Google Places: Broken, Beta Or Just Flawed?

For weeks now (actually it seems more like months) we here at Fresh Egg have noticed a multitude of what appear to be different versions of Places affecting organic listings in Google.  Sometimes, they appear as if they have been blended in to the results themselves, only identifiable by their little places icon and a letter, but that has also meant a drop in the listings for some of our clients.  We’ve also seen the short list, appearing as a self contained listing of its own (much like the old local results)  and in turn appearing anywhere from the top position on the page right down to position four and ranging from just three  results right up to nine.  The important difference here seems to be that they don’t interact or affect the organic listings themselves, thus place drops are limited to just one, if they occur at all.

Then there is the mix of the two which has started cropping up in the last couple of months. They aren’t fully blended results, but do get close. The results are usually displayed as if they were part of the organic results, but usually come in a sequence before returning back to organic. These are potentially as devastating (if not more so) than the blended search results. Again they seem to range from three results up to nine.

We’ve been studying, researching and carrying out experiments on the new version of Places to find out how it works. I hasten to add that the purpose of this research was not to”game” the system in any way!   We just wanted to understand why it displays what it displays and see if we could find any patterns. Those patterns would enable us to provide advice and guidance to our clients on the best course of action regarding local. For example, would it be better to be in local for a particular kind of business or would concentrating on organic prove more beneficial?

Interestingly our results, despite having solid foundations and good data sets to work from, proved somewhat, err, odd.  The correct conclusion to arrive at about Google Places could equally well be that it  is either flawed or just plain  broken or pehpaps totally logical and genius!  Before you take your pick, read the rest of this piece and then decide for yourself!

Location, Location, Location?

We tested the theory that perhaps the location or size of the location you searched in may play a part in determining the type of results listing you received as well as influencing the range of the map.   We also looked at the product or key phrase attached to it and how this would contribute to not only what was displayed but also if Places should display at all.

After all, those looking for a “Chicken Farm London” were less likely to show up in Places than say a search for “Offices in Manchester”.   But we also then tested what would happen when you attach a phrase you know produces fully blended results to a town or small village and specifically those near big cities.

The theory ought to be sound.   After all, London is bigger than Brighton, which in turn is bigger than Lancing or Ovingdean. Logic would therefore suggest that the same product for these different locations should produce different styles of Places results and decreasingly less results dependant on the city size.   Of course, we believed we should also factor in whether there is a concentration of particular types of business in any given location. For instance, if we found that 14 computer companies were based in the tiny village of Ovingdean and only one in Lancing, then regardless of the size of the village/town, it would surely show more results for the place that had a larger concentration of businesses for that term.  Sounds logical huh?

Not so, according to our studies.

What we found surprised and frankly confused us. You see, searching for “Post Offices Paddington” produces the following fully blended results complete with photographs. But a quick viewing of the listings shows that restaurants and hotels form part of the top nine results ( Marble Arch Inn and Piccolino - both excellent eateries I'm sure but most definitely not post offices)  which simply shouldn’t be happening.

Not Enough Computer Shops In London?

Furthermore, when you search for “Computers Soho” you get seven  nice results in a list (at position four) but a quick glance at the map shows that it’s covering a massive area way beyond Soho (it extended as far south as Epsom, some 15 miles away!).  If you think that’s odd to start with, try searching for “Offices Soho” and watch the results.  Interestingly, not only does the amount of results change (its just three) but the type does too (it’s now blended and takes up the top three positions).   The map has also changed and instead of being a large area of London, we are now down to street level and just a couple of square miles.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason for this!  Just to be sure that results weren't down there being so few computer shops in London that Places had to go as far out as Epsom to find any, we did a search for “Computers Epsom”.    This time, we got the list again (in position one), but the map was far more representative of the search area and included only the area in and around Epsom and there were hundreds of dots displayed, proving it has nothing to do with density of the results.

Our testing on smaller areas also revealed something strange. Back with Offices again, we used “Offices Brighton” to begin with and found a long list at position One. Moving further east from central Brighton, we changed to “offices Kemp town”, a small area we know to be mainly residential with no significant office spaces.  This moved the map along the coast keeping a similar scale, but reduced the results to just three, which seemed reasonable considering the lack of offices in this area.

However, going one step further and moving further east to a tiny village called “Ovingdean” produced a surprising result. “Offices Ovingdean” produced the same length list as the one shown for “offices Brighton” albeit with slightly different results. The odd thing here is that we know Ovingdean is a tiny village with almost no office space available but does boast one company related to offices.  The results ignored this fact and instead put in seven links to companies in Brighton.

None of this makes any sense and just as you think you have a handle some of the things involved in Places, it’ll insert a spanner between the cogs of your brain.  Don’t get us wrong, we love Google, but when something like this comes along that we just don’t have any support on and can’t fathom for love nor money (or logic for that matter), you have to ask that question again:

Google places is: (Delete where applicable)

  • Flawed
  • Broken
  • Unfathomable
  • Still in Beta
  • Genius
  • Totally Logical