Do Google Places Listings Really Matter?

I’ve noticed, for many cases, if you have great organic rankings for your local terms having the additional visuals of a map marker, logo image, and address/phone info, plus maybe star ratings, review snippets and review counts, from a Google Places listing, does not matter at all.

I have a certain LONG term client (5 years) and have seen all the various iterations of Google Maps and Places mixed into the search results. From 10-packs to 7-packs and today’s blended local organic listings. This client has enjoyed #1 organic rankings for their primary local terms through most of that time (maybe the odd short term dip to #2). But here’s the kicker – they are located just outside the city limits. This tends to restrict a number of things as far as Google Places listings and rankings go.

Here are the various changes to Google results they’ve witnessed over the past 5 years;

  • Before Google started showing map listings in the SERPS, they were #1 organic.
  • When the 10-pack local listings rolled out they were #1 organic but below the 10-pack and map.
  • For a while (most of 2009 and early part of 2010) we were able to trick Google into thinking they were in the city and they showed #A in the 7-pack and again #1 organic below the map.
  • Later Google caught on to our trick and they got kicked out of 7-pack but still showed at #1 organic below the map.
  • New blended local organic results now has them at #1 above any of the local listings that get the bonus map markers and such.

What do you think we saw for changes in traffic to the website and changes in lead volumes (we track email leads as goal conversions in Analytics) through each of those significant changes?

Answer = none.

By none I mean nothing that could by any means be attributed to places listings vs. no places listings. What we did see was year over year growth in traffic and leads (look at the peaks in the image below – this is a very seasonal business). We attribute that to the growth of the internet and search in general as a source to find local businesses.

Search Traffic (filtered for local city name) and Email Lead Conversions - 2007 to 2011.

Traffic (filtered for local city name) and Email Lead Conversions - 2007 to 2011. Yellow bars are main season for this business. Click to view full size.

You would think that there should have been a noticeable difference between being in the 7 pack noticeably above the organic results and being only in the organic listings below the map. But it simply is not the case.

Now the peak for 2010 was not much different than 2009. Could that peak have been higher if the business was located in the city limits, or we managed to still convince Google it was, and we continued to show up in the local 7-pack? To check against that I checked their primary local term in Google Insights for historical traffic trends. You’ll see 2009 and 2010 at about the same levels there as well.

Total available traffic for primary local search term as shown by Google Insights

Total available traffic for primary local search term as shown by Google Insights

One Small Difference

Primary Service Term with No Location Qualifier

If you search certain broad terms like dentist, pizza, plumber, etc.., Google recognizes it as the type of query that may have local intent and will mix in map results with the broad organic results. Without a true local presence in the city we now miss out on that traffic. But it is small, puny even.

For the year + we had the spoofed (sort of) local presence and high map rankings, the volume of traffic from the singular terms was about 1/10th of those that included that word plus the city name before or after. Plus there is the other iterations that use city names with state or province abbreviations as well as those that use ‘in’ city-name, ‘near’ city name, etc… Combine all the other search terms for their various related services, with a city name in the phrase, and the singular broad terms amount to close to 1/100th of their local traffic.

Another thing about the insignificance of the single word terms, conversion rates (email leads) were a mere fraction as well. Terms that included the city name convert at 8% to 15%. Single word searches on their 2 primary service type variations, converted at 0.39% and 0.64% respectively.

Goodbye single phrase terms with pseudo-local intent – we don’t really miss you.

Hold On, Not So Fast!

I have other clients ranking well organically for areas they don’t get local map listings – they pretty much see the same thing. But for some industries the pull of the map is a little bit more noticeable.

People have slightly different intents when searching certain local businesses. Those industries where need tends to be urgent – “I need it now and I don’t care who it is, just get it done, NOW” – see a slightly different trend.

I’ve worked with a number of plumbers in various cities and they all tell me the same thing. Searchers are looking for phone numbers and simply start “dialing for dollars”. They have a leaky pipe that’s about to ruin their flooring and they want a fix now. First plumber to answer the phone gets the business, not the guy who can’t answer his cell while elbow deep into a toilet. They can’t even be bothered to leave a message on voice mail. Instead they hang up and call the next plumber on the list.

Google Maps/Places listings show phone numbers quite prominently, so in those urgent cases the Places listing in the search results matters more. But that can be overcome with good organic rankings too. Simply include a phone number in your title tags, and/or meta description tags.

Reviews Can Matter, Sometimes

Blended local search results are sometimes displaying snippets of reviews right there on page one. They can have an impact, in extreme cases. By extreme I mean a glaringly negative review showing as the review snippet. Right there, page 1.

From the perspective of what a user see’s in the search results, things like positive review snippets, review counts, rating stars, etc.. have little impact on click through’s to the website and phone calls. It primarily comes down to rankings. But one bad review, for all to see, can have a dramatic impact – but not on traffic to the site. It impacts lead volumes – both phone calls and emails.

A client in New York City had that dilemma with a false negative review being pulled from Yelp. The bad review showed on page one of Google search for close to two months and during that period lead volume dropped by 75% (phone calls saw a bigger impact than email) but no discernible change in total traffic to the website.

The impact from one bad review showing in Google Search results

The impact from one bad review showing in Google Search results

Seems that rankings still pulled the clicks as they usually do but people chose not to contact them. Obviously because of the review they saw in the search results. Based on the content of that review we could tell it was either an intentional fake from a competitor or a mistake on the reviewers part mixing them up with some other business.

We posted a business owner response to that review, similar to what this dentist did, and a couple weeks later Yelp ended up placing the bad one as a filtered review and Google then scrapped a different one to show as a snippet. Lead volumes are shooting back up to normal levels. Needless to say, my client is breathing a sigh of relief.

In general terms, organic rankings trumps all and the extra fluff of review snippets, star ratings, review counts are just that -fluff (unless it’s glaringly negative). I wonder then, at the mass user level, what they actually think of those extras.

  • Is it merely a little side bonus that might, for some users in some cases, maybe, maybe, maybe influence a decision?
  • Is there a lack of trust for user reviews that are easy to fake and have little to no quality control?
  • Do they ultimately put more trust in the ranking algorithm, regardless of stars and reviews?

15 Comments on “Do Google Places Listings Really Matter?”

earlpearl on April 2nd, 2011 wrote:

Stever:

Excellent real data/ real info article. Sometimes some things work, sometimes they don’t. Some things matter mucho…some things don’t. Very insightful article!!!

Stever on April 2nd, 2011 wrote:

Thanks for stopping by Dave.

Now I need to qualify a few things based on some comments in Twitter. Some are asking about phone call volumes.

Most of my clients I don’t work strictly on rankings. I do a fair bit of conversion optimization – on the website. Also many of my clients are businesses where a decision to contact requires viewing a website. They want to see photos of previous work – landscapers, painters. Or the facilities – Bed and Breakfasts, Guest Lodges. Or get a sense for professional credibility – Therapists and Counselors. So the website is the driver – not a phone number in the SERPS.

But the plumbers, and other businesses where seeing a website or not does not matter – they do see increases in call volumes because of Places listings on page 1. But I have some plumbers targeting multiple nearby cities and towns, without extra places listings, and using phone numbers in title tags/ meta description tags. One using tracking numbers for each town. As a landing page optimized for that city ranks high organically the phone calls start coming in for that city.

earlpearl on April 2nd, 2011 wrote:

Stever: Some small insights and experience suggest different smb types have some very different results. Differentiating between plumbers who must be available for an emergency call versus checking out a hotel/inn for pictures versus landscape work for pictures begin to point out deep insights that get at how and why people convert. Those are great.

I’m going to do some research w/ some #’s about some smbs that do really well with a subject subtitle from your article:

PRIMARY SERVICE TERM WITH NO GEO QUALIFIER

I’ve got some smbs that do very well w/ them. Lots of volume of traffic. Consistently high conversion rates…tho over the long term…a little lower than key longer tail phrases w/ the geo term. But a key is that the volume for the PRIMARY SERVICE TERM is high.

Without a lot of deep interaction and insights yet…I’d simply suggest different industry types have different types of search and conversion phenomena.

Way to go Stever. This is definitely a pot stirrer!!! :D

Earlpearl on April 2nd, 2011 wrote:

Did a quick check on a client with regard to the section of your article dealing with:

ONE SMALL DIFFERENCE:
Primary Service Term with no location qualifier

Stever: Looked deep into one smb. Results were dramatically different. I’m pretty sure the results for that one are fairly representative of several others…though possibly a little more skewed toward the total opposite of your findings:

I don’t debate your findings…I just suggest there might be very different results for different types of businesses/services and different regions:

For an smb we found the following:

For a period of abt 1 year:

Somewhat over 16,000 searches from about 3,000 terms:

Just under 5,000 of those searches represented just 4 phrases; each being a variation of a PRIMARY SERVICE TERM without a location qualifier (or a geo modifier). Analytics found about a 9% conversion rate based on form contacts.

Then I looked at the top ten volume phrases with a location qualifier (geo modifier). Slightly more than 5,000 searches. Again a conversion rate of about 9%.

Overall conversion rate on the 16,000+ searches somewhat over 8%.

The difference is in the importance of the Primary Service Term without a geo modifier.

In this case…very important.

I suspect we could find examples of both situations. I wonder if we might be able to characterize where one situation is dominant or not.

Maybe it just takes studying the history over a long period of time.

Yam Regev (PureSheer) on April 3rd, 2011 wrote:

Some bullet points:

1. Each city page in your web site should have a different phone #- Best for tracking.
- i know that it’s much profitable to be ranked 1st at the 3rd or 4th biggest city in a metro. your keyboard per minute’s CTR (:-)) is MUCH MUCH higher.

2. Another super useful tool for improving your conversions- Ask your clients to make you a weekly reports for what their clients are (actually) asking them by phone. learn your KWs & understand your market from within. If possible- have 20 calls records from each of your clients on a weekly basis (as well).

Dan Walsh on April 4th, 2011 wrote:

Awesome research and article, thank you… Great insight on the different conversion rates between searches with geo modifiers and those without.

Have you had a chance to look at the weight of mobile search in your clients campaigns? Since that is usually happening right from within mobile apps (like Yelp or the Google places app), the local listing is really necessary to compete in that space. Mobile may also be where the reviews really make the most difference.

Earlpearl on April 4th, 2011 wrote:

Yam: That is a great insight about phones. It works. I’ve been on the phones for some different industry types we operate.

It supplements, augments and gives extra insights into two things that can be exploited with website content and in PPC:

1. The actual language searchers use:

your website might miss it; the keyword tools might be deceptive, mis structured etc. when giving you keywords.

2. Actual buyer intent and motivation:

Why do they call? Do they want better service, faster service, cheaper prices, the most creative provider?

If you find themes for intent you can add content that gets to these critical issues.

The simple fact is on a couple of sites for several businesses we cover intent and language that competitors don’t. Also we use certain phrases in PPC that the engines don’t suggest nor provided by the PPC third party specialists.

We find that they provide EXTRA help. We pick up traffic that others don’t.

Various SEO’s for general optimizing apply this idea of noting what customers say. They do it in various styles and methods with the object being to capture how people speak, search, and how they think about the topic….in order to create ways in content or ppc to capture more potential customers.

Stever on April 4th, 2011 wrote:

OK, ok. I did some deeper digging and comparing across clients in various industries and cities. It really is different everywhere. Location, Demographics and industry make search behaviors different.

In particular, the non-geo terms. Traffic volumes and conversion rates vary widely from location to location within the same industry.

Where I reported above that non-geo terms were 1/100th less traffic than geo-terms and converted at less than 1%, another client in the same industry but different city had volume at 1/10th (10 times better) and conversion rates at a respectable 4%.

And PureSheer’s tweets about mobile PPC click thru rates far higher in Canada and the UK than in the USA are very interesting as well.

Average Incomes, Median ages, average education levels, internet penetration rates, mobile penetration rates, percentage of mobile that’s smartphones vs cell phones, vary from city to city and these play a significant role in how users search in one city compared to the next.

Earlpearl on April 4th, 2011 wrote:

Steve:

One thing you referenced was that while the client with continuous high rankings has always seen great traffic regardless of maps….

You noted that at 1 pt the client was organic #1 but below the 7/10 pac….and then later organic #1 and above the 7/10 pac. I got the impression from the article that didn’t make a difference.

My experience has been that when below either a 7/10 or mixed listings it is FAR FAR WORSE than when above the 7/10 pac or blended rankings.

Give me that #1 position above everything else. Give it to me w/ organic or give it to me w/ blended rankings…and above everything else.

If I’m #1 organically but below 7/10 pac or blended rankings I see traffic diminish and by a lot!!!

Stever on April 4th, 2011 wrote:

For that client it did not seem to matter at all. Even at that point when they totally lost their map presence in the city, going from #1 in the map plus #1 organic below the map to no map presence at all (page7) and just #1 organic below the map.

That happened through the peak season in 2010, yet traffic did not decline in any perceivable way and the leads kept rolling in at expected rates.

Now, at the time of that change there was a full re-mix of map results for that city. They and a couple other operators at fringes of city limits got kicked out to be replaced by some professional engineering firms in a vaguely related field, but had offices in the downtown core.

It could be that the suddenly poorer map results just forced more users to rely on organic. But a few of their true direct competitors still showed in the map.

Now they are in a certain home improvement/construction related field. One where people typically spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. People probably want to look at a website, look at photos, etc… before contacting anyone. Also, the various operators in that industry tend to specialize or focus on certain aspects of it and maybe don’t touch other parts. Phone numbers, locations, and place pages mean little when the truly pertinent info exists on a comprehensive website.

Johnny on April 5th, 2011 wrote:

Is it possible that your client’s results, over the years were due to the business they were in? Is it possible that there are some businesses; Google Places has no effect on?

I am still a newbie to SEO, so are you saying that we should steer clients away from Google Places and profiles from others such as Yahoo Local, etc.; instead have them focus more on improving there organic results?

Thanks.

Stever on April 5th, 2011 wrote:

@Johnny,

I do think it is largely specific to certain types of businesses – read my comments above.

And No, I’m not saying steer clear of Google Places. But organic is extremely important, especially now with the blended local results. And in circumstances where a Places listing is not possible organic can still overcome much of that.

I think of organic as the long term base or foundation. Local specific doodads will continue to be in flux as local search matures and the search engines close in on what works best for users. Expect the experimentation by Google to continue for some time. Focusing too much effort on map stuff leaves you vulnerable to significant algorithm changes related specifically to local.

Yam Regev on April 5th, 2011 wrote:

@Stever

You’re sooo right. type of industry & Local campaigns’ super dinamic character have a massive impact on the activity of your SEO (PPC & Local) campaigns.

Another case study:
one of my Locksmiths guys in Southern California was 1st in the 7 pack in the main city he serve for over a year & ranked 1st organically (below the 7 pack). in the moment the listing vanished calls dropped by 70%. After we pushed back the listing to (3 months of hard work) the 7 pack, position E, calls increase by 30% & now when we are back to 1st in the Map, calls got back to the golden age volume. Organic position wasn’t changed.

In the mean while we prepared the listing for it show, we’ve masseused it & did good job on it appearance so we even get a bit more calls then the last time it was located there. we’ve even renovated the site’s design.

The increase is surprising but not that much. all in all in this level of emergency services, people tend to call directly from the # they see beside the listing (/ on the PPC ad/ organic result’s meta title).

NICE!

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