Last week, Google quietly rolled out a new game-changing search process. Most of us are familiar with Google's local business listings now called Google Places. In the past, Google would sometimes place a map with local business results for searches that used a geographic identifier - like "Copiers in San Jose." Appearing below the sponsored links, and above natural search results, searchers had the chance to click a directly style listing and get contact information about any listed business.
How Did I Go from Number 1 to Number 11?
Now, in a bid to capture more of the lucrative local search audience Google has started to integrate Google Places results with "Natural" or "Organic" rankings- rather than simple showing a map with markers and a few links at the top of a page, Google Places listings can dominate the first page of results. In many areas for many terms, websites that used to rank in the top three can find themselves pushed to the bottom of the page. On the other hand, your Google Places listing may be well placed to offset the change.
Compounding the change, there appears to be a wide inconsistency in the way Google Places are displayed. In some instances, natural rankings appear above Places results, in others the old Places and Map display, and it in still other local searchers nothing from Places is displayed. Google has been largely silent - no surprise - but a few items seem clear:
1. Given Google's preference towards Google Places, every local business that wants to compete needs to find and claim it's Google Places listing. If you don't have one, you can create one here.
2. Google Places optimization is still inherently different from natural search optimization- while this is still a developing area, a good place to start is http://www.moovinonup.com/blog/optimising-google-places-listing. Keep in mind that a large part of Google Places rankings is entirely dependent on reviews of your business- it's time to think about rewarding customers who rate you well.
3. On a positive note, there seems to be a shift away from the need to have a physical address in every area served. Referencing cities/areas served in your listing can help you reach adjacent regions with one Google Places listing.
4. Search Engine Optimization is more critical than ever- in many instances the top one, two or three listings are the highest ranking natural results. Getting there is going to be more important than ever.