There’s no denying that these are hard times for local businesses around the world, with many being forced to shutter or adapt quickly as measures are put in place to stop the spread of the Covid-19.
During this time, we’re committed to making sure our customers are kept updated on any developments affecting local SEO, and last week we saw the first significant change by Google.
In a post published on Friday March 20, Google announced that it was temporarily disabling and limiting a number of features in Google My Business, saying:
During the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, we are taking steps to protect the health of our team members and reduce the need for people to come into our offices. As a result, there may be some temporary limitations and delays in support as we prioritize critical services.
On Wednesday 25, a ‘temporarily closed’ option was also added into Google My Business for businesses that are closed as a result of coronavirus.
What features have been removed?
Update – May 7th: We now know that Google will be backdating reviews during this time when they’re published. Google is rolling out the publication of reviews across industries and countries
During this period no new reviews will be published to Google My Business profiles. Users will still be able to post and see their own reviews at this time, but they will not be publicly visible.
It is not yet known whether these reviews will be made visible once Google lifts the restrictions.
Update – April 7th: Review Replies were temporarily disabled but are now back.
Review replies have also been disabled. With no new reviews appearing, there’s obviously less need for businesses to be able to respond right now. However, businesses will be unable to respond to existing reviews on their profile. This also applies to editing the content of existing review replies – if that’s even a thing!
In perhaps the most significant change, Q&As have been completely removed from profiles. This means all existing Q&As will not be visible and users will be unable to post new questions
In Google’s post about the change, they only made reference to ‘new Q&As’ but having checked a number of businesses, Q&As appear to have vanished.
What features are limited?
Adding, claiming and verifying listings
While no functionality is being removed, Google’s listing review process is being prioritized for health-related businesses. Businesses that aren’t health-related can expect delays when adding and claiming listings and receiving listing verifications.
Google has not yet stated the length of the delay.
Editing business information
Businesses that aren’t considered health-related can also expect delays to the listing edits, including:
- Open and closed states
- Special hours
- Temporary closures
- Business descriptions
- Business attributes
This covers edits made by both businesses and users.
Anything else worth knowing?
While not officially confirmed by Google, many SEOs are noticing other changes in Google My Business.
Update – March 31st: Google Posts were temporarily disabled but are now back.
Google Posts are still available at time of writing but SEOs are reporting that they’re seeing a higher number of rejections.
Seeing a spike in Google posts being rejected. If your post fails, you are not alone. pic.twitter.com/mkYv1vUjuk
— Jason Brown (@keyserholiday) March 23, 2020
Google hasn’t made any reference about why a higher number of Posts are being rejected or whether new guidelines are in place temporarily.
Until things become clearer, Google Posts are an effective way to ensure important information and changes to operations are visible to searchers.
While not confirmed by Google yet, Joy Hawkins has reported that user-generated content is also suspended.
I think all user-generated content is blocked right now.
— Joy Hawkins (@JoyanneHawkins) March 22, 2020
‘Takeout/delivery available’ in business names
Google is usually pretty strict when it comes to business names in GMB, but it appears to have loosened its guidelines by allowing restaurants to add ‘delivery available” or ‘takeout available’ to their business names.
There is finally a “temporarily closed” button inside the Google My Business dashboard! pic.twitter.com/7QJy6M6aJj
— Joy Hawkins (@JoyanneHawkins) March 25, 2020
This button allows businesses to mark themselves as temporarily closed. Businesses using this will likely see a drop in rankings as open businesses are (rightfully) prioritized by Google. There is nothing to suggest that this will have any long-term impact to rankings once businesses reopen, and we strongly recommend businesses to keep their information as accurate as possible to help customers at this time.
Both Bing Places and Yelp also have options to indicate a business has been temporarily closed.
Why is Google doing this?
From where I’m sat, which is at home practising social distancing, Google seems to be doing this for two reasons:
- To ensure health-related businesses are able to keep customers updated about critical information
- To limit the burden on businesses who are likely to be inundated with questions related Covid-19
On one hand, Google should be commended for protecting its staff’s health and prioritizing its focus on businesses that provide critical health services to their communities.
One the other hand, many businesses will be reliant on Google My Business to ensure customers are made aware of changes such as opening hours. If they provide essential services to a community, then up-to-date information is going to be vital to ensure customers aren’t making unnecessary trips.
Additionally, local businesses need as much support as possible right now, and removing reviews prevents customers supporting the local businesses that are dear to them.
Just last week, the local SEO community rallied on Twitter by sharing the reviews they’d left for businesses they love and inviting others to do the same.
Done!#5starchallenge Post a review for a biz you love, share a pic & tag 3 people & challenge them to do the same. Small businesses are struggling but reviews can help them bounce back when we can visit again.
— Claire Carlile ?️ ? ? ? (@clairecarlile) March 19, 2020
How will BrightLocal customers be affected?
These changes will have minimal impact on the vast majority of features and services provided by BrightLocal, but there are small implications.
It may feel like stating the obvious, but until the review suspension is lifted, you’ll see no new Google reviews in Monitor Reviews and Review Inbox. You’ll also be unable to respond to existing Google reviews if you’ve connected a location to Google My Business.
It remains to be seen whether reviews written during this period will be made publicly visible at a later date. If these aren’t lost, then we’re confident we’ll be able to bring this data into Reputation Manager as soon as they’re visible.
If you have Get Reviews campaigns that invite users to leave reviews on Google, we recommend to change this out immediately. While customers will be able to leave a review, you won’t see the benefit while reviews are not publicly visible.
We actually see this is a great opportunity to look beyond Google as the only place to capture reviews. You might want to use this opportunity to boost your reputation on other popular sites such as Facebook and Yelp. Or you could focus on industry-specific sites that have a big sway over consumers.
Despite what you might think, many consumers are actually being encouraged to leave business reviews as a way of supporting their favorite businesses so this is a good time to reach out with a Get Reviews campaign.
Looking for inspiration? Check out the 40+ niche review sources we added to Reputation Manager late last year.
If you want to get data-driven about it, you can use the ‘Sources’ tab in your Reputation Manager dashboard to pinpoint where to focus your attention.
While Google prioritizes its support attention to health-service business, we might see a delay in how quickly we’re able to add and update Citation Builder campaigns that contain Google listings. We don’t yet know how long Google’s delay will be, but we’ll continue to work on Google listings with the same efficiency as usual.
There’s no timescale on how long these changes and limitations will be in place and we imagine these won’t be the last changes we’ll see during the Covid-19 situation.
We’ll continue to keep you posted on our blog, via email and through social media on the rollback of these changes and any new developments. Additionally, LocalU has put together a handy resource that’s compiling every known Google My Business change during Covid-19.
A final note…
At BrightLocal, we have always known that the local SEO community is pretty special – I honestly don’t think I’ve seen another industry with so much knowledge sharing. So we want to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone who is keeping a close eye on developments impacting our industry and offering their advice to help many businesses and agencies who might be hurting right now.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing more about the steps BrightLocal is taking to help our customers during this period.
Until then, please stay safe!