Any local business who is even remotely in touch with the use of the internet to market their business to new customers is aware of online review websites like Yelp, Insiderpages and Google+. In many cases, the overwhelming majority of the traffic that moves to a website through a search engine is provided by localized results that are pushed through a Google+ listing that ranks within the area that the SEO business calls the "maps pack," which is a specific area on the first page of search results that is dedicated only to local businesses that have provided locational information through a specific listing. The "maps pack" usually consists of either seven or three listings of local businesses, ranked by a number of factors ranging from the distance of the location from your device's location, to the information that is contained within the associated website that is connected to the account. Recently, results that have been seen over the last year or so within these sections have shifted dramatically, the result of an un-named algorithm change Google has put forth around the end of July. Insiders are calling this update "pidgeon" in advance of an official name. The update adds hundreds of new triggers that factor into "maps pack" rankings, giving special preferences to local directories and websites like Yelp. While these types of updates are generally done to improve the results that are delivered, loss of an established "maps pack" position can spell disaster for a local business who had previously believed that they were solid in their positions. In many cases, established businesses disappeared from the "maps pack" and in other cases the "maps packs" themselves disappeared from the results.
Google will flush out the ramifications of their changes over time, and will make adjustments to the ranking factors in order to deliver the results that they want to deliver, but the understanding of how to keep a business ranked within this section is crucial to small, local business owners. When Google makes changes of this scale, it upsets the strategies of those who are attempting to keep in line with what Google is requesting as it's rankings factors, and local seo experts must scramble to figure out what changes to the strategy must be made in order to regain positions. One element that is not up for debate as far as having a large influence on the localized rankings in the "maps packs" are testimonials and reviews from other local websites and directories. The most influential of these localized testimonial websites is Yelp, and many clients will do nearly anything to influence their Yelp rankings.
In one of the more interesting cases of Yelp manipulation, The Union Street Guesthouse in Hudson, NY has now enacted a policy that it will fine you $500 if you give them a bad review on Yelp. Within the terms of service that are signed upon check-in, the following clause has been added; "If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event."
This clause gives the Union Street Guesthouse the ability to charge your credit card on file $500 if they find that you are a guest has reviewed them poorly on Yelp. While this is expressly against the desires of Yelp itself to provide unbiased reviews, the typical actions that are undertaken by businesses is the reverse, offering to compensate clients for good reviews. It remains to be seen how Yelp will react to this policy, or how the public will react to the charges that are levied upon them if they express their opinion about their experience. What we do know is that this is just another speedbump in the progress toward fair and honest rankings of the best businesses on Google, and the process by which information makes it to consumers.
Raymond Santopietro is lead strategist for Focus Internet Services, which specializes in local seo for businesses.