What if we told you that the secret to top Google rankings is in your own neighborhood?
For many businesses, that's true. Localized search results drive a lot of traffic these days, particularly for small businesses, and Google remains the undisputed leader in local search.
However, Google's methods for finding and ranking local companies is changing. The web-crawling titan recently announced that it was merging two of its services: Google Places and Google+. Small businesses used to call Google Places their home, but their pages are now part of a new service, Google+ Local, instead. As a result, local companies are suddenly finding themselves inside a social network.
Social Signals May Soon Have a Huge Impact on Google Search Results
So what does this mean for business owners with a local or regional market and a desire for a healthy presence on the web? Probably not much in the short term. In the not-so-distant days ahead, though? A lot, potentially.
With Google now intermixing local business and social media in the same space, many are wondering whether social activity might begin to have a big impact on local results. For example: will Foursquare checkins at your office start serving as a signal to Google that your domain has strong local value, thus pushing your site up in the local rankings?
Possibly. Quite possibly. We already know they can do it. Google acquired Zagat in September 2011 and made it part of Google+ Local in May 2012. On Zagat, users rate and review restaurants, shopping, airlines, entertainment, and more. Those user reviews are now quantified so they can serve as signals for Google's local search results. Positive Zagat reviews lead to better search rankings.
If it can happen with Zagat, it can happen with Foursquare, Facebook Places, and the like. Google needn't acquire those services to borrow them as search signals, either.
Google's Motivation: Why the Company Wants Social Media to Matter
Some analysts suspect that Google merged Places and Plus in order to gain a greater competitive edge in the social media market. Internet users now spend as much as a quarter of their internet time on social media, but much of that is on Facebook, Twitter, and platforms more popular than Google+. But Google knows that a quarter of web searches are for local results, and the overwhelming majority of those were going to Google Places. Essentially, Google took one of its very popular assets (Places) and made it part of its alive-but-far-from-thriving social network. Local searches are unlikely to see any dips, so the more likely result is a boon for Google+.
If Google watchers are right and the company aims to make local results a cornerstone of its social media strategy, online marketers and small business webmasters should take note now. Social signals could be making a dramatic difference in web placement in a year's time. Maybe sooner.
Now could be a great opportunity to get ahead of the game with an early focus on social media strategy. Geolocation services like Foursquare seem the most likely candidates for search signals, should Google adapt its algorithms in that direction. Of course, the other major players could play just as important a role.
Get social now and rank well later? Not a bad strategy even if Google doesn't do elsewhere what it already did with Zagat, but the writing on the wall says it's a smart way to invest your time.