Hang onto your seats! I have a feeling we are in for a wild ride!

There is a MAJOR Google Places update underway right now and MANY new changes keep showing up, so it’s not over with yet.

UPDATE 7/23/11 9 AM – Posted this in comments yesterday but wanted to highlight it up here as well. MANY other important insights are in comments so read below too. PLUS I have a TON of new info about all of this, so will be doing a new post today or Monday.

Good news! From what I can tell so far this was ONLY a front end cosmetic change NOT a back end change that affects the algo or ranking.

In some quick ranking checks I did Thursday night, it appears the lack of 3rd party reviews showing up in the count DID NOT affect rankings. Not in the rankings I’ve checked anyway. Regardless of how many 3rd reviews were removed from the COUNT everyone’s ranking stayed the same.

So I think DemandForce, Yelp, TripAdvisor and other reviews still totally count in the algo as far as rankings go. Google is just not showing them in the main review count in the SERPs or showing them in what used to be the 3rd party reviews section of the Place page.

So from what I’m seeing right now anyway, this does not devalue 3rd party review sources in terms of how much it helps with the rankings. Other reviews are still counted in the back end!

ALSO the citation section of the Place page is gone now. BUT all citations still count in the ranking, just as they did before. Plus the additional details no longer show on the Place page but Vanessa says they still weigh into the algo. More on all that later…

CONTINUED from July 21st – The most important change is the way Google counts and shows 3rd party reviews. I’ll use Dentistry as an example of how much this is going to shake up just ONE industry. Search for San Francisco Dentist. Most of the Dentists in the top results have over 50 reviews. 2 of them had over 200 reviews due to DemandForce. Now Google is only showing 0 – 5 reviews for most of them in the main review count above the Place page link. I just called my friend and who’s in charge of Google integration at DemandForce to find out how they are weathering this storm and we compared notes.

Think about industries like hotels who have 500+ reviews from Trip Advisor, Yelp, City Search et all. Or restaurants and all their 3rd party reviews. One other change is the addition of a new big red “Write a Review” button on Place pages (which is great!). The message is clear. Google wants to own the reviews market and this is a bold step in that direction! Here’s a link to the official Google blog regarding the update, but see more commentary below.

Google LatLong: The Ongoing Evolution of Place Pages

Based on careful thought about the future direction of Place pages, and feedback we’ve heard over the past few months, review snippets from other web sources have now been removed from Place pages. Rating and review counts reflect only those that’ve been written by fellow Google users, and as part of our continued commitment to helping you find what you want on the web, we’re continuing to provide links to other review sites so you can get a comprehensive view of locations across the globe.

So while it’s clear Google is putting more emphasis on their own reviews now. What isn’t crystal clear to me yet is all the changes will affect rankings.

As of right now (subject to change on a whim) 3rd party reviews seem to not be counted in the SERPS and they don’t show up in the main count at the top of your Place page. (They do show in light gray, just aren’t part of the main obvious count patients are used to seeing.) I work directly with other top industry experts and we are trying to determine if this review change is affecting ranking or or only the number of reviews that show in the count. Also trying to determine if there was an algo change or just a data/display change.

I’ve only had time to check one clients rankings so far. I had just taken from #16 to #2 on Sunday by doing SEO on his web site, which was great! But then today in addition to all these other changes Google changed the SERPs in his market from “blended” to 7 pack. That algo depends (or used to) more on the number of reviews and he doesn’t have any yet.

Just wanted to post a quick update so no one would panic they saw a big ranking drop, a review drop or if they started experiencing problems with your Place page. It could be a bumpy ride over the next few days. Normally when Google does a major update like this, things break. There were a few new major bugs the past few days I’ve been working with Google on. Now I think now they could have all been due to the update we are starting to see today. Will post updates later as I decipher all the changes.

Here are links to other places that are discussing the changes.

Google Places Testing New Layout

Google Places Search No Longer Showing 3rd Party Review Counts?

Google Places Stops Stealing Reviews – TechCrunch

Here are a few quick notes about cosmetic/data change to Place pages: New big red “Write a Review” button (which is great!). Citations and the more about this Place section appear to be gone. I think the more details section is gone as well.

Check your Place Page and note below if you find anything else that’s missing or added.

Did you lose reviews? Did your ranking also change?

I’m comparing notes with several pros on various blogs, private chat rooms and mastermind groups. We are trying to document and figure out all the changes.

I’ll say it again. It could be a bumpy ride. Fasten. Seat. Belts.
I need to go do some deep breathing or something.
Stay tuned for updates.