October 2009

Are We Waking To A New Day With Google Maps?

I think I’ll have to pinch myself! Has anyone noticed that Google seems to be throwing a surprise party this week? After years of collective public admonishment, cajoling, begging and pleading with Google’s Maps department to start backing up their giant local information entity with a sense of accountability, pebbles seem to be slipping down from the mountain top. Are we witnessing the beginning of an avalanche, a sea change in policy?

As the above video explains, Google Maps will now feature a Report A Problem link, giving users an astoundingly simple way to make a first contact with the Maps Department when data is incorrect. What’s more, Google is committing to respond to these problems within a month! I don’t read this as a guarantee that they will fix problems in a month and my understanding is that a very complicated process involving TeleAtlas (Google’s maps provider) is required to make some kinds of changes to Google Maps. My previous knowledge of this was that it could take months and months for some things to be fixed. But, who knows, with everything being so *weird* this week, maybe Google is developing some quicker method of verifying inaccuracies and resolving them. At the very least, the new Report A Problem link indicates a far more user-friendly approach to what has been Google’s historical utter lack of accessibility.

But that’s not all! Doubtless you’ve been following the news about the rollout of Google’s new Local Listing Ads. Advertising is nothing new for Google, but – get this – the ad program is going to come with…CUSTOMER SUPPORT!

Yes, the customer support which has been so startlingly absent from Google’s Local model…until now. When I read this news, I just couldn’t believe it, and it’s already being suggested that business owners will gladly sign up for the reported offer of the free 1 month trial, just to get someone at Google to speak with them regarding Local Business Center errors. I hope Google has a lot of telephones.

My Local landscape has been further altered by the rollout of the new 7-pack, replacing the old 10-pack in many places in the organic SERPs, and the bottom line is that things are changing and Google is full of surprises. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Google’s Place Pages Play Hide And Seek

Google's place pages missing

Yoo-hoo. Oly oly oxen free! You’re it! 3-2-1, ready or not here I come! Yes, this whole week has been one of playing games with Google’s new Maps interface – Place Pages. It all began with Greg Sterling being incorrectly informed that Place Pages wouldn’t be indexed by Google. This caused some scratching of heads, especially since Google was making the huge departure of crowning each Place Page with a unique URL. Chris Silver Smith jumped into the game with an illuminating explanation for all concerned that while Place Pages would be indexed, the configuration of the robots.txt would prevent them from being crawled.

The proof of this was in the pudding Google concocted when they linked to Burdick Chocolate Cafe of Boston in their post publicizing the launch of Place Pages. The cafe began showing up in Google’s organic results almost instantly and this set little wheels in motion in the masterful minds of my local search expert colleagues (they prefer to be called chumps), Mike Blumenthal, Dev Basu, Steve Hatcher, David Mihm and Andrew Shotland.

Playing in Google’s backyard, we decided to do a small experiment by pointing a few links at a Buffalo NY Jeweler Place Page with obscure rankings. Sure enough, within a day, we were all seeing the Place Page in Google’s organic index somewhere between the 3rd and 4th page of results.

And then the rankings began to drop.

And as of today, the Place Page for the jeweler is nowhere to be seen in the top 10 pages of Google and neither is Burdick Chocolate Cafe of Boston nor any of the other listings my colleagues and I were keeping an eye on.

What’s Going On?
To the tune of about 100 emails zipping back and forth across the wires, I’ve heard some interesting theories as to why Google’s Place Pages are playing hide and seek with us all. Which of these makes most sense to you?

– Google is backing away from potential allegations of monopoly. Wikipedia, local business indexes and other entities might cry foul over a conflict of interest, what with Google owning search and having the ability to award top rankings to its new destination/information pages. The pages were rolled out and began to be indexed and Google has just yanked them all back into oblivion before things get ugly.

– Someone at Google made a serious mistake in forgetting to noindex the pages. This theory hangs on the belief that the information initially given to Greg Sterling was the true intended policy but someone at Google messed up the robots.txt, allowing the pages to be indexed if links were pointed at them.

– Google does intend to include Place Pages in their index. Owing to freshness, the pages being linked to showed up fairly high in the index, have now disappeared and will reappear as Google does an adjustment that is well known to SEOs when working with new sites or new pages. By the time I finish this post, who knows, the Place Pages may have reappeared in the index.

Where Do Place Pages Belong?
Google has created a potential powerhouse of destination information for users with the introduction of Place Pages. With maps, reviews, UGC, citations, contact info, photos, videos and more, Place Pages could very well fairly deserve a place in the top 10 for businesses, cities, geographic features, etc. The UI is accessible and usable and really packed with useful data. Claims of monopoly and uhm…fascism…aside, Place Pages could really help a lot of people to get where they need to go and learn what they need to know.

On the flip side, rampant instances of business misrepresentation, 50-year-old outdated maps, incorrect driving directions and plain old spam have made Google’s local index historically weak and untrustworthy. When you add to this the utter lack of customer support in Google’s Local model, the public has reason to feel uneasy about Place Pages coming to dominate the SERPs. Of all the major local information portals, Google has the highest profile and the least sense of accountability, in my experience, and if Place Pages were to take up further room in the search engine results (remember, we’ve already got inches devoted to 10-packs, 3-packs and OneBoxes) then the overall quality of results and user satisfaction could potentially suffer.

This has been some week! A very big one for Local. Do you have theories about the Place Pages game? I’d love to hear them!