Google my Business VS. Google Places – What’s changed in 2014?

Google My Business – What’s the Big Deal?

Several days ago, Google dropped a bomb of a surprise on the search engine marketing community with the unveiling of its new “Google My Business” overhaul of its Google Places/Maps/Local/Plus Local hodgepodge of business services offerings. So, what’s new in Google My Business? Is this merely another addition to the name soup that Google’s been stewing for a while, or is there some good functionality to be found in this product release? Read on as we dive in.

A Little Background

2011 Places (multiple listings) Dashboard.

The 2011 Places (multiple listings) Dashboard.
Click for a larger view.

If you’ve been in the SEM business for more than a couple of years, you’re probably familiar with the older version of Google Places, and you may be familiar with Google’s acquisition of Zagat at the end of 2011, culminating in the creation of Google Local. Prior to May 30, 2012, Google Places was the center of all business interactions with Google’s local search platform. Google Places had gone through several changes at that point, but the overall look was largely utilitarian and functional, with few design flourishes. The layout I’m most familiar with is the vintage layout from 2011, which is the layout that probably had the longest run, staying fairly consistent from the service’s debut in 2010 (following the old Place Pages launch in 2009) through 2013. In 2012, there were a few layout changes, but it remained relatively static until 2013, when it was rolled into Google+ Local (though it was originally scheduled to be shut down in 2012).

The 2011/2012 Places Dashboard (single listing). Look at all of that useful data!

The 2011/2012 Places Dashboard (single listing). Look at all of that useful data!
Click for a larger view.

For nearly half a decade, Google Places has been the recognized “go-to” hub for businesses that want to take control of their local search engine and map listings. This all changed with the launch of Google My Business, which has finally, officially done away with Google Places, a feat Google set out to accomplish two years prior with the introduction of Google+ Local. It’s not without a little sadness that we see it go (though the opportunity to get rid of the headache that was the naming and management spaghetti of Maps/Places/Local/Plus Local is more than welcome).

These images, courtesy of Blumenthals and Pilot New Media, snapshot Google Places’ visual evolution from its height of popularity in 2011 to just before its official axing in 2012. Beyond these are updated images from 2013, showing a dashboard much more in-line with Google’s Plus designs, including larger fonts; cleaner design language emphasizing shadowing and depth; shaded gradients; and generally less information on each screen.

The Debut of Google+ Local and the Downfall of Google Places

With Google’s introduction of Google+ Local in 2012, Google Places was no longer the center of the business profile in the local listings. Business owners could still enter relevant business details there, but the intent of Plus Local was to encourage businesses to be more “social” by posting regular updates to a dedicated Google+ page for the business, interacting with public posts and comments, and participating in “Hangouts” and “Events”  on Google+. Users could follow pages, post comments, “+1” the pages, and interact with the brands on Google+.

April 2013 Google Places Dashboard. Segmentation, white space, clean design--Lots of information lost--Matches Google+ designs.

April 2013 Google Places Dashboard. Segmentation, white space, clean design–Lots of information lost–Matches Google+ designs.
Click for a larger view.

This whole move seems clearly designed to spur more adoption of Google+, and it’s arguable that many businesses did not see a big benefit from the move. Few businesses were able to devote time to figuring out Google’s labyrinthine back end with its myriad of pages, profiles, and requirements – let alone devote time to consistent updates and planning new promotions for the service if they did get all of their profiles established and in synchronized.

Google+ Local’s roll out coincided with Google’s purchase and subsequent integration of Zagat, the famous restaurant ratings company. The purchase was completed in 2011, and in 2012 the 30 point Zagat rating system was integrated into Google+ Local with the service’s debut in May 2o12. This was supposed to be Google+’s triumphant debut and overthrow of the old Places system, where businesses would be empowered to be more social and interactive with potential customers, entering a new era of connectedness and sharing between consumers and businesses.

To facilitate this change, Google would need to implement a unified backend that was easy for business owners to understand and work with, one which connected their personal profiles to their business’s Google+ page, which in turn was connected to the business’s Places data.

However, that’s not what happened. 

Google Places remained very much alive, and in April 2013, nearly a full year since Google+ Local’s debut, it received a visual overhaul to match Google+ design. Ned Poulter, writing at State of Digital, has a great overview of the design changes and some of the integration challenges business owners faced with the new design.

One of the biggest changes that marketers faced was the removal of Custom Categories. As Ned notes, Categories selection is one of the most crucial elements a business must get correct in order to have their business listed in Google’s Local Pack. While Google increased the number of default categories a business could add their listing to, from 5 to 10, they removed the Custom field, which was the real secret to ranking well in Google’s Local Pack and Maps results.

Utilizing the custom Category fields and custom Q&A fields, business owners could provide exact-match search phrases to describe their businesses, and, provided the rest of the profile was complete or nearly complete, rankings for these terms would improve in a couple of days.

Google Places Q&A

Click for a larger view.

If a customer was having problems making it into the Local Pack under the category “General Contractor”, they could simply create a custom category of “Dallas Replacement Windows” and show up in the 7 pack for that phrase within a few days. While this method was spammy, it was effective.

With the disappearance of Custom Fields, many businesses that had been gaming the system this way quickly saw Local rankings plummet. All businesses overall were forced to work hard for rankings the old-fashioned way – by providing accurate NAP information on their Plus pages and websites, completing their profiles, getting as many positive reviews as possible, and building citations to their business’s websites.

The Death of Zagat

Returning to Zagat, what happened to that initiative? After Google’s very public purchase of the company in 2011 and subsequent integration into Google+ Local in the service’s launch in 2012, Zagat seemed to be a key part of Google’s plan to dominate local search and business reviews. However, as I was writing this post, I stopped to think about the last time I actually saw a Zagat review in Google and realized I couldn’t recall. I tried several different search combinations and even went so far as to pull up the official Google Zagat page, which indicates that Zagat ratings apply to restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. Searching for combinations of these phrases, with and without local modifiers, returned no results.

Some further digging revealed some very interesting stories. As much as I deal with local search on a daily basis, I haven’t kept up with all of the changes, and I suspect that a lot of you reading this haven’t either. The simple fact is, I have no restaurant, retail, or nightlife clients, so I’ve never had any personal business experience with the Zagat ratings, and its departure slipped by me unnoticed. If you’re like me, you probably don’t deal with many businesses that would have dealt with the Zagat ratings, either.

So, what happened to Google’s Zagat purchase?

A lot, apparently. Business Insider ran a story in June 2013, about the slow death of Zagat inside Google, coinciding with Marissa Mayer’s departure for Yahoo. It’s a very bleak story of a large company consuming another one, looking for a quick boost in an area of business that it didn’t have the capacity to create on its own. It’s also a fascinating story of alienation within “the world’s best place to work,” internal politics, and a company going in so many directions that spending hundreds of millions of dollars with no true plans for the acquisition is still considered a sound business investment.

Here’s a timeline of the Zagat meltdown:

  1. September 8, 2011Google acquires Zagat. Marissa Mayer is the acquisition’s advocate and champion and appoints her protégé to lead the division.
  2. 3rd Quarter 2011: Marissa Mayer has internal discussions at Google about expanding Zagat’s print business.
  3. January 2012 – March 2012: Google’s leadership does not feel the same as Marissa Mayer and will not approve expanding full-time staff. Marissa Mayer has Google HR hire temporary contractors under “temp-to-hire” verbiage.
  4. May 30, 2012: Zagat ratings integrated with local search in Google+ Local launch. Google Places still retains old dashboard.
  5. June 13, 2012: 2 weeks exactly after the Google+ Local rollout, SERoundtable documents the reviews score change in Google SERPs causing customer confusion and causing loss of business.
  6. July 16, 2012Marissa Mayer leaves Google to become Yahoo’s CEO. This leaves her hand-picked manager, Bernardo Hernandez, in charge of the Zagat team with no higher executive to champion its cause.
  7. August 14, 2012: Google acquires Frommer’s Travel to improve its international ratings and information database. Zagat team invited to their last “all hands” inclusive meeting at Google. Frommer’s full-time employees take over many of the functions of Zagat temp-to-hire staff.
  8. August 2012-December 2012: Bernardo Hernandez is having trouble running the Zagat division. Production goals are missed, then reduced dramatically, then spread across 2012 and 2013.
  9. October 11, 2012: Google moves away from displaying its 30 point Zagat system to reviewers, claims it still uses it behind the scenes to factor user scores. Gizmodo speculates that consumer feedback about it being too confusing is the primary reason behind this step back from the highly-touted system. Search Engine Land comments on the confusion introduced by the Zagat system and notes that Zagat scores were replaced in user reviews by phrases and words that share the same sentiment as the scores. Zagat scores still visible in SERPs.
  10. December 2012: Google sends email notice to Zagat staff that their contracts will not be renewed in 2013
  11. December 2012: Second email goes out, extending contracts until June 2013.
  12. April 2, 2013Google Places dashboard finally updated to match Google Plus.
  13. June 18, 2013Google Local Carousel is launched.
  14. June 25, 2013: Business Insider’s expose on Google’s Zagat division launches, closes with, “The whole division as currently structured seems to be on death watch.”
  15. July 29, 2013Google removes all but 9 cities from Zagat, promises it will expand to “50 over the coming months.” Announcement coincides with relaunch of the Zagat app of Android and iOS, tying into Google’s local+mobile strategy.
  16. July 2013 – September 2013: Sometime in this period, Google ditches Zagat reviews in SERPs, returns to 5-Star ratings.
  17. April 24, 2014: Google removes anonymous Zagat reviews from Google, says that some businesses’ overall scores may be affected by the loss of negative or positive reviews.

…All of Which Brings Us to the Present

So. Now that we’ve covered the events that have lead us to this point, it’s time to finally address Google’s announcement about “My Business” and why it has so many people so excited. It’s a refreshing step in the right direction after years of lofty dreams and outright mismanagement.

On the surface, Google My Business (what a long, obtuse title for people to have to repeat – it’s a very Microsoft-esque move, like “Windows Phone 8 Phone”) appears very similar to Google+ Local in the backend. Other places have covered the initial screens of Google My Business, where business owners can enter updates about their business – including address and phone number changes, adding images, and more.

Google My Business listing of a regional office for a client. Sterile design, not a lot of information on the first page.

Google My Business listing of a regional office for a client. Sterile design, not a lot of information on the first page.
Click for larger view.

What we’re concerned with is the new easy-access dashboard, which provides quick overviews of what would be key metrics for most users of the service, with links to more data-rich screens right from the main page. There are three quick-access sections to the dashboard now: a Google+ Share bar, which allows for posting status updates, images, links, videos, and most intriguingly, events (which come complete with themes of animated .GIF backgrounds); Insights, which contains Views, Actions, and New Followers; and Reviews or YouTube, depending on whether you’re viewing a Plus Local business listing or a Plus business page.

This is important because, until recently, metrics for local business profiles were still separately listed in Google Places, away from the social sharing and engagement that Google was trying to encourage with Google+ Local. Last year, Google rolled out a new dashboard that provided many of the data sets we see on the new Google My Business home page for your business’s Google+ listing. Places and Plus were still two separate services, so business users who wanted to update their local business information for placement in Maps and the Local Pack had to do so from a separate screen than the screen that contained engagement insights for their Google+ business page.

Confused? So were a lot of people

Business owners and Internet marketers alike. That confusion over naming schemes, sun-setting of services, and different disconnected dashboards and widgets, is what led to the creation of Google My Business.

Summing up the new service launch, Google My Business looks like it provides less data than was available in previous local business products. But, it goes a long way toward clearing up the confusion created by Google’s splintered local+social strategy of the past 2 years, bringing easily-digestible information to business owners and agencies – all under one roof.

With the loss of keyword data, custom fields and tags, Coupons and Offers, and custom Q&A fields in the business listings, we actually now have far fewer data and optimization opportunities than we have had in the recent past in Google’s local business offerings. I applaud Google’s move to a single central dashboard to manage both local business data and the social pages for businesses. However, I feel the need to break off from my SEM peers who are heaping praise on Google for the move and point out that, in their evolution of the service, we’re actually getting the short end of the deal by losing access to key information in exchange for more white space in the back end.

TL;DR Summary

Google My Business is a minor evolutionary step on Google’s long and convoluted path of local business products, displaying essentially the same exact information, in nearly the same way, as its previous Google+ Local dashboard. Its real benefits are: #1 requiring one less URL to memorize or link to follow to get to the Google Places information for local business listings and #2 the release of new mobile apps for iOS and Android.

I may be the minority, but I’d prefer the older, “uglier” Google Places dashboard, rife with information and control, to this smoother, emptier design that places far too much importance on the social side, which most businesses have neither the time nor concern to deal with.