Google Plus For Local Businesses
As if there wasn’t enough for small business owners to stay on top of in the web already, Google+ continues to shake up the world of local business internet marketing. Google Places plays a critical role for many small businesses, so it’s important to pay attention whenever the rules of the game change.
Google Local pages are now transitioning to Google Plus Local pages, which means a new layout and content sections. Plus Local listings still appear in the organic search results in the traditional SERP views and map results, which account for the bulk of many small businesses’ web traffic.
All local pages are wrapped around the edges with the same interface as personal and non-local business Google+ pages. Inside, the biggest changes are the loss of video and the introduction of Zagat ratings. Google acquired Zagat in September of 2011, and this is one of the first looks at what they plan to do with the brand. It doesn’t look like the Zagat rating system in Google Plus Local is entirely well-conceived, however, and there are indications they may be planning to scrap it already.
After an initial roll-out where Google insisted that owners maintain their pages through the old Google Local Places interface, they’ve begun the process of integrating the old backend with Google + business pages. So – if you previously maintained a Google + business page and a Local Places page, now you’ve only got one profile to worry about. Linking is optional for now, but since it appears inevitable that all accounts will be merged, you may as well start the transition manually.
First, you should sign up for a Google + account if you haven’t already. If you use Gmail or Google Apps, Google has signed you up already. If not, you can sign up directly, with any email address you like. There’s no need to use a Gmail email address if you don’t want to. You will end up with a Gmail username, but you can specify another email further below in the signup form and use that address to access your account.
Next, take a look to see what your listing looks like to a viewer. Make sure you have an unbiased look at your listing by opening an incognito window in Chrome, or starting a private browsing session in Firefox. This is important because your personal browsing history can influence the results Google displays.
Search for your business by category in the new Plus Local interface and take note of how it appears compared to your competitors. Make note of any changes you need to correct – things like outdated photos, phone numbers, etc. Another good thing to pay attention to is how Google auto-fills your business category. If you start typing “bike …” and Google suggests “bike store” – make sure you haven’t categorized your page as a “bike shop.” Always use keywords that Google thinks other searchers are using.
After noting how the listing looks, go ahead and link your Google Plus and Google Local pages. If you didn’t have a Google Plus Business page already, you’ll need to create that first. Log into your Plus account, and click “More” in the bottom left-hand corner, then “Pages.” Click “Create New Page” in the upper right hand corner and follow the instructions to finish generating your page.
Once you have a Google Plus Business page, the next step is to link it to your former Places account. Google ought to automatically determine there’s a match between the two profiles and display a “unverified” link next to your profile name in the Plus Business page. Mike Blumenthal has an excellent first look at the linking system. Clicking the “unverified” link while logged in as the page owner will give you the option to confirm a match between the Plus and Local profiles. Google will mail you a postcard to verify your address, and then you’ll have access to edit the page through your Google Plus account.
After you’ve got access to your page, you’ll want to edit it to be as compelling and informative as possible. The biggest concern is making sure your address, phone number and website are all the same – formatting and all. This is important for all profile pages, but critically important for Google Plus – don’t leave a single detail the slightest bit different. Categorize your listing, using the info you discovered with your earlier reconnaissance. Add a unique description. Don’t copy and paste from anywhere else on the web. Upload plenty of photos. Photos are essential online – the easiest way to give searchers a flavor of your business. The more, the better.
Finally, you will want to set up something called Direct Connect, to let Google know you own the website that you’ve linked to from the Google+ page. While logged into your Plus page, click the “connect your website” link under the “Get Started” menu. Google will give you several badge options to display on your homepage. Pick one and add it to your site. While there’s no overt promise that this will benefit your listing, each additional step you can take to make your listing more complete than your competition has historically been a smart move with Google.
It’s clear that Google envisions a futre Local Business section with more social interaction – imagine friends sharing business recommendations from a local search, or a book club established as a Google + Hangout meeting in a local cafe – as Google Plus sees mainstream adoption. Google Plus isn’t guaranteed to take off, but it’s still a smart time to plan your engagement strategy. Be sure to include employees that interact with clients offline – they’re the people who have the biggest opportunity to influence your Google Plus audience and help you build a popular and profitable profile.
If you’re interested to learn more about Google Plus Local, I recommend these articles from Luna Metrics, Mashable, SEO Roundtable and Hubspot. And if you have a question or need clarification, please leave a comment or contact me directly.