December 2010

How Many Place Pages Can Your Local Business Have?

Google tries to put it in black and white with their Google Places Quality Guidelines but from my work as a Local SEO consultant, writer and contributor at SEOmoz, Search Engine Guide, Cre8asite and on the phone every day here at Solas Web Design, it’s clear to me that big parts of the picture are still coming in snowy and fuzzy for business owners. Today I’d like to discuss what appears to me to be one of the most commonly asked Local Search questions about a subject that is vitally important but frequently misunderstood. That question is:

What Type Of Local Business Am I Running And How Many Place Pages Can I Have?

As my cheery holiday snowman illustrates, businesses come in all different kinds of packages. My goal here is to break these down for you so that you can identify which business model you are running and which use of Place Pages is appropriate to your business, according to Google.

Single Owner/Multiple Businesses
In this case, you are an entrepreneur running multiple unrelated businesses, possibly all out of a single office. By unrelated, I mean you have a dog grooming business, a daycare center, and a bookkeeping service. If you’re a jack-of-all trades like this, with distinct operations, there are specific steps for you to follow. First, each of your businesses must have a distinct legal business name. Second, each one must have a distinct local area code phone number. This number may not redirect to another number. Third, each of your businesses must have a distinct address.

Where this gets tricky is if you are running all of these ventures from the same office. In such cases, you will need to assign unique suite numbers to each of the businesses within the office. These should be legitimate suite numbers where you can receive mail. Finally, you should have a distinct website for each of your businesses. Once you have all this in order, Google allows you to create one Place Page for each unique business. This means, if you have these 3 different businesses, you can have 3 Place Pages, each one filled out with their distinct business title, address and phone number, linking to their respective websites.

Finally, a proviso. Google has historically had problems with multiple businesses occupying the same building. Sometimes, even with distinct addresses and phone numbers, Google will make a mistake and merge the listings of different businesses. Be prepared for this possible mistake arising in your situation.

Single Business Owner/Multiple Specialties
This scenario is different from the one described above because, here, you have a single business that does a number of different things. Some of the worst unintentional/intentional spamming I have seen in Google Places revolves around the legal industry in which attorneys have mistakenly supposed that they can have a separate Google Places Page for each of their specialties, be that DUI, Divorce, Accident, or what have you. This approach is a clear violation of Google’s guidelines. If you are a professional service provider with a menu of services, you merit just one Place Page in the eyes of Google. Attempting to create a Place Page for each specialty your practice offers may lead to penalties or banning of your account and this is something you want to avoid at all costs. Getting back into Google’s good graces after such an event can be next to impossible.

In your scenario, you will be creating a single Place Page with your legal business name as the business title, and you can then use the description field, categories and addition information fields to alert users as to your areas of specialization.

In this scenario, you have a local, statewide, national or international franchise. Think fast food restaurants and chain stores. Let’s say you run Frosty The Snowman’s Shaved Ice, Inc., with your headquarters in Laramie, Wyoming. Within the city of Laramie, you have 6 different shaved ice shops. The business names are all the same, but each store has its own address and phone number.

In your case, you can go two different routes in terms of that all important decision: how you will handle the vital component of your website/websites.

Option one is to have a single corporate website with a unique page on the site for each physical store.

Option two is to have a corporate website but to let each of your franchise owners run their own website.

Option one makes it easier to handle unilateral corporate decisions and activities. With a single webmaster behind the scenes, sales, specials, events, etc., can all be dealt with at a single blow by one person.

Option two allows for a more personal, self-responsible presence for the different franchises. The owners might like to have a blog of their own on their shop’s site or other options for publishing content that is unique to that specific location.

Your specific business model will dictate which option is most reasonable and effective for your company.

In the case of the corporate website with pages for each of the stores, you will be creating a unique Place Page for each store, and that Place Page will link directly to the store’s landing page on the corporate site.

In the case of the second option – with each franchise owner running his own website – the Place Page should link to the unique website – not to the corporate website.

These guidelines apply to you whether you have multiple locations in a single city, across a state or across the country.

Single Practice/Multiple Partners
I mentioned lawyers a moment ago, and they make an excellent example for this last scenario. Let’s say your business is like that of a legal practice. We’ll call it Frosty, Rudolph, Kringle and Snow. You have a single office with a single address and phone number and multiple partners work in the office under its umbrella business name. Special rules apply to you when it comes to Place Pages.

Most likely, your legal practice, dental office, chiropractic center or what have you will have a single website. Now, I have never heard specific advice from the horse’s mouth on this, but my advice would be to act as one does with a franchise and have a unique page for each partner in the business on the website. Frosty gets a page, Rudolph gets one, Kringle gets one and so does Snow. These pages describe what each partner specializes in.

On the Place Page side of things, Google allows you to have one main Place Page for the business, itself. Then, each of your partners is allowed to have his or her own Place Page. In other words, Frosty gets one, Rudolph gets one, etc. As I’ve said, I am unaware if Google has taken an official stance on this, but I think you have a choice as to whether these agent/partner pages link directly to the homepage of the business website, or to the unique pages you’ve created for each practitioner. I would be inclined to go with the latter, but I’d call this a choice rather than an absolute.

In sum, your business model gets 1 page for the business and 1 for each partner.

Define Your Local Business Model Before You Create & Verify Your Place Page
Google’s local business index is up to its nose in duplicate listings, unclaimed records, poorly created profiles and spam. To date, Google has not done an exemplary job of marketing Place Pages, explaining how to use them, how to find their guidelines, how to understand/respond to errors and a host of other letdowns. My feeling is that most business owners are stumbling across the existence of Place Pages haphazardly, realizing they should somehow be included and making their best efforts to do *something* with their business data. The end result can really be a mess, and this is why I’m encouraging you to plan your strategy before you create or claim your Place Page/Pages.

Have I left out any common business models? Please, feel free to comment if your business doesn’t fit into my 4 described scenarios. Hopefully, I’ve covered all the bases and you can recognize the type of business you are running in what you’ve read here.

I came up with a mantra in 2010 that I’ve found helpful to share in consulting with Local business owners:

When using Google’s tools, play by Google’s rules

It may not be the most brilliant device ever, but it rhymes. And it’s true! So very often, I hear from frustrated business people who feel that Google’s policies are unfair, ambiguous or downright wrong. But the bottom line is that in using Google Place Pages, you are using a Google tool, and playing by their rules is simply a requirement of smart business practices. Failure to do so will seldom have good results in the long run.

For 2011, my advice to all business owners is to read and re-read the Google Places Guidelines linked to at the opening of this article. Remember that there are updates fairly often, so check back from time to time to see if anything has changed. I want you to have real success in the new year. With a little thought and planning, you can make it a profitable and happy one!

Happy Holidays to all of our clients, readers, colleagues and friends! We are so looking forward to working with you in 2011 and thank you for the opportunities each of you provides us to work, learn and grow!

Firefox Funk In Google’s HotPot

Last week, I wrote about an oddity I was encountering in Google HotPot. When attempting to leave a rating/review, I was being limited to some 368 characters, unhappily curtailing my fluid prose.

Google’s Lior Ron kindly stopped by to let me know that no such limit exists and that my reviews could be as long as ever. Mike Blumenthal chimed in to ask what browser I was using. Putting these two tidbits together, I decided to look at the issue again and post this update.

Here is what happens when I attempt to leave a Place Page Review/Rating while browsing in Firefox:

I am absolutely still being cut off at 368 characters.

Switching to Chrome, though, I find I can write as much as I like:

In regards to Lior Ron’s comment, it would appear that Google may be unaware of this issue with Firefox – a very popular browser. I am hoping Google will take note of this and will be able to create a solution. As it is, I feel this situation is adding to the number of hoops users must jump through to leave a review in Google. Right now, in order to get a customer to leave a Google-based review, the business owner would have to tell the customer to:

1) Create a Google account if they don’t have one
2) Be signed into Google to leave a review
3) Be sure they aren’t signed in using Firefox because they will only be able to leave a 368 character review.

With so many ifs, ands and buts, doesn’t it seem like having to do an awful lot of dancing about in order to get from point A to point B with this? Customers are busy people and making things as simple for them as possible is what smart business owners do. I would like to see Google invest brains and time into helping all you SMBs out there make it as easy as possible for your customers to use Google’s review apps. It would be a win-win move across the board.

Bugs And Grumbles In Google’s HotPot?

There has been much posting and understandable excitement on the Local SEO front since the launch of Google HotPot in mid-November. Combining Local and Social in the form of quick, snappy ratings that are then shared with your ‘friends’ is what it’s all about, and while this is certainly an idea of merit, the fact that it is based upon Google’s ability to handle user generated content raised a few questions in my mind from the start.

For many years, I have complained about the bugginess of Google’s user review data. From one day to the next, I could expect to see different numbers being applied to my own review count, and often times, my reviews simply wouldn’t show up, only to return a few days later. Now, Google is taking a big step, pushing forward the value of a review/rating-based system, and true to form, discrepancies are instantly apparent.

Here is the review count currently present in my Google profile:

Actually, yesterday, I had 105 reviews being numbered on this page. Today it’s 104. But what’s a review or two? I’m used to this bug and it’s no big deal. But then I look at what my HotPot profile says and we’ve got a bit more of a problem:

Only 85 ratings/reviews? What happened to the other 20? If I’m a newish Google reviewer or HotPot user and I have left my first 30 reviews/ratings and Google is only appearing to show 10 of them, how enchanted am I going to be with this system? How loyal will I remain? The answer to that question belongs to Google. Bottom line, HotPot appears to be exhibiting Google’s historic problems with the numbers game when it comes to these new ratings.

Now for the grumbles.

I’ve spent considerable time leaving my 100+ reviews in Google over the years. I try to make them thorough, detailed and helpful. My general process is to list both the positive and negative aspects of a business. For example, if I’ve stayed at a hotel, I will say that I appreciated the friendly front desk, nice clean rooms, the blooming hyacinths in the garden and the fact that I saw pelicans flying past the back deck in the morning. Then, I will explain that I did not appreciate the scratchy bedding, the broken front door light, the screen door that wouldn’t open and the lack of in-room phones. I assess whether I feel the price was fair for the room and the region and add anything else I feel will be particularly helpful. People often mark my reviews as helpful, and I think this is because I share the things I feel will give the clearest picture of what another user can expect to experience at the business.

Unfortunately, the new emphasis on ratings is going to kill my joy and that of many other people because of a new emphasis on brevity. By my count, your review/rating is now allowed to be no longer than 368 characters, including spaces, and frankly, I find that really limiting.

I like reading Yelp reviews because many reviewers go into exact detail about their experiences as business patrons. Yelpers would be hard pressed to summarize even a 3 course dinner within HotPot’s confines and I see this as a genuine downside to what Google is doing, merging reviews and ratings into a single entity and demanding Twitter-like snippets rather than colorful, full accounts. I’m dubious as to whether I, personally, will feel interested in leaving reviews via Google’s applications any more. As a user who loves to write reviews, HotPot ratings leave me complaining of claustrophobia and seeking more air and wide open spaces.

Would love to see comments from Google as to these bugs and grumbles. And, from any of you!