Google Places was quickly becoming the most important online platform for brick and mortar businesses to connect with local customers. Business owners were finally grasping the vital nature of the product and online marketing gurus were just getting warmed up with optimization tactics when, as Google loves to do, they changed course.

Google loves to change things. Especially on the local front as they have been tinkering with Places since inception. They also love forcing us to use their products and do so with the gentle persuasion of Darth Vader. Therefore, when the opportunity to overhaul Places crossed paths with an opportunity to further Google Plus, they simply could not pass it up. So, farewell Google Places and welcome Google Plus Local.

What’s Not Changing

Though the name and layout of Plus Local has changed, there are minimal aesthetic differences. From the vantage point of the average searcher, few would even notice the overhaul. It remains the cornerstone of any local visibility plan and managing it from an owner standpoint is largely the same.

Google has merged existing Places Pages to Local Plus pages relatively seamlessly. I am currently working with a handful of clients whose Places Pages were transitioned without cause over a month ago, during the early days of the switch.

Rankings have remained relatively constant as well. This leads me to believe the (current) local algorithm remained largely intact. Unchanged as well – the importance it plays in a local visibility strategy. Google still only displays seven local listings separated from organic and paid results.

What Is Changing

The layout of the page is slightly different (see figure 1 below). There is also the obvious integration with Google Plus, including a new “local” tab on the side of a Google Plus page. This gives searchers the ability to see ratings and reviews listed by those in their circles and provides a more integrated search / social experience – at least in theory.

The most notable change lies with the integration of Zagat scores. With Places, patrons could rate businesses on a scale of one to five stars. Google averaged all reviews and displayed a star rating of 1-5.

With Zagat, individual reviews are on a 0-3 point scale. The business then receives a Zagat score, displayed as a number between 0 and 30. A business can also obtain variable reviews for different aspects, such as the restaurant review below.

What This Means

As most of the changes have been with the review system, owners should start there. A vital piece to the ranking puzzle, reviews are important to both traffic and credibility. The Zagat integration requires at least 10 reviews prior to assignment of a score.