Google Places Changes

There has been a major change in how Google shows reviews in Google Places listings. They have now stopped including the text of third-party reviews (like from Yelp, Insider Pages, etc.) directly in the reviews section. Instead, they are just including links to those sites (with the number of reviews on each site–for instance it will still display the number 6 next to the Yelp link if you have 6 Yelp reviews), but those third-party review numbers no longer count towards the main number of reviews at the top of your Places listing (or on your star rating, if you have enough reviews to get a star rating). They are only showing reviews posted on Google by Google users.

While this is painful for some businesses (who have lost their lead in the number of reviews) it has leveled the playing field for others. For instance, we’ve seen businesses who have subscribed to a service called Demand Force (which has a component following up with their subscribers’ customers to get them to give reviews) and have gotten dozens or even hundreds of reviews listed in Google, suddenly today be dropped to a handful or even zero reviews on Places and are now trailing that race.

There are several reasons Google is doing this. Google was vague on their official blog post on the subject (http://google-latlong.blogspot.com/2011/07/ongoing-evolution-of-place-pages.html), citing “careful thought about the future direction of Places” and “feedback [they’ve] heard…” Here is our view about the specific reasons:

Google has been under fire from some of these third-party sites (Yelp, most vocally) for using their content (reviews) on Places listings to boost Places’ usefulness (and allegedly to encourage users to never leave Google when looking for information on a business). The FTC has recently launched antitrust investigations of Google and Places is one component of those investigations. Google may be treading lightly in how it uses other sites’ information in Places because of this.

A second, and perhaps even bigger, reason for this in our view, is a major change in the company direction regarding social media. If you haven’t heard, Google has recently launched a new social network, Google+ (Google Plus). It is in limited “field trial” (beta) right now, but is one of the core initiatives at Google moving forward. Google wants to become the central place for people to connect and share information across the Web (and take back some of the traffic share lost to Facebook in recent years). The first component they’ve implemented on that (even before they launched Google+) was the introduction of the +1 buttons on Google search results (do a Google search and look for those buttons if you haven’t noticed them). This is a similar feature to the Facebook “Like” buttons you see all around. Google wants people to not just use Google.com as a jump-off point to other sites (as it has been traditionally been used), but to be a destination site like Facebook has become. One of key ways to do that is to encourage more people to sign up for Google accounts and start sharing things through Google+. We predict that Google will begin implementing Google+ and +1 buttons on Google Places listings in the next couple of months. This is one possible reason to de-emphasize third-party reviews and emphasize internal reviews.

As always, we will continue to monitor changes to Google Places (and Google+, which is not ready for business use yet–we will let you know when it is) and keep you informed on how these changes affect search rankings and your overall online presence. If you have any concerns or questions about these changes, feel free to contact us. If you would be interested in speaking with us regarding our online reputation management services, also please contact us.