4 Local SEO Tools from Uncle Sam

The US Government is dysfunctional.  Congress is corrupt.  It’s so bad that, even in these times of spiraling deficits, lawmakers are still earmarking precious funds so that Uncle Sam can help you with…your local SEO.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I don’t know that The Man has appropriated precious resources specifically to help your business grow its local rankings.  But he does have some resources that you might be able to use to your advantage.

Of course, they’re free.  (Actually, you’re paying for them…but let’s not go there 🙂 )

Here are 4 government-issued tools that can come in handy for your local-search-visibility campaign:

 

Tool 1: USPS ZIP Lookup Tool

Is your business in a small town, near a city line, or in a big city with a bunch of tightly-packed ZIP codes?  Better double-check what ZIP the Post Office thinks you’re in (or, for that matter, which city they think you’re in) – before you do any citation-building for your business.

If you don’t “measure twice, cut once,” you’ll probably be in for a nasty surprise if the Post Office lists you at an address other than the one you use for your listings.  Why?  Because ExpressUpdate.com (AKA InfoGroup) feeds off of Post Office address data, and in turn feeds business data to a ton of directory sites where your address needs to be listed consistently across the board.  There will be conflicting info on your business, hurting your Google rankings.  You’ll feel like going postal.

(By the way, I’d known about the USPS checkup for quite some time, but I must tip my hat to Mary Bowling for reminding me by way of her great SMX Advanced presentation / slide deck.)

 

Tool 2:  Census.gov

Want to know more about the people (AKA potential customers) in the city you’re targeting?  The Census is the great-granddaddy of big data.

If you rummage around the site for long enough you’ll probably find out whatever you want to know, but I’d say following two areas are the best starting points:

http://www.census.gov/econ/cbp/

http://www.census.gov/econ/susb/

 

3.  OSHA’s Standard Industrial Category (SIC) Tool

If you’re listing your business on ExpressUpdate.com for the first time, OSHA’s category-search tool can help you pick out the best category to list your business under.  (More detail on this in my recent post on the new ExpressUpdate.)

 

4.  Your city’s local-business directory.

If you suspect some of your competitors are using fake business info – like a keyword-stuffed Google+Local business name or a phony address – you might want to look up their official business info.  From there, you’ll probably be in a better position to draw a conclusion as to what to do about it – like possibly reporting them to Google through the “Report a problem” button on their Google listing, or reporting them to the MapMaker fuzz.

You should be able to find your local-business register by searching Google for the name of your city/town + “local business directory,” “business register,” or “chamber of commerce.”  (Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.)

Do you know of any government-issued resources that might be handy for local SEO?  Anything local-business-related that you wish our tax dollars would go toward?  Leave a comment!

5 Google Places Tests I’d Love to See

I discover a lot about Google Places by wrestling with it all day, every day.  But I’m also constantly scratching my head at questions—things that I just started wondering about based on observations, or that people have asked me.

Some of these questions I’ve yet to find the answers to.  I know someone—maybe you, maybe me—can find the answers with a little (or a lot of) testing, studying, experimenting, analyzing, tinkering, doodling, or whatever word you prefer.  Here are a few questions about Google Places that I think would make for really cool tests:

 

Test 1:  Is there a measurable benefit in claiming your listings on third-party sites (i.e., citation sources)?

Let’s say my business is listed on Yelp, YellowPages, and SuperPages 100% correctly (as it ought to be).  To what extent can it help my Google Places rankings to claim—AKA owner-verify—my listings on those third-party sites? 

Does claiming third-party listings help your Google Places rankings?

What I know:  You’re in a better position to control your business info if you’ve claimed as many of your third-party listings as possible.  This is valuable from the standpoint of keeping your info accurate and consistent across the Web, and of preventing any unethical competitors from hijacking your listings.

What I don’t know:  Whether simply the act of claiming a third-party listing provides a “trust-signal” to Google that you’re the rightful business owner, which could help your Places rankings at least a little bit.

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Priority #1 is to have consistent and accurate info on third-party sites.  If we have to claim all your third-party listings in order to accomplish that, then we’ll claim them all.  But if your info is already consistent and accurate, let’s mess with owner-verification some other time.”

 

Test 2:  To what extent can you increase the number of business categories that show up on your Google Places page by listing your business under a broad range of categories on third-party sites—and can you get visible for more search terms this way?

As we both know, you can only pick up to 5 categories on your Google Places page.  But sometimes more than 5 show up on your Places page.

How can you get additional business categories on your Places page?

What I know:  Google adds these additional categories based on business info from third-party sites.

What I don’t know:  There’s a lot I don’t know: First of all, exactly what information does Google draw on from third-party sites in order to assign these additional categories? That is, does Google look at the categories your business is listed under, the keywords, the tags, the text of customer reviews on third-party sites, or some mysterious combination of all of the above?

Let’s say there are more than 5 categories that accurately describe my business and I want to score some of those additional categories.  How should I go about it, exactly?  Most third party sites—with a few exceptions, like MapQuest—also limit the number of categories I can list myself under.  So should I try to pick slightly different categories on these sites from the ones I picked for my Places page?  Or is it possible that Google pays more attention to the “keywords” and “tags” fields on my third-party business listings?

Last but not least, is there any correlation between (1) the additional categories that show up on my Places page and (2) the likelihood that my business will rank more visibly for searches related to those specific additional categories?  Obviously it’s good to have some additional categories show up on your Places page because they give potential customers an even better sense of what your business offers.  So in terms of the “human element,” the additional categories are good.  But does having more of them correspond to being visible for more search terms?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “My top task is to get you visible for the 5 categories on your Places page, so I’m going to pick roughly the same categories on other sites whenever I can, in order to reinforce the 5 on your Places page.  Of course, different sites have different categories to choose from, so some deviation from your 5 Google Places categories is inevitable.  But I’ll always pick as many relevant categories as I’m allowed to pick, because my understanding is that will give you the greatest exposure for the greatest number of services you offer.

 

Test 3:  How many “flags” by Google-account users does it usually take to get an obviously abusive or spammy Google Places review removed by Google?

How many flags or reports to get an abusive Google review pulled?

What I know:  It’s possible to get Google Places reviews removed if (1) they blatantly violate Google’s rules and (2) if Google is notified via “flags” or “Report a problem” complaints.

What I don’t know:  How many flags or “Report a problem” complaints does it generally take to get a clearly abusive review taken down?  From how many different Google users?  Does a flag from a Google user who just opened an account and has written zero reviews “count” as much as a flag from user who opened a Google account in 2007 and has contributed 190 reviews?  What does it generally take?

(Actually, obvious spam reviews have only been a problem for a couple of my clients—and neither case was recent.  I simply don’t remember how much effort it took to get them removed.  Plus, Google’s “support” infrastructure changes constantly; what works in one month may not work the next month.)

What I’d tell a client for now:  “If we want this clearly libelous review to get taken down, you and I are going to have to flag it and report it as spam at least once every few days until Google gets the message and takes it down.  If you can, tell your kids, Uncle Fred, and Aunt Ruth to open a Google account and do the same.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a pain to ask them, but the alternative is to lose customers because of some moron.”

 

Test 4:  Does it matter whether your site contains multiple non-local phone numbers that are crawlable by search engines?

What I know:  It’s always a good idea to have your local phone number—the one featured on your Places page—as crawlable text on your website.  It’s another clue to Google that your business in fact is local, and that the phone number listed on your Places page and elsewhere is the correct one.  In cases where a business has one website but multiple locations, it’s OK to have the corresponding phone numbers for each location as crawlable text (ideally in hcard microformat); Google never seems to get the numbers confused.

What I don’t know:  What if you have other crawable numbers on your site—numbers that aren’t associated with a Places page of yours?  I’ve never heard of or seen a duplicate listing created by additional phone numbers on a site, nor have I ever noticed that they cause any third-party sites to use the wrong phone number.  But still…is there any measurable risk in doing this?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “It’s probably OK to list your 1-800 number, your secretary’s number, and your cell number as crawlable text on your site, but just to be on the safe side, let’s just take 5 minutes to add them to your site as an image, because Google can’t read images.”

 

Test 5:  Does running AdWords Express ads cause your business to drop off of the first page of Google Places results if you’re ranked there?

One client of mine ranked well—though not #1—in Google Places until he decided to give the then-brand-new AdWords Express a try.  Around the same time, Mike Blumenthal wrote that you can’t have a #1 position in Google Places and an AdWords Express ad at the same time —which Google actually confirmed.  Last but not least, a couple of people have contacted me about this, wondering if it’s just their imagination or if AdWords Express ads and all page-one Google Places rankings are mutually exclusive.

Can AdWords Express ads and top-7 Google Places rankings coexist?

What I know:  I know for a fact that this wasn’t the case with the predecessor of AdWords Express, Google Boost.  I know that setting up “location extensions” in an AdWords account has never harmed visibility in Google Places.  I also know that Google won’t let you keep a #1 Google Places ranking if you run AdWords Express (which, again, Mike explains in this post).

What I don’t know:  Whether any page-one Google Places ranking will vanish if you run AdWords Express.  I’ve yet to put my suspicions to the test by asking a client with a page-one Google Places ranking for a specific search term to bid on that search term with AdWords Express and see what happens.  (There must be a better way to test it than that, but I can’t think of anything as conclusive).

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Express is just a dumbed-down version of AdWords to begin with.  Unless your Express ads have been an absolute cash cow, switch over to classic AdWords, which is more robust and allows you—not Google—to control the text of your ads and your keyword bids and to do things like split-tests.  Plus, though I don’t yet know this for a fact, I’ve found that Google Places rankings can take a major hit if you use AdWords Express, so let’s not play Russian Roulette with your business.”

There may or may not be good ways to test these questions.  It may be tough to create conclusive tests, given that every local market is unique.

I love to procrastinate, watch TV, and eat potato chips as much as the next guy does, so it may be a while before I personally take the time to set up these tests and crunch the results 🙂

Are there any other questions that you would really like to see tested?  Any suggestions for how to test the ones I mentioned?  Any first-hand experience or observations?  Leave a comment!

Sabotage Methods in Google Places

Maybe you didn’t “do anything” to your competitor.  Maybe your competitor is struggling and simply wants more customers.  Maybe your competitor thinks your success online means less profit for him or her.

I don’t know what your competitors think—and you probably don’t know, either.

But I do know one thing: you don’t want your business, livelihood, and your family’s finances to depend on whether or not your competitors are ethical people.

Just as people can hurt each other in real life, they can hurt each other where it really counts online: Google Places.

Your competitors are probably honest people.  But there are always the bad apples.  Even the bad ones most likely can’t hurt you intentionally in Google Places right now—unless they’ve been studying up on it.  Some people are clever and knowledgeable but also dishonest and unethical.

There are specific tactics they can use to deprive you of local customers in Google Places and take a chunk out of your business and profits.  For any competitors to use any of these against you, they’d have to fall somewhere between savvy and ingeniously cunning.

Some of these tactics I’ve seen used, whereas others I haven’t seen anyone use.  But each one is a vulnerability that you should know about.

Disclaimer:  I can’t control who reads this, or what that person does with the info I provide.  I’m telling you about these tactics so you can prevent them from being used against your business in the first place, and so you have an idea of how to counteract them in case you do encounter them.

Here are the 9 nastiest ways an unethical competitor could sabotage you—ranked in order of least to most sinister:

9.  They upload malicious or unflattering photos to your Places page.  They don’t even have to be untrue or libelous; they could just be really ugly or irrelevant photos that turn customers off to you.  Sure, you could get them removed, but it will be a real nuisance for you—and some potential customers will inevitably see the photos in the meantime.

8.  They relentlessly use the “Report a problem” feature in Google Places to try to convince Google that you’re doing something wrong.

7.  They pepper your Google reviews with flags and reports of being “inappropriate”—and then get their henchmen to do the same.  If they succeed, your legitimate reviews might go the way of the dodo bird.

"Flagging" Google reviews

6.  They could get several people to write you a bunch of positive reviews.  Google may suspect you’re buying positive reviews (which some people do), and may pull your reviews or even suspend your account.  Your competitors could take it a step further by making the reviews sound really fake (though still positive), which could cause legitimate people who visit your Places page to flag the reviews as “inappropriate” or “unhelpful” and get you into trouble.

5.  They write nasty reviews of you on third-party sites and/or or on sites like PissedConsumer.com.  These are especially tough to combat because (1) it’s harder for you to keep tabs on a bunch of different sites, because (2) one person can easily create a bunch of different user accounts on these sites and write you a nasty review on each, and because (3) some third-party sites don’t give you much recourse even if your business is getting slammed unjustly.

4.  They write fake negative reviews, get their friends and family to do the same, and pay even more people to do it.  They’d get a bunch of people to write not only negative Google reviews, but also nasty reviews on third-party sites.  Most customers would know the reviews are cooked-up, but some would be convinced, and your Google Places ranking would most likely still take a hit.  You could counteract their efforts if you took enough time away from running your business, but don’t expect Google to step in and do anything.

3.  They set up fake Google Places listings for your address, using a different phone number from the one you use.  Long story short, Google views your phone number as the unique “ID” of your business.  If Google doesn’t have confidence that it knows what your real phone number is, your ranking will take a big hit.

2.  Alternatively, they could set up fake Google Places listings using the name of your business but with a different phone number and a different address from the ones you use.  Again, this would be an attempt to spread inconsistent info about your business and create “uncertainty” about your business in the eyes of Google.  Having duplicate listings in general isn’t good for your Google Places ranking, and it’s far worse if there is a bunch of inconsistent information about your business floating around on the duplicate Places listings.  The worst part is if your competitor lists an address that isn’t your real one, he potentially could receive the verification PIN from Google in the mail and actually “owner-verify” the fake listing.  Google likely would eventually conclude that it isn’t the right address, but your competitor still will have thrown a wrench into the system.

1.  Probably the worst thing a competitor could do to you is to use Tactic #2 against you and go to numerous third-party sites and create a bunch of fake listings for your business, all slightly different from each other.  Not only does your Google ranking suffer when you have a ton of duplicate listings floating around cyberspace, but it’s infinitely worse when the info in those listings (phone numbers, addresses, name of business) is inconsistent.  It would be extremely tough to manage the information that the most important third-party sites have about you—especially if an unethical competitor keeps peppering them with false info and maybe even claiming some of the listings.  Especially if this tactic is used in combination with any of the others, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.

So how can you avoid or counteract any sabotage?  A few suggestions:

  • Watch your Google Places listing like a hawk.  This means not only checking the Place page itself for anything suspicious or malicious, but also logging into the “Dashboard” area to make sure you don’t have any notifications/warnings from Google.
  • Keep an eye on third-party listings and data providers—including Yelp, SuperPages, CitySearch, and ExpressUpdateUSA.  Look out for duplicate listings and see if the info they contain is accurate.  If not, get the duplicates removed.
  • Set up Google Alerts for your business name and website name.  Doing the same for your competitors’ names is a good measure, too.
  • Read all your reviews—first and foremost on your Places page, but also occasionally on major third-party sites, like Yelp and InsiderPages.  If you see a suspicious-looking review, click on the username of the person who wrote it.  You’ll be able to see what other reviews that person has written.  If there’s a scathing 1-star for you but a glowing 5-star for your competitor, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

If prevention doesn’t work, contact the business owner.  First just mention what is going on, and ask in a non-accusatory way whether they might know anything about it.  If they’re dodgy, explain your reasons for thinking they’re up to something, and then ask them to explain what’s really going on.  Obviously, be as polite as possible and don’t lead off with finger-pointing—but also be firm and keep your BS detector cranked up.

Meanwhile (maybe before you even contact the business owner), use Google’s feeble but occasionally handy “Report a problem” feature to let the powers-that-be at Google Places know something’s awry.

(By the way, if you still encounter trouble even after all of that, feel free to contact me; I may be able to give you some suggestions.)

To a peaceful, fair, prosperous local market.

Unheralded Change in Google Places: the Tiny Feedback Link

The Google Places layout has changed a lot recently: gray map pins, “preview” arrows for each Places page, and a re-orientated local map that follows you as you scroll down the page.

Much ink has been spilled over these changes.  Even people who don’t follow Google Places closely know about the new layout.

But there’s a change that nobody (to my knowledge) has discussed so far: the little “Feedback” link.

What “Feedback” link?  Type in a local search term, hover your mouse over any of the Google Places business results, and then hover over the little arrow that pops up on the right.

The new "Feedback" link in Google Places

Way below the big map and the newly prominent Places page info, you’ll see a small, grayed-out link that says “Feedback.”  If you click on it, the “Report a problem” window will come up, and you’ll be able to report mischief to Google.

There’s nothing new about the “Report a problem” window.  You could always get to it before, either by clicking on a Place page and scrolling down to find the link at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the “Maps” tab and clicking on a tiny link in the bottom-right corner.  Nor is the “Report a problem” window any different from the old one; it just looks a little spiffier.  This feature isn’t new.

What’s new (and strange) is the link itself and the way it’s been incorporated into the new Google Places layout.  (Yes, it’s only for Google Places, because the “previews” for organic search results don’t include “Feedback” links.)

Specifically, what’s weird is how subtle this “Feedback” link is.  It’s tiny.  It’s gray.  You only see it when you hover on a local search result and then on a preview arrow.  For something that’s now accessible from page 1 of Google, it’s awfully inconspicuous.

The wording of the link itself is vague: all the other links to the “Report a problem” window simply read “Report a problem.”  It’s not like you can leave any old kind of feedback: it can ONLY be a problem you’re reporting, not “Hey, I think this business is great.”  Why is this the only case where Google refers to the “Report a problem” area differently (and vaguely)?

It’s a contradictory change: it’s more prominent—you can now see it without leaving Page One—but it’s not downright prominent.  Google isn’t known for its subtlety, or for being afraid to stick its new features in your face.

So why is it only a little easier now for people to “report a problem” with a business in Google Places?

One possibility is that Google is starting to make an effort to clean up phony / spammy / inaccurate Google Places listings and info—with the help of Good Samaritans and business owners who are getting screwed by inaccurate and/or fraudulent listings.  The folks at Mountain View know that Places is the Wild West; the only question is to what extent they’ll send a sheriff or two into the local saloons.

Given Google’s recent stabs at quality-control (in the form of “automatic updates”) and its growing emphasis on user-generated content, it’s possible Google is now paying a little more attention to reports of problems.

So…if there are any inaccuracies / spammy Google Places listings in your local market, give the “Feedback” link a try; there’s a chance Google will actually listen.