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Google: Changing the Rules

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In a world where more than 80% of prospective consumers will see your ad but still look you up online before calling or visiting your dealership, an ad placement in a local Google search is critical. A local search is triggered when someone types in “tires” and the name of the city in which you operate (e.g. “Tires Murfreesboro Tenn”). It is different from typical searches because the searcher defines the geography in advance and Google treats it differently when the results are displayed.

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Google’s local search results now show just three listings.

Google’s local search results now show just three listings.

Before Aug. 7, 2015, a local Google search showed up to seven listings on the first search page beside a map showing where the businesses are located. This was called the “Map Pack.” These results included addresses, phone numbers, reviews and the location’s website.

Since that date, the list has been trimmed to three listings and has been dubbed the “Snack Pack” or the “Stack Pack” depending on who is describing it. This is a massive change and it dramatically affects local online marketing for retailers. Because tire stores are inherently local (even national chains or franchises), it represents a 57% reduction in “Page One” Google real estate.

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Perhaps the only thing that is consistent about Google is that it is constantly being altered. It is said that Google’s algorithm is changed between 500 and 600 times per year – about twice a day. Of course, most of them are minor tweaks, but some changes come in big, dramatic bundles such as the Map Pack change.

Some of the larger ones are named after animals that start with the letter “P”. For example, online (non-local) marketers were powerfully affected by the introduction of the “Penguin” program change and “Panda” before that. These did not really impact local businesses because they were both designed to improve the quality of the results people would get if they did general organic searches on Google. 

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Google’s “Pigeon” update, however, did impact local search by shifting searches from being citywide to being more neighborhood localized. Again, this move toward improvement works to help searchers. This geo-positioning search is also helpful to local merchants by making those closest to the searcher show up higher in the rankings.

To best take advantage of the Pigeon update, use more localized descriptions of your neighborhood in your directory listings and website. Let Google know where locals think you are. You may be in Cincinnati (population 300,000), for example, but locals might think of your store as being in suburban Kenwood (population 6,000 – but with a Cincinnati address).

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The goal of every online-aware business owner is to be in the Map Pack (Snack Pack). The localizing impact of Pigeon actually narrows the competition somewhat making it easier to accomplish your objective – particularly if your competition is not paying attention. Even when seven businesses were listed, the top three got about 64% of the clicks. 

Now that there are only three, your diligence is more critical. While it is still too soon to have meaningful measurements, the number has to be significantly above 64%. The businesses listed at the top without the searcher having to look any further will obviously get more traffic (and, therefore, more new customers) than those showing up elsewhere in Google. It stands to reason the rivalry for this space will become much more competitive. You have the opportunity to get a head start if you act now.

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Hint at the Future

Google likes to test changes in smaller subsets of their giant world before moving forward with wide-scale alterations. One thing Google is testing in the restaurant space is a searcher-triggered drop-down option for consumers to select the minimum star level they want to see. This means that if you only want to see four-star and above listings, you can do that. While this does not currently affect tire retailers, keep an eye out, as it could very well become a universal searcher tool. This, of course, means that your online reviews will become all the more critical in the years to come.

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If you are in a densely populated area or you have a lot of nearby competition, you should pay serious attention to those star-ratings now so that you are prepared, should Google pull the trigger on expanding the rating selection system. 

Do not count on getting advance warning about such a change; Google will want to avoid business owners spamming reviews in preparation. If you already have a rating of four stars or more, you don’t have much to worry about. If not, get started now.

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Also, there is the reciprocal. Given that reviews are getting much more emphasis in the ratings for local results, businesses with few or no reviews are definitely at a disadvantage. This is a real disadvantage that costs real dollars. Far too many business owners – not just tire dealers – are not giving this adequate attention.

Even if you are already in the top three, you cannot relax. This change in the Google display system will only serve to awaken those who did not make the cut from seven to three. You can expect a redoubling of their efforts to displace you from the top.

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Over half of those appearing in the seven-packs are suddenly gone, and everyone will want a shot in the new three-pack. Since they have nowhere to go but up, do not get surprised by a competitor that sneaks up out of the dark to displace you in the top rankings. It is a very fluid game and there is no room for complacency.

Institutionalizing the Process

To address the issue of collecting reviews consistently, there are new systems that tie into your electronic cash register to collect cellphone information at the point of sale and automatically send a text to customers at some point after the transaction – but, while they are still on the premises (perhaps in your waiting area). This allows for staff guidance and encouragement – and more compliance.

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The text displays a link that directs the customer to your Google page where the customer can give you a star rating and leave a review from their cell phones – which means from their own IP address, a Google requirement for a legitimate review. Yelp and Facebook posts are other options in this system, too. The program can ask up to five marketing research questions, too.

What Else Should You Do?

Besides collecting more positive reviews, it is important to address whatever negative ones that crop up. Not only should you internally address service problems that created the review, but responding to the issues in a proactive way is important. Note: This does not necessarily mean you address the issues in public by responding online. Sometimes it is best to limit the number of times an issue is aired publicly. Private communication is often the best strategy to approach the unhappy customer. A successful exchange can sometimes get a negative review quietly removed.

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NAP Consistency

There are dozens of sites across the Web that list your business and the details about it.  Most important among these details is what is called the NAP. This stands for Name, Address and Phone number. As simple as that sounds, it is critically important to boost your Google ranking. Right or wrong, be consistent. And, that means be consistent on every item like ‘Main Street’ vs. ‘Main St.’ in your street address. It does not matter which, just as long as it is consistent across every listing online.

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Use every advantage you can. Not only is it important that the NAP is accurate and consistent, but Google (and other sites) allow you to add many elements to your own listings. These include a listing of your website, a description of your business (use keywords people might use to search for what you do), your hours of operation and pictures of your business and personnel. Every little bit counts.

This is easily something you can do on your own, but there are some smaller firms out there who can help you. Send me an email for direction.

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It Won’t Stop

Google will constantly change. As much as it seems so, it is not just to keep you off balance. Google’s objective is to make sure people using its search engine get the best, least-spammed results available. Sometimes it makes life difficult, but those business owners who are paying attention will be able to take an ethical advantage over those who are not.

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