Can Service Area Businesses Use Virtual Offices in Google My Business?
A few years ago, I was part of a very lengthy thread on the Google My Business forum. The main question that was trying to be addressed in the thread was this:
If I own a Service Area Business, which is not required by Google to have a staffed location, can I use a Virtual Office as my primary location? The Virtual Office address IS my primary address on all of my business documents with the state. Also, my address is hidden on MapMaker, per Google guidelines.
One of the comments, which has since been deleted from the thread, interpreted that virtual offices were okay for service area businesses given the following:
Google says: … in order to qualify a business must make in-person contact with customers during its stated business hours. Notice that it “does not” say that the in-person contact needs to take place at the address listed on the profile. A service area business like 5280 Radon Mitigation makes contact with customers at there home, during the stated business hours on the GMB profile. Therefore they qualify under googles guidlines.
Things were further complicated when the listing in question kept getting suspended and then reinstated making it unclear if it was actually violating the guidelines. This is a common pattern with Google My Business support that I deal with on a regular basis. It’s really common for one employee to think a listing is violating guidelines and suspend it and for another to disagree and reinstate it. It’s rather frustrating for those of us that work in this space to try and advocate on Google’s behalf and encourage business owners to abide by the guidelines when Google isn’t able to properly enforce them.
I asked Google to comment on the thread and Marissa (our community manager at the Google My Business forum) chimed in and clarified that it was not okay for a service area business to use a virtual office.
Since the forum has been moved and old threads were deleted in the process, I’m copying what was said below:
“After discussing with the policy team, we do not want pure Service Area Businesses to use virtual offices. Per the Google My Business guidelines, virtual offices are not allowed unless staffed during the business hours. Instead we suggest using a home address, setting the service area and hiding the address. If you have a hybrid business, meaning you have an office where people can walk in and talk to you, feel free to set the address as hybrid and then set the service area”.
Marissa Nordahl, Community & Social Media Manager, Google My Business
February 10, 2017
Back in 2017, they also updated the Google My Business guidelines. They added this part under the address section:
Service-area businesses can’t list a “virtual” office unless that office is staffed during business hours.
Some businesses, like pizzerias that have both have restaurant seating and deliver pizza to customers, are hybrid service-area businesses. These businesses can show their storefront address and designate a service area in Google My Business. If you serve customers at your address and want to set a service area, your business location should be staffed by your team and able to receive customers during its stated hours.
This topic was brought up again recently on the Local Search Forum so I reached out to Google again and got them to publicly confirm that service area businesses are still not allowed to use virtual offices so this policy has not changed in the last 3 years.
A service area businesses should not use a virtual office for verification unless it is staffed by the business in question during listed hours. It looks like you’ve already noted these guidelines, but you can view them here as well: https://t.co/zSeTlHClVD. Thanks! – Ally
— Google My Business (@GoogleMyBiz) February 3, 2020
Craig Mount also shared some communication from Google My Business that shared that if you are using an address that is a company that offers virtual office services, along with normal office space, you need to prove that your location is not actually a virtual office and is staffed. You can do that through:
- Real world existence of the facility even when the merchant is not present. This includes a permanent presence on the building’s business directly.
- Proof that it’s staffed by employees of the merchant and available for walk in customers during the stated hours of operation. Virtual office employees are NOT considered to be the merchant’s employees.
- Phone number must be a direct line to the business
This Post Has 35 Comments
I think the change was a very slow response to address the long-standing practice of some PPL types sites who were using those virtual offices to get a card and get verified. Frankly, the key terms here are “that is staffed during business hours” which means a person is there. Now, if you pay your virtual office provider and they keep a receptionist on staff to manage users mail and phones etc then clearly you’re are within the guidelines and can use a virtual office for a service area business because you are paying to have that person represent your business at that location.
Frankly, I think it would be a mute point if all the citation sites that businesses need to be listed on with join the rest of us and allow service area listings versus requiring addresses to show. Then more people running businesses out of their homes wouldn’t be forced to use virtual offices out of privacy and security concerns.
Paying a virtual office to have a receptionist doesn’t make it staffed. The staff would need to be employed by the actual business.
Most of the important directories do allow hidden addresses these days. Which ones have you found do not?
“Paying a virtual office to have a receptionist doesn’t make it staffed. The staff would need to be employed by the actual business.”
I would prefer it work that way, but I doubt that it does. How would Google know that?
Here are the guidelines – https://support.google.com/business/answer/3038177?hl=en&ref_topic=4540086
“In order to qualify for a Google My Business listing, a business must make in-person contact with customers during its stated hours.”
So I guess it’s how you interpret that. Someone is making in-person contact. It’s not an employee of the business, but a paid representative thru the virtual office company.
You are correct that the guidelines don’t spell it out exactly how I worded it but I’ve brought enough cases to Google to say with confidence that this is how they interpret it currently.
Ok, great to know. Your experience helps me out then 🙂 Thanks. It may be time for an experiment.
Btw the link in your last comment is a WP admin link. Did you mean something else?
Yep, I didn’t mean to put that there 🙂
So if a virtual office has a in-person receptionist that would meet their guidelines?
Doubtful. The receptionist is usually an employee of the virtual office provider and in that case it definitely doesn’t qualify. If the receptionist was an employee of the actual business and worked there every day during business hours, it might if they actually did business in person with customers. I can’t say I have ever run across an SAB that operates that way in real life (other than to try and work around Google’s rules so they can rank in a different city than they live in).
Joy, If you are paying for a Virtual Office, you’ll find that most, if not all of them will offer a phone answering service as well, isn’t having someone answer your phone at that office, by default, like having a contractor on-site?
No, it’s not the same as far as the guidelines are concerned. You are correct that pretty much every virtual office comes with this service so keep in mind that if it was allowed, there would be no reason for Google to state virtual offices are not to be used.
Hey Joy, Thanks for the reply, this is a real shame & it closes a massive loophole for a lot of our clients that want to service “multiple services areas”, we were in the process of setting up a network here in Australia with Newsagencies (the ones that sell magazines & newspapers) to act as virtual address’s, so it looks like that little project is out the window 🙁
Joy, you said this “(other than to try and work around Google’s rules so they can rank in a different city than they live in).”
I don’t understand why this is a negative thing. For example, an electrician who lives in Cicero, Illinois (small suburb of chicago) but 95% of their customers live in Chicago. Are you saying that simply because they live in Cicero, it is wrong for them to do what they can to make sure their business address is located in the same city where their customers live? I have had a good number of clients in this exact situation, it is quite common.
I also run into lots that fall into this category. I’m not really stating it’s wrong, it’s just against Google’s guidelines. There are lots of people that do things that are against Google’s guidelines because they want to rank better. I think it’s important to remember that Google doesn’t write their guidelines for the business’ better interest, they write them for what they deem best for users and ultimately for their bottom line since they are a business themselves. In this case, I think they have to have the rule this way to keep spam under control since most that use virtual offices also have other listings for their business. They also probably think that anything “virtual” goes against the “real-world” goal they have for the map. I wouldn’t advise an SAB to use a virtual office because IF they are caught, the result would be a hard suspension which means their listing would get removed entirely – much like what happened on that thread I referenced.
I was wondering if you could help me understand how it works a little further. I work for a company that provides services across the UK. Our services are provided at the property of the homeowner and as such we do not have customers visiting our own premises. Customers only make contact by phone or eCommerce.
While we have staff based at some physical locations in order to cover a larger area we have virtual offices in 21 other locations. Our sales teams cover these locations geographically and while these virtual offices are staffed between the hours of 9 till 5, they are not staffed by our own people.
We would like to keep these Business listings in Google. Is this new guideline applicable for our business?
I asked Google about this yesterday just to make sure I was correct. According to the guideline, your listings are not allowed since they are virtual. In order to qualify they would have to be staffed with your own employees.
I was wondering if you can help me understand the rule of Google needing to you to be able accept clients in your office . We own a cleaning business but our offices are not open to the public but its a real office warehouse . Why would this not be acceptable ?
If you rent or own the warehouse and use the physical space for your business, I see no reason why you can’t use it. That’s not a virtual office. By definition (according to Wikipedia), a virtual office provides communication and address services for a fee, without providing dedicated office space. It differs from “office business centers” or “executive suites”, which do provide physical office space and/or meeting rooms.
The key phrase there is it does NOT provide office space so you aren’t actually physically present at a virtual office.
Similar to Jim, we run a cleaning business, and similarily we rent storage space from Dymon in the cities we service for our cleaners that servers as a depot, we do remote printing for our work orders as well. Again, similar to Jim, clients don’t visit our location, we go to the clients. Would we be able to use our addresses for GMB?
I think they would most likely qualify. You can always ask Google and they can confirm.
I already have more than 20 clients renting my business address. I would naturally think that logically speaking, a business that uses a virtual address cannot use that address as a business listing on Google. Imagine if the general public finds the exact same address being used by multiple businesses. Wouldn’t that be very confusing?
Yes, it would be very confusing. Especially if they showed up and the business wasn’t actually there 😉
It’s better if Google did away with the “virtual office” guideline altogether. Don’t allow a GMB listing for a virtual office. It causes too much confusion. PO Box addresses aren’t allowed because PO Boxes exist at the post office, andyou don’t want to send someone using their GPS to the post office when they were searching for the actual business.
Google could consider looking into other GMB listing options or that help people who work out of their homes, practice eCommerce, who do work with virtual offices / receptionists.
Exactly! What a silly rule. I mean it is good to an extent to keep out the scammers but what about all of the other honest people? I can’t use a PO box – I can’t use a virtual address – I could use my home address if I have an entrance for customers and don’t mind telling the World about my home address and I get HOA mad at me. I could go begging for someone to get my mail for me at a real business of a friend. or I could rent a tiny office for $400/month that I don’t want to use anyway.
Google could come up with a better way of doing this and verifying real businesses but they are too full of themselves, lazy or just plain silly.
I’ll give you some names of companies who only use virtual offices and I will bet you that you can’t get them removed. They have no employees in the cities where they list virtual offices. No signage and they don’t complete any work in these cities. Who wants to take me up?
I’m not really sure my blog is the best place to post this but I’d suggest sending your videos and photos showing they’re not there to Google via https://support.google.com/business/contact/business_redressal_form
I found an SEO company in Vancouver that set up one of their clients with three additional GMB service listings to cover the Vancouver area and another client in a virtual office downtown to improve rankings for Vancouver area searches. They brag about “optimizing” GMB listings on their website. What do you suggest should be done?
You can report it to Google using this form: https://support.google.com/business/contact/business_redressal_form
Hi Joy, Thanks for the info! There are so many nuances to each service business that it gets difficult to understand what category we fall into. We have a real estate photography company. We obviously go to our client’s locations to shoot. We cover a large (1/2 state) area and have hired photographers in multiple locations across our service area to serve that specific area. We have a unique number for each location and have used our photographer’s home address (hidden) as the location to verify the business. They start each job from their home. This has allowed us to more specifically target the locations we serve with the photographer who is based there. We’ve named each location as a unique spot.. for example, Photo Company X – Los Angeles, Photo Company X – Santa Barbara, Photo Company X – Malibu. Allowed? Thanks!
You’d be allowed to have 1 listing per state. In California & Texas, they allow multiple due to the size of the states. You definitely wouldn’t be able to use virtual offices (the topic of this article) but you can read more about those policies over here: https://www.sterlingsky.ca/merge-google-business-profile-listings/
I have a new student that just started his business (sales training) and rented out a Regus virtual office in downtown Chicago. He has tried sending the Google post card for verification a number of times over the past few months but it never arrives. Correct me if I’m wrong but to me it looks like Google is not even bothering to mail those postcards out anymore if it is to a known virtual office location. Thank you for the info above, I’ll be recommending him to save the $225/Mo VO space and use his home address instead.
Interesting. That’s a possibility but I don’t know for sure. I would suggest using your home address either way though so you don’t break guidelines and risk having the listing suspended.
Hmm, we do a lot of business with attorneys and a few of them have virtual offices. Then again, some of them are completely against virtual offices. I find one of the most interesting ways that one of our clients has gotten past the virtual office dilemma is to have one of their colleagues in a particular area designate a suite number at their office as a branch of our client’s office. This allows them to have a staffed office yet still have the benefits of being a virtual office. Very complicated issue indeed for any type of service based profession.
That could work as long as it’s their staff (not the other law firm’s staff) that works there and if they had proper signage at the location (reference: https://www.sterlingsky.ca/gmb-clarifies-guidelines-on-virtual-offices/)
Interesting post and thread, and thanks for the info.
Service area business with no street address visible on GBP.
Used virtual mailbox to set up GBP, then removed address and replaced with service area details.
Accurately represents company on business profile.
Owner visits people within the service area and is available for appointments during posted times.
Address is not visible so nobody will go to that address.
Can’t owner just use virtual mailbox in this case instead of home address?
All details are an accurate representation to the consumer, who is not aware of the virtual address.
Why make an owner use home address and leave his home address up for several days as he waits for the verification postcard to come in?
Is there any nuance from Google’s end that would allow the above, or is that considered to go against their policy?
IMO, the FTC should smack Google for pressuring honest business owners to put themselves at risk by publishing home addresses and not enabling them to remove those addresses until after verification, which can take days.
Who really deserves to be the compliance police?
A private company or a government by the people, for the people?
I think we ALL know the answer.
Using a virtual office is against the guidelines, per what I put in this article. If you add your home address and click to hide it, it’s not visible anywhere. While you’re waiting for the postcard, the profile isn’t even live yet.