Here's a fact worth considering: 97 percent of consumers search for local businesses online. Another: 73 percent of all online activity is related to local content, according to data released by Google.

This has huge implications for small businesses, which often depend on Google—in terms of organic and paid search—to generate phone calls, foot traffic, and overall brand visibility. But while most businesses spend time and marketing dollars perfecting their paid search campaigns and SEO strategies, plenty overlook one of the most valuable (and free) resources that Google has ever offered: Google Places.

Places was launched in September 2009, and ostensibly replaced the Google Local Business Center. On Google's official blog, the service was introduced as " a webpage for every place in the world, organizing all the relevant information about it."

Two years after its launch, many companies are still struggling to get it right.

"It's a very difficult and delicate ecosystem," says Chris Watson, the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Everspark Interactive, a full-service SEO agency based in Atlanta. "In the beginning, we spent 12 months thinking we had the variables right only to find that sometimes we got it completely wrong."

The good news is that Google Places is free and fairly painless to set up. The bad news is that it takes more than just a couple of clicks to start generating paying customers. Watson notes that maintaining the Places account is just like any other aspect of the marketing mix, and should not be left to an inexperienced office manager to set up.

Marketing Your Business Using Google Places: Set Up an Account

Adding a listing takes just three steps. They are:

  • Submit your information, from basic contact info to photos and video.
  • Verify your listing by phone or postcard.
  • Wait for your listing to appear on Google.

To create your business's Places page, Google will crawl the Web and find information about your business from a variety of third-party sources, including Yelp and Yellow Pages.

Once you've set up the listing, it's important to fill out all of the relevant information, including hours of operation, payment options, categories, and additional details. This is not merely to help your customers navigate your Places page. It's to help you, too: the richer in content your listing is, the more prominent your Places organic ranking will become.

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Marketing Your Business Using Google Places: Avoid the Common Mistakes

"Don't go keyword stuffing," Watson cautions. "The biggest mistake I see are businesses that go into their Places account and put in 20 different categories for their business. They think that because they can do it, it's appropriate. You should nominate just one category."

It's also important not to forget the basics—like a company phone number.  "People don't realize that Google Places is predominantly about a phone number. That phone number has to be a local phone number, and shown on your website in a format that the Google spider can see." In other words, don't put your phone number in a picture, or a JPEG format.

It's a bit complex, but "citation building" is a common problem for small businesses building their Places account. As its name implies, a "citation" is another website's affirmation about your Google Places listing.

"In order to get a valuable citation, the referring website must list the company information as it appears in the Places Profile," explains one blogger. "That means that the company name and address have to be identical. While that doesn't seem too difficult a concept, consider this - if your business is listed at 300 S Main Street in the Places Profile, but someone cites the address on their website as 300 South Main Street, the value of that citation is diminished. One could believe that such a difference as negligible (S. vs. South), but in the realm of local search every detail matters."

But for all the technical mistakes small businesses make, Chris Watson says there's one major operational mistake that always inhibits the success of a Places campaign: too many cooks in the kitchen.

"It's a not place where everyone can contribute," Watson says. "It has to be very closely monitored."

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Marketing Your Business Using Google Places: Optimize Rankings

"Not surprisingly, marketing on Google Places has gotten very competitive," says Ken Horst, an SEO expert. "It used to be you could simply fill out your business listing on Google and see it in the seven pack a few weeks later. These days, if your listing doesn't have a 100 percent score, you can forget about being listed in the first seven local businesses that Google displays for local results."

There are a number of ways to vie for the coveted seven. Watson recommends encouraging reviewers, showing off photos (with keyword-friendly tags), uploading video, and even using 2-D barcodes.

Also, when writing the company description, it's important to avoid hackneyed expressions, like "proudly serving the community" or "The best hairdresser in town." According to Watson, being precise—not loquacious—is the key to ranking up high.

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Marketing Your Business Using Google Places: Use Local Business Photos

In May, Google announced a new project to complement Places: Google Business Photos, a 360-degree look at the interior of a retail store, a restaurant, or even an office space.

"Millions of users visit Google Maps every day to learn about new places," Google noted upon its release. "Showcase your business to these potential customers by signing up for a photo shoot by Google trusted photographers. The images will appear on your business's Place page, and as 360-degree imagery using Street View technology."

Business Photos is still in its infancy, and will have a limited release in the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Businesses can apply here to have a shot at becoming one of the first businesses photographed. Some are skeptical about Google's ability to scale the service, considering how time-intensive indoor photograhy can be. Still, Chris Watson is excited about what it could mean for small business.

"We don't know whether or not it's going to be that significant," he says. "But if you look at it from a strategy perspective, it's always better to show more. You can go ahead and upload your own pictures, but I would suggest that there's something rather significant to being a Google Business Photo 'chosen one.'"

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