Google’s Carrot and Stick Approach to Local Businesses

Google has been getting a lot of attention this week due to an Appleseque PR event.  People have dutifully reported and analyzed all the new and wizzy things Google is doing.

There wasn’t much coverage on what Google is doing in local.  There are no sexy, headlining grabbing features.  Yet, local is very much at the centre of Google’s strategy.

Google’s Local Business Challenge

Google has two challenges: first, they need all local businesses to get a proper website.  And not just any website – a good one – where good means ‘follows sensible Search Engine Optimization principles’ (which are — in any case — mostly about good writing).

Only then can they get to the second challenge: getting local businesses to advertise with Google.  Those advertising services don’t work at all for businesses without a website and they don’t work well for poorly designed sites.

The Big Carrot

Users.  And lots of them.

Google has focused relentlessly on supporting local information.  Google Maps continue it’s steady march towards becoming the dominant mapping application.  Universal search makes Google the default starting place for local.  And, perhaps most importantly, Google is having great success in mobile search – which is where local search increasingly happens.

So, they have plenty of the users that local businesses want and need.  It’s a REALLY BIG CARROT.

The New Carrots

One of the headline features from Google is something called ‘rich snippets’ which Tim O’Reilly describes in his excellent post:

Earlier this week, Google made a nod to the other side of the debate, introducing a feature that they call “Rich Snippets.” Basically, if you mark up pages with certain microformats ( and soon, with RDFa), Google will take this data into account, and will provide enhanced snippets in the search results. Supported microformats in the first release include those for people and for reviews.

So, for example, consider the snippet for the Yelp review page on the Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco:


The snippet is enhanced to show the number of reviews and the average star rating, with a snippet actually taken from one of the reviews. By contrast, the Citysearch results for the same restaurant are much less compelling:


(Yelp is one of Google’s partners in the rollout of Rich Snippets; Google hopes that others will follow their lead in using enhanced markup, enabling this feature.)

I think it’s telling that both Tim and Google chose LOCAL examples to illustrate the point.  This rich, structured data has the potential to become a ‘definitive reference’ for local businesses — finally allowing them to ensure the correct contact and location information is propagated.  But of course, in order to take advantage – they need a website.

And, in a largely ignored announcement Google also added a New Local Business Ads Interaction Report:

Back in January, we announced that we were adding four new links to local business ads – “Get Directions,” “Street View” (where available), “Save to My Maps,” and “Send.” We added these interactive links to help Maps users find the information they seek about your business more quickly and easily, and to enable you to give those potential customers additional information about your business. Now, there’s a new report in your Report Center to track users’ interactions with these links.

Better local ads and now better reporting for them.

The Stick

If you don’t have a proper website and you don’t register your information with Google you just are not going to be visible on Google.  This is a BIG STICK.  Can a business really afford to be invisible on Google?  No.  And in order to be visible, they will need to implement a website and invest in SEO (including support for the newly announced formats).

Pragmatically, this explains why Google’s map results seem so arbitrary.  The results are being ranked on the quality of the search engine optimization of the local business websites.  This provides a very strong incentive to local businesses to adhere to what Google needs them to do.  Google’s ranking algorithm is designed to attract the attention of businesses — while not punishing users too harshly during the transition period.

And of course, once those local businesses are online and properly optimized, Google will FINALLY be able to sell them advertising.

It’s not going to happen overnight — but Google has the will and the resources to see it through.


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