I have a website that when you search for the key terms in Google, comes up first in the list. However, just above it in the Google Places section, it comes in second in the list.
Does Google Places have its own optimization techniques?
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A new Google Local MERGED algo started showing up Oct 27th. I was the 1st person to discover testing of the new layout and broke the story about it on Mike Blumenthal's blog way back in July.
Since then I've done lots of reverse engineering of the algo and here is my take on things.
The OLD Google Places algo used 50 ranking factors that most people know by now. NAP consistency, reviews, citations, location, etc.
However the new MERGED algo is much more reliant on your web site and traditional organic SEO factors. PLUS it takes having certain local hooks. So reviews and citations don't carry as much weight as they did prior to Oct. 27th. (As of today, subject to change on G's whims.)
With the old algo I could get a client 25 page one rankings an hour after I touched their Place page. With the new algo, it almost always takes at least tweaking their on-page SEO and usually adding or fixing localization factors on their site to improve their ranking. Since I don't do organic SEO any more and am far too busy with Place page optimization to log in and make site changes, I refer that part out. So it takes longer to get everything done to improve rankings for the core keywords.
NOTE: You still need to optimize for both - because there are 2 algos at play.
When you see the old style 2 line Places 3 pack or 7 pack style listing, then G is using the OLD Places algo that takes reviews and citations into account. (This layout for a few months was showing up on less competitive searches only - but seems to gradually be making more of a comeback and is starting to show up more and more in some cities for CORE KW searches.)
When you see the new MERGED layout with the larger listing that pulls from the site's meta, then the new algo is at play, that heavily factors in organic SEO ranking.
Hope this helps and best of luck!
According to most SEO providers for local search, the critical factors are as follows:
Here are some good resources to get you started with optimising for Google Places: