Google Places should sort out usability rather than SEOs that use virtual offices

Google Plus

There is a lot of confusion around Google+ Local (previously Google Places) at the moment regarding verification, uploads, images, naming convention etc. But whilst reading the blogs, discussion forums and Google’s own Guidelines it seems that Google would like to curtail the activity of some SEO companies that use Virtual offices to boost their client’s presence in local searches. The Search Engine is ramping up attempts to cut down the practice on the usage of multiple virtual offices or PO boxes to gain presence in Google Places or Google+ Local (an activity that IP has never undertaken). But will Google actually be able to do this? How will it manage and police this process? Should it even bother?

Background to Google Places and Google Local+:

Google introduced Google+ Pages for business along with its Google+ user accounts over a year ago. Then in May of this year Google stated that it was to get rid of Google Places and replace it with Google+ Local pages.

The previous 80 million worldwide listings on Google Places were automatically converted into individual Google+ Local pages. A big job for any corporation. However, the “places” tab still exists in the search engine results.

There still seems to be much confusion over what it is called, how businesses set up their pages and where users can find a business.

What the Google Guidelines say in regards to multiple areas:

  • Do not create a listing or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist.
  • P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations.
  • Businesses that operate in a service area, as opposed to a single location, should not create a listing for every city they service.

So Google doesn’t actually mention vital offices but it does mention the cheaper more old fashioned PO boxes and states that you can’t use an address where the business does not physical exist.

What are Virtual Offices?

A Virtual office is a business address available to businesses where they don’t actually have personnel at that address and is generally based in an office address that is serviced by a management company. Businesses can receive their mail, get certain phone calls forwarded to an allocated number and can indeed register their business officially at that address. As the virtual office is usually within a serviced office the business can choose to have additional services such as meeting and conference rooms and virtual PA services too. Fees for such a service can range from around £15 a month to £100 depending on the location and the additional services.

How Virtual Offices are Used for SEO purposes

SEO agencies are using virtual offices more to gain traction in local search through Google Places in two ways.

Firstly as you read in the Google guidelines above, businesses are only allowed to put their physical addresses into Google Places rather than spam their content with every possible city in the country.

However, what does a nationwide business do if it wants to cover the major search terms for “Brighton Recruitment” and “Glasgow Recruitment” if it is an online business that can cover all these areas? So virtual offices have been used to gain these “physical addresses”.

The second reason for doing this is the usage by Google to place the first pin on the search map as close to the centre of that town as possible. This was done by postcode. Businesses soon realised that even if they had a business in the outskirts of the town they would be on page 5 of the local search results. So they bought virtual office space nearer to the centre of town. Google however has changed this dynamic in its reporting.

Google Maps google places

More important things to look in Google Places

Virtual offices are low down on the list of issues with Google Places. Major issues for me that come above virtual offices are:

  • The user journey is currently a mess
  • Get the naming right, it’s called “places” in the search engine, google+ Local on the individual pages
  • Verification takes an age
  • The automated document is very confusing
  • The address layout needs a street name first, before a building name – this is not obvious
  • Too many false reviews all over the site
  • Local has inherited previous keyword stuffing and spam

If it’s ok for the Government why is it not ok for Google?

We’ve never undertaken this activity at IP, but in my opinion, Google will find it difficult to police these virtual office listings. Many of the listings, as mentioned are part of Serviced offices already, which have the same address (minus the suite number) as many others within that building. Furthermore this activity is ultimately a way for business to work their way around the (virtual mess) that is Google+ Local. Plus, if businesses are permitted to have these addresses as their official business addresses at company’s house, then why not allow them to have it on Google Places / Google+ Local?