Good-bye Google Places, Hello Google Plus Local

In another move to drive traffic to its social networking site and integrate its various searches, Google shifted all of its Google Places pages into Google+. Eighty million Google Places pages are now Google+ Local pages, and Google+ users can access a new tab on the left, labeled Local, to get at this information. So what’s gained from the change?

Greg Sterling gives a full review over at Search Engine Land. It’s a pretty dramatic change, and a big help to Google+ users who might patronize these businesses, as well as the businesses themselves.

Users clicking on the Local tab get a list of recommendations of businesses to frequent for their local area. The default seems to turn up restaurants, but it’s easy enough to do a search for something different. Google+ Local reflects the search giant’s purchase of Zagat by including overall scores from the review guide. With Zagat scores going up to 30 points, potential customers get to see more of a range than they would with a standard five-star scale. As Sterling notes, it allows for more differentiation and nuance, since the scores include separate ratings for food, service and atmosphere – and don’t tend to converge at 3.5 stars.

You don’t need to be on Google+ to experience Google+ Local. These pages can turn up on a regular Google.com search, when using Google Maps, and through mobile applications, as well as on a Google+ search. Sterling noted that the additional functionality will allow users to sort and filter their results based on a number of criteria, such as whether their friends have left reviews of the business or posted about it. This part of Google+ Local wasn’t working for me when I tried it out.

On the business end, Google+ Local pages allow companies to add a lot more images, making the pages more visually interesting. These pages also offer at least some of the same kinds of tools you’d find on a regular Google+ page; firms can win “followers” and message them, for example, and Google plans to add more functionality down the line. Even now, some Google+ Local pages look very similar to Facebook business pages, and boast the same kind of capabilities.

Remember what I mentioned earlier about Google using Zagat scores instead of the five-star scale? Google+ encourages users to write reviews of businesses, and when they do, they get to use a form that rates food, service, and atmosphere/decor separately – much like a Zagat review. Users can rate each of those items on a scale from 0 to 3. They can also leave comments about their experience with the business. Sterling wrote that “Some of those online reviews may also make it back into Zagat proper, at the discretion of Zagat editors I was told.” After you’ve written a review, you can make it public or private; you can even specifically share it with one or more of your Circles.

If you have a Google Places page, you should continue to manage your information on Google Places for Business, according to this blog post. But expect to see upgrades to Google+ Local pages. One upgraded page let visitors click to separate sections to see posts, photos, videos, and an “about” section that included a statement from the business, address, contact information, a map, directions and reviews. Restaurants could include links to hours and menus on their “about” section.

Business owners will want to learn how to use the increased functionality of Google+ Local pages. If you can engage customers, you stand to gain quite a bit. And you should be aware that, unlike Google Places pages, Google+ Local pages will be indexed by the search engine. This could even simplify your life in the long term, as Google ultimately plans to let business owners manage multiple locations from a single page. But the key take-home point, if you run a business, is this: you can’t afford to ignore Google+ anymore.

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