Each year, a growing percentage of people’s days are spent online. By 2020, experts believe there will be over 20 billion devices connected to the internet—more devices than people (source: Google My Business). This growth in connectivity is having a dramatic impact on the way consumers behave. Increasingly, less time is spent browsing in-store, and more time is spent browsing online; however, 93% of U.S. retail sales—approximately $5 trillion per year—still occurs offline, in stores.

What this means for retail businesses:

While many consumers start their shopping journey by browsing for product information online, the vast majority of consumers finalize their purchases in-store. Business owners can take advantage of this purchase path, guiding online browsers and nearby shoppers to a physical store where they can finalize their purchase.

One of the most vital tools in driving this store traffic is Google Maps. Google Maps has over 105 million users, making it the 4th most popular smartphone application, behind only Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Youtube. Having accurate and updated business information on Google Maps allows online browsers and nearby shoppers to quickly and easily find a store to make their purchase: “76% of people who search on their smartphones for something nearby visit a business within a day. 28% of those searches for something nearby result in a purchase.”

What businesses can do to optimize their Google Business listing and facilitate more in-store traffic:

First, it’s important to understand how Google processes business information and displays results to online users. If a user searches by location, Google will prioritize the results based on proximity. For example, if a user searched for “bookstores near me,” they would see something akin to the following:

However, if a user searches for a business in a different locale (or if they pan out), they’ll notice search results are no longer listed in order of proximity. For example, if a user searched for “dentists” in Beverly Hills, California they would see something akin to the following:

Source: WordStream

This reveals that Google Maps is not ordering search results on proximity or rating (in the picture above, the first result has a lower rating than the 4th and 5th results). Instead, Google is attempting to provide the best results given several facts. Google takes into account the time of day, where the user is located, and what search terms they used then tries to match that to nearby businesses based on business location, hours of operation, product offerings, and ratings/reviews.

While Google is able to map some businesses based on online information, if a local business has not “claimed” their business (i.e. doesn’t control their online Google Maps business listing), the information will be sparse at best, and completely inaccurate at worst. In addition, businesses that have not been claimed will likely be missing much of the information Google uses to rank search results (hours of operation, product offerings, etc). More than half of local retailers have not claimed their Google business listing relegating them lower in the search results than those businesses that have optimized their online listing. The following steps can help guide businesses through the process of claiming and optimizing their Google Maps listing.

1. Claim and maintain your Google Maps business listing (this is free)

To do this, go to Google My Business and claim your business. To get your listing verified, Google will send a postcard to your physical business address (this can take up to a week or two).

2. Ensure location information is accurate

In the past two years, there has been an 80% increase in mobile searches for “where to buy” and a 300% increase in “open now” searches (source: Google My Business). Most online browsers are ultimately looking to visit a brick-and-mortar store. Having the correct address, contact information, and hours of operation are vital if you want your business to appear when shoppers search “near me” or other proximity-based terms. Use a complete, USPS-approved address. Small mistakes can impede your ranking.

In addition, Google My Business allows you to indicate the areas that you serve. For businesses that serve a wider area (e.g. food delivery, pest control), specifying the correct service areas will help your results appear when consumers in these areas search for your services.

3. Identify the products and services your business offers

Google My Business allows businesses to select categories that describe their business. Unfortunately, many businesses only select one category. Be sure to identify any and all services your business offers so you show up in a wide-range of searches (e.g. music store, offers workshops, minority owned business, offers gift wrapping, etc)

Google is also rolling out a new feature called “Explore” that is designed to improve its recommendations to users. Google will optimize search results based on what it thinks the user enjoys. The algorithm will take into account the user’s past search history, online ratings, location, demographics, etc, and display a “match number” based on how likely it thinks the user will enjoy the business/offerings (akin to Amazon’s tailored product recommendations or Netflix tailored movie recommendations). This feature will rely heavily on the information that businesses provide in their Google My Business profile.

Source: Google Blog

4. Add photos of your business and your offerings

This is another area where many local businesses fall short. Most consumers shop with their eyes, especially online, so having great photos that convey what your business offers is vital to attracting online shoppers. To really optimize your listing, you can add metadata to your photos (i.e. keywords that are embedded into the image file) which will help your listing to show up when online users shop for any of those terms.

5. Add posts to advertise your latest offerings or promotions

50% of shoppers are looking for promotions or discounts. (source: Google My Business). Posts appear directly on your business listing, and these can alert customers to events and promotions.

6. Encourage your customers to leave reviews

2 out of 3 customers say that seeing positive reviews are a primary factor in choosing a business to go to (source: Google My Business)

While Google Maps results rely on more than just ratings, they still play a big part in the Google Search algorithm. The better your business’ reviews, the more likely they are to show up higher in the search results. Ask your best customers to leave you online reviews.

One note: unless a review violates Google’s guidelines, Google will not remove bad reviews. If your business does get a bad review, take the opportunity to kindly and professionally respond. Apologize and ask if the customer would be willing to try your business again (e.g. “I’m sorry you had that experience. I hope you’ll come back and try us again and give us another chance to try to serve you”). Even if they never come back, a thoughtful response will offset the negative review by showing other online users that you work hard to meet customers’ needs.

7. Consider adding online booking

Approximately 50% of customers looking at businesses online are looking to schedule some kind of appointment or reservation. (source: Google My Business)

If you own a business that takes appointments or reservations, it is possible to set up online bookings through Google My Business.

8. Check your Google Business Insights

Google My Business allows you to see how online users arrive at and interact with your business listing. Insights display how many customers visited your listing, posts, and photos, and how customers arrived at your listing (direct search by your business name vs discovery search by type of business or product type). Insights also show what actions a user took once they arrived at your listing (if someone visited your website, called your business, or made an online booking). Lastly, insights displays a heatmap showing where people were when they requested directions to your business. This may give you an idea of what areas your business should be advertising in or areas that people are coming from that you didn’t previously know about.

9. Consider an online ad campaign

Google offers two ways to advertise your business through their platform. The first is through Ad Words (we even mentioned this back in 2014). These are online ads targeted to shoppers within a trade area that you identify (be sure to research an appropriate trade area for your business before setting up an ad campaign). The second is Promoted Pins. These are ads that show up at the top of the search results when users search for something your business offers.

10. For downtown organizations: be a partner

For more information, get in touch directly with Google and if your downtown organization is interested in becoming ambassadors of Google to small businesses, apply to be a partner at gybo.com/partners. By becoming a Google partner, your downtown organization can expedite the business verification process by filling up a single form on behalf of all businesses in the district. Google also provides its partners with training resources and tools at no cost so that they may then go out to teach business owners in their districts to use Google Business Listing.

Note: The next Google Small Biz webinar training session titled “Drive a Holiday Shopping Rush for your Business” will be held on October 17 at 9AM EST.