There is lots of controversy about Google’s newest change to the Google Places guidelines. I’ve been pretty much in the middle of this issue, but decided to hold off on blogging til today. This is a very complicated and multi-faceted issue. Below are a few of my thoughts. But 1st the back story and the new guideline for those that missed the news. In a nutshell – Hide your address or risk losing your Place page if you have a home based or service business and don’t see customers at your location.

Toward the beginning of March, Andrew Shotland reported having his Place page removed by Google for not hiding his address. Then I started noticing a few reports in the forum from users saying they got a call from Google questioning if they had a home business and saw customers there, then suddenly their Place page was gone.

At that time there was nothing in the guidelines, so I did not feel it was fair to penalize businesses for something that was not even expressly prohibited. I voiced my concern to Google because the only place it was even mentioned was buried 5 links deep in the user guide that said. “Don’t receive customers at your location? Serve customers at their location? Select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option within your dashboard — if you don’t hide your address, your listing may be removed from Google Maps.”
Hard to find, easy to miss!

My hope in talking to Google about inconsistent actions, (IE penalizing for unwritten rules) was that they would reconsider the penalty of removing Place pages. Instead they decided to make the policy official and add to the guidelines. So I have to say it’s good that at least, that this is out in the open and policy and penalties are spelled out. Here’s the new guideline added 3/23.

If you don’t receive customers at your location, you must select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option within your dashboard. If you don’t hide your address, your listing may be removed from Google Maps.

At 1st I thought this was unfair and I still see lots of cases where this policy doesn’t make sense. But when Vanessa explained it at Mike’s blog, it became more clear why Google is doing this. Vanessa said: “As Mike points out, showing your address is still an option. You can show your address if you legitimately serve customers there, even if it is a private home. The purpose here is to avoid a bad user experience: User goes to a place listed on Google Maps only to find that it’s a private home and they’re not taking customers there.

However the problem I still have with it, is it was not adequately publicized prior to penalizing. Deleting a businesses Place page is serious business. The world still thinks hiding your address is AS GOOGLE HAS ALWAYS PRESENTED IT – a FEATURE or OPTION for those that work from home and CHOOSE to hide address for security reasons.

HECK in several places Google STILL says it’s “just an option” you can CHOOSE. So their messaging isn’t even consistent yet and they’ve been deleting Place pages that violate this previously unwritten rule for awhile.

Google Places HOME PAGE – MAIN FAQ – “What if I don’t have a store or office? If you work from home or you are a mobile business you can specify a “service area” in the sign up process and choose to hide your physical address.

User Guide – Getting started with a local business listing on Google Places– “If you work from home or you are a mobile-only business you can specify service areas and choose to hide your physical address later on!”

EXAMPLES in the forum of home businesses that got their Place page pulled: URGENT Vanessa please respond, after a call from Maps India yesterday my address was taken from my listing Problem reported 3/16. Place page still not back up even though he says he sees customers at his home office. Help business listing keeps disappearing then I report it and it comes back?

Even though I don’t totally agree with this policy and the way it was handled… one thing I learned a long time ago and even teach in my Advanced Google Places Optimization Training is “Learn to THINK like Google and it will make your life easier and things will make more sense.” So one thing to keep in mind with Google organic and even MORE SO with Places is that a large majority of the focus is on stopping or minimizing spam. With GP there is not only spam, but scams, fake Places, hijacking, outright fraud and all kinds of shady methods people use to game the system. Unfortunately many are home businesses and MANY of the industries that are typically spammy like locksmiths, plumbers and carpet cleaners are service businesses that sometimes don’t have offices.

What about ranking you ask? Isn’t hiding your address the kiss of death for rankings? I believe it used to be, but I don’t think that’s the case any more. Certainly not with blended rankings because they are controlled by organic factors not Places factors. I don’t work with service area businesses but I see round marker/hidden address listings that rank high all the time. I just did a minor test, hid the address on a listing and did before and after ranking reports. No significant difference. It wasn’t a great example for testing though. So I have a friend doing testing on a couple HVAC clients and will let you know if there is anything significant to report.

The big thing businesses will lose when they hide their address IMHO, is possibly some conversions. When I am in the very beginning process of searching for a service provider, let’s just say an accountant. If they had a different marker than others an no address, as a consumer I would tend to skip over them and be unsure why they “looked” different than the others. If it was a plumber and I had an emergency I’d want to see where they were all located thinking maybe someone closer to me could get here faster. If it was appliance repair or a company that may charge a travel surcharge, I want to see EXACTLY where everyone is located on the map to find someone close to my location.

There has been some great coverage and lots of heated discussion about this topic I encourage you to read. I’ve been under the weather so am pretty late on this story, but even though most local SEOS may know about this by now I bet TONS of SMBs still don’t, so maybe I can still help some of them learn about this important new guideline change.

Why You May Need To Hide Your Google Places Address ASAP
Miriam Ellis @ SEOmoz

Don’t Serve Clients at Your Business? Hide Your Location – Or else
Mike Blumenthal

Is Google’s New Requirement to Hide a Home Business Appropriate?
Mike Blumenthal

Hide Your Google Places Address Or To Heck With You – Miriam Ellis

Important Google Places Change For At-Your-Door Service Based Business (And Google Place Spammers) – Matthew Hunt