One of the biggest announcements during Google I/O 2013 was the announcement of the new Google Maps. The new version was reportedly rebuilt from the ground up, and after receiving my invite and diving in, I can see that they weren't kidding.
The new Google Maps is nothing short of amazing. However, with such big changes I was curious to see how the local search experience would change, and what advantages or disadvantages local businesses may now encounter.
I explored my local city of Grand Rapids, Michigan (that's right, Beer City USA itself) with multiple localized searches for my examples. Before we begin---if you haven't seen it already---take a look at the video below for an intro on what to expect from the new Google Maps. You can request an invite here.
Less level of a playing field
One of the most visible changes to Google Maps is the elimination of the sidebar. Previously, users saw a series of dots or markers overlaying the map with no unique characteristics, other than a handful of lettered markers which corresponded to a business name in the sidebar.
With the new maps, the sidebar has been done away with, allowing for a default, full-width experience. This change also places the business names directly on the map, eliminating the need to reference anything and making the entire process of finding businesses and business names easier and faster.
What does this mean for local search? Well, just as the previous version (still the current version for most until the new version is fully rolled out) only showed lettered markers for the most relevant results, the new version only overlays the business names of the top results.
Furthermore, the font size of the business names increases with relevancy, with the top results even showing a few keywords drawn from their "At a glance" Google+ data. The names that are shown and which are determined most "relevant" adjusts depending on how far you are zoomed in on a particular area.
With the elimination of the sidebar and the changes made to communicate relevance, never before has obtaining a top ranking made your business appear so dominant over the competition. Take a look at the two maps below; the first is a current view of restaurants in Grand Rapids, while the second is an updated version. Notice how much weight is put on the top results while dozens of restaurants remain nothing more than tiny dots.
Old Google Maps
New Google Maps
Without the sidebar and with the prominence of business names overlaying the map, local businesses now have increased opportunities with brand recognition.
Additionally, achieving higher rankings visually places more emphasis on your name, and gives you the opportunity to be lined up alongside your neighboring competitors with a more enhanced listing, which can have subconscious effects on customers.
In the screenshot below, the search was for "used cars near Grand Rapids, MI." At this zoom level, this area of the map displays three listings as nothing more than nameless dots, while four listings have their name in medium-sized print and two listings have their name in larger print, along with "At a glance" keywords displayed.
In reality, I'm looking at used car dealerships in a very specific area of town. Is one dealership actually more "relevant" than another in this case? No, they are all used car dealerships within 1/2 mile of each other. However, since certain ones "rank" higher than the others, they are displayed with much more prominence.
Deeper integration of reviews
By this point, it shouldn't be news to anyone that driving Google+ reviews is essential if you're going to be successful in local search rankings. Not surprisingly, more emphasis was placed on these reviews with the revamped Google Maps.
Previously, hovering over or clicking on markers only showed how many reviews a certain business had received. With the new version, hovering or clicking on a marker will also show you a ranking score on a new 5 star scale (as opposed to the sometimes confusing 30-point Zagat scale).
Additionally, you can now view map results by "Top Reviewers," or use the "by:experts" search operator, which only displays listings for the most favorably reviewed businesses.
The impact of this update is obvious: If you haven't done so already, start taking serious action on figuring out how to drive reviews for your business. Whether it is follow-up email or direct mail, or simply handing customers a card thanking them for their business and where they can go to leave a review, don't let your relationship with the customer end when they sign a check. That's not just good for reviews, that's just good business.
Deeper integration of Google+ (duh)
Google+ has become the mortar in Google's massive building of products. It ties everything together and the new Google Maps is no different. Not only do reviews and ratings have more prominence---especially with the ability to view by top reviewers---but you can also now view map listings according to the people in your circles.
Businesses with active, complete and optimized Google+ profiles will also benefit the most when users click to "Go to list of top results." As you can see below, unclaimed and underutilized profiles will most likely have a worse clickthrough rate since they don't have the visual appeal of a business with an attractive profile picture.
Extremely visual ads
One thing the ads on the new Google Maps are not, is subtle. Ads overlaying the map are shown with purple markers, purple boxes that say "Ad" and a snippet of just a few words of the ad copy. No matter how far you zoom in and out, the ad box stays the same size. Much like regular search results, PPC ads in maps will get you top prominence for as long as you're willing to pay for it.
Mobile (coming soon)
Not a ton is known about all the effects the new Google Maps will have on mobile search experiences since the next version for Android and iOS isn't due until this summer. What we do know is that like the desktop experience, the mobile experience will place more emphasis on reviews, with the ability to leave reviews directly through maps. We can also expect more personalized mapping, based on your current location, previous preferences and other factors which may determine where you'd like to go.
"At a glance" can be a huge advantage
As previously mentioned, for top ranking listings at varying zoom levels, the "At a glance" feature adds some keywords on the map without clicking or hovering which could help or hurt clickthrough rates on your listing. Google+ pulls these keywords from your profile and they can either be category names that you have selected, or a common theme they've picked up on in your reviews.
There are some caveats to how these keywords are selected, however. For example, if a lot of people are complaining about your customer service in reviews, you run the risk of "poor customer service" being displayed directly on the map, before customers can even click or hover over your listing.
On the other hand, this can also work in your favor. Since Google doesn't currently seem to incorporate much context into selecting the keywords, if numerous people are complaining about your prime rib, for example, Google may choose to display "prime rib" as an "At a glance" keyword, leading customers to assume at first glance that you must have great prime rib.
The "At a glance" keywords can also display a little bit of your business' culture and personality. For example, I've noticed keywords showing under listings that included everything from the names of unique, signature dishes to "worker owned." Also, by scanning the businesses in the map below, you can quickly get a sense of the atmosphere and what each Grand Rapids bar has to offer.
At the end of the day, it's up to Google+ on which keywords to display here, and to a degree your customers depending on what they are talking about in your reviews. However, you can influence this by selecting as many applicable categories for your business as possible while editing your Google+ profile.
The new changes to Google Maps not only give users some awesome features, but present some exciting opportunities for businesses that are willing to invest time into improving their relevancy in search results and engaging customers on Google+. In practice, not much has changed. Businesses should still be encouraging reviews, building local relevancy through links and content, taking control of local directories and their NAP (name, address, phone) across the web, and all of the other well-known best practices for improving local SEO.
The difference is that once you've gotten your name on the map (both literally and figuratively), never before has there been so much opportunity to make it truly stand out among the others.