For businesses that operate in the physical world, Google My Business (GMB) has become the center of the digital universe. Google is relying increasingly on content in GMB for ranking and less on third party citations and off-page signals than in the past.
A lot happened with GMB this year, far too much to summarize in one post. (Joy Hawkins does a great job of capturing and summarizing most local SEO-related changes.) In addition to four major Google algorithm updates there was at least one major local algorithm update tied to neural matching, although BERT will affect local results as well.
Below is a summary of most (though not all) of the GMB updates and changes that happened this year, together with a few that don’t strictly belong to GMB. I’ve also tried to add some perspective at the end with an assist from local SEOs and experts Carrie Hill, Adam Dorfman, Mike Blumenthal and David Mihm.
January: Messaging, SAB flow, virtual office rules
- Google started emphasizing messaging in the GMB profile — although it compelled business owners and agencies to message exclusively through theGoogle My Business app — following its abandonment of SMS-based messaging.
- The company introduced a new sign-up flow for service-areas businesses. It starts with a question about whether the business has a store or office. If the answer is no, it sends the user down a SAB-specific path.
- Google also provided guidance surrounding who is eligible to create a GMB page for a virtual office. In particular, there must be on-site staffing.
February: Map reviews, AR directions, join waitlist
- Googleannounced that hotel operators can now enter their check-in and check-out times directly in Google My Business.
- The company also started testing augmented reality walking directions in Maps. It rolled them out widely in August (called LiveView). But they’re still not that helpful ten months later.
- In February, Google also started allowing business owners (with verified GMB listings) to reply to reviews in Google Maps on the desktop, rather than the requiring them to use the GMB dashboard or mobile app to reply.
- Google added a “join waitlist” feature for restaurants. Part of Reserve with Google, the functionality is provided by DineTime. Users input party size and receive texts updating them on the status of their wait.
- Finally, Google also introduced new local spam reporting form for GMB and Google Maps.
March: Duplex rollout, Core update and SAB addresses disappear
- Google rolled out Duplex restaurant reservations over the phone for Pixel phones in 43 U.S. states. In April it expanded the capability to more Android phones and iPhones. It’s also expanding Duplex to other verticals over time.
- Google removed business addresses from the GMB Profile for service-area businesses.
- It began testing auto-generated Posts featuring reviews.
- Google’s March Core Update, though not about local, impacted some local marketers and their customers.
April: Assistant local results, GMB paid services survey
- Business listings appearing inGoogle Assistant or Google Home search results are being drawn from Google Guaranteed listings or listings certified by partners Porch or HomeAdvisor. But they’re not ads.
- Google Posts started enabling businesses to promote reviews and testimonials, presented as “suggested Posts.”
- Googlealso surveyed small business ownersabout their appetite to pay monthly subscription fees for a number potential Google My Business (GMB) enhanced features and services. This drew a very mixed reaction from the local SEO community.
May: Popular dishes, food ordering and CallJoy
- Google introduces CallJoy automated customer service and call intelligence capabilities to the SMB market for $39 per month. It upgraded the service and its capabilities in November.
- The company brought end to end food ordering to Google Assistant, Google search and Maps through partners, DoorDash, Postmates, Delivery.com and others.
- In a related development, Google started exposing a carousel of “popular dishes” on local restaurant pages. The selections are generated by machine learning.
June: Mapspam and Shortnames
- The Wall Street Journal published a much-discussed article on fake listings in Google results and on Maps. Google countered with a post on how it fights local spam, though many in the SEO community dismissed those efforts as insufficient.
- Google added a range of new GMB features and tools designed to encourage more local businesses to claim profiles; it also offered new branding and promotional capabilities. One of those key tools (@shortname) saw its rollout marred by disappeared listings and reviews.
July: Get a quote and place topics
- A “get a quote” button started appearing in local Knowledge Panels for some businesses that opted-in to GMB messaging. It showed up in mobile and on the PC as well. (A related feature appears in December.)
- Google tested “place topics,” which are tags, themes or keywords extracted through machine learning from user reviews. They only appear when there are enough user reviews, under the reviews tab on the GMB profile.
August: Carousel pack, bulk reviews, Google Screened
- Google tested a horizontal carousel to replace the local pack in mobile results. The top result, not part of the carousel, was an ad.
- GMB added support for hotels to update services and amenities details, appearing in Search and Maps.
- Google introduced bulk review management that allows businesses to view reviews for multiple listings at once, as well as reply to reviews for multiple locations.
- Google announced the test of “Google Screened,” a program similar to Google Guaranteed. Directed at professional services, Google Screened is currently limited to a few verticals in a few markets: lawyers (estate planning, immigration), financial planners and realtors in San Diego and Houston.
- Finally, Google tested competitor ads in local business profiles as part ofLocal Campaigns.
September: Post highlights, food ordering opt-out
- Google Post highlights start showing up in the Local Pack and Local Finder.However Posts have no ranking impact.
- Google allows local restaurants to opt-out of third-party food ordering and delivery, which had proven to be a highly unpopular feature with many restaurants.
- September also saw another Core Algorithm Update, which also impacted local marketers.
October: Search by photos, Incognito Mode for Maps
- Google showed users a new option to “search by photos” in mobile results. They appear as a module in the SERP that opens to a larger page of images with star ratings.
- Google implemented a number of promised privacy controls for users. These includedIncognito Mode for Google Maps, voice control to delete Google Assistant search activity and auto-delete for YouTube history.
November: Local algo update, follow local guides, no more phone support
- Google introduced a local guides follow feature that allows Google Maps users in multiple cities to follow local guides and see their local recommendations of places and things to do.
- Google discontinued toll-free phone support for GMB. Instead users are required to fill out a form and request a call back, which slows response times.
December: Review carousels, auto-Posts, choose area
- Google started showing carousels with local reviews (and Q&A content) on local business profiles, when relevant to the search query and there are enough “high quality reviews.”
- It also started automatically creating Posts from GMB photos. These auto-Posts also cannot be deleted by the business owner.
- Google showed a “request quotes” button in local results. It’s available to businesses participating in the Local Services Ads (LSAs) program and those that have passed “Google Guaranteed” background checks. This is similar to the same feature tested in July.
- It also tested a “choose area” feature that allows mobile users to further refine the search area below the city level. On the flip side it now allows businesses to designate a large metropolitan area (MSA) as a service area, rather than providing a long list of smaller areas the business serves.
The local SERP is evolving
Most of these changes above impact local marketers, but there are some developments that are clearly more important than others. Google is using machine learning extensively to improve relevance and auto-generate content (Posts, reviews in carousels) for uses that vary by query and context. It’s also making local-mobile search results much more visual.
Accordingly, David Mihm pointed to “image-focused packs and carousels” as a new and significant change. Mike Blumethal agreed and said, “Repurposing reviews to answer Q&A, provide more granular review understanding and answer product queries via the carousel” were key changes. Carrie Hill also emphasized the query carousel and remarked, “Surfacing review, Q&A Posts and product feed content above address and phone [information] is a big change.”
Finally, Adam Dorfman added, “The survey regarding packaging of potential products and services businesses could pay Google for was one of the larger signals of where they are likely to head.” I agree.