The Future of Google Maps

At the SMX Advanced Local session in Seattle yesterday, Google unveiled some more detail about their plans for promoted pins on Google Maps. Greg Sterling, who also ran the Local session yesterday, first wrote about these paid pins on May 24 after the Google Performance Summit. In that example, the focus was on branded pins during a driving experience—imagine something like a paid-for golden arches pin from McDonald’s on your trip to Yellowstone this summer.

But Google’s Ali Turhan shared a little more on how these promoted pins would impact more typical local results on both mobile and desktop experiences. And while, in typical Google fashion, there was a lot of “we’re experimenting with an array of different display options,” the current plan was clear: one of the “organic local” results is going to be replaced by a paid, promoted pin. (Apparently we have to call this “organic local” now—obviously in need of yet another term, but I digress.)

History of the Local Pack

The “local pack” (the search results in Google Maps that include business name, number, and address) currently shows up as a map with pins directly under a set of four Adwords ads for queries with local intent; think “steak restaurant” or “Atlanta plumbers.” The prevalence, location, size, and even content of this “pack” has evolved over time. Previous versions were more inclusive (i.e. more companies listed on the map), but the map was further down the fold in search results. These results were referred to as the “7-pack” or “5-pack” (referencing the number of results listed on the map).

Competition to get into the maps has increased as the pack has narrowed; today we are down to just three organic local results, or a “3-pack.” Replacing one of those three listings with a sponsored listing, as Google has outlined, is going to significantly up the stakes here. Showing up in maps has become increasingly important with the widespread adoption of mobile. Ranking factors for local include an array of natural search factors along with directory listings, reviews, and physical location all coming in to play.

It’s also been notoriously susceptible to spammed listings, i.e. fake locations populating the maps in hopes of generating clients. Locksmiths and the legal industry lead the way in spammed locations, with fake law firm offices synthetically expanding the geographic “reach” of law firms. For example, we know of one solo practitioner with 27 offices through the entire state of California. In fact, the legal industry may have pioneered the concept of Google Map spam; back in 2008, Mike Blumenthal wrote an article called “Ambulance Chasing in the Age of Google Maps,” wherein he showed different law firms offices suddenly appearing at the location of a train accident.

Ethical Considerations

I spoke with ethics expert, and fellow Law Practice Division member, Jennifer Ellis, about these false locations. Not only is the conduct discussed in this article inappropriate for SEO purposes, it is unethical under the ethics rules which require honesty in communications about a lawyer’s services. ABA Model Rule 7.1 states that, “[a] lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law, or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.” Creating false locations is clearly a factual misrepresentation. This misrepresentation is that the lawyer and/or their agent is literally creating a statement that the lawyer has offices where they do not. Remember also that lawyers are responsible, under Model Rule 5.3, for the acts of any nonlawyer assistants they hire. This is why it is critical to know what your SEO is doing on your behalf and to make sure they understand and are not violating the ethical rules.

The Google Maps of the Future

So now we have a further contraction of the, ahem, “organic local” results. And while Ali didn’t make any promises as to timing, given the much more public nature of Google’s comments, as well as their specificity, it seems launch of these promoted pins is in the very near future.


Feature image: Twin Design /

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