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Optimizing for the New Google Maps

The New Google Maps

Recently, Google has greatly changed Maps and it is now available to everyone. You can see a demo of it and sign up for it here.

Google Maps header image

Google Maps banner

The new Maps was clearly designed with two related goals in mind: to assist searchers in finding what they need, and to show them that information right within the search results, when practical. The new Maps is highly interactive, and its tagline, “Discover more with every click,” is designed to enfold users into a more comprehensive experience.

As you move around the map and click on different things, the map’s focus changes, and you see information that may be helpful or relevant, such as photos and directions (by car, public transport, bicycle, or walking). The map is also designed to learn from a user’s actions, and it adapts to become more personalized to their preferences as time goes on.  For example, if you tend to search for, ask for directions to and/or review vegan restaurants frequently, your new Map may begin showing the vegan restaurants near you as you travel around.

When new Maps first appeared, it seemed that Google was attempting to make rankings matter less by not showing businesses in the customary ranking order. But then, it began showcasing the top 3 businesses ranked in the Maps interface. This change not only makes the rankings continue to matter, but it makes ranking in positions 1, 2 or 3 even more critical than it was with the “classic” Maps.

Classic maps view vs new maps

On the Map itself, businesses with more location prominence (think of this as potential ranking power for Local Search) show up with bigger markers than other businesses, and their name is shown on the map. Other businesses have small markers, and some markers are downright tiny, and have no name listed.

new Google Maps result

Ratings, Reviews & Photos – Maps & Local Carousel

Although the new Maps and the Local Carousel were not released at the same time, both features highlight what Google thinks is most important to searchers: reviews, ratings, and photos. If you click on a map point in new Google Maps, a prominent box pops up with star ratings, the number of reviews, snippets of  from reviews, and a Google offer, if the company has one.  Positive online reviews make a difference in consumer’s choices.  The box at the top left expands to show those same features, along with the address, phone number, website, photos, and hours open on the day of the search.

1-New Google Maps 2

If you are not familiar with the Local Carousel, it is a row of listings for local businesses that Google displays at the top of some search results pages. Right now, most of the searches that result in a Local Carousel are related to the hospitality industry. We can only speculate as to whether this is will expand to other industries.

Here is an example of the Local Carousel results for the search query, “seafood near San Francisco”:

new Maps Local Carousel

As you can see, Google is showcasing ratings, reviews and photos.

Also, Google is displaying ratings, reviews, and photos in the Local Knowledge panel that appears when someone hovers over a local listing in the Google organic search results or clicks on a Local Carousel listing. Here’s an example:

local knowledge panel in Google Maps

In Conclusion

To be competitive in the new Maps search, you need to optimize your company’s Local Search presence. If you need more advice about how to maximize your Local Search presence, you are in luck! Our blog has a whole section devoted to Local Search! Help your business have systems in place to ensure that:

  1. You have great star ratings from past customers;
  2. You have plenty of good reviews from past customers; and
  3. You need high-quality photos that appeal to searchers on your website. These photos will appear in your knowledge panel, Maps listing, and Local Carousel listing. Ideally, your photos should convey aspects of your business that will appeal to searchers: kid-friendliness, accessibility, elegance, professionalism, attention to detail, etc.

If you haven’t yet taken a close look at the new Google Maps, get in there, poke around, see how it affects your company, and learn what your competitors are doing. Most importantly, make sure you have a continual system in place to deal with less-than-happy customers out of the public eye, and to encourage more good reviews by people who are happy with you.

Do You Need A Mobile-Friendly Website?

Power to the people smartphone - red

Photo Credit: upshot.net

Business owners often ask if they need a mobile website. The short answer is a resounding, unequivocal:YES!

If you use the internet to serve existing customers, and you want to attract new customers, then you definitely need a website that renders well and is easy to use on mobile devices. This not only includes smartphones, but all sizes and makes of tablets.

You may ask yourself, “Why do I need a mobile website?” Again, the short, unequivocal answer is: Mobile is where your customers are.

Over 50% of mobile phone users in the US now have smartphones, and 80% of them say they don’t leave home without their phone.

Smartphone Penetration By Age Group

Google reports that mobile search queries on its search engine have exploded by 500% in the past 5 years.  It also indicates that 20% of all searches for phones and phone services take place on mobile devices, along with 25% of all searches for movies and 30% of all restaurant queries. Enormous numbers of searches for retail products, travel, financial and personal and professional services are also completed from smartphones.  (Do you hear that foot traffic? No? It’s the sound of people going to your competitors’ places of business, the ones that have mobile websites.) If you are in one of these industries, and your website is not mobile-friendly, you are losing out on a huge chunk of potential business.

This chart breaks out what kinds of mobile searches Americans are doing, and explores how on-the-go people shop online:

US Mobile Shopping Behavior 2012

In the United States, an estimated 25% of internet users do so only via mobile devices.

This trend is strongest among younger people, whose power-use of their smartphones keeps them wired 24/7, no matter where they are or what they’re doing. They communicate via voice, text, video chat, photos, as well as email and social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. They also get their news, weather and time from their phones instead of other media. They use their phones for searching, mapping, banking, shopping, and all kinds of entertainment: from gaming, to listening to music, to watching the latest movies.  (If you doubt this claim and need further proof, check out this colorful photo essay.)

If attracting and interacting with younger people is important for your business, you needed a mobile friendly website yesterday, not tomorrow.

If you operate a global business, mobile is even more important to your future.

There are more than 6 billion mobile subscribers in the world: more that 87% of our global population. Over 30% of those subscribers are in the rapidly-expanding Asian markets of China and India. Studies show that over 40% of online shopping in Brazil and Australia takes place on mobile devices. In the United Kingdom, the US and Canada, that number is about 30%.

There is a huge gap between those who or do not use mobile devices in terms of their access to information, timeliness of communication, and the ability to interact with others.  There is also an ever-widening chasm between businesses that get mobile marketing, and those who think otherwise. Check out Google’s Mobile Playbook: The Busy Executive’s Guide to Winning with Mobile if you are ready to get going.

Your customers and potential customers are rapidly moving into the future. Are you going with them or will you be left behind?

Pandas, Penguins and Website Rankings

You may have heard about Google Panda and Penguin updates and penalties, but what do they really mean and why should you care?

Panda and Penguin are both filters and penalties in the Google algorithms that adversely affect the rankings of what Google considers to be low-quality websites. Panda is mostly about low-quality content on a website.  Penguin is mostly about webspam, especially low-quality links pointing to a website (a.k.a. inbound links or backlinks). Some sites suffer from downgrading for both practices.

These algorithms are often refreshed (re-run), and updated (changed and re-run).  Google also gives each refresh a version number, to make each update easier to identify.  It is helpful for people who work in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to know about specific updates: for example, the Penguin 2.0 update, which took place in May 2013.

Google says this about Panda:

This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

Google says this about Penguin:

Sites affected by this change might not be easily recognizable as spamming without deep analysis or expertise, but the common thread is that these sites are doing much more than white hat SEO; we believe they are engaging in webspam tactics to manipulate search engine rankings.

The criteria Google uses to make determinations of quality is not a mystery. Google has been telling us for a long time what it expects to see in a good-quality website, including not only the type of content, but the kind of links which direct users to good-quality pages.

The Panda updates target low-quality content.

Signs of low-quality content:

  • Duplicate or near duplicate content: This includes articles that have been distributed to multiple sites across the web. Changing a few words or sentences or rearranging their order is not enough for content to be considered unique.
  • Not enough content: Pages with insufficient content are not considered meaningful, and therefore are not much use to readers.
  • Keyword-stuffed content: We all feel the pain when we try to read this stuff. It was obviously written for the Search Engines and not for humans.
  • Irrelevant content:  Content on a page that is off-topic and not related to the rest of the website.
  • Content that’s not useful: Content that Google cannot decipher is not considered to be useful enough to humans to appear in search results.
    • Content shared with other websites is considered not useful.
    • Pages that are just lists of links are not useful.
    • Pages full of images or videos with little or no explanatory text are considered not useful.

In the past, this type of web content only hurt the rankings of the individual pages where it was published. Now, it negatively affects the rankings of the entire website on which it appears. The more low-quality content a site has, the more it is likely to be demoted in the rankings.

The Penguin updates target webspam.

Penguin: Cute but Deadly

The target of Penguin is webspam, which is indicated by unnatural or unearned incoming links, and keyword-stuffed internal links which direct traffic from one pages to other pages on the same website.

Signs of low-quality links:

  • All or most links go to home page: Google contends that if a site is full of quality content, it will attract links to different pages and not just to the home page.
  • Off-topic links: Links from forums, blogs and websites that are unrelated to what you do, do not help your pages rank.  If a link doesn’t make sense to humans, it doesn’t make sense to Google, either. Good links come from pages that are about your industry and/or your location, or are from other websites in your location or industry.
  • Links from bad neighborhoods: This includes free-for-all directories and sites participating in links schemes. (See Google’s definition of a link scheme here.)
  • Too many links from other sites you own or control.
  • Sitewide links: These are links from all the pages on a site, and are usually found in the page footers or sidebars.
  • Too many exact match links: These are links with text that exactly matches the term(s) for which you wish to rank. This can hurt you if it appears on your site, as well as on other sites.
  • Too many links of the same type: such as forum links, article links or blog comment links.
  • Linking out to off-topic pages and low-quality websites rather than to good ones that naturally segue from your pages.

Unnatural Link Notices

The surest sign of a link-related penalty from Google is a written warning from Google via your Webmaster Tools account. The warning will state there are unnatural links pointing to it, although websites that receive these are often egregious offenders. However, having even one link from a site that is being targeted by Google might be enough to get a formal notice.

These notices are sent out after a human review of a site’s links.  In order to get this penalty lifted, all the bad links need to be removed, and you must file for reconsideration. Most business owners should avoid trying to sort this out themselves. If you’ve received a warning from Google in Webmaster Tools, get professional help fast.

Panda Detection and Recovery

If you’ve been hit by Panda, there’s no point in pussyfooting around: Google thinks your entire site is of low quality.  Unless you take drastic steps to improve it, your website will sink further in the rankings as additional updates and refreshes appear.

First, evaluate all of your pages for quality and usefulness. If you think they are good quality pages, you may need more objective eyes to take a look. Then, make sites more useful to readers by eliminating pages with little value, and combining shorter pages about similar topics. Remove any content that is not unique to your website, and avoid presenting the same content on more than one of your URLs. Create new, more useful content and promote it on social media, so that it attracts viewers (and tweets, shares or +1s). Make sure you are not overusing keywords in either your text content or in the links pointing from one of your pages to another.

Penguin Detection and Recovery

Although you may have not received a notice from Google, you may not have escaped the consequences of a manipulative-looking link profile. The websites that Penguin demotes do not receive these warnings:  they simply become adversely affected by the algorithm. No reconsideration request is needed to recover from an algorithmic Penguin hit.

If it looks like you suffered from a Penguin update, a thorough examination of the website’s backlink profile is in order. Obviously, bad and iffy links should be removed in a process known as link pruning. At the same time, good-quality links need to be gained to get the backlink profile back on track towards a good balance. Before the site will regain its rankings, Google will need to re-crawl your site, find and index your new, good links, and prove that the bad links have disappeared.

Free Tools to Help You Tell

It’s fairly simple to tell if you’ve taken a hit from either Penguin or Panda by using the Panquin Tool. It’s free, easy-to-use software that overlays known Google quality updates on your traffic as recorded by Google Analytics. You need to have Google Analytics installed on your website and you must give the tool access to your account.

If you see a precipitous drop coinciding with an update, that should be proof enough to spur you into action. Here’s an example of a site that was slammed by Panda last October and has not yet recovered:

Google Analytics graph

You may find little to salvage on a site that has been badly damaged by either or both of these penalties, and decide to start over completely. When this is the case, take a long, hard look at your online goals and design your new site to support those goals and to be valuable to searchers. Then, you must not do anything where the primary purpose is to manipulate the Search Engines. This is the best way to Panda-proof and Penguin-proof your site for the future.

If you find that your site has taken a few hits and not recovered, you may want to find expert help. Sixth Man Marketing is dedicated to helping to make your website work better for you. Please call us if you need assistance!

Search Rankings are Dead!

Two interviews caught my attention recently regarding the future of search. Here’s a quick summary of them for you. I believe what they discuss will have a pretty significant impact on SEO in the future.

So what’s all the buzz about, anyway?

It came from two interviews by Mike McDonald of WebPro News at Pubcon with Matt Cutts (of Google) and SEO Pioneer Bruce Clay. Here are the interviews in their entirety and my summary.

The death of search engine rankings (Bruce Clay)
The personalization of search (Matt Cutts of Google)

What, search rankings are dead? Well no, they aren’t dead. They’re just evolving-dramatically. Bruce Clay talked with Mike McDonald of WebPro News about Google’s efforts to personalize search results. Here are a few of his main points/opinions:

1) Google will personalize your searches in the near future. That is, your past searches (whether logged in to Google or not) will effectively bias your search results based on your search history. He used an example of a search for “java.” Your past search history could determine whether your search yielded results about coffee, programming, or travel. Chris Crum wrote a good recap of Bruce’s personalization comments here.

2) Intent based search is here. Search engines will determine intent and bias results towards that perceived intent. For example, reviews or general information queries will likely lead to global search results while a shopping or perceived local search (even without the local qualifier) will lead to geo-local search results.

3) Ranking is dead. According the Bruce, “The day of how high do I rank as a measure of doing SEO right is gone. You’re going to have to look at analytics… You’re going to have to measure traffic… You’re going to have to measure bounce rates… You’re going to have to measure action… Did I get the conversion I was after? Did I really deliver on the promise of SEO?”

4) Universal Search will be HUGE in 2009. Universal (also called Blended Search) was launched in early 2008. I have seen a massive increase in organic search traffic for my clients based on optimizing for Universal/Organic search. Bruce believes that web sites without video, images, and other variables of Universal search will be essentially left in the dust.

I love the point/counterpoint of Matt Cutts (from Google) being interviewed right after a top SEO like Bruce. I can’t help but say “Jane, you ignorant slut!” However, in this case, they more or less agree with each other, which lends even more weight to their comments. Here’s my summary from the Matt Cutts interview regarding Google’s future:

1) Is ranking really dead? Matt addressed this directly by saying,“Well, I’m not sure whether I’d say that ranking is dead. But it’s not as important as it used to be. But the fact is, the smart SEO’s are not necessarily just looking at the rankings. They’re looking at their conversions… and server logs. They are saying, sure, it’s great if I rank for a phrase, but unless that leads to sales it doesn’t help very much.”

2) If rankings are less important, what’s an SEO to do? Again, he addressed the the changing landscape directly by saying: “SEOs are starting to embrace the fact that they are marketers. It’s a broader spectrum. You have to think about how you build buzz, how do you get loyal customers, how do you optimize your ROI. All those different things and that can include how do I make good videos, do I have a book, things like that.”

3) But what about personalization? This is where it will be pretty interesting moving forward. His localization example makes perfect sense. But the personalization aspect seems a bit vague. “As you see more personalization… as you see more localization.. it changes. For example, If you do a search for the word “bank” in the United States, you’ll get Bank of America and other American banks. If you do that search in England, you’ll get Thomas Cook and different banks entirely. The challenge is not to pay so much attention to rankings and to pay attention to your traffic,… pay attention to your conversions,… keep building good content,… and then not worry so much about can I show people that I rank #1 for my trophy phrase.

4) Universal Search is really useful to users. Without telling us that we need to have videos, blogs, and other Universal Search content on our web sites to stay relevant and rank well, he certainly talked about how users are embracing video and blogs as well as how important creating quality content is to Google.
Read: Videos and blogs are mas importante! Get on this train if you haven’t already.

My next post will delve a bit deeper into these topics and include some real world examples of how Universal Search strategies have helped my clients. It will also include my thoughts of how businesses can work to capitalize on the personalization of search in the future.