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Is ‘Pay-to-Play’ the Future of Google My Business?

Is ‘Pay-to-Play’ the Future of Google My Business?

How much would you be willing to pay for Google My Business features? That’s effectively what Google asked GMB profile managers in a recent survey, and the response from the local search community was as swift as it was mixed.

In our June webinar, InsideLocal host Myles Anderson was joined by Ignitor Digital‘s Mary Bowling, Steady Demand‘s Ben Fisher, and SearchLab‘s Greg Gifford to answer the big questions:

  • Why is Google asking these questions now? Is there anything the timing can teach us?
  • How would ‘pay-to-play’ features affect agency services and pricing?
  • Do the new features present big opportunities to the local businesses willing to pay for them?
  • Is there a threat of GMB going fully into a subscription model?

If you missed it, the webinar recording is available to watch below. We’ve also written up a summary of our favorite insights from the discussion. If you’d like to refer to the slidedeck, please visit the resources section below.

For more reactions to Google My Business’s survey, take a look at our poll on the topic, ‘[Poll Results] Google My Business – Would You Pay to Play?’


Video – Is ‘Pay to Play’ the Future of Google My Business?



What Was the GMB Survey?

In April, Google My Business sent out a survey to users asking for thoughts on potential new features, and suggesting the possibility of a paid model. Google listed 20 features, asking people to choose which features they liked most.

There was a mix of reactions from the local SEO industry, but what did the panel think?

Mary Bowling, co-founder at Ignitor Digital, said: “When I read through the survey, I first thought, ‘We can already do some of these things on Google My Business, are they really going to charge us?’ I also thought that some of these things are so much like the old Yellow Pages or the way Yahoo! Local used to be. I think that if Google keeps this up, they could easily become more hated than Yelp by trying to nickel and dime people to death. My initial reaction is that Google is putting a tariff on this, and eventually will consumers pay for that. If small businesses have to pay this, we have to pass it on, and everybody’s services become more expensive.”

Greg Gifford answered, “I had hair before the survey came out, and I pulled it all out trying to get through it, because it took forever. I’ve talked to a lot of people that received the survey, and I really think the only people that got through were digital marketers that wanted to see what was in there. Some of the stuff is already available, but some of the stuff is absolute wackiness that I don’t know where they’re trying to go with it. From an agency perspective, it’s not so great, but I think Google is looking at the layperson that doesn’t have an agency or someone on staff to handle this. Some of the features might be beneficial. If I was a small business owner and didn’t know squat, I’d pay $20 a month to have access to a support person to talk to. I’m kind of on the fence: it’s kind of dumb, some might have some merit, some are crazy.”

Ben Fisher said, “My initial reaction was that this was some new guy in the Google My Business product team using his 20% time, probably an engineer as it seemed like they didn’t know how to put together a survey. Some of the features were horrifying, how could someone think to offer these types of services? Some are great ideas, some are potential features we may see in GMB in the future. When Google is developing these features, they’re always looking towards the low end of the spectrum – the iPhone repair guy who’s not going to pay an agency to do anything. We have to look at these things through that lens, they’re not looking at what will help an agency or a chain.”

What Might Happen as a Result of the Survey?

The panel agreed that it is unlikely Google would have got any usable results from the survey due to its length and format.

Mary said, “Access to support is different from getting good support. People would be willing to pay for support if they were assured they could speak to someone who could actually do something about their problem. The support is so bad, it’s almost unbelievable that somebody could put out a product and not support it like Google does.”

Greg went on to discuss the driving force of the survey. “If I had the ability to switch to an animated gif, I’d do one with dollar bills raining down. I remember having conversations 5 years ago with SEOs about the possibility of Google charging services. We all forget Google’s not here to be our friend, it’s here to make money. Some of these features have already been released into the wild and they see it working, why not let other people have access and make a little coin?”
BrightLocal logo gif

Mary went on to explain Google’s earnings. “The latest figures I saw, Google made $9 billion in the US last year, and about $32 billion worldwide. I do not feel sorry for Google that they need more money, and that the small businesses are the ones that have to give it to them.”

Ben countered, “Of course Google needs to make money, and they have to have a division with a userbase that is generating income, or money for another product. We see in Google My Business there’s always been an upgrade path to AdWords Express. In the new homepage dashboard, we’ve seen a secondary upgrade path to GSuite. But this is such a half-baked survey, I think that if we see these features most won’t be paid. Some might end up becoming premium, but whenever they look at things for GMB they go to the lowest common denominator. But will it happen? I don’t really think so.”

Myles asked if Google’s local monopoly could be the reason for the survey. Greg responded, “I don’t think it’s that they’re not making money off AdWords Express. These are possible areas they could expand into and charge for that some businesses may think it’s worth paying for. It’s another revenue stream: you’re going to top out on AdWords and other things, this is another revenue stream that businesses that don’t know any better will pay for.”

Mary went on to discuss the new features added to GMB. “I think a lot of the features that have come out in the last few years are very useful. Some of them are quite trackable, and have been proving the value of GMB more and more, which may give them the hutzpah to say, ‘Now I want you to pay me for them.’

Which Features Might Google My Business Be Planning? GMB Survey Features

Google’s survey contained 20 possible new features, but which are the panel most excited – and worried – about?

Conversions and Leads

Mary discussed the value of new features relating to conversions and leads: “The ‘Book’ button already appears on many GMB profiles. This is an easy thing to sell because it’s trackable. Showing conversions has been an issue in local search since day one, with most transactions being completed offline with no way to track them, so Google has figured out things that they could give us that allow us to track their value to us.

“I think getting leads from competitor profiles is very Yelp-like, and a slap in the face to small businesses. We can already do Offers through Google Posts. The Instant Quote is kind of weird. The only way I can see them doing this is by giving them all the information, but if you’re using your ‘Products and Services’ tabs in GMB, you’re already giving them a lot of information that they could work with to provide quotes. I think leads and conversion features are appealing to small business owners, but also somewhat appealing to agencies as it’s trackable, and helps them prove their value.”

Ben continued, “If you look at a lot of the services, doesn’t it remind you of Local Service Ads?”

Myles summarized, “From the point of view of agencies and SMBs, there’s some real opportunity to drive more value out of Google, and understand the value it’s driving.”


The panel went on to discuss features helping improve visibility. Greg explained, “The Promoted Pin already exists, though a lot of people don’t have access. Google search results placement is one of the things that made me need to change my Depends when I was doing the survey. That’s just really scary, it’s not saying it’s ad placement, it seems like if you’re paying for this you get an organic boost.”

Myles hypothesized that for SERP placement, any paid-for pack from Google would have to be in a bidding format, rather than the bundles proposed in the survey. He then asked how paid-for elements could limit GMB spam, which the panel had strong opinions on.

“Look at spam in personal injury, they’ll throw a ton of money at it” said Greg. “You only need one client to do a $5 million settlement and paid for all of the money you’ll throw at Google in the next year.”

Ben went on to discuss how spam led to LSAs. “I disagree. LSAs were born from spam in the locksmith and garage door industries. LSA came along and did advanced verification, and Pinkerton doing background checks on everybody, then brought in a bidding service. This curtailed spam. I don’t think that spammers could buy AdWords as they couldn’t prove they were a real entity.”

Customer Services

The survey also contained features that may help local businesses with their customer service.

Ben said, “Automating messaging responses is something Facebook and Google already have, so that’s great. Call reports and recordings would be fantastic to integrate into Google My Business. We have a bit of that through CallJoy for $39 per month. It’s still in a beta phase, but they’ve already got it.”

Mary explained more, “The way Google describes it, questions that are asked a lot that they can respond to, they will. They might take it from Q&A, they might even take it from reviews or any other user-generated content they can get their fingers on. It would mostly be questions that are easy for AI to answer.

Myles summarized, “This could end up saving time for businesses, allowing them to respond faster to customers and give them the answers they need.”

Trust and Verification

Mary discussed her experience with clients and the Google Guarantee (as seen on LSAs): “Businesses put a lot of stock in the Google Guarantee, and I think consumers would do the same.

“We already have background checks in LSAs, and I believe they’re doing this in AdWords too. Verified licenses is something Yelp has just started doing, it’s quite easy for them, all they need to do is scrape the state or city databases for verified licences. Verified bookings would be quite hard for GMB to deal with unless it was through the ‘Book’ button. I think these are good for Google, small businesses, and consumers, because they help weed out suspect businesses that scare everybody.”

Ben went on to why these might have a cost attached. “A background check costs Google money, the Google Guarantee costs up to $2,000, and verified licenses can’t currently be scraped so would have an associated cost. All these trust and verification features are great for the consumer, and they’re great for the business, and great for us as agencies because fewer businesses might be suspended!”


Greg shared his thoughts on new features for reviews, “You can kind of already do a Featured Review with Google Posts. I think it’s kind of pointless, it’s like a website testimonial page where it’s only the best of the best to show. Verified Reviews could be cool because there’s a big problem with review spam. Automated review responses is the dumbest idea ever. Why would you want the same generic response posted to every review you get?”

Mary agreed, “One of the biggest things about reviews is actually taking feedback to heart, and using it to improve your business. If you’re just sending out automated responses and ignoring them, a critical part of the process is dropped.”

Ben said, “Research finds that businesses that aren’t restaurants, hotels, or big chains get around 5 reviews per month. For the lowest common denominator, the number of reviews won’t be high enough to warrant this feature.”

Greg continued with more information on review responses: “Google recently changed it so that when businesses respond to reviews, the reviewer gets a message. Clearly, Google knows that as a reviewer it’s important for me to know that the business responded. Why would they turn around and want to automate responses, it’s counter-intuitive.”

Mary shared her thoughts on verified reviews: “There’s such a problem with spam reviews, so if Google can verify reviews, why aren’t they doing it? That should be a core part of Google My Business. If that’s what they need to do it, then they need to get to work.”

In Ben’s experience as a Google Product Expert, he has plenty of thoughts on review spam. “Review spam is really difficult. Most of the Product Experts have shared ideas with Google to fight review spam. Personally, I think verified reviews is a fantastic idea. I would recommend any business pays for that if it gets rid of the review spam issue.”

“Let’s say you pay for verified reviews,” said Mary. “Are unverified reviews going to show up in your review stream along with the verified reviews? That looks ugly to me. If they don’t, and if people drop out, you’ll get fewer reviews than other people.”


“Google customer support would be fantastic, and I bet a lot of people would buy it, but a lot of people wouldn’t understand what it means,” said Ben. “For agencies that work with businesses, we’d probably think, ‘Oh, they’ll be able to get unsuspended, they won’t need us! Oh, they’re having a problem with review spam attacks, they don’t need us!’ The form of support that is actually most likely to happen would be how the lowest common denominator gets the most out of GMB. It’s not going to be how to rank better, or what can I do with my website, so I wouldn’t worry about that.

He continued, “Removing ads from your business profile kind of sounds like extortion to me! But would people pay for it? Yes, of course.”

Greg liked the concept of videos in GMB listings, “We can already do this as a Post, but this shows up at the bottom on Desktop. You can load them in elsewhere, but if it got inserted right at the top of your profile, it could be cool. If you could have a nice 30-second video, it would be really easy for consumers to click and hear why you’re awesome. If just depends on how this would actually be implemented.”

Ben followed up, “What would they do, push down reviews, or push down Q&A? There’s only so much space for features.”

Mary said, “I could see it working as another tab on your profile. In a lot of businesses, you’re not buying a business, but you’re buying the person. In those cases, I think allowing the person to sell themselves rather than their products or services would be really useful to consumers.

She continued, “Not every one of these features is great for every type of business. You have to go through and see what’s useful for your lawyer clients compared to your HVAC clients. I think that’s what Google did with those packages, and tried to guess which kinds of industries would be interested in the different packages.”

Is Pay-to-Play the Future of Google My Business?

Greg: “I don’t think it will ever be fully pay-to-play. If we’re lumping everything together and saying, ‘Do you have to pay-to-play to be in Google My Business?’, I think the answer is no. But will there be pay-to-play elements? Yes, I think definitely, it’s a no brainer that we’ve been talking about for years. But I don’t think you’ll have to pay-to-play, I think it will be listing enhancements that may vary on which vertical you’re in.”

Mary: “I agree completely with Greg. I think they want to keep giving us a basic free listing so they don’t have to pay for support for it. If you’re too cheap to pay us, then this is what you get. I think there will be subscription models that will be valuable for different types of businesses. I just hope they are a little bit circumspect, and respect the small business owner when thinking about a lot of these things.

Ben: “I can’t agree more with both Greg and Mary. GMB is, and was, a free product. They’ve rolled out more free features, but is it normal for a business to seek ways to monetize? I don’t think they’ll monetize everything, but I think they’ll monetize some things. I think there’s definitely going to be upgrade paths that appeal to users. At the end of the day, I can say as a Product Expert, they really do listen to feedback. They listen to our feedback, they listen to yours, they monitor #stopcraponthemap. As an industry, we just need to have our voices heard, and I think that’s what this was about. I don’t think they saw a load of users filling the survey out, but I think they saw a lot of agencies filling it out. But will it be 100% pay-to-play? No, I don’t think so.”



Below are some of the highlights from the live Q&A. Thank you to Sterling Sky’s Colan Nielsen and BrightLocal’s Matt Coghlan for their answers below. You can follow Colan on Twitter here.

Q. Will Pay-to-Play affect location; ie can businesses outside of a given location appear in its 3-pack?

A. “3-pack ads appear to trigger more for users who are close to your location. For example, if your business is located just outside of Houston, someone in Houston searching “realtor Houston” would be likely to see your ad in the 3-pack. A person searching “realtor Houston” who is located in Dallas would not see it.” – Colan Nielsen, Sterling Sky

Q. We’ve already seen how the BnB industry has been affected by ads from booking platforms appearing in their knowledge panel. Do you think that some public-facing features (promoted pins, booking buttons, offers etc.) could make it harder for regular users to tell the difference between paid and organic results, leading to them becoming ubiquitous? If so, how do we pressure Google to develop paid features that support the growth of new businesses, instead of raising overheads for everyone?

A.  The visual difference between what is paid vs organic on Google will continue to become closer and closer. We’ve seen this recently in non-local with Google’s recent update to paid ads on mobile becoming less obvious (see this post if you missed this).” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. Do you think that Google will use new revenue from GMB to make a meaningful impact on spam, or do we need the rise of a serious competitor in local search for this to happen?

A. “This is up for debate right now but personally I believe it’s a bi-product of a solution to make more revenue – I think Google still sees spam as a minor issue with little influence in their overall roadmap.” – Matt Coghlan

Q. Any ideas which GMB features will be a paid feature? And ideas of how much $$?

A. “Your guess is as good as mine at this point.” – Colan Nielsen

Q. How does LSA licensing work in places like the Philippines for the verification? I know the postcards are a real problem because of mail delivery problems.

A. “Interesting question, LSAs are only available in the US right now. If Google looks to roll this out across more countries they’d need a relevant source to check the data against. Most countries will have business registry databases that are publically accessible.”
– Matt Coghlan

Q. Is organic worth the effort anymore for sole traders and small businesses?

A. “100% yes.” – Colan Nielsen

Thanks to everyone who attended live and contributed to the excellent chat.


Our Expert Panelists

Greg Gifford
Greg Gifford

Greg is the VP of search at digital marketing agency SearchLab. He has over 16 years of online marketing and web design experience, and he speaks internationally at both automotive and SEO conferences, teaching thousands of small business owners and marketers how to get their sites to show up higher in local search rankings.

Mary Bowling, Ignitor Digital
Mary Bowling

Mary is the co-founder of Ignitor Digital, has been involved in all aspects of SEO since 2003, and has always been intrigued by Local Search. With a background as a serial entrepreneur, she always tries to approach Local Search and Internet Marketing in a practical way and from a small business owner’s perspective. As an expert in Local SEO services as well as a long time practitioner and consultant, Mary frequently speaks about Local Search at industry conferences and teaches Local SEO to others.

Ben Fisher
Ben Fisher

Ben is VP of Marketing and founder of Steady Demand, and has been helping businesses grow online since 1994. He is also a Google My Business Gold Product Expert, hand-picked by Google to inform product decisions and help the community.

Host: Myles Anderson

Myles is Founder and CEO of BrightLocal. He has worked in the local search industry since 2009 and has been a major contributor to the Local Search Ranking Factors Study. Myles has also written a regular column for Search Engine Land and has spoken at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).

Rosie Murphy
About the author
Rosie managed BrightLocal's delivery of research and survey pieces. She headed up data-driven content such as regular polls, webinars and whitepapers, including the Local Consumer Review Survey.

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