Google’s Place Pages are Designed for Optimization

Google’s new Place Pages are designed for optimization which potentially makes them great landing pages.  Is Google positioning itself to simplify advertising for local businesses?

The downfall of most SEM offers to local merchants is that they deliver lots of clicks but few conversions.  That’s because too often nobody is optimizing the landing page (or has even defined what a conversion is).  Google has now put themselves in a position to address that by allowing the landing page to be optimized.  They could even have merchants use Google Voice if they want to optimize to receive calls.

What Does Designed for Optimization Mean

Recently I wrote in Picking Winners about the use of controlled experiments and A/B testing to optimize website performance.  Perhaps the most widely known application of this principle is the optimization of website landing pages using tools like Google Website Optimizer.

The basic idea in landing page optimization is to empirically test the performance of several different design options against some specified conversion goal.  For example, if your goal is to get people to ‘sign-up’ for something you’d test different page designs and see which one performed best.

If you want to do this easily – and especially if you want to do it using some automated process – you need to adopt a web page design that is amenable to such an approach.  Andrew Chen has written a great post on keeping the design consistent during A/B testing.  He says that the secret is to create an open design – and gives Amazon’s home page as a classic example.

Well, it turns out that Google’s Place Pages are another excellent example of open design that allows automated optimization.  Have a look at one of the example pages Google highlighted:

Google Place Page Showing Block Structure

Google Place Page Showing Block Structure

As shown above, the page is broken in to two columns and the content is organized in to various blocks.  This makes it easy for an automated process to vary both the placement and size of each of the blocks and the content shown within each block.  What’s more, you can select and optimize the look of the page based on where the traffic is coming from – varying the look and feel of the page based on how the user got there.  So, if you arrived at this page as a result of a search for ‘Tartine Bakery reviews’ the ‘review block’ might be much more prominently displayed.

The fact the pages are well suited for optimization doesn’t necessarily mean all that much.  Google is well known for being an A/B testing fanatic.  So, this may just reflect a desire to be able to more easily optimize how information is presented to users.

But it could also be a first step towards something more…

Could Google Try to Close The Optimization Gap?

Optimizing landing pages is a fairly well understood process.  Unfortunately, it’s a process that few smaller businesses have the time and expertise to perform.  So, it doesn’t get done.  And the end result is that small businesses don’t see the expected results from clicks and become discouraged.

But now Google has designed a landing page that it’s possible for a machine to optimize.

Imagine a tool that allows a local business to set up an Adwords campaign that automatically creates and tests landing pages.  The tool might suggest appropriate keyword alternatives along with appropriate landing pages and then start running the alternatives and select the combinations that deliver the best ROI.  All with minimal involvement from the business owner.  Google certainly has the scale and machine learning expertise to accomplish something like this.

What’s Missing

For one, Google would need local merchant’s to define some sort of ‘conversion event’.  This is conceptually as easy as defining a new ‘block type’ that will appear on the landing page and be optimized.  For example, a restaurant might view a phone call or an Open Table registration as a conversion event.  If it’s a phone call, I imagine the merchant could be encouraged to use Google Voice to provide a closed loop analysis of the conversion event.

Perhaps more likely than having individual merchants doing this (at least in all cases) would be a small army of SEO and SEM experts doing it on the businesses behalf – but within a closed looped system managed by Google.  Google could potentially create a whole new eco-system.

Updated (September 28, 2009): Lots of concern around a core issue of whether these pages are being indexed.  In fact, Google representatives have weighed in the comments on posts by Erin Schonfeld at Techcrunch, Greg Sterling and Mike Blumenthal.   Google is confirming that these new pages won’t be indexed directly, but they may be indexed if they are referred to by other sites.

They probably didn’t want to muddy the issue, but I couldn’t help but notice that they did NOT comment on my thesis about using these pages as landing pages!

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