Information and Trust in Local Search

Local search existed long before there was a World Wide Web. If people wanted to search for a local business, they would use the Yellow Pages, which have been around since the 1880s.

Most of us remember how ragged those thick books full of yellow newsprint got from being used so frequently. When a phone number, address, operating hours, or other factual information about a local vendor was needed, the Yellow Pages was usually the first (and sometimes only) place we looked.

Today, we’re more likely to ask that the books not be left on our doorsteps. But not too long ago, there was no substitute for the business data compiled and organized in the Yellow Pages book and made accessible to all. We all conducted local searches in the Yellow Pages.

A Yellow Pages sales representative typically visited every business in his territory every year to advise business owners on their advertising, show them new features and opportunities, and personally take their orders for the upcoming book. The sales rep also tried to up-sell them so their ads would appear in a better position. Advertisers who spent the most money received larger ads and those larger ads were placed first in the category sections in which they appeared.

Each telephone number was associated with a business, confirming its existence and location. Just by subscribing to a business phone line, each business was given a basic listing in the Yellow Pages, so all legitimate enterprises appeared in the book in the most appropriate category for their goods or services. It was possible to pay to be in multiple categories and also in multiple books, representing other areas from which the business hoped to draw customers.

Advertisers were encouraged to publish only information that would be consistent for a full year. When a business moved or shut down, a call to the listed number would inform the caller that the number had been changed or disconnected.

Overall, the system was reliable, transparent, and ostensibly fair to all. Through popular usage for more than 120 years, this is what advertisers and customers came to expect of local search.

Living up to the heritage of providing searchable, reliable business information sorted in a logical way that is equitable for all advertisers is a continual struggle for online local search providers. Consumers need to feel that they can trust the business data they find on the Internet.

Most people find that information on Google, so they feel Google should provide reliable information. After all, no one wants to drive across town to visit a store they found on Google Maps only to discover that the business doesn’t even exist in that location. This sometimes happens when a business owner tries to trick Maps into listing them closer to the top of a list of similar businesses for certain searches and, even though it often isn’t the fault of Google Maps, it still gets the blame.

Businesses must have confidence in the listing process. Owners should be able to believe that if they play by the rules by claiming and verifying the information that Google displays about their enterprise, they won’t be put at an unfair disadvantage by those who don’t. Multiple listings and listings for locations that don’t exist are rampant in Google Maps.

It’s worse for some industries than others. Unscrupulous marketers often make it worse by trying to game the system and doing things just because loopholes exist.

Google Maps constantly works to improve the reliability of the information it displays. However, the task’s enormity dictates that it be handled through algorithms rather than through human intervention. So, while the process is improving, it’s difficult to get individual issues addressed.

One of the best things all local business owners can do is claim and verify their local business listing in Google Maps. Make certain information is accurate and up to date. This is the single most important thing you can do to establish trust in Google’s eyes and get the right information before the eyes of potential customers.

Addendum: Google just announced a local dashboard for business owners who claim their local business listings on Google Maps. Go here for more information.

This reminds me of the Webmaster Tools rollout a few years ago. Google wanted something from Webmasters (information about who owned which Web sites) and offered them Webmaster Tools in exchange for that info. Now, Google wants and needs business owners to help clean up the business data on Google Maps, so it’s offering the Local Dashboard in exchange for their assistance. If you haven’t claimed your listing yet, here’s yet another reason to do so.

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