- Adopt a regular process of encouraging your clients to leave reviews, either directly to Google Places or to a third-party site.
- If you have a wide-ranging practice, limit your categorization to your top three to five areas.
There’s little question that being easily found via the Internet is important for solos, particularly those practicing in highly consumer-facing areas like criminal defense, family law, and bankruptcy. And when it comes to Internet searches, Google reigns supreme, commanding two-thirds of the search market. Although building out a website and related online presences is critical to being found online, Google also offers a sweet little gift to your practice: a free Google Places profile. What’s Google Places? It’s the series of listings (typically 3 or 7) that appear at or near the top of the page when users search for local business related terms like “Chicago plumber” or “Miami DUI lawyer.”
Google creates these “place pages” using business listings data, and brings in additional information such as reviews from Avvo and Citysearch. A practitioner can easily claim their place page and build it out with additional information. Doing so properly gives you the best chance of having your place page appear when local consumers are searching for your type of practice.
Optimizing Your Place Page
First, a caveat: only Google knows the full ins and outs of the algorithm that determines which local business profiles surface at the top of local search results. And as discussed below, Google’s constant experimentation means that you can’t think of optimization as a one-time thing—it requires regular review and care, just like any other marketing initiatives. But there are five basic principles that will help ensure your place page has the best possible chance of succeeding and being seen.
1. Consistent Contact Information
Make sure that all of your online presences reference the exact same business name, addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Matching, linking, and aggregating data from multiple sources are all critical to Places success, and Google can’t do that unless it sees that data sources are an exact match. Double-check Places to make sure it contains the same name and contact information as your website, blog and other online profiles.
2. Profile Completeness
The more complete the information in your Places profile, the better your chances of ranking highly. Fill out everything you can, including photos, hours, payment types accepted, etc. In addition to name and contact information, also make sure that the practice-related information on your places page is consistent with that contained in your website.
3. Get Reviewed
Google knows that consumers like reviews, which is why Google Places takes both direct reviews and reviews aggregated from third-party sites. If you have reviews on other sites, and you don’t see those reviews on your place page, make sure the name and contact information are an exact match in both places. Then, adopt a regular process of encouraging your clients to leave reviews, either directly to Google Places or to a third-party site whose reviews you see in Places. Encourage complete reviews, as a handful of richly detailed reviews is far more useful for potential clients (and, increasingly, Google) than a higher volume of “empty” reviews.
4. Categories Count
When you complete your Place page, you must indicate the category or categories your practice falls within. Two pointers here: first, resist the urge to customize unless absolutely necessary. As you type, you’ll get auto-complete suggestions. Choose the one that fits rather than fully typing out the type of practice of some esoteric variation thereof. The key is to make sure your practice is “mapped” to Google’s categorization. Second, don’t try to be all things to all people. Even if you do have a wide-ranging practice, limit your categorization to your top three to five areas. That will help avoid confusing Google or diluting your listing.
Make sure you include a link from your place page to your website, and links to your place page from your website, Avvo profile, LinkedIn profile, etc. The more complementary, high-authority links you have coming into your place page the better.
By taking care of these five basics, you’ll have gotten at least 90 percent of the way to ensuring your place page has the best possible chance of appearing in local search. And while there is more that can be done, much of it involves more finely detailed versions of the five tactics above, and can risk “over-optimizing” your place page to the point where Google will de-emphasize it in the search results.
Why would Google do that? There can be a tendency to view search engine optimization as a form of game, a way to reverse engineer and outwit Google’s search algorithms. But many of these efforts are little more than a form of cargo cultism, with site owners attempting to cause traffic to return through superficial efforts such as keyword stuffing. Google has become very sophisticated with its algorithms, and can see through most of these tricks.
Ultimately, the touchstone for anything you do to improve your stance in the search results should be based on relevancy and authority. You make sure your name and contact information is consistent everywhere online to ensure that Google sees all of the relevant results. Your chain of links from reputable sites provides authoritative signals to Google that your place page is accurate. And you actively seek reviews and complete your profile to build out a greater base of relevant, authoritative content. Google’s goal is to return the results that are the most relevant to its users. Focus on those things that will make your profile useful to your next client and you are most of the way there.
Remember: Google Evolves
Google makes 500 changes to its algorithm each year. That’s 2 changes per working day. So it’s critical to be regularly looking at your place page—and all of your online profiles—to make sure they are still fresh and up-to-date. It can also take time for the work you do on your profile to cause a shift in how your place page ranks for local searches.
It’s also critical to note that Google has been moving in the direction of increasingly personalized search. As far back as 2005, Google started using data it gathered from its users to offer a more individualized search experience. In January 2012, this undertaking culminated in one of the largest changes to Google search in recent memory: The release of “Search Plus Your World.” With this change, Google has merged its various search algorithms—including those that search your own private information and search Google’s social networking services—into a single set of search results. This means that the results you see when you search may be considerably different than those seen by potential clients. Want to see how this impacts search results? Do a search on Google and look for the buttons near the top right that can be toggled to show or hide personal results. The default is to show personal results. Given the high adoption rate for logged-in Google services such as Gmail, YouTube and Google Calendar, it’s a safe bet that a large percentage of the browsing public will be viewing personalized search results
This change has not been without controversy. Many contend that it sacrifices relevancy in favor of highlighting Google’s own properties, as results from YouTube and Google Plus feature prominently in Search Plus Your World results. Similar complaints have also been made about Google Places, as the “3 Pack” or “7 Pack” of Google Place pages that are at or near the top of local business search results push down other relevant content—including the websites of those same local businesses. Of course, that just means that it’s critical that solos take the steps above to optimize their place pages to maximize the chance of appearing within Places search results.
Everything in Its Place
Finally, it’s key to recognize the limitations of Google Places. Although a completed place page offers a form of free advertising, it is not a substitute for a robust online presence elsewhere. The decision to buy legal services is a considered purchase, and the more information and interactivity available to consumers the more comfortable they will be in making that purchase. Although you may be found via Google Places, you must make it easy for potential clients to learn as much as possible about you and your practice. Whether that’s via a robust website, a thoughtful blog, answering questions on Avvo, or a built-out JDSupra portfolio, succeeding increasingly requires giving consumers both access and a deep well of information. Do that—and consistently link it all together, of course—and Google Places can be an effective “front door” for your practice.
Remember that Google is constantly changing and experimenting. Search Plus Your World is the latest iteration.