It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the recent discovery of a survey sent to Google My Business managers including pay-to-play GMB features sent a shockwave through the local SEO industry.
It’s probably equally fair to say that, should even a few of these paid-for features (such as Google search results placements, verified reviews or promoted map pins) come to fruition, the industry would change completely.
Here’s a couple of screenshots showing the full list of features mentioned in the survey:
That’s a lot of potential features, every one of which could benefit businesses, and one of which has already come to fruition in the form of Google’s new call intelligence and automation system, CallJoy.
Some features, like offers, videos, Google customer support and the “Book” button already exist for free in some fashion, while others, such as “Get leads from competitor profiles” upend the GMB experience so drastically that you probably spat out your tea (hey, I’m British) when you read it.
Speaking of tea, let’s take a look at those tea leaves. What do you see?
What would a ‘pay-to-play’ Local Pack look like?
Just imagine a Local Pack in which businesses taking the top three results have all paid through the nose for priority placement, featured reviews, promoted map pins and Google guarantee badges.
Not one of the listings would stand out, and we’d pretty much be back to where we are now, where proximity, relevance and prominence rule the roost. The only difference? We’ve just given Google a lot of money just to avoid tanking our listings. If that’s not a protection racket, I don’t know what is.
Let’s not get lost in the tea leaves, though. It’s easy to lose sight of the people who really matter; the customers. Would the average user care, or even notice, if GMB changed this much?
Where do consumers really go for local business information?
Looking at the results of a recent BrightLocal survey (my company), one could advocate for the devil and say, well, actually, your bucks would be better spent on your website.
For example, 56% of respondents (U.S. consumers) believe that the business website is the most likely to contain accurate information. The 32% who believe GMB is the place to go is comparatively low.
While this obviously doesn’t mean that businesses should abandon GMB, it does question those that believe that GMB is the be-all and end-all of online marketing agency for some local businesses.
Business websites aren’t just a source of information for Google. They’re still the destination for many consumers and one that offers unique opportunities to highlight brand personality in a way that the sterile, ubiquitous GMB format doesn’t allow.
How are consumers using Business Profiles right now, though? Are the features we might have to pay for even worth the potential outlay?
As the aforementioned survey data shows, there’s a definite potential for dedicated and paid-for ‘Book Now’ buttons to be worth your while, as 23% of respondents have booked a hotel room through GMB and 19% say they’ve booked a table in a restaurant.
Elsewhere, recent GMB additions like Posts and Q&A don’t seem to be having quite as much of an impact. Only 13% say they’ve ever read a Google Post, while 10% have asked a question and 6% have answered one. That’s a lot of unanswered questions!
But what’s this? An impressive 38% of respondents said they had visited the business website through a business profile?! That’s over a third of GMB views ending with a click through to the website, which corresponds nicely with the large proportion of respondents trusting website info most.
A question of trust
We’ve established that paid-for GMB features would be a handy new revenue stream for Google, but is that all that there is to it?
As I’ve already talked about at length, Google has a serious problem with GMB spam. Although processes are in place to technically prevent it, they are utterly toothless, leading to a situation that’s just getting worse and worse and leading to a lot of faith lost in the legitimacy of Google Local listings.
Now take a look at some of those features in the survey list: Verified reviews, Google Guarantee, Background check, Verified licenses and Verified bookings.
That’s a lot of features designed to boost trust in business listings. In fact, features centered around trust and verification make up 25% of all those listed, and knowing the current state of Google My Business, it’s not hard to see why.
Even the most cynical of those wondering what steps Google might take to tackle spam would likely be hard-pressed to say “monetize it,” but that looks suspiciously like what’s going on with these trust features, at least if Google charges for them.
Yelp has already gone down this route with its “Verified” badge and, depending on who you listen to, the veracity of these badges is either bulletproof or up for debate. What’s not really up for debate is that Yelp is monetizing a lack of trust in certain business types by charging to vouch for them.
And so it is with Google, though with deeper consequences. Faced with a spam problem getting out of control, they seem to be charging businesses to highlight their legitimacy and trustworthiness rather than investing in better spam removal technology.
Could paying for GMB features be a good thing?
To avoid offering a one-sided argument, I spoke with Steady Demand’s Ben Fisher, a Google Gold Product Expert with years of experience on the front lines of GMB management, to see what he made of the survey.
“It appears this survey was a half-baked idea someone had. We know that Google need to monetize a service – they are a business, after all – and this survey looks like they have a bunch of ideas, some good, some real bad, and wanted to throw them against the wall to see what stuck.
“Some of the features make sense and some are, in part at least, already available. For instance, from Local Services Ads – which was born as a solution to spam – came Google Guarantee, Verified Licenses, and Background Checks. And the Promoted Map Pin is already available to large chains with huge ad budgets.
“Personally, I would be a cheerleader for any of these features to be paid services. Others from the list I’d love to see are Verified Reviews and Featured Reviews, as they present more ways to combat spam.”
However, Ben’s outlook isn’t entirely rosy. He’s not a fan of the potential of guaranteed placement in search, and says that ads on competitor profiles and the proposed ability to get leads from competitor messages are “horrid propositions.”
“Think about it: yes, it may be interesting to you now. But what happens when you get a message and your competitor scoops up the lead because you were, oh, I don’t know, working on your business instead!
“At the end of the day, Google My Business does not have the internal resources to properly police spam, keep up with support or have all the solutions in place that SMBs are looking for. So this makes sense: monetize it.”
Where is Google My Business heading next?
Google My Business is often referred to as a “free service,” and while I can’t contest that, right now at least, it’s technically “free,” I’m skeptical about the “service” tag.
It’s only a service in the same way that providing businesses with a postcode or a bank account is a service, such is Google’s monopoly on the business discovery game.
However, if what this survey portends comes true, we may be playing an entirely different ball game – a game in which participation is mandatory, the playing field is no longer level and only those with the deepest pockets and biggest sponsors can hope to reach the upper leagues.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.