I understood from day one that getting into website design and SEO meant that my job description would necessarily include acting as a sort of liaison between small business owners and the sometimes bewildering world of Google. When Local Search became my passion several years ago, the importance of my role as an interpreter and guide for business owners became all the more critical.

Most business owners have some sense of what the organic SERPs are for, but few of my Local SEM clients understand Google Maps, the 7-Pack and how crucial Google's Local Business Center will be to their overall success on the web. It's my job to explain how it all fits together and, because of Google's frequent changes in policy, to forewarn Local SEM clients that the road ahead may be rocky. You can be ranking in the A position of the 7-Pack today only to find yourself gone tomorrow, with no meaningful explanation from Google as to what has happened. The Local game is just like this, and I do my best to set correct expectations for clients who are almost certain to have some frustrating, odd or foggy experience with Google Maps at some point in their future.

Google's newest policy change has done more to offend and distance the very people who act as the intro into Google Maps than any other I can recall. Google has decided to stop showing local results for Web Designers, SEOs and advertisers in North America and the UK. This has been a hot topic for a couple of months, and Google employee Joel H. has finally responded on the extremely long Maps Help Forum thread with an explanation that isn't satisfying anyone:

Today, we're intentionally showing less local results for web design / SEO queries. For example, [web design sacramento] doesn't display local listings today. We believe this is an accurate representation of user intent. In some cases, we do show local listings, however (as NSNA/php-er noted) [web design in bellingham]. I'm sure some of you feel we should be displaying local results for queries like [Web Design Vancouver]. I understand that concern, but based on our understanding of our users, we feel this is the right decision for now.

The conversation going on at Mike Blumenthal's blog regarding Google's latest move has very quickly brought to light the fact that many web designers, SEOs and other types of marketers are positive that clients search for them with location in mind, because these clients attest that they want to work with someone in their own city. So, the explanation that a user looking for web designer san francisco doesn't actually want to find a web designer in San Francisco is not striking anyone I've spoken with as correct. My own direct personal experience with this is that my company very much does get calls from people who want local services. I'm not satisfied by Google's explanation of user intent.

Reason is further assaulted by Google's decision that they will still show local results for these types of services if the user query includes the word in. I would like to ask Google how it improves user comfort if a user is able to type in pizza nyc, chicago furniture store or auto repair washington dc to get local results but that he must type in web design in san francisco if he wants to discover which web design companies are operating in his city? How is the user supposed to know this? Especially if all of his past experience has informed him that he doesn't need to incorporate prepositions into his queries to retrieve either organic or local results? Good human usability relies on establishing comfort...in my opinion, this quirky way of dealing with only one set of businesses makes Google's local index harder to understand and use, not easier. Shouldn't making things easier and more helpful be Google's goal?

Local SEO expert David Mihm is making no bones about his understanding of this policy change:

That said, their answer about "not having local intent" is just BS. The real answer is that the business titles for SEO / web design Maps results look too spammy for their taste because by now most SEO companies who read your blog (Mike Blumenthal's blog) know to register their company's DBA with a couple keywords. I certainly did.

Other local SEOs are responding that if David Mihm is right and that the whole point of this is to clean up what Google feels is a spammy area of Maps, then why isn't Google being honest about this and, why oh why didn't Google take such drastic action with the infamously polluted locksmith industry results? The scenario takes on a punitive aura when legitimate designers, SEOs and marketers see their listings disappear while actual criminals are allowed to continue to use Google's results to rook people into giving them access to their locks and keys. Why single out the web services market?

Finally, designers and SEOs in the US, Canada and the UK are asking why their counterparts in places like Hong Kong and Russia are still being represented in the 7-pack without the inclusion of the word 'in'? Can it be that Google has concluded that someone searching for a web designer in Moscow actually wants to work with a neighbor while someone doing the same search in Boston has some other need in mind? Bottom line...it makes no sense.

What I Think Is Going On Here

I think Google has goofed. I think what we're seeing is Google trying to find a solution to *something* that is bothering them and that they rolled out this change in part of the world without fully considering the consequences of it. I don't think it's going to stay this way, and I would predict that this story isn't over.

When you consider the fact that Google has judged this website design company's local listing to be so popular and useful that they've awarded them Favorite Place status, only to yank their listing from Maps, the state of confusion within Google becomes pretty obvious. When one mouth is calling a local listing a 'favorite' while the other mouth declares that no businesses in that whole vertical have a place in Maps, you've got a two-headed monster that is bound to cause chaos, bewilderment and derision in the real world.

This is the aspect of Google's modus operandi that makes my job as a go-between for Google and small business owners remarkably challenging. My conclusion about Google, after many years of trying to work with their indexes, is that they make haphazard decisions, roll things out in beta form and almost never set controls in place to deal with the outcomes of even small changes made to their internal policies. A single decision at the Googleplex, made in some quiet room, has the potential to adversely affect hundreds, thousands or millions of business owners in real life, and Local raises the stakes higher than in any other arena with which I'm familiar. And, Google never seems to learn from experiences like these. They keep operating in the same way while continuing to evince little sense of accountability and sadly minimal communication.

My take on the results of Google's latest action are these:

1. A less realistic depiction of the local business scape in North America and parts of Europe. Instead of showing you which web designers and SEOs are available to work with in your city, Google's new results would have you believe that none exist.

2. Heightened user frustration and decreased user comfort. Users won't be able to figure out how to find what they need without going through the obscure step of adding a preposition to their query.

3. Decreased goodwill between Google and the very business people most likely to be representing Google's applications to the public; the designers, SEOs and marketers who spend their workdays showing business owners the Local ropes.

I'm not seeing a positive side to Google's choice, but I'm also not panicking about it, because I don't believe Google will leave things this way. In their heart of hearts, Google knows that providing relevant local results is the raison d'etre of Maps, and hiding real local business data from the public would make Maps, in effect, irrelevant. My advice is to stay tuned. I'm sure there's more to come on this one.

January 1, 2010

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


Thanks for the shout-out, Miriam.

I want to be clear (as I was on Mike's blog in the comment that you excerpted) -- although I find Google's transparently false reason behind this decision extremely disappointing, I don't disagree with the decision itself.

Their assessment seems to be that organic results for web designers tend be less laden with spam--or what looks like spam in the eyes of a Google engineer even when it follows LBC guidelines--what's the harm in removing the 7-pack for these phrases? By-and-large the "local organic" results are still extremely relevant, at least here in Portland.

It certainly doesn't serve my own interest, for a number of reasons, to see Google drop the 7-pack for ANY phrase, but I am siding with Mountain View on this one. I think they SHOULD have done it with locksmiths and other spammy industries long ago, as I've mentioned to folks on the LBC team on several occasions.

I suspect that a little more honest (and responsive) communication with our community would go a long way towards the criticism of this move from you, Mike, and others.

Miriam, I suspect, as you have stated, that Google is trying to beta test this change to gauge reaction. I never noticed the change until I started to read about it in the blogs and even then it never made sense - I am in Australia and Web Designers and SEO firms are still listed in Maps. This selective change is why I think it is a beta test.

I agree with you - it makes no sense that Web Designers and SEO firms should not be listed in Maps the way other businesses are. Is it because Web Designers and SEO firms can be 'virtual' businesses that they are being targeted (ie many do not have a shop-front)? Or is it as David suggests, the Local Listing titles of these companies look too spammy. Either way, Google should update their guidelines before making sweeping changes.

We are all in this together. Without each other we would be back in the 80's - a place where searching for something on the net was akin to riding through the Wild West!

Adopt a reasonable policy and provide clear and sensible guidance, Google, and the good businesses will abide.

The folks at Google certainly are ensuring that remaining current with the web development industry is a full-time job and in effect are creating an increasing need for businesses to hire SEO companies who focus entirely on staying on top of the latest info in order to keep their credible client companies showing up in all of the results they need to be included in, in order to provide the services that the Internet searchers are seeking.

Creating a web culture that is dependent upon the SEO industry might not be what they are trying to do, but is in fact, exactly what the search engine companies are accomplishing with their continuous changes and methods.

Thank you for this detailed and informative article!

"Adopt a reasonable policy and provide clear and sensible guidance, Google, and the good businesses will abide"

Hear, hear, Gordon! .And yes, it doesn't make sense to exclude one set of businesses from Maps. In fact, it smacks of sleight of hand, with Google whisking away real businesses and ending with a false picture of the business scape of a given city. This is not good.

Thanks for letting me know you are still seeing these listings in OZ and thanks for taking the time to leave such a good comment!

Greetings, Alicia!

You make a very good point regarding Google's policies creating a need for businesses to have SEOs on board, just to keep up with the changes that happen. Like you, I doubt this was Google's goal, but it is certainly what has happened. It is especially true with Local. A friend recently commented that they feel like Google's Local algo is where Google's organic algo was 5 years ago...full of oddities and replete with ongoing changes. Struck me as a good observation.

I'm glad you enjoyed this article. Thank you for taking the time to share your good thoughts on this!

It is a shame Google decided to go that direction for web designers and SEOs but it may be again one of those temporary glitches that occur every now and then. It doesn't sound fair that so much effort to increase local rankings will just go away overnight. Competition for organic results will get even more fierce. I guess we need to wait a bit longer to see what people at Google are really up to.

I think I can see - a bit - what's behind Google's thinking. They may reckon that SEO websites are, in fact, global organisations without a real need for a bricks'n'mortar address. They don't just want business in San Francisco but in LA, NYC and London as well. Many of these 'companies' are just individuals working out of their garage/kitchen and don't want or need callers turning up at their doorstep. I know this is our case here in Toulouse, France, where we are listed as a 'travel agency' at an address in downtown Toulouse ... but our customers live in London, Dublin and, yes, San Francisco. We don't want local (French) people turning up at our offices as we don't cater for their needs. But we HAVE TO be in Google Maps as it is part of our footprint on the net.
Hope this makes sense

SPOT-ON, Miriam....been up on this topic over the past few weeks what with reading about same over at Mike's blog, and others too! Seems like yes, we SEO practitioners along with the web dev/design group all have targets on our backs.....and that's not a good feeling at all!

Sure hope G looks at this and decides to both come clean as WELL as offer up a rational fix for same too!



Greetings Osborn-
Yes, my bet is that this is temporary...a test of some kind. I think you're on the right track.

Greetings Simon-
You raise a good point, and one that people are asking. Did Google do this because many web services companies offer virtual services? However, even companies offering remote services can still have business addresses and Google's action has removed these legitimate businesses, with real addresses, whose listings are in total compliance with the LBC guidelines. It just doesn't make sense that they would do this to, say, web designers, but not to chimney sweeps, landscapers or other types of businesses. Hence, my ultimate conclusion that this is a temporary test of some kind on Google's part. Thanks for asking a good question!

Thanks, Jim!
No, it's not nice to be singled out in this way. I hope we see Google give attention to this promptly. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

It is obvious they are testing. But it isn't quite obvious what they are testing. As always, we know the results as soon as Google has interpreted their statistics, because of the adapted results.

Hi David!
We are so sorry your comment got lost and are so glad we found it again. Thank you for coming here to further clarify your take on this issue.

See, my problem with this is that I think the change has created an artificial picture of the businesses in a given city. Legitimate web design firms/SEOs definitely exist in your town and mine, and for Google to pull these because of the existence of spam just isn't logical, in my mind. Any industry is subject to being spammed, but if Google is going to respond to this by then making that industry vanish from Maps, they will soon be left with an empty index. I'm fascinated that you agree with their decision on this...you know how much I respect your opinion, and so far, you are the one person I've encountered who supports this decision, if not Google's clumsy explanation. Thank you for explaining your reasoning, David.

This seems to be a case of Google understanding the technology side of the business but completely missing the human side. Many local business owners are good at reading people that they meet and developing a level of trust based off this interaction. This trust is necessary for SEO professionals because of the lag time between services rendered (ie., payment) and results.

By Google's own documentation, listing a new business in their local business center can take 6 to 8 weeks (although many times it's quicker), I can't commit to a company that their business will be included before that time. During the 8 week window, I have invoiced and been paid for services rendered, while the company may not have seen the results.

Local businesses do not understand the "web geek" thing and are nervous about the unknown. The whole sales cycle and business interaction starts with a local business being comfortable dealing with another local business. The human side of the interaction.

Hopefully, Google will quickly realize that local business are more comfortable and prefer dealing with other local businesses.

Maybe google is firing a broadside at the industry for the many past transgressions.

Yes, I know, nobody here personally ever did anything to invade the SERPs, but they do have to keep changing their algorithms every few years.

Aside from the SEO specific removal, there's a masssive elephant in the room that I have been pondering. In every decent sized city in America are hundreds of independent contractors that have legitimate businesses and are BBB members in good standing, operate honestly, and are all in all fine corporate citizens. Some have small offices, some work from home. Insurance salesman are a classic example. Now imagine if all 2,456 of those businesses claimed their local listing. And that's just insurance. There are hundreds of professions that are legit, have standards and licenses, work from home or small rented offices, and who provide a real services. Home health care, tutors, speech language pathologists, piano teachers, even realtors. The reality is that under the current model, at some point every single Google map will be coated in push pins and useless. It's just a matter of when. I think the local box will go bye-bye from page one and be expanded via a single link to a new page devoted to all things locally search term specific. Then again, I never would have believed I'd see tweets above organics.

Google is smart, they know what they are doing. Watch. Google may just be doing all of this as a real-time test, where we are the virtual focus group, and they study reactions via blog comments and forum posts as part of their product dev process.

Could it be simply that Google wants those businesses to convert to paid ads, ala Adwords? How better to get them to move there?

Outside of that, Eric Ward's thoughts sound pretty good also.

According to the study, the most important tool for small businesses to succeed in 2010 is search engine marketing, while email marketing, public relations and social media cited as crucial for success.

23.8% of all small businesses reported that search engine marketing was the tool most needed for their business to succeed in 2010.

I just happened to do a search today, and they're back up on maps, at least here in Tampa anyway.

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