Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an article pointing out how Google is increasingly favoring its own properties, in search results over natural results to outside sites which previously commanded the top spots. This practice is especially noticeable with Google Places and local results, but there are other examples as well from product and mortgage search to health search.
We’ve seen these spats before, particularly between Google and Yelp. Citysearch and Tripadvisor are also taking a traffic hit, it seems. Google responded yesterday with a post on its public policy blog titled “Local Search: It’s all about the best answers for users.”
Yeah, right. Don’t kid yourself. It’s all about what is best for Google. How else do you explain the preponderance of Google Places listings in local search results for queries such as “NY Chiropractor” (see screenshot) or “NYC spa”? In each case the top 7 links after the paid ads are businesses which just happen to have a Google Places page.
Is it just a coincidence that the top seven links in a row happen to be businesses with Google Places listings (which you can see by clicking on the Google Places links on the right). There is hardly any room on the all-important first page for any natural results below. What’s more, for the chiropractor search the first two Google Places results are ones with yellow “tags,” which are $25 local-search ad units targeted at small businesses. So even after the regular paid ads highlighted with a pink-shaded background, the next two results are also ads disguised as quasi-natural search results.
The Google Places results don’t always take up nearly the entire first page. Sometimes they come up in a single box with a smaller font, and just two lines each per listing. Try searching for “Columbus mechanic” or “NYC gym” and you will see what I mean.
Displaying local results this way is a little less in your face, but the end result is the same. In both cases, the main link still goes to the businesses’ own websites, but the Google Places links are also prominent. Either way, the message is clear to local businesses: list your profile in Google Places and you will have a better shot at appearing at the top of the first search results page.
Are these results better for users? It depends on how good are the Google Places listings. Some of them are very good, I will admit. But try any local search and I bet you will consistently get Google Places results, sometimes taking up most of page—not always at the very top, but always as a block. They can’t all be better than results for businesses which don’t happen to have a Google Places listing. Remember, Google Places is still fairly new and developing. Google is clearly using its main search page to push Google Places and make those listings more prominent. Over time, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy and those listings will be the best because businesses will learn that is the most important place to be in order to be found by Google.
No wonder other SEO-friendly local listings and reviews sites such as Citysearch, TripAdvisor, and Yelp are up in arms about this favoritism. They are being muscled out of their previous cosy spots by the search engine which makes all the rules.