Oh, those funny people at Google. What once was a free online search service allowing billions of searchers to locate “nose hair trimmers in Cleveland” — at no cost to Nose Hair Clipper Depot — has morphed into an actual business.

Though Google’s leaders failed to make money (what we silly old schoolers call “profit”) for their first five and a half years, they also derided traditional advertising as a has-been model steeped in brick-and mortar-tradition. Then a hilarious thing happened: Google became an advertising model.

They sell space. Priority placement within the space costs more. Greater frequency of appearance costs more. And greater results within the categories will cost you per response. (Even the Yellow Pages missed that one.)

Since switching to their newly-discovered business mantra of “we really need to sell stuff,” Google has recently been on a revenue-generating tear. I like some of the changes, but their attitude is approaching that of a rich and spoiled digital Yellow Pages, but with more secrecy. (If our site is shut down next time you visit, you will know why.)

Because of the changes — that Google is rightly entitled to make — you must shift your strategy or your listing, rank, and “findability” will measurably suffer. Oh, and if you try to bend or ignore the rules in a way that doesn’t suit Google, you can disappear — just like that. So here are the three massive search engine changes you cannot afford to ignore, along with new strategies for how to respond so your listing’s rank on Google doesn’t drop.

Big Change No. 1: The End of Google Places

Most of your search results are based on relevance, distance, and prominence of your listing. If done well, you show up in one of three main places: paid search (about 15 percent of the clicks go here), organic search (about 50 percent), and/or in the Google Places map (about 35 percent). Yet as of May 28, 2012, the old Google Places is now Google+Local, and the rules have completely changed. The 35 percent who once found you due to good optimization with Places will now only find you if your customer reviews rate highly using Zagat’s 30-point scale. (Google bought Zagat last year, which is why we alerted clients toward gathering reviews on every service call).

Zagat averages your score (assigning you a number) and compiles a summary based on actual user review comments. This can be an absolute gold mine or absolutely devastating, depending on your strategy.

Your new strategy must be to request customer reviews by asking, “Was our service today good enough to earn a positive review?” Then hand them a certificate for a $20 discount on their next service (or a restaurant coupon, movie coupon, etc.). On the certificate, include the URL of your listing plus short, positive sample comments. Of course, they can create their own. If you’re going with a $20 discount certificate, set it up so they can use it themselves or they can pass it along to a neighbor or friend. That doesn’t matter, but a great review does matter because now they will appear and direct traffic to you (instead of away from you) An even more advanced strategy is to add a QR (Quick Response) code to your invoice that they scan with a smartphone that takes them right to the reviews section on your listing. This is faster, cooler, and more accessible. (By the way, we are huge fans of QR codes and put them on virtually every printed piece for contractors.) This move by Google also means your optimization service is more important than ever. There will be fewer results, shared by fewer contractors, and more competing to elbow their way in.

Big Change No. 2: Your Service Address Has Vanished

Since most contractors don’t conduct face-to-face business at their location, you must select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option within your dashboard. If you don’t hide your address this way, your listing may be removed from Google Maps. And that’s not good.

See, Google understands that you have service areas not based on proximity. Selecting target areas is one of the ways Google is both inviting you and confining you to exceptional results in those areas. (Plus, as you’d imagine, the funds directed at dominating those areas are multiplied for Google.)

Now, the strategy for when you (or your listing agency) compile listing data is to first, hide your address, and second, select service areas where you want to show up. Your physical location and that of the searcher affect your rank, so when there’s a match, your ranking chances improve.

One note of caution: Do not attempt to rank first in numerous areas. It will backfire. Target the best areas for you and attack those.

Big Change No. 3: No More Free Google Offers

This last change is a potential business killer. When we first created listing services for contractors, one of our aces in the hole was the ability to craft an attractive offer within the listing.

Searchers would go to the listing, have their appetite whetted by the offer, and either “click to call” from their phone or click to your site, becoming blind to competitors. This provided a good, steady lead source.

Well, Google figured out this could be another revenue stream and is scheduled to turn this once-free service into paid space, like pay per click (PPC).

We have created ads for these paid-space listings in advance, and you’d be advised to do the same. This change will be costly if you a) choose to ignore it, or b) let competitors get the jump on you. Once a contractor ascends into this area and remains there (that is, paying for the position), the costs actually go down. Google is very wise to do this; ignoring an advance positioning on this would be terribly unwise.

Your strategy right now should be to keep running offers until Google takes them away. At the same time, turn your best offers into ads for the pay-per-click area. The specs for these ads are as follows:

• 1st line: 25 characters

• 2nd, 3rd line and display: 35 characters

• Destination URL: 1,024 characters

The main point is to create a short, powerful, and compelling offer for top results. The destination URL can be a sales page devoted to services or products related to the exact search.

Don’t Let Your Rank Tank

Unlike the Yellow Pages of old where your ad was static for a year or longer, the listing world and the six top search services are constantly adjusting the rules.

Contractors are entering a time that the “do-it-yourselfer” cannot study, research, compile, and intelligently claim and optimize listings for maximum results. Amateurs are — by design — losing out to the professionals devoted to discipline in this specialized skill.

Yet the most important thing to do first is find out how well your listing stacks up in your area and against the competition. You can do a search for your <TRADE> in <CITY> as one way to assess ranking power. Use various keywords to find your listing, then take steps to advance your rank. And then update your strategy so you can dominate your listing.

You can get a complimentary “Grade Guide” for your listing by making a polite request via email to freeNEWSstuff@hudsonink.com (include your company information) or simply call Hudson Ink at 1-800-489-9099. The Grade Guide will help you see exactly where your listing is strong or weak, with steps on how to correct it.

Publication date: 7/16/2012