The 2017 Rules of Local Search
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Staying ahead of the Google algorithm curve can be frustrating. Just when you think you’ve made some headway, they change it again. You need to remember that what works on Google today may not work tomorrow, so be prepared.
A couple strategies to strongly consider that certainly don’t look like they will change as far as Google search is concerned, are making sure your website is both fast loading and mobile optimized. And don’t underestimate the power of the customer review. Google puts a lot of stock in how others perceive your business as a means to determine if you rank high in their eyes, so acquiring and maintaining a robust selection of customer reviews is also a great way to impress Google.
Rich: David Mihm is first and foremost an advocate for sustainable digital marketing techniques for small businesses. In 2012 he sold his former company getlisted.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility in the local search engines.
He’s a co-founder of the local university conference series. David now runs Tidings, and his weekly newsletter, Minutive. David, welcome to the show.
David: Thanks Rich, it’s great to be with you and great to be with your audience.
Rich: So you’ve obviously been doing the local SEO thing for quite some time, how did you first get interested in local SEO?
David: That’s a good question. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do coming out of grad school and ended up getting a couple of jobs working for small businesses doing their websites. It was still the early days of Google, I think they had not yet gone public when I was starting these smaller jobs. Pretty much everybody that I work with just asked me if I knew anything about this SEO thing. And I said not really, but let me see what I can find out.
So I went online and I read basically every resource I could find from the SEO Moz blog at the time, to Web Master World forums, and I started going to conferences. Then in about 2008 Google released the 10-pack of local businesses above the organic results. And I said. “Hey, this is a pretty big deal.” So I and a few others started talking online and we just kind of watched it evolve, and sure enough it became a big deal. And here I am today 10 years later. So that’s kind of my background.
Rich: Cool. Now why do you think there is a difference between the local and organic SEO, or maybe search results? Why did that happen and how big of a deal is it?
David: Well it’s pretty interesting, in my opinion anyway. So back when Google launched these business listing results – at the time it was called the “Google Local Business Center” – what’s now “Google My Business”. At the time this was back in the late 2000’s and fewer than 50% of small businesses actually had websites at the time. So there were all of these random numbers on searches that people were performing for local businesses. And businesses realized they don’t actually have anything to link to in the search results because these businesses are not online, so they had to develop a way not only to represent the businesses but also to rank them.
Because if you think of their traditional ranking algorithm for organic search is largely driven on links. And if you have a local business without a website, there’s nothing to link to. So they had to start looking at a bunch of different factors from the time proximity to the city center. They looked at categories that business had been listed in, it looked at the number of categories across the web, they looked at user reviews.
There are a whole host of factors that didn’t have anything to do with the website, because again, a lot of these businesses that they were representing and ranking didn’t even have websites.
Rich: That definitely explains why we get such different results these days. Now search is evolving all the time, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in local search in the past few years?
David: I would say there is 2 big ones and I would say largely we’ve seen both of these trends in the last couple of years. It’s been a pretty big shift and I think it’s going to continue to accelerate. The 2 big shifts are ads and knowledge panels.
The first one is a little easier to explain, and I’m sure even your casually searching audience has seen this. Google is monetizing more and more real estate with ads. So they went to 4 ads instead of 3 in the top part of the search results about 18 months or 2 years ago. They’ve released all kinds of new ad formats, so in certain markets – like plumbing, HVAC, and electrical services – they have a specific format that’s called “The Home Service Ad” where it blends the local map results with paid advertisements. We’ve seen product listing ads where you get these nice big thumbnail images if you’re selling goods instead of services.
So I think Google is continuing to monetize more and more real estate and trying to keep up with how well Facebook is going on Wall Street, because Facebook has been able to monetize mobile users so well and I think Google is feeling a lot of that pressure. So that’s the first big trend.
The second big trend is knowledge panels. So this relates to a development that Google has been working on for 7-8 years called “the knowledge graph”. If you recall what I just said about representing local businesses that didn’t have websites, Google has sort of extended that concept out to all kinds of things that they call “entities”, and representing as much as they can about an “entity” without actually linking to it’s website.
So now when you do a search for a local business – especially if you search for it by name – you’ll get a big box on the desktop where it’s just the whole search result where you see all kinds of information about that business. From photos to reviews, to menu links, to book an appointment, driving directions, critical reviews.
Rich: How busy it is in different parts of the days. That’s crazy.
David: How long do people stay there, how much do they spend, all of this information that they’re gathering about the business. I mean, they do link to the business website, but that link is pretty it. So Google is trying to capture as much as they can about a business and put it right in front and center on the search result.
And you know, debatable whether it’s a good experience for users, I myself like to do a little more research about the business but certainly it’s impacting how we’re thinking about search and how we’re thinking about conversions and engagements with the prospective customer.
Rich: So with that in mind – those are 2 big changes – but also some of the things that maybe haven’t changed all that much. If you had limited time, like most business owners, how would you prioritize your work on local SEO for your company?
David: So there’s 3 things really. And the first is whatever Google is doing today you can’t guarantee they’re going to do that tomorrow. So I think that a strong website that is mobile-optimized and shows up well on our phone, is fast to load and easy to browse, I still think a mobile website is a great investment for a local business.
I’d also say just getting involved in your community, whether it’s volunteering at charity events or hosting events at your business, making donations to the local school fundraisers, those sorts of things. The more that you can get involved with your community and represent that involvement online – so getting a shout out from a charity on their social media, or getting recommendations on Facebook – that’s kind of the second piece that I would probably get involved with.
And the third is a little bit more structured version of that which is customer reviews. So making sure you’ve got a really robust system in place to acquire and monitor reviews from your customers. And I think that those three things will set you up for success both with Google’s current algorithm and especially where I see them heading in the future.
Rich: Ok, just to recap. So mobile-friendly site, fast loading. Second, get involved with your community. Number 3, customer reviews. I want to talk in a little more detail about #2 because although it sounds like the right thing to do anyway, I’m not 100% clear on this because it sounds like maybe we ask them to thank us on Facebook or social media, but how big of an impact does that really have on our local search results.
David: So Facebook is actually one of the biggest sources for reviews for Google. So Google does maintain and run its own review system, but it actually tends to trust third party reviews a little bit better.
So for example we’ve seen Yelp reviews move the needle dramatically on rankings in research. My colleague Mike Blumenthal has done it, and so Facebook is a similarly powerful source of information for Google. Now they don’t have full access to tell you everything that’s happening on Facebook, but you do kind of get a double whammy on Facebook activity. You get not only the increased visibility and customer engagements on Facebook directly, but Google does tend to pull in Facebook reviews and maybe pulling in recommendations as well.
So those are 2 big platforms that even if you did one activity and get benefits from one of the two big players, I think it’s a 2 for 1 kind of deal.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. So the third thing was customer reviews. I just came from lunch and as I walked out of there it said, “People love us on Yelp”, and inside there’s a chalkboard telling people to leave reviews and ‘like’ them on Facebook”. Is that the kind of customer reviews you’re talking about, or are there any other things that we should be considering when we think about getting more customer reviews?
David: So those are exactly the kinds of reviews I’m talking about. But more than just putting up a sign at your point of sale or on the front door, you should really have a systematic process in place for acquiring these reviews.
There are all kinds of various software programs out there. My colleague Mike Blumenthal’s Get Five Stars, where it’s basically prompting your customers to leave you a review after you’ve entered their information – either at your point of sale or your accounting system – and things of that nature. Basically an automated way to follow up with customers and more importantly ask them how their experience was so that if there are any big hurdles or points of friction in your business, that you could try to solve those and try to get ahead of a bad reputation online. And then follow up with them and ask them if they did have a good experience to leave you a review on one of those major local sites.
I think it’s really important these days to implement a process around getting reviews, rather than just leave it to chance that Rich is going to leave me a review because he sees this sign in the window.
Rich: Ok. Now one of the things when we talk about local search – and I think you mentioned it or I was reading it – about the “three pack”, or some people refer to them as “the snack pack” or the Google Maps listing – but basically it’s like the local results with the map and three listings. Is that where mobile search and SEO ends or are there other things that we can do to kind of improve the chances of getting found for local search if we’re not showing up in that three pack?
David: It’s definitely the 800 pound gorilla in the room I’d say, is that three pack. And keep in mind that those three pack results are not identical but they’re pretty similar to the results you’re going to get in a Google Maps app, which is increasingly heavily used – especially on Android devices – because people are out and about.
The three pack is definitely the first place that I would focus for local search, but it’s a fragmented space so local search really means anywhere your customers are. Whether that’s Facebook, Yelp, a place like Houzz, so it’s important to have a presence on the sites where your customers are going to be interacting.
And I think one of the big ones that’s sort of surprised me near the radar, but I do see a lot of local activity happening – especially on the west coast – there’s a lot of conversations happening where somebody says, “Hey, does anyone know a good handyman?”, or “Any good ideas for places to go to dinner with kids?”, or “What restaurants in my area have air conditioning?” So those are all great opportunities for you, those are people that are essentially searching and they’re asking their neighbors. But those are great opportunities for you as a local business to get visibility and attract potential customers.
So yes, Google is definitely the first place I would start, it’s on most mobile devices, it’s got 95% market share. But these conversations and these searching behaviors are happening more and more on many different platforms.
Rich: One question I always get from clients is how they can rank well for a given town when they actually don’t have an office in that town. I’ve spoken with bed and breakfasts that are just outside Portland, Maine and they want to get found when people search for “Portland, Maine hotel” or “Portland, Maine bed and breakfast”. What kind of advice would you give them?
David: Increasingly it’s getting very difficult for those kinds of businesses to rank in the three pack, or “snack pack”, as you were just saying. I mentioned this concept of proximity to central earlier on and its algorithm back in the late 2000’s, and that’s kind of largely dissipated. I think you can kind of be anywhere in a given city, but you do have to be in that city that Google considers the major metro area in order to rank. And so if you are just outside of town, it’s going to be very hard for you to get exposure in those three pack results.
My best set of recommendations for you would be you need to create content on your website that talks about that major city. So if you are the bed and breakfast just outside of Portland, you absolutely would want a page about things to do in Portland, and major landmarks in Portland, and great restaurants to visit in Portland. And potentially a page with folks from Portland that use you as a getaway on the weekend or something like that, where you can feature happy customers from this market.
So you do need a piece of content or a set of pieces of content about the market that you’re trying to rank in on your website, but increasingly it’s going to be very difficult for you to rank in those three pack results. Really the only chance you have to rank in those is to get a ridiculous number of reviews – more than your competitors – in that market. Even then I think it’s going to be a losing battle in the long run.
Rich: You might almost do better if Google didn’t show any results in a “snack pack”, or the three pack, and instead was just showing organic results and you’ve actually optimized for that town.
David: That’s right, you’ve got a much better opportunity to rank for organic results than you do local in that specific case.
Rich: I might almost say that if you were in that situation, that you should probably go after some long tail search results where people might be searching on a specific problem their having rather than searching for the kind of company that could fix it. It might give you an opportunity of pulling in some of that traffic.
David: Exactly right, and especially with what Google is doing now around what are called “featured snippets”. So if they’re able to detect a question-like intent and your website answers that question very succinctly and it’s marked up in a well-structured format, you can actually rank in what we call “position zero” ahead of all the organic results for that question.
So finding out what questions people are asking about this town that you’re trying to rank for. And a great resource for that is actually a site called answerthepublic.com. So checking that out for questions that people are asking about this city and creating content on your website that answers those questions, that’s probably the best angle for you to attack local search.
Rich: That’s a great website. I know that my Director of Business Development, that’s one of her favorite sites to go to when she’s working with clients.
So this is awesome. So similarly let’s say you’ve got a company that provides services for an entire area like your pool cleaner, or your propane delivery company, how might you approach local search if you’ve got that big area and you want to do that for every single town that somebody is searching for propane delivery or a pool? Is it going to be a similar tactic to what you just described, or might you approach it a different way?
David: A little bit similar I would say. First of all you should mark yourself as a service area business within Google My Business. So halfway through the verification process there will be a checkbox that says, “I serve customers outside of my actual physical location”, so making sure that you’ve checked that box – and you can actually draw your circle radius area right on the map – and I think that’s an important signal to send Google about the kind of business that you are.
And then the second thing is, I think reviews become even more important. In particular, not only just the reviews that people are leaving on sites like Yelp, and Facebook, and Google, and those sorts of places. But case studies that you can feature on your website in every market that you’re trying to rank for.
I’m out here in Portland, Oregon, so if you’re a Portland pool cleaner, you’d want to have a page of Beaverton clients with their pools and maybe with photos of before and after. And then you want to have a page of Gresham clients, and Oregon City clients, rather than just saying we serve your customers in these 55 towns. Pick the ones that are the biggest markets for you and feature case studies on those pages, and that’s really the best way to get this broader exposure organically.
Rich: That’s great advice. Now one thing I’ve run into a number of times is when a company has multiple locations, maybe not even in the same state. I’m actually thinking of a photo booth company that does weddings and stuff like that, and the big question that they had is, “Should we be creating unique websites for each location, or should we just have sections on our website for each area that we serve?” Do you have a strong feeling about whether a company like that would need to create multiple websites, say one for Maine and another for Oregon and another for Florida?
David: Sure. I guess all other things being equal, my recommendation would be the latter option of the two that you just described. In other words, one single website for your national company with a unique page or a unique subfolder for each market that you operate in. It does depend a little bit on your business and how long you’ve been in each market and that sort of thing. There’s all kinds of questions that ask an actual client in this situation.
But generally speaking, if you structure your website properly and create a unique page or subfolder for each market that you operate in, your overall website is going to benefit those single locations in a much greater way than you would be able to rank with a unique website for each market.
So there’s a concept of you can call it any number of things – domain equity, domain authority – but essentially one single strong website with a lot of subfolders or location pages hung off of it tends to do better than individual small websites.
And the best example of this is really looking at Yelp, which is a dominant player in organic results. Yelp is not eligible for the place results, though organically Yelp doesn’t go out and create a page for “YelpPortland.com”, or “YelpCharlotte.com”, or “YelpChicago.com”, it’s all on Yelp.com. And they hand subfolders off for each market that they’re in. And that’s the analogy I would draw if I was a multi-location business to copy Yelp, because they’re doing things really well.
Rich: Ok. Now this may be just you guessing, but do you see a time when Google might offer different results based on the type of business you have? For example I’m thinking that somebody searching for pizza might pull up a much narrower geographical area for pizza – because I’m looking for pizza right now – versus that propane company where we pull up a larger geographical area, in terms of what it feeds the user doing that kind of search, or does that already exist?
David: Yeah, it does already exist to an extent. In particular there was an algorithm in 2014 called “Pidgeon” where Google got a little bit better at categorical context towards search, as you were saying. So if you’re looking for pizza or a coffee shop, you’re looking for something that’s more or less within walking distance or maybe a short drive. If you’re looking for a pool cleaner or golf course or something that is a little bit wider, Google will usually show a wider range of businesses.
So there is some intelligence around business category built into the algorithm. Certainly Google is very good at detecting authoritative sites for a category basis. So as I mentioned earlier, Home Advisor or Houzz for general contractors and Avvo for lawyers. Google is very good at detecting authoritative sites on a categorical basis. And I do think you’ll start to see more intelligence creep into the place results and map results over time. But right now it’s a half-baked intelligence at the moment.
Rich: Ok. Now I’ve read that searches with the phrase “near me” are just taking off over the last couple of years. Is there any point in automizing a website for the phrase “near me”, or is Google just too smart to fall for that?
David: Yeah, I think they’re smart, they’ve got a lot of PhD’s. The funniest example that I’ve seen is a friend of mine took a photo out in Colorado of “signs near me Denver, Colorado” as the business. That was there actually name.
Rich: Short sighted, but clever nonetheless.
David: Short sighted and clever, maybe it’s worth it because they were the first ones to do this, I don’t know. But I would focus more on building a long-term brand. I think Google, if everyone all of a sudden starts including “near me” in their title tags and on their website, it’s very easy for Google to filter that out. So I would just focus on phrases and presenting yourself in such a manner that will convert customers rather than just ranking for rankings sake. I think it’s pretty obvious to consumers that these guys are just trying to gain the system, is it really a trustworthy business that I want to give my dollars to?
Rich: David, this has been great. Very helpful all around, I really appreciate it. Where can we learn more about you online?
David: For sure, I’ve enjoyed it as well. I’m primarily these days at tidings.com, which is my new company focused on automating email marketing for small businesses. I’m also on Twitter @davidmihm, I’ve got my weekly newsletter called Minutive, which you can visit at tidings.com as well. So those are the places I hang out for the most part. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn if you want to just look me up, but I would start with Tidings and Twitter and Minutive, those are my three main hangouts.
Rich: Awesome. David, thank you so much for your time today and sharing some of your expertise with us.
David: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity, Rich, thanks a lot.
David Mihm is a digital strategist that knows how to help businesses stay current with Google, no matter how often they change their algorithm. Check out his website and newsletter for great up to date information on how your business can rank higher in search. And be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
A few resources David discussed in this episode:
Get Five Stars – prompt your customers to leave you feedback & reviews
Answer The Public – website that shows what questions people are asking on different topics (a great resource for writing blog posts!)
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, creator of the Agents of Change Digital Marketing Conference, and author of a new book, The Lead Machine. He loves helping businesses fine tune their strategies for digital marketing in the areas of search, social and mobile.