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October 2, 2012

Google’s Impossible Dream – The Ongoing Saga of Social Torture

Google has me in its grip. With every new day, I am subjected to some new persecution for which there seems to be no escape.

As some of you may know from previous articles I have written on the subject, for months I have been pursuing how to get those golden stars to appear next to my SERPs the way they do in my Rich Snippet Test on Google Analytics. What a tease… for Google to show me how beautiful they will look but not allow them to appear, for some unknown reason. What am I doing wrong?

Having researched the topic thoroughly, here are some of the possible reasons why:

1. It’s too soon to expect them to appear. (It’s been a couple of months. Google said to wait a couple of weeks.)

2. I am missing the actual reviews on my site although a simple rating system, which I have, is supposedly all that is needed for the coding I have provided.

3. With every vote I receive on my rating system, I check the database to see the IP address of the voter. In mostly every case, it has been international crawler bots who have voted, not real people. I realize, I can deter them from doing this with a “no-follow” instruction. But, it has been interesting to see where they come from (China, Israel, Jamaica, Germany, Netherlands, California, New York…), how often they come (mostly daily), and what score they give me (the lowest number, being the most convenient, moving left to right.)

4. Even though the system is only supposed to register one vote per IP address, the bots obviously have a way of circumventing that rule, since some have given me every possible score in a single visit.

5. Google’s Webmaster Tools keeps reporting that I have duplicate pages with the same titles and descriptions, citing pages with scores and IP addresses clearly noted. In every case, the duplicated pages are the result of Google’s own crawler bots from their many IP addresses in Mountain View, California. Yet, I cannot locate any of these duplicate files on my server.

In order to have such a rating system on my homepage, I had to convert my .html file to a .php file, something for which I had much anxiety because such a change might upset the stellar search rankings I had worked so hard to achieve. After having made the switch, fortunately I have seen no deleterious repercussions over the past few months. However, I never dismiss the possibility that Google may decide that my rating system is delinquent in some way and penalize me as a result.

I worry whether that is why those stars fail to appear with my SERPs. On days I get no votes from the worldwide bots, I am convinced disaster is on the horizon. However, I must admit that once I detected that the poor scores I was receiving were from robots and not real people (…or my competition!), my wounded ego quickly healed. (I couldn’t fathom how 37 years of highly positive feedback from customers and clients, not to mention consistently excellent business success, could have been so wrong!)

Places to Plus: Google’s New Gateway to the Stars

With always something new to digest upon further investigation, I read that once you have reviews on your Google Places page, the stars will show up on your SERPs. However, when I researched the status of my Google Places page, I discovered that Google had recently retired the Google Places platform and replaced it with the Google+ page. Any ratings or reviews associated with the Google Places page disappear unless you manually follow Google’s directions on how to move them.

As an experiment, since I had no reviews on my Google Places page (and reviews on such sites as Yelp, for instance, don’t count for this exercise), I set up a Google account for my daughter so I could use her name to write a test review. When I was logged in with her name, the review showed up on her account but did not show up on my Google Places page. I figured that must be because of the recent switch to Google+. Also, I was confused by the new rating system Google is now using, based on Zagat’s three-star system, which does not conform to my confirmed rich snippet test using five stars. Furthermore, mine is not the type of business that Zagat would ordinarily review, since they seem to concentrate on dining, leisure and entertainment as opposed to business services – another conundrum, to be sure!

Although I currently have a Google+ personal page, I had not yet set up a Google+ page for my business, which was something I was trying to avoid, in much the same way I have avoided setting up a Facebook page for my business. Without enough time to devote to everything I do each day, I hardly have time to manage social media on not one, but two or more social sites!

I am still smarting from comments (scoldings!) I received in response to a recent article I had written on the subject of social media. According to some contributors, such a strategy is a coward’s way out: I should bite the bullet and join the 21st century.

So, the first problem in setting up the Google+ page for my business involved choosing whether to classify it as a worldwide corporation or as a local business. It is both. I decided to start with the corporate setup.

Next, I took time away from my busy day to create some suitable images to use on my Google+ page, and just as with previous experience setting up some of my clients’ Facebook pages, I was required to search Google to find out the actual dimensions needed because that information must be a secret.

Neither Google nor Facebook provide the complete dimensions anywhere I could find despite having spent a long time looking and reading, to no avail. Luckily, there are kind people out in the world who have obviously had similar frustrations and have written extensively on the subject, providing the needed specifications. However, once I uploaded the suggested size, I found that I wasn’t happy with the appearance because Google has used a weird shape for the cover image which includes a clumsy protrusion on the left side which points to the word “profile.” I decided that if I decreased the width a bit, I could avoid utilizing that available space and retain a clean, straight left edge which I thought looked better.

When I completed the setup, I found that the corporate page had no option for writing a review. So, starting all over, I set up a local page but could not complete it because Google needed to verify I was the true owner of the business and would mail me a code which I would receive in about a week.

In the meantime I was able to add the necessary coding to my website to provide links to and from the Google+ page. Google confirmed that was done properly. When the mailed code finally arrived, I anxiously entered it into the empty field which successfully proved my veracity! Google even added an icon next to my page name confirming the verification, which was satisfying.

With Google, There’s Always a Catch

This time, the page invites you to write a review, which I was happy to see as well. However, visitors must log into their Google Account to do so, providing another impediment to getting reviewed since most clients either don’t have a Google Account or prefer not to waste their valuable time on the tedious process of divulging personal information to set one up. Again, I logged in as my daughter and there was my original test review written for the Google Places page but again when I logged out, that review did not show up on my new Google+ local page. This is so exasperating!

In further reading on a Google discussion forum, I learned that my test review could be classified as spam, possibly because Google knows it came from my IP address rather than my daughter’s… but I am guessing. When I just revisited my Google Places page logged into my own Google Account, it took me to my new Google+ Local page where it invited me to post a review which it said, would be publicly displayed followed by my name. Yet, on a Google forum, I had read that you cannot review your own business. The contradictions continue!

All Pain, No Gain

However, I noticed that I now had two followers on my new Google+ page which made me feel a little bit better but so much time spent for no gain is maddening.

In a discussion with one of my clients in the automotive industry, he mentioned that he had read an article about a number of car dealers in the Midwest whose excellent star ratings on Google Places and Google+ pages were suddenly altered by Google itself, who removed most of the superlative reviews in favor of the negative ones. Google’s explanation in a statement provided to Automotive News follows:

“Google seeks to prevent ‘spammy’ content, even at the risk of sometimes removing legitimate reviews. We know this is frustrating when it happens but believe that overall, these measures help everyone by ensuring that the reviews appearing on Google+ Local are authentic, relevant, and useful.”

The Facebook Mystery

To take a breather from this impossible battle, I went back to my website and noticed that my Facebook “Like” button was missing. I checked all the coding and found it completely intact. Now what?

As a result of another recent article, I had written on obsessions with search ranking, another commenter had lashed out criticizing my messy coding and advised I clean up my act. One of the things he cited was the W3C validity where he noted I had numerous errors. (The World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web.) So, with tail between my legs like a bad dog, I analyzed my W3C problems, and corrected mostly everything with a generous investment of time but not too much pain. I also moved all my messy CSS coding to an external file and everything was still working miraculously well. However, when I uploaded my file, one area at the bottom of my page was no longer centered.

While I am a writer and a designer, coding is not my specialty, and what I know I have learned the hard way, through trial and error. (Lots of error.) But I am a stickler for design, and I could never live with something off center. So back to the drawing board using Dreamweaver, I found not only can you have tables within divisions, but you can have divisions within tables within divisions as well. These are organizing strategies using html and with enough testing, I finally got the area to center properly. But in the process, I made a few other modifications, one of which narrowed the space where I had been using my social buttons. Oh! That was the problem with the
Facebook button. Not enough width to display fully!

When I addressed the now narrowed space coding, I got the Like button to show up on my home page as it had originally done, except for one major difference! It now showed 137 Like votes, as opposed to the dismal zero it had been displaying.

With my heart in my mouth, I realized that apparently Facebook has a way of recording and storing Like votes even if your button is not displaying properly, and these votes were an obvious result of my many recent visitors who had come to my website from my articles. (For those who may laugh at a paltry number like 137, believe me, it’s a world away from zero, especially when combined with the shock and embarrassment of having received my rating system’s lowest scores, whether from robots or otherwise!)

In a complete about face, I am now viewing Facebook as my darling, making me feel appreciated, giving me a new lease on life, despite all the negative things I had said about it. Maybe I’ll even set up a Facebook page for my business one of these days.

Major Internet Companies as Bad Role Models

However, back to the W3C validation process, the errors which remained were a result of coding I had added from Google, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in order to offer social button voting, tracking for Google Analytics, etc. I researched this problem and found that these Internet behemoths are not themselves W3C compliant, shocking as that may sound! Furthermore, I also read that Google does not care about the messiness or invalidity of your coding one bit when it comes to ranking you in search results.

So now, still stymied by Google and the mysterious star issue, my new quandary has to do with another worry I have: Is my Like tally also a result of the crawler bots or have real living human beings cast their personal votes, something for which I would be eternally grateful? The only way to find out is to install a Facebook tracking plugin, whose complicated, broken English, typo-laden instructions may as well be written in hieroglyphics.

Since I have read that Google’s stars which appear in SERPs are now mostly a result of AdWords which are paid advertising, in addition to the fact that Google may have made it too easy to get those stars by using just the right website code and are now taking a harder look, if I ever do get those stars to appear in my SERPs, they will be far more appreciated than if I got them illegitimately, which was never my intention.

Bottom line, in order to get reviews on your Google+ page, one expert suggested that you invite clients and customers to write them by offering incentives or rewards as motivation. Since many of my clients have already written long, glowing, heartfelt testimonials and recommendations on my LinkedIn page as a result of my simply asking them to be so kind, I find it a bit imposing to have to ask them for an encore performance. However, since Google will easily detect the repetition of an identical review published elsewhere, it probably will not allow any duplicated reviews, perhaps considering such a decision as “spammy.”

I believe the only solution is to ask new clients and customers for their reviews by giving them the link to my Google+ page. If an incentive is possible without risk of retaliation by Google, all the better. Otherwise, I think my quest for the stars is an impossible dream.


Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 37 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at http://www.midhudsonmarketing.com.

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