Last October Vendran Tomic wrote a guide for local SEO which has since become one of the more popular pages on our site, so we decided to follow up with a QnA on some of the latest changes in local search.
Q: Google appears to have settled their monopolistic abuse charges in Europe. As part of that settlement they have to list 3 competing offers in their result set from other vertical databases. If Google charges for the particular type of listing then these competitors compete in an ad auction, whereas if the vertical is free those clicks to competitors are free. How long do we have until Google’s local product has a paid inclusion element to it?
A: Local advertising market is huge. It’s a market that Google still hasn’t mastered. It’s a market still dominated by IYP platforms.
Since search in general is stagnant, Google will be looking to increase their share of the market.
That was obvious to anyone who was covering Google’s attempt to acquire Groupon since social couponing is a local marketing phenomenon mostly.
Their new dashboard is not only more stable with a slicker interface, but also capable of facilitating any paid inclusion module.
I would guess that Google will not wait a long time to launch a paid inclusion product or something similar, since they want to keep their shareholders happy.
Q: In the past there have been fiascos with things like local page cross-integration with Google+. How “solved” are these problems, and how hard is it to isolate these sorts of issues from other potential issues?
A: Traditionally, Google had the most trouble with their “local” products. Over the years, they were losing listings, reviews, merging listings, duplicating them etc. Someone called their attempts “a train wreck at the junction.” They were also notoriously bad with providing guidance that would help local businesses navigate the complexity of the environment Google created.
Google has also faced some branding challenges – confusing even the most seasoned local search professionals with their branding.
Having said that, things have been changing for the better. Google has introduced phone support which is, I must say, very useful. In addition, the changes they made in a way they deal with local data made things more stable.
However, I’d still say that Google’s local products are their biggest challenge.
Q: Yelp just had strong quaterly results and Yahoo! has recently added a knowledge-graph like pane to their search results. How important is local search on platforms away from Google? How aligned are the various local platforms on ranking criteria?
A: Just like organic search is mostly about two functions – importance and relevance, local search is about location prominence, proximity and relevance (where location prominence is an equivalent to importance in general SEO).
All local search platforms have ranking factors that are based on these principles.
The only thing that’s different is what they consider ranking signals and the way they place on each. For example, to rank high in Yahoo! Local, one needs to be very close to the centroid of the town, have something in the title of their business that matches the query of the search and have a few reviews.
Google is more sophisticated, but the principles are the same.
The less sophisticated local search platforms use less signals in their algorithm, and are usually geared more towards proximity as a ranking signal.
It’s also important to note that local search functions as a very interconnected ecosystem, and that changes made in order to boost visibility in one platform, might hurt you in another.
Q: There was a Google patent where they mentioned using driving directions to help as a relevancy signal. And Bing recently invested in and licensed data from Foursquare. Are these the sorts of signals you see taking weight from things like proximity over time?
A: I see these signals becoming/increasing in importance over time as they would be a useful ranking signal. However, to Google, local search is also about location sensitivity, and these signals will probably not be used outside of this context.
If you read a patent named “Methods And Systems For Improving A Search Ranking Using Location Awareness” (Amit Singhal is one of the inventors), you will see that Google, in fact, is aware that people have different sensitivities fo different types of services/queries. You don’t necessarily care where your plumber will come from, but you do care where the pizza places are where you search for pizza in your location.
I don’t see driving directions as a signal ever de-throning proximity, because proximity is closer to the nature of the offline/online interaction.
Q: There are many different local directories which are highly relevant to local, while there are also vertical specific directories which might be tied to travel reviews or listing doctors. Some of these services (say like OpenTable) also manage bookings and so on. How important is it that local businesses “spread around” their marketing efforts? When does it make sense to focus deeply on a specific platform or channel vs to promote on many of them?
A: This is a great question, Aaron! About 5 years ago, I believed that the only true game in town for any local business is Google. This was because, at that time, I wasn’t invested in proper measurement of outcomes and metrics such as cost of customer acquisition, lead acqusition etc.
Local businesses, famous for their lack of budgets, should always “give” vertical platforms a try, even IYP type sites. This is why:
- one needs to decrease dependance on Google because it’s an increasingly fickle channel of traffic acquisition (Penguin and Panda didn’t spare local websites),
- sometimes, those vertical websites can produce great returns. I was positively surprised by the number of inquiries/leads one of our law firm clients got from a well known vertical platform.
- using different marketing channels and measuring the right things can improve your marketing skills.
Keep in mind, basics need to be covered first: data aggregators, Google Places, creating a professional/usable/persuasive website, as well as developing a measurement model.
Q: What is the difference between incentivizing a reasonable number of reviews & being so aggressive that something is likely to be flagged as spam? How do you draw the line with trying to encourage customer reviews?
A: Reviews and review management have always been tricky, as well as important. We know two objective things about reviews:
- consumers care about reviews when making a purchase and
- reviews are important for your local search visibility.
Every local search/review platform worth its weight in salt will have a policy in place discouraging incentivizing and “buying” reviews. They will enforce this policy using algorithms or humans. We all know that.
Small and medium sized businesses make a mistake of trying to get as many reviews as humanly possible, and direct them to one or two local search platforms. Here, they make two mistakes:
1. they’re driven by a belief that one needs a huge number of reviews on Google and
2. one needs to direct all their review efforts at Google.
This behavior forces them to be flagged algorithmically or manually. Neither Google nor Yelp want you to solicit reviews.
However, if you change your approach from aggressively asking for reviews to a survey-based approach, you should be fine.
What do I mean by that?
A survey-based approach means you solicit your customers’ opinions on different services/products to improve your operations – and then ask them to share their opinion on the web while giving them plenty of choices.
This approach will get you much further than mindlessly begging people for reviews and sending them to Google.
The problem with clear distinction between the right and wrong way in handling reviews, as far as Google goes, lies in their constant changing of guidelines regarding reviews.
Things to remember are: try to get reviews on plenty of sites, while surveying your customers and never get too aggressive. Slow and steady wins the race.
Q: On many local searches people are now getting carouseled away from generic searches toward branded searches before clicking through, and then there is keyword(not provided) on top of that. What are some of the more cost efficient ways a small business can track & improve their ranking performance when so much of the performance data is hidden/disconnected?
A: Are you referring to ranking in Maps or organic part of the results? I’m asking because Google doesn’t blend anymore.
Q: I meant organic search
A: OK. My advice has always been to not obsess over rankings, but over customer acquisition numbers, leads, lifetime customer value etc.
However, rankings are objectively a very important piece of the puzzle. Here are my suggestions when it comes to more cost efficient ways to track and improve ranking performance:
- When it comes to tracking, I’d use Advanced Web Ranking (AWR) or Authority Labs, both of which are not very expensive.
- Improving ranking performance is another story. Local websites should be optimized based on the same principles that would work for any site (copy should be written for conversion, pages should be focused on narrow topics, titles should be written for clickthrough rates etc).
- On the link building side of things, I’d suggest taking care of data aggregators first as a very impactful, yet cost effective strategy. Then, I would go after vertical platforms that link directly to a website, that have profiles chockfull of structured data. I would also make sure to join relevant industry and business associations, and generally go after links that only a real local business can get – or that come as a result of broader marketing initiatives. For example, one can organize events in the offline world that can result in links and citations, effectively increasing their search visibility without spending too much.
Q: If you are a local locksmith, how do you rise above the spam which people have publicly complained about for at least 5 years straight now?
A: If I were a local locksmith, I would seriously consider moving my operations close to the centroid of my town/city. I would also make sure my business data across the web is highly consistent.
In addition, I would make sure to facilitate getting reviews on many platforms. If this wouldn’t be enough (as it often isn’t enough in many markets), I would be public about Google’s inability to handle locksmiths spam in my town – using their forums, and any other medium.
Q: In many cities do you feel the potential ROI would be high enough to justify paying for downtown real estate then? Or would you suggest having a mailing related address or such?
A: The ROI of getting a legitimate downtown address would greatly depend on customer lifetime value. For example, if I were a personal injury attorney in a major city, I would definitely consider opening a small office near a center of my city/town.
Another thing to consider would be the search radius/location sensitivity. If the location sensitivity for a set of keywords is high, I would be more inclined to invest in a downtown office.
I wouldn’t advocate PO boxes or virtual offices, since Google is getting more aggressive about weeding those out.
Q: Google recently started supporting microformats for things like hours of operation, phone numbers, and menus. How important is it for local businesses to use these sorts of features?
A: It is not a crucial ranking factor, and is unlikely to be any time in the near future. However, Google tends to reward businesses that embrace their new features – at least in local search. I would definitely recommend embracing microformats in local search.
Q: As a blogger I’ve noticed an increase in comment spam with NAP information in it. Do you see Google eventually penalizing people for that? Is this likely to turn into yet another commonplace form of negative SEO?
A: This is a difficult question. Knowing how Google operates, it’s possible they start penalizing that practice. However, I don’t see that type of spam being particularly effective.
Most blogs cannot do a lot to enhance the location prominence. But if that turned into a negative SEO avenue, I would say that Google wouldn’t handle it well (based on their track records).
Q: Last year you wrote a popular guide to local search. What major changes have happened to the ecosystem since then? Would you change any of the advice you gave back then? Or has local search started to become more stable recently?
A: There weren’t huge changes in the local ecosystem. Google has made a lot of progress in transferring accounts to the new dashboard, improving the Bulk upload function. They also changed their UX slightly.
Moz entered the local search space with their Moz Local product.
Q: When doing a local SEO campaign, how much of the workload tends to be upfront stuff versus ongoing maintenance work? For many campaigns is a one-off effort enough to last for a significant period of time? How do you determine the best approach for a client in terms of figuring out the mix of upfront versus maintenance and how long it will take results to show and so on?
A: This largely depends on the objective of the campaign, the market and the budget. There are verticals where local Internet marketing is extremely competitive, and tends to be a constant battle.
Some markets, on the other hand, are easy and can largely be a one-off thing. For example, if you’re a plumber or an electrician in a small town with a service area limited to that town, you really don’t need much maintenance, if any.
However, if you are a roofing company that wants to be a market leader in greater Houston, TX your approach has to be much different.
The upfront work tends to be more intense if the business has NAP inconsistencies, never did any Internet marketing and doesn’t excel at offline marketing.
If you’re a brand offline and know to tie your offline and online marketing efforts, you will have a much easier time getting the most out of the web.
In most smaller markets, the results can be seen in a span of just a few months. More competitive markets, in my experience, require more time and a larger investment.
Q: When does it make sense for a local business to DIY versus hiring help? What tools do you recommend they use if they do it themselves?
A: If local business owner is in a position where doing local Internet marketing is their highest value activity, it would make sense to do it themselves.
However, more often than not, this is not the case even for the smallest of businesses. Being successful in local Internet marketing in a small market is not that difficult. But it does come with a learning curve and a cost in time.
Having said that, if the market is not that competitive, taking care of data aggregators, a few major local search platforms and acquisition of a handful of industry links would do the trick.
For data aggregators, one might go directly to them or use a tool such as UBM or Moz Local.
To dig for citations, Whitespark’s citation tool is pretty good and not that expensive.
Q: The WSJ recently published a fairly unflatering article about some of the larger local search firms which primarily manage AdWords for 10’s of thousands of clients & rely on aggressive outbound marketing to offset high levels of churn. Should a small business consider paid search & local as being separate from one another or part of the same thing? If someone hires help on these fronts, where’s the best place to find responsive help?
A: “Big box” local search companies were always better about client acquisition than performance. It always seemed as if performance wasn’t an integral part of their business model.
However, small businesses cannot take that approach when it comes to performance. Generally speaking, the more web is connected to business, the better of a small business is. This means that a local Internet marketing strategy should start with business objectives.
Everyone should ask themselves 2 questions:
1. What’s my lifetime customer value?
2. How much can I afford to spend on acquiring a customer?
Every online marketing endeavor should be judged through this lens. This means greater integration.
Q: What are some of the best resources people can use to get the fundamentals of local search & to keep up with the changing search landscape?
A: Luckily for everyone, blogosphere in local search is rich in useful information. I would definitely recommend Mike Blumenthal’s blog, Andrew Shotland’s Local SEO Guide, Linda Buquet’s forum, Nyagoslav Zhekov, Mary Bowling and of course, the Local U blog.
Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local internet marketing agency. Please feel free to use the comments below to ask any local search questions you have, as Vedran will be checking in periodically to answer them over the next couple days.