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.
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.
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