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.

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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!

60+ Questions to Troubleshoot and Fix Your Local Reviews Strategy

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Most business owners know they need online reviews if they want to get more customers.  Some of them have actually tried to get happy customers to speak up.  Very few get anywhere.

Even if the business owner makes a reasonable request at an appropriate time, customers still have to follow through.  But they forget, or get distracted, or get confused, or aren’t asked to write a review on a site they find convenient, and so on.  The business owner gets frustrated and concludes reviews are impossible to get and not worth the effort.  He or she then loses would-be customers to someone else.

One thing I hang my hat on is being able to help business owners put together and execute on a review strategy that works: better reviews, more reviews, and more customers.  I’m talking about getting reviews on Google+, Yelp, Facebook, other sites you and I are familiar with, and on industry-specific sites.

I’ve taken part in gnarly failures and bust-out-the-Champagne successes.  I’ve worked with clients in more industries than you can shake a stick at (and have made review handouts for many more), and know all the things that can go wrong and what you really want to get right.

On the one hand, it’s a simple trinity: do right by your customers, provide instructions that they find easy to follow, and ask whenever possible.  As long as everything you do is with those principles in mind, you’ll do fine on reviews.

But on the other hand, the devil is in the details.  Also, you may be in a tricky situation (e.g. you’re a therapist or bankruptcy lawyer).  Or maybe you just want to go from good to world-class.

I’ve rounded up all the 64 questions I use to determine how my clients can get their review strategy on-track.

If you’re a business owner you’ll want to ask yourself these.  If you work for the business owner you’ll want to see how many of these you can sniff out on your own, and then have your boss or client fill in the gaps

I’ve also put together a Google Drive doc of all the questions – just the questions, without my explanations underneath them.

You probably won’t have to address all the questions.  I list 64 here simply to cover all the possible issues your review strategy might have run into.

FYI, it might be tough to use this as a checklist.  Some questions a “yes” answer is good, for others a “no” answer is good, and for other questions you might want a different type of answer.

Happy troubleshooting!

 

Basic questions

1.  Do you want to get more reviews?

Some business owners think reviews are too hard to get, or that in their unique situation getting reviews is impossible, or that customers don’t care about reviews.  Usually they end up agreeing with me that none of that is true, but some people are dead-set in their thinking.  If that’s you or your client, the rest of these questions probably won’t help you much.

 

2.  Are most of your customers happy?

If they’re not, you should still try to get the happy ones to speak up, but you may have a bigger challenge to work on in the meantime.

 

3.  What have you tried so far?

Broad question here, but that’s because there are so many possible answers.  The answer will give you an idea as to what other diagnostic questions (see below) to ask next.

 

4.  Do you provide easy-to-follow instructions for writing a review?

As opposed to simply making a request and assuming customers know what to do.

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5.  Do you offer reviews a choice as to the site?

Don’t focus too much on Yelp and Google+: they’re the only sites that really filter reviews (especially Yelp), and Google’s steps for posting a review are cumbersome and not clear to most people.  Steer at least some customers toward easier sites, and maybe use my “zigzag” strategy.  But you’ll want to diversify where you get reviews anyway, and that’s one way to do it.  I suggest you offer customers 3-6 choices.

 

6.  In what medium have you been asking for reviews?

Do you ask in-person, by email, by phone, on invoices, or what?  If you’ve only tried one method of asking for reviews, try another method – or ideally a combination.

 

7.  Do you know which customers are happy?

The worst thing to do is not to ask anyone because you’re so afraid someone might write a bad review.  It’ll happen eventually, if it hasn’t happened already.  But you want to get the happy customers to speak up, and asking them is the only good way to do it.  If you can’t tell who’s happy, just ask.  It can be as subtle, like, “So, is there anything else we can do for you today?”  Then ask for a review if it seems like a good idea.

 

8.  When you’ve asked customers for reviews, how did they react?

Did they say yes when you asked in-person, but never followed through?  Or did they ask whether they have to use their full name?  Did they snail-mail you a testimonial – rather than post an online review?  Their reactions will tell you what to change, or at least which diagnostic questions to ask yourself next.

 

9.  Do you know the laws or regulations on reviews in your industry?

The financial-consulting industry is the only one I know of where you just can’t ask for online reviews, according to the SEC.  My understanding has always been that doctors and psychotherapists can ask for reviews if they ask patients in an FTC-compliant way and if they tell patients that they don’t need to get into specifics (as per HIPAA).  Get the facts if you have any doubt as to the legality of your review strategy.  Don’t let uncertainty make you beat around the bush and not encourage happy customers to speak up.  Oh, and you don’t want to get in hot water.

10.  How likely is it that your customers / clients / patients would have privacy concerns if they used their full name to post an online review of you?

Make sure they know two things: (1) they don’t have to describe anything too specific or personal – they can focus on describing you and your service – and (2) they can review you on private / anonymous sites.

11.  How long have you been trying to get more reviews?

You don’t know how well your strategy works if you’ve only tried it for a month, or you’ve asked fewer than about 20 customers, or if you’re new to the whole idea of asking for reviews.  Try it for long enough that you can draw conclusions, and then tweak or change gears as needed.

 

12.  How long have you tried whatever strategy you’re currently using?

Give it a chance.  But be willing to change it or try something else if it doesn’t seem to work (see below questions).

 

13.  Do you have a problem with passive ways to encourage reviews (ways that don’t involve asking specific people directly)?

Add review badges or widgets to your site, consider copying and pasting reviews and featuring them throughout your site (see this and this), link to your reviews in your email signature, and include instructions on the “Reviews” page on your site.  You won’t get a ton of reviews, but these indirect methods may help you get a trickle.  Do this if you’re gun-shy about asking directly.

14.  How often do your customers’ reviews get filtered?

Having lots of filtered reviews (on Yelp and Google+) can be a good sign: it means people are following through.  Something’s working.

 

 

Setting the stage

15.  Do the names of your online listings closely match the name your customers / clients / patients know you as?

They may not even be finding the listings they want to post reviews on.  Work on your listings and make sure you can pull up the correct listings.

16.  Do you know for a fact that you don’t have any duplicate listings on the sites where you want reviews?

They may be posting reviews on the wrong listings.  Find the duplicates and fix or remove as many as you can.

 

17.  Do customers know that you will personally read and acknowledge their reviews?

Say so in your request.  Make it clear you’re looking for honest feedback, not just 5 stars.  Also, post responses to at least some of the reviews.  You don’t want reviewers to feel they’re shouting into the wind.

 

18.  Have you posted overheated responses to reviews?

Don’t scare people off.  Respond to negative reviews if you feel you need to, but don’t lose your cool.  Sleep on it before posting a response, and see if you can turn lemons into lemonade.

 

19.  If you’ve already got any reviews, do your customers know about them and know that they won’t be the first?

They’ll feel more comfortable if there are precedents.  It’s good if you can point to reviews that aren’t too long or personal, so that reviewers don’t feel daunted.  But then how do you get your first review?  Either by accident (from someone you didn’t expect to write one), or by asking enough people, or by reaching someone who wants to be the first because he/she is a really happy customer and wants you to stay in business.

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20.  Have you personally ever written an online review of a “local” business?

Do it.  Know what’s involved, and what you’re asking people to do.  Ideally you know what it’s like to write a review on the specific site(s) you’re asking customers to review you on.  (That’s half the reason I review businesses on Yelp.)

 

21.  How do most of your customers find you originally?

The ones who found you online are more likely to have checked out your reviews, to care about reviews, and to recognize their value to you and to other customers.  You’ll still have to work to get them to review you, but the point is they’re a little better-conditioned than are word-of-mouth referrals (for example).  To any customers who didn’t find you online you’ll probably need to explain why reviews matter to you, show how easy it is to post one, and provide step-by-step instructions.

 

Whom to ask

22.  Have you asked your very best, closest, most-loyal customers?

Give them a choice of at least two sites, give them simple instructions for each (more on that topic later), and follow up if they haven’t written you a review after your initial request.  Chances are they’ll review you.  If so, you probably have a workable strategy, and can start asking other customers.  (If they don’t review you, use the other questions to figure out why.)

 

23.  Take 5-10 customers you asked for a review – or plan to ask for a review – and look them up on Google+, Yelp, and Facebook: how many of them have ever written reviews of other businesses?

Customers who already write reviews understand why reviews matter to you, and probably don’t need much hand-holding.  You can also discover which site(s) they might prefer to review you on.

24.  Have you read the reviews you’ve already got and understood exactly what kind of people end up reviewing you?

If you can identify a type of person who’s likely to review you, you may have a better idea of whom to ask (and not to ask).

 

25.  How would you describe most of your customers’ economic situation?

Some groups of people are more likely to use their phones for most things they do online.  Make sure you give mobile-centric review instructions to customers who may not have much access to (or use for!) a desktop / laptop.

 

26.  How old is your typical customer? (Or if your customers fall into several age groups, what are the biggest 1-2 age groups?)

Sweeping generalization here: younger customers are a little more inclined to write you a review on mobile, whereas older ones might be warmer to a desktop / laptop.

 

Who asks

27.  In your company, who besides you might be able to ask customers for reviews?

Don’t want to ask customers yourself?  Don’t want to ask all of them yourself?  Want to run a “test” and figure out who’s the best?  Distribute the work, at least for a while.

 

28.  Who do you think would be the best person in your company to ask for reviews, and why?

Maybe you’re the boss and know your business best, but maybe Sara at the front desk has the relationship with customers, and might just be more charming than you.  Or maybe Louie is your best tech and would haul in the reviews, if only you could get him to start asking.

 

29.  Even if someone else usually asks customers for reviews, have you ever tried asking customers yourself?

Just so you can speak from experience, and tweak your strategy based on experience.

 

30.  Have you heard or seen exactly how people in your organization ask customers?

Do they emphasize that the review is a favor, and not an obligation?  Do they provide clear instructions?  Are they patient?  Are they polite to customers who don’t want to write a review?  Do they thank all customers?  Listen to some phone calls and read the emails.  Whether you do that openly or channel your inner Dick Cheney is up to you.  Just as long as it leads to a constructive talk.

 

When to ask

31.  When do you ask customers?

Your initial request should be right after the job is done, if possible, and then you should follow up within about a week.  You probably won’t have your best results if you let a month go by, or if you only ask immediately after the job is done.  (More on the topic of following up later.)

 

32.  Does at least one of your requests happen when the customer is in a position to write you a review immediately if he or she wants to?

Some people are more likely to follow through on the spot, rather than later.

 

33.  Have you tried asking at different times?

Ask on a different day, or at a different time of day, or both.  In particular, test if it seems to make a difference whether you ask during the week or on the weekend.

 

 

What to ask

34.  Do customers know you’re asking for an online review on a third-party site – not simply a testimonial that they let you stick on your site?

Too many business owners have told me, “Yeah, I have tons of reviews – I have a whole bag of ‘em in my office!”  No, those perfumed letters are testimonials, which presumably your customers gave you permission to put on your site.  I’m talking about online reviews, which people can post whether you ask them to or not, and which you can’t edit or cherry-pick.  Make sure your customers know the difference and know what you’re requesting.

 

35.  Do you encourage honest (even critical) feedback?

You don’t want your review corpus to look fishy.  But you do want to know how to provide a better service – for obvious reasons, and so you can earn even more “review stars” long-term.  Also, if you’re the type who’s concerned about asking customer for reviews only to have them leave you bad ones, encouraging honest feedback means you’re less likely to gall the less-happy customers.  They’re less likely to think, “How DARE they ask me for 5 stars – I’ll show ‘em where they can stick their 5 stars….”

 

36.  Which site(s) do you ask customers to review you on?

Try a different site.  Preferably one that’s less painful than Yelp or Google+.  If you get reviews there, you’ll know you’re at least on the right track.

 

37.  Do you comply with the rules of the sites where you want more reviews?

The consequences of ignoring Yelp’s polices can be pretty ugly.  Once upon a time Google+ reviews were also policed, and although now it’s no neighborhood for Mr. Rogers, you should still follow the rules.

 

38.  Have you avoided incentivizing reviews with things like gift cards or discounts?

It’s cheesy, ethically questionable, and might insult some customers (who may beat you over the head with it in their reviews).  Your payola will probably work, if your definition of success is simply getting reviews.   But those reviews will probably be short and pro forma and not too compelling to would-be customers, or they’ll look outright crooked.

 

39.  Do you make it clear which review site is your “first choice”?

You need to offer choices, but not so many that your reviewer freezes.  (As I mentioned before, I suggest asking any given reviewer to choose from one of 3-6 sites.)  They may also freeze if they have to decide between sites.  Provide a slight nudge.

 

40.  Do you ask any one customer to review you on more than one site?

Don’t turn it into a big chore, or make it seem that way.  You may be able to ask a customer who just successfully wrote you a review on one site to review you on another, but it would have to be a customer you’re pretty close with, and even then you wouldn’t want to wear out your welcome.

 

41.  If a customer seemed ready to write you a review on the spot, do you know exactly what you would ask that person to do?

Once in a blue moon, you may ask in-person for a review and your customer will say, “Sure.  I’ve got my phone right here.  Tell me what to do.”  Know what you want him or her to do.

 

42.  Do you tell customers roughly how long it will take to write a review?

Tell everyone that you appreciate a short review, but that you also love detail.  You’re respecting their time either way.  That’s a good way to get reviews from people who’d otherwise think it’s a pain and not bother, and to get the juicy, keyword-rich, in-depth, helpful reviews that can really convert readers into customers.

 

How to ask

43.  Do you make your review request sound like a personal favor (and not an obligation)?

You’re more likely to get a review, and you’ll stay classy.

44.  Do you email a bunch of customers at once?

Don’t.  Especially early on.  You don’t want to send an ineffective or ill-timed request, have it flop, and then have no more customers to ask.  (And if you’re using a personal or email account you don’t want to get in hot water with your ISP.)  Your reviews might also get filtered (at least on Yelp and Google) if too many people try to review you at once.  If you must request reviews in batches, keep the batches small (5-15 people).

 

45.  To what extent do you personalize each request?

I’m far more likely to review you if you say “Hey Phil” or “Mr. Rozek” than if you say “Dear Valued Customer,” even if the rest of the email is boilerplate.  And I’m way more likely to put in a good word for you if you allude to the specific service or product I paid for, or a conversation we had, or build off some rapport.  The more bespoke your request, the better.  Of course, that’s hard to “scale,” so pick your poison.

 

46.  Do you ask customers in more than one medium?

In my experience, the best is to ask in-person with printed instructions (like these) and later to follow up by email.  But you may find that snail-mail or a phone call or a review-card / review-page work well for you.

 

47.  Have you tried any tools?

You should.  Don’t expect them to work without any strategy or finesse on your part.  Don’t rely on them 100%, or stop experimenting even if they work well.  But tools like Grade.us and GetFiveStars (my personal recommendations) can serve you well.

 

48.  If the tools you’ve tried haven’t worked so well, have you tried others?

Again, you’ll probably need to experiment before you find a tool that helps.  (But again, don’t expect it to haul in reviews  without any thinking or effort on your part.)

 

49.  Have you relied solely on tools like DemandForce or SmileReminder?

These tools have their place in the world, but the trouble is that (last I checked) the reviews just sit in a walled garden on DemandForce.com or SmileReminder.com, because that’s where patients / clients write them.  They aren’t going to Yelp or Google+ or Facebook or HealthGrades or wherever.  I’ve seen businesses (usually medical practices) with 500 reviews on, say, DemandForce.com, but none on Google.  You need some reviews on the BIG sites – no matter how hard it is to get them – and you need diversity.

 

Your instructions

50.  If you tell customers that you’d like a review on any of a variety of sites (rather than just one), do you give them instructions for how to post a review on each of those sites?

Google+ is the site where they’ll probably need the most guidance, but you should provide at least rough instructions for whatever other sites you care about.

 

51.  Do you know for a fact that your review instructions are up-to-date?

On Google+ the steps change on average about once a year.  Facebook probably has tweaked them a couple of times, too.

 

52.  Do you make it simple for people to review you on any device?

Make sure they know whether to use their phones or desktops (if it matters), and make sure mobile reviewers know whether they need to download an app and that shorter reviews are OK.  If you send follow-up emails make sure to send a test email to yourself, and pull up the email and walk through the steps both on your desktop and on your phone.  Try your best to the stumbling blocks before would-be reviewers do.

 

53.  Do your printed instructions look well-designed and feel like good paper?

Consider printing on a thicker stock.  Or laminating your instructions.  Your request will seem more thought-out, and people will be less likely to use them to scoop up cat hairballs.

54.  If you’re using a “Review Us” page, do you link to instructions on how to post reviews?

It would be a shame not to: the customer is happy enough and cares enough to have visited your page.  Make it easy from here.  Nice examples here and here.

 

Following up

55.  Do you follow up on your initial request?

Just because they haven’t reviewed you doesn’t mean they won’t.  They forget, or their spouse hits them with the honey-do list, or your nice printed instructions enter the Doomsday Machine of papers on the kitchen table.  Follow up once.  Be nice and casual.  You won’t be considered a pest.

 

56.  Do you follow up in a different medium from the one you used to ask the first time?

If you ask in-person, maybe follow up by email.  If you only sent an email, ask the customer in-person next time, or maybe send snail-mail.  Experiment.

 

57.  Does your follow-up include (or point to) instructions for how to post a review?

For the same reasons you included instructions the first time around.  Make it easy to say yes.

 

58.  Does your follow-up seem automatic or stuffy?

Make it as customized (or even more so if possible) than your initial request.

 

Other troubleshooting questions

59.  Do your customers accidentally review the wrong business?

Check competitors’ listings for your reviews – especially if those competitors’ businesses are named similarly to yours.  Report those reviews and show how they’re for the wrong business.  (They may not get transferred to you

 

60.  Have you tried to learn from anyone who’s got more / better reviews than you, or who just has a lot of experience with online reviews?

Don’t cut corners if they cut corners, but see if there are any smart moves you can try.

 

61.  How many of the reviews you’ve already got are from people you asked for a review, versus how many were written spontaneously?

If nobody reviews you unless you ask, you know you need to ask.  On the other hand, having more than a few spontaneously written reviews means customers probably don’t find it tough or uncomfortable to review you, so the wind may be at your back if you just start asking.

 

62.  Have you had a little success on some review site(s), or do you have difficulty getting reviews on any site?

Having reviews somewhere probably means that they’re willing to put in a good word for you, but just need better-timed requests or reminders or clearer instructions.  It also means you could probably pile on more reviews there without too much effort.  Where you’ve got reviews so far may even tell you where those customers found you to begin with.

 

63.  How many of your customers have connected with your business on Facebook in some way?

That makes it real easy to ask for reviews on sites that accept Facebook logins – where customers don’t have to go to the trouble of setting up an account on a site just to review you.

 

64.  How do you encourage unhappy customers to update their reviews to be more favorable?

Get in contact and fix any issues you can, if possible.  If you can make that angry customer happier, ask if he or she will update the review to reflect that.

I hope that wasn’t overblown like an ‘80s power ballad, but I also hope you don’t say I wasn’t thorough.

Use the questions to tweak your strategy.  It will pay off.

Here’s the link to the questions-only Google Drive doc again.

Thanks to Alex Deckard of CAKE Websites for kicking around some ideas with me.

In your efforts to get reviews, have you run across a problem that my troubleshooting questions wouldn’t address?

Any questions or suggestions that are unclear?  Any others you can think of?

How about any questions that gave you a “Eureka” moment?

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!

Every Local SEO Diagnostic You’ll Ever Need to Know (Plus Some)

You may be stumped as to why you’re not ranking well (or at all)…but don’t say it’s because you tried everything and just couldn’t figure it out.

You probably didn’t try everything.

I can think of 56 diagnostics you should try if you want to troubleshoot local SEO problems or find missed opportunities.  I’ll tell you all 56 in a minute.

First, a few points about what this post is not:

It’s not a list of every tool.  That’s what this post is for.

It’s not a technical audit (although a few of my suggestions fall into that category).

It’s not a tutorial on exactly what to do about what each diagnostic may show you.  Many times the next steps will be clear, but sometimes they’re tricky.  (For maximum detail on action items, get my free guide – or consider my X-Ray service.)

By the way, this is an evergreen post, so I’ll keep adding diagnostics.  (Please leave a comment if you have any to suggest.)

Let’s get into it, shall we?  I’ve broken this up into 7 sections.  You can click on a link to jump to a section.

General

Google Places

Website

Citations

Links

Reviews

My 7-point quick checkup

…or you can just start right here at the top.

General diagnostics

Measure the business’s distance to the center of town
Look up driving directions (in Google Maps) from the business to the town where it’s located or where its owners want to rank.  Are you 20 miles from what Google considers the center of town?  Are you significantly farther away than your higher-ranking competitors are? You want a sense of whether it’s even possible to rank in your “target” city.

Search in the business’s ZIP code
Type a search term into Google, click the “Search tools” button under the search bar, and enter the ZIP or postal code that the business is located in.  Does it rank?

Search in an incognito browser window
You may see biased results if you’re logged into your Google account or if you haven’t cleared your browser’s cookies in a while.

Study Google Analytics
For now, just log in and look for any steep dips in traffic.  Then you can use these other diagnostics to figure out why the drop-off happened.  (There are tons of resources for learning about Google Analytics in-depth, and they’re easy to find, so I’ll leave that part to you.)

Check Google Webmaster Tools
Any crawl or indexation issues?

Check your Apple Maps, Bing Places, and Yahoo Local rankings
If you rank more visibly in those places than in Google, it’s less likely you’re looking at a technical issue on your website and more likely that you’re staring at Google’s sharp fangs.

Get my questionnaire filled out
I’m talkin’ about this.  Probably only useful if you’re the SEO person who needs all the pertinent facts from your client – although it might still be a useful exercise even if you’re doing your own local SEO.

Google Places diagnostics

Check for the Google Places pack
Are you seeing only organic results for search terms that used to pull up the Google Places 7-pack (or 3-pack) results – or vice versa?

Perform a brand-name search
Do you see the Google Places page?  Is it the correct one?  Do you see the expected listings on other sites (e.g. Yelp)?

Search from different default locations
Type in a search term, click the “Search tools” button under the search bar, and enter other cities or ZIP codes.

Check rankings both with and without city names
Do you rank for “dentist” but not for “Cleveland dentist”?

Check the “Maps” tab
Are you ranked #10?  Are you on page 5?  To find out, type in a search term, click the “Map results…” link under the Google Places results, then click the “See results in list view” link. That’s for checking your visibility in the “new” Google Maps. But, as Linda points out, you should also check your rankings in classic Maps, because you may see different results there – possibly pre-Pigeon-update results.

Search on Google Plus
Go to plus.google.com, sign in, go to the “Local” tab, and search for the business.  Can you find its Google Places page?  Is it the one you expected to find?

Check both Googles
Let’s say your business is in Canada.  Check its rankings both on Google.com and on Google.ca.  You may notice a huge difference.

Make sure the page is verified
Look for the little checkmark near the profile photo.

Make sure the page has been “upgraded”
Do you see only an “About” and “Photos” tab, or do you see 3-4 tabs (like “Posts,” “Videos,” or “YouTube”)?

See if Google has made changes without your OK
Yes, Google does that sometimes.  Log into your Google My Business dashboard and you may see a message that says Google made tweaks to your page (usually to your address or categories).

Search for your business in MapMaker
Look at the “Details” tab.  Is any info incorrect?  (By the way, don’t bother with this step if you’ve got a service-area business.)  If anything seems incorrect, don’t mess around with it without reading this post first.

Check your map-marker location
Google your address.  Now check out on the map on your Google Places page.  Does the red marker show up in exactly the same place on the map?  If not, move the marker.

Find duplicate or near-duplicate Google Places pages
Use Michael Cottam’s excellent and free tool.  Or use the old-school techniques that Joy Hawkins’ describes.

Check the Google Places landing page URL
Go to your Places page and click the link to your site.  Does it forward to a domain other than the one you just clicked on?  Does it even take you to your website at all (yes, I’ve seen typos here, sad to say)?  Please tell me you’re using your homepage as the landing page.

Double-check the business hours
I’ve seen significant traffic dips on (for example) weekends when I’ve had clients who are closed on weekends.  Is that because search volume is naturally lower on the weekend because people are taking it easy, and that’s why the businesses are closed to begin with?  Or is Google less likely to show search results that contain closed businesses?  I suspect it’s a little of both.  So make sure your hours don’t mark you as “Closed” for more hours than you really are closed.

Website diagnostics

Do a site:yourwebsite.com search
How many of your pages are indexed?  Are you seeing old, duplicate versions of pages?  Are all your title tags the same (or just terrible)?

Check your robots.txt
Go to yourwebsite.com/robots.txt.  Make sure it doesn’t contain the dreaded “Disallow: /” line.  Especially if you’re not sure how to assess a robots.txt file you’ll want to use Google’s tester.

Look for mirror sites
I’m talking about clones of the site you want to rank well: same guts, different domain name.  Slimy companies may build these for you in a misguided attempt to try to “track conversions.”  The best way to find them is to Google a few lines of text from your homepage, and to see whether another domain pops up in Google.  Or use Copyscape or Plagium.

Find any unwanted subdomains or staging sites
Search for them by typing site:yourwebsite.com -www search.  Hat tip to the Local SEO Guide guys for reminding me about this one.

Make sure the NAP info is crawlable text
Google needs to be able to read your name / address / phone (“NAP”) info.  That’s not possible if your NAP is an image.  So here’s the test: can you copy and paste it?  If so, Google can read it OK.

View the source code
Only do this if you are your own webmaster, have built websites in the past, or otherwise know what to look for.  But if you do know what to look for, you may find some real demons.

Check the site on a smartphone
If you’re in an industry where a lot of the traffic (let’s say 30% or more) is from smartphones and you don’t have a mobile-friendly site, your bounce rate may be high.  That may hurt your rankings.

Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool
Hat tip to Tony of Cartography Marketing for reminding me of this one.

Check the “itemtype” line in your Schema.org markup
The itemty-…huh?  I explain that one in another long post.  It’s a little technical, and it won’t explain low rankings, but it might give you a slight edge in the local roller-derby.

Citation diagnostics

Do a (free) Moz Local scan
Hands-down the best way to get a quick sense of how much work your citations need.  Oh, and don’t ignore the suggestions for categories.

Check the BBB record
I love this hack.  You can find alternative business names, old phone numbers, and more.

Make sure you’re listed on Google’s pets
Beyond Yelp and YP, what sites rank well for the terms you’re trying to rank for? For instance, Google expects you to be on HealthGrades if you’re a doctor, or Avvo if you’re a lawyer, or Houzz if you’re a contractor. I’m mostly talking about industry sites. Thanks to Gyi Tsakalakis for reminding me of this point.

Search for the phone number in the standard format
I like to search with dashes as the separators (e.g. 123-867-3509).  It’ll pull up the same results as it would if you Googled the phone number with parentheses around the area code.

Search the phone number with periods as separators
Some people think the dots look chic, so they use them in their phone number.  But Google does not treat periods the same as dashes.  You may see different search results come up when you search for the number with periods (e.g. 123.867.5309).

Search for your business name and city
Great diagnostic from Darren: “If everything is in order, you should see a knowledge panel for the business. If you don’t get one, that can indicate Google isn’t getting enough signals to identify your brand. Try working on citation audit & cleanup, and review acquisition.” (By the way, Darren’s crew can help with messy citations.)

Search for the address
What kind of address is it (e.g. residential)?  Do the expected business listings (e.g. YellowPages) come up?  Do you see unexpected phone numbers come up?  Any discrepancies as to what city / town that address might be in?

Do a USPS ZIP Lookup
What town does Uncle Sam think your ZIP is in?  Know that before you touch your citations.

Use the Local Citation Finder
Do your competitors have better local citations?  Which competitors?  Where can you go to get those citations?  The Local Citation Finder can save you hours of toiling.

Use NAP Hunter
Those madmen at Local SEO Guide created a Chrome extension to help you unearth incorrect and duplicate citations.  Another huge time-saver.  Or, if you want to take the scenic route, you can use the sitelinks search box to find duplicate citations.

Yext free scan
Ignore the eschatological “144 Errors!” warnings and just get a rough sense of how many totally wrong phone numbers, addresses, and names are floating around the web, and on what sites. Note: if you use Yext’s free scan you’ll get solicited by Yext. (Thanks to Rob Scutti for reminding me of this trade-off.)

Check the state’s Secretary of State filing
Fix any business info that’s incorrect or out-of-date.

Check THE big YellowPages-type player in your country
YellowPages.ca is the make-or-break listing if you’re in Canada.  YellowPages.com.au is huge you’re in Australia.  Yell.com is crucial if you’re in the UK.  Get your listing right and you may see progress on the Google Places side.

Check Twitter for acknowledged problems
Great resource: Bill Bean’s Twitter Handles for Local Business Citation Sources.

Link diagnostics

Check backlinks
Use OpenSiteExplorer, MajesticSEO, or Ahrefs – or some combination of the three, ideally.  Spot-check your links and decide if they’re junk.  Get any junk links removed.

Check Google Webmaster Tools for a manual penalty
A worst-case scenario (one reason you don’t want to skip the “Check backlinks” step).

Get a Toxic Links score from LinkDelete
Another one in Darren’s words: “Run their quick scan to get a sense of how many bad links you have. Don’t freak out if the number is higher than expected. They tend to over-report a bit, in my opinion.”

Look at the release history of Penguin and other algorithm updates
Does Google Analytics show a steep drop-off in traffic on or right after a day that Google released an algorithm update?

Check for links between affiliated businesses
Do your five sites merrily link to each other?  Don’t.

Review diagnostics

Type in [name of business] + reviews
Just see what – if anything – comes up.  Not having many or any reviews is bad local SEO and worse marketing.  Read this and this.

Check Google’s reviews dashboard
Sometimes buggy and won’t pick up Yelp reviews, but good for getting a quick sense of where a business has reviews.

Check YellowBot
Same goal as above.  As I’ve shown, reviews from all over the place show up on YellowBot.

Check the “More reviews” section in the knowledge graph
Yet another way to check for where a business has reviews.

Find filtered Google+ reviews
See this brilliant post by Joy Hawkins.

My 7-point quick checkup:

I can uncover probably 80% of problems in about 10 minutes, just by doing these quick tests (which I mentioned earlier):

1.  Check rankings both with and without city names

2.  Perform a brand-name search

3.  Measure the business’s distance to the center of town

4.  Do a site:yourwebsite.com search

5.  Do a (free) Moz Local scan

6.  Google the phone number(s)

7.  Check backlinks

 

Great further reading

Advanced Local Citation Audit & Clean Up: Achieve Consistent Data & Higher Rankings
– Casey Meraz

Troubleshooting Local Ranking Failures: a Beginner’s Guide
– Miriam Ellis

*Local SEO Audit Template
– Dan Leibson

(*That’s not the real title of the post, but I’m not shoehorning that 17-word monstrosity in here.  Sorry, Dan 🙂  Nice post, though.)

 

Do you have a problem you still can’t figure out after trying those diagnostics?

Is there a troubleshooting method I forgot?

What’s your favorite?

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!

A Real-Life User of Google+Local Phone Support

A few days ago Google announced free, limited phone support for cases where you just can’t seem to verify your business’s Google+Local page.

As when the ’04 Red Sox won the World Series, this restored some of my faith in the goodness of the Natural Order.

But then I remembered what the ’05 and ’06 Sox taught me: Things often slide backwards before they move forward again.

I wondered:

Will people abuse Google’s phone support and ruin it for everyone and cause Google to go cheap again?

Will it be like calling Bank of America – hard or impossible to reach a human who can fog a mirror?

Will the person on the phone at Google not really help and simply regurgitate the “Quality Guidelines”?

So far, from what little I know at this early stage, the answers seem to be no, no, and no.  From what I’ve heard, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

None of my clients has needed to use Google+Local phone support so far.  But Travis Van Slooten of TVSInternetMarketing recently had occasion to use it for a Bermuda Triangle that one of his clients has been stuck in for weeks.  Actually, his client made the call.

(The problem seems to be in the process of being solved: Google’s ETA was a couple weeks, and it’s only been a couple of days since the phone call.)

Here’s what Travis kindly sent me, followed by what his client sent him after calling Google.  Maybe it sounds like your situation or that of someone you know.

It’s a great example of when you may want to use Google’s phone support, and what to expect:

Phil:

I work with a painting contractor in California who had multiple Google+ Local pages. He hired me specifically to get these duplicates deleted and to get his primary listing optimized as it was missing pictures, didn’t have a good description, etc. etc. Over the course of several weeks I got the duplicates deleted and his primary listing well optimized and ranking very well. He was in the A or B position for his main keywords.

Suddenly he emailed me that his rankings were gone. He was nowhere to be found and he wanted me to look into it. It didn’t take me long because when I logged into his dashboard, his listing was in “Pending Review” mode. Him and I were both scratching our heads. Why the heck would it suddenly be in pending review mode when it was doing just fine for several weeks?

Together, he and I spent the next several weeks to get the listing out of “pending review” – which consisted mostly of him bugging Google via the troubleshooter and me pinging the listing on a daily basis. The responses from Google’s help desk were the usual canned responses that his listing was in pending review and that they would review the listing in the coming weeks. Gee, thanks Google for stating the obvious 🙂 And the pinging didn’t do anything.

Desperate, I reached out to you for your recommendations. As I recall, what you said I was doing everything correct and that everything looked good, and you weren’t sure why it would be under review either.  Then you said if the listing didn’t come out of review soon that we should just start a new listing and basically start over. When I told the client that, he didn’t want to take that drastic move. He was willing to wait a while. He said he would contact me when he was ready to start over. That was about 4 weeks ago.

Then your email newsletter came, where you told us that Google now had a phone number you could call for support on these types of issues. I immediately contacted the client with this information. He called Google and here is his email back to me on how it went:

[Here is the email from the client]

Travis:

I went thru it last night and I got a phone call almost immediately and although the rep had a particular problem finding an email associated with my account he took my information and promised to call me right back. He called back about 20-30 minutes later but I was not able to take his call but he confirmed my account email and said my listing was officially verified. He also said that I can expect to have the review completed in 2 weeks time. He sounded confident about that and I was glad to talk to anybody so thanks for the tip. It worked great!

We shall see if this call actually does anything. The rep promised the review to be completed in 2 weeks time so we’ll be keeping an eye on it. It’s a shame my client wasn’t able to take the call because he could have asked why it was in review in the first place. Oh well, I suppose it won’t matter if his listing finally goes live again in a couple weeks. If it doesn’t, he’ll be calling Google again – and I’ll be making sure he is able to talk to Google to get the skinny on this pesky review status.

Have you had occasion to call Google+Local phone support?  Do you know someone who has?  Do you have a situation on your hands that you’re not sure has any other possible solution?  Let me know – leave a comment!

(Here’s where you can access phone support: you have to go through the troubleshooter, but there’s a number at the other end.)

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.