Local Business Schema.org Q&A: Tough Questions for David Deering

If you’ve wrestled with local SEO for more than a few days, you probably know what Schema.org markup is.  (And if you don’t, read this and this and loop back here.)

You probably have questions about how to use Schema on your site.  Me too.  That’s why I’ve turned again to structured-data ace David Deering of Touch Point Digital Marketing for answers.

As you might recall, he’s the guy who brought the insights to my recent post on Schema.  In fact, it was his answers in the comments on that post that reminded me how many questions I and other people still have.  (By the way, I suggest you read that post first, if you haven’t already.)

Let’s launch into the Q&A on Schema:

 

Phil:  What sorts of businesses simply have no use for Schema markup on their sites?

David:  I honestly think that every business has a use for structured data markup.  The more that you can help search engines understand about your business, the better.

 

Phil:  What kinds of “local” businesses have the most to gain by spending a little time on Schema markup – and why?

David:  Any business that sells a product or a service.  So, I guess that would more or less describe every local business, really.

 

Phil:  As you know, I’ve said that one’s name / address / phone info is the by far the most important thing to mark up with Schema.  What else – if anything – should the typical business mark up?

David:  Marking up the NAP is a great start, but it’s only the start.  It tells search engines where you’re located, but it doesn’t tell them anything about what you do.  So, I think that every local business should mark up what exactly they do or sell, whether it’s a product or a service.  The more you can mark up and spell out for search engines, the better.

 

Phil:  Multiple locations’ NAP info on the same page: is that a problem, not a problem, or doesn’t matter?

David:  It’s not a problem at all.  Schema.org has a means to handle situations like that.  If a business has one or even several additional locations, you can use the “branchOf” or “subOrganization” properties to mark up each unique location.  The key is to use a separate LocalBusiness schema type for each location.

 

Phil:  Besides marking up NAP with Schema, what’s your advice to most “local” business owners?

David:  Most local businesses only mark up their NAP, if anything at all, and that’s a huge mistake in my opinion.  Not to sound like a broken record, but if you sell anything or offer any type of service, you can and should mark that up as well.  By getting as specific as you can with your markups, you help search engines get a clear picture about what you offer, which can only help you.  You can either spell it all out for them, or you can hope they understand what you do and sell.  Obviously, it’s better to give them all of the information on a silver platter, which is what structured data markups can help you do.  But it’s a golden opportunity that most businesses aren’t taking advantage of.

 

Phil:  Are there any ways business owners can use Schema to influence what shows up in the Knowledge Graph for their business?

David:  In itself, Schema markup won’t help a business’ information appear in the Knowledge Graph panel.  Google uses a number of authoritative sources to gather the information that’s used in the Knowledge Graph.  Schema.org markup can help, but Freebase, Wikipedia, and Google+ pages all play an even larger role.

 

Phil:  What type(s) of Schema do you deal with most often?

David:  Besides the typical NAP markup and product markups, most local businesses are interested in getting help with the rating markup, because it can generate those much sought-after stars in search results.  Unfortunately, most do-it-yourselfers do it incorrectly and their markup has either technical errors or it doesn’t meet Google’s guidelines.

 

Phil:  Does a Productontology extension have to describe what your business is, or can it describe the main service a business offers?

For example, in the last post you mentioned that you can use http://schema.org/Dentist plus http://www.productontology.org/id/Pediatric_dentistry.  But “pediatric dentistry” doesn’t “tell” search engines what the practice itself is; pediatric dentistry is just the specialty of that dental office.

[If you didn’t get the question, read the post from June.]

David:  Productontology, which was created by a team led by Martin Hepp, was created primarily to be used for products, as the name implies.  And it can also be used to mark up services as well, since according to schema.org, a product can be tangible or intangible.  But Productontology can also be used to specify other Schema types, and so that’s why we can use it along with business type markups.

 

Phil:  Besides the Structured Data Testing Tool, what tools do you use for any Schema-related work?

David:  Another good tool to use is Yandex’s structured data validator, which can be found at http://webmaster.yandex.com/microtest.xml.  It’s a great tool to use in addition to Google’s, because Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool does not always pick up every markup error.

And speaking of Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool, I should mention something very important that many people don’t realize:  Just because you don’t see any error messages after testing your markup does not mean that your markup is error-free, it doesn’t mean that it meets Google’s guidelines for rich snippets, and it’s no guarantee that your rich snippets will appear in the SERPs.  The testing tool is a nice tool to use, but it’s a basic tool, and it’s not designed to catch all technical errors and it definitely won’t tell you whether or not your markup meets Google’s guidelines.  I use Google’s testing tool all the time because it is very helpful, but again, it’s just a basic tool.  Don’t take the results as law.

 

Phil:  What’s the most common mistake people make in their markup?

David:  Most mistakes I see in markups are related to improper nesting and the improper use of various properties.  Schema.org does include example markups for most of the markup types that local businesses would normally use, so it’s a good idea to try to follow those examples.  I’d recommend creating the markup first, testing it out to make sure it’s good, then implement it on the site.  Doing that can save a lot of time and headache.

 

Phil:  In what ways do some businesses use Schema as a spam technique?

David:  Well, because those rating stars are so desirable to have in the SERPs, some less-than-ethical businesses make up fake reviews and ratings and mark them up.  Google has gotten better at sniffing those out, and most of those sites end up losing their rich snippets or never get them at all.

I’ve seen other spam techniques, such as using the recipe markup for a product in order to get an image in the SERPs.  But doing things like that isn’t worth it.  Google can and will take manual action against a site that is being deceitful with their markups, and regaining their trust will be a long, hard road.  So it’s best to stick to being ethical with things.

Even if you don’t get rich snippets right now, your markups are still valuable because they help search engines understand your content much better.  If you do get rich snippets, well that’s just an added bonus.

 

 

Phil:  Some people are concerned that if they botch up their Schema markup, Google will penalize them.  How accurate is that?

David:  Personally, I’ve never seen a site get penalized for using a markup with errors.  However, if Google believes that a site is attempting to manipulate things and is being deceitful with their markups, they will take action against that site.  But for the most part, if a markup has errors, Google simply will not be able to understand it or use it.

 

Phil:  Many people think everything Google does is a grab for users’ data, and ultimately an effort to make more money off of ads.  (Often I’m one of those people.)  Just for the sake of argument, what role do you think Schema would play in that “scheme”?

David:  Some people believe that by marking up their content with structured data, it’ll make it easier for Google to “steal” their information and use it in the Knowledge Graph panel to answer questions, which in turn eliminates the need for users to visit the site.

But not all of the webpages that Google pulls information from for Knowledge Graph answers are marked up with structured data.  However, when Google does pull information from a webpage, it’s because it considers the website and page as having some authority on the topic, and it always links to the page.  So, if Google views a website and webpage as having topical authority, well that’s definitely a good thing.  And there’s also a good chance that users will click on the link to find out more, because Google can provide only so much information in the Knowledge Graph panel.

It’s also been said that Google wants to go from being a search engine to an answer engine.  By marking up your content, you help Google understand your content that much better, which in turn helps your webpages become “the answer” to relevant search queries.

 

Phil:  What advice do you have for webmasters and SEOs?

David:  Mark up as much content as you can.  Make everything as clear as possible to search engines regarding what you do, sell, offer, or have written about.

You may or may not get rich snippets for your markups right now, but the real value of the markups is that they help make things much clearer for search engines.  Google and the others love structured data and want us to use it, so feed them what they love.  And we all know how quickly Google changes things in the SERPs.  One day nothing, the next day the local carousel, this new rich snippet, that new feature in the Knowledge Graph panel.   We never know what Google is going to do or what new feature they’re going to add, but if you’ve marked up your site as thoroughly as possible with structured data, you’ll be in position to benefit from whatever happens next.

 

Phil:  Besides the Google Webmaster Forum and Schema.org’s confusing documentation, what are some resources you’d suggest?

David:  There’s a great semantic search marketing community on Google+.  There are also a lot of very smart and helpful people in the structured data community, such as Aaron Bradley, Jarno van Driel, Martin Hepp and Thad Guidry, among several others.  And of course, if you’re going to use structured data markups on your site, you want to be sure to go over Google’s guidelines for your particular markups so that they can qualify for rich snippets.

Thanks to David, once again.  If you don’t want to wrangle with Schema yourself, contact him.

Any questions or stray thoughts?  Leave a comment!

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How to Pick (or Improvise) the Right Schema.org Markup for Your Local Business

This one’s going to take a little ramp-up.  Hang with me.

What’s Schema?

Schema.org is a type of markup for your site that Google, Bing, and Yahoo promote.

The idea is it helps you tell search engines exactly what a specific piece of content on your site is.  For example, you’d use different Schema if you want to announce, “Here’s my business’s name, address, and phone number,” or “Here’s a customer testimonial, or “Look – a video.”

Some SEOs say Schema in general makes a big difference for your rankings.  I’m not one of them; I suspect it can help a little.  So let’s assume it helps a little.

How do you use it?

What is Schema’s role on your site, if your main goal is to get visible in Google Places and beyond?

For me, its main use is to highlight your basic business info – your “NAP” (name, address, phone number), which should be on every page of your site.

In some cases I also use it to mark up testimonials.  (Here’s a good post on that.)

But for now let’s just talk about using Schema on your all-important NAP info.  It usually looks like this in your code:

<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/LocalBusiness”>
<span itemprop=”name”>Local Visibility System, LLC</span>
<div itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<span itemprop=”streetAddress”>86 Richards Ave</span>
<span itemprop=”addressLocality”>North Attleboro</span>,
<span itemprop=”addressRegion”>MA</span>
<span itemprop=”postalCode”>02760</span>
</div>
<span itemprop=”telephone”>(508) 308-4040</span>
</div>

And as you may know, you can use a free Schema generator to create a blob of Schema for your business – like MicrodataGenerator.com or Raven Tools’ generator.  (In fact, I suggest you use a tool to do it.)

The problem: vague “itemtype”

Notice that first line.  In your blob of Schema, it probably reads:

<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/LocalBusiness“>

“Local Business” is vague.  All that tells Google & co. is that you’re not Amazon or Nike.

You should not settle for that lame “LocalBusiness” itemtype in your Schema name / address / phone blob: Either there’s an itemtype (AKA Schema) that’s specific to your business, or you can improvise one (more on this in a minute).

First, try to find a Schema that describes your business.  For example, http://schema.org/Dentist or https://schema.org/AccountingService.

That might be easy if you used MicrodataGenerator.com to generate your NAP blob.  There, you may have seen some common types of businesses:

 

If one of those categories describes your business accurately, no need to read on.  If that’s the case, go to MicrodataGenerator, select the specific Schema that describes your business (pictured above), generate your NAP blob, put it on your site, and pour yourself a cold one.

Find the right itemtype / Schema here

You’re probably 90% of the way to the perfect Schema NAP blob.  Again, the only blemish is that first line – with “LocalBusiness” in it:

<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/LocalBusiness“>

All we’re trying to do is figure out what to put in that line instead of “LocalBusiness.”  We’re literally looking for one word.  Once we find it, you can make the swap and then stick that whole NAP block on every page of your site.

Finding the right itemtype was tricky – until now.

That’s why first I scraped Moz Local’s huge list of local-business categories.  (You’ll see these under “Category Research” if you’re logged into your free or paid Moz account.)

Then I cleaned up the list.  There was a lot of junk and repetition.  I cut it down to the realistic categories – the ones that might conceivably describe your business.

Then I asked structured-data markup expert David Deering for help.  He’s a Level 10 contributor at the Google Webmaster Forum, where he answers markup questions every day.  He knows Schema like I know Judas Priest songs.

David looked at The List and found the right Schema for each category.

The result?  You can open up this spreadsheet (on Google Drive) and scroll through it to find your type of business and the corresponding Schema / itemtype.

Now look in the right-hand column and grab the single word that comes after the http://schema.org/ part.  That’s what you’ll want to replace “LocalBusiness” with in your Schema blob.

Let’s say you were doing this for my business.  And let’s say I retired from the local-search biz and opened my very own beauty parlor.

Where I used to have “LocalBusiness” in that very first line, I’d put “HealthAndBeautyBusiness” instead.

<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/HealthAndBeautyBusiness“>
<span itemprop=”name”>Face By Phil</span>
<div itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<span itemprop=”streetAddress”>86 Richards Ave</span>
<span itemprop=”addressLocality”>North Attleboro</span>,
<span itemprop=”addressRegion”>MA</span>
<span itemprop=”postalCode”>02760</span>
</div>
<span itemprop=”telephone”>(508) 308-4040</span>
</div>

Fix that one line of code, and then put that whole blob of code (like the above) on every page of your site.  You’re done here.

But what if you still don’t find an accurate Schema?

That’s what I asked David after he sent me The List.  What if the geeks at Schema.org left your type of businesses out in the cold?

Can you still use Schema to “tell” Google & co. exactly what kind of business you’ve got?

Or what if you don’t think your type of Schema is specific enough (like if you’re a pediatric dentist and don’t want to settle for the broad “Dentist” Schema)?

You’re in luck.  And the workaround should take you less than 5 minutes, if you carefully read this bit of explanation from David

(I put the extra-important parts in italics.)

Use an additional ontology called Productontology (productontology.org).  This is great to use to specify products and even services, but it can also be used to help extend other schemas to get more specific.

In simple terms, the process involves finding the matching entity in Wikipedia and then creating a URI with Productontology.  So let’s take for example a deli.  There is no exact schema type for a deli.  So we have to use http://schema.org/FoodEstablishment.  But since that’s not very specific, we should pull in the use of Productontology.

So first, we go to Wikipedia and find the page for Deli: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delicatessen.

Now we have to turn it into a Productontology URI.  A Productontology URI begins with http://www.productontology.org/id/.  We take the last part of the Wiki URL, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delicatessen, and add it to the Productontology URI.

So the full Productontology URI for a deli becomes http://www.productontology.org/id/Delicatessen.

Next, we have to add it to the markup.  In order to do that, we have to use the “additionalType” property.  So, the markup for a deli would look something like this:

<div itemscope itemtype=“http://schema.org/FoodEstablishment”>
<link itemprop=”additionalType” href=“http://www.productontology.org/id/Delicatessen”
 />
<span itemprop=”name”>Name of Deli</span>

<div itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=“http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<span itemprop=”streetAddress”>100 Main St.</span>
<span itemprop=”addressLocality”>New York</span>,
<span itemprop=”addressRegion”>NY</span>
<span itemprop=”postalCode”>12345</span>
</div>
<span itemprop=”telephone”>(555) 123-4567</span>
</div>

Of course, more properties could be added to the above markup, but it’s just a rough example of how the “additionalType” property along with a Productontology URI can be used to help extend schemas and specify schema business types much better.

-David

So…remember a minute ago how if you found your type of business in the big spreadsheet, you just had to tweak that 1st line of code?  Well, if you didn’t find your type of business in the spreadsheet, what you’ll have to do is tweak that one line plus add an additional line to your Schema NAP blob.

Example time.  Let’s revisit my “Face By Phil” example.  (Don’t worry – it’s still fictional.)  Let’s say I didn’t run just any old beauty parlor, but specialized in laser hair removal.  I’d want Google to know that, so I’d want my Schema to make that point clear.  Here’s what my NAP code would look like:

<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/HealthAndBeautyBusiness“>
<link itemprop=”additionalType” href=”http://www.productontology.org/doc/Laser_hair_removal” />
<span itemprop=”name”>Face By Phil</span>
<div itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<span itemprop=”streetAddress”>86 Richards Ave</span>
<span itemprop=”addressLocality”>North Attleboro</span>,
<span itemprop=”addressRegion”>MA</span>
<span itemprop=”postalCode”>02760</span>
</div>
<span itemprop=”telephone”>(508) 308-4040</span>
</div>

As you can see, you’re only customizing the parts in green – although it would be smart to change both URLs completely, so you don’t make any typos.

Examples of Schema + Productontology

Here are some examples of the info you’d use to customize those two lines:

Dermatologist:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/Physician

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Dermatology

Fertility clinic:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/MedicalClinic

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Fertility_clinic

Funeral home:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/LocalBusiness

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Funeral_home

Graphic designer:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/ProfessionalService

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Graphic_designer

Home inspector:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/ProfessionalService

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Home_inspection

Kennel:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/LocalBusiness

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Kennel

Landscape architect:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/ProfessionalService

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Landscape_architect

Laser hair removal service:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/HealthAndBeautyBusiness

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Laser_hair_removal

Magician:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/EntertainmentBusiness

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Magician

Music school:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/School

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Music_school

Pediatric dentist:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/Dentist

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Pediatric_dentistry

Personal Trainer:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/HealthAndBeautyBusiness

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Personal_trainer

Resort:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/TouristAttraction

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Resort

Tailor:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/ProfessionalService

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Tailor

Wedding photographer:

Use in 1st line:  http://schema.org/ProfessionalService

Use in 2nd line:  http://www.productontology.org/id/Wedding_photography

Got the perfect Schema NAP for your site yet?  If you’re still stumped, feel free to leave a comment.

Or if you’d rather let someone else mess with it, contact David.  He offers all kinds of markup services, and has worked with small / local sites as well as with national brands.  This post wouldn’t have been possible without his know-how.  Oh, and follow him on Google+.

(By the way, here’s the spreadsheet again.)

This is the rare post where it takes longer to explain the step than to do the step.  But getting the right Schema should be a quick one-time deal for your business, and it may give you that extra little edge in the local results.

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The Dark Side of Local SEO

Visibility in the local rankings is a good thing.  If I didn’t think so, I’d do something else for a living.  And if you didn’t think so, you wouldn’t be reading this :)

But even high rankings in Google Places and beyond can create side-effects you didn’t expect.

Most business owners won’t experience that mostly-good problem.  Even the with-it ones who actually try will do a faceplant along the way.  Google is fickle, the rest of local search won’t stay still, and the world is a competitive place.

I’m trying to answer a different question:

“Do only good things happen when your local SEO works?”

Not always.

The point of this post is to help you get more out of your local visibility – however much you get and whenever you get it – and to help you stay visible.

Here are 10 unintended results of successful local SEO that you need to avoid:

Possibility 1:  You think you’re done.  Your let your citations get messy, or your site won’t grow from one year to the next, or you get lazy about encouraging reviews.  Or you may think Google and other local-search players are known quantities and don’t change.  Next thing you know, you’re face-down in the mud with arrows in your back.

Possibility 2:  The opposite of #1: greed, or death by tinkering.  You get some nice rankings, but don’t know what to do next.  So you mess with your title tags, or page names, or maybe you try to get a more-keyword-rich domain name.  Then…whoops.

Possibility 3:  You think you’ve figured it all out.  I wrangle with all things local search all day, every day.  I have as many questions as anyone.  Sure, the basic steps can be straightforward.  But the devil is in the details – and in the execution.

Possibility 4:  You have plenty of visibility but not enough calls.  Probably a result of not enough or good enough reviews, a Google page that isn’t sticky, and a site that isn’t sticky.

Possibility 5:  You think you’ve maxed out your traffic just because your local rankings are tip-top.  That’s what happens when you don’t see local SEO as an effort that can buy you time and resources that you can reinvest into other traffic sources – like AdWords, blogging, and good ol’ RCS.

Possibility 6:  You become so dependent on Google Places visibility that you panic when (not if) it takes dips.  How deep and long those dips are depends on whether you start blindly tinkering, or you instead figure out what you’re already doing well so you can find the areas where you can improve.

Possibility 7:  You give credit to the wrong actions or people.  Let’s say your rankings are rock-solid, then your local SEO helpers correct 5 of your citations, then the next day your rankings drop.  That sure looks bad – but those citations are not what hurt your rankings, so don’t start saying, “Well, citations are just a bad idea.”  Or maybe you replace your longtime local-search person for one you think will do a better job – and a week later your rankings go up.  Don’t just assume it’s because of the 2nd person.

Possibility 8:  You think that local SEO is a verb – one specific thing to do.  It’s not.  It’s a bunch of little steps - and a lot of moving parts.  Some of them – many of the most-important steps – must involve you personally.  If you don’t realize all that goes into a successful local SEO effort, any success you have is probably a result of luck, and may not last long.

Possibility 9:  You grow too reliant on new customers.  Which of these is easier: to find a total stranger who needs your help, or to reconnect with someone who’s already paid you to help?

Did I just convince you not to work on your local rankings?  I hope not.  They’re worth working on.


 
It’s simply that to stay visible and to get customers from that visibility you’ll also need to:

  • Learn at least a little – and keep learning.  Even if you’re not the “read the manual” type, at least understand the basic principles of what you’re paying people to help you with.  If those people suck, you don’t want to be taken for a ride.  If they’re good, you should be able to chime in with suggestions that might help them help you.
  • Don’t do anything only “for SEO.”  If something wouldn’t be a good idea to do for other reasons, it probably won’t help your rankings – and almost certainly won’t get you more phone calls.
  • Always think of stickiness.  Think of what customers want and expect to see – from when they Google your company by name, to when they’re on your site and trying to think of reasons not to hit the “back” button.
  • Develop sources of visibility other than local search.

What are some side-effects of successful local SEO that you’ve noticed?

How about ways to make sure that it plays nice and gentle-like with the rest of your marketing?

Leave a comment!

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Local Citation Cleanup Hack: Check BBB

This is one of the few posts I’ve done that’s probably more applicable if you’re a local SEO geek than if you’re a business owner.  But I hope it’s useful in either case.

As you probably know, having inconsistent NAP info floating around the Web can hurt your rankings (a lot).  You’ll need to correct those listings.  But first you need to find them.

That can be tricky if you’ve had different phone numbers, different addresses, different business names, and different websites.  For instance, you can’t always just Google the phone number and see all the listings you need to fix, because some of them might use other numbers.

Enter the Better Business Bureau.

Go to your BBB listing, if you have one.  (My favorite way is to type into Google “business name + BBB”.)

Then click on “View Additional Phone Numbers” and / or “View Additional Web Addresses.

 

You can’t copy and paste any phone numbers from the popup bubble, which is annoying.  You can just check the source code of the page and grab the phone numbers that way (if you find that easier than typing).

But wait – there’s more!  Scroll down the page.  You may see “Alternate Business Names” listed.

Checking the BBB page may tell you nothing you didn’t already know.  Or it may give you a list of past names, phone numbers, and website URLs that can help you unearth old citations that need fixing.

Either way, Gentle Reader, the real work has just begun.

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Your Google Places Landing Page: Homepage or City-Specific?

What should you put in the “Website” field of your Google Places page: the URL of your homepage, or of one of your location pages?  You know it can affect your rankings.  Which one do you pick?


 
I suggest you use your homepage as your landing page, whenever possible.

There’s debate over which page to use.  This great thread on Linda Buquet’s forum shows that.

It’s a trade-off:

On the one hand, the homepage URL (AKA root domain) usually has the most page-authority – from any links the site has earned.  Most of your links probably point there.

On the other hand, a location-specific page by definition does a better job of “targeting” (I hate that word) the city you’re in.  You’re talking about one city rather than several.

From what I’ve seen, the “authority” of the homepage seems to pack more punch for rankings.

Why?  As I mentioned, my best guess is that it’s because the homepage usually has the most link juice.  Or maybe it’s because most businesses’ “location” pages are thin on content or over-optimized – to the point that maybe Google dings them.  I don’t know.

What I do know is I’ve seen the homepage URL work time and time again for multi-location clients, and for business I stumble across “in the wild.”

I also know I’ve had a couple of clients whose rankings were nowhere until we switched the URL – on the Places page and in the citations.

I didn’t always err on the side of using the homepage as your landing page.  For a time, organic rankings and Google Places rankings could be mutually exclusive.  Google’s setup was such that if your homepage had a page-one organic ranking, and then you used your homepage as the landing page for Google Places, you’d lose your organic ranking if you started ranking in the Google Places “7-pack.”

That’s not the case now – thank goodness.  At least at the moment, you can have your homepage rank organically and serve as your Google Places landing page.

You may have other concerns about using the homepage:

1.  You’d find it hard to make the homepage title tag relevant to multiple locations.

2.  You feel that having the name / address / phone (“NAP”) info for multiple locations on the same page might hurt rankings.

For the title tag, just do the best you can – in terms of getting city names in there.  In my experience, it’s more important to make sure your main service(s) are in the title tag; Google knows where you’re located.

Speaking of Google “knowing” where you’re located, I’ve never seen any bad effects from having multiple blobs of NAP info on the homepage.

One last thing I’d like to mention:

Please use your discretion.  If you’re ranking well already, you should probably leave well enough alone.  Don’t go changing your landing page URL everywhere if you’re #3 and want to move up a couple positions.

The best situation in which to take my advice is (1) if you’re just starting your local SEO effort, or (2) if you’re not ranking well and you feel like you’ve tried just about everything else.

What’s been your experience?  Which type of landing page has worked – or not worked – for you so far?  Leave a comment!

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How to Use Google Places Descriptors: Some Early Best-Practices

In February, Google started allowing you to add a “single descriptor” to your Google Places page – that is, a word or short phrase that isn’t part of your business name.

It’s a huge departure from Google’s old policy, which was that you must use your legal or “offline” business name.  There couldn’t be any embellishment.

For example, under the old rules, if your business was called “Jones & Jones,” that’s what you had to put in the “business name” field of your Google Places page.  Now, it could be “Jones & Jones Roofing” or “Jones & Jones Bankruptcy Law.”

This rule-change is 30% opportunity and 70% problem.  To dig into the implications, read this post by Mike Blumenthal, this thread on Linda Buquet’s forum, and watch minutes 44-49 of this MaxImpact (then watch the whole thing).

I’d like to focus on how I’d suggest using a “descriptor,” if you’re considering it.

Do NOT take any of this for gospel.  My pointers are based entirely on what I’ve observed with a handful of clients who’ve used descriptors over the past couple of months.

I’m also not saying you should or should not use a descriptor for your business.  That’s for you to decide.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • This is Google’s house.  Google’s rules.
  • The rules can (and probably will) change.
  • The rules are unclear.

Anyway, here are my personal descriptor dos and don’ts (in no particular order):

1.  Strongly consider adding a descriptor if there is a practical, non-SEO-related reason to do it.  For example, it’s probably worth trying if you have multiple locations you’d like to differentiate, or if the name of your Google Places is “Dr. John Doe,” or it simply gives no indication of what you do.  I guess don’t rule it out if rankings are your sole reason for adding a descriptor; just be more cautious (and paranoid).

2.  The fewer words, the better.  It’s true that Google is unclear about how many words constitute a “descriptor.”  But don’t assume it’s a free-for-all – or that you’d even benefit from stuffing in multiple words.

3.  Don’t change all your citations to match your tweaked Google Places name.  Google should be able to recognize that they all refer to the same business.  Also, if (when?) Google does another 180, you’ll want to avoid having to change all your citations again.

4.  Don’t keep messing with the descriptor.  No, it’s not set in stone.  But any change in rankings will probably take a couple of weeks to happen.  Also, for all we know, Google might penalize you for trying on 10 descriptors like they’re pairs of shoes.

5.  Put the descriptor at the end of your name.  Don’t perform surgery on your whole name by reshuffling the words.  That’s more likely to mess up your citation-consistency.

6.  Using your city name as the descriptor probably doesn’t make sense unless you’re multi-location.  Also, if you’ve done the proper work on your citations and you have your NAP on every page, Google almost certainly knows where you’re located.

7.  It should be a “keyword” or a city name, but not both.  That’s more likely to look spammy to Google.

8.  Do all the local SEO work you were going to do anyway – even if your rankings get a bump from the descriptor.  Otherwise your rankings are like Bill Murray’s character in Stripes before he joins the Army.

9.  First make sure your Google Places listing is live – findable when you search for it by name.  That gives you a baseline of where you are without the descriptor.  If your listing isn’t even publicly visible, you have no way of knowing what effect the descriptor might have.  And if you suspect a penalty, you also wouldn’t know what’s causing your listing to be penalized.

10.  If you have multiple locations, it’s probably not wise to use a “descriptor” for all of them at once.  See what happens when you try it for one or a couple of locations.  Dip your toes in the water.

11.  If you’re an SEO and you want to try the descriptor, ask your clients first!  Tell them the risks – even if they’re the ones who suggested it in the first place.

What’s been your experience with the “descriptor” so far?

What are your questions?  Concerns?

Leave a comment!

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How to Troubleshoot: Good Organic Rankings, No Google Places Rankings

Do you rank page-one in the organic results, but seem locked out of the Google Places (AKA Google+ Local) results?

If this situation looks something like yours…

…then you might have what I call “detached” local rankings.

In other words, you’ve got an organic ranking right above or right below the “7-pack,” and you’re wondering why you don’t also have a ranking in the 7-pack.

It used to very difficult to have both – long story – but now you usually can have the same page rank both organically and in Google Places.  (Emphasis on “usually”: something may be busted, or it may not even be possible in your case.)

It’s a common problem.  Business owners ask me about it all the time.

Here are what I’ve found to be the most-common explanations for why you may have good organic rankings but no Places / + Local / “7-pack” rankings:

Explanation 1:  Your business is too far from the city where you want the Places rankings.  There may be nothing you can do about this except to apply the best-practices I’m always harping on.

Explanation 2:  You show up in the Places results for other queries – just not the one you typed in.  This one’s complex: Why you’re showing up in Places for some queries but not others depends on factors like point #1, whether you include the city name in your search term, where you’re physically sitting when you’re searching, and how many local competitors you have.

Explanation 3:  Your Google listing has been penalized.  Make sure you’re kosher.

Explanation 4:  It’s too soon.  If you just created your Google Places page, just wait a couple weeks.

Explanation 5:  Your Google listing may have the wrong categories.

Explanation 6:  You may not be presenting your NAP info correctly on your site.

Explanation 7:  Your site may have no NAP info at all.

Explanation 8:  The “URL” or “website” field in your citations may be empty on some of your listings, or it may contain wrong or inconsistent URLs.

Explanation 9:  Your business may have no citations – or too few.

Explanation 10:  Duplicate Google Places listings.  Often these are caused by having messy citations.  (Hat tip to Linda for bringing up this point in her comment, below.  Also, check out this forum thread.)

Do you have any experience with “detached” rankings?  What worked for you?  Or do you have them now, and you’re stumped?  Leave a comment!

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Your Field Guide to “Barnacle” Local SEO

http://flic.kr/p/4ZqxrK

You know when you type in a local search term (like “auto repair”) into Google and you see a business’s Facebook page or Yelp page or YouTube video or channel (or even its YellowPages listing)?  Well, if your business has good rankings for one of those, you’ve just pulled off a bit of “barnacle” local SEO.

Will Scott coined the term “barnacle SEO” and explained the basic strategy back in 2008 (!).  It’s a clever but very doable strategy based on a fact you probably know already: that there are certain sites that Google consistently ranks really well for local searches.  It has favorites.

Of course, the Google+ Local and AdWords results take center stage.  But there are always the organic rankings.  A few of them belong to local businesses.  Most or all of the rest of them typically point to Facebook, YouTube, Yelp, CitySearch, even Yahoo, and other third-party sites.  In a way, you can mooch off their popularity (and the good job of SEO they do).

Your goal – as a humble barnacle – is to latch onto those big ships.  They can take you places.  There are a few ways to go about doing that.

I’m going to rattle off the approaches I’ve seen work for a few of my clients and for others.

(By the way, I’d like this to be an “evergreen” post.  So I’ll be adding strategies here as I discover more good ones.)

Let’s go over some basic strategy before getting into more-specific strategies:

 

Two species of barnacles

There are two basic types of barnacle local SEO:

(1) Get a given page for your business to rank well in the organic search results, or

(2) Be at the top of the rankings in a site that ranks well.

I like the example of Yelp:

So one opportunity is to get your business’s page in the organic results.  The other opportunity is to rank well within that high-ranking site’s search results (which, again, themselves rank visibly in Google).  Ideally you do both.

 

Three basic steps

The first step is just to have pages / accounts on all the sites that matter.  I’m talking about having basic and industry-specific citations.  And a local Facebook page for each location, and a YouTube channel with a few videos you created for your business, if at all possible.  Probably not news to you.

The second step is also pretty simple: Beef up those pages as much as possible.  First and foremost, pick every relevant category you can.  Add as much relevant “additional” info as you can: a short description, a long description, as many services as you’re allowed to mention, photos, etc.

The third step is the trickiest.  You have to activate each page (or listing, or profile, or whatever you want to call it).

I’m mostly referring to doing a combination of things with those pages: drumming up some followers / fans / shares, getting some reviews, and (to a lesser extent) getting a few links to those pages.

 

The best “ships”

Facebook

  • “Engage” with your customers and others.  I hate using that word, because it’s so clichéd.  I want to take a shower.  But I think it conveys my advice.  You want stuff on your page, you want people on your page, and you want the people to be consuming and commenting on and “liking” the stuff.  So my advice is to use your Facebook posts and the rest of your page not to talk about how great you think your company is, but to share useful info, even if it’s just an occasional morsel.  (Read this if you don’t know how to do that.)
  • Ask some customers to write you a Facebook review.  Yes, there is such a thing now.  (No, it’s not the same thing as a “like.”)
  • Link to your page whenever possible.  You probably already do so from your site, and that’s a good idea, as long as you have the link open into a new browser tab (you don’t want people leaving your site to see your Facebook page).  Also, many sites where you can get a citation ask you to specify your Facebook URL.  Do so.  Be on the lookout for other occasions to link to or get a link to your page, but don’t embark on some big link-building effort.

Yelp and other IYPs

  • Get reviews.  I talk all the time about how to do this, so I won’t dwell on it here.  I’ll just refer you to these posts:

Comparison of Local Review Sites: Where Should You Focus Now?

GetFiveStars Review-Encouragement Tool Goes from Good to Great

Get More Reviews without Becoming an Outlaw

  • Link to your more-important profiles.  Let’s say you’ve got some good HealthGrades reviews and you want HealthGrades to be your barnacle.  Link to it from your site, from the “Links” section of your  Google+ page (“personal” or non-local “business”), and wherever allowed on other listings of yours.
  • Get creative.  Let’s say you have a few microsites (tsk, tsk) and realize you shouldn’t link them to your main site.  Try linking them to one of those profiles – maybe use ol’ YellowPages as your test-dummy – and see what happens.
  • Encourage other activity.  Like check-ins, in the case of Yelp or FourSquare.  I wouldn’t put a lot of effort into this.  It also depends on your demographics.  But just see what you can do – how you can get customers to use your various pages.

YouTube

  • Name your video relevantly.  Yeah, that means there should be a keyword in there.  But it also means it should read smoothly.  If the video title sucks – if it’s written for Google and not for humans – nobody will click on it.  It needs to be catchy.
  • Feature them wherever possible.  Embed some videos on your site.  Upload them to your Google+ Local listing, if possible.  Link to them on your other local listings, where possible (many sites ask you for links to your videos).  Post them on Facebook, as appropriate.

Paid directories

  • Pony up.  You’ll have to use your discretion, of course.  Many paid listings aren’t worth it.  But depending on your local market, there may be a site in your industry that ranks well, and that might itself be a place where a lot of potential customers search.  If your more-visible competitors seem to be listed there (one way to see this is with the Local Citation Finder), consider throwing a few dollars at it in the name of science.

 

Great posts on barnacle local SEO

Barnacle SEO – Local Search Engine Optimization for The Sam’s Club Crowd – the great original post by Will Scott

Barnacle SEO for Local Search Success – Mary Bowling

Learning Local SEO from the Ones That Do It Best – Nyagoslav Zhekov

10 Tips For Using YouTube To Kill At Local SEO – Chris Silver Smith

What ships have you latched onto?  What are some “barnacle” strategies you think are worth trying?  Leave a comment! 

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Are Google Business Photos a Trust Factor for Your Local Rankings?

I’ve never known much about Google’s Business Photos program.  But it’s always sounded cool: If you have a bricks-and-mortar business location, you can pay a Google Trusted Photographer to come in and take photos that allow customers to take a virtual tour, right from your Google+ Local page.

Jeff Finkelstein’s great recent post on Moz stirred up a couple questions for me.  Jeff offers Google-approved photography to businesses in the Boulder, CO area.

Yesterday I emailed him a question:

I’m wondering how the process of your sending in the photos to Google ties in with their effort to verify a business’s info.

For instance, does Google make you fill out a form with the name, address, phone, etc. of a business, when you send in the photos you took of it?  Do they ask you to report any  inconsistencies you see (like if a business is using a fictitious DBA on its local listing, but another for its front sign)?

…Just to follow up on the question of whether Google might give a slight bump to businesses that hire a Google Trusted Photographer, to me it makes sense that a GTP would help verify the accuracy of a business’s listing info – which could help its rankings.

-Phil

Jeff kindly took the time to write back, and to give me a little peek behind the scenes:

Due to some of the huge amounts of paperwork that I did have to sign, I can’t verify a lot of the methods publicly.

But I can answer the question as it might pertain to me photographing a business location for you.

So, if you wanted to hire me (or another trusted Google Business Photographer), we would require the following in order to be able to create the panoramic (street view) photos:

1. You need to have a physical location for the business, where customers can go in and interact with your organization.  Home-based businesses are not able to be included in Google Business Photos.  We do make sure that the business address listed matches the Google + / local listing.  Especially so that we can go to the correct place to make the photographs!

2. We do need to get a written signature from the business owner, giving permission to Google to publish photographs of their business.  This does require the physical location of the business to be listed on the printed contract.

3. We are required to make sure that the photographs are positioned correctly in the world, so that maps and directions work properly.

-Jeff

My takeaway: you can’t really put fake business info on your local listing if a Google-approved photographer crawls around in the guts of your business and sends the endoscopy photos to Google.

My other takeaway: I wouldn’t rule out Google Business Photos as a factor that might help your rankings a little.  Jeff took a good swing at the question in his post, but we’ll probably never know for certain.  What we do know is the photography program is another “checkpoint” at which Google can make sure your online business info is accurate.  And as we’ve seen in areas like citations, the “trustworthiness” of your info matters probably more than anything.

Doesn’t really matter, though: getting professional photos taken of your business might be a nice way to appeal more to customers, and to get more calls out of whatever rankings you do already have.  My advice: contact a Trusted Photographer like Jeff and see what he/she can do.

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"Will Google Devalue Local Citations?" My Short Answer

Hendrik Vos of Online Business Builders asked me a great question yesterday:

“I wonder how far off 100% is the probability that Google eventually ends up treating all these manufactured citations/ links in the same way they did manufactured backlinks to websites.”

The question came up because of the giant post on citations I did on the Whitespark blog the other day.   It’s come up before.  Mike Blumenthal wrote a post on this question last year, and hit the nail on the head.

But because citations have been on my mind – and on others’ minds, apparently – I just thought I’d share my off-the-cuff reply to Hendrik:

“I’d say there’s about a 5% chance that will happen.  I say that for many reasons – but just to rattle off a few:

“First of all, there’s nothing sneaky or below-board about listing one’s business on a directory of businesses.  It’s not an attempt to “game” Google, partly because there are very tangible reasons to list your business on various IYPs: you want users of those sites to be able to find you, and you want reviewers on sites other than Google to be able to review you.  As opposed to link exchanges and the like, where the links have no purpose other than to try to puff up one’s rankings.

“Second, Google needs the data that’s on the most-important sites (where you can get citations).  It relies on them in order to populate its results.  Without them, Google’s local-business data would be incomplete at best, or – more likely – an absolute train-wreck.

“Third, most businesses have citations that their owners didn’t even build: They grow naturally over time.  The citations profiles of those businesses are usually indistinguishable from those of businesses for which someone has been proactively working on citations.

“If it sounds like I’m absolutely certain Google will never treat citations differently, you might be wondering: “Where does the 5% come in?”  Well, Google is full of surprises :)”

Your thoughts?  Leave a comment!

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