Topics that will be covered in the post are listed below. Feel free to JumpTo the section that interests you the most.

  1. Introduction
  2. Google Places Examined
  3. Google Hotpot & NFC Technology
  4. Google O-Pack Ranking Strategies
  5. Smart Google O-Pack Optimization

Introduction

As the evolving world of local search engine optimization continues to become the cornerstone all local business marketing efforts, it’s evident that we as marketers must improve not only our knowledge of local search, but become better at responding and reacting to its endless pattern of change. In October of 2010, Google began another round of critical enhancements to it’s universal search results, replacing what had been known as “The 7-Pack” of local listings with what Local SEO Expert David Mihm coined as “The O-Pack“, a hybrid of Google Places (formerly Google Local Business Center) and natural search results, as shown below.

In this post, we’ll explore the new O-Pack and strategies you can implement to improve ranking and click-through from the new hybrid results.

Screenshot of Google with Places Integration

Google Places Examined

Formerly Google Local Business Center, Google Places is a free advertising platform for businesses to increase visibility online. By just claiming a listing, a business has the opportunity to enjoy free calls and visits to their website from patrons looking specifically for business name.

Tack on a little search engine optimization, a business also has the opportunity of appearing before competitors for geocentric keyword themes such as “dentist los angeles”, “plumber new york”, or both without requiring city names in the query, in Google Maps and universal search results (as shown above). Google Places is quickly becoming the most important online advertising channel for businesses that serve one ore more specific service areas.

There are many ways to find a Google Places page, such as simply searching Google for a service and choosing Places Page next to a listing that appears with a red pin, navigating Google Maps from a computer, mobile device or mobile application. All roads in local search within Google now lead to a Places page.

Advertising Options on Google Places

Within Google Places, a business may advertise in a number of ways, including:

  • FREE: Offering coupons, discounts, and special offers on the fly
  • FREE: Posting descriptive information about products and services
  • FREE: Listing geographies served, such as cities, counties, and regions
  • FREE: Listing hours of operation
  • FREE: Posting imagery and YouTube videos
  • FREE: Customer testimonials and reviews
  • FREE: Google Maps embed codes to add a Google Map to a website
  • PAID: Paying a fixed rate for yellow Google Tags to appear under the listing
  • PAID: Paying a self-determined rate for Google Boost Ads, where Google chooses which keywords your business will appear under
  • PAID: Google AdWords offers an extension to local businesses, allowing an address to appear under an ad within Google-only search results

Example of a Google Boost Ad and Google Tags

Google Boost and Google Tag Example

According to David Mihm’s Local Ranking Factors, there are number of criteria that may or may not help a business move up in position by enhancing profile attributes Google Places. A few are listed below:

It’s thought that more interaction with Google Places pages and encouragement of use by customers may improve overall online visibility and brand credibility.

Google Hotpot, QR Codes & NFC Technology

We spent a significant amount of time studying Google Hotspot to better understand its purpose and value. Here’s a quick overview of what we found and why you should care:

In effect, it’s trying to fill in the holes left by Yelp and others. Hotpot seeks to cover a lot of ground without going into too much depth about any given business, whereas Yelp and Citysearch are known for the detailed, thoughtout and – perhaps most importantly – screen reviews.

In plain English, Hotpot lets you “check-in” to places you patronage, share your location with friends, and post business reviews in real-time using tricked out smartphones that actually verify that you are where you say you are using new GPS-type technology.

Image of Nexus S Checking in at a Local Business

Use of Near Field Communications with Hotpot allows visitors to “check in” only when they are actually on location (unlike Foursquare, which allows you to check in even if you’re not actually at the business location). Additionally, a quick scan of a QR code printed on a window poster from a smartphone (such as the Nexus S featuring Gingerbread VoIP) allows businesses to essentially barcode their establishment and allow visitors to scan the barcode upon entering using a smartphone that offers an app similar to Google Goggles.

The technical term for the barcode is QR-Code, or Quick Response Code. The value? If a business has 100 customers “check-in” at their location during the course of the day, they have the opportunity to capture 100 reviews that get posted instantly to Google and Google’s universal search results, adding massive credibility and influencing ranking (see animated GIF above for circled stars that represent reviews).

Google O-Pack Ranking Strategies

Up to this point, you’ve learned about Google Places and know where to look for optimization criteria to improve visibility in Google Maps. You’ve also learned how to capture your customer’s reviews nearly instantly with NFC technology and a QR-Code on the window in front of your store. There is still so much yet to explore and opportunities to consider to truly maximize ranking and placement in Google’s new O-Pack local/organic hybrid search results.

Here are a few possibilities that you might want to ask your webmaster and/or SEO resource:

  1. Does my business information sync verbatim across the Web?
  2. Is my address listed clearly on my website or within individual facility pages?
  3. Do I have a Google Places page for each facility linking to the facility page on my website?
  4. Do my pages load quickly and offer detailed information about my products and services?
  5. Many people are using Google Earth now, have we included a clickable (crawlable) KMZ file on the website?
  6. Do we list our credentials and qualifications? (aka: licenses, certificates, BBB rating)
  7. Are we listed with the BBB, local chambers, and city/region-specific business directories?
  8. Do we handout postcards and send emails asking for business reviews in Google Places?
  9. Have we registered and tricked out our listings for mobile apps like Foursquare, Yelp and Gowalla?
  10. Do we link to our Google Places page and possibly a few other citations on our website?
  11. Is our address listed in our page meta description or in facility page meta descriptions?
  12. Is our local number the same number used in Google Places and other citations?
  13. Have we completed our Google Places profile 100% with videos and images, and additional details?
  14. Did we analyze and compute the categories used by competitors in Google Places?
  15. Do we list an hCard or other microformat for the search engines and advanced users?
  16. Have we downloaded, read and implemented recommendations from Google’s SEO Guide?
  17. Are we using [email protected] or [email protected] with our Google account?
  18. Have we analyzed our website using Google Webmaster Tools, Bing Webmaster Tools, or a 3rd party service?
  19. Did we use Steve Wiideman’s Best SEO Audit List?

The list goes on, but you get the idea. There’s never enough you can do to earn credibility and trust with users and the search engines.

Smart Google O-Pack Optimization

Now that you know how to get your customers who are equipped with smartphones to check-in easily and be encouraged to write reviews, how about a little Creative Search Strategy? Have you considered the fact that all of your competitors will be following suit with the above optimization strategies? That’s right, this means that all of their customers will also be checking in and leaving their contact card wide open on Google Hotpot (I can see the light above your head turning on). Connecting with these users in the Hotpot social network with promotions and incentives to give your service a try when you already know that they utilize a similar service seems like fairly brilliant targeting.

Also consider some of the tools available online that allow you to essentially scrape the web for destinations your competitors have been acquiring citations. One tool in particular caught our attention this month; a service by whitespark appropriately labeled “Local Citation Finder” allows you to search by business name and/or phone number to basically index every citation earned by a competitor. This service is also great for verifying that your business data is listed verbatim to what is recorded in Google Places (data validation may be a critical element to local SEO).

The best recommendation we can provide would be do simply do something everyday for at least an hour, such as ask for reviews, discover where competitors have citations and acquire your own where they have them, ask for profile page, mention, blog post or other attribution from partners, vendors, and affiliates. Avoid automated programs, be cautious of local SEO firms (use the word scam when you research them), and try to connect with at least 2-5 customers each day from a social network such as Hotpot, Gowalla, Yelp, Foursquare, or even Twitter.

Most of all, offer something on your website that no competitor could compete with. It could be a daily deal (think Groupon), free sample, appreciation events calendar (31 Flavors gives away ice cream once a year), or even a free downloads with tips, recipes, bonuses, and membership incentives.

Creativity wins every time. Best of luck!

Additional Resources