Until very recently, Google Places was one of the most important factors in the search engine optimization landscape for local businesses, and we've written quite extensively about how you can (could) optimize your Google Places page to drive your business. (See: "Hey Google - Energy Efficiency Contractors Need a Google Places Category," "Give Your Home Performance Business a Boost with New Google Places Tools," "3 New Ways to Optimize your Home Performance Business for Google Places," etc).
Anyway, we have good news and bad news: the bad news is that Google Places no longer exists (technically). The good news is that it's been replaced by a new product called Google+ Local, which for all intents and purposes is very similar to Google Places, and the majority of our recommendations for your Google Places page still apply to your Google+ Local page.
But, there are some differences, too. While this still falls under the "breaking news" category, in this article you'll find just about everything you need to know about Google+ Local in order to get started making the most of it, and thereby getting an edge on your late-adopter competition.
First off, let's recap our previous guidance on why you should sign up for Google+:
1) It’s Google; clearly, there will be significant implications for search. Google represents 73% of the total search traffic across the data on our network of websites on the Energy Circle PRO system.
2) It’s new and cutting edge, so you may as well jump on it because it could be important.
3) It will eventually be tied to your Google Places page.
4) It's easy to set up.
5) Low or no engagement is fine, so it's easy to maintain once you set it up.
A couple weeks ago, the merger that everyone was predicting finally took place. Google Places pages no longer exist; if you had one, it's now a Google+ Local page. If you had a Google+ Business page, you most likely now have two pages in Google+ (one Business page, one Local page). We know, it's a little confusing, but if you find yourself in the latter category, put in a merge request with Google here and your two pages will become one.
Why the merge? It appears as if it's part of Google's effort to compete with Facebook and make Google+ more relevant, and also part of their effort to make their local business more social in general. "Learn about local businesses from people you know and trust" is the mantra, and integrating Google Places with Google Plus is a good way to help people do that. Google is also trying to make everything as seamless as possible across all Google products -- search, maps, mobile, social, etc. - so the move makes sense from that point of view.
How Google is positioning the move to Google+ Local:
1) A simpler, more unified user experience.
2) Helps people find, rate, and share your business. The rating component has always been a key part of Google's strategy, and this move is intended to make ratings easier and more useful.
3) The Zagat review system is integrated.
4) For now, you can still manage your page through Google Places for business, so it's not a huge burden on you as a small business owner.
5) It is a transition, and lots of stuff is happening fast. Jump on it, and watch out for further developments.
What the experts are saying about the move:
1) Google is trying to increase engagement and participation on Google+, and this is one way that they’re doing that.
2) Business owners now ignore Google+ at their own peril. In other words, it forces business owners to join Google+.
3) Overall, local search just got a lot more social for Google. This is important to keep in mind in your overall marketing strategy.
Our take on the merger:
1) It will probably be messy. We've already seen images disappearing, reviews disappearing, and similar instances as pages get moved over to Google+ Local, so you might want to keep an eye on that.
2) Google Places was important, and Google+ Local is even more so. It's bigger, more integrated, more social, and that makes it more vital for you.
3) The passive approach that we used over at Google Places is okay, but...
4) Google+ Local offers a big opportunity for social and customer engagement, which can be an asset if you take advantage of it.
5) Google+ Local will not be as low maintenance as Google Places. There's a trickier review system, more social engagement is required, and the new user-generated editing feature means you will have to maintain some vigilance and pay close attention to your page.
6) First-movers can create a real competitive advantage by jumping on the train before it takes off.
Key differences between Google Places and Google+ Local:
1) There is vastly increased exposure for your business page.
While your Google Places page was accessible through organic search (google.com) and maps, your Google+ Local page is accessible through organic search, maps, mobile, Google+ search, and Google+ circles (the more-than-90-million people on Google+ can now more easily find your biz page).
2) The review system has changed, so that now only visitors with a Google+ profile can review your business. This is especially key, because your customers will need to have a Google+ profile in order to review your business. This is a barrier to getting more reviews, but it also makes those reviews more valuable, as they're backed up by a real person and not an anonymous user.
The new review system also incorporates the Zagat review system, which switches the prior five star rating to a scale of 0-3. (Notice that there's no longer a middle, part of Zagat's methodology that prevents neutrality.) For most service businesses, reviewers are presented with a single quality score with choices of 0, 1, 2 or 3. Perhaps a subtle difference, but we think a consumer rating you specifically on "quality" is more specific criteria than a generic "star rating" on your overall performance. The quality of your work and how you left the worksite, in our view, are now elevated.
What to do now:
Although Google+ Local has been out for a few weeks now, you can still get a jump on the competition by whipping your page into shape now. The most important things for you to do right now:
1) If you have an existing Google+ Business page, put in a merge request here. UPDATE: Google is no longer accepting merge requests. You can sign up to be notified when it is available again here.
2) If you haven't set up a Google+ Business page yet, it's probably best to chill for now on that front. If you haven't claimed your Google+ Local (formerly Places) page, chances are it exists, and you need to go claim it now.
3) Create a link from your website to your new page. These pages are indexed, so links are valuable and will help your page show up above others in search results.
4) Tackle the review issue -- see if your existing reviews were transferred over to the new page. If not, send an email to your customers and ask if they wouldn't mind writing a review on the new page. Explain that in order to do so, they'll have to sign up for Google+ if they haven't already.
Best of luck with your search engine optimization ventures, and as always, feel free to contact us or leave a comment with any questions or comments.