Google Turns its Back on Small Business

If you have a business that serves a local community and have recently discovered that it is no longer visible in Google search results, then I have good news and bad news for you. First, the good news; the problem is likely a glitch in Google’s own search algorithm. The bad news; Google wants you to deal with it yourself.

I’ve been consulting with SMBs (small to medium sized businesses) for several years now and have been a big fan of Google products that help promote businesses on the Web. Lately there have been a lot of changes to the Google search platform that have been quite good, in my opinion, as they have cleaned out a lot of spam from search results. It is becoming increasingly difficult for black hatters to game the system. This is good news, even if a few legitimate businesses get inadvertently penalized.

Fear Evil

What isn’t so good is Google’s negligence in fixing problems which they have caused. Many business owners have discovered that their listing in local search results has suddenly vanished. Google provides no explanation or recourse, unless the business owner weaves through Google’s maze of support options to submit a ticket. After a few days, the business owner will receive an email that outlines a couple of steps. First, make sure the business complies with all Google Quality Guidelines. Second, go to the ambiguous platform called Mapmaker to make sure the business isn’t marked to be removed. Of course, there is no indication in Mapmaker that would indicate that a business listing is marked to be removed. Finally, even after having done all that, you may have to delete your listing and start all over again anyway.evil google

In other words, “Sorry we screwed up your listing, but you’ll have to go through the process all over again and all those reviews you’ve worked so hard to accumulate over the years, yeah, you’ll have to get new ones because those will get deleted as well.”

Or is Google’s real message a little more sinister? “If all that proves to be too much work, you can just forget about your free local business listing and advertise with us instead.”

More Sarcasm

What a brilliant marketing move! Having grown dependent on Google search results and having no idea how to fix the problems with their local listing, business owners will now be forced to choose Adwords, Google’s paid advertising option if they want web visibility. It’s not just business owners, but consultants who have lots of business clients as well will choose to put their clients into Adwords’ campaigns. Google is cashing in! It’s a brilliant idea. Suck them in with a free listing, then find a way to make them pay. In fact with policies that shrewd and profit savvy, I may even become a stock holder.

Really, it’s time for other search platforms to step up. Bing is making a good go at it, but Yahoo is still full of too much spam. ASK.com is owned by Google and AOL just doesn’t have the juice anymore.

C’mon Bing!

Bing is our best shot, but so far Google still owns roughly 65% of the US internet search market. This has to change. As an online business consultant, I find myself searching more and more for alternatives to Google.

Is it really a brilliant move to “force” business owners into paid search advertising? Maybe in the short term, but most of the consultants I know represent thousands of SMBs. They’re not happy. Many of them feel betrayed and even abused by Google’s negligence and indifference. And that can’t be good for long-term sustainability.

Yelp Gets a Negative Review

I have been a Yelp fan for years, but as other online customer review platforms have gotten better at assisting business owners, Yelp has gotten worse – in fact, down right awful.

The concept is a good one; allow customers to review a business that they have visited by giving it both a description of their experience and a rating of one to five stars. Yelp has also gone out of its way to limit the number of fake reviews with its highly secretive review algorithm. The algorithm detects if users set up duplicate accounts, it recognizes when fake reviews are posted and often filters reviews from a business’ competitors. The folks at Yelp have spent a long time developing this algorithm and have performed a lot of testing to distinguish between a real review and a fake one.

As other review platforms such as Google Places, Kudzu and Angie’s List continue to upgrade their system, Yelp has made very little improvements. Indeed, their interface and search results are as full of holes today as they were years ago.

For example, their review filtering system lacks so much flexibility that businesses often have as many filtered reviews (customer reviews that are filtered from view because Yelp does not believe them to be legitimate) as visible reviews. It’s important to maintain the integrity of a review platform, but it’ frustrating to ask customers to review your business only to have those legitimate reviews hidden from view time after time.

When it comes to a lack of flexibility, Yelp’s advertising is as rigid as its review algorithm. Yelp sales Reps like to assert how Google is a place where consumers go to perform research and Yelp is where they go to purchase. This, they believe, gives them an edge over Google in promoting their banner ads. Yelp ads don’t compare to the flexibility of Google, however. In fact, they’re not even in the same ball park. Google offers in depth analytical data and gives an advertiser more options to manipulate an ad then they can ever use. Yelp does none of this. A Yelp ad is placed on a page completely at Yelp’s discretion, not the advertiser’s.

Probably the worst part of Yelp is its customer support, which is almost non-existent. If a business has an issue with their listing, there is no phone number or email which to report the issue. There is only a submission form with a drop down list of categories. If a consumer’s problem does not fit within one of those categories then the form does not get submitted. Yelp is clearly not interested in helping business owners who do not advertise with them.

What Yelp forgets is that businesses are relying more and more on customer reviews. But these are not just businesses. They are business owners – mostly small business owners. People. Yelp’s negligence and lack of respect for business owners reveals an ugly discontent for any improvement that does not lead to more advertising dollars.

Online customer review platforms allow consumers to hold businesses more accountable. With such accountability, however, comes responsibility on the part of the platform to provide accurate information and to not stand in the way of good businesses. Unfortunately for Yelp, this is an area for which they receive only one star.

See Anything New in Google Search?

Regarding the big Google changes I mentioned in my last post, we have yet to see any visibly significant front end changes in Google search results. On the back end, however, changes have been clear in some areas. These back end updates have caused wild drops and swings in search results for certain keywords, but no change at all for others. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the swings and may be an attempt by Google to keep everyone on their toes.Dino Maiolo

One thing is for certain, Google continues to give personalization and social interaction a much larger role in search through the use of rich snippet mark up and author tags. If you don’t know what any of that means, here’s an explanation:

You may have noticed that personal images are now appearing directly in search results. If you search the term internet web marketing, for example, somewhere on that first page you’ll see my website with my mug shot next to the listing. This image is taken from my Google Plus page and can be set up for your website or blog as well.

Also in search results, we’re beginning to see customer reviews – complete with gold stars – along side the listing. This is similar to what you see next to Yelp or Citysearch listings as they appear in search.

It is very evident by the application of these features that Google is trying to give a more personal touch to search. This poses some good opportunities for you to stand out among your competitors in search and capture more consumers, even if your listing is not in the first position.

In the case of local listings, lets use air conditioning contractors in San Diego as an example,  Google shows the rating from both the website and Google Places, giving the listing a double whammy. What a great way to stand out from your competitors.

Not all web properties will be able to take advantage of these new features and Google is still testing their applications, which means it all may work for some websites and not at all for others. To learn more about rich snippet mark up and author tags, click on the links I’ve provided.

Big Changes on the Way from Google Search

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, over the next few months, Google is planning to roll out some of the largest changes to its search algorithm it has ever made. Currently, when a user types certain keywords into the search bar, results render a list of web pages that Google deems significant to the consumer’s query. My job has always been to make sure a business is relevant to searches related to a certain industry and location. Such relevancy causes it to appear in search results to the very consumers who are likely to buy a product or service from that business.

That part of Google should not change; however, Google will be incorporating a technology called Semantic Search, which will take known attributes about the keywords used and deliver those results within search results. For example, if a consumer types in a phrase such as “Death Valley,” Google will render information that it knows about Death Valley, such as elevation, average temperatures, tourist information and links to additional resources. These results will appear at the top of search, which may push organic results further down the page. In another example, you can type in a question like, “Who was the first President of the United States?” and Google will render a list of websites that may or may not have your answer. With semantic search, Google will not only provide the answer directly in your results (no need to go to a website to find it), but will give you details about George Washington such as date of birth, place of birth, year of death, major accomplishments and links to additional information.

Semantic search is a step closer to artificial intelligence as algorithms try to understand a users intent, even without being provided the specific word. Bing tried this with a partner called WoframAlpha. The project never really went anywhere, but that hasn’t stopped the industry from pursuing better and quicker ways to deliver results to an increasingly information hungry and impatient world.

What does this mean to you?

I’m not entirely sure what this means yet, but if Google is providing more information in search results, then business listings and websites will be pushed further down the page, making them less viewable by the consumer. It’s important to remember Google’s objective is to give consumers the best information in as few clicks as possible. Well, sort of.

Google is a public corporation and as such, in the business to make money for its shareholders. Google has been slowly losing market share to its competition – Facebook, Yelp, Microsoft, and now Apple with Siri search. In theAdwords case of Facebook (and Yelp), which surpassed Google in the number of visitors in 2010, consumers remain on those platforms for longer periods of time. When a consumer uses Google, they search for specific websites that have the information the consumer requests, thereby leaving Google for the web property. With semantic search, consumers can get much of that information immediately in their results without moving onto another website, keeping them on Google longer and thereby giving them more time to view advertisements. Google derives the vast majority of their revenue from advertisements such as Adwords and Adwords Express.

The update is scheduled to roll out within the next few months. When it comes, many internet marketers stand to lose a lot of money. How much all depends on the degree of the update, which Google has stated will be the biggest change to their algorithm they’ve ever had.

The Need for Promotional Diversification is Greater than Ever

If you rely on Google for much of the traffic to your business, what does all this mean to you? Many consumers search Google specifically for a local business such as a salon, HVAC contractor, fitness club or restaurant. Google still wants consumers to find you so chances are the update may not be as severe for local business listings as it will be for internet marketing professionals who create monetized web properties for specific income streams.

The changes may also be another effort by Google to push businesses to advertise with them. It wouldn’t be the first time. If advertising becomes more important, it may be prudent to consider a new Adwords campaign. Alternatives also include Yelp marketing, Facebook ads and promotions with other social media platforms, which Google has acknowledged are becoming more and more important for determining a site’s authority within its own search results.

Diversification has always been necessary for sustainable profits from internet traffic. As a web marketing consultant, I am accustomed to weekly Google algorithmic updates, changes and issues and therefore, prepare my clients appropriately. Google still remains the elephant within the search marketing industry, however, and regardless of how this update impacts business, I’m sure visibility within Google will still remain a top priority for my clients.

The Power of Digital Marketing

Why is digital marketing so important?

Simply put, digital marketing is the future of sales.  But I almost hate to use the word ‘future’ because if you haven’t yet noticed, the future is here. Nobody uses the phone book anymore; magazines and newspapers are going out of business; broadcast media is too expensive; cold calling is no longer effective and networking is just too slow. Companies are going online to find customers.  Why?  Because that’s where the shoppers are.

Digital Marketing

According to Google, 97% of consumers search online when researching a product or service. And they’re not all going to your website.  Many are going to Google Places.  A whole lot of them are checking online customer reviews in places like Yelp, Angie’s List and City search. They are tweeting about their experience.  They’re asking their friends in Facebook, Linked In and Google Plus for recommendations.  They’re checking for a nearby salon, café or other business on their mobile phones. They’re checking daily deals and holding on to the coupons you’ve provided to them in your blog or email blast.

Digital marketing is everywhere.  If your sales strategy does not have a digital marketing component to it, then how much business are you losing to your competitors?

A Digital Marketing Campaign that Drives Sales

So then, how can you use digital marketing to take your business to the top of your industry?  More importantly, how can you use all the digital marketing components together to create a winning strategy that will drive consumers to your business?

SEO in digital marketingSEO: Your website is your base camp for your digital marketing campaign.  Among other things, you can build backlinks to your web properties to show popularity. This will help it rank high in search results, but you also want a website that is not only pleasing to the consumer, but one that provides them the information they need to purchase your product or service. Directory MarketingOnline Direct-ories: Google Places is important because it is usually the first thing consumers see when they search for a local business on the Web. Google Places is an online business directory. You can optimize your listing to help influence consumer buying decisions. Directories are all over the Web.  Get your business listed in Yellow Pages, Superpages, Info Group, Yahoo Local and others. Digital Marketing ReviewsCustomer Reviews: Are huge for consumers. Everyone wants to know what your customers are saying. Our clients continually boast about how much business they’ve gotten because a consumer read one of their reviews online. Engage the consumer here and help influence their buying decision. Know how to respond to negative reviews to attract even more customers.

Posted in SEO

What is this thing called, Love?

You can file this post under “relatively meaningless topics that impact my life how?” But sometimes things just stick in your craw and compel one to voice their opinion. This one goes out to all those who dabble with Google Places.

Google MapsSearch Google for most local businesses and you will see a map to the right of the page with these red, well, we will call them ‘things’ for now as they are the subject of this post. Running down the middle of the page there are seven local business listings labeled A through G. This is Google’s local business listings or Google Places. Each one of them comes with a profile that you can update. You can upload images, video, coupons and all sorts of good information to help the consumer choose your business over others. To the right of each listing there are more ‘things,’ but these are grey, unless one hoovers over one of them with the mouse curser, then it turns red like those in the map, but for the moment, none of that matters. What really matters in my space at the moment is what we call those ‘things.’

I have heard them called a number of things such as stick pins, labels, place pins, pin markers and the worst of all, red pin heads. Why do I immediately think of a vaguely disturbing clown when I hear the term red pin head?Zippy the Pin Head

Now, they kind of do resemble a stick pin, but as we know, Google loves to regularly surprise us with changes and updates to its interface. No sooner will we decide to call them stick pins, will Google change their look altogether to something resembling nothing remotely similar to a stick pin. So we need something a little more generic.

It turns out the best solution just happens to be the most practical, and in fact, the very name I’ve been giving them for years now. Won’t you join me in calling them Place Markers? Let’s put an end to the foolishness. No more red pin heads. No more map placement markers. I dream of the day that Google users across the world will speak with one voice when referring to the place markers in Google Maps. Indeed, such uniformity puts us all closer to happiness throughout the world. It begins with you, Google User. Today, it’s place markers. Tomorrow, world peace.

And by the way, in case you were wondering, the placement of the comma in the title to this post is correct syntax.  Benny Hill watchers will get the reference.

Posted in SEO

Is mobile phone marketing really a game changer for small business?

No.  Surprised? Mobile phone marketing certainly has some important advantages, but many online marketing consultants believe that it is “the next big thing.”  They claim that marketing on handheld devices will become so big, that it will change the way many entrepreneurs originate business.  They base these claims on the staggering numbers of handheld purchases throughout the world.  Indeed, three mobile phones are purchased for every computer and it is estimated that four out of five people in the world own some sort of handheld mobile device.  These kind of numbers pose some interesting marketing opportunities.

The problem, as I see it, lies in the method of promotion.  Mobile phone marketing gurus teach business owners to build lists of cell phone numbers.  They urge business owners to find customers and prospects to “opt-in” to their marketing campaign, thereby subjecting themselves to text message and recorded voice advertisements.  Texting or sending recorded voice messages is considered spam by cellular providers and will get the sender in a lot of trouble if caught.  Hence, marketers need to get permission with an “opt-in” procedure.  I’m not sure about you, but I cannot think of one reason why I would opt-in to anyone’s junk via text or recorded message.

We consider our phones sacred and personal.  Send a junk text to our phone and you’ve invaded our private space – and have probably created an angry customer.

The argument in favor of this method urges that people opt-in to email messages all the time in order to receive a gift or important information.  This is true, but our phones are different than email.  We consider our phones sacred and personal.  Send a junk text to our phone and you’ve invaded our private space – and have probably created an angry customer.

Where mobile phone marketing is important for business owners is in search.  Most of us have a Google or Yahoo application on our phones to search the Internet – perhaps even a Yelp application.  Here’s where business owners need to concentrate their marketing.  Being able to search for businesses on a handheld is like having the Yellow Pages in the palm of your hand.  Business owners should be sure that their websites are mobile phone compatible.  They should concentrate on coming up high in mobile search results, even consider an Adwords campaign specifically for mobile devices.

Indeed, consumers will be increasingly using their handheld devices as mini laptops and business owners can certainly increase sales by keeping up with mobile technology.  I wouldn’t advise sending ads via text, though.  Rather than gaining sales, you may end up losing customers.

Posted in SEO

The Ever Changing Face of Google Places

If you are a business owner serving a local community, chances are you have a Google Places listing. In fact, if you are a business owner serving a local community, you BETTER have a Google Places listing. And if you don’t know, Google Places is essentially an online directory that provides consumers with relevant information about a business. The kicker: Google Places listings are typically the first results shown when consumers search for a business online (see the images below). That’s why they are so significant!

The problem for many of you is that Google makes so many changes to its search algorithm and format that it’s hard to keep up. Afterall, you have a business to run and probably don’t have the time to stay up-to-date on such changes. For example, have you seen the latest one?

Google Places

Image A: New Format for Google Places as of November 2010.

About a year ago, Google updated its local places listings to a new format. For most of you, it looked pretty much like image A; information gathered from both your Google Places page profile and your website, among other things. But Google never seemed quite comfortable with this format. For many categories they continued to show the old format with listings bunched together as you can see from image B. In fact, lately it seemed as though more and more industries and markets were going back to the old format (B).

Enter the Newer New Format
Just a few days ago, Google updated its format once again (see image C below). One of the most noticeable changes is the place markers, which correspond to the same place markets in the map to the right, are no longer red, they are grey unless you mouse over them, at which point they turn red again.

Web Marketing

Image B: Old Google Places Format

The layout is a little different as well. The map at the top is smaller. The location data is to the right of each listing rather than directly underneath. And as far as the merged format, it looks like Google has completely done away with it, using a hybrid of both the new and the old formats.

When the consumer hovers over the double arrow on the right, an image of the business website used to appear.  As you can see in image C, now the consumer can still view an image of the website, but also other pertinent information from the Places Page such as images and location on the map.  This gives a much bigger advantage to the businesses that have completed a full Google Places profile.  Put your best images here for maximum conversions.

Internet Marketing

Image C: The Newer New Google Places format as of a couple days ago.

Your dashboard (the place where you log in and make changes to your profile) may have undergone some updates as well, but we have yet to see any wide-spread changes in this area so we’ll keep you posted.

I’m not quite certain yet as to the algorithmic changes that may have accompanied this format change. In other words, the mathematical and statistical information gathered by Google spiders that determine where you rank in search continue to have a lot to do with your location, relevancy and popularity in your market area. We’ll keep an eye out for changes in this all-important area of search.

Finally, it appears these changes are not a test, which Google does often, but are a broad update. If you don’t see them yet in your market, I expect you will soon. No need to get used to them, though, as I’m sure more updates are on the way.

Posted in SEO

Your 2012 Marketing Strategy

Why a marketing strategy?

Your marketing strategy is the most important part of the business planning process. The marketing strategy will address the tactics your company will employ to generate enough sales revenue for growth and success.

A solid marketing strategy serves two primary purposes. First, developing your marketing strategy will help you thoroughly think through the venture from start to finish. You will catch weaknesses before implementation and come up with new ideas to capture customers for your business.

 

After your strategy is completed, its second primary purpose is to serve as a road map, keeping you on the path that will lead you to your objectives. The marketing plan is not a set-it-and-forget-it document. You will refer back to it regularly to make sure goals are met and tasks are completed. You’ll make adjustments as new technology is introduced into the market place and you’ll dump tactics that aren’t working in favor of new ones – as long as they are consistent with your overall strategy.

Following your marketing strategy and achieving the objectives within will not guarantee your success, but it’s an enormous step in the right direction.

Marketing Strategy vs. Business Plan

A marketing strategy can be a portion of your business plan. While your business plan incorporates areas that do not directly impact your sales such as financing, company structure and operations, the marketing strategy’s objective is to help your business grow by capturing customers and driving sales. Your marketing strategy will most likely be the largest chapter in your business plan. It is certainly your most important.

That being said, I have not created a business plan in years. I do not have a business plan for my current business. I have a marketing plan, but not a business plan, and I do pretty well. My marketing plan contains my company objectives and sales tactics. It shows me exactly what I do to create more sales for my business. At this point, that is all I need. If I decide to go public with my company, then certainly I’ll have a professional business plan made.

Remember: No business person ever became successful by planning. Success comes from doing.

Many business consultants and teachers emphasize the importance of a strong business plan and marketing strategy. They often point to weak planning as the major reason for failure in business. I disagree. I think many entrepreneurs plan too much. Businesses fail because they either do not drive enough sales or they don’t make enough profit on the sales they make.

No one was ever successful in business by planning. Success is achieved only by doing. Planning is an important part of the process, but do not become consumed by it. You need to recognize when to put an end to the planning process and get out there driving new business.

We like to plan because it’s an exciting process and full of so much hope. Let that hope and excitment – and perhaps fear – propel you to success.

Often, the successful entrepreneurs are the ones that are always making sales, even during the planning process. They recognize that they do not have a business until there is a consistent stream of customers purchasing their product or service. Every business I have started has always begun with customers. I had the customers before I even had a plan in place.

The plan will happen, but if you want to be successful, go get customers.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind while creating your 2012 marketing strategy:

  1. If your marketing strategy does not include a digital marketing component to it, you are way behind and already losing customers to your competition. See Web Domination PRO. It’s everything you need to promote your business online.Digital Marketing
  2. Do not become overly consumed with planning. Remember: No business person ever become successful by planning. Success comes from doing.
  3. Your marketing strategy should not be so rigid that you cannot try new ideas and incorporate new advancements in your industry. Make sure it has the flexibility to allow for change if things are not working.
  4. That being said, be careful not to deviate from your marketing plan in favor of the latest and greatest idea. In my business, for example, so called “internet marketing gurus” come out with hot new marketing products almost weekly, claiming that their system has beaten Google. We’ll, nobody beats Google, at least not for long. Don’t fall for this stuff and stick to what you know works.
  5. Involve your team members. If you want your employees to buy into your new ideas, make sure they take part in the planning process. They will be more committed to reaching objectives if they are their objectives. Let them take ownership.
  6. Make sure your marketing plan includes tactics for generating new business as well as retaining old business. It is much less costly to retain an existing customer than it is to find a new one. Don’t forget about referrals.
  7. Review your marketing plan regularly. One of the biggest mistakes new business owners make in planning is forgetting about their plan. Don’t spend time and effort creating a plan, just to stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Schedule regular review sessions.
  8. This bears repeating: Take the necessary time to create your plan, but don’t belabor it. Get it done and get selling. That’s your quickest way to success.

Your Company Stinks

Anyone can post anything about you online. They can do it easily, they can do it anonymously and they can do it for free. The search engines and social media sites do relatively little to monitor slanderous comments on their platforms. Any unhappy customer, disgruntled former employee or struggling competitor could seriously damage your public reputation just by posting a few negative comments online.

There are hundreds of online customer review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Urban Spoon, City Search and Merchant Circle that allow users to rate and review businesses. On these sites, users have almost complete freedom to post what they want, regardless if the claims are true or not. Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the hundreds of other social media platforms allow users even more freedom to post negative comments about businesses and individuals.

How would you like “[your business] is a scam” or “[your restaurant] made me and my family sick” sitting at the top of search results when consumers search for you by name?

If a competitor or former employee really wanted to destroy your reputation they could post comments on thousands of blogs and online article directories. There are plenty of automation tools that allow users to post hundreds of articles at a time, thereby creating a huge negative online footprint in just a matter of minutes. They could even create an entire website dedicated to trashing your company. Good luck trying to get in touch with Google or Yahoo to have the site removed. In fact, because these posts most likely have your name attached to them in the title, they will rank amazingly well in search results, even above your own website.

So how do you protect your online reputation? If the comments are not true and you know who posted them, chances are you may be able to file a lawsuit. Check with an attorney, but you may need to prove damages as well.Reputation Management

Customer review sites are unlikely to remove the comments even if you ask them to, but most allow you to respond. In a very professional tone, address the comment as slanderous and point out all the other good reviews you have. The tendency is to lash out at the person who made the negative comment, but this would be a mistake. Remember, your response to negative comments is for other readers, not the original review. They want to see how you handle criticism. I address negative reviews in detail in my Web Domination PRO program.

If the comment is a blog post, web article or web page that shows in search results, the best you may be able to do is push the bad stuff further down the page so nobody sees them. Few people go past page three in search results so optimizing your own blog posts, articles and web pages to rank above the negative comments may be a good solution.

A big part of my consulting is managing your online reputation. Contact us for details. There are ways to remove, hide or address all the bad stuff people are posting about you online; however, if your company really does suck, no amount of damage control is going to help.

Finally, you can always make a You Tube video explaining that a competitor or disgruntled former employee is posting negative remarks about your business online. Let viewers know that you have tried to handle the situation fair and professionally. Of course, if the claims are true and your business really does suck, no amount of damage control is going to help.