Google Places is no more. All the Google Places listings (local search listings) have been moved onto Google+ Local, a new offshoot of Google’s social media (Google +). And overnight, this has changed the game for restaurants. The most apparent shift is that a restaurant’s Zagat score and reviews are displayed with the new Google+ Local listings free of charge. But some other things have changed, and more changes are soon to come.

Before Your Read Any More: Recommendations

Before I get into the details, I urge you to start a Google+ Page for your restaurant and claim your Google+ Local listing. Still, there is no need to use it with the frequency of Facebook, as Google+ has few active users right now (though that might not always be true).  However, make sure all the information (from hours to photos to cuisine etc.) is accurate and complete on both the regular Google+ Page and Google+ Local listing. With the Google+ Local listing, I recommend you use extreme care in entering the correct information as this may affect your local search outcomes.

Free Zagat Scores and Reviews

Google bought Zagat a few months back, and they are beginning to integrate Zagat into their services. With Google+ Local, customers will encounter Zagat scores every time they do a local search for a restaurant or a local keyword search (which displays local listings). The Zagat scores are not limited to the actual listings but are displayed across platforms including Google Maps and local Google search results, so a customer does not have to click on the listing to read the Zagat score. Indeed, Zagat’s highly structured format means more informative and accurate reviews than Yelp, but the increased emphasis on reviews may not be welcomed by some restaurant owners.

Other than the free Zagat information, does not change for subscribers nor does the publication of guidebooks. Surely, might not last too long but it is my belief that those crimson books are not going anywhere, and restaurants will still sweat over Zagat.

Social Media Element

However, as customers start reviewing on Google+ Local, Google prioritizes friends’ reviews above strangers. So if Google+ as social media takes off, a new kind of word of mouth where multifaceted sharing (including reviews) may have a significant role. Google+ Local already appears in the Google+ tabs (although not on the mobile app yet), and the Zagat ratings show up on the Google mobile app.

Manage Your Listing the Same Way

The Google Places portal is still the way a restaurant owner controls their listing, although now it is called in Google+ Local. As mentioned above, you should claim your Google+ Local (formerly Places account) as you want to have accurate information. Restaurants should not confuse the social media Google+ pages with the Google+ Local pages. They are still separate, but it is almost certain that you will soon be able to merge the two. There is even a chance that Google may force such a merger. After a merger, the Google+ listing will serve both as social media (with posts), a review source (with Zagat) and a source of basic information (map, hours, photos).  Yes, it is only a matter of time before Google+ becomes a Yelp, Facebook and Google Places wrapped all in one! Restaurant owners ignore at their own peril.

Future: Pay Attention

This is only the start. With local businesses, Google wants social media and search to come together. The next step will probably be increased integration. This will put social media, reviews, and basic information on one page.  If this happens, restaurants will gain a dynamic role in controlling their Google presence (at the price of having reviews on the Page). Google advertising is also poised to address local businesses needs better. Expect additional local advertising opportunities as customers start using Google+, as a social media/search tool hybrid. Like Yelp, restaurant may soon be able to showcase their good reviews on Zagat in ads. As Google invites more targeted searches, these ads could work well for independent restaurants.

Google is in constant flux. Yet, Google’s latest moves with Google+ Local hints at a strategy that works from areas of dominance (local search) to areas where they have a toehold (local business reviews through Zagat) to areas where they have made little headway (social media such as Facebook). These changes should be a wakeup call to restaurant owners about the interrelationships of online marketing and how a few powerful players can redefine the landscape overnight.