Right around the time that Google rolled out their new Google+ social network, all the buzz was around this new site and how it stacked up against Facebook, etc, etc. What most people didn't notice is that at the same time, Google made a massive change to their Google Places pages. The local results saw a major overhaul and as marketers and business owners, we need to adapt.
Up until now, one of the biggest factors in determining rankings in local search were what was known as "citations." These were the local search equivalent of links. Citations were mentions of a local business on other 3rd party websites that Google would pull into Places pages:
When Google updated Places pages, these citations vanished. The big question now is whether citations vanished from only the front end or whether they are now gone from the ranking algorithm as well. Most speculate that Google Places still depends on the major data providers like Localeze and Infogroup for verified business listing info but other site citations might have less of an impact on rankings.
Also gone are 3rd party reviews from sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and CitySearch. Some even report that up to 95% of their reviews vanished from their Places page last week. All that's left on Places pages are reviews from Google users; links to third party review sites are only presented on actual Place pages (not search results).
So what does it all mean? Well the missing reviews, combined with the exclusion of citations, points to the idea that Google is placing more emphasis on Google user reviews as a ranking factor for local search. Another explanation some have alluded to is that Google is trying to get people to start using their Google accounts more - they want people on Google+, signed in not just so they can show show personalized and social results, but also to encourage users to leave reviews on Places pages.
What does it mean for you? Since they haven't officially changed their algorithm or told us that citations don't have an affect anymore, you shouldn't be too hasty to make big changes. That means filling out all of your business's info, adding pictures and videos, getting listed on other local sites, and getting customer reviews from a variety of sources is still important. What you should do, however, is take the hint that they're placing an increased emphasis on Google user reviews. While the follow-up process will be a bit different for every business, consider making following up with customers a habit and provide them a link to review your business on your Places page. A simple link in a regular follow-up email could have a big impact on your rankings in Google and ultimately lead to more customers for you. Make the change now and stick to it!
Chris Root, Associate Consultant, eBoost Consulting
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