Why Clunky Sites (Often) Punch Above Their Weight in the Local Search Results

By “clunky” I mean a website of which you can say some or all of the following:

  • Doesn’t look smooth.
  • Not mobile-responsive.
  • Built on an old or less-common CMS, or is hand-coded.
  • Doesn’t have an SSL certificate.
  • Has some cruft, like pages with overlapping content, messy URLs, wordy title tags, etc.

At least in my experience, those sites often rank well.  Surprisingly well, and more often than you’d think.  When sniffing out a client’s local market and figuring out who’s up to what, naturally I’ll take a quick look at who’s #1 (and 2 and 3).  Half the time that business’s site is beautiful and seems to check all the boxes, perhaps because of a recent redesign.  But the other 50% of the sites are clunky.

How could that be?  Aren’t the Maps and organic rankings so competitive these days that even slight edges matter?  Why might a clunky site rank well in the local results?  A few possible explanations:

1. In-depth content hasn’t been scrubbed out (“Hey, nobody reads anymore!”) in favor of an “elegant” and more-visual design.

2. The site may have fewer slow-loading graphics, whiz-bang special effects, bloated WordPress plugins (h/t Darren Shaw), and other things that make “slick” sites load slowly. Better to be the Badwater snail than the finicky tropical fish.

3. The SEO person hasn’t wiped out or butchered the title tags.

4. The SEO person hasn’t 301-redirected any or many pages, perhaps losing inbound links in the process.

5. Google has had more time to digest the content on the site, and to evaluate how searchers behave on it. It’s not changing every day, and is more of a known quantity.

6. Most other businesses have sites that are clunky, too, and most of the few who have slick-n’-modern sites probably think that’s all they need to rank well.

7. The business owner doesn’t spend all his or her time on the site, and puts a little effort into other things that matter – like earning links, rustling up reviews, and working up enough recognition that people search for the business by name.

I’m not saying you should try to make your site clunky, or that you should never put work into it or reinvent it.  There’s a time to take it to the barber and the tailor, and there’s a time to take it behind the barn.

All I’m saying is that to rank well in Maps and in the localized organic results (1) your site doesn’t need to be perfect, (2) a redesign may not make it better, (3) the off-site work matters at least as much, and (4) tweaking your site shouldn’t be your nervous twitch when you want to improve your rankings.  Don’t be afraid of a little crust.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/61896505@N04/15267050363/

How well does your clunky site – or redesigned site – do in the local results?

Any first-hand experience that aligns or conflicts with what I’ve described?

Any war stories?

Leave a comment!

Local SEO Fairy Tale: No Problems = Good Rankings

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In SEO, fixing problems is only half the challenge.  The other half is to become notable in some way.

Once in a blue moon I get an audit client who says something like:

“Phil, helpful action plan there, but I’m a little disappointed you didn’t find more problems!”

That’s understandable.  You’ve put a ton of work into your business and marketing.  It seems likely there’s one thing (or a combination of a few things) holding you back – something you overlooked.

Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean the problem is something is broken.  Google’s local search results are, essentially, a list of business it recommends.  Why should Google recommend a business simply because it exists and the owner hasn’t screwed up?

Even a brand-new car in factory condition won’t get far without gas.  You have to give it fuel.  It’s something you add continually.  You know that.  If your mechanic told you otherwise, you’d probably look for another mechanic.

But what if most mechanics told you the only way to make your car move is to pay for more repairs, no matter how much the car has been “repaired” already?  That’s what happens in the SEO world, especially in the local SEO space.  The explanation is always that your site isn’t “optimized” enough, or that you don’t have 300 citations on local directories nobody’s heard of.

When did problem-solving become problem-scavenging?  How did SEO become OCD?

One cause is that website tweaks and citation-slinging are easy for marketing companies to bill for, and easy to delegate for cheap.  Very scalable.  Looks like a lot on paper.  Nobody experienced or skilled has to be involved.  Endlessly tweaking the site and building listings on local directories listings is part and parcel of what I call drive-by SEO.  If and when that doesn’t work, you fire the old SEO company and find a new one, where the new people claim the last SEO people didn’t “optimize” enough.

https://garmentdistrict.com/protect-and-serve-well-try/

Then the cycle repeats.  Eventually you conclude nobody’s managed to “optimize” your site and listings properly, but it didn’t occur to you that maybe you’re solid on those already and the problem is something else.

The other causes are the anecdotes you’ll hear around the local SEO water cooler.  Here are a few of my favorites:

“We did a little citation clean-up and the rankings shot up!”  That can happen, but only when you’ve got other things going for you, like having great links, or being a well-known brand, or specializing in a niche.  Also, citation work tends only to bring at most a one-time benefit.  Do it once, do it right, enjoy whatever benefits it brings you, but move on after that.

“We disavowed some bad links and the rankings shot up.”  That only helps if you also had or have good links to offset the bad ones.  A penalized site minus a penalty does not equal a promotion.  You get visible by putting in work your competitors can’t or won’t.

“We just created a Google My Business page and saw a surge in traffic.”  That can happen, too, but only if you were already doing well on organic SEO, or if you’re just in an uncompetitive local market.

“We did basic on-page optimization and our rankings went way up.”  For what search term(s)?  Does anybody besides you actually type in those terms?  Do you get customers from those rankings?  Did you have anything else going for you before the optimization (e.g. lots of good links)?  Sometimes simple on-page optimization is enough to rank well, but there’s usually more to the story than that, and over time it’s become less likely to be enough.

In my experience, those types of stories are especially common among enterprise SEOs, whose clients (or employers) are big corporations that already have links, reviews, and brand-recognition out the wazoo.  To go back to my car metaphor, their car has plenty of gas and mostly new parts, but blew a fuse or just needs new transmission.  If you fix whatever part(s) gave out, you deserve all due credit and praise.  But that doesn’t mean your fix is what the next car needs.

Sometimes the problem is that your business seems unremarkable to Google.  Doesn’t mean it IS unremarkable; it’s just that what’s online doesn’t reflect how great your business really is.

Fine, Phil, so local SEO isn’t just a matter of fixing “problems,” but also of taking advantage of opportunities.  Got it.  What do I do now?

In general, work your tail off to earn more and better links than your competitors have, more and better reviews than they have, and more-in-depth content about your services on your site.  The benefits might not come right away, but that’s what you need to do.

Gee, that’s broad advice, Phil.

Yup.  It sure is.  That’s because I don’t know anything about your business at the moment.  I don’t know what you’ve done, or haven’t done, or how well it’s worked.  If you’d like a clear action plan, you might want to start with my free guide and this.  Today I just wanted to establish that although the time you spend fixing SEO “problems” is time very well-spent, you can’t just stop there.

Do you have a different take?

Have you had a “eureka” moment?  If so, what was it?

Have you ever “fixed all the problems” and still found that wasn’t enough to rank well?

Leave a comment!

Did Your Local Rankings Really Sink, or Are You Just Looking at Them Wrong?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pioilo/11053027603/

You wanted a fresh look at your local rankings, but now you need fresh pants.

It’s bad.

Or maybe it’s not – at least not the rankings.  Of course, it’s possible somebody involved in your SEO/visibility effort messed up, or that many people joined in a carnival of errors, or that Google got bored.

But it’s also likely you haven’t taken an accurate look at your rankings, and are still OK.  It’s possible your rank-tracker goofed (despite their merits, they often do), or that you’re searching in Google in a way that skews results.

So before you let out a Klingon death scream, check a few more things.  Use this checklist to confirm whether your rankings did in fact take a hit:

Did you:

  • Look beyond your rank-tracker? As in, actually search in Google.  Maybe look in another rank-tracker, too.  (Or in Ahrefs, if you use that.)
  • Sign out of your Google account? Personalized search history works in strange ways.
  • Search in an incognito browser tab?
  • Strip out any parameters in the URL? (Probably won’t be necessary, but it just takes a second.  In the address bar, just remove everything after the search term you typed in.)
  • Empty your browser cache? Then try searching again
  • Check the AdWords “Ad Preview & Diagnosis Tool”? In my experience, it’s not a perfect reflection of your rankings, but it’s pretty accurate.  Be sure to specify your search location.  (FYI, you don’t need to advertise on AdWords to use the tool.)
  • Use the same device you usually use to check your rankings?
  • Try slight variations on your search term? Like by making it plural or singular, or by specifying the state as well as the city.
  • Check Google Analytics? If you used to rank for any terms that brought you any appreciable traffic, you should see some corresponding drop-off in Analytics.
  • Check Google Search Console? Same idea as with Google Analytics, but Search Console will also show you impressions – how many people saw you in the search results (but maybe didn’t click through).  That will probably only help you if you’re concerned about a site-wide rankings nosedive, rather than a drop-off for just a couple search terms.

  • See whether the Google Maps 3-pack still shows up at all? If for a given search term you only had rankings in the local 3-pack, and no organic rankings for that term, and Google stopped showing the 3-pack for that search term, then it’s not exactly a drop in rankings.  Rather, it’s a high-level change you can’t control, didn’t benefit from, and now must adapt to.

  • Make sure your browser’s still using the correct search engine – the one for your country? If you’re in the US, for example, you probably use Google.com and not Google.co.uk.  If you messed up your browser settings or stepped in some malware, you’ll have to reset your settings.  Once you’ve done that, check your rankings again.

If you checked all those items and you still see a drop-off in rankings, you’re probably seeing the real story – and it’s bad news.  But even so, it’s not the end of the world.  Maybe you ranked for useless keywords to begin with, and business is no worse for the wear.  Or maybe you need to fix up your local SEO strategy (see this and this), or need to get professional help.

Any items you’d add to the “before you freak out” checklist?

Any stories about your eyes deceiving you?

Leave a comment!

How to Migrate or Redesign Your Site and Not Die in the Local Rankings

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Clients and others often ask me how they can redesign their site or migrate to a new CMS and not end up committing seppuku in the local search results.

I tell them that although there are probably a hundred checklist items they might concern themselves with, only a few really matter.  Do these steps wrong or forget to do them and you will bring great dishonor to your local rankings.

If you’re considering a rebuild, make sure that at the very least you’ve done everything on this 7-point checklist:

1. Do your 301 redirects.

Do them on all pages that (a) you’ll be renaming or relocating (to a different subdirectory, for example) and that (b) have good external links pointing to them.

2.  Keep your title tags the same.

Unless they’re lousy and you want to change them anyway.  Take note of your title tags at least on your most-important / highest-traffic pages, or use Screaming Frog to grab and export all of them.

3.  Keep your content the same.

If you have 5 paragraphs on the old version of a page, make sure the new version has the same 5 paragraphs.  Short of doing that, at least keep the content as similar as possible (unless it just sucks).

4.  Make sure your Google Analytics tracking code doesn’t get butchered.

Just log into Analytics after the upgrade and get worried only if you see a flat line.

Check back again a few days later to make sure data’s still coming in OK.

5.  Remove all noindex tags from your staging site.

(At least from the pages you want Google to index.)

While you’re at it, make sure your robots.txt doesn’t disallow your entire site.

Thanks to Darren for the reminder.

6.  Make sure your local listings still point to the landing page URL you want them to.

If necessary, update those listings to point to the correct URL on your site.

7.  Don’t assume the user-experience is better.

You may like the new look.  Your turtleneck-clad designer may like the new look.  But all of that amounts to nothing in the end if your pages load too slowly or confuse customers.

As I’ve said, the “back” button is the worst enemy of local SEO. Google seems to pay attention to how visitors behave once they’re on the site. Also, all the rankings in the world don’t matter if your site makes people cuss.

Use a tool like CrazyEgg to study where visitors click and scroll – how they use the site – and use that intel to make things easier to find and to use.  Also consider getting some five-second tests, or asking your spouse or a trusty cowpoke for an unvarnished opinion.

Get those basics right and worry about smaller stuff later.  If you’ve got a big site or there’s any ecommerce going on, you’ll probably have more work to do during or after the upgrade.

Any redesign / migration horror stories?

Any tips on how to make the transition easy on your local rankings?

Leave a comment!

Quick Initial Review of Moz Local Insights (Beta)

Moz Local has come a long way in the last 20 months.  It’s a handy option for getting some of your most-important listings up and running, especially for new businesses.

It isn’t a one-stop shop for all your citation needs – nor is it meant to be – but it can often eliminate serious legwork.  It’s affordable ($84 / location / year, as of this writing.)  I often recommend it.

David Mihm just announced some new features – called Moz Local Insights.  It’s a combination of 3 dashboards that show you stats on where your business falls in the local heap.

It’s a beta release, so my initial take is probably what you’d expect: there’s a lot of promise in these new features, but they need some work.  (That’s true of any beta release.)

This post isn’t meant to be an exhaustive review, but rather just my lab notes so far.  I may add updates as I notice new things in Moz Local Insights.

Anyway, let’s go through the three new tabs, one at a time:

 

 

 

Update 11/14/15: The “Performance” area is working for me now – as a result of either Moz’s fixes or my realizing a couple senior moments I’d had, or both.

I can’t say yet what I think of the “Performance” area, because I couldn’t get it to connect with my Google Analytics accounts (where I’ve got most of my clients’ GA dashboards).

Here’s a screenshot I nabbed from David’s announcement post, just to show you what the “Performance” tab should look like:

It appears to be a slick custom Google Analytics dashboard, essentially.  Although geeks like me find it fun to sift through GA data, clients often don’t, so I think this will add value there.

It would be nice if Moz Local could attribute clicks you got as a result of your Google Places 3-pack rankings, if you’re using a tracking URL to track that stuff.

 

 

 

You’ll probably want to play around in the “Visibility” tab.  By default, Moz Local will track the categories you specified as the keywords you want to track.

The search terms you want to rank for are probably pretty different from the categories you want Moz Local to use for your various listings.  That’s why it would be nice if they sent you an email or showed a pop-up that says “Hey, update your keywords!”  (I hope you can track more than 5 of them in version 2.0.)

Maybe they emphasize that step more if you’re setting up Moz Local for a given business for the first time; I set up my clients in there pre-Insights.

The bottom line is: be sure to click that “Add and Manage Keywords” and update your keywords before you do much else in the “Visibility” tab.

 

 

 

 

The “Reputation” tab doesn’t seem to reflect accurately (yet) how many reviews the business has, and where it’s got those reviews.

Here’s one example of a client who’s got reviews on a bunch of sites, including several that show up on page one when you search for him by name:

But here’s what Moz Local shows:

The “Reputation” tab has a nice, clean layout, so I think it will be useful as a reporting tool that clients can easily log into.

At that point it won’t be too different from the Google My Business reviews dashboard, but of course the issues with Google’s dashboard are (1) many clients can’t figure out how to get in there, and (2) with Google’s new interface it’s gotten even less intuitive.  That this will be under the same roof as Moz Local’s other reporting features is nice.

One add-on I’d like to see in here is the ability to export your reviews: the text, the ratings, the reviewers’ names, where the reviews were written, when they were written – the whole burrito.  (There’s an ORM tool out there that has this export feature, but I can’t remember which one.  ReviewTrackers gives you that ability.  Thanks to Darren for reminding me.)

An export would be a handy feature partly so your reviews don’t go poof if they’re filtered or otherwise lost, and partly so it’s easy to mark them up with Schema and put them on your site (yes, even on Google+ and Yelp that’s OK).

In a nutshell: Moz has some work to do, but I like where “Insights” is headed.

What do you think of it so far?

Have you left them feedback on the beta version yet?

Leave a comment!

10 Benefits of a Disappointing Local SEO Effort

You’re the business owner.  You’ve paid for help.

You’re the local SEO.  You’ve been paid to help.  Maybe you did help – just not quite enough.

Both of you were expecting boom.  But all you got was poppssffftt.

Effective local SEO takes hard work and time.  The benefits are obvious when it all works out.  But even when it doesn’t – or doesn’t seem to – there are some less-obvious benefits.  More on that in a second.

One point that I hope you took as a given: I’ve messed up my share of local SEO campaigns.

Of course, I wish I did things differently in many of those cases.

But without the hard knocks I don’t think I would have learned some important lessons.  Without them I also don’t think I could have had some of the successes.  You learn from mistakes.

Especially on those occasions the rankings haven’t come, I’ve asked myself: what good did I do? 

Put another way: if you subtract good rankings from an otherwise solid local SEO effort, what’s left?

Plenty, in my opinion:

Benefit 1: Avoid mistakes
An experienced local-search geek will keep you from making real stupid moves (or just wasting time).  And if you weren’t going to do anything stupid, well, then you’ve got yourself a trusted wingman.

Benefit 2: Avoid snake oil
Your local SEO-er will steer you away from wasting money on products or services that would be useless or harmful to you.  (I won’t name names here; feel free to email me if you’re curious.)  He / she will usually favor “sweat equity” and will try to help you build yours.

Benefit 3: Citations: check
You’ll have a solid foundation of correct, complete citations.

Also, many of those listings will have been claimed, and you’ll have the logins to most or all of them.  A real local-search pro wants you to have the reins.

Benefit 4: On-page: check
Your site will have just the right amount of on-page optimization: you’re not pretending search engines don’t exist, but you’re not overdoing it.

Benefit 5: More stickiness
At least when I do work for clients, their businesses are always at least a little more “optimized for humans” – on-site and off-site.  (See this, this, and this.)  What you do with your traffic matters more than how many eyeballs you get.

Benefit 6: Wake-up call
You may discover that you should at least dip a foot into other marketing media (like AdWords) – and that you shouldn’t rely exclusively on your visibility in local search.

Benefit 7: Trial by fire
Challenges are a good test of your SEO’s character.  You can ask tough but constructive questions.

Why hasn’t the needle moved enough?  What can we do to get it to move?  Is there anything extra we should do that we didn’t originally plan on?

Your trusty helper will not only give you the unvarnished truth, but may also be able to help you in other areas (e.g. building an email list) while you’re getting your local SEO efforts figured out.

Benefit 8: Easy come, easy go
Not getting results easily is a sign that good local visibility might be worth something in your market.  If it’s too easy to rank, the market may not be competitive – and that may be for a good reason (that there’s no money in it).

Benefit 9: Results may just be slow
Even if your local search efforts don’t seem fruitful at first, there’s a good chance the plan will come together just fine.  Slow local SEO is underappreciated.

Benefit 10: You get a consigliere
You’ll be able to lean on your local SEO-er for advice later on.  If / when you run into an issue, or have a question, or notice a change in Google, you’ll have someone you can ask.

Can you think of other benefits of a well-executed “local” campaign – even when the rankings are underwhelming?  Any real-life cases you’d like to share?  Leave a comment!

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

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

If this situation looks something like yours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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