Local Search: What used to be fairly simple has become complicated.
The Digital Essentials, Part 3
Developing a robust digital strategy is both a challenge and an opportunity. Part 3 of the Digital Essentials guide series explores five of the essential technology-driven experiences customers expect, which you may be missing or not fully utilizing.
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On a recent Digital Marketing Excellence Show, Eric Enge interviewed Dave Rodecker, owner of Local Splash. Local Splash is “a business information management and publishing service that provides PR like technology in syndicating rich, structured content to social networks, online local destinations and powering the building blocks for local search engines.”
Jump below the image to get our summary of Dave’s tips for winning the local search game. At the end of this post is a video of the complete interview.
Google Changes to Local Search Results
How do you recognize a local search result as opposed to other search results? Starting several years ago maps and the “local pack,” along with regular organic results (but locally specific), were blended into regular search results for queries with local intent.
These search queries can be explicit (“Framingham dentist”) or implicit (just “dentist” but Google figuring out your location). Over 33% of queries now have local intent, and even more on mobile. Google has gotten better and better at identifying your exact location. Now we’re seeing that “dentist in irvine” gives different results from “dentists” when you are in Irvine.
Verifying Your Local Business with Google
Google offers Google Places to verify your local business and gain some control over the listing. Google sends a postcard to the business address to verify the listing. You can start adding to the listing even before the verification is complete.
What about problems with the verification process? One challenge is multiple people claiming one location. Google used to allow for multiple owners, but is now moderating to find the one “correct” owner for a location. Because of this, you should check your listings frequently. You may have lost control and not know it. The process has created a lot of challenges for small business owners.
Sometimes we do see multiple listings for the same business. How does that happen? Google has a problem in that there is no one authoritative source of identifying real businesses and their locations. If your business isn’t active online for a while, Google may decide you no longer exist and deactivate your listing.
Google’s perspective is that a business could have multiple listings, such as the same phone number but multiple addresses, or multiple businesses at the same address. They sometimes actually rely on street view images to identify the real business at an address.
Google also looks at certain core data aggregators to confirm information. Presents a challenge because the same address can be displayed more than one way. And businesses these days don’t always have one main phone number. See the study “Behind the smoke” by LocalSplash for more on the accuracy of various core data aggregators.
The number of places listed by Google is ten times as many as those listed in other databases. So Google has to constantly try to refine their information. They do make mistakes. Google Local has support channels by email and phone.
Ranking in Local Search
Beyond traditional SEO factors, what helps rank in local search? One factor is cleaning up your own mess. Try to get your NAP (Name-Address-Phone) listing the same in all directories, your site, and other sites pointing to you. There are services to help you with that, such as Yext and Moz. That’s the most basic thing to do.
Beyond that, look at the fundamentals like PageRank. In the local industry we talk about “PlaceRank”: attributes, where the business is located, proximity to user and centroid of city, business name, etc.
Also important is your own Google+ page and its reviews. And pay attention to all the descriptor categories now available in your Places listing.
If directories have different information from what is in your Places info, Google has less confidence in the business, and that can affect its ranking.
The most frustrating part is that many core data providers don’t handle data updates well. Sometimes they just add new data to the older data. You don’t have much control. Thankfully, Google and others are finding other ways to confirm data beyond the core data providers. Some (such as Yelp) though don’t refresh data very often, even though they subscribe to services.
Takeaway: You have to do your part to get your data across the web cleaned up, as much as possible. A service like RelevantAds knows how to do this carefully. They do an audit to figure out all the places your business exists on the web. They do advanced queries to find duplicate listings, figure out which should be the primary, and then do the work of trying to get the wrong data eliminated.
What Is the Difference Between Citations and Links in Local?
Just as links create a pointer for search engines from one web page to another, a citation is a reference to a place in a directory or another page. Google can make an association based on a citation that adds to the value of your business to Google. Meta tags can also help where you can get them implemented.
You used to be able to see citations in “more info” on Google Maps, but they are not displayed any longer. Google is still using them, but you have to discover them on your own. The citation listing has to have more than just NAP, and have unique content about your business, for Google to value it. Moz has a great directory to relevant directories for various verticals.
Reviews and Local
What about reviews? What role do they play? There has been a long debate over how much they affect the local search rankings. Their effect seems to vary over time. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that right now on Google, there are the Google reviews, and then all the other reviews considered separately. Google reviews, no longer display other review sites directly, but they do still access those sites. They are shown in your Places Dashboard. Reviews on Google are valuable also as they are displayed as star reviews in search results, which could increase your CTR.
Reviews on a listing help it become a citation. Rich keywords in reviews can also have benefit.
Other Local Search Tips
If you’re helping local businesses, there are ways to mimic location when performing test searches to simulate real localized searches. Use the Search Tools setting to change your location.
What about Bing and Yahoo? They have kept their own local programs despite merging other search results. Bing has its own dashboard similar to Places, but with some interesting additional features, such as being able to specify relevancy percentage of your categories. Yahoo has kind of frozen since the new CEO took over. Rodecker’s agency has seen a lot of verification postcards not sent, or businesses getting blank postcards.
Local Splash has an “SEO process” they go through with a site. They work to make each destination unique, and create geo-targeted landing pages for each location populated with unique content. But these days they see more benefit from just optimizing the business’s own website.
What about local schema markup? It does create a better chance of data being recognized as a citation by Google.
Local pages vs. brand pages: Brand is a stronger signal. Local Splash tries to take advantage of local pages by location. If you are a franchise that can tie into a main brand site, that’s going to be a stronger signal.
- Insights in Places management: a lot of good information there, including keywords that are getting your business shown and are driving actual traffic.
- Put a tracking code in your business listings to better track results (although the code doesn’t always come through on clicks from the search results).
- Make use of image optimization using EXIF geo-information. See RelevantAds.com Tools
- RelevantAds also has a categorization tool to determine top-ranking categories for search engines.