Ever since Google introduced Google Maps, Mike Blumenthal was there to study its impact on small business. He is one of the world’s top experts on Google Local Plus (Places), a blogger at “Understanding Google Maps and Local Search , founder at LocalU and an all around good guy.
Remarkable for the fact that he spent thousands of hours helping small business owners with their listings on Google’s Places for Business. If local search was hockey, he would be Wayne Gretzky. We are grateful that he found the time to answer some questions for us.
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Small Business Trends: A lot of small business owners are confused about Google Local (Places) Plus and Google+ for Business. What’s the simplest way to make a distinction between these and what does it mean for their success in Google’s local ecosystem?
Mike Blumenthal: Google has totally confused the branding of their local products. In the end, everyone will have a Google+ Page for local that will be either social or not. For the most part, the page will be managed from the new Google Places for Business interface.
One of the issues is that most businesses do not understand that their listing at Google is a search result. And that Google gives the business the privilege of adding some trusted data to that listing from either the Places Dashboard or from Google +.
Sometimes Google doesn’t trust the business provided data (or rather their algorhythm doesn’t) and they change it. But in the end, the result is the same regardless of where the data is given to Google. And the result will show up wherever Google wants to show local results; the main search results page, the Plus environment, Maps, Apps, Google Earth… wherever.
It is a time of great transition in both the product and the branding. Essentially the name Places is going away and being replaced for the consumer with local Google+ Pages.
Small Business Trends: You have seen everything that can be seen in local search. Where do small businesses usually fail? What about corporations?
Mike Blumenthal: It is amazing to me that the most common failures I see at both levels is a failure to consistently brand your locations. Google essentially respects and honors brands at a local level with their search product. Brand is the strategy.
Google needs to see a consistent footprint for each business to highlight the brand properly. To do that, they use what we call NAP – name, address and phone – to accurately track, review relevance and ranking information about each location. Businesses both big and small seem to have a hard time keeping their NAP the same everywhere. One name, one phone number and one address always presented the same. It seems that there is always this desire to somehow improve on your NAP by using call tracking numbers or futzing with the business name.
My advice: Don’t do that.
What is shocking is that I see this with national brands, as well, and they should know better.
Small Business Trends: If you had a business that was underperforming in local search, but had no obvious issues, what 3 things would you do?
Mike Blumenthal: 1) Look for violations that would cause the listing to be de-listed or ranked lower.
2) Check for duplicate listings.
3) See if Google has changed the area being shown in the search results.
4) Determine whether the issue is organic or local in nature.
Small Business Trends: We have noticed Google giving small business owners more support recently and even opening up phone lines. Is this another experiment or their new strategy?
Mike Blumenthal: Google seems to have come to the realization that getting the last few details correct in local can not reasonably be done by machine. I think we will see a stronger commitment going forward to providing businesses with answers to their questions.
Small Business Trends: How do you see local changing in the future? What can small businesses do to prepare?
Mike Blumenthal: Well, the obvious change is happening now. Or at least the trend is clear now. Both couch surfing with the iPad/tablets and true mobile with smartphones are changing local. The best thing that small businesses can do is to upgrade their website with responsive design  so that it handles both tablet and phone screen sizes well.
Context is everything and Google will be able to tell a lot about a person that is using their phone. If you look into the near future, I see things like universal geo fencing…. that is the ability of folks like Google to know when a person crosses into their physical space.
As for preparation for that? Be sure that you are doing local search – great website, great citation building, keeping customers happy and getting reviews, figuring out how to earn links, etc.
Small Business Trends: Do You See Google trying to monetize local outside of PPC (pay per click)?
Mike Blumenthal: Absolutely. Their new Google for Business Dashboard is set up for them to easily add new billable functionality. Some of that has already been added in beta form like Offers.
But I see that Google could easily move into very sophisticated couponing, loyalty programs and much, much more.
Small Business Trends: What would be your advice for small businesses with more than one location?
Mike Blumenthal: First, build a great website and get it ranking well. Second, be sure to create dedicated and well optimized landing pages with rich snippets for each location that you reference at Google and across the Web. Third, find citation opportunities that scale. That is easier said than done.
Small Business Trends: Any advice for ranking in more than one city with just one location?
Mike Blumenthal: Google local search is all about geography. Having a location in the city of search is critical. If a nearby city is so important, then you have two choices.
1) Open a real location in that city;
2) Really optimize your local pages organically for that location/keyword combo so that they show ABOVE the pack results. That isn’t easy and it’s roughly akin to playing to an inside straight in poker.
Small Business Trends: How do you play safe with reviews? Every article about reviews advises some sort of solicitation. Google says you shouldn’t do it. What do you say?
Mike Blumenthal: Google has loosened up their definition of solicitation .
Don’t set up a computer or tablet device in your place of business for customers to leave reviews on site. Consider printing out a QR code or sending a reminder e-mail so customers can review on their own time.
Google has made it clear that you can use email to communicate to your customers and ask for a review. But Google is funny and they are not showing a lot of reviews that trigger their new review filter. It is not inconceivable down the road that they would look at speed or volume of reviews as a trigger for a review take down. So you want to modulate the rate at which you get Google reviews.
I do think that businesses need to rethink the “metrics” by which they measure their success in this area. It really shouldn’t be about getting the most reviews, it should be about having the happiest customers.
A process that I like to recommend to business owners is the Survey/Review cycle. You ask every customer to go to some sort of online survey about how satisfied they were with your services on a 1 to 5 scale. If they respond with a 4 or 5 they are sent on to being asked to leave a review. If they answer 1,2 or 3 they are referred to customer service and an attempt is made to increase their satisfaction. Once they are happy, the process starts again.
This may reduce the total number of reviews but it has several very real benefits:
1. Unhappy customers are caught early in the post sale cycle, so you can intervene before they leave a scathing review online.
2. You are able to track and measure customer satisfaction over a period of time and make improvements if necessary.
3. The happy customers will be the ones that ultimately leave the reviews.
Small Business Trends: Mike, thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions.