Google Places ChangesOn July 21, 2011 Google announced significant changes to the look of Google Places.  At first glance, the changes appear to be devastating to local search professionals who make a living in the arena…but not so fast.

What Has Changed in Google Places?

The most obvious change is that third-party reviews are no longer shown in the Google Places listing.  However, the listings still in most cases include links to third-party local search profiles.

The scariest change for local SEOs is the removal of citations at the bottom of the Places listing.  Citations was the easiest method for researching opportunities to improve a ranking for a Google Places listing – as well as track growth beyond simple statistics.

The net result is that Google Places listings are far simpler looking – which should translate into easier (and hopefully broader) use by consumers.

The (Apparent) Impact on Search Engine Ranking

Initial survey of over 50 Google Places listings that we have managed for over 1 year indicate that the changes have thus far not impacted search engine ranking within the Places system at all.  Either Google is still transitioning the changes with regards to rankings – or the changes are purely cosmetic.  We’ll continue to track this aspect – which is certainly the most critical potential component of any change in Google.

The Reasons for the Changes

Google rarely makes changes without good reason – even though they rarely publicize the reasons.

The general consensus is that the removal of third-party reviews is likely to reduce – if not eliminate – Google’s potential legal liability in relation to publishing third-party data that they cannot effective manage.  Just Google “Yelp Lawsuits” and you’ll get an eye-full detailing the legal liabilities of not managing reviews properly.

The reason for removing citations is less obvious, but we believe it is partially related to similar third-party liabilities as well as the fact that the citations rarely added anything to the equation when it came to evaluating the customer experience.  Citations served quite literally as footnotes and as such became expendable.  HOWEVER, it apears quite obvious that Google is still using citations as part of the ranking equation despite not publicizing them in the Google Places listings.

Perhaps the most critical reason for the changes is related to Google’s apparent desire to keep visitors from leaving Google where-ever possible. By removing both third-party review links and citations, Google essentially minimizes the opportunity for visitors to continue researching a business using resources other than Google.

At the same time, the changes appear to make Google’s review system (and perhaps eventually Google’s new social media venture – Google+) an even bigger player in local search dynamics.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you want to continue tracking citations, we’ve found this free tool that appears to do the job:

In terms of reviews, it looks like Google is attempting to make sure that your Google Places listing becomes yet another link that businesses include in their core marketing strategies.  Businesses now list their website, Facebook, Twitter and a few occasional odds and ends.  With the change in the review process, it now appears that businesses may want to start listing their Google Places listing as well.  Which begs the questions – When will Google allow businesses to claim a vanity URL for their Places listing?

Thankfully, the changes appear to be far more cosmetic than not.  We’ll continue to track the impact of these changes because, quite frankly, our livelihood depends on it.