Who Stretched Google’s Map?

Here’s a question that’s relevant to my post from last week on competitive-intel:

Which of your local-search competitors is most worth learning from?

One obvious answer would be, “Whoever’s #1, Sherlock.”

A lot of times I’d agree that – all other things being equal – you should probably pay more attention to the King of the Hill than to the Prince of the Pile.

But what I’d really want to know is: Who’s stretching Google’s map?

Dig that D-ranked lawyer.  Pretty much all the other attorneys in Jackson, TN are right in the middle of town.  If not for that one guy, the map would be centered on central Jackson.  But he causes the whole map to pull north – by 5 1/2 miles.

I’ve seen this kind of thing for years, and probably so have you.  Much ink has been spilled on the “distance” topic.  But yesterday a conversation in the Local U forum (worth joining, by the way) made me think about it in a new way.

Ben Walsh of Baseline SEO asked a great question about the “attorney Jackson TN” example I just showed.

Then Dana DiTomaso said something that I thought was brilliant:

Find out whatever D is doing – they’ve managed to drag the map which means that they’re doing something right.

(Joy Hawkins of Imprezzio coined the “stretch the map” term.)

Turns out that the attorney who stretches that particular map isn’t doing anything extraordinary.  On the one hand, he’s got clean citations, a page for every case type, a good homepage title tag, and no toxic links.  But on the other hand, he’s got no Google reviews, no noteworthy links, and he doesn’t seem to be listed on many attorney-specific sites.

But being solid on the fundamentals is usually all you need to rank pretty well – if not to stretch the map.

I’ve had clients in that nice position, and I’ve had clients up against stretchy competitors.

Pay attention to businesses that stretch the map (in your market and in others).  They’re easy enough to spot.

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Hijacking Google’s Local Knowledge Graph

I was just going about my business, monkeying around in the local results.  Then something caught my eye:

Given that Google just started testing green review stars, I could only draw 2 conclusions:

1.  Google must think it’s St. Patrick’s Day, OR

2.  I just stumbled across a crafty business owner.

Looks like it’s the latter.  Here’s what I saw when I clicked on the green-bordered photo in the knowledge graph:

Kind of stands out in that local carousel, doesn’t it?

I finally check out the business’s Google Places page.  Doesn’t even have a profile photo.  Our lucky green photo was simply the first and only one uploaded under the “Photos” tab.

Yup, it’s just a photo with a border around it.  Not a layout change or pay-to-play scheme that Google’s testing.

As I’ve written, I’m convinced that user-engagement factors – especially how many people click on your listing – affect your rankings.  What if people search for one business by name and immediately search for another by name (which is what a click on a “People also search for” image does)?

If I’m Big Brother Google and I’m looking at who clicks where so that I can figure out which search results are relevant, I might give an edge to the 2nd business.

Should you go as far as a fat, lime-green border on your photo(s)?  Probably not.  Just consider dolling up your photos a little, so they look good in that “People also search for” section.

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7 Mental Traps That Keep Businesses Down in the Local Rankings

Yes, it’s tough to build a site that’s more than an online paperweight, and improve your rankings, and get reviews, and so forth.  If you’re not visible in Google Places and beyond but you’re trying, at least you’re headed in the right direction.

But many business owners talk themselves into not doing enough to get the customers they need.  They hurt themselves with weak excuses.

You don’t want be one of those people.

I’ve heard every excuse you can shake a stick at.  They all seem to fall into at least one of seven categories.

 

Mental Trap 7:  “I can’t handle too much business.”

Not the worst problem to have, is it?  But I’ve got a few possible solutions:

Pay someone $10 / hour to answer the calls and fill up your calendar.  (And read Perry’s book.)

Or turn away some customers.

Or raise your rates.

Or work out a referral deal in which you refer customers to someone else and get to wet your beak.

 

Mental Trap 6:  “I don’t have the time to learn about Google.”

Then pay someone to help.

 

Mental Trap 5:  “I don’t have the money.”

Then spend a little time learning how to improve your visibility yourself.

Don’t have time or money?  Well, you can’t get something for nothing, so get creative – like by drafting your family into doing some of the work.

 

Mental Trap 4:  “I’m already spending a fortune on advertising.”

Do you want to continue spending a fortune on ads?  There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as your ads attract people who eventually convert and become customers.  If I hand the bank teller $1 and she hands me back $5, I don’t say, “Hey, I don’t like spending all this money.”  No – I stick my arms between the couch cushions to find every penny and quarter that I can turn into a dollar that I can turn into $5 at the bank.

Or if the advertising isn’t effective, then stop the madness at once and work on your free visibility in Google Places and elsewhere.

 

Mental Trap 3:  “How do I know I’ll actually get visible?”

Depends on how realistic your goals are:

If you’re trying to get visible in a city your business isn’t located in or very near, I’ll tell you right now that your chances aren’t good.  Location matters.  In this case, you should add paid options, like AdWords, to your arsenal.

If you’re in a cutthroat local market, like for “Los Angeles divorce lawyers” or “New York City jewelry,” you can get highly visible if you really want to.  But you’ll have to find a way to stand out, and it’ll take longer.

But if you’re in a “normal” market but just aren’t ranking well, a little time or money can take you far.

 

Mental Trap 2:  “I’m not good with computers.”

You don’t have to be. (Re-read answer to Excuse #6: have someone else do it.)

 

Public Enemy #1:  “Now isn’t a good time.”

When is a good time?  When business is good, you’re busy with customers and day-to-day upkeep.  When business is slow, you’re busy scrambling for customers.

Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and you’ll get what you’ve been getting.

Is your local visibility what you’d like it to be?  Why – or why not?

What’s a mental trap you’ve been in?

Leave a comment!

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Easter Egg (Diehards Only)

If you’re reading this on Easter Sunday, you’re a total diehard reader here.  I’m flattered.  Thanks.

I won’t tweet this post, or share it on Google+, or mention it in an email.  I don’t expect this one will get much “social” buzz.  (In fact, I’d be interested in knowing how you discovered it.)

Anyway, what’s the “Easter Egg” you dug up today?  A simple offer:

I’ll do a free quick 3-point critique of your local visibility or site.  Nothing in-depth.  Just 3 quick suggestions you can put to work today.

What’s in it for me?  For one thing, the more I know about who pays extremely close attention here, the better I can wrote posts that tackle your problems.  It’s those posts that have got my blog this far.

I digress.

To take me up on my offer, just email me with “Easter Egg” in the subject line, and tell me how to find your business.  Feel free to leave a comment on this post along the way.

By the way, my offer hops back to Easter Bunny Land as soon as my clock strikes midnight and it’s April 21.  (Sorry if you’re late.)

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Locus Pocus

What’s with the name?  It’s a portmanteau of local and hocus pocus.

Just my way of referring to semi-common local SEO practices that I think are superstition.

We talked about “Local SEO Myths” in 2013.  But there’s even more to say.  In that post, I and other local-search geeks focused on myths that lead business owners way off-track.

Now I’d like to talk about what I see as practices that just waste time and effort.  They won’t kill you, but I can’t say they’ll help you.

Probably worth emphasizing now rather than later that this post is my opinion.  It’s based on a big ugly pile of first-hand experience.  But it’s still an opinion.  Let’s argue in the comments.

OK, now that my lawyer’s meticulously worded disclaimer is out of the way…

There are the local-rankings factors I’ve seen move the needle for clients and others, time and time again.  I’m talking about things like accurate categories, consistent citations, many reviews, good title tags, and meaty sites.

Then there are the factors that may matter to your local rankings.  These are steps I usually suggest to clients, because they’re good to do even if they don’t help rankings in the slightest: using Schema markup for your NAP, picking good H2 tags, embedding a Google map on your site, adding lots of photos to your Google listing, etc.

And then there’s the Locus Pocus.

These practices have done little to deserve my wrath.  I’ll spare you my theories about why I don’t think they matter.

My best indictment of them is simply that in 5 years I haven’t seen a whit of evidence that they help your local rankings in Google or anywhere else.

Here’s the stuff I wouldn’t suggest spending any time on:

  • “Geotagging” photos.  Sure, pick relevant names for the files, and try to pick relevant alt tags when appropriate.  But metadata?  Fugettaboutit.
  • Including city names in the “keyword” fields on your various business listings.  If MerchantCircle asks you to stick 10 keywords in a box, put in 10 services you offer (and maybe their synonyms).
  • Getting hundreds of structured citations.  Lots of unstructured citations (e.g. newspaper mentions), great.
  • Giant blocks of text where you mention all the towns you serve.
  • Keyword tags.
  • Making cheapo slideshow videos and uploading them to every video site you can find.
  • Setting a large “Service Area” in your Google Places dashboard.
  • Putting your “target” city in the Google Places address field, for fear that you won’t rank well there if you enter your real city.  If you want any shot at ranking where you want to, you need to help Google understand where you’re really located.
  • Seeking that extra edge by trying to outsmart all the sites where you can list your business. Just five more little keywords in your description, writing just one review for your own business, etc. Thanks to Aaron Weiche for mentioning this point (below).

Maybe these practices aren’t so harmless after all.  Spending your time and energy on them and expecting results just means it’s longer before you’re visible in the local rankings.

Hat tip to Darren for weighing in on several of the points.

What have you found to be “locus pocus”?  Did you ever have some miraculous experience with any of the practices I mentioned?  Leave a comment!

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How NOT to Structure Your URLs for Local Rankings

Feast your eyes:

http://www.nickortizlaw.com/social-security-disability-and-ssi-claims/the-four-administrative-levels-of-review-in-a-social-security-disability-claim/appeals-council/what-happens-when-you-request-review-of-an-administrative-law-judges-hearing-decision/

Problem 1: 3 subdirectories (in this case, parent pages):

/social-security-disability-and-ssi-claims

/the-four-administrative-levels-of-review-in-a-social-security-disability-claim

/appeals-council

 

Problem 2:  The page name:

what-happens-when-you-request-review-of-an-administrative-law-judges-hearing-decision

Yep.  13 words.

 

Problem 3:  Most of the URL won’t show in the SERPs.

 

Problem 4.  Even if there was a gun pointed at your head, you couldn’t tell someone over the phone how to go directly to the page:

Go to NickOrtizlaw.com slash social dash security dash disability dash and dash ssi dash claims – yes, that’s “claims” with an “S” – slash THE dash four dash administrative…

 

Problem 5.  Your breadcrumbs might not improve the user-experience much:

 

The consequences?

Google won’t re-crawl your page until you’re wearing Depends.

And you know which page(s) will get penalized first, if and when Google revisits the question of how much on-page “optimization” is too much.

Keep it simple.  1 or at most 2 subdirectories.  Short names for those.  Short names for your pages, too.

Hat tip to Darren Shaw for telling me about that page and other good ones.

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What 8 Years of Pay-per-Click Has Taught Me about Local SEO

Most people don’t know I also help clients with pay-per-click advertising – mostly AdWords.

I’ve been doing PPC for longer than I’ve been monkeying around in local search – since mid-2006.

I’ve used it for some clients’ businesses, and for mine (early on).  My first clients and readers may recall clicking on an AdWords ad to find my waifish one-page site, around 2009-10.  That was the only way they could find it, for a time.  I’ve had skin in the game.  (If I couldn’t write ads, you might not be reading this.)

Why should you care about pay-per-click and me?  You shouldn’t.

But PPC and local SEO…now that’s a little more interesting and relevant to you.  They’re alike.  Different ballgames, sure.  But you can learn a lot about one from the other.

It’s useful to know how similar paid and local search are, especially if you rely on one form of visibility but want belt and suspenders.  Let’s say you do pretty well in the local rankings but want a foothold in the paid results – or vice versa.  You’ll want to know what strategies can help you in both places.

Here’s what many “Web years” of PPC has taught me about local SEO:

Basic truths

You need to stand out in some way.  Or else you’re wasting your time.  What is it about your little blob of pixels – your PPC ad or local search result – that makes customers want to click on it?

It takes time to become profitable.  In AdWords it takes weeks or months to test which keywords, ads, and landing pages bring home the most leads.  Any work you do on your local SEO also usually takes months to pay off.  Don’t start when you’re desperate.

You’re only as good as your website.  It doesn’t matter how many clicks you get or how you get them – paid or for free.  If you don’t get people to take the next little step, you’ve failed.

Simply reaching more people isn’t necessarily better.  Your first priority needs to be getting visible to the people who know what they’re looking for – not the tire-kickers.  Be visible for “transmission repair” before worrying about “mechanic” or “auto repair.”

There’s always room to improve.  A 21% click-through rate can become 23%.  If your rankings are as good as they can get, keep racking up reviews and adding useful content to your site.  As Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) once said, “If my competitor was drowning, I’d stick a hose down his throat.”

The 80/20 rule is king.  With PPC it’s more like 95/5: probably 5% of your keywords will bring you 95% of your leads, 95% of the progress you’ll make will result from spending time on that 5%, etc.  It’s less-pronounced with local SEO, but still true: 80% of the citations you could get don’t matter much, 20% of the tune-ups you could make to your site affect your rankings, 20% of your customers will end up writing you a review, but those reviews are visible to 80% of the people who find you online…I could go on.

Strategy lessons

1 minute of extra work up-front saves you 2-3 minutes later on.  Don’t want to build separate adgroups or landing pages for each of the specific services you’re advertising?  Just want to launch?  Fine, but you’ll be overpaying for clicks – at best.  More likely, you won’t get any phone calls and will have to restructure anyway to revive your campaign.  It’s similar with local SEO.  For example, if you don’t fix your listings at the main data-providers, you’ll have a never-ending amount of clean-up to do on your citations.

You pay for ego.  If your ad must be #1, expect to pay twice what ad #2 costs.  If you’re ranked #2 in the local results and you think you can move up that one slot just by making quick tweaks, you may lose that #2 spot.  You’ve just got to grind some more.

Your landing pages need to be “local.”  If people can’t tell that you serve their region both before and after they click, they’re probably hitting the “back” button.

Bing is tiny by comparison.  Do not spend as much time on it as on Google.

Constant tinkering is unwise.  In PPC you need to let your ads run head-to-head until you’ve concluded statistically that one ad pulls better than the other.  To get visible in the local results you need to do a bunch of work and let the dust settle before you do more.

Change is constant.  Whenever Google rolls out something like enhanced campaigns in AdWords or the “new” Places dashboard, you can’t be in the dark. 

Hard knocks


You play by Google’s rules.  If you don’t want to, that’s your call, but nobody at Google will field complaints like, “But that’s where all my customers find me!”

It can be good, cheap, or fast.  Pick any two.  In the case of PPC it can only be so cheap.  In the case of local SEO it can only be so fast.

You should learn a little about how your paid or free visibility works.  Or be vulnerable – vulnerable to people who know more than you do, but who can’t or won’t do a good job for you.  For PPC I suggest learning from Perry Marshall, Howie Jacobson, and Brad Geddes.  Unless this is the first post of mine you’ve read, you probably know who I recommend for local search.

It’s dangerous to rely on one form of visibility.  PPC and local SEO can also make one heck of a combination.

Many business owners only see the obvious costs – the costs per-click, or what a local-search pro charges to help.  They aren’t as good at crunching the costs of missed opportunities, or the costs of relying on other ways to get visibility and leads, or the costs of hiring the lowest bidder.

Too many business owners fixate on the click.  Not as much on what happens after the click.  Do you say at the very top of the page what services you offer, and what you don’t offer?  Is it clear how potential customers can find the other pages they might want to see?  Is it impossible to miss your contact info?  If they don’t want to pick up the phone today, can people stay in touch by leaving their name and email – and are you giving them a good reason to?

Pep rally

Many or most or all of your competitors suck.  They don’t know about split-tests or negative keywords, or they don’t know about local citations or even Google’s rules.  To the extent they may (temporarily?) be more visible than you, it’s despite their actions or inactions, not because of them.

Many business owners would sooner pay out the nose than spend a little time learning.  If you invest that bit of time, you can take the reins if you need to, or better ensure that your PPC helper brings his/her A-game.

The Big Boys only get the basics right.  They leave opportunities open.

There’s often a point when less work is needed month to month.  The business owner can (and maybe should) ease into learning the ropes, and managing the campaign and not feel overwhelmed.

You win whenever you use your antennae.  If you’re always trying to understand your customers better, you’ll know what they want to see in the search results and on your site.

Where do you see overlap between PPC and local search?  Big differences?  Leave a comment!

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Local SEO Hotseat: My Talk at the Worcester Web Marketers Meet-up

Just wanted to share my presentation from last night’s gathering of the Worcester Web Marketers group. Here you are, Gentle Reader:

Thanks to Anthony Fors of Absolute Clean for volunteering for the “hotseat,” to Ted Ives and everyone else for the great questions and conversation, and most of all to Dan Shure for putting on an awesome event.

I hope you’ll come to the next one if you’re in Massachusetts in March / April.

Any questions or thoughts on the “hotseat”?  Leave a comment!

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“Can I Get a Temporary Location to Rank in Google Local Search?”

A client of mine asked me a great question the other day:

He owns a water-damage-restoration service in the part of Colorado that’s had major flooding.  He wanted to know to what extent he could get visible in the Google+ Local (AKA Google Places) results in one of the hardest-hit cities – Boulder – using a temporary business location.

My client – let’s call him Pat – phrased the question this way:

“We had a lot of flooding here and we have been busy.  I am going to open another temporary location in Boulder and I wonder if that is an opportunity to get on the Google maps?”

Here was my quick response:

“Getting visible in Google+ Local there might be a stretch, just because it usually takes at least a couple of months to get anywhere in local search.  If you do want to go that route, I’d suggest whipping together a landing page specifically for Boulder, renting a real office (not a PO or UPS box), and using that landing page and address for Google+ Local.  Depending on how much you want to invest in it, how long you’d want to be in town, and whether there’s any chance that location would ever become permanent, you might also want to get the basic citations squared away or hook your Boulder location up to Yext.

“Again, the above isn’t surefire, but it’s what I’d suggest if you wanted to give Google+ Local (in Boulder) the old college try.  No matter what, I’d definitely suggest doing a Boulder page on your site and running AdWords.”

Google is fine with your using a location that you won’t necessarily use for the long-term provided you aren’t breaking the rules, like by using a fake address.  In that sense, you can get visible on the “local map” with a temporary location.

The bigger question is: will you rank well locally?  As you probably know, it usually takes months.  It really just comes down to how many local competitors there are who offer what you offer.  If there are lots of more-established businesses in the area, don’t expect much.  On the other hand, if you’re offering a semi-niche emergency-related service, the bar may be pretty low.

So if you play by the rules and have a good reason for using a temporary location – like that you’re serving a disaster area – then I say go forth and hang your shingle.  But don’t have lofty expectations, and definitely do have other sources of visibility.

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How to Get Good Karma at LocalVisibilitySystem

What other people share with me is the lifeblood of this blog/site, and of my business.

To whatever extent I’ve been able to help business owners and contribute to the local-search “community,” it’s been because of others’ questions, ideas, and suggestions.  They get me to think and to act.

Whether you’re new here, or you’ve read every post I’ve done, or you’ve been on my email list since 2009, or you’re a client, there are many ways to win brownie-points with me.

If you’re inclined to do any of the following, I’d be most appreciative:

  • Give me a fresh idea for a blog post.  (Though I’m already up to the ears in ideas!)
  • Tell me how to improve an evergreen post (like this or this).
  • Let me know how I can improve this site.  (I’m only looking for big-picture suggestions – not “I think your logo should have a telescope instead of a lighthouse.”)
  • Ask me to test-drive a local SEO tool you’ve made.
  • Leave insightful and relevant comments or questions on my posts.
  • Describe for me in-detail a local-SEO “win” or “fail” you experienced.
  • Show or tell me something I may not already know about reviews.
  • Tell me about citation sources that I don’t already have on my Definitive Citations List.  (Note: I’m not looking for city-specific business directories.)
  • Describe to me a service you think I should offer, and why I should offer it.
  • Tell a business-owner friend of yours about any posts or other resources of mine that might help him or her.

I’ll reciprocate.

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