Breaking down the new realities of local search: What we learned at SMX West

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Local search and SEO are frequently treated as secondary considerations for search marketers. Yet, especially where mobile search is concerned, they should be primary. Using Google’s own data and public statements, it’s safe to say there are at least 350 billion annual local queries, which is still probably conservative.

The New Realities of Local Search session at SMX West covered a number of critical issues and topics for local search marketers, including ranking factors, Google My Business, Q&A, local map spam and optimizing Google Posts.

Know your local ranking factors

Dana DiTomaso, president of Kick Point, lead off the session and offered the broadest overview of local search optimization and local PPC. She began with an overview of the most recent Local Search Ranking Factors survey, which tracks SEO experiences and opinions. She pointed out that the survey found GMB signals are now the most prominent single factor among the top considerations.

She talked about the reduced visibility of Google Posts but argued that the benefit of Posts isn’t CTR but gains in local pack visibility from consistent posting. She recommended posting at least once every seven days and experimenting with different content: video, photos, events.

Many brands and retailers are failing to respond to Google Q&A. This is a significant mistake; marketers may be missing warm leads and a chance to offer valuable information to potential customers. She suggested asking and answering your own questions (not posting fake reviews) but offering useful information. She added that marketers should “upvote good questions at least three times” in order to gain visibility in the Knowledge Panel.

Reviews are another critical ranking factor and will be a differentiator in competitive verticals. Dana argued that marketers should focus on Google reviews first and she pointed out that longer reviews will often be pulled into the Knowledge Panel.

When capturing reviews, she recommended thinking about what you want people to say about the business. “Ask very specific questions,” she said, and provided the following example:

  • Right: “Was your pizza delivered hot and crispy?”
  • Wrong: “How was your pizza?”

Local links are always challenging to get. Dana’s advice is “Always be thinking about how you can get a link from what you’re already doing.” Here are her top sources of local links:

  • Suppliers/partners
  • Business contacts
  • Donations/sponsorships
  • Competitive analysis
  • Host events
  • Use your jobs page
  • Unlinked brand mentions

Finally, Dana offered a number of recommendations for paid local search and Facebook. Use “every possible [Ads] extension,” she advised. And use lots of locale (geographic) keywords in the ad copy.

Location may affect conversing rates; so focus in on those locations where ads are performing. For Facebook ads, she says do lots of small tests and get social proof before making a meaningful ad buy. A pro tip is to use “pin ads” on competitor locations on Facebook for awareness and conquesting.

Spam, spoofs and other local junk

Conrad Saam, founder of Mockingbird Marketing, didn’t mince words with his presentation titled “Local Spam (Crap on the Map).” He provided numerous examples of lawyers seeking to spoof business locations where they don’t actually have offices. This is done because data shows consumers heavily favor attorneys that have offices near them.

Photoshopped image intended to suggest an office location 

He discussed myriad ways in which attorneys and those marketing on their behalf fool Google, including with photoshopped images, keyword stuffed listings (e.g., “Brooklyn car accident lawyer”), fake (reciprocal) reviews and fake review schema.

Saam then talked about the ways that marketers can address and report these issues to Google:

  • Look up the purported address
  • Check Google Street View to determine whether there’s actually an office there
  • Report the false address as spam on Google Maps
  • Use “suggest edits” the change keyword-stuffed business names
  • Use Twitter.com/googlemybiz to report problems for faster response
  • Report fake reviews/stars on Twitter and the Google My Business forum 

Saam also cautioned that this effort to go after location spoofing is not without risk from aggressive competitors who may seek geo-retribution. Accordingly, Saam recommends that all this be done as anonymously as possible.

Maximizing Google Posts

Damian Rollison, VP of product strategy at Brandify, closed the session and focused on Google Posts and differentiating with local content. Where once local SEO was about name, address, phone-number and citations consistency, he observed, it’s now much more complex, echoing DiTamaso’s opening slides.

Rollison offered a Posts case study involving Dick’s Sporting Goods before the recent Knowledge Panel demotion. He said the retailer ran four campaigns during the 2017 holiday shopping period. One of those ran during Cyber Week and drove 11 percent of all e-commerce sales during that period. Posts conversions averaged 4 percent during the campaign.

In 2018, Dick’s ran another Posts campaign with less spectacular results (engagement was down by 80 percent). However, conversions were still meaningful, driving 2.2 percent of all online sales during the period.

Rollison argues that despite the recent traffic and engagement declines, local marketers should be using Posts. This is because they can help:

  • Facilitate direct communication with local customers
  • Improve the customer experience with timely information
  • Promote sales, specials, events, news and offers
  • Appeal to customers with engaging videos and photos

Rollison explained that across Brandify’s customer base, more recently, the average Posts CTR is 1.44 percent, which outperforms Google display ads. This may be because the audiences engaging with Posts tend to be lower-funnel, high-intent searchers. And Posts remain prominent in mobile results despite the desktop decline.

Rollison’s outlined a number of best Posts practices, which included:

  • A strong CTA (“Buy”/“Book”)
  • Use UTMs for tracking
  • Reinforce Post message with text in photos
  • Long-lived Posts perform better (7 days or more)
  • Optimal Post image size is 814×610
  • Images should be centered
  • Create custom landing pages matching Post content

He pointed out that Posts aren’t supported for larger, multi-location enterprises (10+ locations) by the GMB API. However, he predicted that Google would add support to the API for enterprise Post management in 2019.

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