UPDATE 25TH APRIL 2018
Everything has returned to normal. Not only is my Google My Business listing showing again, but I am also number 1 in Google on the maps for “low cost web design Blackpool” and “affordable web design Blackpool” and also ranking on Page 1 of the Google organic results for several search terms.
Why Google Can be Bad for Local Business & Why The Google Algorithm is Flawed
It goes without saying that every company who has a website wants that website to appear on page 1 of Google, ideally in the top 3. Depending on the niche and your competitors, this can be relatively simple or incredibly difficult. For example, I recently created a website for a Shaman who offers courses. Although there is certainly some competition out there (more than you might think), because I did the correct on page optimisation, meta tags etc her site was ranking of page 1 of Google for relevant search terms within weeks. If she were to write one or two blog posts and add them to her site then I believe that the site would easily reach the top 3 in Google, without the need for any backlinks.
But what about trying to rank local businesses in more difficult niches? This should still be possible, but I’d let to tell my own story about how Google’s algorithms can actually harm small businesses and why I think that Google’s algorithms are flawed and outdated (sorry Google but it’s true!)
Setting up a Google My Business Page
So, let’s start with Google My Business. I recommend every local business set up a Google my Business page. It’s quick and easy. Just follow the steps here
If you’re not sure what a Google My Business (GMB) page looks like, it’s when you Google a company name and a box appears on the right hand side with more information about the business. It’s really useful and I think that this is a great idea of Google’s.
Because I changed my company name last year I needed to set up my own Google My Business page. (If you’re wondering why the name change, the previous name had been Eden Web Design. I’m based in Blackpool and unfortunately a few years ago a, how should I put it, ahem “men’s only” club opened in Blackpool using an almost identical logo to my own. I was hoping that they’d shut down but they are still going strong so I decided to change the name. Plus my new name reflects the personal and bespoke service that my clients receive).
So, I signed up to GMB, added images, opening hours etc and got in touch with a couple of clients, asking if they’d write a review for me (thank you sooooo much to those clients that did, it is really, really appreciated). All good. Within a few days my GMB listing was showing when you Googled my company name. Fabulous. You can see how it looked below.
Now like every other business out there, I wanted to get my business into what is called the map pack. This is the top 3 local businesses that appear when you Google for a local service. I had a son in June 2013 and for 4 years I hadn’t really been taking on any new projects as I wanted to be a full time mum. My little fella started school last September however, so I was ready to ramp up the business again. Getting in the map pack is really important for getting local clients, so this was my main priority. The below image shows a search for “low cost web design Blackpool”. As you can see, Websites by Diane doesn’t appear in the map pack. That’s OK (kind of) as the listing is relatively new and I know I have a lot more work to do to increase my rankings. You can see that I’m ranking number 7 in the organic results which isn’t bad given that I’ve not been working on it for long.
Google My Business Reviews and SEO
One of the many things that you can do to help your GMB rankings is to get more customer reviews. If you Google “are Google reviews good for SEO” you will find dozens of articles on the topic and the long and short of it is that reviews help your SEO. Or do they?
A couple of lovely clients had already written reviews and I asked some others if they wouldn’t mind. Writing a review for a company doesn’t sound like a big task but the majority of my clients are small businesses and like me, most of them don’t have enough hours in the day. Plus you have to have a Google account to write a review and the majority of my clients don’t. Google don’t exactly make it easy. It’s why I’m always incredibly grateful when someone takes the time to write a review.
So, a couple of other clients kindly also wrote reviews. And this is where things started to go downhill for my SEO and my GMB listing. Now I’m a web designer and it’s a natural reaction for someone reviewing a web designer to add the url to the review, so that people reading the review can see the website that was created for them. However Google see urls in reviews as spam and therefore don’t publish them. For this reason I politely ask my clients not to include them and explain why. However, they are taking the time to fit this into their day (and having to set up a Google account sometimes) and understandably sometimes they forget.
My client sent me an email saying that she had written a review. Usually Google will also send an email saying that a review had been written but I had heard nothing. I checked my GMB listing and no new review. Not only no review, but if I Googled my company name I had completely disappeared!! From every search I tried. I quickly got in touch with my client and asked her to remove the url if she had added one. She was on her way to the airport to go to Thailand on business (she sells really delicious snacks at www.ilovesnacks.co.uk) and so it would need to wait for a week.
At this point it also dawned on me that Google possibly thought that I’d added the review myself – obviously a big no-no (I’m all in favour of clamping down on fake reviews). The reason I suspected this is because the client wanted Google Analytics added to her website but she wasn’t able to find the code snippet that I needed. So, like many clients, she gave me her log in details so that I could get the code I needed myself. Unfortunately, the email address to log in was the same email address she had used to write the review. Is this why Google were penalising my business so heavily? Surely not. I’m in Blackpool and my client is in London so we’re clearly not the same person.
I got in touch with Google hoping that they might take pity on a small local business (haha) but of course they couldn’t do anything and churned out pre-packaged answers. The woman who replied to me was very lovely though and she did genuinely seem to sympathise, actually agreeing that it wasn’t right for my listing to disappear.
So Why are Google’s Algorithms so bad?
I completely understand why my listing was affected. Unwittingly a client broke Google’s rules and so I was penalised. But weeks later it still has a lasting effect. Google are supposed to display the best listings are they not? But they completely stopped showing my company in search results as a result of the mistake. I am based in Blackpool but I have clients all over the country, including London and Scotland. These clients recommend me to other businesses. So imagine my client in London saying “oh yes, Websites by Diane designed a great site for me and her customer service has been brilliant”. So the other businesses Googles “Websites by Diane”. If they’d Googled me before the review with the url was posted they would have found me straight away. However if they’d Googled “Websites by Diane” a few days after the review containing the url was posted they would have had the below results. Google is punishing the business for having a url in a review.
Nowhere to be seen. And not only that, but other than the first one, the results that they have listed are completely irrelevant. Imagine Googling “Websites by Diane” and a kitchen company appears! And an archaeologist! I didn’t Google “Kitchens by Diane” or “Diane the archaelogist”. Come on Google. It’s a company name. It’s a company with a GMB listing. Are you really penalising a company so much for having a url in otherwise impeccable reviews?!
I completely disappeared from results for 10 days until my client returned from Thailand and removed the url. That’s potentially thousands of pounds in lost revenue for my small business. A massive impact.
And things still haven’t returned to normal weeks and weeks later. A search for Websites by Diane shows the below at the time of writing. At least I’m number one again. However before the review I was number 1 and it showed my GMB listing.
If I Google “Websites by Diane Blackpool” things are marginally better but still (to put it succinctly) crap. On the right hand side where my full GMB listing used to show there is now a “See results about” box
It’s only if I type in “websitesbydiane” with no spaces that my GMB listing finally shows in full. Ironically it says “Did you mean websites by diane”? Yes Google, yes! That’s exactly what I was looking for! However you’re not showing my GMB listing if I Google my company name so I had to type in something daft to show it instead.
Come on Google, people are searching for a company. They’re typing the name of the company. They couldn’t give you a bigger clue about what they’re looking for. Just show them it. Don’t try and second guess that they’re trying to play the system because there was a url in a review. Do what Bing do and just show them what they’re looking for! Look who’s number 1 on Bing for “low cost web design Blackpool”. And of course if you search my company name I’m there. Not a kitchen company or archaelogist in sight.
Why Backlinks are a joke
It’s not only this aspect of Google’s algorithm that I think is flawed. One of (the many) aspects of your site that influences where you rank in Google are backlinks. Indeed this is why Google became so popular and rose to where they were, as they believed that if a website had links to it, then it must be relevant and a good source, otherwise people wouldn’t link to it.
If you’re not sure what a backlink is, basically it’s another site linking to your own. Above I linked to a client site and that would be a backlink to her site.
It was brilliant thinking at the time and in some industries I’m sure that it’s still relevant. However how many websites are genuinely going to link to a local web design website, or roofer or tiler or solicitor etc? No one except directories. Why would they? Links to local businesses, unless they’ve won an award, been in the local paper etc are generally going to be unnatural, probably paid for links. Google has spawned a whole industry of backlinks. It’s completely and utterly crazy. Not only is it crazy but it doesn’t produce good results for people searching for a local business.
Google Search results based on location
Please note that none of the comments below are meant as a criticism of any of the web design companies mentioned – I’m sure they all do a brilliant job. I am merely trying to show the lunacy of Google’s algorithm when it comes to ranking local businesses, based on my own experience.
The Google algorithm, which shows results based on where Google thinks you are is brilliant for many local businesses. Businesses such as cafes, bakeries, restaurants etc in particular can benefit from this. However it really only serves those with a shop front. Tens of thousands of small businesses in the UK offer a local or national service and work from home. And this is where there is a problem.
The example I’ll use is to look for low cost web designers in Blackpool – one of my own keywords that my target audience would type into Google. I’m Googling from North Blackpool and Google knows this.
The map pack results can be seen here.
As you can see Net Intelect are number one in the map pack. They look like a good company and they have three 5 star ratings (compared to my six 5 star ratings). Below you can see their GMB listing and this is where I suspect they aren’t playing by Google’s rules (perhaps unknowlingly). The GMB listing shows their address and a picture of their house. Google states that if you don’t accept clients at your place of business, then you should select the option saying so. By ticking this box, as I have done, it effectively takes you out of the map pack. I’m not categorically saying that Net Intelect don’t see clients at the house. However their website states “Website design agency Net Intelect in Blackpool are a collective of website designers, web developers and programmers who have come together to create this unique brand of company”. The address is just around the corner from me and I pass it regularly when I’m out and about. I could of course be wrong, but if clients think that they are a collective of designers, it’s unlikely that they have clients to their house.
Number 2 on the map pack is Stephen Skelly with no reviews. Again the GMB listing shows a picture of his house.
This is perfectly fine if he sees clients at his house. Otherwise he should have selected the option to say that he doesn’t and again he’d be taken out of the map pack. As a side note, his website isn’t mobile friendly and his last post on the site is from 2012. Some of the advice Google assist gave me when my listing disappeared, was to make sure that I posted frequently and was active on GMB. I followed this advice and yet here’s a site that’s number two on the map pack that isn’t even mobile friendly and last posted 6 years ago.
Number 3 on the list is CGain. Their website shows a business address. If you google the listed address of 161 Mowbray Drive it shows Millenium computer repairs, rather than Millennium House. It is at least it is a business address where clients can visit them and you can’t blame them for wanting to make it sound grander. They also have 11 great reviews (and what looks like one bad spam review). According to Google’s own rules, CGain should really be the only one of the top 3 who rightfully belong there.
Ironically I could actually include my address in my listing, as I have had clients to my house in the past. Not often but it still counts I guess? This would give me a much greater chance of appearing in the map pack. There are a couple of reasons for not doing so
- The last time Google drove down our street with their van we had a 1 year old. Needless to say that painting the outside of the house and tidying the garden were not high on our list of priorities, so it was a bit of a state (it looks better now, I promise!). If you choose to include your address in your listing then Google show a picture of your house/premises on your GMB page. This was not the first impression I want potential clients to have.
- I’m a private person and I just don’t like the idea of people knowing where I live. I really, really think that this is something that Google need to address with home based businesses. I have included my address on my website only because I need to for SEO purposes. I hate having to include my address. When I first started as a freelance designer I created a speed dating site for a client. He lived in a completely different part of Blackpool from me and one day he suddenly started appearing on my street. It was horrible. And creepy. And upsetting. Luckily he moved out of area, but after that I removed my address from my site and I’m still not happy having it on there. Yes I could pay for a business address but a) it’s just a front to satisfy Google, in the same way that backlink creation is just a way to satisfy Google b) after taking 4 years off work to be a stay at home mum I really don’t want to waste £45 a month on a business address at the other end of Blackpool, where I’m not actually located.
I know that I’m not alone in this. Many of my clients are women in exactly the same position. They work from home and many of them do actually see clients in their home, for example hypnotherapists. However they don’t want an image of their home on their Google My Business page. This means that they have to tick that they don’t accept clients at the business (when in fatc they do), so it affects their map pack ranking.
Keywords and algorithms
The example I have used for this article is for a search for “low cost web design Blackpool”. Again this is where I think that the Google algorithm is flawed. It’s easy to write in your meta data and tags that you offer low cost design when in reality you might charge £3000 for a one page website. If the SEO were done correctly and you had lots of back links, you would still show for this in the search results. Surely the algorithm should be developed so that the meta data and tags should match what is actually on the pages.
Now let’s have a look and see if the 3 companies featured in the map pack really do offer low cost web design.
First in the map pack is Net Intelect. Their packages page at the time of writing this article states “Information regarding set new website packages coming soon – please contact us in the meantime for a quotation specific to your needs.” So we don’t actually know how much they charge. I have looked at this company a few times recently and there has been no information regarding pricing for some time. I’m really interested to see when their new pricing is put live whether they are low cost.
Next in the map pack is Stephen Skelly. There is absolutely no pricing on his size, nor mention of pricing. He might be the most expensive web designer in Blackpool for all we know, but he is appearing number 2 in the map pack for “low cost web design Blackpool”.
Finally on the map pack is CGain. Cgain do have prices on their website, which is great. The prices listed on their site are from £600 for a community website, from £450 PLUS up to £150 per month for a business website (these look similar to the websites I design) and Ecommerce websites up to £1500 PLUS up to £300 monthly. I think those prices are pretty reasonable in the web design industry, but low cost?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below on this article. The search was for “low cost web design Blackpool”. Do you think that Google have done a good job? Sometimes Bing just does a better job. I’m number one in the organic searches in Bing, so maybe I’m just biased ? Of course after this post my site might just be launched by Google into oblivion!
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