The High Cost of Thinking Your Local Search Visibility Is Free

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The name’s a shameless rip-off of Wil Reynolds’s excellent presentation on “The High Cost of Free Traffic.”  One reason I’ve got no shame is that that describes the situation perfectly: Although technically your business’s visibility in Google Maps and the rest of local search is free, you run into trouble once you start treating it as you would other “free” stuff.

Business owners and their marketers often mess up and overlook enough things even when they pay $20 a click (as in AdWords) for their traffic.  Their strategies get even more ragged when they don’t have to pay for visibility in the local search results, and are confident they won’t need to any time soon.

“Free” gives you a sense of relief.  You don’t think much about how you use your water if all you have to do is dip your cup in the creek.  That’s fine as long as it’s not winter or there’s a cattle drive upstream.

What’s the “high cost” of free traffic (the one I named this post after)?  It’s not one specific high price you pay, but rather a long list of missed-opportunity costs.  They’re problems you’ll face, time you’ll waste, or wins you won’t seize.

They’re what happens when you assume “free” rankings and traffic are permanent, or unlimited, or guaranteed, or something you’re entitled to, or always easy to get more of, or always what you need more of.

Cost 1: Trying to farm out all parts of your local SEO strategy.

(Or, even worse, trying to farm out all of your marketing.)

Some parts of local SEO require a decision-maker’s personal involvement.  Doing what it takes to earn good links and reviews are two examples of that.  Though third parties can help to one degree or another, they can’t do it well and without any of your involvement.  “Your one-stop, turnkey solution” is a marketing ploy.  The sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll get visible in the local search results, and have it actually result in more business, and have it last.

Cost 2: Seeing if you can “just get your site to rank” without putting in any real effort.

If your primitive strategy of microsites / keyword-stuffing / cheap links / lousy “city” pages doesn’t work you’ve wasted time and are back to the drawing board.  Even if you’re fortunate enough to have your bare-minimum effort bring you good rankings, you’ll be one non-pushover competitor or one Google test or update away from Search Engine Siberia.

Especially when it’s early in your local SEO effort, either you need to specialize and carve out a niche, or put in a little work to differentiate yourself, or do both.

Cost 3: Only worrying about the “easy SEO wins” at first.

Isn’t it great if you can meet your goals with a minimum of effort?  Sure.  Shouldn’t you try to do that?  Yeah, probably.  But what if your quick no-brainers yield no results?  Then it’s a question of when you start putting in the hard work, and how long it takes to pay off.  Fixing up your title tags, wiggling a few keywords into the cracks, and cleaning up your local listings will only get you so far.

How long should you wait to see if your quick wins did the trick?  2 months?  6 months?  A year?  Damned if I know.  I say you start digging the well before you’re thirsty.  Start on the ongoing activities while you’re still working on the one-time stuff.

Cost 4: Using a site/CMS that makes changes difficult or slow to make.

Your Squarespace or Wix or Joomla or GoDaddy site is probably fine to keep if you can structure it correctly, create a homepage that doesn’t suck, make it more or less conducive to conversions, and do other basics.  It doesn’t need to be perfect.  It’s better to get a rough site out there early, and improve it later.  The problem is what happens if you can’t improve it later.  Because you consider your local search traffic “free,” you don’t feel it’s urgent to get a site you can work with.  You’ll let it molder until traffic dries up or something really breaks, or both.

Cost 5: Hiring hacky writers.

If you had to pay $20 for each click, would you send visitors to pages that don’t make it clear what you do, or pages that make it apparent you’re “too busy” to put any effort into your site yourself, or pages that make you look like you can’t string two sentences together?  No?  Well, doing that with “free” traffic is even worse.  At least if you pay $20 (or much more) for a click, you might eventually learn that more traffic often isn’t the answer.

With bad writing you have the online-marketing equivalent of BO.

Cost 6: Waiting too long to get serious about getting reviews.

You probably “just want to rank” first.  Once you have more customers, you’ll start encouraging reviews.  That’s backwards.  Good rankings without good reviews tend not to bring in much business.  On the other hand, good reviews will help you as soon as you start getting them, no matter how visible you are.  Go after them early.

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Cost 7: Not replying to customers’ reviews, even when you don’t “have to.”

You probably don’t let negative reviews go unaddressed.  That’s usually wise.

What about the positive reviews?  Think of how hard you’ve worked to get however much visibility you’ve got, and to do a good enough job for customers that they wrote you those nice reviews.  Don’t you want that visibility and traffic to convert as many customers as possible, so you continue the upward spiral?  Sometimes replying to a positive review – even if only to say thanks – is a way to do that.  It shows you give a hoot, and that you still care about customers after they’ve paid you and reviewed you.

Cost 8: Assuming all your visitors saw your best reviews before visiting your site.

Given all the info Google shows IN the search results these days – especially when people search for your business by name – it’s smart to think of Google’s results as your second homepage.  To wow customers there with all your reviews is crucial, and you need to do it.  Those review sites sure are prominent.

But what if those people go even farther, and get to your site?  Those people are even deeper into your “conversion funnel,” and are this close to taking an action you want.  Don’t hold back now.   Even if they saw your “review stars” in the search results, they probably didn’t see reviews from specific customers.  If you had to pay for each click, you’d make sure your best reviews were front-and-center.  That’s smart even if you don’t pay for each click.

Splatter or sprinkle your reviews across your site.

Cost 9: Waiting too long to start earning links.

Yes, the one-time work on your site and on your listings is important.  You may see a bump from doing only that.  But sooner or later you’ll hit a plateau.  At that point you can’t just “optimize” your site more, or crank out more citations, and expect to get unstuck.  And don’t think an SEO person has some fancy maneuver for your site that will do it.  You’ll go round and round on tweaking or overhauling your site, to no effect.  7 SEO “experts” and many dollars later, you’ll realize you missed a big piece of the puzzle.  You could have spent a fraction of that time on effort on trying to earn good links, and you could have seen results sooner.  Slow process?  Sure, but not as slow as the alternatives.

Here are some relatively easy link ideas, just to get the juices flowing.

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Cost 10: Fixating on ranking across your entire service area.

You want to rank in 25 more towns.  That’s a fine goal.  So you must be pretty visible in your town already, right?  If not, start there and branch out only when you’ve had some success.  Now, it may or not be possible to rank in all (or half) of the places you want to reach.  It depends on many factors, including whether you’re trying to rank in the local organic results (doable) or in the Maps results (less realistic).  I’m not even saying you should trim back your goals.  I’m saying only that you should do what it takes to build up a little visibility in the place where it’s most likely you can do so, before you try to go farther afield.

Cost 11: Creating lots of awful “city pages.”

If you won’t take the time to do them right, at least don’t spend too much time on doing them wrong.  Make 5 worthless pages rather than 50 worthless pages.  That way, you can return that much sooner to whatever you were doing that was so much more important than putting a little thought into your city pages, so that they might rank and convert.

Cost 12: Never using AdWords to learn about would-be customers or to sniff out markets.

Too many business owners think, “Why on earth should I pay for traffic when I can get it for free?”  Well, for one thing, because it’s the only practical way to sniff out people’s level of interest in specific services in specific cities/areas where you don’t rank.

Google Analytics only tells you about the traffic you already get, and nothing about the traffic you might be able to get.  Set up a quick-n’-dirty AdWords campaign, keep it on a short budgetary leash, let it run for a couple weeks, and mine the stuffing out of the “Dimensions” tab.  I know of no better way to research keywords, to get a sense of how well traffic converts for those keywords, and to find out exactly which cities/towns those searchers search from.

If you think of pay-per-click as a way to buy data (and not necessarily to get customers, at least at first) you probably couldn’t get anywhere else, you can put new vim and vigor into your local SEO effort.

Cost 13: Assuming that because your local visibility is “free” it’s also unlimited.

That may be the costliest cost of all, for many reasons.

You can always lose visibility.

You won’t have a monopoly while you have it.

Just because you got some visibility easily doesn’t mean you can get more with similar ease.

You don’t know who will become your competitor next.

Google likes to test just about all aspects of the search results.

Google likes to change policies in all areas of search.

Google likes to stuff the free search results with paid search results.

You don’t even own your local listings.  The only online thing you own is your site, and everything else is rented land.

It’s for those reasons and many others that you do not want to grow complacent.

Why do the signs at parks and nature reserves tell you not to feed the animals?

Because if you feed them and other people feed them, they’ll get conditioned to freebies, and not be as able to hunt and forage.  (Also, the tripe most people eat isn’t necessarily good for a growing critter.)

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If you’re an animal, it’s fine to catch as catch can, but you probably want to be able to feed yourself if the hands with free food ever go away.  The same is true of business owners.  Don’t be a Central Park pigeon.

What’s a missed-opportunity cost I missed?

Any cautionary tales?

Leave a comment!

30+ Internal Resources Every Serious Local SEO-er Should Have or Develop

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No, this isn’t one of those dreadful “274 Local SEO Tools” posts.  Most of those lists suffer from bloat, or come from a seller with an ulterior motive, or are stuffed with affiliate links.  Also, because of the constant changes in Google and in the rest of the local-search ecosystem, most “tools” roundups  have the shelf life of sushi.

You should be able to do effective local SEO (for your business or for clients) without a single third-party piece of software or other tool.

I am not saying you should go tool-free.  Some tools sure make life easier.  I’m saying that you should have the ability to go old-school, and that simply using a tool doesn’t mean you’ll do good work.

It’s also nice not to nurse on a tool that can break or become useless or be taken from you.

Long way of saying I’m all about internal resources.  They help me understand my own processes and stay on-track, they make work easier for my helpers and me, and they clarify problems and action items for my clients.  Many of them double as deliverables I give clients.

You probably have a couple of home-brewed resources already.  But you’re probably missing at least a few that can reduce work, thinking, or repetition on your part, and that can make your life easier.

Below are the 30+ internal resources I’ve found useful to cultivate and use for local SEO.  I’ve provided links or examples where possible.  You’re free to adapt or improve on any of them.

General

1. Preliminary questionnaire. For getting the basic facts before you start on a project.

2. Questionnaire for consultations/troubleshooting. Helps you remember the most-important questions to ask.  It’s especially useful if your client can fill it out before you get on the phone, so you can troubleshoot beforehand.

3. “Swipe file”: real-life examples that reflect every suggestion you make. It’s nice if you’ve also got real-life examples of what you don’t   I try to do that in my posts (where appropriate), but I also wheel out other examples for clients.

4. “Lab chimp” client: one who’s open to the occasional experiment, as long as it’s not spammy or otherwise unethical.

5. Old local SEO audits you did. They’ll serve as starting points or templates for future audits you do – for those clients or for others.  Eventually they’ll become like yearbook photos.  You’ll be surprised at how your audits grow over time.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/15851977331/

6. “Rules of writing” document for anybody who writes for you. If you’re not even willing to write down your SOPs or preferences, it’s a little harder to expect your hired stunt-pens to meet the challenge.  (Feel free to email me if you’re interested in seeing mine.)

7. Spreadsheet for checking rankings manually. Yep, without tools.  If you’re like me, it’s not something you’ll use often, but it’s good to have around.

8. Written guide to your basic approach to local SEO. Doesn’t need to be for anyone else’s eyes, but you should have the basic workflow written down somewhere.  You can get mine.

9. “Brain trust” to answer clients’ questions: either a list of posts you did on clients’ questions, or resources other people created that address those concerns. (The origin of half my posts is that I got sick of re-explaining the same point over and over, and just wanted to write my best answer once and for all, so all I’d have to do is send a link.)

Local listings

10. “Intake form” for citations: a spreadsheet your clients can fill in to give you (and any helpers) the info you need to work on their local listings. Here’s Whitespark’s form.

11. Citation worksheet: a spreadsheet you/your helpers can use to work on local listings. Here’s what I use as a starting point for US businesses.  You should have one for each country where you have clients or locations.

12. Place to keep login info for any listings you work on. Ideally that’s part of the “citation worksheet” (pictured above).

13. List of relevant and notable “niche” citation sources. Can be a mashup of resources like this, this, this, and this.  You’ll probably need to sift through the list to identify the most-important niche listings any given client should have. Add any keepers to your aforementioned citation worksheet for that client.

14. “Black book” of all the support departments at local-business directories and similar sites. Lists of contact info are here and here.

15. Local listings for your business. Just so you know how to handle listings on most of the sites you might work on for a client.

16. Google Maps user-profile with a solid track record of making edits (particularly anti-spam edits) that Google approves.

 

17. Yelp account with a solid track record: a history of reporting reviews that end up getting removed, or suggesting edits that end up being approved.

Site

18. Site-audit spreadsheet. Here’s mine.

19. Real-life example of every element or practice you want (or don’t want) on a site. A homepage that covers all the bases, a “city page” that ranks well and brings leads, an irresistible title tag, a great job of incorporating all the services into the menu and internal linking, etc.

20. A migration checklist short-n’-sweet, or exhaustive.

21. Schema.org markup for every occasion you use Schema. You don’t want to rely on plugins.  Also, if and when you hand-code and test it, you probably won’t want to do it all over again next time.

22. Your own site. For your business.  Kind of looks bad if you don’t have one (though most SEOs’ sites are about as useful as a Sears-Roebuck catalog).

23. A site you can experiment on freely. That may rule out all but your site.

(Of course, there are many paid and/or third-party tools that can help you on the site audit, and even more to help you work on the site.  Those have been covered in other posts, though.  I’m not here to remind you that you need your own FTP client.)

Links

24. Link questionnaire for your clients to fill out. Gives you a sense of what types of link-earning ideas your clients are most interested in, and any current link opportunities.

25. Spreadsheet for collaborating with clients on link opportunities. How you should lay this out is just a matter of taste, and of what works for you. I like to include several tabs: “ideas to discuss,” “working on,” “dead ends/not interested,” and “in the bag.”  Any given link opp goes on one of those tabs.

26. Spreadsheet for collaborating with any helpers of yours on link-huntin’.

27. Copies of successful outreach emails – emails that helped you eventually get hard-to-get links. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel every time, though you do want to take time to customize each email, of course.

28. Copies of your link-opportunities reports: the list of link opportunities you found and suggested to clients. Probably some of them will be relevant and useful in the future, and at the very least they’ll get the creative juices flowing.

Reviews

29. Spreadsheet for auditing clients’ reviews: which 5-12 review sites they should care about, how many reviews they’ve got on each site, how you’d suggest prioritizing, and the next steps you’d suggest. You can use it to plan your long-term work together on rustling up reviews.

30. List of questions you can use to figure out why your clients aren’t getting reviews. Maybe a shorter version of this.

31. Template for an initial review-encouragement email – for clients to send to their customers/clients/patients. Customize and tweak as necessary.

32. Template for a follow-up review-encouragement email. A friendly reminder, in case your client doesn’t get a review after sending the first email.

33. Written outline of the general review-encouragement strategy you suggest to clients. You can and should customize it to any given client’s specific situation.

34. Spreadsheet the client or designated “reviews person” can use to stay on top of the outreach for reviews. Who’s been asked, what happened, what’s next, etc.

35. Template for customizing review handouts. Like this or this.

Any internal (non-third-party) local SEO resources you’d add?

Any you’d like to share – maybe resources you created?

Which one(s) do you find the most useful?

Leave a comment!

Is There Anything You Can DO to Get Yelp Reviews These Days – without a Public Shaming?

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For years Yelp has told business owners not to ask for reviews on Yelp.  Not that you shouldn’t ask only for positive reviews or tell customers what to say.  Not that you shouldn’t ply them with discounts or gift cards or other wampum.  You’re not supposed to ask for Yelp reviews, period. In practice, Yelp’s […]

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One Phone Number for Multiple Google My Business Pages: Can It Cause Problems?

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I tend to suggest using a different phone number for each location of your business, but exactly what’s the downside of using the same number on all of your Google My Business pages?  Google’s guidelines don’t tell you to use a location-specific phone number. “Merged” Google pages don’t seem to be a problem these days […]

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Q&A on BBB Customer Reviews: Not Just Another Unkempt Local Review Site

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Love or hate the Better Business Bureau, it’s one of the bigger sites to have dipped a couple toes in the greenish-brown pond of local business reviews.  In my experience it’s a great place to get reviews, as I’ve written. But the current local-reviews landscape is the Wild West.  The sheriff in TripAdvisorville seems to […]

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Moz Local Listings 15 Months after Cancelling: Where Are They Now?

About a year ago I wrapped up a simple test on Moz Local (the paid version): do Moz Local-controlled listings disappear if you cancel?  No, from what I can tell.  I had tracked the listings for for an ex-client, and 3 months after cancelling they were still up. I did that post in October of […]

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10 Underrated Local Review Sites You Overlooked

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You know about the big local-business review sites.  You know about the review sites that matter most in your industry.  You probably know about the pipsqueaks, too. But what about the review sites that matter more than you know?  Isn’t it possible there are some gaps in your online reputation? If there aren’t, I’ll eat […]

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Why Your Review-Encouragement Software Is a Meat Grinder

It’s tempting to sign up for a “reputation-management” or “review-generation” product and let it pester all your customers for a review – so you don’t have to take the time (or forget) to do it personally. Resist the temptation. At least until you’ve worked out more manually a review-encouragement strategy that works OK.  Otherwise all […]

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How to Feed the Google My Business Messaging Feature into Your Landline

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If you enable Google’s new “messaging” feature, customers who pull up your business in Google Maps can contact you via their favorite chat app.  Whether that’s a good thing for your business (or it drives you crazy) is for you to decide – maybe after a test drive. But let’s assume for a minute that […]

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Can’t Add a Google My Business Appointment URL? Try This Hack

In my last post I described what Google My Business “appointment” URLs are, and covered some facts and pointers worth knowing if you’d like to use one. But what if you don’t see in your Google My Business dashboard the option to add an appointment URL?  Turns out there’s a workaround. Based on what I’ve […]

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