The High Cost of Thinking Your Local Search Visibility Is Free

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yxo/189594544/

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/15016964@N02/5919180598/

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.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifl/3877530270/

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.)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/84744710@N06/14766013011/

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!

Keep Your Site, Lose at Local SEO: When Must You Rebuild?

Can your camel’s back take any more straw?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/darkman-visions/203715793

Take care of your camel and it’ll take care of you.  Give it plenty of food and water, be its buddy, and don’t overwork it.  When your camel gets very old, don’t ask more of it.  One camel can only bring you through so many miles of desert.

Your business will only survive the harsh conditions of the “local map” if you take care of your website – and if you get a new one when it’s gone as far as it will go.

I asked some smart local-search buffs a simple question:

When do you need a new site to move up in the local search results?

They – Mike Blumenthal, Mary Bowling, Dana DiTomaso, Adam Dorfman, Greg Gifford, Joy Hawkins, Casey Meraz, David Mihm, Max Minzer, Mike Ramsey, Darren Shaw, Andrew Shotland, Gyi Tsakalakis, and Nyagoslav Zhekov – offered some practical insights.

(By the way, this post doesn’t deal with the question of when you need to get a new domain name because you’ve got so many bad links pointing to your site.)

Not sure whether your local SEO goals simply demand a new site?  Here’s what the pros say:

Mike Blumenthal
Blumenthal’s

Flash – instant nuking.

Content – in some industries like insurance I have seen sites that contained ONLY syndicated content that was the same across thousands of sites. This relates to the next point.

On-going updates – sometimes the CMS or architecture are either so bad that it becomes nearly impossible to update or the work requires very expensive intermediaries to update the site and grow the content. This both slows down basic work and makes on-going work extremely painful and expensive.

Design Failures – Sites that don’t convert due to major design and content flaws often need to be replaced.  What good does it do sending all kinds of visitors if when they get there, they can’t or won’t become customers.

 

Mary Bowling
MaryBowling.com

The main problem with a website that can prompt me to recommend a new one is when the bones of the site – its architecture and URL structure –  are crumbling or broken.

This often occurs when a website is created without sufficient consideration of current SEO and local SEO best practices and/or has been “frankensteined” over the years by tacking on content without sufficient attention to where it belongs within the site structure.

 

Dana DiTomaso
Kickpoint

The decision generally boils down to “can this site be a success when we drive a lot of traffic to it?” Does it match with the impression you want to give new visitors, or will it drive them away? Some reasons why we’ve needed to get a site redone in the past include:

  • The site is bad on mobile and the price difference between adding a mobile version and just redoing the site to be responsive is pretty similar.
  • You need to email your web designer every time you want to change the text. At some point it just adds up.
  • The code is so bad that you have big technical issues. For example, site searches are creating duplicate pages.
  • The site might not play well with social – for example, you can’t Open Graph tags so your pages look like crap when shared on social.

 

Adam Dorfman
SIM Partners

We typically don’t work with many SMBs, but here are three issues I have repeatedly seen large brands running into that warrants jettisoning the existing strategy and starting over.

  1. No or unidexable location pages. Even today it is not uncommon with large brands trying to rely exclusively on a locator or a set of pages iFramed into a locator.
  1. Duplicate content pages existing under each location. In most cases if a business is selling services nationally, the description of the service won’t change from location to location. Unfortunately coming across a site with 500 locations and 50,000+ pages of “local” content indexed still happens. Instead of having store.com/location1 link to store.com/location1/service and store.com/location2 link to store.com/location2/service have them link to store.com/service.
  1. Microsites instead of and/or in addition to location pages on a sub-directory or subdomain. There was a time when brands could utilize microsites to drive non-branded search traffic and conversions but with domain strength becoming a much more important signal after the Pigeon update, brands are almost always better off putting their location pages in a subdomain or subdirectory under their primary domain.

 

Greg Gifford
AutoRevo

I always suggest a site update when a site looks dated, or isn’t user friendly. Many times, that just means design/organizational changes, but sometimes you get in and see that they’re on some free site builder platform, or some kind of crappy CMS. At that point, it’s time to make a change.

We see auto dealers all the time who are on flat out awful CMS systems. It’s almost unbelievable – there are thousands of dealers on a major website provider that can’t even add a page to their website! They have to create the page in the CMS (and they can only edit the H1 and content), and then they have to submit a support ticket to have the provider add the page to the site. Typically, dealers don’t know any better, so the button name, H1, and title tag all say the exact same thing.

But – they’re either required by their manufacturer to use that system, or they just don’t know there’s a better solution out there. If you’re not able to add pages, or edit the important SEO elements on any page, it’s definitely time to blow up the site and start from scratch.

 

Joy Hawkins
Imprezzio Marketing

1.  The current site has no CMS – Without a CMS it makes it really hard for any marketing company to scale the amount of work they can do on a site. Since lots of SEO companies charge by the hour, this could leave business owners paying for several hours to do a really simple task.  Thus, it’s better for the business to pay to get a new site with a SEO-friendly CMS (like WordPress).

I had a tree service business that recently paid us to redo his site and this was the main reason why. Even adding something like a Google Analytics code was really time consuming because we had to manually add it to every page of his site. Adding a new page to his site was something we had to get a higher-level web design employee to do since it involved knowing how to build a page from scratch using HTML. So getting a new WordPress site was definitely in his better interests.

2.  The current site is not responsive and has a template/structure that is not easy to convert to make it responsive. I have had some quotes come back from our web design team where it would be cheaper to build a new site based on a template that is already responsive than it would be to take the existing site and make it responsive. Having a responsive site is becoming more and more important for SEO and also for having visitors convert into customers. I also always suggest this instead of having a separate mobile version of your site because responsive design fits to any screen size (not just phones) and also makes it so you only have 1 version of your site that you need to update on a regular basis instead of 2.

3.  The current theme is outdated.  I’ve had clients that are using old WordPress themes that aren’t updated and don’t work well with some of the newer versions of WordPress. I had one that even broke the entire homepage when it upgraded to WordPress 4.0. Having the latest version of WordPress is important to help keep your site from being vulnerable to the many hacks that you hear about which can cause Google to actually remove your site from their index (for malware).

4.  The current theme doesn’t support certain types of coding necessary for Local SEO. For example, I have had several clients who have a CMS and/or theme that removes all Schema markup the second you press to save the page. Something in either the theme/CMS removes or strips the code off the page the moment it’s saved. The same thing applies to adding a simple H1 or H2 header. I had this happen with a personal injury lawyer I worked with and also a private investigator.

5.  You need a new site due to a manual penalty or Penguin issues.  After seeking advice from a manual penalty expert, a dentist I just started working with was advised to get an entire new site. It wasn’t just the domain that needed to be changed but also the content on the entire site. We also renamed all the images and changed the hosting to make sure Google didn’t associate it at all with the old site. The old site had 2 different manual penalties and also had a massive traffic drop after Penguin 3.0 in October 2014. All due to some terrible backlinks he had acquired years ago.

 

Casey Meraz
Ethical SEO Consulting

First of all, you will get the most out of your investment if you pick a system that your SEO Consultants are experts with. So in some cases it may make sense to rebuild and restart when starting a new SEO project. Moving to a commonly available CMS will give you more options for expert advice moving forward.

Also this really depends on the investment. Website design and development costs can be expensive. If you are going to pay an SEO on a monthly on-going basis for a set period you can be shooting yourself in the foot by just applying patches or minor fixes and limping along instead of fixing major root problems with your site. In my opinion its always better to start with the least imperfect base. If you do this you can rule out a lot of uncertainty moving forward.

Typically I would consider a site totaled if it meets a couple of the criteria below:

1) The theme is way too bulky and increase site load time significantly

2) The design/layout is not producing conversions when a A/B test reveals it’s an easy fix.

3) The CMS is not using SEO best practices like 301 redirects, title tags, etc. (I just saw this last week)

4) The site is not mobile friendly

5) When the architecture is so bad it takes too many clicks to find what you’re looking for

 

David Mihm
Moz

If a client is not on a standard CMS (Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, etc) and the site is under about 30-40 pages, I’m always inclined to get them onto WordPress.  It’s a good long-term investment even if it takes a few extra hours to set the site up.

Questions I would ask myself prior to doing so:

– How bad is the formatting of the URLs?

– How many URLs are indexed (site:clientdomain.com @ Google)

– How easy is it to edit individual page title tags?

– How easy is it to add links and content to the homepage?

– How easy is it to completely rework the navigation?

If the answers all “check out” above, and the client doesn’t update content all that often, then maybe it’s OK to leave them on the current setup.

 

Max Minzer
ReEngage Consulting

In the world where marketers say “You must have a website or your business will go bankrupt” (same about social media networks) I’d start on the other side.

When considering redesign/rebuild of business website – it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate website’s role in reaching your overall business objectives.

Consumer expectations are evolving. How do you adapt your digital properties to reach potential customers?

Not every business needs a website as a critical asset (example: http://goo.gl/A1xbdt) and not every small business website has the same weight and priority for reaching objectives of each specific business. That’s not to diminish the role of website as an online extension of their business – as a digital home, business card, branding and a source of information. But when considering redesign it’s an opportunity for critical constructive re-evaluation and it comes down to three things, in my opinion:

1) website fulfilling the purpose and value it has for that business. Business owner: “Am I getting (or missing potential) conversions/calls/emails?” Or another: “Do my customers learn more about my business?”

2) customer expectations. Customer: “I didn’t expect this high-end restaurant to have website that was probably built by their nephew with Dreamweaver 10 years ago for a school project”

3) conflicting information or confusing dated material. Customer: “Hmm, I think I saw a sign yesterday on my way out saying they’ll have my favorite local band this Saturday but their website has a poster from few months ago with another band listed.” Or another one: “Look what they have on the menu on their website! Let’s go!” and then visiting and finding out that the menu wasn’t updated for years and the dish you wanted isn’t available.

With that in mind, I’d consider different approaches for each business based on their objectives.

One business might be better off without certain parts of the website, like if customers feel like they’re visiting a Twitter profile with its last tweets from 2011. Go simple.

Another business will be fine even with an archaic website because customers don’t have high expectations and business continues to get plenty of phone calls and word of mouth referrals.

Another business might want to think about rebuilding if they get Yelp messages or customer feedback saying website contact form is broken. Things are broken.

And other business is doing great but will see missing potential and do redesign/rebuild to explore new waters, not out of desperation with poorly built site in the past.

 

Mike Ramsey
Nifty Marketing

I don’t think there is an exact point that is the same for every business. I generally try to determine it based on a simple formula:

Cost of Time to Fix vs. Cost of Time to Rebuild What is Needed From Scratch

This determines if we start over or not. The hard part in both cases is the same: determining what is needed. Once you can nail that down it becomes a lot easier to determine the time each option would take.

I know this is basic but it has proven quite helpful to us in making that call.

 

Darren Shaw
Whitespark

Every website rebuild project I’ve worked on has seemed reasonable at the start, but ended up taking 3 times longer than expected, so I try to avoid them. Usually, I find it’s less work to fix the architecture issues than to rebuild a whole site, but if the site is built in Joomla, Magento, or Drupal, then I want to tear it down immediately and build from scratch. I despise those platforms.

When determining whether it’s better to start from scratch, design is more important to me than CMS or architecture.  When I land on a website with terrible design that looks like it was built in 1998, I scramble for the back button, and that will kill a business’ SEO. If the design repels potential customers, then I’ll push the client to start from scratch with a new site.

 

Andrew Shotland
Local SEO Guide

We’ve certainly had cases where client sites were overly complicated and part of our SEO recommendations led to a redesign, but that has almost always been in the “enterprise” space, not SMBs. Any time we have recommended this for SMBs is when we are pretty sure there’s a Panda issue – lots of thin, SEOish pages that are getting no traffic.

Funny thing is we had this happen recently in reverse. A new client had just redesigned their website because it had hundreds of crap SEO’d pages and they thought it had a Panda problem. So they just chucked the whole thing out and launched the new one and guess what happened? Their organic traffic went down to almost zero. Because their web dev was playing amateur SEO (“Why pay an SEO consultant? How hard is it to update a title tag?”), when traffic started dropping he cried “Panda!” but he had neglected to realize that they still had organic traffic.

In his zeal to redo the site (and probably make some $ of the client in the process) he blew out all of the pages that were still getting traffic and that’s when their SEO really tanked. Their web leads dried up instantly. A few months later they brought us in and the first thing we did was roll back to the old Panda-fied site. Within 3 weeks they went from 2 clicks/day in Google to 60.

 

Gyi Tsakalakis
AttorneySync

This is definitely one of those case-by-case situations. However, if it’s a content-focused site (i.e. not ecommerce) and it’s not on WordPress, that alone can be enough for us to justify a reboot or migration.

Working with law firms, we see a lot of proprietary and quasi-proprietary CMS implementations. There are a lot of problems here (the fact that they’re proprietary, lack of support/updates, etc).

Assuming they’re already on WordPress, we look to architecture. Most firm websites we review don’t have a clearly planned site architecture. They’re usually blog feed + static pages (i.e. bios, practice areas, etc).

Fortunately, many of these can be restructured without needing a complete tear-down and rebuild. In some instances, cases of exceptionally long/spammy url structures, we will recommend rebuild.

Finally, there’s the “excessive plugins” issue. A lot folks will try to design/feature/layout implementations via plugin. We have found that this is a source of a lot of problems (site speed, reliability, security vulnerabilities, administration, etc).

If we can’t remove most plugins without greatly impacting the site’s overall structure/layout, we’ll probably recommend a fresh start.

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov
Whitespark

I once worked with a law firm with quite a few offices in a very competitive area of practice in a very competitive geographic region of the US. The guy in charge of the Internet marketing efforts of the firm was very passionate about SEO and very eager to get results. Needless to say, this is very frequently a formula for mess, and most certainly not one that delivers good and sustainable results.

The guy had at least 4 people work on his site (WordPress) prior to me taking a look. There were literally hundreds of scripts and plugins installed, or manually coded, as well as a lot of hard coding into the theme used by the site. Additionally, there were thousands of pages of duplicate, or near-duplicate content, as well as pages with content that was near-duplicate (or badly re-written) with content from external sites. Almost none of the content on the site has been optimized neither for humans, nor for robots. The architecture of the site was chaotic – and again, we are talking about a site with thousands of pages of content. There was no inter-linking between the pages, no universal hierarchy, and worst of all – no certain way to know what had to be linked to what and where it was supposed to belong (if anywhere).

I guess the short answer to your question would be – if it would take less time (and money) to get a brand-new, well-structured and optimized site, as compared to trying to figure out what exactly has to be done with your old (and ruined by time, people you have hired, or yourself) site, and actually implementing the needed changes, then it might be better to pick the first option.

 

Phil Rozek

I have a mental checklist.  It tells me the site may need to hang up in the museum if it:

  • Looks like it was built when Gerald Ford was president
  • Drives me crazy when I try to navigate it
  • Makes noises at me
  • Uses too much Flash
  • Won’t let me add pages easily
  • Has weird pagination, like with jQuery (example)
  • Isn’t mobile-friendly
  • Isn’t on WordPress (by no means always a deal-breaker, but it’s a consideration)
  • Takes too long to load, for reasons I can’t easily remedy

I usually become a pain in my client’s neck if the site has more than about 2 of those problems.

On the other hand, some sites are so bad that I hope they stay around forever.

Huge thanks to all the contributors for all the practical, hard-learned wisdom.  I suggest you follow all of them.

Think you might need a new site?

Under what circumstances would you know your camel can’t carry more straw?

Did you have a favorite bit of advice?

Leave a comment!