Summary: Google recently began adding ski trail maps to standard Google Maps (as well as in the satellite view) for some of the nation’s most popular ski resorts. Now skiers and snowboarders can scope out the trail layout before booking vacation plans or as they’re riding the lift up to the top of the mountain. Additionally, Google has started adding 360 “street view” images to some resorts, as well as some of the highest peaks on the planet.
From time to time I like to highlight cool new Google Maps features I stumble upon, like the indoor maps we talked about earlier in the month. Obviously indoor maps are particularly useful for shoppers, but Google makes an effort to cater to the needs of all types of demographic groups – including outdoor adventure seekers! With the recent addition of ski trail maps, skiers and snowboarders can virtually visit the slopes from the comfort of home while planning a trip or on the mobile phone while riding the lift to the top of the mountain:
With 38 new run and lift maps for some of the most popular mountains across the US and Canada, Google Maps is your “go to” mountain guide. Whether you’re shredding Squaw Valley, Big Sky, or Okemo, Google Maps are a comprehensive, accurate and easy way to find the best route down the hill.
They go on to list and link to all 38. Follow the link to go check them all out.
Killington Ski Trail Map
Not all ski resort trail maps have been added to Google yet, and in fact it was just last month that they just announced those first 38, but it appears that they’re already quietly adding others. In the announcement, they only mention 2 ski resorts in Vermont, neither of which are Killington, however I recently stumbled on Killington’s trail map, which you can see here:
Google Maps also allows you view ski trail maps overlayed on top of satellite imagery as well. Below you can see how the satellite versions of the trail maps look on the two VT resorts Google did mention in their announcement – Okemo and Stowe:
If you’re not an avid skier or snowboarder, you might be wondering what the different colors and dotted lines represent. Google sheds a little light:
Power up Google Maps on your Android device or iPhone, and the mountain information you need is right there. Blue, green and black runs are shown as solid colored lines and ski lifts are red dotted lines.
Beyond the 3 trail maps embedded above, I’ve discovered that several other Vermont ski resort trail maps have been added as well. Using the list of resorts in Ski Vermont’s resort finder, I did some random checks and about half of those that I checked had Google trail maps, including Stratton, Mad River Glen, and even Bolton. This is obviously anecdotal, but it appears that Google is adding these trail maps rather quickly.
Ski Resort & Slope Google Street Views
Aerial views of trails not enough for ya? You may be in luck, because Google’s Street Views cameras are starting to make their way to the mountains as well. Take a look at this example from Whistler, BC in Canada:
Unfortunately they’ve only covered about a dozen locations thus far, none of which are in Vermont but hopefully that number will grow quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have photographs from others already but just haven’t had the chance to stitch them together and upload them.
Mount Everest Google Street Views
In addition to U.S. ski resorts, Google announced yesterday that they had recently sent their street view cameras to some of the highest peaks all around the world and just posted them online. Follow that second link to view all 21 of these amazing 360 views, including this one from Base Camp at Everest:
And lest you think Google is all about mountain tops – Google even took a dip in the ocean to capture “Street Views” of 6 of the planet’s coral reefs. ICYMI, here’s the blog post from last September that announced the reef project, which includes this view underwater view from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia:
Summary: Did you know that Google will let you view floor plans of places like airports, shopping malls and department stores? This feature has been available in the Maps app on Android devices for some time, but a few months ago was added to Google Maps for desktop as well. Additionally, I’ve discovered a little trick that will allow you to view Google Indoor Maps on iPhones and other iOS devices, which you can use while we wait for their developers to update the iOS Google Maps app.
Let me start this post by saying that I’m aware the launch of “Google Indoor Maps” for desktop was several months ago, but it’s an important enough development that I think it deserves to be blogged – better late than never!
Unbeknownst to this iPhone owner, Android phone users have enjoyed the ability to use their Google Maps app to view “indoor maps” for several years now. So what are Indoor Maps? Here’s how Google explains:
View and navigate floor plans of several commercial locations such as airports, department stores, malls, and more within Google Maps.
Here are a couple ways you can use indoor maps:
Easily meet up with friends with Latitude while you’re out shopping.
Search for the nearest bathroom, coffee shop, or airport gate.
Of course those 2 bullet points are only relevant to mobile Android users. But with Google Indoor Maps now also on desktop, you can *explore* places you plan to go before you even leave the house. It’s easy to see how this would make things like shopping and navigating through large airports more efficient.
Best Buy – Williston, VT Indoor Map
Let’s take a look at an example, if you wanted to look at new car stereo equipment at Best Buy, but you didn’t know where that department was in the store, you could review the “Indoor Map” on Google Maps before you leave home and save yourself the time you’d have wasted wandering around inside the store. Take a look at how Best Buy in Williston, VT looks on Google Maps:
Sticking with my car audio example, you can see that this indoor map allows you to see that the “Mobile Electronics” department is located in the back left corner of the building. Now when you arrive at the store you’d be able to quickly make your way to that department, do your shopping, and then leave.
Home Depot – Williston, VT Indoor Map
How about another example, but this time for the non-audio/videophiles out there? Unsurprisingly, there aren’t a lot of examples of Google Indoor Maps in the Champlain Valley yet, but after some digging I did manage to find one more in our area, and its appeal is a little more universal – Home Depot. A lot of Vermonters may prefer to avoid the “big box” stores, but no one would deny that these stores are here and thousands of people shop in them regularly, and Home Depot carries products that can be used by homeowners, renters, builders and all types of contractors. Clearly “home centers” are a great candidate for Google Indoor Maps, given their size. I can’t be the only one who’s wandered aimlessly around one of these places for 15 minutes? Anyway, take a look at the indoor maps treatment of Home Depot in Williston:
Imagine you’re someone who only pops into Home Depot on occasion, just when you need something specific – not to shop around. Now imagine you’re at the store looking for something basic like a wall outlet faceplate or a replacement flex pipe for under your kitchen sink. Now you can use indoor maps to see that the electrical and plumbing sections are in the back of the store, but without this information you’re left searching around the store or trying to flag down one of the employees who always seem to be busy helping some other poor lost soul.
Nashville International Airport Indoor Map
Unfortunately BTV airport hasn’t been indoor mapped yet, but I thought you should at least see an example of an indoor airport map, so allow me to indulge in a little nostalgia as I show you Nashville International:
What’s particularly interesting in this example are the variety of different indoor maps icons used. Best Buy and Home Depot each had some question marks (which I assume means the cartographer didn’t know what those departments were?) and little male/female icons which identify the public restrooms. Best Buy actually had a couple of other icons as well, but I’m not sure what they were for. Nashville International Airport’s indoor map, on the other hand, shows probably a dozen or more different icons. As cool as this is though, it’s also incredibly frustrating because it’s also unclear what many of these markers mean. In fact they’re so small that I can’t even identify the images on most of them, much less interpret what they mean! And you can’t zoom in any closer or you’re taken to street view and the curbside drop-off out front of the airport. At the very least, I think a map legend should appear when you’re viewing an indoor map. Although a legend wouldn’t help the issue of the text labels being as tiny and difficult to read as the map markers.
Getting back to the positive, it is nice that they have all of the restaurants, businesses, etc. labeled but arguably more useful are the gate number labels. If you’ve flown much, you know how huge some airports can be so it can be helpful to have an idea where you’ll be boarding your plane so you can plan ahead. Obviously if your gate is at the far end of a long terminal, you’d want to show up to the airport earlier than you other wise would have. You also might opt pack dress clothes to wear comfortable shoes and clothing if you’ve got a long hike to your gate. With any luck, the airports of your connecting flights will also have indoor maps so you can really plan ahead.
One other downside I do want to point out about these maps is the lack of interactivity, at least in the desktop versions. It’s great that you can see all of the labels of different businesses, departments, etc. but it would be nice if you could view more information by clicking on any of them. The funny thing is, the non-”indoor map” version of Burlington International does contain markers for the gates and they are interactive and each have their own Google Places/+ Local pages, odd as that might sound. Ever had a gate agent like this?
Well, if it happened at Gate 11 @ BTV (or any other gate) you can leave a review and tell the world about your experience – thanks to Google Places! I actually find this a little strange (local listings for gates), but Google Maps will always be room for improvement.
Google Indoor Maps on iOS?
I read back in December that several features, including “Indoor Maps” wouldn’t be included in the initial launch of the Google Maps for iOS app, but I had hoped it would be added by now. I just checked and sadly it hasn’t been added and I have the most up to date version of the app. So for the time being, those of us with iPhones can’t use the Google Maps app to meet up with friends or search for “indoor” points of interest, etc. Still, I found a way to sort-of use indoor maps on my iPhone. If you view a map in your browser (rather than the app) you can get essentially the desktop versions of the indoor maps. You don’t get the advanced features that Android phone users do through the app, but at least if you’re lost in the mall, trying to navigate an airport or looking for a department in a large home center, you can pull up the indoor map on your phone.
Anyway, these indoor maps are great, but clearly they’re a work in progress. I’ll be interested to try out some of the additional functionality once the iOS app catches up with the Droid app. Until then, I’ll explore how to upload my own Floor Plan maps to Google and I’ll write a separate post about that, assuming I’m successful. In the meantime, let me know in the comments below if I missed any other interesting VT indoor maps. As I said, Best Buy and Home Depot were the only two I could find, but I have to believe there are some others, no?
Summary:By now, most of us are aware of satellite and “Street View” imagery in Google Maps, but did you know Google has begun adding 45° aerial photos as well? In fact in 2012 they began rapidly adding hundreds of cities and countries across the globe, including Burlington, VT in mid-November. Today we’ll take a look at how/when Google shows these images, why they are so current, and then explore some of the Queen City from above.
As any regular reader of this blog knows, Vermont Design Works counts “local SEO” among our suite of search engine optimization and internet marketing services. Generally speaking, successful “local SEO” is largely about boosting rankings on Google+ Local… formerly known as Google Places… and Google Local before that…. Google Small Business Center, etc. etc. While much of what helps boost a business’s listing on Google+ Local actually takes place off-Google, the service itself is and has always been very much tied into and reliant on Google Maps, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we spend a lot of time tinkering around inside of Google Maps (researching how clients’ competitors rank, etc.).
Back in December, while checking on our own listing, I stumbled on a significant Burlington, VT area Google Maps update I hadn’t previously seen – 45° angle aerial photos once you zoom closer than the level where Google shows the 200 ft/100 m scale. Check us out here (zoom in/out and pan a bit to get a feel for it):
IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE ABOUT GOOGLE MAPS ADDRESS ACCURACY: Before I go any further, let me go off on a bit of a tangent here and point out that embedding Google Maps can be tricky, especially when Google is confused about an address, like it is in our case. When I first attempted to embed the map above, I did so after having just searched our specific address in Winooski (rather than our company name). For whatever reason, Google thinks 130 W Canal St. is about 100 yards down and across the street, in the backyard of someone on W Allen St. Even if I zoom to our location and then grab the embed code, the map will show what Google *thinks* is 130 W Canal in this post.
The address accuracy issue is actually why I was checking up on our listing in the first place. This problem arose only in recent months and so late last year I logged in to our Google+ Local account to manually move our business listing map marker to the correct location. Today I was pleased to see that our map marker has held in the right location, but for whatever reason, Google is still confused about “130 W Canal St”. Fortunately we’re not a “local” business, in the sense that Google doesn’t show a “local pack” in search results related to our services, but obviously we’d still like Google to display our location correctly. So, just in case Google changes something and screws up my embedded map above, here’s a screen grab:
I’ll probably live to regret this, but for the rest of this post I’ll assume that Google won’t change the maps I embed, but in the event they do – you’ve been warned!
Did you notice that when you zoom out to a certain level, you’re taken to the familiar satellite image that looks straight down, and how that differs from these new images? Satellite images, are obviously taken from satellites, while these 45-degree angle shots are aerial photos taken from airplanes. But what I find more impressive is the speed with which Google was able to get these images online.
Admittedly, most satellite images I’ve looked at seem to be relatively current and you can actually go to Google Earth to check the exact dates they were taken. However “Street View” images have lagged way behind (you can see these dates in Google Maps). All of the Google Street View images I’ve ever looked at in Vermont come from summer 2008 to 2009, which is obviously disappointing. It’s hard to trust what you’re seeing when the images are 4-5 years old. That’s why these 45-degree Google aerial photos are such a breathe of fresh air.
Judging by the road construction on West Canal St. in Winooski, I can tell you that these images were, without question, captured sometime between late spring and early fall 2012. Judging by the green of the trees/grass and the number of boats in the lake (if you pan west), I suspect these were snapped smack dab in the middle of the summer and you can tell by the shadows that it was early morning. Regardless of the exact date, we’re talking about images that are roughly only about 6-8 months old, but here’s the kicker – Google announced that new cities, including Burlington, had been added way back on Nov 16.:
As part of our ongoing commitment to provide you with comprehensive and accurate maps, we continue to steadily release new and updated imagery of places around the world as it becomes available. Here, we’ll take you on a short tour of some of our favorite locations that were included in the most recently published batch of aerial, satellite and 45-degree imagery.
… The aerial and satellite imagery in Google Maps and Google Earth has now been updated for 164 cities and 108 countries/regions…
Cities with new high resolution 45° imagery: United States: Baltimore, MD; Bangor, ME; Battle Creek, MI; Bay City, MI; Bowling Green, KY; Burbank, WA; Burlington, VT; Charleston, WV; Cheyenne, WY; Decatur, IL; Duluth, MN; Eau Claire, WI; Fargo, ND; Farmington Hills, MI; Fort Wayne, IN; Hagerstown, MD; Holland, MI; Huntington, WV; Iowa City, IA; Kalamazoo, MI; Kelso, WA; Kenosha, WI; La Crosse, WI; Lancaster, CA; Lawrence, MA; Lewiston, ME; Lima, OH; Loveland, OH; Madison, WI; Mansfield, OH; Morgantown, WV; Portland, ME; Queensbury, NY; Rockford, IL; St. Cloud, MN; Toledo, OH; Urbana, OH; Waterloo, IA; Wausau, WI; Youngstown, OH.
So when those cities were added, the images were probably no more than 3-5 months old. In terms of Google Maps photos (including satellite and Street Views), that’s a quick turnaround! And given that Google had just announced an update less than 2 months prior to the November one, I’m cautiously optimistic that they intend to stay on top of these with some regularity. And why not? It’s certainly easier than keeping Street View images up to date, because those require that a car with a roof mounted 360° camera be driven around every street photographed. Air traffic isn’t nearly what road traffic is, so it stands to reason they would be able to keep aerial photos more current. It’s just unfortunate that 45-degree aerial images will never provide the street view level detail that “Street View” offers, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.
Now, let’s take a look at some other BTV area landmarks!
The main FAHC campus was about all I could squeeze in to this embedded map, while being zoomed in at a level that triggers the aerial images, however if you scroll to the south a bit you can check out some of the University of Vermont campus, along with the famous UVM Water Tower.
Here you have the University Mall in South Burlington. If you’re familiar with the mall, you’ll recognize the skylights over the food court right away. In the upper right you’ll also find that you can zoom right in on Bon Ton’s sign. Same with JCPenney near the center, and the red awning outside Applebee’s right next to it.
So this is all pretty cool, but I do have to say I’m saddened by the fact that Google was actually BEHIND Microsoft, when it comes to bringing 45-degree aerial imagery to their mapping service. And as the excerpt from the Google Maps Blog stated above, they’ve only added “Burlington, VT”, not all of Vermont, which you’ll quickly find out should you venture more than a couple of miles outside of downtown. I made it about as far north as Severance Corners, as far south on Shelburne Road as Pauline’s Café in South Burlington, and a little further east than Maple Tree Place in Williston before Google reverted to satellite imagery.
Additionally, while I’m not sure how widespread Bing’s Live Maps is, I will also say that they are advanced in that when they do offer these aerial images, what they call “Bird’s eye”, they allow you to view 4 different angles (N-E-S-W), whereas Google is only offering the one angle. Still, that’s about all the praise I can heap on Microsoft/Bing, because all of their images, both “Bird’s Eye” and satellite (which they actually call aerial), are incredibly outdated. At least when we look at Vermont Design Works here in Winooski. They also don’t allow you to embed “Bird’s Eye”, which is mildly annoying.
Anyway, if you’re just hearing about this new Google Maps feature, I’m sure you’re anxious to go out and explore Burlington from the sky. Let me know in the comments below if you find anything cool in these new 45-degree angle aerial shots.
Last week’s big announcement didn’t really amount to anything tangible (yet) beyond a transformed review system and the front-end user interface, leaving a lot of businesses wondering what’s all the fuss was about. Is there anything important really on the horizon? Google made no secret that the new +Local pages would soon be merged with any existing Google+ business pages, but offered no further details or schedule. It would seem we now have more of a clue why – other “Google local” priorities have taken precedent. And it shouldn’t come as any shock that these priorities seem to be largely financially driven – new paid services for business owners to promote their products/services on Google. Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land summed things up nicely:
Delivery (a new service that would enable stores to deliver products to homes)
TalkBin (an SMS-based customer feedback tool; so far doesn’t enable review solicitation)
Google Wallet (combination of online payment and smartphone-enabled payment at a POS)
Punchd (in-store loyalty program)
The Journal actually put together a great little infographic that expands upon each of these Google Business Builder sub-services:
It’s easy to see how each of these services might be great business tools, but that’s not the commonality that immediately jumped out at me. What I found most interesting was the fact that the majority of these service provide for more revenue generating opportunities for Google. Adwords Express (Adwords for beginners – formerly called “Boost”), is the standard local advertising option for business owners who aren’t PPC experts. “Offers” aren’t new, but we recently learned that they are transitioning into a paid-only service. It’s a bit unclear to me whether Google Wallet currently costs merchants anything above and beyond their normal credit card processing fees for MasterCard® PayPass™ transactions, but Google does charge if a business opts to have a Google Wallet terminal installed. I’m betting they’re making something on the Google prepaid credit cards users have to buy if they don’t have a Citi MasterCard too. Punchd and TalkBin are clearly both paid services, and I think it stands to reason that any sort of Google shipping service would be paid as well.
So it would seem that the Big G is increasingly setting the stage for pay-to-play, despite always claiming to be about the most relevant results. I’ve detailed relevancy issues with local pack results plenty of times before, so I won’t drone on about that, but it’s worth noting the general direction things are going now. I’m not a “hater” by any means, they deserve to get paid what people are willing to pay for their services, and I’ve always thought they do strive to provide the most relevant results… But let’s not kid ourselves about what’s happening here. David Mihm posted a screenshot today that illustrates my point better than I can explain it:
…as a purely practical matter, if you’re not doing a serious Adwords campaign OR competing in Local, you’ve basically got two organic slots that might draw searchers’ attention. Those of us practicing organic optimization should probably bone up on Adwords as a defensible future skillset.
Coincidentally I just got through reading a post about a new “browser size” tool in Google Analytics that allows you to see what percentage of visitors (and web users overall) are able to see certain parts of the first fold on your website. Everyone’s monitor (and mobile device) is different, so the immediately visible area on any given web page can vary greatly. The new browser size tool puts a spotlight on the importance of what you put in the first fold of your site and what the “first fold” actually means now. But I also think it makes Mihm’s screenshot all that more alarming. All white-hat SEOs are happy to see link buying spammers get punished in rankings, but what happens when organic rankings for legitimate sites no longer matter? You get our your credit card, that’s what! (… or your Google Wallet, *wink*). We’re not there yet (organic irrelevance) but things are moving quickly.
Mihm’s post title, ““It Really Is a Google World and We Are All Just Living in It”, sums up well a point I’ve made often myself because even when they do something that really irritates us – what are our options? Bing!? Don’t be ridiculous… Face it – as it stands today, we’re all slaves to Google because they have a corner on web search. That’s not to say they don’t still run the risk of overplaying their hand and seriously screwing things up. Taking a look at some of the comments on the WSJ article, I’m reminded why it’s often a good idea to get back in the real world and outside of the SEO world, when it comes to how people feel about Google. Before getting trapped behind a paywall (I guess the article was only free for a day?), I was able to copy the following comments that delve in to some of the issues with Google’s local services prior to even rolling out this new “Business Builder” package:
Jason Jaslow Wrote:
Google expects small business owners to use their tools, but provides ZERO assistance when things go wrong. We have 3 different businesses operating out of the same location and google continually mixes them up and displays the wrong data to google searches. Trying to get them to fix it is like slamming your head into a glass door (just like Justin Beeber).
The lack of support has been a HUGE problem for years now. Inaccurate information, duplicate listings, listings merging with competitors, etc. The issues never end and when you’re faced with one that might just cripple your business, who have you been able to turn to? No one. No telephone, email or even online chat support whatsoever. Mind you, the company doesn’t owe business owners this service, but if the goal is the most relevant search results….
Anyway, a few months ago they finally threw us a bone when Vanessa Schneider became the queen of the Google Places forum. She was great, but there’s a big difference between a forum administrator who can explain best practices and give general answers; and an actual support team that can investigate and resolve specific issues. Still, she’s all we have… or had until yesterday when she announced she was moving on. She assured us she left us in capable hands with Jade Wang, however I haven’t actually seen Jade post anything about her new role yet. Local SEOs have only even become aware of her in the last week after she joined Vanessa for her last wrap-up video on Youtube. (BTW, that video was basically an FAQ session covering the new Google+ Local change, which we’ve discussed here at length, but you can read Vanessa’s highlights here).
Another commenter continued on the same point about lack of support:
Richard Cohen Wrote:
my wife runs a small business and uses google extensively, but has had some problems at times and support is not what it needs to be. the company has all the tools and the customers to be a major force here, but they have lacked a coherent and easy to implement set of services for small business. they need to make things simple, explain the benefits clearly, and be prepared to support their customers better…especially early on. i wouldn’t sell these guys short but just tossing out a bunch of disparate web based apps will not work for a small business owner who doesn’t have a huge amount of time to fine tune what google products he/she will benefit from using.
A couple of great points here. First, Richard is right – just showing business owners a bunch of shiny objects and saying “you need this” isn’t going to cut it, as any online marketing firm will tell you. Unfortunately most business owners haven’t come to grips with how quickly the world is changing, so they have a tendency to dismiss as BS anything they aren’t familiar with. Before Google unleashes an entire suite of new local business products, they should work out the bugs that remain in their existing system. How can they expect businesses to learn about and start using Punchd, for example, when Google can’t even get the business’s address right?
Learning new products actually gets to the heart of Richard’s second point as well: time. These systems/tools are brand new to virtually all SMBs, so there will be a huge learning curve, which means business owners will need to spend countless hours figuring them out and implementing strategies for online customer loyalty programs and delivery systems. How many business owners do you know who sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for some new business tool to come along?
Google seems to be offering these services as part of an effort to cut out web firms as middlemen, but these firms exist in large part because business owners don’t have the time or expertise to deal with their online presence and advertising. Whilte it may be a little bit of a clumsy process for a web firm to claim a Google local listing on a client’s behalf, many business owners are happy to take as much of a hands-off approach as possible by contracting the work out to experts. It all boils down to resources, really. Most businesses can’t afford to hire their own, in-house “web presence specialist” to manage social media, local SEO, PPC, etc. so they contract the work out to an online marketing firm.
So that about sums up the dilemma. Google wants businesses owners, rather than web firms, engaging with their services… but those business owners don’t have that kind of time. I’m always tempted to say that Google runs the risk of causing a mass exodus if they alienating so many businesses, pushing this hard and causing so much chaos with rapid fire new launches before old bugs are fixed… but I always quickly come back to the realization that there’s no land of milk and honey for my people to run to if they do leave. To me this leaves a lot of uncertainty for the future of local search on Google. I’m concerned that a lot of small businesses might soon be hurt if they either aren’t reading the tea leaves or just can’t afford to hire web specialists, whether in-house or a firm, and one of the biggest issues remains the speed with which things continue to change.
If you’re a business owner and you need help managing your online presence, contact us today. Whether you’re starting from scratch without even a website or you’re just having trouble keeping up with all of the changes to local SEO and web advertising, we’ll develop a custom solution to help your company succeed online.
Notice the question mark at the end of the headline above? It started out as an exclamation point but sagged a bit when I began to really think about what this change probably means – even more chaos and inconsistency. And of course this raises big questions like: what happens to the Google+ Business Pages many of us have already created?
Google Places/Local/Maps have been struggling to get things right for years and as far as I can tell, things have only gotten worse. I can see progress on some fronts, but they don’t ever take the time to perfect anything before overhauling the system. Whenever it seems like they’ve started to straighten things out I know it’s time to reach for my Raid can because I know Google Places is set to unleash an infestation of new bugs on their own system. Given that they’re in the process of completely throwing out and replacing the old system, I’m pretty confident that things are about to get messy.
Now, before I highlight some of my observations of what’s changed so far and give more of my opinion about where this is all headed, let me just direct you to some of the early coverage from the past couple of days. There’s no sense in repeating what he’s already detailed so I’ll summarize and link you to the full posts below.
This post by Samantha Murphy, fed to Mashable’s Twitter account early Wednesday, was the first sign that something was going on with local search on Google. The frustrating thing was that the embedded videos (posted by Google) explaining the new move were pulled from YouTube within minutes. They were reposted later in the day, but neither the videos nor the text in the post explained what this meant for Google Places at all. It would seem that they were unaware of the implications at that early stage because they addressed “Google+ Local” as if it was just something new/separate from everything else. In fact the videos were basically just for “users”, which is understandable, but it left business owners and local SEOs hanging.
The Mashable post was however useful in that it explained the new Zagat-style rating system being adopted by Google, but it wasn’t clear how this would translate because Zagat was primarily used for restaurant reviews. In the end though, it appears that they’ve figured out a way to turn reviews on a 5 star scale in to 0-3/3 reviews and a way to calculate an overall “out of 30″ collective score.
***UPDATE: Editing (before posting) about 24 hours after writing the next paragraph I see that it’s no longer accurate, at least for the moment, but I’m not removing it simply because I wouldn’t be shocked if changes revert several more times before settling down. At the moment I can only access the new +Local pages, but just a few hours ago I could access either ***
One other key takeaway, which I verified with a variety of tests, was the fact that you’re only being linked from search results to these new Google+ Local pages if you’re logged in when you perform your search and on the mobile side of things, only Droid devices are currently supporting the new local pages. Now, you can still access the new Google+ Local page if you want to work hard figuring out how to find it, but if you simply search when not logged in, local pack results will take you to old style Google Places pages (though they’re modified a bit because of the new Zagat ratings. Oddly 5-star ratings still show in search results for non-logged in users.) Click the thumbnails below to see screen grabs showing the difference in how the local pack appears for logged in and not logged in users:
It was already pretty clear that Mashable left out the fact that Google+ Local is the replacement for Google Places, but this was the earliest post I saw detailing the change. In it, Mike Blumenthal was able to put my mind at ease a bit by making it clear that nothing has changed in how Google ranks these pages (yet!) and that for the time being, business owners will still manage their listings from the Places dashboard. The primary change at this point is simply that front-end user experience. But again, right now that all depends on whether you’re logged in or not, so what Google has essentially done is added another layer to what causes different users to see different search results. The post goes on to talk about how results will continue to become more socially based, but that’s no less ambiguous than any statement made since the announcement of Google+.
Google is still rolling out the change so the details of how all this will work are not yet clear. But they note “If you don’t yet have a Google+ Page for your business, we encourage you to create one now. And if you do already have one, hold tight for news on how to get it linked to your local listing.”
This is one of the most important outstanding questions in my mind – What about Google+ Business pages. It would seem stupid to manage 2 Google+ pages for the same business separately. But if there is some sort of merging around the corner, how will that work if the page owner login information for each entity is different? What about when there are multiple owners of one or both listings? Hoping the official announcement post by Google would shed some more light, but as usual, I feel like Google tells us less than the SEOs figures out on our own. At least in this case it seems more a case of being tight-lipped during a staggered roll-out, rather than uninitiated Google new hires giving me an “I dunno, honestly it’s my first week” (yes, that’s happened before).
Google may not be telling us much, but Blumenthal to his credit has posted a series of informative posts over the last 2 days:
Google+ Local Reviews - This post discusses in further detail what the Google+ Local migration means for reviews. Mike explains that Google has done away with anonymous reviews and what will happen to older reviews.
Google Updates Place Community Edit & Report a Problem Forms - In this post, Mike explains how the community editing and problem reporting forms have been combined, which I have mixed feelings about. Sure, it’s great if a friendly member of the community wants to help for accuracy’s sake, but what about local competition? Hopefully this doesn’t make it easier for competing businesses to sabotage each other’s listings.
I have my Google+ Business Page and my Google+ Local page claimed into different accounts. What do I do?
Keep managing them separately. From Vanessa: “We know it’s not ideal right now, but we’re working to consolidate these pages into a single page where you guys can manage your presence across Google. We’ll keep everyone posted on news in that regard.”
“To be very clear here, we will be combining any Google+ page you may have created with any matching upgraded Google Places listing (what we’re calling local Google+ pages). ”
And I feel honored that Mike specifically used to of my Qs (from his original post) in the list of Q&As:
The rapid fire changes are difficult to keep up with. One has to wonder – why is Google deliberately creating such a chaotic situation?
Google has yet to learn that change is an anathema to most businesses. The updates occur on their development timeline and that is apparently chaotic.
Hopefully Google has taken the time to resolve some of the under the hood problems that have been so painful (merges, dupes, lost reviews) so what we lose in learning about the changes we can make up in efficiencies down the road. Here’s hoping!
What a mess it’s going to be when you’re trying to manage the new Plus+Places, but your login for each is different….
It would appear to me that the when the new local environment is fully fleshed out there will be multi user management so it MIGHT be workable.
On the first question, I’m just glad to see that my question wasn’t too dumb to address, but let’s just say the fact that Mike “hopes” Google has resolved some of their issues doesn’t put my mind at ease. On the second question, I hope he’s right but I also fear that multi user management may lead to issues of hijacking by competitors.
Google+Local Retains Community Image Upload But is Missing a Way to Report Abuses - A little much needed levity after Wednesday’s upheaval. Some users discovered that there wasn’t anything preventing them from posting unrelated images to a Google+ Local page, and they took to Google’s own page to make this point by posting pictures of some unusually hairy dudes and Hitler. After several hours, Google had removed the images, but not before screenshots were taken and the little stunt proved early on how vulnerable to attack the “community” change option leaves businesses. Lesson learned Google? We’ll see.
Local SEOs Weigh in on Google Plus Local
Of course, Blumenthal wasn’t the only Local SEO commenting on the change and I recommend reading all of the following posts from industry experts so that you are as prepared as you can be for what’s still to come:
Google+ Local to Replace Places as Google Makes a Play for More Mobile Ad Dollars by Miranda Miller @ Search Engine Land – Highlights: Miranda does a great job of analyzing what this change is really all about – mobile search and ad revenue. The surge of smartphone usage in just the past couple of years has people using mobile search far more often than desktop search, so it’s only natural that this is where Google would turn their attention. Miranda also linked to this CBS This Morning interview with Marissa Mayer, with Google’s VP of Product Management, in which the new local platform is briefly discussed. I especially love how clueless Charlie Rose is about mobile advertising, but in fairness I bet most people outside of this industry are just as oblivious:
It’s Finally Here: Chronicling the Plus-Places Merge by David Mihm @ Mihmorandum – Highlights: Another great general rundown by one of the local SEO community’s premier experts. David’s point about using this as another way to get more Google+ members is spot on in my opinion. It makes a lot of sense, especially given that this has been an ongoing issue for G+ – Getting users spending less time on Facebook and more time on Plus:
As I suggested in my column a couple weeks ago, I really think Google is going to use businesses as a way to get more users on Google Plus, rather than the other way around.
Rankings on Google+ Local: Some Observations - by David Mihm @ Mihmorandum - Highlights: Here David does a great analysis proving what most of us are seeing – the impact on rankings, so far, has been very minimal. In fact it’s difficult to find examples of anything having changed in terms of rankings, but in the few where they have, it’s not immediately clear why. The post wraps up with David recommending that business owners begin getting active on Google+ and keep on keepin’ on with their other traditional local SEO efforts:
Keep plowing full-speed ahead with your traditional Local SEO campaigns just as before
Make sure that you claim both your Plus and Place pages
Get your Plus page linked persistently from your website (much like your NAP info)
Get a small amount of Google+ activity going immediately
Message all existing customers with an @gmail.com address that you’re on Plus & you’d appreciate a follow
Feather in some additional Google+ activity over time
The Coolest +Local Feature No One’s Noticed? - by David Mihm @ Mihmorandum - Highlights: Here David highlights a new feature – reviewing businesses AS a business. This will be great for B2B firms like ours, but I can also see businesses reviewing local restaurants that employees frequent, etc. as well. (I just left one as VDW for the bakery Cupps just down the road from us – great soups).
Google +Local NAP Info Pulling From Mapmaker (not Places?) - by David Mihm @ Mihmorandum - Highlights: This brief post highlights what appear to be some inconsistencies between the info entered in the back-end Places dashboard and what actually appears publicly on the new Google+ Local pages, but as I noted in my comment, this issue isn’t new. David’s theory isn’t a bad one, but in light of what we’ve seen as an ongoing issue, I’m not sure he’s right to so quickly assume this is related to Mapmaker.
What Google+ Local Means for Business
So, to summarize, at this point Google’s latest iteration of local search means little in terms of both rankings and how business owners manage their listings. But given that the listing are now part of Google’s social network, it seems safe to assume you might be rewarded the more you become actively engaged. Other than that, you still log in to the same area to edit your listing and the fields you can edit are all still basically the same and where listings are showing up in maps and local results remains largely unchanged. The one minor difference I do see in search results is that it simply shows the number of reviews if there are fewer than 10, but if there are more you see the actual Zagat style score.
My concerns mainly deal with the future steps of this multi-stage roll-out. I can’t emphasize enough how messy things could get when Google wants to merge new Plus Local pages with existing Plus Business pages, if login credentials are different for each account and/or if each has multiple “owners”.
In the past I’ve seen Google Places, in all its wisdom, merge competing companies listings, leaving them with the correct company name and address of one company but the phone number and URL of another. The most frustrating part was that in the back-end Places dashboard, the information was all accurate. Legal threats flew back and forth, one company eventually got someone from Google on the phone, and the listings were separated but local rankings dropped dramatically.
Call me pessimistic, but history has taught me to be expect chaos when Google changes something and I believe this future “merge” will be a much bigger issue than this week’s change. Basically all that happened this Wednesday was the front-end user layout changed, but the same information is displayed. But what happens when Google’s robots (NOT humans) begin trying to figure out how to merge millions upon millions local and business pages on Google Plus? Their non-human brains have come a long way in dealing with search results, but their track record for merging listings and determining up to date and accurate information isn’t great.
Over the years we’ve all seen a lot of hilarious images of people caught by Google’s Street View cameras doing embarassing things, but as a company who deals with local SEO and Google Places in particular, we’re more interested in the constant inaccuracies we see in Google Maps. After all, Google Maps is the engine that powers Google Places, so we’d like to have a little more confidence in the service’s ability to display accurate business information. How can we help our clients claim and optimize their Places listings if Google isn’t going to display their correct information or worse, show their physical location on the map as being nowhere close to their actual location.
Getting a Business Label on Google Maps
Before we dive in to the J.Crew issue I discovered today, let’s take a quick look at map markers that you see when using Google Maps, but not necessarily after having performed a local search. This also has nothing to do with how well Google Places listings perform and rank in standard organic SERPs. When manually viewing Google Maps you’ve undoubtedly noticed that many businesses have a map marker (the images vary for different industries), but other businesses don’t show up at all. I just want to make this distinction clear because we’re not talking about the red or blue “pins” that are tied to Google Places listings and Adwords ads, which you see on maps after performing a normal search for some sort of local service.
Anyway, since I started working here almost 3 years ago, it was always a point of frustration for us to see the listing for one of the other building tenants showing on the map, but not ours. We have nothing against our friends at CPA Site Solutions, mind you, but Vermont Design Works is arguably the property’s principle tenant, so why shouldn’t we at least be sharing the space on Google Maps? Well, there’s no simple answer, and if you look around any town on Google Maps, you’ll quickly realize that there are a lot of businesses missing, but seemingly no pattern to the data lapse. An attempt at clutter prevention likely has a lot to do with what’s going on, but it’s unclear how Google selects which businesses to feature. Still, like ranking anywhere on Google, people have figured out some clues as to how you can get a leg up and after reading various posts claiming success using “Map Maker“, we decided to give it a shot sometime in 2009 or 2010.
We decided to use these “Map Maker” instructions and then wait patiently…. very patiently. We only checked back every month or so and after well over a year we saw no change… Then a few months ago (early 2012) Google appeared to have updated the business labels for 130 W. Canal St….. to show a business that was no longer in the building and had only ever been here for less than a year! Fortunately, for whatever reason, Google updated the map labels again just in the last month or two and voila:
Finally! Of course, while we’re thrilled to see our own label on the map, the confusion about what dictates which businesses get the privilege of having their label on Google maps remains. We’re left just crossing our fingers that our label remains.
Correct Address Wrong Market Location on Google Maps
Now let’s turn our attention to a much larger accuracy issue Google Maps is having. It’s one thing for Google to not want to clutter up their maps when multiple businesses share the same address, but it’s entirely different to place a retail clothing store label on a sewage treatment plant, as Google Maps has done in the case of J. Crew in Burlington, VT.
(Note: I’m including screen shots and linking to map results rather than embedding a map so Google doesn’t try to make a liar out of me if they ever silently resolve this issue).
Now, you may notice in the screenshot above that I didn’t search Google Maps for J. Crew, but “Vermont Railway Inc., Burlington, VT“, so let’s rewind a bit. Yesterday I saw that Handy’s Lunch, who we follow on Twitter, had tweeted that they were at Vermont Railway. Having never heard of Vermont Railway, I was curious and did what I always do – I Googled it! I then checked Google Maps to see where they were located. Setting aside the fact that their address is 1 Railway Ln. and Google doesn’t seem to have any streets with this label, they appear to have gotten that location right… but I immediately noticed, just to the north, a J. Crew label showing up on one of those big cylinders at the sewage treatment plant (I don’t know, nor do I want to know what those cylinders are or what they do – but I know they aren’t full of overpriced clothing).
I’ve seen minor address inaccuracies in Google Maps before (markers being on the right street but not in the exact location, etc.), but this is a doozy. J. Crew is actually located about a half mile away in the downtown mall, Burlington Town Center. So why is Google Maps so off the mark on this one? I would have guessed that it was based on having the wrong address for any number of reasons (inaccurate Google Places listing, citations around the web, etc.), but that’s not the case, as you can see:
It should also be noted that the label image being used is a pair of scissors and a comb, indicating J. Crew is a hairstylist, but that should be the least of their worries right now… Anyway, notice that when you click J. Crew’s name, the pop-up shows the correct address, further confusing the issue given that the map marker is showing up on an unlabeled street. Add in the fact that when you click from the pop-up over to J. Crew’s claimed Places listing, the small map shown to the right displays the correct location:
And for what it’s worth, no categories related to hairdresser are shown on their Places listing, so no easy clarification on that minor issue either. But to summarize, J. Crew in Burlington has an accurate and claimed Google Places listing, with the correct map location marker and categories, but for some reason Google Maps on its own thinks the clothing retailer shares a location with a sewage treatment plant a half mile away. The only question I have is: Oooooweeee! What’s up with that?
What’s that? The waters aren’t muddy enough for you yet? Well, take a look at what I noticed happens when you mouse over (but don’t click) Sewage Treatment Crew. A different type of pop-up appears containing the following text: “J Crew – Burlington J Crew Author: CityVoter. Date: June 23, 2009″. Unfortunately there’s no link to cityvoter.com to investigate further and the closest thing I could find on CityVoter.com myself was this page, which again features the right address. (If you follow that link you might notice that the map marker is slightly west of where it should be, but no where near the sewage plant).
So, we’re back to where we started – Google Maps remains a big freakin’ unexplained mess, but as Andrew said when I showed all of this to him yesterday, “you get what you pay for.” This is a great point, and one I keep in mind when I see business owners complaining in forums that Google has messed up their Places listing and negatively impacted their business. As unfortunate as that is, Google isn’t being paid to host Places listings. They offer this free service as part of their effort to provide the most relevant search results to users. Yes, I know all of their free offerings are the bait intended to make you bite the hook of paid services, but that’s why businesses are in business – to make a profit. Besides, if Google didn’t consistently produce the most relevant results, users would leave.
Getting back to the point about accuracy issues in Google’s mapping service – you definitely do “get what you pay for” as a maps user, but the point of this post isn’t to whine about something so insignificant. Rather, my goal is to let other users know that they aren’t alone by highlighting how something simple can go off the rails so easily in Google Maps, without any explanation. I’m confident Google will continue cleaning things up over time, as they’ve done in all areas, and maintain market share in the web search industry (come on, who’s even challenging them?) Still, it can’t hurt to take a few jabs when you see the Masters of the Universe failing in such an inexplicable way. If anything, this should give us solace knowing that machines haven’t completely outsmarted us… yet.
Unrelated Side Issue for J. Crew Burlington on Google Places
If all of the above wasn’t confusing enough, I discovered another issue vis-a-vis J. Crew/Google while researching this post, but it’s unrelated to the map marker choas. They actually have a duplicate (unclaimed) listing, which is something Places had been getting better about. Places generally merges or removes duplicate listings, but for some reason it hasn’t done so here. It’s possible though that this is deliberate, as there are a couple of key differences between this listing and the claimed one – the URL is missing on the unclaimed one and instead their is a link to the Burlington Town Center’s Places page above the phone number. Could it be that this is how Google Places intends to handle listings for mall retailers? It makes sense to link to the mall’s own listing, but only if that’s in addition to the retailer’s website. Either way, I’ve never even seen a field with a “mall” or “shopping center” option when claiming a listing, but perhaps it’s new.
Out of curiosity I checked a few other stores in the mall to see what their listings were like. I don’t have the energy to even try to comprehend and explain the anarchy I saw, but I will say that I found a Macy’s listing that had both the link to the retailer’s URL and to the mall’s places page. That seems to indicate that this may be the way Google is planning to go with listings for retailers that are in shopping centers, but it’s the first I’ve seen or heard of it.
Has anyone else noticed weird mall retailer listings in Places like the ones described above? How about completely off the mark labels on Google Maps? Let me know in the comments below. The more examples we have to research, the better we all can understand the system and ause that knowledge to improve our visibility on the web.
There have been a lot of questions about reviews lately in the forum, and we wanted to address some of the more common ones. But before we dive in, keep in mind that we’re very much aware of all the issues that you’re experiencing, and we’re working hard to overhaul and improve our reviews system so that you stop experiencing these issues. Yes, it’s going to take time, and we know that can be frustrating. But we hope the work we’re putting into long-term fixes today will significantly improve your experience soon.
The answers probably won’t placate most business owners, but Google did at least make an effort to explain some of the more common problems people are asking about before they direct you to the forums for any other questions:
On the page you’ll find that you can expand each of those questions for a detailed response (notice I didn’t say solution?), but what I think most of us are looking for is some type of action we can take to get our missing reviews back on Google Places. Unfortunately, here’s what they’re currently telling us:
There’s no way currently to quickly, easily and absolutely get your reviews back on to your listing. If we dropped them during a reconciliation process, you’ll see them reappear after a few days. Other than that, there’s not much our support team can to do to ensure they get reinstated. Fixing this is a priority for us, and we’re working on long-term solutions to resolve most of these cases.
Long term solutions, eh? Well, I guess no one could accuse them of coming up with a quick fix! In fairness, why put a band-aid on a stab wound while you’re still plunging the knife in to your victim. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, especially given that Google Places is a free service and Google really has no obligation to help any other business owners. But you get my point. They’re talking about working hard on their top priority of finding solutions to these review problems… But the problems are years old, and these people have been busy launching silly Google Maps awareness games. One would think that a search engine with the goal of providing the most relevant search results to its users would be dealing with important matters like this before “games”, but I digress.
Long story short, at the moment Google is long on explanations but short on solutions. There’s some indication that many reviews, if they weren’t spam, should eventually show up in your listing again. In the meantime, it seems like the best thing you can do is get more legitimate reviews. Google provides detailed criteria explaining why reviews may be removed or considered spam as a guide for what not to do, but there’s nothing wrong with encouraging customers to leave you reviews. Just the other day kconti at Mednet Tech wrote a post about getting more Google Places reviews specifically for Medical Practices, but the techniques generally apply universally, especially #4 and #5:
4) Reach out on Social Media
If you’re active on social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, reach out to your fans and followers. Post links to your Google Places listing encouraging patients to post reviews.
5) Send an Email Blast
Do you currently ask for an email address on patient forms? If not, this is a great opportunity to reach all patients at once with practice news or information. Send out an email blast, with a link to your Google Places listing, asking satisfied patients to post reviews.
So Google Places support may not be particularly helpful at the moment and they aren’t promising a resolution for missing reviews on any specific date, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take while they work out the bugs. I think my pal Andy Dufresne said it best – it comes down to a simple choice:
In a recent post we complained about an unannounced but significant Google Places policy change and we’ll soon be posting about ongoing issues with reviews disappearing, but it’s now clear that the folks at Google Maps have just been tied up with more important things – creating silly games to teach people about lesser known features of the mapping service. All of you people complaining that updates to your Google Places listing aren’t going live really need to think about priorities – Google goal may be to provide the most relevant possible search results, but allowing you to accurately display your business information to potential customers takes a back seat to the creation of a nostalgia-inducing 3D labyrinth game called Google Cube. (Remember these wooden things? And remember when 3D actually took place in the three dimensional world? Yeah…)
While it’s unnecessary in my opinion, mainly because you can learn all about Google Maps features through tutorials and videos on the “Start Here” mini-site, I suppose the development of Google Cube was to create buzz. It even links over to “Start Here”, so the whole purpose is probably to create awareness of unknown features and push people to using them. Cube only briefly mentions each of the features in relation to the various levels in the game, but it doesn’t really teach you how to use them. For that you’ll definitely want to check out Start Here.
Below are screen shots of one of the game levels – “London Underground” – that is designed to show public transit routes (subway in this case) as part of the more advanced “Directions” features. Google Maps also provides walking and biking directions, in addition to standard driving directions:
These 3 screen shots are typical of what you see in each level of the game. An intro screen with a bit of information about the Google Maps feature being highlighted, the game play screen, and then the “level completed” screen which again mentions the feature being highlighted. Toward the end I think they realized the game was a little too quick/easy so they scrambled to add another level, which was this rubik’s cube-ish thing that pieced together maps from various cities. This didn’t offer any useful/informational benefit, it was strictly to add to the “challenge”"
And your reward in the end for wasting a few minutes of your time with this thing? Simply being told that some other nerds did it faster:
They also link to the equally pointless, though slightly more entertaining “real world” version of Cube that the Google people created:
If you’re looking for a time waster, check out Cube. If you want to really learn about how you can benefit from the wide variety of features now available in Google Maps, head over to Start Here. At Start Here you’ll be able to learn all about the different types of directions, inside maps (for large malls and other public spaces), exploring street views, creating your own maps and much more. Personally I’m impressed by the free GPS offered to Android phone owners, but as an iPhone owner I’m actually quite jealous. Of course, I would be in the market for a new phone if my iPhone was to self destruct.