Inflate the Marketing Balloon

Rick Spence, Financial Post
Published: August 2008

The other day I was trying to arrange a meeting with someone arriving from out of town. It made sense to meet near the airport, and I remembered a good restaurant at one airport hotel -- but naturally I couldn't remember if it was a Crowne Plaza, a Courtyard or a Comfort Inn, or a Days, Delta or DoubleTree.

So I Googled it. And I got a list of dozens of airport-area hotels in Toronto, along with one of those colourful little Google maps covered with red balloons. Each of those balloons was a marker representing one airport hotel, and they were lying on top of each other like so many old pieces of firewood. I worked my way through all of them, but never found the hotel I was looking for.

We ended up meeting downtown.

So what's with these little red balloons? They're an essential, but little understood, part of any small business's marketing plan.

It's called Google Local Business, and it's a service tailor-made to small businesses looking to get found on the Web. It turns out I couldn't find the hotel I was looking for because its management hasn't figured out the opportunity yet.

Don't you make the same mistake. You can get a free business listing on Google Maps by surfing to, and then clicking on the link that says, "Put your business on Google Maps." You fill out a short registration form with your business name, address, contact points, and what you do. There's even room for you to talk about your specialties or brag a little. Soon after, you'll get a call from an official Google robot to confirm your identity - and then it will put your business on the map.

As with many free services created by the world's pre-eminent search engine, Google isn't talking much about how its business rankings work. When I look up pizza in Hamilton, Ont., for instance, I have no idea why Queen's Pizza & Wings and Valentino's Pizza rank first and second, ahead of pepperoni powerhouses Domino's and Pizza Hut.

Google itself explains that all of its search results "are based primarily on relevance." But Google Maps also ranks business listings according to geographic distance from the requested starting point. But that's all the help you're going to get. "Sometimes our search technology decides that a business that's farther away from your location is more likely to have what you're looking for than a business that's closer," says Google -- which likes to keep these things secret to discourage people from trying to manipulate search results.

Sadly, customer feedback doesn't seem to be a factor. The 20th-ranked Chicago Style Pizza Shack had excellent user reviews on its listings ("We have eaten here for years and LOVE it!"), while the listing of a top-ranked restaurant includes a review that criticizes its "spotty food" and "poorly thought-out dishes."

But even a quick analysis yields a few clues. The closer your business is to the destination people input in their search listings, the higher you are likely to rank. If you are located in the sticks and don't actually operate out of a storefront, it might make sense to rent an address in a more central part of town. It certainly doesn't hurt to experiment.

There are other ways to increase your click-throughs, even if it doesn't affect your ranking. For instance, ask satisfied customers to review your product or service on Google -- thus reducing the likelihood that a casual visitor will see "spotty" comments on your listing. Google also offers you an opportunity to include a money-saving coupon with your listing -- a crowd-pleasing differentiator that few businesses are taking advantage of yet.

Of course, there are lots of search-engine optimization (SEO) consultants who can help you get better results from standard Google searches -- but they may not be paying attention to Google's local-business service. "Everyone's curious how Google does its local rankings, but no one is putting money into research because it's free," says Scott Wilson.

Still, Wilson offers more ideas for maximizing your exposure on Google Maps. For instance, optimizing your site to attract search engines (repeating strategic keywords by adding relevant content to your site, or encouraging links from other websites), can push you up the natural rankings -- increasing your visibility on the page. If you also buy pay-per-click ads using the same keywords (through services such as Google's AdWords), you can practically own the results page.

Wilson says there's one more change at Google that business marketers should note. It is beefing up its people resources to improve its search results. Despite Google's secretive ways, many online experts have figured out how its search algorithms work, and have tweaked their sites so they rank higher than they should. Wilson says Google has recently hired thousands of human "quality raters" to review Google's automated search results and find ways to exclude sites that don't belong near the top. Specially targeted, he says, are sites that purport to contain certain features, such as web tools or quality content, but don't really have them.

"Google is weeding out bad-quality links," says Wilson. If your site really does have the depth of content or web applications that merit a high ranking, it should have fewer pretenders to fight, he says. "We see this as a win for the good guys."