I remember the first time I explained the importance of Google Local. It was a post-sell conversation with a catering client who had charged me with the responsibility of getting more traffic to their site.

At the time, Google wasn’t serving Maps listings in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). In fact, it was a little cumbersome just to get to the maps page when compared to today’s availability. I wish I could say I had some sort of expert forethought in the matter, but I just thought it was a good idea to cover all the local directories to help with organic results.

Note: There is little to no proof that Google Places listings have any impact on your organic results. Even today. Yes, they show up in search engine results pages, but that’s pretty much it.

Today, I don’t even have to explain the need for a Google Places (formerly Google Local) listing. In fact, when on a pre-sell call with a potential client, it is they who bring it up. And it’s obvious why.

If you search for almost anything in Google that can return a local result, you will see a list of Local Business Results, most often above organic listings.

SERP with Maps listings showing

Even further, with the advent of personalized search in Google, you don’t even have to include a city/region in your search query anymore.

So you can see that having a Google Places listing is important.

Before We Get Started

We will go over how to get the listing, how to optimize it and how to get it to show up in listing results. But first, we need to get 2 things out of the way.

Know The Rules of the Game

Say what you will about Google; they have a decent set of rules in place to help them return quality results. As such, you should take a look at their Google Places guidelines. Read them. Know them. Follow them.

In regard to these rules, there is often a debate as to their clarity. I’ll try to cover some of the confusion in this guide and show you how to ensure you aren’t breaking any of the guidelines.

Know Your Business

Before we can even start the business listing claim process, we need to ensure that we have all the information gathered. What you will need:

The official business name – This is the exact name of the business. Try to stay away from unofficial acronyms or shortened names.

Physical Address – PO Boxes don’t work. And you will need this later when we get your listing to rank.

Phone Number – Gather all the phone numbers you need. Toll and fax included.

Email address – You will need an email address to list in your Google Places listing. Keep in mind that people may use this to contact you.

Website Address – You don’t need a website to have a Google Places listing, but it will help a lot when we start looking at ranking the listing. Plus, you really need a website.

Business Category – We will go over the details later, but start thinking about the categories that might define your business.

Gather Images – Take pictures of your business and any items that might apply to the definition of your products/services. For example, if you own a bakery, a few shots of cupcakes wouldn’t hurt.

Gather Videos – If you have them, get them together. Instructional videos are best, but information/commercial videos will do fine.

Gather Additional Details – Aside from categories, you can also list details that apply to your business. Do you carry certain brands of products? How about specific services provided? Start thinking about these.

Locations - All of the above points apply for each location you have. This isn’t too big of a deal if you only have a few listings around town; it gets interesting if you have hundreds across the nation.

Getting Listed

This part of the guide is going to start to get detailed. We need to go over the listing creation process, but we also need to look at the aspects of Google as a whole, Google Places and common online issues that have an impact on your listing. We’re about to get into this, so grab a snack and let’s get started.

Now that we have all of your business information gathered, let’s get that listing. There is a very short and simple process, so you barely have to commit 20 minutes to the whole thing. There are 3 parts to the Google Places listing; creating/claiming your listing, data input and the verification.

Some Back Story
To better understand Google Places, its purpose and its faults we need to understand more about its customers; the small business. According to the SBA:

Census data show that there were 6.0 million firms with employees in 2006 and 21.7 million without employees in 2007 (the latest available data). Small firms with fewer than 500 employees represent 99.9 percent of the 29.6 million businesses (including both employers and nonemployers), as the most recent data show there were about 18,000 large businesses in 2006.

There are literally millions of businesses with fewer than 500 employees. A great deal of those are going to be services and products offered to a local area (ie. not a national brand). Understandably, Google decided to create a place (minor pun intended) that searchers come to in order to find businesses in their area to satisfy their needs. But Google has a problem. There are certainly a lot of businesses, a good number of which won’t have a website (crazy, I know). Getting all this data together and returning it to a searcher is going to be no simple task, even to the “Big G.”

In an attempt to gather as much data as possible, Google couldn’t rely solely on businesses to input their business information; they have to do what they do best. They crawl, sort and return information on the Internet. But they can’t rely on website crawling for this type of information gathering. They have to crawl business listings. This is where our trouble begins.

Google crawls many online directories and ‘yellow page’ type sites to get as many listings as they can. At first, sorting this stuff wasn’t a priority (at least it certainly didn’t appear so). So, it wasn’t uncommon to find listings in Google Places (“Google Local” until recently) with incorrect or conflicting information. In fact, you could often find many listings for the same business.

Think of all the times a business might move over its lifetime, or change a phone number, or change a name, or any other change in definition. Some directories would have some information for a business, others would have different information. Then a business owner could claim a completely different set of information all for the same business. This created a messy space indeed, and Google likes things to be tidy and neat.

So, Google attempted (and continues ) to gather this data and merge it as efficiently as a machine could. Though the number of duplicate business listings has decreased, we have single business listings with data merged from 2 different businesses. Silly computers.

Why is this so important? These business listings get a lot of traffic, and not all of it goes to a website. Some people call the number or drive to the address they see on the screen. Sure would be nice if that information was correct, yes? Yeah.

Claiming Your Listing

We are about to tell Google that you own your business (or are authorized to take control of the Google Places listing as per your company’s guidelines). You have a few options on this front, so it’s important to read this whole part before you continue claiming your listing yourself. I’ll go over the different options, and show you a side effect of the issues we just discussed.

Adding a Listing

Go to google.com/places. Once there, you can login to your existing Google account, or you can create a new one if don’t have one yet. If you log in for the first time, you will be met with a page with 2 large buttons: “Add a new business” and “Upload a data file.” At the time of this guide’s creation, this is the screen:

Google Places Login Screen

We will be using the “Add new business” button for now. If you have more than 10 locations, you may want to use the data file upload option, but hold off until we get to that part. That’s a different process all together. I do suggest that even if you plan to upload a data file that you read the rest of this section.

The next screen will allow you to provide some initial information about your business. Fill it out to the best of your ability and hit next.

Now, you’ll likely be presented with the following screen:

Google Places Selection

This shows other listings that are similar to yours. Often times, it’s actually your business. You can opt to claim a listing already in Google Places/Maps, or you can submit a new listing. If your business is already listed, grab that one.

You have another option for claiming a listing in Google Places.

Claim an Existing Listing

You can also go straight to maps.google.com and search for your business. It’s pretty common that you are already listed, so you should see your business. If you see your listing, click on “more info” and you’ll get a listing page. Here, you may claim your listing. Or, you’ll see that someone already has. Check out the following screenshots, then I’ll explain that last statement.

Google Maps Listing

Google Maps / Places Pages

As you can see, Pizza Hut has already claimed this listing. They probably did, but what if you see the same thing for your business? It means that someone already claimed it. This happens sometimes due to a mix-up in inter-office communication. But sometimes, it is the result of malicious intent.

For example. Let’s say you have a hotel. One could (if one were so inclined) claim your business listing, and place a website address of their choosing on it. This would gain revenue for them, and not you. Not fair? Darn tootin’ it’s not fair. But it happens.

This is called “hijacking” and it happens a lot more than you might think. So what do you do? You take it back, that’s what. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the first step. We will talk about business listing recovery in just a few more chapters.

If your business hasn’t been hijacked, then you can click the link in that upper right corner and continue along our regular path.

Input Your Business Details

Remember all that information we gathered on your business just a few short paragraphs ago? Well now is your time to use it.  You want to give Google as much information about your business as you can. Be precise, be informative and above all, be careful.

This is where you can really optimize your business listing. You can add categories that help define what your business does, products you offer or services you provide. When you begin to type in the categories, Google will help you with a few options available. You can use these, or you can make custom categories. Remember the guidelines though, and don’t use the categories as a means to trick Google. It won’t help you very much.

If you offer certain products, list them; but don’t include irrelevant information like the city over and over or keywords that you want to rank for. In the end, keep this question in your mind.

Is this what I would tell a customer, or is this something I would list in an attempt to rank in Google?

If the answer is the first, you are probably going to be okay.

Verifying Your Listing

Once you given all your information to Google, it’s time to finally prove that you are the owner. Google will give you a couple of options here. You can opt to have Google call you, send you a postcard or send you a text message.

Before we go further, I want to pose something of interest to you. For the purpose of this guide, we want to optimize our listing with extreme attention to detail. Nothing is spared. So when you go to verify your listing, consider how the following options look to Google. And think of the problems of hijacking, and how Google likes to solve problems (algorithmically and in a blanket nature).

One could (this “One” guy is a jerk) simply setup a toll free number, have it forward to a number of their choosing and claim your business’ listing. This is the most common problem associated with hijacking. One could also just as easily have a text message sent. But, One would have problems getting into your mailbox. One wouldn’t be concerned with the police at that point as the FBI becomes involved (tampering with mail is a federal offense); and frankly, a few dollars isn’t much when compared to felony charges.

So, have the postcard sent. It only takes a couple weeks to arrive, and it really hammers home the fact that you are authorized to provide information to Google.

Be on the lookout. The postcard from Google looks like junk mail and many people throw it away. Once you receive it, you will be provided a PIN. Log in to Google Places again, insert that PIN where needed and BAM! all done. Okay we aren’t done, but now you have claimed your listing and the optimization/promotion of your listing can begin.

Bulk Uploads

Let’s say you have multiple locations for your business. Inputting all that information for each one may be a little unreasonable for places like Pizza Hut or Burger King. What’s a business owner to do? Upload a bulk sheet, that’s what.

Google has a decent enough guide to creating and uploading the bulk sheet here so we won’t go over that part. Once that’s done, you would then log in to your Places account and hit the edit button to manage the details of your listing.

The big difference with the bulk feed upload is the verification process. There isn’t one. They do go through a review (though details on that process are a little fuzzy). There is another issue that often arises with these bulk feed though, and it relates to the listing going active at all.

Because they don’t go through a verification process similar to individual listing additions, it can take quite a while for the listings to go live. Google states that it can take up to 4 weeks to see your listings in Google Places/Maps. You do have the option of requesting verification of your upload, but that’s been hit or miss for us. Just part of the growing pains.

I do want to share a few interesting experiences I’ve had with the bulk feed upload from the point of both an Internet marketing service provider, and a small business owner with multiple listings.

For quite some time we used a handful of accounts for all of our Google Local listings for our clients. This allowed us to manage many listings with only a few logins, an obvious means of managing multiple accounts on a corporate level. However, we had several issues with account suspensions due to Google’s attempt to prevent hijacking algorithmically.

We weren’t spamming the listings. We weren’t sending hits to any third-party websites. So why were our accounts getting suspended?

On the other hand, we had several opportunities to manage accounts that only held the local listings for a small business owner with a few locations across several states. One was a deli that had 17 locations at the time, and the other was a full service restaurant.

Normally we would have suggested individual listing claims with such small number of locations, but the companies that owned each of these businesses were constantly selling, moving, dropping and buying locations. One even franchised out and bulk feeds became something of a necessity. We had a very different experience with these 2 accounts though. Not only were they never suspended, they excelled beyond most of our expectations. So what was the difference?

With a little detective work and some detail digging from the Google Maps team (not an easy team to get information from, by the way. You can’t even talk to them, you have to pull information like teeth via other reps.) we figured it out.

Imagine you are the owner of Pizza Hut (not our client). You have literally thousands of locations across the nation. Bulk feeds are really your only option. So you have your marketing department get those taken care of. Now, imagine you aren’t the owner of Pizza Hut, but a franchisee for 20 locations. You want to rank in Google Places so you hire an SEO firm (still not our client, but we had clients with similar situations).

So you upload a bulk feed. Then, a week later Pizza Hut uploads their new bulk feed with additional locations of theirs; with your locations still in their list. Now they’ve claimed the listing. Later, you drop a store and add 2 more, so you upload your bulk feed, re-claiming your listings. Then Pizza Hut uploads theirs. See the issue?

Imagine what Google sees. An authoritative, well-known company claiming listings, and then someone else attempting to claim the same listings. This dance can only go on for so long before Google steps in.

Our successful clients were those that actually owned the business as a whole, and the culprits resulting in account suspensions were those that were franchise owners. With millions of listings involved, Google can’t review all of them by hand, so they get the algorithm slap.

Needless to say, we create individual accounts for every business now and have been for quite some time.

Now that we’ve discussed attaining your listing in Google Places, let’s talk about rankings.

Ranking in Google Places

If local traffic is what your business needs, Google Places needs to be your number 1 priority until you own top rankings. In fact, we have some clients for which Google Places is the basis of the whole campaign. We can say with no uncertainty that not only does Google Places drive great amounts of traffic to a website, the visitors from Google Places usually convert at a much higher rate; sometimes as high as 75% better than natural visitors.

So, you don’t want higher rankings in Google Places, you need them.

3 Determining Factors

Setting aside many of the small parts, there are 3 major determining factors in your Google Places rankings.

  • Comprehensive details about your business as provided by you via your listing submission
  • Reviews about your business on other websites
  • The location of your business as it relates to the cite center.

As stated, there are actually a few more factors, but these are the big ones. Let’s get started on these points to optimize your listing.

Detailed Information

Google loves data. Heck, they built a billion dollar business on compiling, sorting and retrieving data. They want it all, and the more data you give to them, the happier they are. It is for this reason that your listing submission needs to be as comprehensive as possible. We’ve run several tests in which the variable was the amount of information we provided to Google Local. All things being equal, we could see immediate, positive results from simply filling out every possible field in our listings.

This isn’t very difficult really. Nobody knows more about your business than you do. Give them all the information you can. Remember to be concise and relevant though. Don’t be “spammy,” just provide them with real information about your business.

City Center Proximity

Your businesses distance from the city center also has an impact on your rankings in Google Places. When people search for something with a city or region included, Google will attempt to find the center of that location, and branch outwards showing the results of your search as they do so. If you live in a small city, this isn’t too big of a deal. If you live on the very edge of a large region, this can make or break your listing.

This factor has actually seemed to have become a lower priority, but not by much if any. In any event, you need to find a way to overcome this obstacle if it is one. You can move your business, but that’s not the most advisable simply to capitalize on Google Places rankings. If you know you are moving in the future, keep this in mind though.

You can’t use PO Boxes (at least that’s what Google says) so that is somewhat out of the question. If you simply can’t control this factor, it becomes even more important to turn your attention to the rest of them.

Reviews of Your Business

Good or bad, Google wants to know as much about your business as it can. It is for this reason that reviews play a role in the ranking of the listing. Whatever your industry may be, there are sites out there that allow users to leave a review on your business. These sites usually list your company name and pertinent data (address, phone number, website, etc.). Google uses this to correlate information (we will talk about this in just a bit) and pull those reviews into their Maps listings.

It’s a good idea to start thinking of ways to get people to leave reviews of your business on other websites. If you have a hotel, Tripadvisor.com is your main source, along with other review sites. If you own a restaurant, Yelp is your target. Again, there are websites out there for almost every type of business. When all else fails, sites like superpages.com and citysearch.com have relevant categories in which to place your business, allowing others to rate/review your products or services.

Remember though, that we are trying to accommodate Google, not trick them. Don’t go out to review sites and make up fake reviews. Similarly, it’s best not to offer compensation of any sort for positive reviews. Just tell your customers that your would really appreciate their thoughts on your service if they wouldn’t mind taking the time to let the world know.

Most times, you don’t even have to do much more than put yourself out there to gain reviews. We’ve actually seen foursquare.com information listed in Google Places reviews. Simply setting up your profile may be all it takes though I suggest taking more of an interest in this arena.

If you think about it, even bad reviews are okay as long as they aren’t the majority. Why? Because a big part of your reputation management campaign (you have one, right) is to properly respond to said reviews. And on most sites that will count as another review. In one motion you just addressed a problem, and added a review on your business. BAM!

Those are the big three factors, but there’s a lot more. And the more in-depth you get, the better your rankings in Google Places.

Google Places/Maps Performance

Once you’ve gotten your listing verified and setup, you have access to the internal analytics wich will show you the performance of your listing. Simply login to your dashboard and you will see a snapshot of performance to the right:

Google Places Performance

Also, you may click on the listing name (not the ‘edit’ link, but the actual name on the left side) to see more detailed information. This page will also show you the progress of your listings completion. The following image is what you will see:

Google Places Performance Details

Further Promotion for Google Places

Sometimes, everything we’ve discussed up to now is enough. If you live in a smaller city or your competition isn’t very high, then you will see your Places listing rank well without any more effort. I would advise that you keep watch regularly though, to ensure you don’t lose that placement.

But if competition is stiff, and you live in a large, populated area, you need to give more attention to the matter of your local SEO. Pizza Hut aside, imagine being a small pizza parlor in New York. Heck, check it out right now in Google Maps. This is what you will find:

New York Pizza in Google Maps

Let’s look at a few strategies we use on a regular basis for situations like this.

Data Consistency

Remember when we discussed Google’s ability to crawl other websites to gain information about your business? Well this is where it really comes into play. We need to get as much of your business information out there as possible, and it has to be consistent.

Website Information

We start with your website. After all, this is a direct link from your Places listing.

Your address should be on every page of your site, along with your business name and phone number. This should be the same information as you provided to Google to show consistency. It’s also important that this information isn’t provided on your site via an image. We see quite a few phone numbers on business websites listed this way. Google can’t read images with that sort of accuracy…yet.

In cases where you have only one website with multiple locations, try to give each location its own page on the site. This way you can list the address and contact information without confusing Google. You would also want to link each of the Places listings you created to the individual pages.

Even further, we want to be as consistent as we can possibly be. Think about your address on your site. Did you use the word “street” or the abbreviated “st.”? What did you provide to Google? How about your phone number? Is it listed like: 555-555-5555 or 555.555.5555 or (505) 555-5555? Google generally ignores such punctuation, but we are going after every little piece of the puzzle we can. Nothing is spared.

Take a look at your description tag too. We often like to provide the phone number there to allow for click to calls (usually phone browsing, but that feature is expanding in use).

Is your company name spelled out fully on your site, or did you leave a word out?

Also, take a look at the registrar information for your site. You can do that here. Did you register your domain name under your business name? Did you provide the same address and contact information as you do on your site and Google Places?

What we are saying is that you need to be as consistent as you possibly can. (I’ve used that phrase/idea several times throughout this guide, and will continue to do so. This is the focus of our mindset as we optimize and promote local businesses).

Directories

We need to accommodate Google’s information gathering by ensuring that the information listed on various local directories is consistent with our Google Places listing. First, we submit to the directory “feeders,” the sites that feed to other directories. Then, we submit to general local directories. Then we submit to industry specific directories. Then we ensure that applicable review sites have our information. We do all this keeping in mind the way we presented our information to Google Places and how it is listed on our site.

Many people will tell you to submit only to directories that allow you to put a link to your site in the listing. This isn’t what we are going for here. Sure, a link to your site is nice, but we are trying to show as much correlation between our business name and local information as possible. In point of fact, Google only needs to see that the business is in close proximity to your address/phone number to find a connection. So get a listing where you can.

There are a lot of directories out there, but here is a small list to get you started. If you need more, simply go to Google and search for “<industry> directory.”

Feeder Directories
infousa.com
iBegin.com
Localeze.com

Local Directories
Yellopages.com
CitySearch.com
Local.com
SuperMedia.com
TrueLocal.com
ZoomInfo.com
YP.com

Local Links

Generally speaking, your SEO strategy should include link-building beyond directory submissions. Actually, the directory submissions should fall last in your strategy, but not in the case of Google Places rankings. However, it’s still a good idea to build a little link equity by garnering links from other local sites. Surely, there are plenty of relevant organization or complimentary businesses that would be willing to link to your site. Be careful though, as a lot of people are going to want a link back. Though not against reciprocal links entirely (they have their place) we have a very conservative view of them. The number of links pointing to your site, that also receive a link from you should barely be noticeable in your portfolio.

Microformatting

We talked about the presentation of your business information on your website, but you can actually get a little more detailed than simply putting it up there. We are talking about microformats. This is a set of declarations you can implement via HTML on your site to identify your business information.

You can read more about microformats at microformats.org.

The most common of microformats is the hCard. This is simply a few classes and ids that help to define your address and contact information. We know that Yahoo! has used these values a few different ways, and there are a ton of other websites and applications that use hCard to catalog information on businesses/people. We know that Google is using this forPeople and Reviews.

We also know for a fact that Google is making use of other microformats like hCalendarand hRecipe, so if those are an option for you, then you need to jump on it.

There’s More

There’s always more. This guide is primarily about getting your Maps listing to perform in the SERPs, but I did want to mention a few ways you can use Google Places to promote your business further.

For example, you can send updates via your places listing; including special events, offers, etc.

Google Places Updates

You can also display your business’ QR code on your site or in your email signature via the code they give you.

Continued Education

Local search is huge. I mean really huge. Beyond Google Places, it’s a good idea to stay up-to-date on the happenings of the local SEO and Internet marketing. The following are a few of the sites that provide some of the best information and insight to this world. If it has to do with Google Maps/Local/Places or Local search in general, one or all of these guys know about it.

Andrew Shotland was the head of product business and development for Insider Pages. They were later bought by CitySearch. Wanna take a guess at the amount of local search knowledge this guy has? Well it’s a lot. Now, Andrew consults for clients and produces one hell of a blog on local search optimization.

Understanding Google Maps and Local Search – Mike Blumenthal is something of the Google Maps/Local/Places expert. I don’t know what else to say, as that alone encompasses so much.

Stephen Espinosa – Another local search professional. His blog hasn’t been updated in a while, and it seems to have gone through changes, but this guy knows his stuff. In fact, it was he who shined light on business address association by proximity at an SMX a couple years ago. If and when he gets back to blogging, you should be reading.

So there you have it. Follow this guide, and more often than not you’ll see results with your Google Places listing. This guide is always changing, so come back every once in a while and check for updates. Also, if you have any info/input/strategies/corrections in regard to ranking in Google SERPs with Google Places, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know.

About the author

Josh Garner is the founder of SEO Factor, an Internet marketing service provider. He specializes in SEO (on and off page) PPC and Social Media Marketing.