The Best [BLEEP]in’ Local Link Questionnaire

You need at least a few good links to rank well in Google Places and beyond.  Especially post-Pigeon update, and especially if you’re in a competitive local market.

But that’s easier said than done.  Where are the opportunities for a business like yours to scrounge up some good links?  Who knows enough about you and your business to know what ideas are practical and doable for you?

Look in the mirror.

Nobody knows your situation as you do.  Nobody’s business is exactly like yours, and nobody runs your business just the way you do.  You can take advantage of that fact, and get links that others cannot, will not, or would not think to get.

(Or you can ape whatever your competitors are doing for links.  If you’re lucky you’ll nip at their heels in the rankings, but you’ll probably never pull ahead.)

Get the creative juices flowing with my link-digging questionnaire.  You can use it in (at least) one of two ways:

  1. To get your creative juices flowing, as the business owner.
  1. To help your local SEO-er / “link person” dig up good opportunities that you can execute on.

You can download my questionnaire on Google Drive.

Or if you prefer, below are the 25 questions I ask my clients when it’s time to earn some links.

(I’ve added some notes below some of the questions – in case you’re wondering where I’m going with some of them.)

1.  What specific causes have you donated time or money to in the last few years?
(I ask this question because if you’ve already contributed to a cause, it’s a little easier to ask for a link.  See this example; notice how all the donors’ names aren’t hyperlinked?  Well, my client used to be one of them.)

2.  What specific causes / places / programs do you really care about?
(If you’re going to donate resources of any kind, might as well be to a cause you might see yourself getting more involved in, or that you might already be involved in.)

3.  Are your children in Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or 4H, or play sports, or anything like that?
(Possible donation opportunities.)

4.  How might any employees of yours answer questions 1, 2, and 3?
(Maybe your wheels are spinning.  Not a problem.  Ask someone else.)

5.  What specific brands of equipment do you use? Any produced by a small company?
(A small company might want a testimonial.  And because anonymous testimonials like, “B. Smith – Cleveland” suck, you can include a link to your company’s site as part of your “signature.”  Unless the people receiving your testimonial are total clods, they’ll include the link.)

6.  Have you ever written a testimonial for a product, service, or business?
(If you’ve already written a testimonial you’ve probably earned a little good will, and are in a better position to ask for a link as a way of citing you.)

7.  Are there other businesses you sometimes refer customers to, for one reason or another?
(This can be tricky, because you don’t want to do a dumb old link-exchange.  But let’s say you’re a dentist and you often refer patients to a periodontist for deep-scaling treatment.  It’s reasonable to ask him/her for a link.)

8.  Do any of your family members also own a business?

9.  Where did you go to school – and do you consider yourself an “active” alum?
(Some colleges have “where are they now?” -type profiles of alums.)

10.  What are some industry directories or business associations that you are a part of, used to be part of, or have considered joining?
(Some are pretty big and well-known (e.g. NARI.org), whereas others are pretty niche (e.g. Marble Institute of America).  But there’s almost always at least one membership you can have, and the link is usually very good.)

11.  Are you willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a membership or to make a donation?
(See my Meetup.com and BBB suggestions, for starters.  Thanks to Dave O. for helping me improve the wording of this question.)

12.  What is some content that you put a lot of time into writing? Is it published online or published offline (or just collecting dust for now)?
(Maybe all you need to do is promote it.)

13.  Do you have a “little black book” of info that you put together for internal use only? Any checklists, lists of phone numbers, questionnaires, or anything like that?
(You may have the raw materials for a great piece of content that you can pimp out, in the way I mentioned in question #12.)

14.  Have you ever been interviewed? Was it in print or with a microphone?  Tell us where we can find it, if possible.
(For starters, you might be able to get another interview very easily.  Or you could cite it if you’re pitching a story or interview to someone else.)

15.  Is there a specific blog, forum, or other website that pretty much everyone in your industry reads or pays attention to?

16.  Do you offer any discounts (e.g. for seniors or veterans)? If not, would you consider offering one?

17.  Have you ever created a product, tool, or knickknack?

18.  Are you currently hiring? If so, what type of position are you trying to fill?
(There are job boards.  Also, because people are hungry for good jobs, that bit of news might have “legs.”)

19.  What are your certifications? (List everything, no matter how trivial it may seem.)
(For instance, if you’re a home inspector and you’re ASHI-certified you’ll want to make sure you’re on their “find a local inspector” page.)

20.  What awards or accolades have you won?

21.  Would you be willing to donate your products or services to worthy causes in your area? If so, what do you think you could offer?

22.  Are there any specialty schools for your line of work? If so, what are some notable ones?

23.  Would you be willing and able to host events at your business location?
(See Casey Meraz’s great post on hosting local events.)

24.  What are some “complimentary” businesses to your business? For example, a real estate agent might send business to mortgage brokers or moving companies. Do you already work with some other businesses to help each other get more business?

25.  Do you have any arrangements with other businesses where you offer promotions or deals to their customers?

I hope that got the creative juices flowing, at the very least.  Some of the questions / lines of thought will be dead-ends for you, but others will lead somewhere.  My clients usually answer at least 20 of the questions, and that always helps me dig up more and better opportunities.

Here’s the link to the more-compact version of the questionnaire – without my lovely notes: http://bit.ly/1D0LVpR

Are you in the zone now?  Do you need more?

Well, here are some more resources to help you dig up local links:

Questions & Checklist for New SEO Clients: A Collaboration – Jon Cooper

The Importance of Initial Research Prior to Link Development – Julie Joyce

The Best Darn Local SEO Questionnaire – me

Link Building Tactics – The Complete List – Jon Cooper

The Guide to Local Link Building Campaigns – Garrett French

35 Local Link Opportunities You Missed – Adam Melson

The Lazy Man’s Way to Find Meetup.com Local Link Opportunities (in 5 Seconds Or Less) – me

Thanks to Darren for nudging me to turn my questionnaire into a post.

What are some creative “local” links you’ve got?  Any that you want to get, but haven’t yet?

Can you think of any questions to add to the questionnaire?

Leave a comment!

Should You Hire an Industry-Specialist Local SEO?

A few local SEOs I’ve consulted for have asked me whether they should specialize.  In other words, should they offer their services only to business owners in a specific industry?

 

Here’s what I said to them:

Know exactly why you want to specialize – and be able to explain it clearly to potential clients.  If you can’t articulate it or think the reason would sound bad if you did, now isn’t the time to specialize.

Figure out how you’ll get into a position where you can offer something to your clients that “general practitioner” local SEOs can’t.

Now I’m going to flip the question upside-down to get at the real issue:

In what cases might you – a business owner – want to work with a local SEO who specializes in your field?

By the way, keep in mind that I’m not an industry-specialist (although I’ve worked with some types of businesses more than others).  I think being an all-industries local SEO guy is the better fit for me, so in one sense I’ve already voted with my feet.  But I want to present a balanced view here, and part of doing that means you know where I’m coming from.

It might be a good idea or a bad idea to work with a local SEO who specializes in your industry.  Here are the factors worth considering:

(Please excuse all the “he” references.  Just makes for a smoother read than “he/she,” or “they.”  Some of the very best SEOs are women, but this industry is still like The Expendables, unfortunately.)

 

Pros

1.  He may have a lot of experience in helping businesses just like yours.

2.  He may have been an in-house SEO for a big company in your industry – which might be good to the degree it means he knows what works on a large scale and can either repeat it or scale it down.

3.  He may have worked in your industry.  He might the same ins and outs you know, and speak the same lingo you speak.

4.  He probably knows the regulations and restrictions that apply to your industry.

 

Cons

1.  He may not have the wide range of experience that a non-industry-specific local SEO would be more likely to have.  He hasn’t necessarily helped business owners in all sorts of situations.

2.  He could have been an in-house SEO for a big company – and that might not be such a good thing if he’s only had success with tons of budget and HR at his disposal.  He may not know how to bootstrap, which could be an issue if you’ve got limited resources.

3.  If you hire him to help with “content,” there’s a chance you’ll get boilerplate, non-unique stuff that’s been used on others’ websites (maybe even on your competitors’ sites).  Not only does your site

4.  You may discover that he only specializes in your industry because he thinks there’s “lots of money in it.”  He doesn’t have a particular affinity for business owners like you, and has no special ability to help them.

 

How do you figure out the pros and cons of the specialist local SEO you’re thinking of ?  I’d ask as many of the following questions as you feel like asking:

“Why are you a specialist?”  Get a concrete answer.  If it’s “I’m good at helping businesses in this niche,” ask how.  If it’s “I like this industry,” ask why.

“How many businesses in my industry have you worked with?”  There’s no “right” answer here, as long as the answer is straightforward and not mush-mouthed.  If you’re the first one your SEO will have worked with as a specialist, hey, that’s fine if he comes out and says so.  If the answer is “oh, hundreds,” you need to ask, “Why so many?”

“How are you better-equipped to help my business (better-equipped than a local SEO who doesn’t specialize)?”  Again, you’ll want to drill down until you hit specifics.

“What’s your exclusivity policy?”  Has your potential SEO-er worked with business you’d consider competitors?  Under what circumstances would he work with or not work with them in the future?

“Do you have a ‘core’ list of citation sources that matter in my field?”  The only bad answer to this: “What’s a ‘citation source’?”

“Where can I see some stuff you’ve written on local SEO for my industry?”  This one could answer many of the other questions.  Here’s an example of the sort of thing you’d want to see.

“What do you know about marketing in my industry that I might not know – or that my old SEO guy maybe didn’t know?”  This is a toughie.  You’ll know a good answer if you hear one.  Personally, I’d say something like, “Well, you probably know a lot more about your field than I do, but here are some things I’ve learned about your field over time….”

“Are there other local SEOs who specialize in this industry, too?  If so, how are you different from (or better than) them?”  It’s OK if the answer is, “Well, we’re not fundamentally different, but I think we’ve invented a better mousetrap, and here’s how….”

You should scrutinize anyone you hire, for any kind of work.  An industry-specialist local SEO doesn’t necessarily warrant more questions on your part – just a slightly different battery of questions.

8 Questions to Ask Local Citation Builders (Before You Hire Them)

Citations can make or break your local SEO campaign, and they’re deceptively tricky.  If you want to hire people to help with your citations, how can you be confident they’ll do a good job?

I like Andrew Shotland’s post on what to ask a customer-review-management service before you hire one.  In the same spirit, I thought I’d bring up some questions you should ask anyone you’re thinking of hiring for citations work.

By the way, I’m not even talking about what to ask some goofball on ELance or Fiverr.  Don’t.  I’m talking about what you should ask people who seem to be specialists in citations or who offer a broader local SEO service that you’re considering.

I suggest you ask these 8 questions (in no particular order):

“How much do you charge?”
If it works out to less than about $3 per citation, you may be paying for sloppy work, or for the work to be done by someone who doesn’t speak the language you do business in.  If money is so tight that bottom-dollar actually sounds attractive, you’re better off working on your citations yourself.  At the very least, ask them the rest of the questions and see what they tell you.

“Do you let me pick which citations I’d like?”
You probably won’t have to hand-pick all of the citations from scratch (although you can).  But you will want to make sure that you see the list of citations before your builders work on them.  If they plan to submit to 100 sites but you’ve only heard of 10 of them, most of the citations are probably junk.  (This post can help you determine whether the citations are any good.)

“Will you keep track of my login info for each site and send it to me as soon as you’ve created my listings?”
If the answer to either part of this two-part question is no, find someone else to work on your citations.  You need control of your listings long-term.  You’re paying for those citations to be built, not rented to you.

“How do you plan on handling sites like ExpressUpdate.com, LocalEze.com, CitySearch, YellowPages, and Yelp?”
If you want to claim and fix your listings on those sites, you (the business owner) or an employee will have to verify ownership by phone.  It’s quick and easy, but a third party can’t do it for you.  The honest answer from your citation-builders is “We can’t do those sites for you.”  The honest and helpful answer is “We can’t do those sites, but we can walk you through the verification processes, if you’d like.”

“Will you show me exactly which sites are all set versus need work and which of them require me to do something?”
You need to be able to see at a glance where each site stands, and if there are any lingering to-dos.

“Are you only ‘building’ citations, or can you also helping me claim and clean up existing citations?”
It’s OK if the answer to this is “Nope, all we do is build the citations.”  You just need to know up-front so that you can either find someone who can work on your existing citations, or plan on doing it yourself.

“How do you plan on handling any listings that don’t ‘stick’?”
You’re fine as long as they give you some idea as to why a given site just doesn’t have your listing 100% correct.

“Do you research the citations that matter in my local market?”
Again, it’s OK if the answer is no.  But it’s nice if – in addition to working on a “core” list of citations that are pretty much always important – your citation-builders try to find the citations that seem to matter most in your particular industry and in your city or region.

Update – “bonus” question: “How many citations do you plan to work on?”
See Nyagoslav Zhekov’s great comment, below.

My personal recommendations for citations work are NGSMarketing or Whitespark.  I’ve also heard that BrightLocal’s Citation Burst is good.

Any other questions worth asking up-front?  Any questions you wish you’d asked your citation-builders?  Horror stories? Success stories – of citation-builders who did a good job for you? Leave me a comment!

Matchmaking Advice for Local SEOs and Business Owners

Most business owners and the local SEOs they hire get along pretty well, in my experience.

But when it doesn’t “work out,” usually the cause was avoidable.  Not that one person is unethical.  Not that one person is an Aries and the other is a Virgo.

Smooth local-SEO campaigns depend 95% on one thing: thorough communication up-front – before anyone has invested significant time or money.

I won’t bore you with the typical, trite, obvious advice, like “be communicative” or “be open and transparent.”  That’s all true, but it’s not news to you.  It’s also not helpful – way too vague.

What is good communication, in this context?


If you’re the local SEO, is it enough to answer questions you’re asked in emails, or to be available for a quick phone call?  Do you need to be more proactive?  If so, how?

If you’re the business owner, do you always defer judgment (“You’re the expert”), or do you ask some tough questions?  If it’s the latter, what are the questions you should ask – and what kinds of answers should you expect or demand?

I’m glad you asked, gentle reader, because I have a few suggestions.

I’m not really talking about how two parties should “get along” on an ongoing basis.  Rather, I’m talking about how you – whether you’re the local SEO-er or the business owner – can help ensure you’re a good fit before you begin working together.

 

Advice for Local SEOs:

1. Have a questionnaire.  Ask potential clients to fill it out either before any money changes hands, or at the very least before you do any work.  To me, this is the most important item of all. It’s what allows you to know what your client’s goals are and the extent to which you think you can help – if at all.  It’s better to find that out sooner rather than later.  You can take a look at my questionnaire.

2.  Have testimonials from or case-studies on some of your clients.  Preferably you’d have these on your site.  But if not, you definitely want them on-hand in some form – and you’ll want to let anyone know who’s thinking of working with you that you have some “references.”  Just give people some sense of what you’ve been able to do and what you’re capable of doing.  (If you’re just starting out and don’t have any testimonials or case-studies to highlight, just leave a comment on this post or email me and I’ll pitch in some ideas/alternatives.)

3.  Have a “poster-child” client (or a few of them).  Someone who doesn’t mind if you tell potential clients “OK, here’s an example of how I helped this one business…” Mike Blumenthal does this.  On and off my site I often refer to one of my long-time clients, Palumbo Landscaping.

4.  Sell a mini-product or how-to guide on your site.  Something relevant to local SEO.  Something that shows people what it’s like to pay you – even a tiny amount – and get good stuff in return.  This gives people who may become clients an idea of what you might be like to work with on a larger scale.   It’s a win-win.  Some great examples are Matt McGee’s do-it-yourself SEO guide and Nyagoslav Zhekov’s guide to citation-building. Heck, many people who ordered my humble one-page review handouts have become clients of mine, simply because they had a good experience with me and my offerings on a smaller scale.

5.  Keep a list of “good guys” to refer potential clients to for services you may not offer.  If there’s a service that someone needs but that you don’t offer, it’s better to recommend one or two good providers than to tell that person  “Umm, we don’t do that” and leave him/her frustrated.

6.  Make sure any people referred to you by word-of-mouth take a few minutes to learn about your services.  Even someone who came to you “pre-sold” based on a friend’s recommendation should know as much about your services and policies as would someone who stumbles across your site, doesn’t know you from Adam, and needs to read all about your services even to consider working with you.  If someone calls or emails me and says “Hey, my friend recommended me to you – where do I send the check?” I’ll usually ask that person to read over the pages on my site where I describe my services, or I’ll spend a few minutes describing each one.

7.  Track rankings.  Don’t go crazy with it; weekly (even monthly) rankings reports usually aren’t necessary, in my experience.  Just provide some record of your client’s rankings before you start work, and another one after a few months have gone by and you’ve done most or all of the necessary work and have given Google enough time to “digest” the changes you’ve made.  I usually fill out a good-old-fashioned spreadsheet (like this one).  It’s simple, easy for your client to make sense of, easy for you to make, and makes for a nice before-and-after picture.  It’s also another way to stand behind your work, and clients appreciate that.

 

Advice for business owners:

1. Question your local SEO-er.  Doesn’t need to turn into the next Inquisition, but asking some “hows” and “whys” is always wise.  Make your local SEO explain things at least a little bit – especially if something he/she says doesn’t quite square with your experience or expectations.

2.  Expect questions.  Nay, hope for them: If your local SEO-er never asks questions about your situation, he/she may not understand your situation well enough to help you.  I suggest erring on the side of volunteering as much detail as possible about your business and local-SEO efforts (your goals, what you’ve tried, etc.) and even grilling your SEO person a little – especially if you haven’t been asked many questions.

3.  Ask which service your local SEO-er thinks is the best fit, and why.  Most of them offer more than one “level” or package.  It’s easier on everyone if you’re not paying for work you don’t need.  This question can also be a nice little test of character: Obviously, you don’t want to work with someone whose impulse is to try to sell you on the super-duper deluxe service when the “Basic” might be all you need.

4.  Ask whether your potential local SEO has worked with clients in your industry or in one like it.  A “No” answer isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s just that a “Yes” answer means your local SEO probably is a little more likely to know the ins and outs of getting a business like yours visible in local search.  In cases where I’m working with someone in an industry I’ve never dealt with before, I usually say “I haven’t worked with someone in your line of work, but I have worked with people in the such-and-such industry, which I think is pretty similar as far as local search is concerned.”

5.  Understand that Google is a “black box” in many ways.  Any local SEO who claims to have it “figured out” is a liar.  Much of what we know is a result of trial and error.  As is the case in most areas of business and life, in the SEO world there’s not “scientific” evidence for much – not that that would necessarily help you for long, if at all.  Sometimes the reasons behind our suggestions are obvious or become obvious pretty quickly – like how if you don’t follow Google’s quality guidelines, you’ll likely end up shooting yourself in the foot.  Don’t hesitate to ask the questions, but be prepared for many different species of answers.

6.  Consider buying the mini-product or guide that your local-search buff offers (like what I mentioned earlier).  Again, it’s a good way to see what it’s like to deal with that person and see how much he/she can help you on a micro scale.  If it looks like junk, well, that may also tell you a thing or two.

7.  Read this excellent post by Miriam Ellis: The Zen of Local SEO.

By the way, this stuff applies to any type of SEO/SEM work.  But I think good communication is particularly crucial to local SEO, simply because so many aspects of it are counterintuitive, and because some steps (especially optimizing one’s website and asking for customer reviews) take a little bit of coordination or teamwork.

Got any advice for local SEOs or business owners (or both)?  Leave a comment!

FAQ about Local-Business Reviews (on Google+Local and Third-Party Sites)

I’ve been asked many great questions about customer reviews.

And rightly so.  Reviews are a major factor in your local rankings in Google+Local and elsewhere, and they’re one of the very biggest factors in getting customers to choose you over the competition.

This is true both of reviews that customers write on your Google+Local page and of reviews written on third-party sites (Yelp, CitySearch, etc.).

The trouble is, aside from some fantastic in-depth posts others have done on the topic, there’s not a ton of clear info for the business owner who just wants to know the main do’s and don’ts.

So, it’s about time I put some of my answers on paper.

Here are the questions I’ve been asked most frequently – and my answers – in no particular order:

 

Q:  I know Google often filters out reviews that seem to come in at an “unnatural” rate.  How frequently should I ask customers for reviews?

A:  Nobody knows for sure what rate Google considers natural vs. unnatural.  It’s one factor of many that Google looks at.  Plus, it varies by industry (a coffee shop has many more customers and therefore potential reviewers than a general contractor does).

The rough rule of thumb I use for my clients is: ask 1-5 customers per week.  Whatever you do, be consistent from week to week.

 

Q:  If I get “fan mail” or other positive feedback from customers, can I post it as a review of my own business?

A:  No.  That’s against the rules of Google and every other site I can think of that deals with reviews.  The review filters will catch you probably 95 times out of 100 – certainly on Google and probably on other sites.  More importantly, it’s a bit dishonest.  However, you can post pretty much any kind of customer feedback on your site (provided it’s FTC-compliant).

 

Q:  If a customer posts a great review of me on Google or somewhere else, can I showcase that review on my site?

A:  Not if it’s a Google+Local review: Google will filter reviews that appear elsewhere on the web.  Most third-party sites don’t seem to have policies against this (plus, so many of them feed reviews to each other).  However, it’s not a bad idea to save your Google reviews (either via copy+paste or screenshot) so that in case Google ever “loses” your reviews and they don’t seem to be coming back, you can add those reviews to your site.

 

Q:  Can I ask some of my really happy customers to post reviews on multiple sites?

A:  This one calls for a multi-part answer:

If a customer reviews you on Google+Local and you want that person to post that same review on other sites, then no.  Google will filter the review if it appears anywhere else on the web.

If a customer writes you a Google+Local review and then writes completely different reviews on other sites, then yes.  It’s fine with Google if the same person reviews you on several sites – as long as the review posted on your Google+Local page is unique.

For third-party, non-Google review sites, yes.  With the possible of exception of Yelp, these sites generally don’t feel strongly about review polygamy.

 

Q:  How many different sites should I try to get reviews on?

A:  The more, the better.  Diversity of review sources has always seemed to be a strong ranking factor.  But my rule of thumb is 3.  That is, at any given time you should be asking each customer to go to 1 of 3 sites you’d like reviews on.  I’ve found that number to be large enough that you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket, but not unmanageable – the way it would be if you were to ask different customers to go 10 different review sites.

Anyway, I’d say one of those 3 sites should be Google+Local.  One or both of the others should be a major site like Yelp, CitySearch, or InsiderPages.  If there’s a highly prominent industry-relevant review site – like DealerRater, AVVO, or TripAdvisor – then it’s probably worth having that be one of the 3.  Of course, once you rack up at least a few reviews on one of the sites, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to change it up and ask customers to review you on a different site.

 

Q:  How do I know which third-party sites I should ask my customers to review me on?

A:  See answer to above question.  Again, the short answer is that the “core” of your body of reviews should consist of Google+Local reviews and of reviews on least a couple of other major sites, like Yelp or CitySearch.

To the extent possible, you should also try to get reviews on sites that are geared toward your industry.  One starting point for determining those sites is to see which sites your local competitors (particularly the top-ranked ones) have reviews on.  Another is to check out the list of industry-specific sites on my Definitive Citations List.

 

Q:  How many customers should I ask for Google reviews versus for reviews on other sites?

A:  I usually suggest that my clients shoot for 50% Google+Local reviews.  Reviews on other sites should make up roughly the other 50%.  The idea is not to put all your eggs in one basket.

 

Q: Where do Bing and Yahoo reviews fit in?  Do they help my visibility in Google at all?

A:  They don’t help your Google rankings.  Bing and Yahoo are Google’s direct competitors.  They go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise.  However, it’s still good to get reviews on Bing and Yahoo simply to attract the people who use those two, smaller search engines.

By the way, as of this writing, there’s no longer a way to write reviews directly on Bing.  But in many cases Yelp’s reviews get fed to Bing, so your reviews on the former will help your visibility in the latter.

 

Q:  Can I suggest certain things I’d like my customers to write in their reviews?

A:  Another gray area.  Google says you can’t.  Other sites don’t seem to take a stance (as far as I’ve been able to tell).

From a strictly ethical standpoint, you certainly shouldn’t put words in your customers’ keyboards.

Plus, if you tell customers what specific keywords to use, your reviews will probably get filtered because they seem contrived.  Even the ones that do stick will look about as natural as Donald Trump’s “hair.”

However, if your customers genuinely have no idea what to write (not likely), it’s fine to give them a rough idea of “talking points.”

 

Q:  Should I wait until I’ve claimed my Google+Local to start asking customers for reviews?

A:  Yes, generally.  If you have duplicate or incorrect Google listings floating around that you’re trying to remove, I’d suggest waiting until the dust settles and you’ve only got one listing (per location).  Also, building up a corpus of reviews is a long-term project, so in one sense there’s no great rush.

However, if you don’t have a bunch of inconsistent information about your business floating around the web, and (again) if you don’t have a problem with duplicate listings, you can probably ask for customers to review you and not be afraid that the reviews will go “poof.”

 

Q:  How do I avoid looking “amateurish” when I ask for a review?

A:  Depends on how you ask.  As with anything else, there are cheesy ways and professional ways to go about it:

“Please oh please write me a review, pretty please with sugar on top” = cheesy

“Dear Valued Customer, your feedback would be appreciated” = cheesy

“Here’s a Starbucks card, now I expect my 5 stars, damnit” = cheesy

“If you could take a minute to write down your honest opinion about your experience with me, I’d really appreciate it” = professional

“I know other potential customers would want to hear what you think of our service  – warts and all – so it would be great if you could jot down a review of us” = professional

In general, I’ve found that more you use a no-pressure, “this is a personal favor I’d appreciate” approach, the easier it is to ask people for reviews, the less awkward it is for everybody, and the more willing people are to oblige.

 

Q:  My customers always seem to forget to write me reviews.  What should I do?

A:  Nag.  But try to do it in a classy, relatively low-pressure way. (“Gee, Phil, you mean that’s all I have to do?”)  I guess it depends on how close you are with your customers.  If there’s a “relationship,” you can ask repeatedly without becoming a burr in the saddle.  Some people will just never get around to it.  Others you may need to ask a total of 2-3 times.  You never know who falls into which category.

 

Q:  My customers said they posted reviews of me, but why aren’t they showing up on my page?

A:  They may have been filtered out if they were Google+Local or Yelp reviews.  I suggest reading this post from Mike Blumenthal (if you haven’t already).  Of course, this assumes that your customers know how to post reviews for you, and that you’ve provided clear instructions to customers who may not be so review-savvy.

 

Q:  What if Google loses my reviews?

A:  Keep getting as many Google reviews as possible, but also try to get reviews on other sites.  I know it can be tough.  I know how much hard work for a given job each review represents, and how badly Google sucks at keeping those legitimate, hard-earned reviews where they belong.  Still, the basic choice is (1) do nothing and have nothing to lose but also less potential to attract customers or (2) try to rack up a few more reviews and have that extra factor working in your favor.

 

Q:  What’s the easiest way to get reviews?

A:  Depends.  In a nutshell, any way in which you can both ask and provide clear instructions at the same time is a good approach.  I’m kind of partial to the review handouts I make and use with my clients (duh…that’s why I created them), but I can think of about 20 other ways to get reviews.

Any nagging questions you have – or have heard – about reviews?  Better yet, any answers to those questions?  Go for it – leave a comment!

17 Questions with Darren Shaw – Creator of the Local Citation Finder

Whitespark.ca - home of the Local Citation FinderRecently I had the pleasure of grilling Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca about his “Local Citation Finder” – the ultra-handy local-search optimization tool he created.

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes grappling with local SEO, you’ve probably heard of the Local Citation Finder – and there’s a good chance you use it, too.  It’s one of my very favorite tools for building up my clients’ local search rankings.

I’ve used the LCF since it came out in 2010.  Since then, I’ve had some questions I’ve been itching to ask – mostly about how to use the LCF to glean every last bit of local-search visibility for my clients.  For that there’s no substitute for “insider tips.”

Plus, the LCF is a really popular tool, so I also wanted to learn more about some of the secrets behind its success.

I went straight to the horse’s mouth, and Darren was kind enough to answer my questions

In case you didn’t know, Darren is kind of a big deal.  In some parts of the world he enjoys the spoils of an emperor:

Darren Shaw: ruler...er, creator of the Local Citation Finder

If you have any interest in getting your business more visible in local search, or if you just want some tips on how to launch a successful venture…read on.

Phil:  If you were in an elevator with someone who knows nothing about local search, how would you explain the Local Citation Finder?

Darren:  The Local Citation Finder is a competitive analysis tool for finding out where the top ranking competitors are getting citations, and for seeing where you already have citations. It will automatically tell you which ones you don’t already have, and includes SEOMoz’s Domain Authority and Majestic SEO’s ACRank metrics so that you can identify the best possible citation sources that are helping your competition rank locally.

 

Phil:  Why should a business owner—as opposed to a local SEO junkie—get the Local Citation Finder?  It’s not like that person necessarily needs to build citations every day.

Darren:  Currently, I don’t think a business owner would need to use the LCF for more than a month. I think it’s pretty typical for a business owner to sign up for a month, use the tool, export a CSV for all the citation opportunities they found, and then cancel. They can then work through that list when they have time.

We are working on citation monitoring services though, so a business owner will be able to track when new citations come live, and also get notifications when their competition gets new citations. When those features roll out, a monthly subscription will make more sense for a business owner.

 

Phil:  What would you say to someone who has all the basic citations (Yelp, SuperPages, etc.) and isn’t sure why he/she needs a tool to find more?  When is “good enough” good enough?

Darren:  The basic citations are an important starting point, especially the key sites you mention and the primary data aggregators, but we find that smaller city specific and industry specific sites strengthen your business’ association with your location and your niche and provide a noticeable rankings boost. The LCF helps you find these sources.

 

Phil:  Let’s say I need to build 50 citations for my business.  How much time could the Local Citation Finder save me, roughly speaking?

Darren:  I suppose we need to think about what the tool does, and what it would take to do that manually.

First you would want to run a keyword search and record all the businesses that are ranking locally.

Then you would want to find and record all the sites that the first business has a citation on. You could do this through various Google queries and then paginate through the results

Repeat for each of the other ranking businesses. You would then combine the lists, cross-referencing to make sure you’re not listing the same site twice.

Finally, you would repeat the process for your own business and then make note of which sites you’re already listed on, and which ones are opportunities.

Oh, and then you’d also look up SEOMoz Domain Authority and Majestic ACRank metrics for each site.

For an efficient and focused worker, I’d guess that this manual process would take at least six to eight hours

Our tool typically returns results in one or two minutes, and this is just one keyword search. At our lowest plan level you can run up to twenty different keyword searches per day.

In addition, the tool provides direct links to the “add your business” form for thousands of sites that get returned in our results. No need to spend time hunting through the websites to find the place where you can submit.

So, roughly, I’d say that the tool saves days of work.

 

Phil:  A lot of great tools are created by people who are fed up and just know there’s a better way to do a particular task.  Before the Local Citation Finder, how many hours would you typically spend gathering citations for a given client?

Darren:  Surprisingly, we didn’t do much citation building prior to developing the LCF. I was just getting interested in the topic, read a post by Garrett French about a technique you could use to find citation opportunities, and figured we could build a tool to automate the process.

 

Phil:  Did you have a prototype that you used for your own clients, before you realized “Hey, this might make a good tool for sale”?  In other words, was there an “ancestor”?

Darren:  No ancestor. The first version of the tool was developed and released in three days. It was an extremely simple tool that would just email you lists of potential opportunities. You can see some screen shots of the first version of the tool on Matt McGee’s post, “Local Citation Finder: Must-Have SEO Tool”.

 

Phil:  Yeah, I remember using it at that early stage.  Why did it come along when it did (summer of 2010)?  We’d known for a couple years beforehand that citations were important.  There was a niche and a need for it before 2010.

Darren:  The existence of the tool needed Garrett French’s brilliant idea for citation finding to spark the idea. 🙂

 

Phil:  Roughly how long did it take you to develop the LCF— from when it was a few neurons firing in your brain to when you put the “Order” button on the site?

Darren:  The free version we developed in three days was up for about six months before we rolled out the full-blown system that exists today. A few months of solid development went into taking it from simple/free to awesome/paid. It has evolved considerably since then as well.

 

Phil:  What’s a complaint or suggestion you’ve received on at least a couple occasions about the Local Citation Finder?

Darren:  This one comes up all the time:

“Why are there so many sites that I can’t submit to?”

The answer is because the tool performs a competitive analysis to find ALL the places that the top ranked competition is getting citations. A site doesn’t have to have a “submit your business” form on it to be a good citation. In fact, just like in link building, the harder a citation is to get, the more valuable it may be.

For example, the New York Times doesn’t have a “submit your business to our local business directory form”, but if your competition has done something newsworthy and has received a citation from the NYT, that’s a great thing for you to know about so you can look at what they did to get that citation.

 

Phil:  What’s a favorite “secret tip” of yours for getting the most benefit out of the LCF?

Darren:  We use the LCF in our client work to find “hyper local/niche” citation sources that we think have a significant impact on rankings. Here’s the process:

Create a new project. Call it something like “Local-Niche citations for __business-name__”

Run a bunch of different keyword searches in your specific city and industry, and assign each search to the project you created. So, for a plumber in Denver: Denver plumbers, Denver plumbing, Denver drain cleaning, etc. Try to be exhaustive.

Go under “Your Projects”, select “view sources” for the project you created, and ALL the citation sources from all of those different queries will be listed on a single page.

Hold down Ctrl and press “f” to bring up your browser’s search function. Now search for “plumb”, “drain”, “Denver”, “Colorado”, etc. Any words, or portions of words, that are related to your location or industry. The browser search feature will find sites with these words in their domains. These are going to be some very targeted sources that should help your rankings.

 

Phil:  How much room for improvement do you see for the LCF?  Any features you’re dying to add?

Darren:  Yeah, I’m dying to add the citation monitoring features I mentioned above. We’ve been super focused on our latest project, our local rank tracker, but it’s almost done, finally! Once it has launched and is stable, we’ll be jumping back to those LCF features. I also have plans for a NAP consistency tool that will complement the LCF nicely.

 

Phil:  Tons of people in the local-search community—and many people outside of it—use or at least know about the LCF.  What’s been the most important part of your strategy for “getting the word out”?

Darren:  Honestly, it’s just been dumb luck. We built a tool that the community needed, and word spread naturally. People liked what we built and started blogging.

 

Phil:  I’ve never encountered another tool that’s specifically designed for citation-gathering.  There doesn’t seem to be much competition—or even any knock-offs, for that matter.  Why do you think that is?  Why aren’t there any Pepsis to your Coca-Cola?

Darren:  Hmm. I don’t know. I suppose it’s just so narrowly focused. Citations are just one piece of the local SEO puzzle, and local SEO is just one niche within SEO overall. People that can build quality tools probably prefer to focus on bigger opportunities.

 

Phil:  The LCF has been around for long enough that the kinks have pretty much been smoothed out.  At this point, how do you spend your time on it?  What work do you have to do regularly on the LCF?

Darren:  Our time on the LCF is mostly support and troubleshooting at the moment. Kinks and edge cases do continue to come up, and as our user base has grown we have run into minor scaling issues here and there.  There are a fair amount of behind-the-scenes processing performance and monitoring tweaks we’ve made over the past couple years. The end user doesn’t see anything different, but these tweaks keep everything running well.

 

Phil:  What’s a tool that you, personally, would love to see someone create?  (Unless it’s something you’re working on and can’t spill the beans!)

Darren:  I’ve got IDEAS man! So many tool ideas. There isn’t one tool that I would love to see someone create that I don’t eventually plan to create. Sorry, nothing I can share.

 

Phil:  What advice would you give someone who has a great idea for a local-search tool and just wants to get it off the ground?  Or, for that matter, what general advice do you have for someone who has a good idea but isn’t quite sure how to develop it?

Darren:  I’d advise anyone who has a great idea for a tool to email me with all the details. 😉

Really though, you just have to do it. Have an idea? Don’t sit on it. DO IT. Millions of people are sitting on great ideas and they’re all on the back burner because they’re busy with the regular day-to-day of their lives. Block out some time and force yourself to dedicate it to developing your idea.

 

Phil:  Whitespark offers local search optimization and a bunch of other services, but you’re not some ho-hum SEO / SEM agency.  You create tools.  That’s kind of your niche.  In general, what advice do you have for someone who’s trying to develop his/her niche and stand out from the pack?

Darren:  If you want to stand out you need to do something to stand out. Building tools is one way to do that. You can also do it by picking one specific area and becoming an expert on it. I think you have done that with reviews, for one thing. You are regularly publishing excellent advice about review acquisition and that makes you stand out. I often think of you as “the review guy.”

Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Darren Shaw [applause]A HUGE thanks to Darren for his tips and insights, and for tolerating my questions :).

I highly recommend you follow him on Twitter (@EdmontonSEO) and Google Plus.  While you’re at it, it’s also worth following Whitespark on Twitter (@Whitespark).

If you’re not already a hardcore LCF user, check out the excellent free trial of it.

Any questions for me or Darren?  Leave a comment!

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

You may not agree with them.  You may not even completely understand them.  But unless you want your business’s local visibility to take a faceplant onto hard pavement, you’d better know and follow the Google Places Quality Guidelines.

Unfortunately, you can’t follow the Quality Guidelines the same way Captain Kirk “follows” the Prime Directive in Star Trek.  The Google Places Quality Guidelines are “the book,” and you have to go by the book even when it’s inconvenient to do so, or else you risk losing customers.

But you have to know the rules in order to follow them, because many of them simply aren’t intuitive.

I like what Nyagoslav Zhekov said in a recent post, that you really need to memorize the Quality Guidelines and stay up-to-date on them.  Otherwise, the chances are good you’ll mess up your Google Places rankings—or, if you’re a local SEO, you’ll mess up your clients’ rankings.

That’s why I’ve put together this short quiz, to see how well you know the Google Places Quality Guidelines off the top of your head.  (No peeking at the link to the guidelines I put at the top of the page!)

It’s 10 questions.  Unless you score 10/10, there’s a chance you’ll shoot yourself in the foot by accidentally breaking the rules and losing business as a result

The questions are below, or you can open them up in a PDF here.

A link to the answers is at the bottom, below the questions.

Enjoy!

Question 1:  If you haven’t opened your business yet, how far in advance can you create your Google Places listing?

a)  Whenever your website goes live

b)  About 2-3 weeks—which is about how long it takes for Google’s verification postcard with the PIN to arrive in the mail

c)  You can’t set up your listing before your business has opened

 

Question 2:  Let’s say you work at a law firm that has 10 lawyers, all of whom work from the same address.  What’s the maximum number of Google Places listings you can create and associate with that address?

a)  1: Only the law firm itself can have a Places page, whereas the individual lawyers can’t

b)  11: The firm can have one, and each of the lawyers can also have a Places page

c)  There’s no specific limit; it depends on how many branches of law each lawyer practices

 

Question 3:  What number of “keywords” is too many (and therefore prohibited) to include in the “business name” field?

a)  2

b)  3

c)  An “extraneous number” of keywords

 

Question 4:  Under what circumstances can you use a P.O. Box as your address?

a)  Only if you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option, so as to hide your address from showing up in Google Places

b)  Only if you enter the P.O. Box into the 2nd “address” field, but first specify the physical address of your business in the 1st “address” field

c)  Never

 

Question 5:  When MUST you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option?

a)  If you work from home, rather than at an office or store

b)  If you don’t meet your customers or clients in-person at your business location

c)  If your “service area” encompasses more than one town or city

 

Question 6:  To what extent must you use a number with a local area code as your primary phone number?

a)  You absolutely must use one, always—no exceptions

b)  You should use one “whenever possible”

c)  It doesn’t matter what the area code is, as long as your street address is local

 

Question 7:  What is the maximum number of custom categories you can specify?

a)  1

b)  4

c)  5

 

Question 8:  Which of the following custom categories would Google deem acceptable?

a)  “Sedation Dentist”

b)  “Sedation Dentistry”

c)  “Sedation Dentistry w/ Nitrous Oxide”

 

Question 9:  Let’s say your business has 12 locations and 12 Google Places pages (one for each location); under what circumstances can you use the same website for each location?

a)  Never; you need to have a completely separate website for each Google Places page

b)  You can use the same website only if you have a different landing page for each location / Google Places page

c)  You can always use the same website for each Google Places page, and you can even use the same page of your website for all your Places page

 

Question 10:  Which of the following are you NOT allowed to put into the “website” field?

a)  A shortened URL

b)  A forwarded domain (i.e., a website name that forwards to another website)

c)  The URL of your business listing on a third-party site (e.g., Yahoo, SuperPages, etc.)

Take a second to jot down your answers (how old-fashioned, I know), and then check your answers here.

Note: the Quality Guidelines change from time to time.  If and when Google changes them significantly, I’ll update the quiz to reflect the change(s).

Best Google Places Troubleshooting Posts (2011 – Early 2012)

Having problems with Google Places?  Of course you are!

Like Frogger, Google Places is full of hazards and problemsLocal Google is a minefield of bugs, glitches, often-murky “Quality Guidelines,” sudden algorithm changes, and possibly unethical competitors. Tiptoeing your way around all the hazards requires luck or know-how.  If you don’t feel like playing Russian Roulette with your business’s local presence, then you’d probably prefer the extra know-how.

“But Phil, I’m not having any problems in Google Places…I just want to rank higher.”

Well, if you want to rank more visibly, you first need to make sure your wings aren’t being clipped by a host of particularly common hazards.  Even if you’re already ranking well in Google Places, you need to know how to identify, fix, or prevent these problems.  Just because you haven’t encountered them doesn’t mean you won’t.

That’s why I’ve rounded up 7 posts that help to troubleshoot some difficulties you might encounter—or maybe have encountered—in Google Places.

Taking a few minutes to read these posts might just be enough to get you out of whatever Google-related jam you’re in—or to prevent future troubles.

Problem: Merged Listings
If your Google Places listing has a bunch of incorrect info on it, it might be “merged” with another business’s Google listing.  Mike “Professor Maps” Blumenthal shows you how to deal with a merged listing.

Problem: Spam Reviews from Competitors
Are your competitors spreading lies or talking smack about you—on your own Google Places page?  Here are some great tips for handling spam reviews.  By the way, I suggest you read all the comments on that post; there are some great suggestions in there as well.

Problem: Sudden Drop-off in Rankings
If you’ve had a decent—or very good ranking—vanish all of a sudden, this post from Linda Buquet might light the way for you.

Problem: Frustrating, Unclear Error Messages from Google
Nyagoslav Zhekov tells you what to do when you have no idea why you’re receiving an error message from Google.

Problem: Other Puzzling TARFU Situations in Google Places
A “part 2” to the above post, this deals with other common Google problems you may encounter.

Problem: Duplicate Google Places Listings
“Duplicate” listings are a huge problem in Places.  They’re also one of the most annoying and tricky issues to solve.  An excellent step-by-step guide for how to unravel duplicate listings.

Problem: Worried about Getting Ripped off by SEO Scammers
In addition to being a crackerjack troubleshooter, Nyagoslav has some great tips for how you can sniff out and avoid unethical local SEO companies.

Any questions that aren’t answered by these awesome posts?  It’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but if it is, just leave a comment and I may be able to take a crack at it.

Got any suggestions for a great Google Places troubleshooting post I should know about?  Email me, tweet to me, or (again) leave a comment.