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The writing has been in the sand for a while now but today Google rolled out a truly game-changing format for local search results. By totally eliminating the Onebox and removing most non-Google maps results from the first page, Google has made it more important than ever before to have a strong Google Places profile.

Onebox - Huh?: In case you are unfamiliar with all this hoopla you should know what local search results looked like before the transition. In this older Google search results screenshot you can see the Onebox in it’s original glory with 10 local business listings aligned directly next to a Google map of the related area. When the original Onebox was released it caused a major stir because it pushed down organic search results which would have normally been the first results seen on the page; a lucrative spot which was now gone due to this changeover. The next major change came when Google reduced the local results to 7 instead of 10, made each listing double-lined, and allowed business owners to purchase a Google Places Tag which enhanced listings in search results for $25 per month. Up until this point the local search results were considered a lucrative place to be for local-targeting businesses but no where near as lucrative as it will be as of today.

Here is a screenshot of the local results as of today’s changes (click for a much larger version or here):

A partial screenshot of Google's new Places search results along with arrows pointing out points of interest.

Significant Changes:

  • The Google Map is no longer fixed within the center column next to search results. It is now on the right and it follows your screen as you scroll through search results.
  • Instead of a short list of 7 Google Places in the Onebox, the local results have now supplanted the organic search results on the majority of the page; in some tests I found 3-4 organic listings after more than 10 local results.
  • Instead of an incongruous number of reviews next to the listing, the new results show the average review rating out of 5 stars along with a link to the reviews and the official Google Places Page for the business. (shown as the first arrow on the right)
  • Under the description for each result the address is provided followed by a phone number to provide rapid access to the business. (see the middle arrow)
  • Most interesting has been the addition of the most prominent websites providing reviews for the associated business. (see the middle arrow)
  • An image of the location has been added to the search results completing a very impressive beginning snapshot of each location for comparison shoppers.
  • When a user clicks on “Next Page” at the bottom of the results then they are led into the organic search results which, until today, had appeared on the first page.
  • The only way to see more than one page of Google Places results is to click on the new “Places” button listed in Google’s left-hand search options menu OR click on the “More results near <location>…” text at the bottom of the local results listed.
  • There can be as many as 30 or 40 results on the first page… this makes the first page far more valuable than ever before because it is less likely a user will go to the second page of results.

* The final arrow on the left points to what seems to be a glitch in the Google results I viewed on my computer. What is it? The word “Personalization” has been cut off by the Google logo and below is the option to turn off personalization which results in the removal of advertisements and some changes in results. Do you see this as well? So far I haven’t encountered anyone else with this glitch.

What Does This Change Mean for Business Owners?

In no particular order here are things to consider if you have a business that depends on local business:

  1. Reputation management is at a whole new high now that review ratings are exposed so readily to searchers.
    What to do: Start building your reviews as soon as possible by initiating a customer outreach program requesting feedback on various online profiles. Be certain to monitor your profiles regularly and respond appropriately to any issues that arise; check out the book Radically Transparent for great tips.  Sit down and create a reputation enhancement strategy designed to steadily improve your online reputation - even if you already have a great one.
  2. In many cases I noticed the business description used in local search results is being sourced from the Meta Description tag on the associated business page.
    What to do: Ensure your Meta Description tag is crafted to drive traffic. You need to keep in mind the tag has absolutely no weight in how your website is ranked so you can freely optimize the tag for improving click-throughs to your site; this is your chance to win over the searcher.
  3. Google Sitelinks are being used for some businesses in the results (see the 2nd one down for the Fairmont Empress).
    What to do: Visit your Google Webmaster Tools account and under “Site Information” go to the “Site Links” report and be sure to block any links you do not want to potentially appear in results.
  4. Images speak loudly about a location and will often play a large role in determining the next step for a searcher.
    What to do: Make certain all of your images in your Google Places profile are recent and attractive so they drive clicks. Remember to view the image in thumbnail format (81 pixels wide by 56 pixels high) before determining a photo is worthy since that is how searchers will first view the picture.
  5. Links from relevant sites that prove your locality can dramatically help with improving your local search rankings.
    What to do: Try to be included in as many relevant, local-focused websites and directories as possible. For Canadians I recently released (rather quietly) a list outlining directories and websites Google is known to consider when evaluating Canadian-based local rankings; the Free Guide to Improving Local Search Rankings in Canada. I do not, however, have a US-based listed created yet (it is on my very long task list) but here is one I found which does not appear to be too out of date (just don’t quote me on that!).

Final Take Aways

The most important lesson to be learned is if you have not claimed the Google Places listing for your business do it now!

Also, right now you may be charged up about getting your Google Places page all jazzed up but that may change a few hours from now when the reality of your workload sinks in. So, if you think you are going to put this off, I suggest delegating this task to another staff member (if possible) or contacting someone that can help you get your listings in order. As you can see, local search is only getting stronger and Google Places is not something you want to ignore anytime soon.