11/21/10

Google Places: What Attorneys and Law Firms Need to Know - and Beware the Scams!

Google Places is a big deal for lawyers.  How big is Google Places for law firms and attorneys on the web?  Remains to be seen. 

The Onslaught of Cold Calls to Law Firms Pushing Google Places SEO Services - Beware of Scams!

I'd just had a week of clients (and fellow lawyers) contacting me in a panic after hanging up with hard-sell marketing cold calls pushing them to drop everything and deal with the purported game-changer of Google Places.  It's amazing what these internet marketing specialists are offering to attorneys who are too busy or too disinterested to investigate this new Google tactic for themselves.  Buyer beware, my friends.

Caveat: I'm a legal writer - not a SEO expert.  I do write optimized content, but I don't provide the usual panorama of search engine optimization services: no pay-per-click, etc.  I'm not interested in providing Google Place services, but I am concerned that scams concerning Google Places don't succeed.  And they are out there, and they're growing.

What is Google Places?

Google Places is a new service provided by Google that some may recognize as "place search."  It's a big deal because Google search results look different now, as a result of Google Places.  Now, for example, when you search for "injury law firm Houston" the first page of Google Search Results is filled with Google Place Results.

You sign up for free at Google Places.  You pay for "tags."  Your business gets reviewed by whomever wants to take the time to do so, and until recently, the business owner couldn't control negative reviews.  That's apparently been changed recently by Google.

Here's the Reason for the Brouhaha: Google Place sites get priority in search results. Your optmized web site is bumped down below the Place listings.

Google Place is being stuck atop the usual Google search results, and you can identify the Place sites by the little alphabetized red flag (A gets the highest rank, etc.) that is predominantly displayed next to the individual result description.  The flags correspond to the map that is shown in the right sidebar. 

So, no matter how much you paid some web marketing firm to optimize your site so you get in the top search results for your areas of practice or locality, you will be bumped by those Google Place listings to page 2 or 3 of the search results. 

What Can You - the Busy Attorney or Law Firm - Do About Google Places?

First, you can recognize that this is impacting web sites - not blogs.  Your blogs, established as a seperate domain name, will continue getting Google search results based upon the posts you are writing, etc.  Law firm blogs, or "blawgs," are safe. 

Second, you can do several things for yourself, for free and without much complication.  These include:

  1. Go to Google Places and list your law firm.  Put in the same info that you see on your business card.  Do not be creative here.  Resist the urge to do multiple listings: AttorneySync, for example, warns that this can result in Google penalizing your site as violating its quality guidelines.
  2. Take advantage of the free service, GetListed.org, and make sure that your firm appears in Bing, Yahoo, etc.  Why? Google is known to cross-reference these sites to make sure your Place information is accurate.  (In SEO lingo, these third party references are "citations.")  Your firm information (address, phone number, email address) needs to be exactly the same in all the citations for Google Place purposes.
  3. Access your web site and insure that it is filled with images, links, etc. that are local in nature.  Garrett French has already accumulated a list of forty-four (44) query tips to help you do this. 
Do you need to hire someone to do this?  From what I've read online, experts do not agree on this.  Should you decide to hire someone for Google Place services, then be sure that they are indeed an expert in this area -- and check what they're charging.  It's amazing the scamming going on out there -- and by some very, very "reputable" firms (for instance, charging for duplicate Place submissions despite the fact that Google may well penalize the duplication in the future).

What's Really Going On Here?  More Money for Google

Google is focusing upon providing localized search results not just because it's considered to be more convenient for the Google user -- Dustin Ruge explains that Google expects Google Places to make it lots of money.  According to Ruge:
Local search is one of the fastest growing categories online and Google now claims that 20% of their search queries are local in nature. Furthering this is the rapid growth in mobile search where Google now claims that over 100 million people conduct maps searches from their mobile devices each month. By 2013, mobile device searches are expected to exceed PC based searches. But Google makes money off the their paid advertising and when local online advertising is expected to grow at 18% compared to only 11% for all online advertising by 2011, it is little mystery why Google is looking to profit from it.
What's the Real Result?

Too soon to tell, I think.  Personally, the Place results bug me so much, that I'll switch over to Bing or Yahoo rather than deal with them.  Google Places feels manipulative to me as a user, I don't like it.

Second, law firms may need to avoid Google Places as it implements and encourages its review feature.  Recently, Google announced the addition of the HotPot recommendation service to Google Places.  In many states, bar ethic rules prohibit this sort of recommendation service for law firms

There's probably more fall out.  And, here's the thing:  Google Places isn't really helpful in finding the best lawyer for the client - because the best attorney for the particular matter isn't necessarily the law office that's closest in proximity. 

The real answer for attorneys to Google Places is to find a way to educate the public on this key issue (to the extent that the public doesn't recognize this simple fact already).  For me, that answer online is easy: blog. 
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