is humming a very odd tune:

Hi Boulder Grappling,

We hear your frustrations. We’re also doing our best to help our users and we realize we may not get to everyone.

That said, please reply with links to the listings with which you are experiencing issues and explain what exactly needs to be resolved.

Cheers,
Maps Guide Brianna

Cheers? Is that any way to talk to a guy you’ve threatened to have arrested? Something is very off here and I’ll abstain from any further comment on this because it’s impossible to know what really went on with this case. I’ll simply say, it’s bizarre.

Over the weekend, I saw the first color coming into the trees in my corner of Northern California. Fall is approaching on fleet feet – time for fall cleaning at our house, and may I suggest, at Google’s house, too? Releasing new tools, new features, new apps…these things are noteworthy and nice, but if you do this on top of serious underlying problems, I think you’ll only end up deepening your mess.

Publishing Street View shots could be great for some businesses and users, but not if they are of the wrong buildings, not if the building is occupied by a new tenant who can’t understand why his address is showing a vaccuum repair shop instead of a law office, not when the law office has been categorized as an auto mechanic, not when the auto mechanic’s listing has been conflated with the laundromat next door and not when the laundromat owner hasn’t a clue as to why she can’t contact Google to report that people keep calling her to order a pizza. You get the picture. Wish Google could.

Time Or Money – Why Small Businesses Need One, The Other Or Both

time is money

Expectations are funny things. I don’t know of any other medium that can be compared to the web for it’s ability to set false expectations of free or easy or instant success. Whereas virtually no one would expect to create, stock, open, advertise and promote a brick and mortar store on a thin dime, I continue to hear from hopeful small business people on a weekly basis who have unrealistic expectations regarding both the time and money they will need to invest to make a serious stab at earning a living on the web.

Is it the cheap-o web design template companies that are giving them these unhelpful expectations? Are they getting spam mass emailings telling them that they’ll have it made with just $99/month worth of reciprocal linking? Is it some type of hold over from those make-money-at-home-licking-envelopes deals?

I’m not sure, but I’ve heard the sound of shock and disappointment one too many times during my years of serving small businesses not to know that too many of them believe that making a living on the web will somehow be cheap and fast. While in so many cases, taking the web path will be less costly than the brick-and-mortar road, it requires a real investment from the business owner, just the same. It’s serious business and necessitates that the business owner has either one of the following things to contribute to the effort…or, in the best of circumstances, both of them:

Money
When you can hire pros, you not only benefit from what they know how to do for you, but what they know not to do for you. The time and money they save you guiding you away from the numerous pitfalls of lousy, ineffective website design, poor SEO practices and useless marketing efforts is the unwritten benefit you receive when you have the budget to hire experts. It’s possible for a small business owner to make literally hundreds of wrong turns and false steps when they are trying to do it all on their own, and every one of these errors represents a loss. There are no short cuts on the web, but when you have money to hire pros your chances of success are immeasurably increased by the simple fact that you will be making wise moves instead of rookie mistakes.

Time
Citizen of a capitalist civilization though I am, my heart is always with humble folks and I truly, truly understand that very few humble people are rolling in dough. We aren’t. If you’re not, it’s no shame, but it is the signal that you’re going to have to contribute something else to your endeavor and that thing is time.

Any dedicated person can learn everything they need to know about market research, consumer demand, domain names, hosting, website design, SEO, Usability, Search Marketing, Social Media, Local Search Marketing and etc. I truly believe this. Because the selling of Internet-related services like these developed as the web developed, the whole evolution happened in public, online and people working to become experts shared what they were learning with the world. The documents, tutorials, blogs, fora, message boards that have been created on these topics are all out there for you to read. All you have to do is search for them and all you need is the time to study, practice and apply the advice you read.

In the end, if you can become an expert, that’s only going to empower you and strengthen your chances of succeeding on the web. We’ll return to this topic in just a moment.

Time and Money
Even if you’ve got money, you’re going to need time, too. It may not be time for learning if you’ve decided to hire experts, but it will be the time you’ll be putting in to allow the efforts of pros to begin to take effect. It will also be the time put in to discover how the public interacts with your website or marketing efforts. It will be investing more time to responding to those reactions in new and more effective ways. Nothing is instantaneous.

In my opinion, the very best combination happens when the business owner has a reasonable amount of funding set aside to work with pros and no expectations of instant success, and he is also set on learning about how the web works so that he starts making smart business decisions. This enables him to determine where future investments of time and money need to be spent to keep up with the changing times and the needs of his customers. Throw creativity into the mix and you’ve got a very good chance of earning an income online.

Okay, So You Don’t Have Much Money
I said we’d return to this. Remember what I wrote a couple of paragraphs back:

When you can hire pros, you not only benefit from what they know how to do for you, but what they know not to do for you.

I’m highlighting this statement again because I need to give you one all-important warning if budget has dictated that your efforts are going to need to be time-based rather than money-based. I’m going to give you the expert tip that should save you a boatload of trouble in your pursuit of education. Here’s the tip:

Much of what you’ll read will be garbage, not gold, and if you’re a novice, you won’t know the difference.

You could develop a study plan for yourself entailing 2 hours of reading about web-related disciplines every day, and at the end of a month, you could have wasted 60 precious hours and amassed all kinds of faulty knowledge that could actually ruin your chances for succeeding…if you’re not reading the right sources.

I can’t solve your money problems, but I can solve this educational problem for you, and that’s what I’m going to do right here. Here is the list of sites and documents I would advise you to bookmark or put in your feedreader. These are the publications I, personally, read and trust for consistently accurate and helpful news and information.

For Starters
To get started, please read 3 documents on our own site. These will introduce you to the concepts of how search engines work, why that should matter to you and the first steps you need to take to present your business on the web. Don’t skip this step!

The Simple SEO Guide For The Small Business

I Want A Top 10 Google Ranking

Seeing With Web Designer Eyes – 9 Evident Errors

Read and re-read those three documents and you’ll have started your first day of school on the right foot. Once you feel comfortable with the information covered, you’re ready to start your daily study of all things web related and these are the resources I want to share with you.

Excellent General Reading

Search Engine Land is our industry’s premier search engine news publication. The contributing authors are experts in their fields. SEL covers news about the actual search engine companies as well as SEO and marketing news. It is written for professionals. The content you will find there is the equivalent to, say, The Wall Street Journal. These folks are at the top of the game and by reading this publication on a daily basis, you will be gaining awareness of the big picture of business promotion on the web.

Search Engine Guide is a publication for which I write. It has a very strong set of authors and the content is written more for a small business owner audience than for an industry professional audience. There is a strong focus there on Social Media and SEO.

Cre8asite Forums is Usability Expert Kim Krause Berg’s highly respected forum. You can become a member for free there and I believe that the level of discussion present there on such topics as SEO, marketing, Usability and Design is superior to that of any other forum on the web. Because I’m a moderator at Cre8asite, my opinion may be biased, but it’s the quality of discussion there that I have heard so many members cite at the reason they are loyal to this forum. Cre8asite’s motto is, There Are No Stupid Questions and the forum is peopled by members who are at all levels of expertise and who are very happy to talk with you. There is even a section of Cre8asite called Website Hospital which enables you to submit your website for public review and very helpful advice.

Small Business SEM is our friend, Matt McGee’s blog. It’s small-business-owner friendly and Matt writes all kinds of neat pieces about various ways to promote your business on the web. He does a good job of helping you see opportunities. Highly recommended for all small business owners.

SEOmoz is one of the best-known SEO companies in the US. Their CEO is Rand Fishkin. Their blog is updated daily with articles about SEO and social media. Every Friday, they post a video tutorial on some aspect of Search Marketing. Originally, SEOmoz was really professional-focused, but over the past 2 years, they have turned more of their attention towards getting business owners to read their publication. They have a whole paid membership section of their site now (which is cool, but expensive). They also have a section of very good tutorials, some of which are paid and some of which are free: http://www.seomoz.org/articles

Exceptional Niche Topic Reading

Local Search
If your business serves your local community, learning about Local Search is going to be essential for you. In addition to reading about Local here on the SEOigloo blog, I recommend that you bookmark and religiously read the following blogs:

Understanding Google Maps And Local Search

Screenwerk

Mihmorandum

Local SEO Guide

Hyperlocal Blogging
How would you like to become the local news for your industry and your town? That’s what Hyperlocal Blogging is all about and it’s a powerful way to increase your visibility within your local community. I have 2 suggestions to make to get you started learning about this very exciting topic:

Read my 5 part series on Hyperlocal Blogging as your crash course.

Then, start following Matt McGee’s very fun Hyperlocal Blogger blog.

Copywriting
CopyBlogger is Brian Clark’s blog that is all about the art of writing great copy for the web. It’s very motivational and will help you to see just how important your writing skills are going to be to the success of your business.

A Final Word
There are many excellent publications I haven’t listed, above, but these are my picks for your beginning education. If budget dictates that you need to do-it-yourself, these resources will help you to make smart steps instead of false ones and I can’t think of a more powerful set of tools to put in your hands.

Just remember, every single expert on my list got to where they are because they put in those study hours over the months and years. This is the value they have to offer to people who read their writing and people who hire them. When you consider the vast amounts of time these folks have invested, it should become very clear to you why they are worth the fees they charge for their paid services. Looking down the long hall of the study plan ahead of you, you will realize that your time is very valuable.

If you were undertaking this study and work for someone else’s company, you’d definitely need to paid, but as the do-it-yourself small business owner, the arrangement is a little different. You aren’t going to study for an hourly wage – rather, the goal of your education is to gain the skills you need to take your business online and towards success in a truly educated manner.

Today is a good day to decide if you’ve got the time it will take. If you determine that you can commit to this course of action, there is nothing to stop you from achieving success.

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Flickr Photo Credit

A Little Respect, Please

frog image

I run a small business offering web services to other small businesses. Being small doesn’t make me dumb or a doormat; it doesn’t make the SEOigloo blog an appropriate place to drop links.

Today, a new IYP company attempted to drop this link in my recent post regarding Google’s Caffeine Update:

If you are looking for another up and coming IYP site to get you listing more visible on the web and help with small business resource management, please sign up with our site: xxxxxxxxxxxxx Thank you

While it’s very tempting to me to publish the name of this new IYP, I’m X-ing it out in order to give them a fairer shake than they’ve given my blog. I receive spammy comments like this on nearly every post I write, and I summarily delete them. I’ll take the high road here for a moment and attempt to assume that companies who are engaging in this extremely foolhardy method of self-promotion are either paying an amateur SEO to market them or are somehow unaware of the potential consequences of this disrespectful activity.

My Little Tutorial For Linkdroppers

Why Your Strategy Is A Poor One
When you waltz into a blog and leave an unrelated comment and drop a link, you are showing your lack of respect for both the blogger and her readers. I am not writing so that you can have free advertising and my readers are not coming here to read your free advertisement. Just as you would not burst into a restaurant, where chefs are making carefully prepared meals and diners are enjoying a leisurely supper, to scream out the name of your business, apropos of nothing, you should be embarrassed to behave this way on my blog. It’s uncivilized.

Why You Do Not Wish To Appear Uncivilized
Supposing I published you comment. Now everyone who visits my blog has just witnessed your spammy endeavor and must conclude that you are barbaric. You do not understand the art of conversation or the subtlety of contributing value to the blogosphere. Your chance to make a truly good impression of your business and its intent has just been publicly ruined, by you. Who will want to do business with your company now if you’ve just revealed that this is the way you do business?

Doing Business With Me
As if it weren’t already bad enough that you’ve left a nasty taste in all of my readers’ mouths, you have just insulted me – the blogger – the one sitting behind this keyboard with the power to make news about your company. Think about that.

Not only may I decide to publicly shame your company by blogging about your uncouth promotional activities, but I may tell every other SEO, Web Designer, Local Search Marketer, Usability Expert and SEM I know about your spammy tactics of self-promotion. Additionally, on my desktop, I have a little file of all of the IYPs and indexes that I promote to my own highly-valued clients as important places to get their companies listed. Do you think, after what you’ve done, that I will entrust my clients’ profiles to your sullied hands?

A little linkdrop here, a little linkdrop there – someone must have told you this was a good idea, but I hope my illustrations will have begun to help you see how this unwise behavior muddies the very pool in which you were hoping to make a splash.

The Karma Of Spam
If you are willing to spam blogs, is this an invitation to evil forces in the world to spam your Local index out of existence with false submissions from every spurious locksmith, florist and lawyer under the sun? Who will be there to offer you a hanky to dry your tears when your directory is spammed into irrelevance if you are willing to employ such tactics for your own company? By using spam as a promotion tool you are encouraging spamming to be the status quo on the web and no one – no one – benefits from this in the end.

Getting It Right
Do you have a really good tool, website or offering that you think will be a genuine boon to local businesses? Why not go to the effort of getting to know me? I’m pretty involved in Local Search and I blog about all kinds of Local-related matters. You might hunt up my website’s Contact page, figure out what my name is and send me a personal email telling me about what you’re doing in Local. Who knows, I might check out your offering and decide it’s worth blogging about. I might even interview you, link to you, tell my colleagues and clients that they should pay attention to you. My website gets a healthy dose of annual traffic, and I also write for Search Engine Guide which has incredible visibility. While I’m tooting my own horn, I’ll also mention that I’m a moderator of one of the most respected forums on the web where the advice of mods is taken to be honest, genuine and valuable. If I know from experience that a service is good or important and I mention it at Cre8asite, I believe people will take my word about what I’m saying. Ethics and honor are very important there. In my own small way, I have some influence and I just might go to some trouble for your company if I genuinely think you merit the effort…but not once you prove to me that you don’t think I merit the effort of this type of simple courtesy.

Manners matter with me, and the quality of the web matters hugely to me. My blog is not your spot for polluting the web with unrelated linkdrops but it just might be a place for you to make meaningful contact with a small business owner and blogger who cares very much about Local Search. Think this over before you decide to pursue your linkdropping campaign here and elsewhere. Make a smarter choice.

Will Google Caffeine Alter Google’s 10 Pack?

As you’ve likely heard, Caffeine is the name Google has given to some changes they are making under the hood.

Word has it that these changes relate chiefly to how Google indexes documents rather than the user interface. Speculation is rampant as to the potential effects of Caffeine, and Andy Beal has written an interesting piece which suggests that the new Google SERPs will be geared toward more real-time results than static ones.

What, I ask you, is more real time than Local? That’s a question I’ve asked, perhaps one too many times, in regards to the inaccuracy of outdated business information populating Google’s 10-pack. Putting that aside, however, the first question that sprang to my mind was whether Google Caffeine would have any effect on their Local results (their 10 pack, 3 pack, etc.)

The short answer is, it doesn’t look like it.

I used this very cool tool that lets you compare current Google SERPs to Caffeine SERPs and in running about 20 searches for popular local inquiries, I did not encounter any difference at all in the ordering of the 10 packs. None. Nada. See for yourself:

caffeine comparison for local search

What I Did Notice
There is definitely jockeying around going on in the Organic/Universal SERPs. I saw things like Merchant Circle listings being knocked completely off the front page (a surprise as I’ve always thought they were one of Google’s most trusted sources…hmm). I saw less dramatic changes like sites like local.yahoo.com, Gayot, 10best, SuperPages and Yelp playing musical chairs, moving up and down amongst one another for no reason I was able to immediately fathom. Time and analysis may point the way in this regard. I also noticed minor differences in the suggested searches often shown at the bottom of Google’s SERPs and saw new News results appearing at the bottom of the SERPs in Caffeine when they weren’t appearing in the current Google results.

What Does It All Mean?
For Local, my guess is that Caffeine will not be a game changer and that the good advice holds true that you need to have a crawlable site with thorough content and get your business profile listed in every place you can think of. Maybe someone else is out there right now discovering some change in the Local results that I’ve overlooked. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

In the meantime, keep the content publication going strong, local business owners. I believe this is still going to be your very best strategy.

Amazing Application Of Maps In Google Book Search

Maybe I’m behind the times on this and Google has been doing this with their Book Search results for awhile now, but tonight I saw something for the first time while using Google Books that I thought was really noteworthy. I was doing a search for one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen and found the Google has only indexed a snippet view of the book. It was when I scrolled down this snippet view page that I saw this:

maps in google books

This totally amazed me. Google was plotting the many locations in this very lengthy book on a map! When I clicked the Maps link in the upper left hand corner, I was taken into Maps and an even more stunning level of data:

maps in google books

The left column of results lists the various locations in the book along with the associated page number where that location is found and a short snippet of text. Clicking on one of these entries brings up a popup on the map. I ended up clicking on Omaha as a location. When I clicked on the link in my example for Page 59, I was taken back into Google Books where this interesting presentation of results was featured:

maps in google books

As you can see, fragments of the text are being presented with the word Omaha highlighted. Just fascinating.

I’ve had some stern words for Google of late because of issues with Local Search, but I want to take a moment to express my wonder at this creative use of Maps technology. Having the physical geography of a book laid out in this manner is stunning, particularly for books in which location plays an important part. How can you imagine people using this feature of Google Book search, and when did you first start seeing this noteworthy application? I’d love to hear from you on this.

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