Posted by customerparadigm.com
I'm Jeff Finkelstein, founder of Customer Paradigm - a search marketing and Website development company in Boulder, Colorado. I'm also a professional photographer. So when Google rolled out Google Business Photos, I thought it might be a good service for some of our clients, so I went through the lengthy certification and testing process and joined the program.
Up until now, when a client asked if Google Business Photos had any influence on their search rankings, I just kind of mumbled something to the effect of, "Usually when Google rolls out a new service, the companies that adopt the new technology do better in search rankings. And it can't hurt, so yes, let's try it out."
But do Google Business Photos help with local search rankings? Google's been mum, and I haven't been able to find any research on the matter. So I decided to test if there was a correlation between adoption of Google Business Photos and local search rankings.
Haven't heard of Google Business Photos? Think street view, panoramic images taken inside a restaurant, office or store, where the end user can virtually "walk" through and get a sense of the business. In addition to the panoramic photos, Google Business photos also include "point of interest" images that feature the interior decor, key awards and other features.
So after I completed a lot of Google Business photos for different categories (automotive, liquor, preschools, real estate and jewelry), my SEO team and I looked at a bunch of local keyword terms.
We found that (for the most part), sites that ranked the highest in local search had also adopted Google Business Photos.
- In five of the nine data sets, sites that adopted Google Business Photos had the top #1 local search ranking.
- In four of the nine data sets, sites that adopted Google Business Photos had the #2 local search ranking.
- In one of the nine data sets, a site that adopted Google Business Photos had the #3 local search ranking.
- In two cases, the first ranking did not feature a business with Google Business Photos, but the #2 ranked business did have Google Business Photos. In another case, the first and second rankings did not feature Google Business Photos, but the #3 spot did.
- In the outlier case, the domain authority 40 site with Google Business Photos just couldn't compete against a nationally-branded site with a Domain Authority of 86, as well as other strong indicators, including additional Google reviews and high star ratings.
In my professional opinion, Google Business Photos may correlate with higher search rankings on Google, although this study was done with a small sample set and other factors may be at play. (Read below why I might be wrong >>)
Google Business Photos appear to allow businesses to overcome a deficit of less Google Reviews, lower star ratings, and even lower domain authority in some cases.
However, it is not a magic bullet. A site with a Domain Authority of 17 (ComfortableShoes.com) won't trump a site with a Domain Authority of 86 (Nordstrom). And a site with 1,316 linked domains (AAMCO.com) is often going to perform better than a site with five or six linked domains, even if the Page Authority is a 1.
I examined nine total data sets for the presence of:
- Panoramic Google Business Photos
- Number of Point of Interest (POI) photos as part of the Google Business photos
- Additional images on a Google+ page
- Number of Google Reviews
- Level of Star Ratings for Google Reviews
- Domain Authority
- Page Authority
- Root Linking Domains (as determined by Open Site Explorer)
- If the keyword matched the URL
- The age of the domain (in years)
When I did the research, I did so using a browser with all cookies deleted, and I was not logged into Gmail or any other Google service.
Details for Each Data Set, Evaluating Google Business Photos vs. Local Search Ranking:
We looked at local search results for the following categories in the Boulder, Colorado and the surrounding areas. I did my best to control for geolocation by comparing one industry in three different areas (transmission repair in Broomfield, Greeley and Ft. Collins, CO).
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "preschools boulder Colorado":
Preschools often charge $1,000 or more per month, so ranking well can translate into $12,000 per year in recurring revenue per child.
The top two local search results both have Google Business photos attached to their Google+ profile.
Slam dunk! Google Business Photos = #1 and #2 rank, right? Perhaps. It is a fairly non-competitive space, with sites that don't usually have ongoing monthly budgets for adding content and optimization.
The first ranked site (Mountain View Preschool) has Google Business photos, but only has a domain authority of 14 and a page authority of 23, but has no Google reviews or star ratings. Its domain is 10.9 years old.
The sites ranked sixth and seventh have domain authorities of 29 and 28, respectively, and page authorities of 40 and 39 respectively. They each have Google reviews (2 and 3, respectively). The site ranked seventh, though, is an all-Flash site. I know, It is crazy that these still exist, especially in the age of iPads and iPhones that don't support flash.
The second ranked site (Sunflower Preschool) has Google Business photos (Disclosure: I took the images). The second-ranked site has a higher domain authority (21 vs. 14) and a higher page authority (31 vs. 23) than the #1 ranked site. Its domain name is slightly newer (10.9 vs. 10.4 years old), and it features a single Google Review.
The third ranked site (New Horizons) does not have Google Business Photos, but does feature six Google reviews - more than anyone else ranked in this list. However, the domain name age is low - just 3.3 years, and its domain authority is low (16).
In this case, Google Business Photos appear to overcome a lower domain authority and smaller number of Google reviews and star ratings, and correlate with higher local search rankings.
Data Set #2: Transmission Repair in Broomfield, CO:
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "transmission repair Broomfield CO":
Ever heard your gears grind? Not a great sound, and not easy on your wallet. A phone call to a shop about a transmission repair could be worth a couple thousand dollars to the business. This is a more competitive industry than preschools in Boulder.
- Although the #1 search result does not feature Google Business Photos, it does have a keyword match in the domain name, features 4 additional images, and 11 Google reviews, with a star rating of 4.1
- The second result (AAMCO Colorado) does feature a nationally-ranked brand, and includes Google Business Photos. It has a domain authority is 58, but has a 1 for its page authority.
- All of the other results (#3 - #7) also feature "other images" on the Google+ page, and the #3, #4, #6 and #7 ranked sites have more Google Reviews. The sites ranked #3, #4 and #6 all have higher star ratings (4.4, 4.5, 4.4, respectively) than the #1 and #2 ranked sites (4.1 and 3.9, respectively).
- The lower ranked sites tended to have younger domain names, although the #1 site's domain age was 9.4 years, compared to 17.3 years for the #2 spot, and 12.8 years for the third spot.
- Despite having only six Google reviews, compared to 18 Google Reviews and 21 Google Reviews for the next two ranked spots, and having lower star rating than the next two listings, AAMCO Colorado ranks higher.
- Is it because of the Google Business Photos? Hmmm... seems to be a strong correlation.
Data Set #3: Liquor Store Boulder Colorado
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "liquor store boulder Colorado":
In good times, people drink to celebrate. In bad times, people drink to forget. Not a bad recession-proof business to be in, especially in the party college town of Boulder, Colorado.
- Both the #1 and #2 ranking results have feature Google Business photos. The #1 result has 14 Google reviews, and a 4.3 star rating.
- The #2 result (which I took the images for) features a 4.4 star rating and 24 Google reviews.
- The #1 result is slightly closer to our office, where I did these searches.
- The #3 result: no Google Business photos, no star rating, and only 2 Google reviews.
- The Liquor store less than a mile from my house? Didn't even show up.
- The first two ranked sites both have Google Business Photos. Compared to the third ranked site (North Boulder Liquor), the first two sites have much, much higher domain authority, page authority, Google reviews and star ratings.
- This seems to be an example of how two top ranked sites both adopted Google Business photos as a way to further dominate the search rankings, and prevent a competitor from gaining traction.
- The only way to test this theory out would be to do Google Business Photos for the third-ranked site, and see if it influences the search rankings. Although with a 15 domain authority / Page Authority of 1, and twelve times fewer Google reviews, the third ranked site has major hurdles to overcome.
Data Set #4: Kids Consignment Store Boulder CO
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "kids consignment store boulder co":
In Boulder, Colorado, a certain anti-conspicuous consumption vibe permeates the ethos. Kids grow so fast that nearly-new clothing isn't taboo.
For this keyword set, Google delivered just a single local result -- even though it is not the only kids consignment store in Boulder, Colorado.
With Google Business Photos, a single Google Review, and a decent domain authority of 26, the 10.4 year old domain ranks well.
Data Set #5: Custom Jewelry Boulder Co:
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "custom jewelry boulder co":
Boulder has a lot of non-chain stores, and jewelry is no exception. Custom crafted pieces can command top prices, so ranking well means more customers coming into the store.
- In the case of custom Jewelry for Boulder, Colorado, the top ranked site features Google Business Photos.
- However, the top ranked site also has 18 Google reviews (vs. 4 for the #2 spot), 10 additional images on its Google+ page, and a 4.9 star rating (the highest of the bunch).
- Yet the top ranked site does not have the highest domain authority (that goes to the #4 ranked site).
- Nor does it have even close to the highest Page Authority in the seven results (there are three ahead of it, and is tied with another)
- The #1 spot does not have the oldest domain name, either. At 8.9 years, it is ahead of just three others in the top seven results. The fourth ranked site's domain age is 13.8 years; the fifth ranked site's domain age is 10 years old, and the seventh ranked has a domain age of 11.5 years.
- Most interesting is the #5 ranked site, Angie Star Jewelry, which has the panoramic Google Business Photo tour, but no POI (Point of Interest) photos displayed.
- It has 14 Google reviews, and a 4.7 star rating, and a domain authority just 2 points (22) below the top ranked site.
- Did Google penalize the site in rankings for having an incomplete Google Business Photo tour? Tough to say. The domain name has been alive for 1.1 years longer than the top ranked site.
- I don't know how this slipped through the QA process on Google's system, as the POI images are a required part of the tour, and you're not able to publish without them.
The #1 ranked site features Google Business Photos, but also has more Google Reviews than any other site, and the highest star ranking. This might be an example of a site that already ranks well due to glowing reviews, being able to dominate the top spot due to Google Business Photos.
In the preschool data set, we did see that Google Business Photos seemed to trump sites that had more Google Reviews and/or higher star rankings.
Data Set #6: Real Estate Agency Boulder Colorado:
In the 1890s, the city of Boulder started buying up open space and limiting housing growth. Boulder is an expensive market for buying homes, and realtors who rank well do well financially.
- In this case, the top ranked result went to a business that has closed or moved location. Don't you hate it when that happens?
- It looks like this first site, though, has a perfect 5 star rating (though this ranking is based on a single Google Review).
- The domain age of the first site is 16.7 years - an eternity, dating back to 1997.
- And it has a lower domain authority (25) and a lower Page Authority (36) than of the second ranked site.
- The second ranked site (Wright Kingdom Real Estate) does feature Google Business Photos. The domain authority (43) is exactly the same as the fourth and sixth ranked sites in this local search.
- Compared to the fourth and fifth ranked sites that have 68 and 52 Google Reviews, respectively, the second-ranked site (Wright Kingdom Real Estate) dominates the second spot with only 2 Google Reviews (and no star rating).
- The fourth ranked spot has an older domain name - registered in 1996 (vs. 1997 for the second ranked spot).
- The second ranked spot features 34 times fewer Google reviews (66 fewer reviews in total), and an equal Domain Authority than the 4th ranked spot.
- All things considered equal, Google Business Photos seems to correlate with a higher local search ranking in this instance.
Data Set #7: Buy Shoes in Boulder Colorado:
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "buy shoes in Boulder Colorado":
In Colorado, every sport demands a different type of shoe. Ski / snowboard boots, hiking boots, climbing shoes, snow shoes, trail running shoes, and more. Crocs are based in Boulder. We buy a lot of shoes. And we're high tech, so we want to check where to go from our iPhones.
- It is pretty tough to go head-to-head with a Domain Authority 86 site (Nordstrom Rack). That ranked #1 for this local search result.
- The #2 result went to a well-known store in Boulder that features 175 Google Reviews, and a 4.7 star rating.
- The #5 result does feature Google Business Photos, but only 8 Google reviews, and a lower star rating (3.5) than the top three search results.
- That said, the #5 result (Pedestrian Shops) that features Google Business Photos has a keyword match in the domain name, and a rather old domain name, registered in Feb. of 1997.
In this case, Google Business Photos don't seem to overcome a top Domain Authority (86), or overcome large numbers of Google Reviews and top star ratings, even though its domain authority (40) is ahead of the third and fourth ranked results.
Data Set #8: Transmission Repair Greeley Colorado:
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "transmission repair Greeley Colorado":
Greeley, Colorado is located about an hour away from Boulder, and I wanted to introduce a location that was outside of Boulder, Colorado (but kept the transmission repair keyword set similar).
- The top ranked site features Google Business Photos.
- But it also has the highest domain authority (58) of everyone in the bunch, and features the most Google Reviews (10). It also has the only star rating result, too (4.5 of 5).
- All this overcomes the Page Authority of 1 for the top ranked site (compared to 23, 29 and 26 for the next three sites, respectively).
- #2 - #7 ranked results do not have Google Business photos.
- The #2 result has 4 Google reviews and six images on their Google + places page, supplied by the owner; the #3 result has 1 Google Review, and the #4 result has 4 Google reviews.
- Results #5, #6 and #7 don't have websites - they are simply business names with a auto-generated Google+ Page with no real content.
A domain authority of 58, combined with 10 Google reviews and 263 times more root linked domains is going to dominate local search rankings, despite Google Business Photos.
In this case, Google Business Photos may help the top company keep a substantial rankings lead for some time to come.
Screenshot of Google Local Search Results for "transmission repair Ft. Collins Colorado":
Just as with Greeley, Colorado, the city of Ft. Collins, Colorado is located about an hour and ten minutes away from Boulder, and I wanted to introduce a second location that was outside of Boulder, Colorado (but kept the transmission repair keyword set similar).
- In this case, the #1 ranked site did not have Google Business Photos, but did have a URL match with the keyword query. That, along with 17 Google Reviews and a 4.3 star rating overcame its meek domain authority of 19 to take the top rank.
- The third ranked site (AAMCO Ft. Collins), does have Google Business Photos, but only has 7 Google Reviews, and a much lower star rating (3.4) than the fourth and sixth ranked sites (4.2 and 4.5 star rankings, respectively).
- The fourth ranked site (Houska Automotive) has 64 Google reviews, a 35 Domain Authority, a 39 Page Authority, and a much higher 4.2 star ranking than the #3 ranked site. (#3 has a 27 domain authority, 20 Page Authority, 7 Google Reviews, and a 3.4 Star rating.)
- The URL for the third ranked spot is AAMCOcolorado.com (vs. the Domain Authority 58 AAMCO.com site, in a previous example).
In this case, it appears that Google Business Photos helped the AAMCO Ft. Collins site overcome the hurdle of less Google Reviews, a lower star rating, a lower domain authority and page authority, and a younger domain name than other lower-ranked sites.
Early Adoption vs. Cost of Business
If everyone adopts Google Business Photos in the next few years, then it will become less important as a search ranking signal.
Instead, it could instead become just another "must do" cost of doing business for small business owners. Like having a fax machine hooked up to an analog phone line for people to send in contracts. Yeah, we still have one of those, too, here at the office.
Here's why I could be completely wrong about the correlation between local search rankings and the presence of Google Business Photos:
- It could be possible that sites that have signed up for Google Business Photos also offer a great user experience, feature engaging content, and connect with users through amazing social media. In other words, it is possible that these "early adopters" of Google Business Photos were already in the lead, and the panoramic "street view" images inside their office didn't influence the search rankings. As one of my political science professors used to say, "Nothing succeeds like success." That's why I've tried to show correlation vs. causation.
- It is possible that the sample size is too low and not random enough to draw conclusions. Google Business Photos are not that well known, and very few businesses have adopted them at this point. I chose to examine local search results, based on the various industries that I photographed. Businesses that didn't want the inside of their offices to be photographed by me or other Google Trusted Independent Photographers weren't part of this study. However, some businesses that ranked well had business photos - just not taken by me.
- Businesses in Boulder might be more "private" than businesses elsewhere. It is possible that the Boulder, Colorado area has a higher percentage of people who regularly wear tinfoil hats to prevent the government from reading their thoughts. Or just a higher percentage of business owners who are concerned about burglars scoping out their stores online. I think this is a valid concern, and could certainly skew the data set.
- I wasn't able to do a before and after comparison with site ranking. If I was to do this again, I would do all of the screenshots and data sets before and after the Google Business Photos were complete, and then be able to show if sites jumped in local search rank as a result of this addition to their profile. That said, I would only be able to control for sites that I did the Google Business images for, and during the time delay of shooting images and waiting for them to be published, other factors that might influence the search rankings might have an effect. This might be part of a follow-up study I conduct.
- It matters if you use the search bar vs. searching via www.Google.com. The search bar doesn't always return "See Inside" photos on the results page. Oh, Google. Personalizing the search results for us.
- Geographic location also matters, even by a mile or two. Searching at home and the office sometimes yielded slightly different results, even though I live 2.3 miles from the office (makes for a fast commute). All of my searching and screenshots for the study, however, were done from the same computer, the same browser (not logged into anything), with all of the cookies cleared, during a 24 hour period. Tech Specs: Windows 7 with IE 10 browser. For example, data set nine (above) showed AACMO rank #2 when I searched at home on a Mac / Safari, but was the #3 result from the office, running Windows / IE. Do Mac users see different results because Google perceives them as "cooler"? I can't answer that. Although that would be a cool research study in the future.
- I might be biased because I'm paid to do Google Business Photographs. The amount of revenue my company earns from Google Business Photos is very small. Less than 1% of the total revenue for the company. But money certainly can bias things.
- It is also possible that I'm biased because I'm a photographer. I live to capture amazing images, chock full of emotion. The kind that make people cry with joy. I'm the kind of dad that shows up to my five-year-old daughter's soccer game with two DSLRs, 750 GB of memory cards, and 10 lenses (including a 400 mm white telephoto lens that you can use to see the craters on the moon). I have very well photographed children. I feel that great photography can truly make the world a better, happier place, as well as help balance injustice in the world by bringing public attention to gut-wrenching issues.
Questions about Google Business Photos:
- Google Business Photography is not glamorous photography, featuring fashion models in high heels (I'm always amazed that some can actually walk in those things and not topple over). It is not aerial photography, hanging out the side of a helicopter above the Rocky Mountains (I've done that), or skiing with a DSLR backwards down mogul runs at Colorado ski areas (yes, I've done that, too). It is highly technical photography, designed to meet Google's stringent requirements for consistency on Google Places Pages. But It is fun in its own way, it makes a (little) money, and it allows me to get out from behind the computer and meet business owners one-on-one.
- I can't talk about a lot about the technical aspects of the photography, other than to say I use a DSLR and Google software to make the Google Business panoramic images. (I had to sign a lot of documents.) If you'd like to see how It is done, hire me or one of the other Google Trusted Photographers to photograph your business.
- As a Google Trusted Independent Photographer, I'm not a Google Employee, or even a subcontractor. People who want Google Business Photos for their business pay my company, Customer Paradigm, and not Google. (Or any of the other 400+ or so Google trusted photographers listed on Google's site.)
- I don't need to have "ownership" of a Google+ page to take and post Google Business photographs. Just written permission of the business owner.
- People's faces and license plates are blurred out in Google Business Photos for privacy reasons, just like in street view
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