It probably will come as no surprise to you that today the Internet is the number one resource consumers use to find local businesses like dentists. That’s why establishing a strong online presence — especially on Google — is now essential to the marketing plan of any dental practice looking to gain new patients and grow their business. Consequently, when Google recently announced major changes to its local listings interface, many local businesses — including dental practices — were concerned with how the change would affect their online presence.
In summary, Google replaced Google Places pages — the platform through which local businesses claimed and also edited their local business listings connected to the map in Google search results — with the new Google+ Local pages. In the weeks since the change, our team at Yodle — which works with over 1,000 dental practices and more than 30,000 local small businesses — has been closely monitoring the impact of this latest Google change on dental practices. However, before getting to that, let’s first briefly take a look at exactly what’s changed and why Google has made the changes in the first place. Finally, I’ll share some of the takeaways and tips we’ve learned so that you can best take action to optimize your own practice’s online presence.
What is Google+ and why does it matter to Google?
Today, consumers spend as much as one-third of their time online on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and Google has been keen to get in on the social media wave for quite some time. With Google+, Google finally seems to be accomplishing this goal—to the tune of 250 million registered users, a considerable increase over the 10 million reported only a year earlier. Still, despite impressive user growth, Google+ seems to be lagging in engagement when compared with Facebook.
Enter Google+ Local. Google’s new strategy appears to be that when consumers search for local businesses on Google, they’ll now be exposed to Google+ Local pages, and hopefully will become heavier Google users themselves. This integration is one of Google’s attempts to increase engagement on Google +. The company believes that consumers will want to interact with small business owners they discover through Google Maps.
With Google+ Local, Google+ becomes a big deal
With the introduction of Google+ Local, Google has effectively started a phased approach to explicitly embed Google+ in the search experience. When a link for a pinned maps listing in a search results page is clicked, consumers are now taken to the Google+ Local page instead of Google Places. Since it’s estimated that one in four searches on the Internet are “local searches,” Google+ is suddenly a big deal for local businesses … and should be one for your dental practice!
“Google+ Local” pages contain much of the same functionality as Google Places pages, albeit with a more robust user interface and richer data, including Zagat ratings (Google acquired Zagat last year) and curated overviews for many businesses. One potentially frustrating aspect of the change for businesses is that consumers now have to join Google+ in order to leave a review on a business’s Google+ Local page. While this may actually result in higher quality reviews by decreasing the volume of malicious or fictitious reviews, this new dynamic also creates potential challenges. It is, after all, already difficult enough (albeit incredibly important) to request and then secure reviews from happy patients without having to worry about additional barriers to action.
Minor changes aside, our data suggests that in the short term, this phase of the migration to Google+ Local pages is more of a rebrand for Google Places than an overhaul of the way in which it operates and ranks businesses. Assuming you’ve already invested heavily in getting your practice to show up prominently in the Maps section of the search engines, this is good news … for now. It seems likely though that the “social signal” will become increasingly important in search rankings and that businesses will therefore greatly benefit in spending more time in establishing a true social presence on Google+ by regularly providing rich content and posting updates.
Maximizing Google+ Local for your practice
Now for the important part — What do all these changes mean for your practice and how can you leverage them to improve your online presence? Here are four steps that we would recommend:
1. Claim your place on Google
If you haven’t already, it is more critical than ever to claim your listings on Google. This step involves registering at the old Google Places URL: www.google.com/places. From there, follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices when entering your profile information, such as including target keywords in the “description” and “category” fields. For instance, if you specialize in cosmetic procedures such as “teeth whitening” and “veneers,” make sure those terms are prominent in your profile. As final steps, don’t forget to include your phone number (ideally with a local area code) and to upload photos.
2. Maintain your place on Google
There’s obviously less work involved for those dental practices that have already established a Google Places page. These dentists will essentially need to focus on the upkeep of the content in the same way they did before Google implemented these changes.
3. Create a Google+ Business Page
You can create a separate Google+ Business Page at www.google.com/+/business/. These pages are different from Google+ Local pages. You can use Google+ Business pages to target and publish information to select circles of people who have “plussed” your practice. Other features like Huddle and Hangouts are also unique and powerful ways to communicate with your audience.
4. Secure customer reviews on Google
Quality customer reviews have always improved rankings in search results, but Google just upped the ante. With Google+ Local, a customer’s recommendations will appear to all of the people he or she is connected with on Google+. Don’t gloss over the importance of still securing reviews on the likes of Yelp or CitySearch, but Google really should be the priority now.
Long-term benefits of building a social presence
This may seem like a lot of work, but the benefits compound over time. Making the effort to build a presence on Google+ Local should have a major impact on your practice’s online visibility and help establish credibility in the eyes of potential new patients, all of which is likely to have a positive impact on your practice.