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I’m not losing sleep over Google+ Local’s missing custom categories

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Mike Blumenthal recently drew attention to the lack of category choices we’re all going to have to get used to in the new Google+ Local dashboard. Previously, we’d be able to create an additional 4 custom categories to describe our business services more accurately besides the one that Google provides. And we did so in hopes of giving us a better chance of showing up for those keywords.

This lack of choice has gotten a lot of Local SEO’s up in arms because as Mike points out:

“Categories are a critical piece of how Google determines the relevance (not rank) of a listing in local search and there are so few categories that the consumer search results will likely not show businesses that should be shown.”

Who am I to argue with “Professor Maps” as the Local SEO world affectionately calls him (and he deserves that distinction), but this just doesn’t make sense to me. I must be missing something. Isn’t that like saying Google doesn’t know what a web page is relevant for without the meta keywords tag it deprecated so long ago? If we rely on custom-made categories to group businesses into buckets, then aren’t we turning over the wheel to reckless drivers? 

Now I’m not saying Google hasn’t used categories to classify Google Place and Maps pages in the past. I’m just saying I can’t see how the absence of custom categories will negatively affect Google’s ability to assign relevancy. Perhaps the following example is proof of that.

Is he a DJ or a dance teacher?

Hayes Kolb of Sugar Rhythm Dance is unique in that he is a DJ and a dance instructor and he even combines them for the same event. So he has, historically, included a portion of his DJ website to dance instruction – even though he also maintains a separate website dedicated to dance lesson business.

Unfortunately it’s the DJ site that comes up for dance lesson queries though. I won’t get into why in this post, but I wanted to show you the harm it’s causing him especially now that Google is showing their Carousel for a search on one  his important keyword phrases – “san jose wedding dance lessons.” Take a look.

Google+ Local Carousel

Note that Sugar Rhythm has high rank in organic for his wedding dance page on his DJ site. That’s fine and good. But note that he is also showing in the Carousel. You’d think that would be great – it’s double exposure! But notice the title of his Carousel listing and note how it compares to others when someone comes looking for dance lessons.
Google Carousel business titles

Clearly since he appears to be a DJ and not a dance teacher, I’m afraid that Carousel listing isn’t helping him much, if at all, and he needs to fix that.

Google Maps

So why is Google showing a DJ’s site in a list of dance teachers?

The answer is simple. Those businesses in the Carousel are all local businesses with Google+ Local pages. In fact, if you go to Maps and search on the same keywords, you’ll see the same results as you’d see in the Carousel. That is demonstrated in the screenshot on the right.

And notice who is NOT there? The same dance studio that is not in the Carousel – Lesley Dance. With a little research I found out that Lesley Dance does in fact have a Google+ Local page, but it has not been claimed. (Lesley, if you’re listening, please go claim your page and your rightful place in the Carousel.)

So the connection between the Carousel and claimed Google+Local pages is clear.

But why does Google think a DJ listing belongs in a dance lesson query?

We already know Sugar Rhythm combines dance with DJ on his website. Did he do that for his Google+ page too perhaps so that Google finds his page relevant for this query?

Look closer and you’ll see “wedding services” listed as a category  for him under his phone number. I find it interesting that no one else has that callout. Is he the only one who entered anything related to weddings as a category? Seems unlikely, but  even if he is, he entered ‘wedding services’ as his category – not wedding dance lessons! If it was only the category that got Hayes in the query results, why wouldn’t we be seeing other wedding service providers in San Jose, such as DJs, florists, photographers, etc., in that Carousel roundup?

How did Google make the dance connection?

I called Hayes and asked him to look at his listing from the backend, and I found out it was optimized for his DJ services only. There is absolutely no mention of dance lessons in his profile. None. So how is Google making the connection to wedding dance lessons?

  1. Sugar Rhythm has a well-optimized website for the keywords wedding dance lessons. It has an entire page devoted to it and a top tier navigational link.
  2. He is in a “dance lessons” category at YP.com.
  3. He is in a “dance schools” category at Yelp.
  4. The word dance is in his business name (although the word “lessons” is not).
  5. The word “wedding” is in a category he assigned to himself.

Google clearly is checking other sources to determine relevancy – not just its own categories, and it was spot on in pulling up Sugar Rhythm for my query. Without those other signals, I’m sure he would not have come up.

And now we also know why we’re not seeing wedding photographers, wedding florists and other wedding service providers in the Carousel. Clearly they don’t have what Sugar Rhythm has in terms of website and off site signals.

I trust you Google.

So am I concerned that the inability to add custom categories in the new Google+ Local dashboard will effect on my clients’ ability to rank for their service keywords? I may be naive, but no, not at all.

Google wants the same the thing it always has – to return the most relevant results for queries into its search engine. It seems to me that it might be tired of tripping up on all the category spamming that has been going on for a long while, and rather than write algorithms to filter out the spam, it just decided to get better at reading authentic signals elsewhere to determine relevancy instead, just as it did with Sugar Rhythm, and just as its done with all its search processes across the board.

What will happen when Sugar Rhythm’s Google+ Local dashboard gets upgraded?

Sugar Rhythm profile has not yet been affected by the Google+ Local upgrade that Professor Maps spoke about and is still benefiting from his “wedding services” category. But when it does get upgraded and he loses that custom category, will we be seeing something different? How much weight does that word “wedding” in his custom category have for the search results? Will he disappear from the Carousel even though he has other on-site and off-site signals screaming the fact that he gives dance lessons? I’ll be watching anxiously to see what happens. So stick around. I’ll let you know.

I’m leading. You follow, Hayes.

In conclusion, Hayes, I know it must be exciting to see your business featured so prominently in the Carousel, but whether Google thinks you are relevant or not, people looking for dance lessons and seeing a DJ service there won’t.

So let’s give them something to get excited about, Hayes. Running two very different businesses under the same umbrella has been a marketing challenge for you from day one. Your plans to separate them into two different websites now is a good one. That will definitely help you segment your audience and optimize for different keywords.

But are you a tailor or a hot dog stand? Let’s get clear.

But read Keenan’s comment below. He points out that creating separate websites and calling them different businesses is against Google’s guidelines. Even though you and I know you’re  really making a concerted effort to separate the two businesses, it’s not enough for Google, and I’m glad Keenan brought that to our attention. The only way to do that legitimately is to get another business license for your dance lesson business. Then you can  go create a new Google+ Local page for it. When you do, be sure to put “Sugar Rhythm Dance” in the business name field because that’s what it is, then point your listing to your dance website. Then we need to go to work and optimize that dance lesson website so it shows up, as well as do some Local SEO and create and clean up your local citations so that Google knows what’s what.

Little bit of work, but worth the effort I think. I will add for the benefit of the audience here, that this is not recommended for everyone. A plumber, for example, would not set up a Jack’s Plumbing, Jack’s Air Conditioning, and Jack’s Heating business. Hayes is doing this because his target market for each is so very different with very little overlap that it really is in his best interest to separate them.

And if I tell you the story about the tailor shop here in Saratoga, you’d understand. If you were to query tailor in Saratoga, and then show up on their doorstep, you’d be confused as hell by the big, neon 99-cent hot dog sign at the door. Is it a tailor or is it a hot dog stand, you’d wonder? And when you walked in, you still wouldn’t be sure because you’d see clothes hanging around like you would in a dry cleaners, but more prominent would be the dining bar. So what are they? A tailor or a hot dog stand? If they asked me to help with their brand development, I’d have a heck of a time, the same as their target market has in understanding what their value proposition is. They certainly have a differentiator though; I will give them that.

After Hayes really separates his two businesses, it will be much clearer to his audience and to Google who he is and what he does, and his marketing and SEO will also be that much easier.

Here’s hopin’ I’ll be seeing Sugar Rhythm Dance next time I query San Jose dance lessons. But if we also see Sugar Rhythm DJ Services, well that must mean that Google still sees that you are a DJ that gives dance lessons in San Jose, even if you don’t have dance lessons as your category.

And please, other Local SEOs if you are reading this, weigh in. Is there any evidence of fallout from the lack of customer categories yet? If you think there will be, why? Love to hear your opinions.


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Kathy (aka Kat) is one of the internet's original Digital Divas and freely shares her expertise in the fields of web design, SEO, Local SEO, social media marketing, content development, PPC, and conversion optimization to help businesses succeed online. Sadly, she's allergic to cats.

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