Picture this: you are in an unfamiliar area, and you are looking for a restaurant nearby. How do you go about finding it? Most of you pull out your smartphone, open Google and search for something like “restaurant near me” or “Chinese buffet in Raleigh”. Next you have to evaluate all the search results and choose your destination.

It goes without saying that Google Maps is a key resource for all businesses that want to get their products and services found by their target searchers. But, it is not as simple as claiming a map listing. Google is constantly changing what shows up on search results. The biggest change of late is to the results you see on the Maps section of the search results.

To help you keep up with the changes, here are the major changes that happened to the Maps section and why these changes are important to your business.

1. Goodbye 7 Pack – Hello 3 Packs

Google has made significant changes to Local Search results recently. Since August, Google has shifted the number of “featured” local businesses (also known as Google+ listings or Google local map listings) to show up in search results. The “trim” now has 4 less businesses featured. As a result, Google has flipped local business visibility on organic search results upside down. You may notice that there is little to no difference on a mobile device since the change. In fact, mobile users have always seen only 3 businesses in this section. This reduction has aligned with Google’s preference for responsive websites, or a single user-interface across devices.  The removal of the lengthy 7 business local pack has now officially given a desktop and mobile users the same user experience.

What does this mean for you? Well, ask yourself: do you have a responsive website? Did you have a strategy to show up on the “featured” business map section? Is that strategy going to be enough to keep you in the top 3?  If you do not manage any of those things then make sure to ask those that are managing it.

2. Testing, Testing, Testing

Like any other business, Google has to tailor its service for its consumers. Google provides answers to our searches by providing us with the best results to our query. However how we search, how we process, and how we decide has changed.  A restaurant chain has to change the language or description of an item from one country to another. A local repairman has to continually educate themselves to keep up with codes and regulations. Google also has to adapt, educate & change its service in order to maintain relevance and provide satisfactory information quickly to the user.

While the 3 pack is a final change, Google has been and still is testing the functionality of the shortened lists. Regional testing on the display or non-display of addresses, hours, services, bookings and ratings have recently become Google’s latest experiment. When you see something missing one day and it appearing the next, you can relax and remember that Google is still testing these features. Remember that Google has to provide their service as best as possible, just like you have to provide your customers the best product or service.

What does this mean? It means that you or the people you have hired to handle your local listings have to pay attention. It also means that inconsistencies, lack of verification or missing details in your listings will hurt you.

3. More Places

The results you find in your search are not much different. You get the top ads on the top and the side, followed by the “featured” local map listings (if there are any), and then the organic listings. Keep in mind the local map section is shorter, as mentioned earlier. However, you will see in the map section a link saying “more places”.

This is a really fun, and different feature that Google has added to help user experience. On a desktop you end up seeing a long list of 10-20 businesses near your location relevant to your search and next to it is the standard map with the icons of those locations. On mobile it’s a smaller map, but the same listings show up. The creative part is the change when you hover a location. While mostly in the testing phase, when you hover a location on the map it shows you the name of the location and number of reviews. Upon a click your Google My Business (aka Google+ map listing) shows up. This has everything that your Google My Business page (old G+ page) would have. Now you see why it’s so important to optimize these?! What is on this page is what helps you pop to the top of the list, plus the better quality of content almost guarantees you a better rank. That is user experience at work!

Why does it matter? Do a common search that your consumers would do to find you ie. “Raleigh flower shop” and then answer these questions: do you see your business on the top 3 or in the extended list of businesses? Do you see a star rating, a phone number, address, hours, etc.? The better optimized a listing the more likely it will be in the top 3. That means make sure all info is there, despite the everlasting testing from Google.

Going Forward

With a shortened amount of listings, the burden of non-stop testing and the importance of an optimized local map listing, you cannot deny that moving forward, local listings are going to have a huge impact. As always quality optimized content will help you organically, but it is important to remember that organic listings & local map listings aren’t the same. Pay attention and stay afloat among the Google testing tidal waves.