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The landscape for local businesses changed drastically due to the restrictive measures imposed everywhere while trying to keep this virus at bay. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught business owners that they need to adapt and change how they communicate and reach customers.
As incredible as it may sound, we have reached the end of the year! Like many of you, we are ready to turn the last page and welcome 2021. Now, before doing so, it’s worth looking back and doing a recap of what happened in the world of Local SEO this year.
2020 has been an active year for local marketing in particular. Besides the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on everybody’s lives, and for the health workers in the frontlines, this event has been especially harsh on local business.
Google, Bing, and other local platforms, such as Yelp and Foursquare, to name a few, stepped up and rushed to incorporate new features in their platforms. Most of the changes had to do with helping business owners keep their customers informed during this new reality. The assistance varied from making simple updates such as adding special operating hours to integrating features such as video calls, among other changes to help customers comply with the social distancing measures.
In this article, we will go over the most important changes during 2020 and how they affected or benefited small business owners.
Changes to Google My Business, Google Results, and Google Maps
Google tested and implemented various features on their Local results. The most significant updates during 2020 ranged from adding more information on the knowledge panels to adding important attributes for each location on the local results.
Some of the most notable features are:
- Secondary (“More”) Hours. This functionality allows business owners to add secondary hours to their listings. Thus, a business can specify their availability to provide their services outside regular business hours, and this is displayed on their GMB listings. This will allow businesses to set special hours for drive-through, senior hours, delivery hours, visiting hours, etc.
- Additional Appointment Links. These links help you specify actions like on-site or online appointments, making it easy for customers to directly take action on your Google listing from Google Search and Google Maps. You can add these from the GMB dashboard, and they will appear on the Google listing. Customers can also benefit from the built-in integration with Google products such as Google Calendar.
- Preview Call History. This is one of Google My Business’ latest features. With call history, business owners can track phone calls from their customers on Google Search and Google Maps. This is an experimental feature that is available to select businesses in the US.
- Multiple visual updates to Google results and maps. Throughout 2020, Google made several updates on both the knowledge panels and local results to improve user experience. There were significant updates, such as highlighting Google reviews, showing coronavirus-related health & safety attributes for On-site and Online appointments, highlighting COVID-19 post type, and adding the “Temporarily closed” option, among others.
- Vertical-specific changes. Google also released some changes geared toward specific verticals, such as the food and health industries. For example, restaurants can use new Dine-in, Takeout, and Delivery attributes. Health care providers can now add links for Telehealth Appointments and for COVID-19-related items. Like other GMB updates this year, these changes were motivated by Google’s effort to improve the communication between business owners and users during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Other minor changes to the GMB platform. Google also made multiple changes to the Google My Business platform in an effort to make it easier for the user to perform common actions. These are some of the changes:
- Added a new button to quickly edit the main information for the listing.
- Added a new button to add more pictures and to create a post directly from the main dashboard.
- Incorporated a new link to show the GMB listing on the Google search results page.
Google Local During COVID-19
During this pandemic, Google reacted quickly by enabling COVID-19 features that allowed local businesses to communicate with their customers by providing them with relevant information about their operation during these times. Some of these new features will certainly continue after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some of the notable features released to the Google My Business platform that are helping business owners and customers during this pandemic:
- Temporarily Closed Button. If a business or any of its locations needs to close temporarily, they can make use of this new option to update the listing to reflect this change. This will help them keep their customers informed about this. Locations reported as Temporarily closed continue to appear on Google Search and Google Maps.
- COVID-19 Post Type. Now more than ever, business owners need to keep their customers informed about any change that they may be going through or even just provide COVID-19 resources to keep their customers safe. The COVID-19 posts will appear at the top of a business’ knowledge panel in Local and Google search and will remain pinned for 14 days. Regular posts will still appear only for 7 days.
- New attributes to use in GMB listings. Google My Business added a number of attributes (e.g., “Online and on-site appointments,” “Dine-in,” “Takeout,” “Delivery,” etc.) that business owners can now use to inform their customers of changes in their services, or to highlight new ways in which they can interact with them.
While Google provided some helpful updates to its Google My Business platform to release new features, they also had to disable some existing functionality, and they limited their support for the Google My Business platform. Here are some of the areas affected:
- Reviews. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Google temporarily disabled all functionality around reviews on GMB and Google Search. This included a temporary pause on new reviews and review replies. Google has restored the review functionality.
- Q/A. Google also temporarily disabled the Q&A feature for all Google listings. Google restored the functionality in late April.
- Limited GMB Support. GMB support has been drastically reduced. Google support continues its operation with a limited team as a precautionary health measure to protect their support specialists. This has been a problem for some business owners, since most of Google’s processes are taking longer than expected.
Google My Business Issues
In the most 2020 fashion, the Google My Business platform couldn’t escape multiple issues and bugs throughout this year, from modules not working properly on the Google My Business dashboard to information missing on Google’s knowledge panels. Some of the most notorious issues that GMB experienced were:
- Google Products Issues. The GMB products disappeared from the knowledge panels. Even if these were properly set up on the GMB dashboard, Google did not show them on the Google listings. The products display issue was resolved by Google.
- Google Posts Issues. Google posts were not being published. The post showed under the Post section on the GMB dashboard; however, it was not visible on the knowledge panel after publishing. This published posts issue was resolved by Google.
- Google Local Ranking Fluctuations. In early May, the local search community noticed drastic volatility in the local rankings for businesses throughout the USA. At first, professionals in the local search community believed that it was related to a GMB algorithm update. Two weeks later, however, Google confirmed that it was a technical issue and notified the community that the issue had been resolved. Local results then returned to what they had been before (other than smaller fluctuations that always occur).
- Hijacked GMB Listings. There has been a large increase in the number of hijacked GMB listings over the past few months. Users have been receiving suspicious emails warning them that someone has requested ownership of their Google My Business listing. The malicious user gets control of a listing that they don’t own and changes the business information to something from which they can benefit. Google has advised that business owners need to reject such requests.
- Google Listings Suspensions. In the last few months, there has been an increase in the number of GMB listings being suspended after making minor updates to the profile information, such as updating the business hours or the description text. A lot of users have been struggling with this issue. Google has not confirmed anything on their end yet. We recommend that until this is addressed by Google, law firms try not to update core information on their GMB profiles unless absolutely necessary. This is not having an impact on Google posts, which law firms should continue making.
Other Local Platforms
While Google’s local search ecosystem clearly dominates the local SEO conversation, it is not the only local platform out there. Beyond GMB, other important local platforms kept busy working on updates to make their systems better and to improve the communication between business owners and their customers. Here are a few highlights from other local platforms:
Apple Maps New Review System. Apple now offers its Maps users the ability to post reviews for local businesses through their Maps app. Previously, Apple relied on other local directories like Yelp and Tripadvisor to get client review data. We strongly recommend that users add reviews on Apple Maps, since Apple’s multi-billion-dollar relationship with Google Search may be in jeopardy, either because of the newly invigorated DOJ Antitrust Department, or simply because Apple has decided to compete in search and wishes to integrate their own Apple Maps and directory listings into the results.
Yelp Takes Action Against Spam and Review Fraud. Yelp continued to be the most aggressive review platform of all by carrying out actions against spam and review fraud. Yelp intensified its efforts to fight off fake reviews on its system by adding a new consumer alert intended to flag businesses that might have received reviews from review rings. Yelp stated that it closed more than 400 user accounts associated with a vast review ring that they uncovered this year.
Foursquare Merges With Factual. Foursquare, a social networking service available for users that allows them to check in and leave reviews, will be merging its system with Factual, one of the main database aggregators. This merger will allow the company to take its business beyond its current services to advertisers.
What to Expect in 2021
2020 has been a rough year for everybody in so many ways. While we always want to look at the bright side, we know that it will be possible that 2021 will be a challenging year as well. Based on what happened in 2020, we may be able to see the following in 2021:
- Premium/Paid profiles on GMB: Google has been testing the idea of a subscription service for GMB. They have called it an “upgraded profile” that will include a badge that appears on both the profile and the local results. So far, Google has not rolled out this feature to all businesses, and we might be able to see this new service live in 2021.
- Google strengthens the rules for fighting spam: Google has been going through a tough time fighting off spam on its local system. Over the past few years, they have been compelled to implement stricter rules and criteria to remove spam listings. This fight will continue in the upcoming years because we think that Google will strengthen the rules even more.
- Open communication channels for GMB: In the first months of 2020, Google disabled most of its communication channels due to the pandemic. Still, it has now re-enabled business owners’ ability to request phone support on Google My Business.
As discussed, businesses across all industries have changed how they operate over the past year due to the pandemic. The overall scope of local marketing has gone through many changes; consumers have gone local and expect businesses to provide them with accurate information when they search online. Due to the current lockdown, people are now turning to business local listings and local pages to find products and services. To meet the new normal, local marketing needs to evolve and stay on top of trends.
We have witnessed a notable improvement regarding Google My Business listings, which are now more robust. Additionally, the GMB platform allows businesses to stand out from their competitors. However, the fact is that it has become more complex and confusing for users, so it is important to be very careful before updating or modifying information on your profile.
No doubt, Google will continue to dominate search in the coming years, and they will likely release new features for which user experience will remain a priority. Contactless service options that emerged during this year are here to stay and will definitely increase in 2021. However, this new type of consumer relies on mobile devices for their needs, which means that usability and site performance are vital to providing a rewarding website experience.
Finally, we recommend that all law firms get reviews on Apple Maps. The iPhone platform is very important in the mobile device world, and the longer-term relationship between Apple and Google when it comes to mobile search might be in jeopardy, either through competition or the DOJ and government regulators.