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Is a Virtual Office OK for Local Search?

It's the "shared office" model but it's a physical address

3:32 pm on Jan 19, 2012 (gmt 0)

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I have a client whose business model is personal, in-home consultations. He doesn't have a conventional office. He runs his business from home.

Problem is, his home is not in his market area. And of course he doesn't want to broadcast his home address to the world.

My question: is a "virtual office" arrangement OK for local search? These shared offices are for modest businesses that don't have the money for a full bricks and mortar location. They have a single receptionist who answers the phone for everybody. Each tenant has his/her own office arranged around the area.

You may have seen them advertised on US TV.

They offer the virtual office with a bona fide physical address, dedicated phone line (forward to your cell?) and access to office space twice per month.

Is this viable or just an upgrade from the mailbox factory arrangement?
7:06 am on Jan 20, 2012 (gmt 0)

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They have a single receptionist who answers the phone for everybody. Each tenant has his/her own office arranged around the area.

It's not uncommon for professionals who have similar needs to share office, work, or studio space within suites in commercial buildings. I've known many attorneys and web developers, eg, who've operated out of such arrangements as you describe above, and in fact have never heard of them called virtual offices before.

Often, attorneys who share such spaces share a law library. Web developers might share a very fast line to access the web. A group of photographers might share a studio. Quite often, in these arrangements, there's a shared conference room.

...and access to office space twice per month.

This, though, is where it gets confusing to me. If your client were actually working there, this would be a much bigger commitment to a business location than working at home, as it would definitely be a place of business.

But, if as you suggest, your client is just getting use of the address for, say, two days out of twenty days a month, you've possibly multiplied the number of tenants by 10, something that Google can track if enough of the tenants are registering this as a place of business (especially if a place of business with Google).

I've always felt this "address-crowding", to coin a term, would be the downside of using mailbox drop addresses to try to fake a location... that Google would notice an unnatural number of "suites" at an address. You'll see, if you search a multi-tenant business address in Google Local, Google will try to return the occupants of a building. So far, they aren't doing a terribly good job of it, but they get better with each additional bit of data.

As to whether a two-day a month virtual office is legit in Google's eyes, I don't know. Possibly, if enough real home-office professionals are using virtual offices as an arrangement because they need to have meeting space in an office building, then such an arrangement might be OK with Google too. If it becomes a common method to spam Google Local, then it won't continue to be OK.

An added complication, in all this, btw, is that your client's service area is not confined to the nominal business location even under this arrangement. The last I heard, which was a while back, service area in Google Local was an iffy thing. Perhaps someone with recent service area experience could comment on that particular aspect of this situation.
12:03 pm on Jan 20, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Thanks for your in-depth reply.

This shared office company offers plans that range from the arrangement you spoke of-- tenants who work 100% of the time from a physical office-- to the virtual office that's really just an answering service. They do offer a hybrid virtual office plan that gives "Five days of private office access each month in your home center." (This is from their corporate Website-- the two days I quoted earlier was from a branch office in the proposed city location.)

Even though my client's business covers a multi-county area in our state, the office location he's considering is at the population's center of mass of his market area.

He would continue to work from his home office and, in Google's eyes, the virtual office would at best be a branch office. Even though this shared office concept has become a legitimate business alternative, how Google sees it is the issue.

I would guess from the past record they would consider it a threat to their algorithm until proven otherwise.
6:24 pm on Jan 23, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Even though I'm a Top Contributor at the Google Places forum and try to read or at least scan every single post, I've never seen this addressed by Google so don't know their official stand.

But my feeling is it's a bit of a gray area because it can go either way.

Legit small businesses like even attorneys sometimes use this type of office. And what G wants is for you to represent your biz the way it is in the offline world.

HOWEVER scammers and fake Place page builders use this technique too, so like always, they can make it harder for honest businesses who use the same technique in an ethical way.

Just keep in mind that before he makes a decision he should be sure this will be a good long term strategy. Your ranking in part is tied to name, address, phone so he'll need to get listed in lots of places with that address. If he decides later to move or close it, changing address in Google Places is really tough and you can lose ranking and have to start over when you change your address.

Re service area: address in the city you want to rank in will usually provide better ranking than being outside the city and using the service radius feature.

Hope this helps and best of luck!

Linda Buquet
6:45 pm on Jan 23, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Catalyst, I agree on the wisdom of not tugging on Superman's cape. Why take the chance?

The client called me today and has seen the value of local search as part of an online marketing strategy for his business and is seeking a conventional bricks and mortar address-- both for local search "compliance" and to meet clients who are reluctant to allow an un-vetted stranger to their home. So this discussion with him re his business model has caused him to reflect.
1:23 am on Jan 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

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Jastra, We have virtual offices like you describe and their operation is similar to medical centres where numerous doctors come and work small shifts. Such places have an answering service and conference or meeting rooms for hire for an additional fee. They give the small operator the illusion of a prestige office address and since the premises don't carry any branding, the visitor does not know that the business is only hiring it by the hour. (Of course, some of these addresses are well-known to locals.)

There is no Google requirement for a business to operate with humans on site for any minimum duration. As long as the listee legitimately rents office space there, that is a valid address. The test is when phone or postcard validation is successful.
4:02 am on Jan 25, 2012 (gmt 0)

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anallawalla, your point on the postcard validation in lieu of the phone call is well taken. That makes sense and Google can accommodate real-life ethical business arrangements.