This post by, written by CJ Moore, originally appeared as a column in Mini Storage Messenger, where StorageAhead  regularly contributes marketing advice.

When Steve Chaires received his local yellow pages book recently, he was mad. But his anger was tempered by the realization that what he was so upset about probably didn’t matter all that much.

Chaires, who owns Advanced Moving and Storing in Tallahassee, Fla., looked up his listing to discover that the print was too small for him to read.

“I’m 44 years old and I can’t read it without a pair of glasses,” he said.

So why doesn’t it matter? Because font size has little to do with the number of eyeballs Chaires’ listing will get in yellow pages print. The yellow pages are losing relevance along with other types of print media, and Chaires, like many business owners, has moved most of his marketing budget online. He realizes that no listing is more important than the one that appears at the top of a Google search—as a Google Maps balloon.

“That’s where you want to be,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong presence on the Internet, period. Whatever it takes to get that presence on the Internet is what you need to do be successful in business in today’s market. And if you don’t, you’re a fool. You won’t be in business long.”

True, the Internet is the ticket to meaningful marketing these days, but some tactics are better than others. For example, say a prospect searches Google for “self storage.” Odds are that Google Maps are not going to be a part of the search results. However, most people include a location when they are searching for a local business or service. In fact, 20 percent of online searches are location-based. That’s when Google Maps matter.

Google Maps listings are the most visible local search results on Google today—more prominent than ads and organic results combined. Go ahead—search the web for self storage in your area (e.g. Self Storage Kansas City) and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Maps are the web’s latest gateway to local shopping.

And don’t forget about the mobile web. Forty percent of users who click on a Google Map or use Google Maps for directions are doing so on mobile devices. In fact, this year Google reports about 150 million users of its mobile platform, and that number is climbing.

Mobile searches suggest that people are about to take action. In the case of self storage, that means that many people using Google Maps are very serious about renting a storage unit. Becoming one of those sought-after top balloons is critical to attracting eager renters.

You can get there, and it won’t even cost you. But how?

For yellow pages, the key has always been to get your listing to stand out. To do that you needed to pay for an ad. So there was a direct correlation between money spent and leads delivered. But that is not necessarily the case on the web. Sure, you can appear on the front page by investing in Google AdWords and/or expensive SEO services, but the first thing most people see on a location-based search is the maps listing. Becoming one of those balloons does not cost a dime (for now anyway); consistency and attention-to-detail is how to land at the top.

The bad news is, once you become one of the top balloons, staying there is a whole other challenge.

Google maps by the numbers

Consistency is King

If your business has never claimed a Google Maps listing, that doesn’t mean you’re not already appearing in Google Maps. Google takes info from elsewhere on the web and populates its maps. If a listing already exists, you should still claim your page and make sure that all the information is accurate. The process is not hard: you can either have Google call your place of business or send a PIN number via snail mail to verify the listing.

Once you’ve claimed your map, it’s possible that Google might create another listing if everything is not consistent throughout the web. More than one listing is counterproductive, because it negatively affects your rank.

It’s important not to try to beat the system by adding keywords or a phone number onto your business name listing. Google Places provides ample opportunity to make sure customers find all of your information. Your business name and address should be the same everywhere – online and offline. Even your terminology should be consistent. If you use “Street” one place and “St.” in another, it can hurt your ranking.

Once you have created a Google Places listing, you should make sure to fill out all fields if possible. Google Places allows you the opportunity to upload your logo, add photos and videos, which is like a free ad for your business. You can strengthen your SEO in the additional details field by adding keywords and available services. The additional details field is yet another opportunity to share information with customers.

Once a business is listed and Google verifies the listing, business owners can track how often their business appears in searches and how often those searches result in a click (or lead) on the Google Places Dashboard. This allows for some trial and error to make sure that what you have included in the different categories has provided your business with a strong presence. Plus, if something goes awry with a listing, a business owner will most likely see it reflected in the analytics, so it’s important to constantly track that information and make sure there has been no foul play to hurt your ranking.

The Battle for Maps

Google Maps and Places listings have become a cat-and-mouse game between competitors and third-party marketing businesses that are trying to benefit from the suddenly-available dollars that used to go to yellow pages. Some competitors have stooped to altering information in an effort to steer customers away. Until recently, one method was to report a problem on Google Places, letting Google know that a business was “permanently closed.” That information would then show up to anyone who landed on the Google Places page, showing the place of business as “reportedly closed” and pending a review by Google, it could later show up as “permanently closed.”

The New York Times reported the spamming tactic in early September and Google quickly responded, posting a blog post that they were working to fix the problem and then this update on Sept. 14:

“As promised, we’ve recently made a change to our process of displaying when a business has been reported to be closed on its place page. More specifically, we have removed the interim notification about a report having been made so that a listing will only be updated after it has been reviewed by Google and we believe the change to be accurate.”

This does not mean that there isn’t another loophole yet to be discovered. It is especially easy to screw up a business’ listing if that business is unclaimed, because then anyone can edit the details. Even if your maps have been claimed, a competitor could still hurt your ranking by editing a listing somewhere else on the Internet, as Google cross-checks the information with other listings elsewhere. When the information does not match, your listing will most likely fall in the rankings.

Google can’t police everything, and the only way to be safe is to constantly monitor your listing throughout the web as well as the info on your Google Places page; the other alternative is to have a third-party marketing service monitor it for you.

Plenty of third-party marketing services are available in the self storage industry, such as StorageFront, Sparefoot and G5. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the Editor at Red Nova Labs (Red Nova Labs owns StorageFront), so I have an obvious bias. But one claim we can make that some of our competitors cannot is that we claim and monitor Google Maps/Places listings for free.

Most third-party marketing services are looking out for the best interests of their clients, but I would be lying if I told you it does not benefit us as well. If we handle your maps and direct customers to your listing on our site, it benefits us because another lead is another reason for a client to use our service.

“Whoever has control of your Google Maps is going to have the strongest presence,” Chaires said. “And when you have a companion website such as StorageFront who has a dozen sites in a metropolitan area – Tallahassee is a small area – but you get to the much larger metropolitan areas and it becomes more important, because people are looking more geographically in place like Orlando. Orlando has hundreds of storage places, so it’s a whole different ballgame. You’re narrowing it down not by the city but by the part of the city where you are. That’s when the maps really come into play.”

don't pay for Google maps listings

Because of this, the battle to handle maps is competitive. Recently, we found out that a competitor was calling our current clients and trying to take over their maps. Some clients were confused and thought our people were the ones calling them, so they gave our competitors their information, enabling the competitor to take control of the maps. Obviously, this did not sit well with us, mainly because in every occurrence that we found out about, our maps listings were already at the top of local searches, so there was not anyway that someone else taking control of that listing could benefit the customer. Plus, our competitor was charging to control that listing, a service we provide for free.

We have tried to find other industries where this is occurring and our search came up empty, but it’s naïve to think it isn’t happening elsewhere.

It’s important that self storage business owners realize the importance of Google Maps and Google Places and educate their managers on the impact of it as well. If you have duplicate listings or someone changes your information, you’ll lose those leads. But when executed the right way, Google Maps and Google Places provide free leads to your facility.