When Google+ and Google+ Pages for business were introduced a little less than a year ago many people in the local search arena began anticipating the day when Google would merge or integrate Google Places and Google+ Pages. Well, today is that day.
Google Places pages have been entirely replaced by new Google+ Local pages. As of this morning roughly 80 million Google Place pages worldwide have been automatically converted into 80 million Google+ Local pages, according to Google’s Marissa Mayer. It’s a dramatic change (for the better) though it will undoubtedly disorient some users and business owners.
(See our related Google+ specific coverage, New Google+ Local Tab Unveiled, Will Replace Google Places, at Marketing Land.)
A Range Of Changes Implemented
Here’s a brief overview of what’s new and what’s changing:
The substitution of the new Google+ Local pages (as mentioned) for Google Places pages
The appearance of a “Local” tab within Google+
The integration and free availability of Zagat reviews (its entire archive across categories)
The integration of Google+ Local pages across Google properties (search, Maps, mobile)
Integration of a circles filter to find reviews/recommendations from friends/family/colleagues
Static Places now give way to more dynamic Google+ Local pages. Google’s star ratings are also being replaced by the Zagat 30-point rating scale (for user reviews as well).
Below is an example SERP for “burgers near Seattle.” The top screenshot reflects the “old” Places look and feel. The second is the new search results, sans stars.
Marissa Mayer argued to me that Zagat scores can express much more differentiation and nuance because they contain separate scores for food, service and atmosphere vs. a five star scale, which is forced to factor all those considerations into a single rating (read: Yelp). The greater, 30-point spread also prevents everything from converging at 3.5 stars.
Consistent Experience, Several Doorways
Users will be able to discover the new Google+ Local pages in several ways: through a search on Google.com or Google Maps, in mobile apps or through a search on Google+. The image below an example of a local search result within Google+.
As a result, Google+ becomes another local search destination within Google, arguably with richer content and more functionality than Google.com offers at the SERP level.
Not unlike some similar functionality offered in Foursquare, users will be able to sort and filter search results by several criteria, including “your circles,” which will reveal places “touched” by friends. Currently this means reviews and posts, but could extend to check-ins later.
Google had originally hoped to make Places into interactive content pages that merchants would use regularly to communicate with customers and prospects. However that didn’t happen in part because of the limitations of Places pages themselves. Google+ Local pages are much more versatile and “social.” Indeed, it gives Google a local vehicle with functionality equivalent to Facebook and Twitter.
Below is a Places/+ Local “before” and “after” comparison for a restaurant in the Washington DC area, “Mio.”
Google+ Local pages are much more visually interesting. They also enable the presentation of a wider variety of information types than Google Places allowed. They will permit local merchants to develop followers and message them, and to have the kinds of social interactions now available on Facebook and Twitter.
Google says there will be many more merchant features to come, in a post on the Google and Your Business Blog (formerly the Google Small Business Blog):
We know many of you have already created a Google+ Page for your business, and have been hosting hangouts and sharing photos, videos and posts. We’re excited that we’ll soon extend these social experiences to more Google+ Local pages in the weeks and months ahead.
Below is another example Google+ Local profile page. The design and functionality essentially match but seek to improve upon Facebook Pages.
Discovery . . . And Search
If you click the new “Local” tab in Google+ you’re taken to a personalized local home (discovery) page, which offers a mix of popular, social and recommended content. There are several variables that go into the content that appears on this page. The same two people in Seattle won’t see the same page, though aspects of it may be the same.
What’s also interesting is that Google has returned to a two search-box approach for Google+ Local.
Users can browse this “home page” content or search as they normally would on Google or Google Maps. As I said, the integration of Zagat content, plus the other social filters and features make Google+ now an arguably better local search destination than Google.com or Google Maps.
Below is what the new experience looks like on Google Maps. It’s largely the same as what exists today except for the replacement of the star ratings by Zagat scores (and of course the underlying new Google+ Local pages).
Rather than being asked to rate businesses along a 4 or 5 point star continuum, users are now asked to fill out a more structured form (food, service, atmosphere/decor) and leave additional comments. Some of those online reviews may also make it back into Zagat proper, at the discretion of Zagat editors I was told.
Mobile A Bit Less Straightforward
All these changes will show up almost immediately on Android handsets in what was the Places layer on Google Maps for Mobile and in the Google+ app. (The images below are Android shots from Google Maps for Mobile.) Google has submitted app updates to Apple for review and approval. They should be out very soon but will look and be accessed in a different way than on Android handsets.
It’s quite likely that Apple will replace Google Maps in June with its own Maps and so none of this experience will probably ever show up on the iOS map. Instead, Apple users will be able to access this Google+ Local experience through the Google Places app and the Google+ app on the iPhone. There was no discussion of other smartphone platforms.
Overall this should present a stronger and more useful local-mobile search experience for consumers, in large measure because of the Zagat content, but to a lesser degree the social and recommended content.
Google+ Local Pages Will Be Indexed!
The conversion of Places pages to Google+ Local pages is taking place regardless of whether Places pages were claimed by business owners or not. However nothing on the back end will change immediately for merchants. Google says this in its Google and Your Business post:
If you are a business owner, you should continue to manage your information in Google Places for Business. You’ll still be able to verify your basic listing data, make updates, and respond to reviews. For those who use AdWords Express, your ads will operate as normal as they’ll automatically redirect people to the destination you selected, or your current listing.
Despite this temporary calm, business owners are effectively being dropped into the social fray with more customer-interaction potential but also greater demands to learn how to use Google+ to their full advantage. Those who do will be rewarded. There’s a ton of SEO potential here. Most notably, unlike Google Places pages, these new Google+ Local pages will be indexed.
We asked about management of multiple locations from a single page. Google said that there’s no news for the time being but that’s the ultimate goal:
A single page through which businesses can manage their online presence is a top priority, and we’re committed to ensuring business owners have a clear voice in how their business is represented on Google, via Google+.
In its SMB-focused blog post Google provided example businesses that were invited in early to enhance their Google+ Local pages. I’ve reproduced only a partial list here:
Chicago Music Exchange
Museum of Making Music
Nick Strocchia Photography
A Few Preliminary Final Thoughts
These are major changes that Google is making in the fabric of local — for both consumers and marketers. They will enhance the consumer experience with a relatively small adjustment and learning curve. People will be able to go on using Google as they have but get the benefit of the richer pages and Zagat ratings. They won’t be forced to use Google+ to get the new content.
By the same token Google probably hopes that millions of local merchants creating and enhancing dynamic pages and content can bring additional usage and greater engagement to Google+. We’ll see how it plays out.
Business owners will probably have a somewhat more difficult transition than consumers, as they’re compelled now to pay attention to Google+ — in a big way. They now ignore Google+ at their own peril.
Overall local search also just got a lot more social for Google, as it has recently in a different way for Bing. We’ll explore the social dimensions as well as the SEO implications of Google+ Local pages in companion articles and during next week’s SMX Advanced, especially in the Hardcore Local SEO Tactics session.