When was the last time you looked at your Google My Business account dashboard? Seriously. When was it? If you haven’t looked in a while, you should know there are a few new features recently made available that can help your business get found in search and connect with customers.

Facebook seems to get all the attention when it comes to small businesses communicating with their audiences, but don’t neglect your presence on Google.  Search is still very much alive and a key driver of business and new sales.

[Before I go further: If you don’t know what Google My Business is, you might have even bigger problems when it comes to your online visibility. Stop reading this right now, and go claim and verify your listing. For instructions, visit Google’s My Business Help Center or google.com/business/.]

So why should you care about Google My Business or any of these new features? Well, Google’s primary goal is to present search users with the most relevant and accurate information it can. So a big part of being visible online is having accurate, and up-to-date information about your business. Businesses we work with show that the more accurate and optimized a business’s online data is, the more favorable Google’s algorithm is toward ranking and displaying that listing in local search results (among many other ranking signals). Optimizing your business includes keeping your listing up to date with updated hours, holiday hours, photos, logos and updated features.

Let’s take a look at some of the most recent new features made available to businesses and how to use them:

Posts: Posts have been around since last year when they were first introduced on the pages of political candidates during the U.S. campaign for president. Later posts were expanded to include museums, sports teams, and movies, and have just recently been made available to local businesses that have a Google My Business account.

Posts can be a great way to get timely information in front of customers within search results pages and even on maps. Examples include:

  • Announcing specials, deals or limited offers
  • Highlighting certain features of your business such as “Open Late” or “Kids Eat Free on Tuesdays”
  • Showcasing new products and listings (in real estate, think open houses and new listings)
  • Featuring new blog content
  • Helping grow your email list by having users sign up for your newsletter

Posts will need to be timely because they only stay live and visible on the Knowledge Panel for seven days. Still, they provide businesses with a new avenue to connect with customers in a place where they’re already spending time online. Posts can also provide personality to your online business listing to help it stand out from the competition.

Messaging & Chat: Google has been testing its GMB messaging feature since November 2016, and it appears to be close to being fully rolled out. I’ve seen it on almost all of the GMB pages we manage at Soapbox Marketing, and we are beginning to advise our clients on how to best use this new feature. Users will be able to send messages directly to a business from search results. Basically, you can have a conversation with a potential client without picking up the phone or checking your email. You’re probably doing this now with Facebook.

You can find this new feature prominently located on your Google My Business homepage. Setup is quick and easy. The only requirement is to add a verifiable cellphone number that can send and receive messages. The owner also has complete control over turning it on or off, but there’s no option to schedule times or dates to receive messages, which makes it a little clunky in my opinion.

Google does give you the option to set an auto response message in case you are not available or would like a user to take a different step. For example, if you’re going on vacation or your business is closed, you wouldn’t want to have the feature turned on unless you’re able to respond quickly. Alternatively, I can’t see many businesses owners remembering to turn it on and off during normal business hours.  

I see this as an ideal option for service businesses, but possibly unmanageable for others. You want to be careful that you think it through, because turning it on and not responding promptly is worse than keeping it off.   

Scheduling Appointments: This new feature has been released on a limited basis over the past few weeks. Google is now allowing businesses to add (in your Google My Business dashboard) the ability for users to book an appointment. The link will actually show up in the local search results under your address, hours and phone information.

This could be convenient not only for restaurants that require reservations or medical practices but practically any service-oriented business that requires an appointment. (If you subscribe to a third-party booking provider, it is most likely already set up for you and being managed.)  

Chances are if you’re a service business, you will automatically see this new option. If you don’t see it, you can manually request it be added by filling out an Interest Form. I tried this with Soapbox Marketing’s page but haven’t heard back yet.

It’s a pretty new feature so there are still a lot of questions around it, but it appears to be a great enhancement and another move by Google to try to make your Google My Business page the center of consumer-to-business communication, when it comes to local businesses and search. (Skeptics have floated the theory that if successful, Google will make a play to get into the PPA arena. That is, Google will begin charging you for every appointment scheduled.)

Google Websites: Google has also introduced a simple-to-use drag-and-drop website builder that can create a basic website in under 10 minutes. It can’t really replace a full-blown multipage website, so don’t get too excited, but it does seem to be a decent solution for a brand new business or a business that only has a Facebook page and needs to increase their visibility in local search by having a website. It links directly to your Google My Business profile making it easy to update your hours of operation, address, directions, and comes with a free URL at yourbusiness.business.site (or you can buy your own domain from Google).  

What’s probably most advantageous is that it allows a business to create a mobile friendly website with little to no experience and in under 10 minutes. In an age where Google penalizes businesses that don’t have a mobile-responsive site, it may be a good short-term solution until a proper site can be developed. I personally wouldn’t rely on this as my primary website because it has a ton of limitations, but for a business that only has a Facebook page or a business that needs a mobile site or landing page for a search campaign, it could be a viable short-term solution.  

There are a number of other subtle changes that have been rolled out over the past several months. Joy Hawkins, an expert in local SEO and top contributor on local SEO trends wrote a great blog on Search Engine Land about other features Google has quietly been rolling out this year. The ones I’ve discussed are what we find to be the most advantageous to our clients and local businesses.

While you’re in your dashboard, be on the lookout for suggested changes to your business data from Google. I have noticed Google recommending more suggested changes for the business pages we manage, but the suggestions aren’t always accurate. Changes include handicapped accessibility, public restrooms and other amenities. You need to be diligent about checking these suggestions by reviewing your dashboard frequently and accepting or changing the suggestions, so you don’t wind up with wrong information online about your business.

It’s unclear if having your profile updated with these new enhancements will significantly help your visibility, but Google likes Google, so it would follow that businesses that keep their information accurate and up to date with these features enabled will show up over others that don’t. There are a lot of other factors that impact local visibility, but your Google listing should be optimized and managed if you want any chance at showing up in local searches.

So how do you access these features? Just login to your Google My Business dashboard.

If you are seeing any of these features or have any questions, leave them in the comments below. Would love for you to share your experiences and questions.