In 2011, in a world where online media dominates our culture, most business owners are aware of the impact that Google and other search engines have on their ability to attract customers. Through search engine optimization, search engine marketing and more, organizations continue to use a variety of techniques to work their way to the top of the search results.

While search engines such as Yahoo! and Bing have contributed to these trends, there’s no doubt that the company that has been driving the conversation for the past several years has been Google. It is by far the most dominant search engine, and the one that SEO and SEM experts by and large focus on the most. With its popularity and its free and innovative features like Google Maps, Earth and Video, it likely is not going anywhere soon.

Now, Google looks to take a more local approach with last year’s launch (or re-launch) of Google Places, which offers businesses the opportunity to quite literally put themselves on the map. Combining the best features of Maps and Earth and backed by the engine’s powerful search capabilities, users can more quickly and easily search for businesses and provide their feedback for others browsing for a new restaurant, café, print shop or any other product or service.

While Google has long dominated organic search in general, the ease of use of its Places features is looking to do the same on a more local basis, possibly displacing sites like and Foursquare in the process.

Places, which was originally called the Google Local Business Center and launched in 2008, allows customers to find everything they need to know about even the smallest of companies, including video, images, hours of operation and special offers. It also allows for customer reviews and a rating system that is much easier to use than any of its competitors’.

The potential for small business owners to take advantage of Google Places is outstanding, all through the use of a fairly simple online profile. Just like with social media, the more users rate a business, leave a comment or interact in any other way, the better that business’s search engine rankings will become overall. This gives companies a whole new platform to make a name for themselves through SEO.

In addition, Google Places’ robust mechanisms allow for business owners to provide customers with regular updates, coupons and information on special events, giving people an opportunity to get to know what their organization is really all about. If a company provides off-site services, for example, Places allows them to display their service area.

The overall trend for 2011 demonstrates that Google will continue to make gains in local search marketing, working to help small business owners market to customers in their specific geographical areas more effectively.

If you have a small or mid-sized business that could use the help of some powerful local online marketing, you cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities offered by Google Places. Although setting up a profile and managing your reviews does take time, it is a worthwhile investment that could potentially change the way you reach out to important customers.