Google Places makes a very clear statement about Google's focus for the immediate future -- and it's local.
At first sight, "local" might appear to have nothing to do with international marketing efforts. But anywhere that the concept of "place" involved is bound to be an international opportunity or challenge.
The key to Places relates to keywords containing a geographic reference, but that doesn't mean that Google can simply say, "Ah, we have a keyword with a geographic reference -- turn on Places and display results with local physical addresses."
Keywords containing towns or cities can just as easily be related to someone wanting to go there for a service rather than already being there.
For instance, [Hotels in Paris” can't show results designed to be for locals in Paris because they almost certainly won't be looking for a hotel to stay in. However, [Weddings in Paris” could quite easily be a search from someone living in Paris but looking for a venue -- such as a hotel.
The intent of the user is discernible from the keyword in each case but their concept of location is different.
Unintended consequences often accompany new innovations. The online world has deliberately created a detachment between physical points of delivery and source of goods.
In the U.K., for instance, it's possible to order your supermarket shopping from London and have it delivered some 200 miles away in Yorkshire. So when I search for [Supermarket in York” online, is my intent to go shopping at a physical location nearby, or do I really want someone to turn up at my farm door and drop the goods?
Pure play online retailers work with a distribution zone rather than a physical address -- but with Google Places they need to verify their location. But which one? Ideally, pure play organizations need a verified location for each of their customers.
How Local Affects International
International companies rarely have a physical location near many of their customers. Even the largest global companies rarely have a physical location in all the countries in which they operate.
As "outsiders" they have to compete by presenting themselves as "localized" to make their customers feel comfortable and ready to buy.
The best advice to would-be exporters to the so-called BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- is to start by targeting the big cities. This reaches more people more efficiently and more quickly.
This is fine and good advice for paid search campaigns, but SEO depends on the keyword. One way to achieve this targeting with SEO into focus on geographic terms from the long tail containing the city's keyword.
For example, a carpet tile manufacturer selling direct to consumers would focus on keywords such as "Carpet tiles Moscow" in order to reach consumers in the great city of Moscow, anticipating that the people who find them will be happy with a wider choice, better price, and home delivery.
Fine, they can use paid search for that degree of targeting; but that's not the issue.
We all know that organic results convert better than paid. Seeing organic results and paid results on the same page -- at least internationally -- is very good.
As Google Places rolls out across the world, it will wave its "flags" with a message that essentially says "These guys are local, so if you see any other suppliers on this page, they're outsiders." This is a strong and difficult message to compete with. Quite clearly, Places favors "bricks and mortar" over "clicks and parcels."
How Should International Companies React?
No one should panic. Not yet anyway. Start by studying what's going on within your target keyword set -- you may be in a sector where Google's new version of local is actually in your favor.
However, if it's creating some challenges, then there are a number of things you can do:
- Review your marketing strategy: It may be that Google's new approach makes different new opportunities more attractive rather than the old ones you used to target. Different cities may seem more attractive than they did before -- and for some folks Google Places will be an absolute godsend, which makes life so much easier -- and richer.
- Develop local partnerships with new people on the ground: This may be a good strategy anyway, but will give you a quick way of moving forward. Local partnerships can give your customers a physical location. Ideally they should also offer local support, even perhaps a place to drop returns or ask for support. If it's in their time zone -- and you're not -- that's an even better reason for signing up with local partners.
- Create your own local presences: Whether it's virtual or brick-and-mortar, make it and get it verified. Also, make sure to target relevant terms and that customers in that town can genuinely access and buy your products. There's no point in generating traffic purely for the sake of it.
- Share locations with unrelated cooperative businesses: There may be businesses looking for a location where you are and that's all they need. Exchanging addresses for business purposes is definitely a good idea.
Without a doubt, people are already figuring out how to game the system -- so expect to see some of that, too. In the medium to long run, expect Google to do something about that gaming and my advice would be not to do this yourself or you might find yourself in bigger trouble still.
Simply targeting whole markets or countries still makes sense for many, so you can carry on as you were.
An interesting and controversial thought is that by making local business rankings so prominent, Google is actually restricting the market for consumers and offering them less options. If that proves to be the case, undoubtedly we'll see a change in Google's local format!