Synopsis — With the release of Universal Search, claiming the Google Maps listing for your business became more important than ever. This is because for local-based searches, Google will put together a small map showing the location of related businesses in the general area of the user (as calculated by IP address and other clues). Since the map also shows links to listings for a number of the businesses on the map, if you have not claimed your listing, you may be missing out on traffic to your site that is not only free, but usually highly relevant and motivated.
Tom Dahm, in “Optimize Your Site’s Google Map Listing To Put It On The Right Track,” discusses the importance of not just claiming your listing, but ensuring it is complete, accurate, and optimized. This is not just vital to take advantage of the benefits of universal search, but to avoid having a spammer (or even a competitor in some cases) steal your listing. Map spammers can do a lot of damage – anything from posting erroneous information about your business to leading users to links that go to spammy sites – because a casual visitor to your listing will not necessarily twig to the fact that it has been compromised, affecting their opinion of our business.
Dahm details how to correct and avoid errors in your listing and talks of five ways to optimize it:
1. Keywords in business name
2. Keywords in business description
3. Online reviews
5. Proximity to search location
A Google Maps listing is an extremely valuable, free online resource that every business owner needs to take the time to claim and optimize. This article will help you get started on the process.
The complete article follows …
Optimize Your Site’s Google Maps Listing To Put It On The Right Track
Next to search itself, Google Maps is easily Google’s most successful product. In fact, Google is poised to dominate the world of online mapping the same way it dominates search. According to the web stats service Hitwise, Google Maps now holds 22% of the local search market and should overtake the market leader, MapQuest, by the end of 2009. Most of this growth comes from the inclusion of Google Maps results within Google’s Universal Search results.
Through Universal Search, Google will display up to 10 listings drawn from Google Maps for many web searches containing the name of a city. Search for “Boston doctors,” “Chicago hotels,” or “Miami car dealers,” and you will see Google Maps results embedded in the search results.
While placement can vary, these listings usually appear above the organic search results. Since Google also embeds a full-color map, the listings are a real eye magnet, drawing clicks whenever they appear.
This means a well-optimized Google Maps listing can let your business leapfrog over the organic search results into a prime spot on Google. As a result, any business for which local search queries are important should have a strategy for working with Google Maps.
Google Maps and Errors
Unfortunately, Google Maps first pops up on the radar of many businesses because the information in Google is wrong. Customers complain that your phone number is wrong, the location is incorrect, or some other issue has steered them the wrong way.
Some of these errors happen because Google’s data lags behind the real world. Businesses can change names or move to a new address. Other errors occur because Google merges its source data with other information pulled from the web. For example, a restaurant that has opened its doors on the site of a previous establishment may have the misfortune of seeing bad reviews for the old restaurant associated with their Google Maps listing.
Problems like this can erase the value of Google Maps to your business. To solve them, you need to take control of your business listing.
Claiming Your Listing
Google Maps allows businesses to take control of their listings through the Google Local Business Center (www.google.com/local/add/). You can visit the LBC, create an account, and begin adding a new listing. Google will ask for your business name, address, and phone number. It will then show a listing of businesses already in Google Maps that have a similar name and location to your business. You can claim one of these listings, or tell Google to add you as a new listing.
Before you can fully claim your listing, Google requires you to validate your ownership of the business. Validation is performed in one of two ways: via a postcard mailed to your business address or a phone call made to the number in your business listing. In either case, Google will give you a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that you need to enter at the LBC to validate your listing.
In practice, this method works well for small businesses, but can cause problems in large companies. With validation by phone, a receptionist at the front desk of a large company may not know how to route an automated call from Google. If you validate by postcard, you can specify a contact name within the company. This sounds fine, but there are still cases where getting the PIN to the right person can be a challenge.
For example, I spent a lot of time last year helping a large hospitality company claim the listings for each of its hotels. Since the project was run by the corporate office with little involvement by the hotel managers, getting the PIN to the right person was a hit-or-miss affair. For cases like this, Google allows you to bypass the validation process to create a large batch of listings at once by uploading a data file with 10 or more listings, all validated automatically.
Correcting and Avoiding Errors
Once you have validated your listing, you can edit it as you wish. However, it is a good idea to take control of any duplicate business listings. If you do not, Google may later decide to show the older listings in place of yours or merge the information from several listings.
Even if you eliminate all duplicates, errors can still creep into your listing. Besides the information in the Local Business Center, Google merges information from a number of online sources, and sometimes this merging process can go seriously wrong. If this turns out to be the case with your listing, you will need to take the initiative to correct the errors.
As a first step, if Google Maps is showing an incorrect address or phone number, you can contact the digital map provider from whom Google pulls its map data to have it corrected. Google currently uses only one digital map data provider, Tele Atlas, which provides Google with core data about roads, addresses, and businesses. Any information you enter through the Google Local Business Center is layered on top of this data.
Tele Atlas lets you report errors through a service called Map Insight (mapinsight.teleatlas.com). Keep in mind that it may take months before corrections will appear in Google Maps, so be patient. Also, Google Maps draws website information, photos, and business reviews from a variety of different sources, so if there is a problem with any of these items, you will need to communicate directly with Google.
Until last summer, Google provided no user support for Google Maps. Since then, they have set up a Google Maps Help Group (groups.google.com) where you can post your problem and receive a response from a Google Maps Guide.
Optimizing Your Listing
Once you have claimed and corrected your listing, you should optimize it to rank better. The ranking algorithm used by Google Maps (and by Google Universal Search) weighs a number of factors, many of which are familiar to any search engine optimizer:
1. Keywords in Business Name – Just as the presence of keywords in your title tag helps a webpage’s rank, the use of keywords in the name of your business will significantly boost your Google Maps ranking. If you own a restaurant named “Olive’s,” for example, you should enter your business name as “Olive’s Restaurant.”
2. Keywords in Business Description – While not as important as placement in your business name, including keywords in your business description will also boost your rankings.
3. Online Reviews – Your online reputation can have a big impact on your Google Maps ranking. Google will associate reviews of your business on sites like CitySearch, TripAdvisor, Insiderpages.com, Judy’s List and a host of other Web 2.0 sites. Google will associate the full text of reviews with your Google Maps listing, and so the use of keywords within a review can impact your ranking. If a review says you serve “the best spaghetti and meatballs in town,” this helps you rank for “spaghetti and meatballs.”
4. Links – Geo-specific links to your website will also impact your Google Maps ranking. Geo-specific links are links containing the name of your city in the link text. Even if the text of a link doesn’t expressly mention the city name, it can still impact your Google Maps ranking if it comes from a local website.
5. Proximity to Search Location – Distance from the city center is an important ranking factor in Google Maps. A search for “Dallas hotels” is more likely to show hotels in downtown Dallas than elsewhere in the city. If your business is in the heart of town, lucky you; for other business owners, this seems like an unfair bias.
Before you panic, however, remember that proximity is just one factor affecting your ranking. Placement of keywords in your business name, having reviews, and associating your website with your business listing will do much to compensate for distance from downtown.
Google Maps vs. Universal Search
While other ranking factors can overcome your distance from downtown, the weight given to proximity as a ranking factor seems like an unfair advantage for some businesses. In fairness, Google Maps was designed to support queries with specific addresses. If I search for “gas station, 901 Elm St., Dallas TX,” I am probably looking for the nearest gas station.
But as Maps results begin to be displayed through Universal Search, this criterion makes less sense. If I search for “Dallas heart surgeon,” I probably want the best heart surgeon in town, not the one closest to my house. This is precisely the reason why the results displayed under Universal Search may differ from those shown within Google Maps. If you search Google for “Dallas heart surgeon,” you will see one set of results via Universal Search. Click through to Google Maps and you will see a slightly different set of results.
While both Google Maps and Universal Search use the same ranking factors, Universal Search gives less weight to proximity and more weight to link text and other factors. So while you can’t pack up your business and move closer to downtown, you can do some link building from local websites to improve your rank.
Finally, note that Google Maps is highly susceptible to spam. Mike Blumenthal has documented an extensive list of map spam on his blog (blumenthals.com/blog/), including cases where a single company held all 10 Google Maps listings.
As many strides as Google has made fighting spam in organic search, spam defenses in Google Maps lag far behind. For now, spam fighting depends on users reporting abuse through the Google Maps Group.
Ultimately, though, the best way to prevent someone from hijacking your Google Maps listing is to claim and optimize it yourself. Use the suggestions in this article and take the steps needed to make your Google Maps listing accurate and attractive, and help bring more traffic your way.