Google Place Search – a Leg Up For SME?

At the beginning of November, Google rolled out some major changes to some categories of its search results which may have a profound effect on both large and small businesses. The changes affect the results for searches that are considered, for one reason or another, by Google to be local in nature. This may be because the user has actually specified a location in their search query (e.g. “accountants in surrey”) or, even where no location is specified, for reasons such as the particular product or service being sought has been categorised by Google as likely to be one serving a local market.

Prior to these changes, a search on something like “accountants in surrey” would have resulted in a map at the top of the page with up to 7 local businesses listed alongside the map together with marker pins in the map showing their location. Below those results, often referred to as the Google 7-pack, would be the main regular results which could have been a mixture of local firms, national firms, business directories or other web pages.

The image below, which you can click on for a larger image, shows a typical results screen (also shown in Google’s official announcement on this subject) as it would have appeared prior to the changes. Google have dubbed the new search algorithm “Place Search”.

old search results

Old Local Search Results

The next image shows how the same query will now produce quite different results.

new search results

Google Places Search Results

The changes affect not only how business results are displayed but also which businesses are shown. Local businesses which were previously featured in the 7-pack may now be shown amongst the main results and, if they are displayed, have more information displayed about them for example the inclusion of images. The exact position of local businesses in the local search results seems to vary, sometimes appearing above the rest, sometimes more centrally and sometimes occupying the whole page.

The new results are highlighted with a red marker pin which ties into a map now shown on the right hand side. This also has implications on the sponsored adverts because the new map position occupies space previously occupied by sponsored adverts. Also, on scrolling down to the bottom of the screen the map moves so that it rolls over the sponsored adverts to obscure them.

In determining which websites to show, Google dynamically associates millions of websites with millions of locations. If your business has a physical address in a given location it may now achieve more prominent appearances for searches where that location is specified in the search query or where the location of the searcher is in the same territory as your business.

Conversely it appears that businesses that do not have a physical address in any given location may find it harder to rank well for local searches for that area and that would seem likely to apply just as much to large businesses as to small businesses.

On testing a few searches today, I was presented with a pop up box from Google asking me to complete a brief questionnaire on my experience of this “experimental” search innovation so I am unclear to what extent it may evolve over the coming months. As always Google’s principal objective is to enhance user experience by providing more useful results faster. Without understanding all the nuances of last week’s changes, giving more prominence to businesses that are in the location sought – explicitly or implicitly – by the user is, in my view, likely to be consistent with that objective and therefore good news.

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