Google Places is changing the game

It can be hard to keep up with all the Internet has to offer, especially when using the Internet as a business and marketing tool, which is why I decided to make this month's marketing column about Google Places

The Internet is always changing: once you learn a new Internet skill, it becomes outdated and there is something brand new to learn. It can be hard to keep up with all the Internet has to offer, especially when using the Internet as a business and marketing tool, which is why I decided to make this month’s marketing column about Google Places, which is an excerpt from my forthcoming book "Social Media for the Service Contractor." Read on to learn about the changes Google Places has made, how it continues to evolve and how it will affect your business.

Hopefully, you are one of the plumbers who has taken the time to claim your location and update your company listings with the search engines' local search. With changes being made by the dominant search engine, Google, local search will be even more important.

When Google changed from the "Local Business Center" to "Places," the company added more changes, and much is still evolving (remember, the only constant on the Internet is change). One of the biggest changes is the ability to respond to reviews, provided they are made through Google and not imported by Google from a third party.

According to the official Google blog, Google Lat Long: News and Notes by the Google Earth and Maps Team, if you're a verified Google Places business owner, you can publicly respond to reviews written by Google Maps users on the Place Page for your business. Engaging with the people who have shared their thoughts about your business is a great way to get to know your customers and find out more. Both positive and negative feedback can be good for your business and help it grow (even though it's sometimes hard to hear). By responding, you can build stronger relationships with existing and prospective customers.

For example, a thoughtful response acknowledging a problem and offering a solution can often turn a customer who had an initially negative experience into a raving supporter. A simple thank you or a personal message can further reinforce a positive experience. Ultimately, business owner responses give you the opportunity to learn what you do well, what you can do better, and show your customers that you're listening.

This is a positive development, provided you respond well. You should respond with a personal voice, not a corporate voice. Write as though you're having a friendly conversation with an old friend for complements and a sorrowful one for complaints. When responding to complaints, offer your side without being defensive. If possible, let people know that the complainer is one of those unreasonable people we all encounter.

For example, you might write, "Mr. Smith, I'm sorry to read your comments and they're upsetting to me. We try hard to make every single one of our customers happy and almost always succeed. Unfortunately, you fall into the unhappy category. You are upset about the price we charged, though it was not a surprise. We presented the price before any work began and explained that much of it was to bring your water heater installation up to code. That's the city's requirement, not ours. You were happy we could respond fast and give you hot water the same day you called. And while that level of service is more expensive and you agreed to pay the charges up front, you're now unhappy and compare us to companies who toss out prices over the phone without looking at the job and who may or may not be able to respond the same day. Mr. Smith, I've stressed earlier that we would try to work something out if you were under financial stress and unable to pay. I've also offered to remove the water heater and issue you a full refund, which you refused. I would like to make you happy, but I simply don't know how."

The death of SEO?
It's been hypothesized by Gregg Stewart at the ClickZ blog that organic and paid search listings will be squeezed off the first page by Google Places listings. If so, this is a real game changer.

It seems unlikely that Google would risk arousing the ire of the company's small business advertisers who help pay the bills. Who's ever heard of an advertising medium making life difficult for its customer base? Well, other than the Yellow Pages that is.

If Google follows through, it might make life more difficult for search engine optimization (SEO) consultants. It might also kill off a few Internet Yellow Pages companies.

Tags – you're it
Google is also providing something called "tags." Google notes, "Tags are yellow markers that allow business owners to promote important aspects of their businesses. Scroll over tags on Google or click on the sponsored link to view coupons, photos or other select features."

Tags cost $25 per month. They are not supposed to affect search engine results rankings. Until they become popular, tags are an easy way to stand out. As far as I can tell, there's not a single plumber in Dallas taking advantage of tags and only one air conditioning contractor using them.

Service areas
A huge enhancement for service contractors is the ability to create a service area. The service area can be a radius, set of zip codes, cities or counties. Business owners have the option to hide their physical address if desired.

Google is also allowing users to enrich their Google Place listing with photos, videos and coupons. In essence, Google is allowing companies to create mini-websites.

It all sounds great, right? Chris Silver Smith at Search Engine Land says, not so fast. According to Silver Smith, you might think that the newer, larger listing treatment might be beneficial for the visibility of these businesses. But, think again — for any of them which have been doing significant search marketing activities, this sea of change could easily result in far lower numbers of organic referrals. Companies which aggressively have been marketing themselves have often enjoyed placement within the seven-pack, as well as having their homepage ranked in the top organic results — real estate on the search result page in multiple places. Some even enjoyed presence in the top directory and social media pages that were ranking highly for the term as well. Under the new paradigm, these companies could lose overall referrals along with the spaces they enjoyed on the pages.

Click to, not through Google
Another concern is that Google Places local search placements makes it difficult for users to click through to the business because the links "are buried and won't be seen" as Silver Smith put it. Today, when a user clicks on a Ten Box company listing, the user is taken to the listed company's website. To see the Google local business listing, the user must click on "reviews." In the future, it is expected that clicking on the company listing will take the user to the Google Place page. And, of course, while users are on the Google Place page, they will be served up with paid advertising, possibly from competitors to the listed company.

While there are many positives from Google's upcoming changes, the positives are accompanied by negatives. The negatives will be worse for the service contractor who is already web savvy and successful generating high organic placement from SEO and paid placement from SEM. For good or bad, Google is the 800-lb. gorilla and can do what it wants.

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable, a business alliance of plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and service contractors. Learn more about the Service Roundtable at www.ServiceRoundtable.com, or e-mail Matt at: [email protected].