Web Marketing: Google Courts SMBs With ‘Places’

Can your company be found on Google? Of course it can: Google’s massive search index should, eventually, be able find any business that is mentioned online — even if the business doesn’t have its own Web site but is at least noted or reviewed by third parties.

But how easily can your business be found on Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), and how useful is the information it presents? Those are two more important questions that Google is helping to answer.

Google’s existing Local Business Center service has been tailored to help businesses, particularly small businesses, register a profile that lets them better surface their key information (such as location, hours of operation, directions and coupons) in search results. Now Google has merged and rebranded its Local Business Center under its Places umbrella of services, while also adding new features.

“We wanted to simplify the name and make it more correlated to how you see yourself in more Google properties, whether it’s in search results, maps or mobile,” Carter Maslan, Google’s director of product management for local search, told InternetNews.com. “Places lets your company name link more consistently to how you want to surface.”

New features announced today include “Service areas,” which allow a business to list the primary geographic location in which it performs a service. For example, a computer technician might have offices in a suburb but primarily serve clientele in the city.

A business can choose whether to list by “distance” or “areas served.” Google said “distance” is the best choice for the business owner willing to travel from a central location, while “areas served” is better for those targeting specific cities. Maslan gave an example of a kayak adventure company that might be headquartered far from the area in which offers trip packages.

“Now you can more directly promote the service in the area you offer it,” he said.

That’s important with more businesses looking to promote themselves online to the area in which they do business. Maslan said more than 4 million businesses have already claimed a Local Business Center (now Places) listing — about half of which are in the U.S. Additionally, Google said about 20 percent of the searches that it processes are related to location.

In addition to enabling more specificity in where businesses promote themselves, Google also said it’s added three more cities to its Tags listing program, with more to be announced soon. Tags let a business add a yellow Google Maps marker to its listing in response to search results, enabling them to advertise coupons, photos, daily specials or other select information. Users see more information by scrolling over the Tag, and the Tags can also be formatted for optimal viewing on mobile phones, Maslan said.

The service has been available in Houston and San Jose and now is rolling out to Austin, Atlanta and Washington D.C. Additionally, Google said Tags will be offered in Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Boulder and San Francisco in the coming weeks.

While Google Places is a free service, Maslan compared the optional Tags feature, which cost businesses $25 per month, as a way to further stand out — just as a company might use a window display ad in a brick-and-mortar shopping district.

Not all of the Google Places enhancements require fees, however. In addition to uploading their own photos, Google said businesses in select cities will now be able to request a photo shoot of the interior of their business for free.

“With Google Places, you have a more direct way to advertise your business,” said Michael Tolva, director of operations at The Store House Company, which has nationwide locations for its storage business. “It’s better than trying to have the most optimized Web site out there,” Tolva said in a statement.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at Internetnews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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