Local Search

The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

It really doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a sinner or a saint for you to benefit from some lessons I have had to learn the hard way.  You see, in my daily work I live in this universe where Google is the “Supreme Being”.  There are Google commandments and I have to make the choice to either do some shortcut-marketing, or play by their rules.

In my “teenage internet marketing years” when I was first playing around with local listings, I experimented with many things that might not exactly be 100% down the whitehat trail of happiness. Now, I am much older, much wiser, much worse looking, and I have been able to determine a few practices that might be tempting for some, but to me they are 7 deadly sins that will ultimately lead down a path of destruction for your local listing.

1. Stuffing Your Business Title With Keywords

This is by far the most common type of sin found on Google Places listings. A company with the business name of “company x” will claim their listing and then put the business name as “company x + location and category”.

clip image002 0103 The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

I understand that for the short term, locations and keywords can actually help rankings. For some reason the “Supreme Being” of local listings feels that keywords in your business name should have an effect on overall map rankings and coming from a company named Google instead of Search Engine I do find that ironic. Still, they state in their Places Pages Guidelines,.. “Do not attempt to manipulate search results by adding extraneous keywords or a description of your business into the business name.” So, you are left with a conflicting option. Some would say “Hey, if it helps, then I will stuff that title like a turkey on Thanksgiving.” But here is a look at how Google is moving to penalize listings that do this…

clip image004 0061 The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

If you were to visit a non-claimed places page and click on the edit this listing link, you would be taken to a page where you can make a few changes to the listing. On the right hand side you would see the box pictured above. As Professor Maps pointed out recently if you click on the edit history link then you can see the changes made by users, and most importantly what Google “thinks” about these changes.

On looking through a few I found a very interesting note that can be flagged on a listing. In dealing with business names you will see the phrase “Name is longer than average”. So, if a group of businesses stuff keywords, then most likely they will be tagged with the same comment, and it would become a very easy task to penalize companies with long titles that are location and category focused.

2. Putting Location Keywords in your Categories

On a places page, you are given 5 categories for your local business. To maximize the targeting of these categories, people would put the city location that they were targeting. For instance, if you were a plumber in Chicago, your category would be “Chicago Plumber” instead of just “plumber”.

clip image006 0036 The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

This used to be the jewel of how to get higher rankings, authoritative one boxes, market dominance, and sneaky satisfaction of knowing that you outwitted the competition. But, one sad day as I was checking rankings of a few listings I noticed a substantial drop. Upon investigation I found that locations in categories was the culprit. Upon removing location keywords my rankings were back to normal within a day.

This was something discussed by Carter Maslan from Google in a very informative discussion on categories a few moons ago.

3. Using a P.O. Box For Your Business Address

Many companies might not want to use their physical location in Google maps for a number of various reasons. They might run from a house, or their operations might not be in the area that they actually serve. So, for years companies have used P.O. Boxes for a local presence. The problem with using a box is that Google ranks businesses based on an ability to prove your geo-location and area of service. A P.O. Box is not a geo-location. It is not something that appears as a pin-point on a map. It is at a post office which might or might not be recognizable by the mapping system.

The Google guidelines are quite clear on the issue…”Do not create listings at locations where the business does not physically exist. PO Boxes do not count as physical locations.“

4. Using a call tracking number

This is quite possibly the most annoying issue in local search currently. As pointed out through the rest of this post, Google is very strict in regards to a company’s business name, address, and also the phone number. These are the 3 things that the local bots search the web for to gather business data. So, if you have discrepancies around the web regarding your name, address and phone number, then you end up shooting yourself in the foot for rankings. This is why call tracking numbers don’t work.  It is a separate number which will confuse the system and will lead to listing issues.  Call tracking is an area that I see needs improvements in local search in order to improve the ability to track conversions, and even though many local search companies offer call tracking options…they should not be used on a Google local listing.

5. Faking Reviews

Reviews help rankings. This is an undisputable thought amongst the local search crowd. And if anything affects rankings, then people will game it. So, how can Google crack down on reviews?

  1. Account age and history- not only does Google flag listings with long titles, but they also mark individual Google accounts with phrases like… “User has entered risky data in the past.” Or “User has made few edits”.
  2. User Report- The people that are most likely to read your reviews are yourself, and your competition. If your competition even has the smallest idea that you have put fake reviews in your name, staff member names, or fake names, then they will turn you in like a winning lotto ticket. This can be done right on your places page under “Flag as inappropriate”.
  3. Star Ratings- Google can also see that if one listing has all 5 star reviews and the accounts that are leaving reviews don’t have any history, then it is most like fake reviews. If you receive a large sum of reviews in short period of time, that might flag your listing as well.

The key with reviews is to make them real, Google has not yet came down on review spamming with full force, but when they come…sinners beware.

6. Hiding Your Address

Recently, places pages came out with the ability to show service locations, and also hide your address for home based businesses or businesses where customers don’t come to your shop.  I do think this will be a good feature in the future, but at launch time I ran some tests that resulted in an immediate drop in local rankings.

clip image008 0022 The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

It has been reported by some that they didn’t see any significant drops. I tested it on 3 different type of businesses in different areas and saw drops in every listing. So, be careful and try it both ways. The drop was immediate and upon disabling the “Do not show my address” option my listings returned instantly.

7. Stuffing your description with duplicate information

This is the newest area of concern to add to the list. I used to write business descriptions with very focused keywords that I was trying to rank for with some good results. I always included categories, and location information as it described the business quite well. The last update to the Google Places Guidelines has this to say…

“Use the description and custom attribute fields to include additional information about your listing. This type of content should never appear in your business’s title, address or category fields.“

I have not seen dramatic drop in rankings from this, but Google is fairly good about keeping to their guidelines and penalizing things that they find that are not in line. So, this is an area to watch and play it safe. It should be used to explain your long tail keyword information that could be of benefit, or explain a wider area of service then your categories.

Conclusion

People look at sin in different ways. Some say there is no such thing and we should party like it’s 1999, some live their life trying not to break the commands of their belief system. Well, in this case…Google is God whether you want them to be or not, and short term sinning against them might bring joy and good rankings, but long term it will only bring banishment and having to re list with annoying phone verifications.

My advice is to play it safe. You can still outrank anyone who doesn’t (with a good understanding of local search ranking factors) and most importantly, the ranking lasts for the long term. Ultimately, the choice is yours in how you deal with the 7 deadly’s.

 The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

Mike Ramsey

Mike Ramsey is the owner of Nifty Marketing, a Local Search Marketing company hailing from Burley, Idaho. His twitter handle is niftymarketing and he is a proud husband and father. Mike has lost 12 pounds on his local search recipe plan because after all, it’s not edible.

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44 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Google Local Listings

  1. Mike Great article. If I have a business just out side of my main service area is there any way to target it even though the address is in a different city. The reason I asked is I have thought about doing a PO box.

    1. Being outside the service area is like being the fat kid in gym class. You always come up last. The only way I have seen people rank with this problem is getting an address in the cities and PO boxes won't work for the long haul.

  2. Great article! The category location keywords issue was extremely valuable. On the call tracking issue, I agree that the main number of the business must be used in the LBC, however, Google should consider the allowance of tracking numbers IMHO. At this point where they finally have a paid product in the Places section, why would they oppose tracking phone numbers? In any case, I agree that it needs improvement.

    1. I see call tracking as an issue that Google is most likely working on with the Google Voice product. It needs to happen, the question is how much longer and how will it work. Name, address, and phone number are the core of local search rankings, so they would have to seriously revamp the way they figure things.

  3. Although I agree with all of the information you have here, many businesses that are “local” still face considerable challenges when it comes to service area. Are they any less “worthy” to rank in a given area because they do not have a physical location? I believe if done correctly – with the proper intent (doesn't Google like intent) – i.e. not spamming the listings – I believe Google should indeed reward these businesses with a fair ranking and presence. An example that comes to mind is a small but great plumber physically located in a small town – but services the major city (that's where the money is and that's who uses the internet) However, his small town has a specific area code that is not that same as the major city – He answered this dilemma by setting up MEL lines (for the phone books)…. Is he committing any sins by doing the same online? Or just practicing good business by breaking some of your rules? What do you recommend to repent and be “clean” but resolve this dilemma – or should this business owner be condemned to SEO Local hell ; ) I'm sure you will appreciate this because I know where Burley is (I've driven through it : ) Not much there… but what if they service Boise, Mountain Home or even Twin Falls?? You are lucky though – they still both have 208… but what about 971/541/503 dilemma?? I'd appreciate your insight and feedback…

    1. This is and most likely will always be an issue. I talk to probably 3 businesses a week that want to rank in a city they service but don't live in. Where there are ways, I don't think many options would be considered “best practice”. I can see Google's reasoning for this. If they start letting all businesses cover services areas from wherever in rankings it would be a spam and national chain fest.

      My best advice is this… If you are going to take a risk to rank then understand it's a risk and expect trouble. Where I offer services to clients… I have to let them know first and foremost what they can do and what they will get in trouble doing. The choice is up to them.

  4. So far, using the “local service area” settings for our plumbing, heating & cooling business has had a strong negative effect on our listings. Am trying to decide if I should stick with playing it super-straight and see if the Google gods eventually figure it out, or if I need to game the system a bit. Can't afford to wait for too long.

    1. Yeah, local service area option in my opinion is pretty much useless currently. They still have a long ways to go with service companies. Until then, there is going to be a lot of gaming.

  5. Spot on Mike…we covered many of these sins last week in Dallas with David Mihm and Chris “Silver” Smith as two of our panelists at a DFW SEM Seminar on Local Search. Your points are directly in line with what other experts are pointing at will get you slapped by Google on your Places listing. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Jozef–

      Well, David and Chris are great minds in the field so I am glad to see that I am not pushing out some false doctrine on Places rankings. ;-)

  6. Am dealing with a client who's been penalized for using category keywords in title and description text. You end up getting a “we currently do not support this location” message when you go to view their listing. Seems this new penalty is only applied after you make an edit, that's when it goes through the new filter. Other competitors are still getting away with stuffed titles and keywords in descriptions simply because they've not made any recent edits.

    In my opinion, Google's thinking on this is ass backwards. Why have an algorithm that is so weighted on keywords in titles and description text, yet penalize businesses for using those very keywords? Businesses that happen to already have those descriptive and/or location keywords as part of their official name will get away with it and have a tremendous advantage.

    From a users standpoint I also think having a little descriptive tagline, when your biz name gives zero clue to what you do, is helpful, regardless if Google uses it as a ranking factor or not. But that's just me.

    1. Stever- You hit the nail on the head. In my opinioin business name should carry zero weight as generic business names largely suck anyways. They should move to a “so many characters allowed” box with adwords type rules. A company with the name Google should get that.

      I also think descriptive words are great (a way to push a tagline). It would all work well if you could just drop the business title ranking factor.

  7. Mike, thank you for explaining this all of this so clearly. Now I can just send people to this article instead of trying to explain it myself! Argue as we may about it, as you say “Google is god” and if we want to rank well in Google Places, we have to play by its rules or be willing to suffer the consequences if we do not.

  8. I have noticed that if I try to use my 1-800 number as the main number then google is unable to call me for verification. Only if I use a local area code will google call for verification. If I use the 1-800 number I have to be verified with a post card every time.

    1. You can try using a pre-paid mobile/cell number to get around that issue as a secondary number, but depending on if others have played with the local listings in the past or is a high spam vertical you may still have to get the post card…

    2. Google highly recommends using the local business number as it generally shows that you have a local presence in the market place. It also allows them to verify other places on the web that have your local number.

  9. As I make my way around the area I sell, I find that many businesses that I call on are not even aware of this FREE feature from Google. Thanks for writing about it. I agree with you about these sins to avoid, and as a consumer, could only hope that business will consider these guidelines. The great thing about the FREE listing though, the business gets to control it, and if they want to have their business look and sound a certain way, it is their right.

  10. It does appear that some businesses who use PO Boxes for privacy because they work out of their home were shut out because of this requirement, even with the hide feature.
    Another way to work around this is to pay for a service that provides virtual addresses in your local area. For a few dollars a month you can still maintain your privacy and also a professional presence.

    Brad D.

    1. Virtual office spaces are a good option. Worked for the local phone books for years and if you can afford it and use it as a business then it is a way to get a local market presence, the only problem is where it falls in Google's “physical location” guidelines.

  11. makes sense about not getting flagged until after an edit- I've seen that happen to one of my clients recently.

    one thing I didn't see you make note of were the onpage factors. I didn't edit the actual places listing, but I did add some popular exact match phrases to the homepage and within 3 days went from 2nd page to 1st position for every one.

    yeah- I was pretty shocked too. I'd post the proof but don't want to blow it for my client:)

    anyway, these are great tips. better safe than sorry, unless you have throwaway sites…

    1. John, I've also tested that theory and it also improved my clients visibility. One thing I'd like to better understand is a Google Places Listing with and without a website. I have seen listings appear on the map in a shorter amount of time when they already have an existing website (even though there is little to any SEO on the site).
      Your thoughts?

      –Dennis

    2. If I would have gone to onpage factors I would have had to come up with a different title. :) These are just a few but wow are there a ton more factors that play into the overall equation on local.

  12. Really great article and lots of useful tips – I like that you've actually tried and tested this and can support your tips with actual observations of effects on the listing. I've only recently started working more with those listings and find this very useful – Thanks!

    1. Yes. I think the key is keeping the penalties out there to be discussed so Google can see user feedback as well. Some of these I disagree with and some of them make since to get in trouble for.

  13. Good Stuff Mike, thanks.

    We as the optimizers in this local land must be able to sympathize with our small business owner yet abide by the rules of engagement set forth by in this case, Google.
    I consider myself to be advanced in all things SEM and as of late, the Google Places offering is driving some significant revenue growth for me but at the same time, I am losing business because of my ethical standards. Most small business owners don't understand what online marketing really is and the rules we must abide by and while attempting to “educate” a potential client, we create an impediment in the sales process. Hey, we all have bills to pay but I want to be able to close my eyes at night and go to sleep knowing I did the right thing up front so as to not get penalized (then bitched slapped by the client) down the road. –Dennis

  14. Is it really wrong to modify your listing in order to make the crawlers happy and get ranked?

    Well then…when you DON'T use your 1-800 number, your local tracking numbers, or even your Google Voice number, just so the engines understand and rank you better, isn't that actually manipulating your data in order to rank higher?

    The engines don't deserve a break when it comes to determining the identity of my local listing at the cost of limiting the effectiveness of my tracking. I'm pretty sure Google and the other local data aggregators can figure out how to identify my business without using my phone number as a unique identifier.

    After all using a single “business line” is old technology. I would think Google wants to know all the ways that I connect people to my business.

    1. Yes the idea that Name, Address, and Phone are so important is interesting. Address and name are more important in my opinion. But, they all factor. I do see the day where is changes. Who knows when?

  15. People in this industry sometimes push the envelope quite a bit to get those rankings but sometimes it is a bit too much. Jamming keywords into titles can sometimes look really sloppy.

  16. Hey Mike, I have a couple of cents to add on the topic of call tracking – I was told that biz owners freaked about Google using Google Voice in the flat rate ads they tested in several markets last fall because they didn't want people seeing a phone number that wasn't their own. It seems the logical solution to this is to assign each biz the Google Voice number that matches up with their real phone number. Of course, what does Google do about all the numbers people have already claimed?

    On the subject of business names with keyword in them, I have to disagree that they shouldn't have any impact on rankings. When you think about this in a real world sense, those businesses with names that describe what they do and where they are have a distinct advantage over those that do not. Why should this not carry over into the virtual world, as well? For example, if you were looking for an car repair shop in Burley, Idaho, which of these businesses would be most inclined to call: Joe's, Engine Works, Jones & Sons, Burley Auto Repair, Mike's Service Center?

    1. Great point on business names. You are right, you are going to choose one that you know does what their name imply's But, that is where the tag line comes in handy. So you could be Joe's – Your Burley, Idaho Auto Repairman. Many businesses brand themselves that way in print books and elsewhere I think you would get the best of both words with this approach. Then they could keep the ranking or not. But they shouldn't penalize for gaming the title if your actual business name is creative and not generic.

    2. Mary, in the real world, outside of search engines, the text of a name is not as important. It's where you are located, in terms of traffic exposure, not a spot on a map relevant to city center, it's who has the biggest brightest yellow page ad, it's whose reputation earns word of mouth exposure, who's advertising on the local radio stations, etc…

      In the real world many small businesses with unique brand names (no-keywords) will often include a tagline on the store front signs, YP ads, newspaper ads, etc….

      In the examples you gave above an Engine Works, or a Mike's Service Center could easily out do a Burely Auto Repair if they were located on a busy intersection nearby some car dealerships, meanwhile the other shop might be located in somebodies backyard on the edge of town. I just took the example to the extreme but I still don't see where the keyworded name makes a difference out in the real world.

      Focusing on keyworded names removes the aspect of branding as well. Not that Burely Auto Repair can't build a brand out of that, but its pretty damn boring. Engine Works on the other hand has a great brand name ring to it.

      In organic search Google is placing more focus on brands. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool” according to Eric Schmidt. But in local the current algorithm and guidelines do exactly the opposite.

  17. Two of my client's competitors did the following tricks:
    - registered fake addresses all over the city
    - created 40-50 webpages with titles like: name of suburb + name of company. There is no content on these sites, just Google maps.
    - created webpages called 'popular searches' and listed Google searches for their own websites

    How black grey/hat is that? What can we do with this?

  18. Good one, Mike! I totally agree with going by the guidelines, no doubt it's good for the long term. I'm saying that now, after pushing the limits of the guidelines for 1 year & 90% of my listings got vanished from the Maps index :-( after a complete domination in each & every 7 pack. 1 thing is for sure- by executing guerrilla/ commando actions in Google Maps- you are absorbing HIPS of info that helps you deal with the consequences later on. However, the target of been stable & long lasting is been shaked that way..
    Still, i believe that- who dares wins!!

  19. I can't say what deadly sin we committed, but my client, a physical therapist, was ranking well in Local Search after many months of effort on my part (with some great help from Mike Blumenthal). Then, just as we got him to rank in the top 10 — wham! he takes a dive to # thirty-something. And, we find Animal Hospital inserted into his categories, even though we've already added 5 legitimate categories having to do with physical therapy. What??? Any ideas?

  20. I can't say what deadly sin we committed, but my client, a physical therapist, was ranking well in Local Search after many months of effort on my part (with some great help from Mike Blumenthal). Then, just as we got him to rank in the top 10 — wham! he takes a dive to # thirty-something. And, we find Animal Hospital inserted into his categories, even though we've already added 5 legitimate categories having to do with physical therapy. What??? Any ideas?

  21. Great article!! What was specifically helpful was knowing there is a penalty for having a call tracking number. I have to have a way to track the amount of calls. I used a google voice number and even though my listing is optimized very well, I am still way down in the Google+ rankings. I guess I am going to have to consider using an 800 number that can track my calls.