Google Places Shifts Content Strategy -- Should Advertisers Worry?
Typically, Google making changes to Places rarely warrants much discussion beyond the immediate cosmetic impact. However, Google's recent moves into the social arena with Google+ gives the Places page changes an undertone unlike other updates -- and hints at a move toward potential monetization of the product.
The explicit modifications to Places involve overall content changes and management of consumer reviews. One change of note is information "missing" from the Places pages, particularly the owner comments and details sections. Previously, a business listing had the option to include robust sections for additional location details and comments from the owner. These sections allowed for SEO-type optimization of a listing, giving local merchants a chance to showcase their location beyond what is typically offered in other local directories.
Most importantly for merchants, these elements were free, allowing for a good deal of marketing for only the cost of the time it takes for information input. While the Google Places interface still allows for data input into these sections, the abovementioned information no longer appears for the user.
On the surface, taking location details off a location's Place page seems to denigrate the end user's experience by offering up less information instead of more. Or, it is a signal that this more robust content may be part of a broader strategy to monetize the listing?
Imagine a scenario where the current Google Places page is a "basic" listing, similar to a name, address, and phone number listing in the Yellow Pages. Then picture the soon-to-be-released Google+ Business Listings as the "enhanced" (i.e. - paid) version, similar to a full-page spread in a yellow book. This approach isn't unprecedented as Yahoo does something very similar, yet its significance and magnitude to businesses would be much greater coming from the market leader.
Another change to the product that should catch attention is the removal of most references to third-party reviews in the search results, including on Google Places pages where third-party reviews are no longer shown in full. Instead, users now see a link at the bottom of the Google reviews section to the third-party site along with a parenthetical reference of the number of reviews the site has received.
It seems these changes were implemented for a few reasons: in reaction to complaints by third-parties and to bolster the prominence of their own reviews. Additionally, by making it easier to write a review on a Place page, Google builds up their review database.
While businesses wait to see if these changes affect ranking, Google's move serves as an equalizer of sorts among many merchants. Retailers that have cultivated a review strategy relying on sources outside of Google will now find themselves "leveled out" with merchants that relied upon Google reviews. This calls into consideration the need for a multiple source review strategy for companies to properly influence the local marketplace.
With their push into the social realm with Google+, and the announcement of Google+ Business Profiles to be released in the near future, these Google Places changes signal a shift in how Google will approach local businesses, using both paid and earned media strategies.
In the short term, merchants have important local decisions to make. ComScore's Local Usage Study (2011) shows nearly half of social network searchers select a local business based on consumer ratings and reviews. For brands without a review strategy, the decision is being made for them; it is a necessity that no business can afford to be without, so they must get into the game.
For brands that already had a strategy, they must now decide if the previous model of an all-encompassing review strategy will still prove as effective given Google's changes, or if it's necessary to cultivate separate strategies -- one for Google and a separate for other players in the local arena.
Longer-term, brands should evaluate how potential monetization by Google could impact their local media strategy and investments. Google carries less weight in the local space, given the fragmented ecosystem where consumers find information locally, but their presence still looms large. Brands that have a more comprehensive approach to engaging local consumers via paid, owned, and earned media across numerous online properties will be better positioned to mitigate moves such as Google in the local space.