Consolidating Locations and Google My Business Listings Due to COVID-19

The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

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How should you handle Google My Business listings when circumstances force a multi-location brand to consolidate?

This question is one I’m now increasingly receiving from local enterprises. Brands which made rapid adaptations in 2020 to continue serving the public are now having to make longer-term decisions based on the COVID-19 recession, altered consumer behavior, and budget.

Uprooting branches is painful. I believe it’s still too early to predict whether customers’ habits have been permanently changed by the pandemic and adoption of emergent service methodologies, such as telemeetings or home delivery. Forever is a very long time. That being said, Black Friday 2020 saw foot traffic cut in half and some multi-location brands faced with this reality are having to evaluate how to consolidate their bases of operation. A brand which formerly maintained five storefronts in a single city wants to know if it can weather the storm and build a future from just one physical locale.

Each business scenario is different, but there are general questions you should ask prior to consolidation, and there are specific steps to take if you determine the business you’re marketing must retrench. I want to be sure to mention that this article deals with permanent location closure. If you need to temporarily close a location due to COVID, read Google’s guidance on this.

Today, we’ll help you consider important factors in the decision-making process about permanent closure of locations, walk you through managing Google My Business listing consolidation with help from a Google Gold Product Expert, and prepare you for changes you may experience as a result of reducing your local footprint while working to make the best of a bad situation.

One of the challenging aspects of this tough scenario is that the business you’re marketing will need to choose which locations to close and which ones should remain open. I recommend asking these four questions, because the answers will be different for each brand and each market:

1. Is bias towards a city or industry centroid appearing to impact the local results for my top search phrases?

Go to Google and look up the name of a city in which you’re considering consolidation. Click on the map and identify where Google is locating the name of the city on the map. That is roughly Google’s idea of the center, or centroid, of the city:

Now, from a remote location (not at or too near your place of business), perform some of your most important searches and evaluate whether Google appears to be clustering the local pack, local finder, and Google Maps results around that centroid, of if they look fairly evenly distributed around the city. Document your findings.

Next, evaluate whether there is an industry centroid appearing to exert influence on the results for your searches. For example, in this search for auto dealerships, Google is clustering the lion’s share of the results around the auto row in this town, though there are many other dealerships in other parts of the city:

If one of your locations in a particular city is close to a city or industry centroid, and these points on the map appear to be influencing local search results for your most important search phrases, count this as a vote for keeping this location open while closing others that aren’t as close to these centroids.

2. Which location has historically done the highest volume of business, and does this still hold true today?

Take whatever practical data you have about the real-world performance of all your locations within a city. Compare pre-pandemic rates of foot traffic, transactions, phone calls, and any other metrics you have to these same figures today, even if you transition the data points to cover adaptations like curbside pickups, requests for delivery, or telemeetings. Document your findings. Count a vote for the winner of these benchmarks.

3. Which location is performing best in Google’s local results?

Here, you want to identify whether the GMB listing for one of your locations is outperforming the others in a city for core search phrases. Perhaps it’s the one with the highest star rating, the most reviews, the most owner responses, the closest proximity to a centroid, the best photos, more Q&A, or more regularly-scheduled Google Posts. Whatever factors are driving it to rank best for the business, document your findings.

If you’re not sure whether one of your locations is your strongest performer, learn to conduct a competitive local business audit in Chapter 1 of the Essential Local SEO Strategy Guide.

If one of your listings stands out as the strongest, count that as a vote for it.

4. Which location, if any, has amenities that have strengthened its ability to serve during an emergency?

It may be the location with the biggest parking lot that is facilitating easier curbside pickup. Or the one with the drive-thru window. Or the one with the biggest storeroom to house products telehelp experts can interact with during customer service meetings.

If one of your locations has been better able to safely and effectively serve the public during the public health emergency, count that as a vote for it being the one that remains open.

To finalize, look at which location won the most votes in these four questions, and include that information in your final deliberations about which place should remain open while others are closed.

COVID-19 has created scenarios that local businesses have never faced before. Google has done a good job rolling out reactive features, like new GMB attributes and post types, but I think they are still trying to play catch-up in terms of updating guidelines for unforeseen scenarios. Normally, when I encounter a novel situation, I directly contact Google staff to be sure the advice I might give to a business has their official stamp of approval. But, for the past few months, I haven’t received responses to my requests for comment and guidance via the usual channels.

This led me to post about the emergence of COVID-driven location consolidation in Google’s help forum, and fortunately for all of us, volunteer Gold Product Expert, Krystal Taing, took the time to respond with thought and care. If you’ve determined that consolidating your locations within a city is necessary, here is Krystal’s advice on how to follow through digitally with your Google My Business listings:

  1. Mark the closed locations as permanently closed. Here is Google’s process for doing so.
  2. Go to Google Maps and click the “suggest an edit” button. Mark the closed locations as “moved” to the location that will remain open. See the option for this in the following screenshot:
  3. Send a request to Google to ask if they will transfer the reviews of the closed locations to the remaining location. Here is Google’s process for doing this. It’s important to know that it’s not guaranteed that Google will move your reviews, but it’s worth it to ask. Be sure to include the Maps URLs or listing CID numbers from both the closed listings and the remaining listing in your request to be clear about which locations you mean.

    Sincere thanks to Krystal Taing for providing a process for all brands who are facing this dilemma. The volunteers in Google’s forum provide so much guidance, for free, and I sincerely hope Google will evaluate the emergence of COVID consolidation and release official guidelines for it sometime this year.

    I want to address this very important question by first expressing my sympathy for any brand owners who have found themselves in this situation, and for their marketers who are trying to give good advice in difficult times. I’m sorry. You likely already know in your gut that having to close locations will have a negative impact on your business, and you’re right to suspect that having to close your GMB listings could be detrimental to your overall online visibility, as well.

    I want to re-emphasize that every business scenario is different, but my prediction would be that brands which will suffer the greatest losses of digital visibility will be those whose models depend most on Google’s user-to-business proximity bias.

    It’s important to take the time to explain this. As I’ve documented previously in my column, Google heavily personalizes their local results based on their perception of user intent and location. The more Google feels a searcher is looking for a nearby solution to a need, the more likely that the local packs, finders, and maps will deliver results in a tight, hyperlocal radius based on the location of the searcher’s device.

    Because of this, if your business model is something like a convenience store that formerly had five locations in a city to ensure that customers could quickly get to you in every neighborhood, and you’re now reducing to a single location, it’s less likely that Google will continue to surface your remaining listing to people in the more distant neighborhoods you’ve now vacated. You’re likely to see significant losses of rankings, traffic, and transactions, due to the reduction of your local footprint.

    However, if your business model is something like a big home improvement store or a restaurant with a rare menu, and people wouldn’t normally mind driving across town to get to you, then having to consolidate may have less impact on your visibility. Loss of locations may mean a bit less convenience for hyperlocal customers who formerly enjoyed being able to hike to your door, but in many cases, where the local market isn’t oversaturated with near-identical options, you’ll be able to retain good visibility on the maps.

    As Krystal Taing points out:

    The label on the listings will still display as ‘Permanently Closed’ since that is true. However, there will be a fairly short period of time when this will still display to users unless they have direct links to the business profile. Marking the business as moved will help Google understand the alternative listings to display in results when they would have normally displayed that store to a user.”

    So, there is some reason to hope that for many business models, the negative impacts of location and listing consolidation may not be as dire as we might fear, but I don’t want to give false hope here. You should plan to see drop-off across multiple metrics, and should be doing everything you can to ameliorate outcomes.

    Crucial to this will be communication with your existing consumer base. You want to prevent loyal customers who encounter that big, ugly “permanently closed” label on listings from misapprehending that your brand has gone out of business. Let’s take a look at your options.

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    Can anything good come of all this difficult pruning? We can make a start with five proactive steps you can take to reduce the chance that customers mistake closure of some locations for total brand closure:

    1. If your number of overall brand locations was limited (perhaps 10 or less) to begin with, announce the consolidation on the homepage of your website and on a site-wide banner. Address customers who formerly frequented the closed locations and offer clear directions to your new location, including written directions, maps, and photos. Word this as a warm welcome and let customers know you value their business and want to see them at your open location. If you had a large number of former locations, a better place for this messaging would be the location landing pages of the former locations, pointing users to the pages of those that remain open.

    2. Email the same message to your email database prior to closing each location. Then, follow up with another email blast over the next few months. Remind customers that you are still in town and ready to serve them at a different location.

    3. Be as active as possible on social media to communicate the change. You might even consider offering a special promotion for customers who make the switch from shopping at your old locations to patronizing the remaining one.

    4. Be sure you have edited all of your citations on other platforms to reflect the change, reducing the chance of inconveniencing customers. If you’ve been using Moz Local to manage your listings across the Internet, you can automate this work of closure to save time and hassle.

    5. Don’t assume everyone has the Internet. Find offline channels in your community that neighbors rely on for news and work to get the message out about where your open business is located.

    Finally, if there is any silver lining to consolidation, it’s that you can now focus the strength of your marketing into fewer locations. Three points to consider:

    Major improvements at smaller scale

    With overhead significantly reduced, is now the time to invest in better e-commerce and a great home delivery system to ensure you can still serve customers across a city, or even throughout several neighboring communities? Read up on the pros and cons of in-house delivery vs. third party last-mile fulfillment. Or, if your business deals in services rather than products, are there strides you can make in teleservices that would make your brand the most accessible and satisfying one with which a community can transact? With fewer locations to manage, focus in on best-in-town customer service.

    Another idea: could any of your former locations be replaced by a kiosk? Many are eligible for GMB inclusion and the existence of kiosks could regrow your local footprint in new ways.

    Location landing page adjustments

    What will you do with the landing pages of locations that are now permanently closed? The answer to this depends on your business model. If your business is geared towards services instead of products, and you are continuing to serve the areas where you’ve had to close locations, then there could be good reason to maintain these pages, diversifying them as much as possible with fresh, hyperlocal content.

    If, however, the business is product-oriented, it’s likely that you’ll want to permanently 301 redirect these pages to the landing page for the branches that remain open. You might want to do this in stages, first keeping the pages live for a time as a place to announce the changes and to point website visitors to locations that remain open. You might have this be the structure for six months or a year. After whatever period of adjustment you feel is reasonable to ensure a given community knows of the changes, your final step could be then be 301 redirection.

    The bright side of this is that any link power the multiple old pages learned will now flow through to the one landing page for the open location, which could give it a new ranking boost once Google has had time to process the change.

    Continuous evaluation

    Imagine a world in which purchasing accent chairs from Crate & Barrel is assisted by a twenty minute telemeeting with a salesperson who knows the inventory like the back of their hand because this has become company policy. It’s a far cry from “automated attendants” (a.k.a. robot phone trees) that convey no warmth or welcome. Imagine a delivery person who tosses treats to your pup while nestling groceries from all over town at your door, because that’s the old/new way of doing business. Imagine a 22-year-old YouTube star launching a ghost kitchen empire, because so many people just like him. Point being, there are possibilities here, in this time of change. There were nearly half-a-million new business applications in January 2021 in the US.

    Over the next few years, your consolidated business will need to continuously evaluate opportunities for growth, even if the goal is no longer re-opening the same number of locations you operated prior to the pandemic. Rather, you might find new ways to become part of the essential fabric of local communities, you might expand your team nationally or even internationally to include greater levels of expertise because technology makes it possible, you might develop the next app that solves a pain point you’ve have to experience first-hand and that you know your peers are struggling with, too. As you prune and trim, a new and solid conception of your business may emerge over time.

    As I mentioned above, forever is a long time. I don’t think any economist or marketer can realistically predict what the new normal will be when we have hopefully put these hard times behind us. We’re all guessing. What I would bet on, though, is that the entrepreneurial spark that helped you grow your business to its greatest heights before the crisis is still burning bright. Your observational powers, business acumen, and drive to contribute to our joint recovery matter, and the communities that you serve will be counting on you to lead the way forward. Wishing you success, every step of the way.

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