September 19, 2012

Five Local Search Pitfalls to Avoid

Companies large and small are aware of the importance of local search and many have taken advantage of the opportunities available in the local online space.  As more consumers become armed with smartphones, the number of local searches continues to skyrocket.  Depending on which firm or search engine you ask, desktop local search accounts for 25% to 35% of all searches.  On mobile that number is much higher; Google says 40% of all mobile searches have local intent while Bing pegs the percentage to be more than 50%.  Regardless of the exact figure today, local search will continue to grow as mobile consumers demand more locally relevant information to fuel their purchase decisions, 80% of which are made within a 15 mile radius of their homes.

With the highly fragmented nature of the online local space, harnessing the full, complete power of the space can be incredibly difficult, especially for those national retailers with hundreds or thousands of locations nationwide.  Following are a few major pitfalls to avoid when engaging in local online search.

Google Is Not Everything

While Google dominates in “regular” search, that domination does not translate into the local realm. Google does have the largest share of the market, around 45%.  While claiming and optimizing a Google+ Local page is an essential step in mastering your local online presence, it is not the only step.  It is just as important to have a robust profile on sites such as Bing, Yahoo, Superpages.com, Yellowpages.com and others along with providing location data to the major data aggregators and navigation services.  This not only assures a wider distribution of your data but each site, Google included, utilizes citations found on other digital properties in their local search ranking algorithm.  Missing or incomplete information on other local directories not only makes you less visible to consumers, but can harm the work a business has done on Google.

Stopping At The Basics

Many businesses, especially large, national brands, limit their local listings management to only include name and address information.  While information is essential, it is not enough to gain a high ranking in local search results.  Google, Bing and other local directories have many other data points businesses should include, such as business categories, branded messaging opportunities, photos, videos, links to websites and other social site links.  Including all of these elements in a local listing not only affects relevancy and ranking, but makes the listing more appealing to searchers trying to find a local business.

A Boring Listing Means Less Clicks

It has long been known that a top ranking in Google, in paid or organic search, translates directly into increased clicks, therefore increased site visits and conversions.  The same holds true for local listings, except direct consumer contact (via calls or visits) is the end result.  An eye-tracking and click-mapping study from Mediative last year showed that with local maps results in Google a number one ranking garnered considerably more attention and clicks than listings further down the page.  However, social signals have a considerable influence as well.  Listings with ratings indicators, reviews and/or text snippets of those reviews, even in spots below position three, received more attention than those listings above them lacking this content.  Similar results have been seen in local listings on mobile devices; reviews and social signals are the number one influencer of consumer attention, especially in results outside of the top three.  Asking customers to post reviews of your business will have a direct benefit to your listing’s ranking and actions consumers take with them.

Ignoring Reviews and Ratings

Word of mouth is nothing new and it has helped or hurt many local businesses.  Many things in local marketing have changed, but this one fact has remained consistent.  This year’s  Local Consumer Review Survey showed that 72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations and 52% said that positive online reviews make them more likely to use a local business.  While businesses can’t control the reviews that consumers place on their local listings, it is vitally important to not only be aware of those reviews, but to respond to them quickly.  The only thing more damaging to a local business than a bad review is a bad review that is ignored.  For national brands, initiating a program of location-based review monitoring will not only give brands insight into how their locations stack up against each other and the competition, but provides a direct route to immediately respond to negative, or positive, consumer commentary.

Local online search is one of the few areas where small, local businesses have an advantage over large, national brands in that managing a local presence is much easier for five locations than 5,000.  However, with the proper knowledge and an experienced team in place, national brands can achieve outstanding results and draw the searching and mobile consumer into their locations.


May 18, 2012

Playing in the Google Zoo – National Brands & Google Updates

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A panda, a penguin and an SEO expert walk into a conference…

OK, so that’s not really a joke but it certainly could be.  Within the past few months, Google has made several well-publicized updates to their search algorithm aimed at different aspects of the search results.  On April 24, Google launched Penguin, one of the few updates aimed specifically at local search.  Once more the buzz, worry and speculation began around the possible effects this update would have on SERPs.

For years now, in the local SEO space, many small agencies and “SEO advisors” have targeted small businesses with “guarantees” of top placement on Google in a short amount of time.  Any person involved in SEO knew such claims were achievable, but only by utilizing tactics Google has long-labeled as “black hat” or “illegal.”

Penguin is Google’s long-awaited move to address and cleanup sites utilizing unapproved tactics that have previously been ignored because they are at such a small, local level.  Google has stated that this update should only effect 3% of search traffic, but since that traffic is all local-specific it may appear much more far-reaching.

Initial results in the first several days of the implementation have shown results that are expected based on Google’s commentary.  For years, Google has stressed that for long-term success, websites should optimize based on consumer experience instead of optimizing for search engines.  Post-Penguin searches are showing that those sites previously relying on keyword stuffing, an over-abundance of backlinks and other “questionable” tactics are suffering while those “playing by the rules” are seeing minimal negative effects.

We’ve discussed on this blog before how the business listings portion of the search results garner the most consumer attention and for now this section appears to be a local “safe haven,” free from adverse effects of the Penguin update.  Even those local businesses with websites impacted by the update appear to be safe within the local business listings.

The Penguin update, while not a direct “threat” to national brands in the local space, does bring to light a few important points for brands to consider:

  • Even in local, a Google-only approach can be precarious as one simple change in their algorithm can send a business completely off a consumer’s radar.
  • Cultivating a multi-pronged local strategy involving both local sites and business listings across the local ecosystem will yield maximum consumer exposure, thus increasing in-store traffic.
  • Incorporating social media on a local level will create and additional layer of consumer contact and interaction, promoting the brand and increases consumer awareness, purchase and advocacy.

If there is one thing certain in search, it is that Google will continue to push updates to their algorithm and those in the SEO world will continue to scramble to adapt websites to those changes.  By lessening dependency on Google, focusing on optimizing listings and local-social content, national brands with a large local footprint will find themselves more prepared to ride the waves when another Google algorithm tsunami hits the web.


April 26, 2012

Do Brands Really Need To Localize Everywhere?

My wife loves Jamba Juice –possibly more than me.  There isn’t a location in our home state, so wherever we travel, she actively seeks out a Jamba Juice – sometimes a couple of times a day.  One of her favorite things about Jamba Juice is they always look the same, making it easy for her to identify a location regardless of the city.  Jamba Juice gives her a great, consistent consumer experience.

When asked by national brands if it is really necessary to localize digitally everywhere, across all of their locations, I always think of my wife and Jamba Juice.  I typically reply to this question with a question: Do you (insert brand name here) attempt to localize your brick and mortar locations?  Do you want to create a consistent brand experience across your physical locations?

Of course the answer is always a resounding – yes.  Naturally, the next question is: Why?  The answer: Because all brands want consumers who contact them to have that consistent brand experience.

It’s easy to see where these two questions are leading. If brands want consumers to have a certain type of experience in physical stores, now that those consumers have gone digital, wouldn’t they want them to have that same type of experience? Consistency is key.

There is no doubt that we are now well into the digital consumer age, with the majority of consumers turning to the internet and search engines first when trying to find a local business.  According to Google, on desktop search, more than 25 percent of searches are local in nature. For mobile, the percentage is considerably higher.

Whether at home, at work or on the go, today’s consumer is turning to digital platforms to find the information they want and need. This includes weather, driving directions, business information, keeping contact with friends, and much more.

When it comes to local, there is one main rule any brand needs to keep in mind – if you do it locally for your physical stores, you must to do it online for your digital storefronts.  Location information, operating hours, photos, promotions – all of these things and more can and should be included in a digital localization plan.

It is imperative for brands to rethink and refocus not only on their physical stores, but put energy and effort towards their digital appearance as well.  Reaching consumers where they spend their time necessitates a focus in the local digital realm.

What steps should national brands take to ensure this type of digital consistency?  A simple three-step plan can be initiated by all brands to achieve digital consistency.

First, conduct an audit of all local listings across the local, digital ecosystem to determine accuracy and consistency level.

Second, implement a plan for listing overhaul, optimization and management across all engines, directories and local sites.

Third, track improvements and monthly activity with the local listings, using these reported metrics to drive changes and further improvements to the local digital storefronts.


March 8, 2012

How Google+ May Shape Local Business Strategies

Last week, while watching “American Idol” with my wife and daughter – don’t make fun – a commercial came on for Google+.  It was about a person who had 100s of baby pictures on their phone and lost it, but thanks to Google+, every picture had been instantly saved to their Google+ account.  At the end of the commercial, both my daughter and my wife pulled out their phones and downloaded the Google+ app.  Before the night was over, they both had set up Google+ accounts and were adding whoever they could find to their Circles…and uploading photos they didn’t want to lose.  At different points in the evening they asked me why, with this being my field of expertise, I hadn’t told them about this before.  My reply:  I didn’t think they would want to know.

Similarly, shortly after Google announced the release of Google+ Pages, the feature targeting businesses and brands, I had a friend who owns a local business ask me why I hadn’t told him about it.  My answer was the same: I didn’t think he would want to know.  After all, how many businesses, large or small, have the extra time to devote to creating and maintaining another social presence?

Then Google announced Google+ Search plus Your World, turning their social platform into a necessity for brands and retailers.  Google+ membership is roughly 12 percent of Facebook’s and current activity levels on Google+ are just a fraction of the activity on Facebook, but with Search plus Your World, Google+ offers something to brands Facebook cannot match:  longevity and search relevance.

On Facebook, comments and posts can have a short lifespan as they are continually pushed down the page.  With the advent of Google’s Search Plus your World, Google is showing that social commentary lives beyond the social page by actually showing up in search results.  Many searchers have already seen these types of commentary showing up beside “regular” organic content in the search engine results pages.  Search plus social results is the latest evolution in search and is not going away.

Does this mean that national retailers with a heavy local presence (or any other local retailers for that matter) should jump right out and create Google+ profiles for each of their locations?  No, but brands don’t want to ignore Google+ and what it will mean in the long term for local strategies.

As such, brands need to consider  the following top three points when developing a local strategy for Google+ Pages:

  1. Google local results are based on relevance, prominence and distance.  Location-based web pages (either new or sub-pages of brand site) can give a location a digital boost more than almost any other online tactic.  Coupling those pages with a Google+ Places profile will make the business even more prominent in Google’s eyes.
  2. Business listing rankings are based on relevance and citation signal strength.  Engaging in Google+ Pages will add a very strong citation signal to boost listings rankings.
  3. Facebook created a link between Facebook Pages and Facebook Places; there is every reason to believe Google+ will institute a similar link.  The ranking power of the two services (+Pages and Google Places) will certainly outweigh the power of each, individually.

As with any new platform, those retailers who move first in the space will be able to help mold and direct the evolution of the platform.  Multi-location retailers would be wise to seriously consider a move onto Google+ Pages as it presents a unique opportunity in the online space and could very well represent the next large step forward in the social revolution.


January 31, 2012

New Research from GMS Local Shows Knowledge Gap

It’s no news that the local online space is fragmented and can be difficult to navigate, especially for those large, national brands that have an extensive local footprint.  Determining best strategies, tactics and practices across the local ecosystem can be a challenge for any national marketer.

GMS Local has launched new research today exploring not only the state of local advertising, but the perception that national brands with more than 500 brick and mortar locations have of the space.  The research reveals, perhaps not surprisingly, that many brands have a skewed perception of the understanding of the local space and what they are doing within it.  According to the study, there is an education gap in the local arena that needs to be filled in order for advertisers to become truly effective in the local marketplace.

The research also offers a three step action plan for any national advertiser with a local presence, including:

  • An online local listings business audit
  • A local storefront diagnosis
  • Education, innovation and experimentation

The full research can be found on the Insights page of GMSLocal.com.  The research can be shared and also imbedded on your site.  Contact GMS Local for more information.

 


January 19, 2012

Managing Multiple Local Business Listings

Consumers have moved into the digital realm, and a large percentage of them are searching with local intent via both desktops and mobile devices.  But what are they looking for?  Studies show that regardless of devices, local searchers are looking for such basic information for storefronts as:

  • operating hours
  • telephone numbers
  • products and services offered
  • purchase and pick-up information

Consumers want to know where to go, how to get there and what they will find when they arrive.  Lastly, before they commit to a location they want to know what other people are saying so they are confident in their selection and aren’t wasting their time.

Retailers with large, local footprints are at a distinct disadvantage over their local SMB counterparts due to the quantity of listings to manage while maintaining brand consistency.  However, search engines and directories level the playing field, with the business following local search best practices ranking highest.

Do you want your locations to rank at or near the top? Of course! So, here’s what to do:

  • Claim and verify – Check and “claim” your listings on Google, Yahoo and Bing, making sure listings are exact matches across all three engines.
  • Details, details, details! – Enhance your listings with such specific, detailed information as:
    • hours of operation
    • copy with SEO-optimized keywords
    • links to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube
    • payment methods
    • latitude/longitude data
    • photos and videos
    • offers and discounts
  • Supplement your diet – The local space consists of hundreds of sites your information can appear on such as CitySearch, Yelp, YP.com and others.  Offering  consistent, enhanced information on these sites will help improve your ranking on the major engines and directories.
  • Ready, aim, engage! – Use social tools such as Facebook and Twitter to engage your consumers on a local level.  Local business pages vastly outnumber brand pages on Facebook, showing that consumers will engage socially with local businesses if they are there.
  • Listen up – Employ a good location-based social listening tool that will allow you to monitor and respond to the conversation surrounding each of your locations.

The end goal for any local program is make the local store’s phones ring or drive traffic through the doors.  Following these guidelines is a big step to allow large retailers to navigate the complex and fractured local ecosystem, maintain their brand identity and achieve the goal of driving customers into their locations.

 


January 12, 2012

Eye Tracking Study Reveals Importance of Local Listings Management

For quite some time, we have known only what has been shared by the search engines regarding local search volume, which is that Google claims 30 percent of searches have local intent and for Bing, 53 percent of their searches are local in nature.  That changed recently when SEOMoz published the results of an eye-tracking study they did in partnership with Mirametrix.  This study focused on local search results and offers one of the first pieces of definitive data on consumer engagement with local search results across several variations of search engine results pages.

To make the study results as valid as possible, the study team:

  • Made all results localized to Chicago, IL with variations in the search query terms.
  • Used actual eye-tracking data, not “click maps” or heat maps generated from mouse movements.
  • Created the patterns (shown in the example below) by aggregating subject data, which represents the consumer’s direction visual interaction with the SERPs.

The most compelling data from this study regards the local business listings.  Of the five search types shown in the study, each one results in a SERP with local business listings that revealed that those local business listings garnered the most consumer focus, regardless of where the business listings were placed on the page—the top or the middle.

Even more telling was a search using a brand name – Pizza Hut.  On the results page, there is one paid search ad belonging to Pizza Hut and the top generic listing is for Pizza Hut’s brand page containing a full pack of site links. This gives the top one-third of the page to their PPC and organic listings.  However, the bulk of the attention was paid to the business listings, placed almost half way down the page, not the brand listing.

Google’s move away from plain listings to combined results including business listings has had a definite impact on search users.  By controlling, enhancing and optimizing business listings a brand can assure that their locations will be at or near the top of the pack on search engine results pages containing business listings, such as the one pictured here.

This study emphasizes that for a large percentage of searches, local business results are being served and it is on those listings consumers are focusing their attention.  To avoid being overlooked, it is more important than ever for brands to have a program in place for the proper control, enhancement and management of their local business listings.