Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
I’ve had occasion recently to be researching the hotel industry as it relates to Local Search Marketing, and something has come to my attention that I thought it would be worthwhile to jot down.
First, all readers must understand that the consistency with which a local business publishes its NAP (name, address, phone number) on the web is widely considered to be critical to rankings. In fact, David Mihm’s recently published Local Search Ranking Factors 2013 cites consistency of structured citations as the 3rd most important factor out of 83 – meaning that it’s extremely important to ensure that you are publishing consistent NAP data everywhere your business is listed on the web.
Now let’s look at hotels – giants in the local search market. When you think of hotel listings, the first directory that’s likely to spring to mind is TripAdvisor.com. TripAdvisor is to lodgings what Yelp is to restaurants, right? So, imagine my surprise, during an investigation of hotel listings in various regions of the U.S., at discovering how many hotels are listing a toll free phone number as their one and only number on their TripAdvisor listings.
I’ll zoom in on The Talbott Hotel in Chicago, IL (though I could have chosen any one of dozens of other hotels in other geographic markets). Here is the NAP on The Talbott Hotel’s TripAdvisor Page:
I haven’t had a recent hotel client and don’t know if the TripAdvisor dashboard currently gives you fields for both a local and a toll free phone number, but in all of the results I looked at, only one phone number was listed on each of the hotel listings in their index. As shown in the above screenshot, The Talbott Hotel is listing a toll free number only.
Why might this be problematic? Because it is generally believed that Big Daddy Google prefers that local area code phone numbers be used as the primary number for all local businesses.
So let’s take a look at Google now. Doing a branded search in the main engine for ‘The Talbott Chicago Il’, we see the following in the main results:
Now we see another single phone number. This time it’s a local one. Google’s various dashboards do allow for a business to list a primary local phone number and a secondary toll free number, but The Talbott apparently hasn’t done so. So, here we have the makings of a NAP consistency issue. TripAdvisor says the number starts 800 and Google says it starts 312.
Personal Trainer Google now puts me through a workout getting into the Google+ Local page for this hotel to double check the published NAP. From my branded search, I can click on the right column map and then click on the review link to get to the + Local page (thanks a whole lot, Google). Here’s what I see, while mopping the perspiration from my frowning brow:
Sure enough, in the mast and elsewhere on the page, only this single local number is published, with no mention of the 800 number listed on TripAdvisor.
Naturally, our next step is to visit the business’ website, to see if things become clearer. It gets a little worse here, actually (sorry Hotel Talbott):
The crucial footer area of the site has been optimized not with both the local and toll free numbers (to make things clear to Google’s bots and to human visitors), but displays a sole toll free VANITY phone number. Business owners may think that vanity phone numbers make it easier for their customers to remember and reach them, but Local SEOs get that far-away, pained look on their faces when the subject arises. Upshot: if you feel you must use a vanity number, use it on a radio or TV ad and put it in your website masthead in image text – not in real, crawlable text in that all-important website footer. And that brings us to our final screenshot:
The webmasters/marketers for this hotel have attempted to get it right by listing both a local and toll free number on the very vital Contact Us page, but there again, we have the vanity 800 number, so the day (and the data) are still cloudy for Google’s bots.
In the end, what we have here is incomplete and confusing phone signals published in various places on the web, making it hard for Google to hang onto a data cluster that makes good, easy sense to them.
If this were an isolated case, I wouldn’t have bothered to blog about it. But do you know how many of the top hotels in Chicago are following this same pattern of listing a single toll free number, instead of a local one, as their primary number on TripAdvisor?
That’s right. Nearly half of the hotels in this major city have citation consistency issues similar to what I’ve highlighted here, and the same thing is going on in city after city I’ve looked at. It’s a big, big problem.
Why This Problem Was Bound To Arise
Hotels are unique. They are not like the local pizza place or plumbing company in that the majority of people phoning them will be locally located. Hotels serve travelers, meaning that guests are phoning them from all over the planet to make reservations, and it’s only common courtesy to help these people avoid hefty charges for a long distance call. Toll free numbers represent courtesy in the hospitality industry. I understand this, and so should Google, but the fact remains that TripAdvisor is likely one of the key sources to which Google refers to understand hospitality industry data. Inconsistency in TripAdvisor data may create problems with Google.
What can be done about this?
1) Be sure you are listing both your local and toll free numbers in both the footer and contact page of your website.
2) Be sure you are listing both numbers on your Google+ Local page, too, with the local number set as primary and the toll free number set as secondary.
3) Encourage TripAdvisor to allow for the display of both numbers in their main display of core business NAP at the top of their listings. It will be a convenience for everybody, including guests, some of whom may be local people calling to make reservations for visiting relatives.
4) If TripAdvisor (or any other local directory) continues to only display a single number for each business, then you have to make a judgement call. If you feel having the toll free number listed as your primary number on your listing will generate enough calls to outweigh concerns about NAP consistency issues, then you may decide to continue to list it in this way. I can totally understand a decision like this and would be interested in feedback from hotel industry marketers and business owners regarding how they are reaching this decision.
5) Be sure you are listing both phone numbers on every other directory that allows you to do so, with the primary number being local and the secondary one being toll free.
6) If you are using a vanity number, don’t put it in crawlable text on your website. Put it in image text. I’ve never seen any mention of Google being able to translate the letters in a vanity number into numerical digits. Ditto with any form of call tracking number.
Now it’s your turn! What do you think of this advice? Am I suggesting that hotel owners bend too far over backwards to please Google and their handling of the data cluster? Do you have additional tips? Please add them! And, given the recent findings of Local Search Ranking Factors 2013, do you feel that the issue I’ve identified is super serious, sort of serious, or not really a big deal? Do you feel that consistent data in other places can overcome a single toll free number being listed as primary on a TripAdvisor page, or are rankings at stake if this choice is made? I would love to hear your thoughts and discuss this with you!
I may be getting into a groove here. Wouldn’t you like to know how much Google-based reviews are actually influencing local business rankings? I certainly would, and I’m exploring this the only way I know how: step by step, looking at rankings and poking into the listings to see what I find there. I don’t have an army of team members or robots to fetch data for me, so my studies must perforce be quite limited and small and should be viewed in that light.
My first piece, How Google’s Carousel Convinced Me That Review Counts Count For Nearly Nada, explored the idea that I could find no correlation between the sheer number of reviews a business had earned and its left-to-right ranking in the new carousel. If you read that post, you’ll likely share my puzzlement at seeing businesses with few or zero reviews outranking competitors with over one hundred of them. My conclusion, at that point, was that I needed to drill deeper into other factors – such as the velocity and recency of reviews. That’s will be the focus of this article.
In my earlier piece, I investigated restaurant rankings in a large city, a mid-sized town and a minute hamlet in California. Today, I’m going to revisit the mid-sized town and am choosing the query restaurants san rafael. San Rafael has a population of some 58,000 souls and is located in one of the wealthiest areas of Northern California. It has a very busy restaurant scene and residents are likely to be tech savvy. In other words, this is the kind of town in which you would expect a lot of people to be actively engaged in writing reviews.
Take A Seat At This Table
The following table presents the top 10 restaurants in San Rafael, according to Google’s carousel. Accompanying each business name, you will see a total review count, followed by a count of the reviews earned in each of the first six months of 2013, and finally, a total of the number of reviews the business has earned in the past 6 months. The premise here is that Google is ‘supposed to be’ interested in web-based freshness and activity, and so, one might theorize that a business with the largest volume of most recent reviews would have an advantage over less up-to-the-minute review profiles. Right?
Lotus Cuisine of India
(Total Review Count: 221)
Taqueria San Jose
(Total Review Count: 19)
Bay Thai Cuisine
(Total Review Count: 6)
(Total Review Count: 266)
(Total Review Count: 103)
My Thai Restaurant
(Total Review Count: 15)
San Rafael Joe’s
(Total Review Count: 10)
Las Camelias Cocina Mexicana
(Total Review Count: 140)
Ristorante La Toscana
(Total Review Count: 11)
Sushi To Dai For
(Total Review Count: 26)
What I See
At first, looking at the business with that first spot in the carousel, Lotus Cuisine of India, I thought, “By Jove, I think I’ve got it!”. This restaurant has not only earned more reviews over the past 6 months than any of its competitors, but has also earned more reviews in the past month than any other.
Then my shoulders slumped. If I thought this pattern was one that would continue throughout this tiny set of results, I was quickly disabused of my fantasy. As you can see, Taqueria San Jose, sitting at #2, has only had a single review in the last 6 months and that was way back in February. It is outranking competitors with both more total reviews and more recent reviews.
Examine the table for yourself and, if you can see any rhyme or reason in how two businesses with a single review to their name are outranking one with 5 reviews and another with 4, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
What Else I See
I was shocked by how few people have used Google to leave a review in the past 6 months for restaurants in this lively, well-to-do urban community. When I actually started digging into the profiles, something quite interesting became evident. For those profiles with 100-200+ reviews, nearly all of them were left more than a year ago.
I have two tentative theories about this:
1) Google’s decision to force users to sign up for a Google+ profile in order to be able to leave a review made a ton of very active reviewers jump ship. Most reviews I saw date to before Google’s decision to do this. Interesting, hmm?
2) Yelp is winning the review battle in Northern California. Let’s look at that top ranked business, Lotus Cuisine of India. It has a near-identical total historic review count on both Yelp (224 reviews) and on Google (221 reviews). But, in the past 6 months, only 6 people have made the effort to review this restaurant on Google, whereas 21 people have reviewed it on Yelp.
Things get really interesting when we look at another business, sitting in position number 5 in Google’s carousel: Sol Food. Sol Food has only received a pitiful 4 reviews on Google in the past half year. I’ve visited San Rafael and there is a literally a line coming out the door of this Puerto Rican phenom of an eatery – it’s that popular. And how many reviews does Sol Food have on Yelp in the past 6 months? 160! Count’em!
So, let’s say we’re seeing hints of a pattern that, at least in San Rafael, people may not be bothering to review businesses on Google, but they are definitely very actively reviewing them on Yelp. *Note, San Rafael is just a stone’s throw away from Yelp headquarters in San Francisco, so results like these may be skewed by the local popularity of this review portal, but in a piece I wrote a few months ago, I noted that I see Yelp results coming up for nearly every local keyword phrase I investigate, everywhere in the US. I’ve been engaged this year in some large studies and see Yelp results and Yelp reviews from sea to shining sea.
So Where Are We At With All This?
My study is so minute. Investigation of a single keyword search reveals only a particle of the big picture, but from this little test, I think I have learned that:
1. I have been unable to explain rank by correlation of sheer review count or recency.
2. Businesses with little or no overall or recent reviews can outrank more actively reviewed businesses.
3. The overwhelming majority of the Google-based reviews I saw were from 1+ years ago. There are tumbleweeds blowing in Google review land.
4. The volume and recency of Google-based reviews are not a good indicator of the actual popularity of a business. Yelp appears to provide a more real-time depiction of restaurant patron experience, at least in Northern California.
5. Despite spending an hour or two digging through reviews again today, I don’t think I’m really any closer to knowing how reviews DO affect rank.
But, I do think I’m getting a sense of how they DON’T.
What do you think? Are there hidden gems in my data table that I’ve overlooked? Does Google look like a ghost town in your town when you search for reviews of popular businesses over the past 6 months? Do you currently employ 10 guys who don’t have enough to do and would like to take my seed of a study and let it bloom across multiple searches to get big data? I welcome your thoughts, your rebuttals and your ideas!
Working with a will to earn great reviews for your local business?
Believe your company’s high customer satisfaction standards and pro-active review earning policies will be rewarded by Google?
You may be right…but then again, you may not be. Let’s take a look at this.
Whether or not you are fan of Google’s new carousel view for businesses like hotels and restaurants, one thing it has made quite easy for everyone is an at-a-glance assessment of review counts amongst competitors. Since the launch of the carousel, I have read some comments to the effect that this new display is the great leveler – in other words, that there are no longer rankings for these types of businesses.
I can see some sense in that opinion, with every business being displayed on a single horizontal plane. However, I would suggest that in a culture like mine that reads from left to right, what comes furthest to the left automatically seems to indicate priority. That’s where paragraphs start when you read, where newsmen pack their grabbiest words in a headline and where SEOs put their most important elements in a title tag. My brain has been trained to think that most left is most important. This is why you read the words ‘I can see’ at the beginning of this paragraph first instead of starting somewhere in the middle.
Because of this, as a Google user, some part of me assumes that the businesses ordered closest to the left of my screen have somehow been judged by Google to be of more relevance than those further to the right…certainly of more importance than those I have to start scrolling horizontally right in the display bar to view.
And this brings me back to the topic of my piece – the disconnect between left-to-right rankings and review counts. Now, nobody but a few wizards at Google knows the exact amount of influence review count has on overall local business rankings, but from the effort local business owners and Local SEOs have put into the earning of reviews over the past half decade, it’s obvious that most of us think reviews are pretty important.
Imagine my surprise in noting how little review counts seem to matter in regards to where a business is situated in the carousel
I did a bunch of informal searches for ‘restaurants’ in both small and large cities and will share just a few of the results. These results reflect what I saw across the board. I will call the restaurants 1, 2, 3 etc., for the sake of explanation, with 1 being the restaurant appearing most to the left in the carousel display. I will show the first 10 results for each search and will focus on a large city, a medium-sized town and a tiny village in California, none of which are where I am physically located.
Search Term: Restaurants San Francisco
Note that: Restaurant #3, with 1,795 reviews is being surpassed by one restaurant with only 54 reviews and another with 761. Also, that restaurant #6 has nearly twice as many reviews as anyone else, but is only 6th in line.
Search Term: Restaurants San Rafael
Note that: Why is restaurant #3 with only 6 reviews standing in line in front of competitors with 266, 103 and 140 reviews?
Search Term: Restaurants Boonville
Note that: In this tiny village, it certainly looks to me like restaurant #3, with 107 reviews, is the place people go, but it is somehow being cut ahead of in line by an eatery with ZERO reviews and another with only 4. Restaurants 8 and 9 are also way down the line behind several review-less establishments.
The above summary gives just a sampling of this phenomenon. Note that my small study has not taken into account review velocity or recency, but I can’t help thinking that any average user is going to wonder why a business with no reviews is being given precedence over one with 107 of them.
What This Tells Us
Honestly, it doesn’t tell us much about how Google’s algo works for local businesses. But…I would posit that if you are trying to do competitive analysis to appear more towards the left in the carousel, the sheer number of reviews you have isn’t going to influence your hoped-for change of positioning. If you can be outranked by a restaurant with zero reviews, getting 100 of them for your business probably won’t help.
So What Should You Do, Then?
I would suggest looking at other factors like the authority of the website and both the consistency and breadth of citations. Maybe social factors, too? Perhaps locally relevant links or unstructured citations? I purposely didn’t search in my own town because I didn’t want my proximity to any business to influence my results, but that will almost certainly be a factor, too – how close your prospective patron is to your place of business.
Am I Saying To Forget About Reviews?
No, no! Regardless of the influence of review counts on rank, your customers’ glowing reviews of your rosemary polenta and baba ghanoush will do much to bring the hungry public through your doors. I’m just saying that if you’re working yourself into a sweat about being too far to the right of the screen in the carousel, it may be best to invest the bulk of your time in improving metrics other than review counts.
What do you think? Is there a flaw in my logic? Do left-to-right displays make you think left is better? Are you seeing any patterns that explain who is ranking left-most? Would you like to share? I’d love to hear!
If you’ve owned a local business or have been providing Local SEO services to clients for half a decade or more, I’m sure you can recall a time, not long ago, when Merchant Circle had a dominant presence in Google’s first page results for local-type queries.
Back in 2009, when Mike Blumenthal penned this post about Merchant Circle buying up thousands of local domains, his wry tone reflected a general sense of wonderment in the Local SEO community over various tactics employed by the then-prominent local business index giant. Back then, you couldn’t seek a local pizza, dentist or landscaper without Google displaying you a handful of Merchant Circle-based profiles. Wish I could dig up a screenshot, but I’m betting you remember this without a visual prompt.
Doubtless owing of their high visibility in Google’s SERPs, Merchant Circle predictably drew a high level of scrutiny from the local business community and made a number of headlines, which as I recall, culminated in 2010 in a $900,000 settlement for ‘unlawful marketing practices’.
Since that time, even as engaged as I am in Local SEO, I must confess that Merchant Circle has pretty much fallen off of my radar. Yes, they are still a citation source worth knowing about, but it recently dawned on me that it had been a long time since I saw them coming up on the first page of Google for any type of local search I’d done in the course of daily work or daily life. While Wikipedia is still a favorite Google response to organic queries, it appears to me that Merchant Circle isn’t feeling Google’s love in Local any more, and hasn’t for some time, and that their plum placement has been usurped, by, you guessed it:
From all that I’ve seen, Yelp is Google’s new Merchant Circle du jour. And it’s not just for looking up ‘pizza’. Searches for laywers, dentists, florists and car dealerships are all returning me Yelp results above Google’s own packs of local businesses. Indeed, given the top 2-3 organic placement of Yelp results for so many core local industries, you’d almost think Google trusts Yelp’s data more than they trust their own.
When did this changing of the guard occur? Can you pinpoint a date, a deal or an update that moved Merchant Circle off the front page for so many powerful queries? And how would you compare Google’s one-time go-to-index to their new one – Yelp? It’s interesting to me that Yelp and Merchant Circle have faced similar ‘reputation management’ issues over the years. Why would Google trust Yelp more than Merchant Circle? Is it simply a popularity contest? In other parts of the country, where Yelp isn’t quite as well-known as here in California, are you still seeing lots of Merchant Circle entries on Google’s Page 1? Do you see a pattern?
I’d be really interested to know. It’s been a long, long time (I’d say 3 years) since I’ve written or talked to anyone about old Merchant Circle. If you’ve got some thoughts to share, I hope you will!
If you own a local business and are investigating ways to utilize the web to promote your company, chances are, you’ve come across discussions of strategies involving city landing pages. First, let’s clarify…
What Are City Landing Pages?
City landing pages are commonly defined as pages you create on your website to target multiple cities. In one scenario, you might have a single physical location in San Francisco, but are considering creating additional pages on your website that focus on neighboring cities like Oakland, Mill Valley or San Jose. Alternatively, you may have physical locations in more than one city and need to let the public and the search engines know this.
The two typical goals of creating city landing pages are:
1. To present your message to a specific audience in a target city.
2. To increase your chances of search engines showing your business as a result for searches for more than one city.
From my work in the Local category of the SEOmoz forum, and from helping our clients with their Local SEO, I know there is some confusion surrounding this topic of city landing pages. Many local business are unsure of whether they should invest time and money in these types of pages. Others wonder what makes a good city landing page. I’ll help you get clear on this topic in this article!
To determine whether city landing pages are a good fit for your business, let’s start by defining your business model.
Service Radius Business
Like the milkman of old, and the modern landscaper, carpet cleaner, general contractor, at-home healthcare provider or mobile notary public, if your company goes to clients to do business, then you are likely to be operating in a service radius that extends beyond your city of location. You may have just one headquarters in City A, but your employees travel to Cities B, C, D, and E to render services.
City landing pages are typically an excellent fit for this situation.
You’ll be optimizing your overall website for your physical location in City A to give you the best possible chance of ranking well in Google’s true local results, but your other service cities can often gain some additional visibility in the traditional, organic results, thanks to city landing pages.
Wait – What’s The Difference Between Local And Organic Results?
Organic results are the traditional results that have been Google’s mainstay since day one. Local results are currently displayed with a grey, lettered pin and contact information, often linking to a local business’ Google+ Local page.
Most often, your business will be able to achieve local rankings for searches related to or stemming from the city in which it’s physically located. The goal of your city landing pages will typically be to get organic results for cities where you don’t have a physical location. There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, particularly when Google doesn’t have a ton of data about a category of businesses in a specific geographic region (such as a non-competitive business in a rural area), but in general, your expectations for rankings with city landing pages for cities in which you’re not physically located should be organic rather than local.
And, don’t expect to outrank your competitors who have physical locations in your service cities. Google will generally favor businesses with physical locations in a target city over businesses that simply serve there.
What About Businesses That Do Have Multiple Physical Locations?
That’s a different story. Let’s say your carpet cleaning company has three different physical locations (one in City A, one in City B and one in City C). In that case, you have the excellent option of creating a unique landing page for each of those locations cities and optimizing it with your distinct contact information for each city.
For each location you must have:
1. A unique, non-shared local area code phone number
2. A unique, non-shared physical street address
With these essentials, you have every reason to expect to be able to show up in the true local results, because you’ve got physical locations there.
Then, if from your 3 locations, your employees travel to serve 10 total cities, you can certainly consider creating additional pages to cover the remaining cities where you’re not physically located, but for these location-less cities, you’re back to aiming for organic rankings rather than local ones.
City landing pages are typically a good match for service radius businesses. Work towards high local rankings for the cities where you are physically located (whether that’s with one office or three) and towards the highest organic rankings you can achieve for your location-less cities.
Brick And Mortar Businesses
This is where the topic of city landing pages becomes more complex. I’ve fielded quite a few questions from dentists, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other brick-and-mortar business owners who are wondering about strategies for communicating with potential clients beyond their city borders. For example, a dentist in San Francisco may have patients who come to his office from Berkeley or Oakland, and he’d like to get more clients from those neighboring cities, so he decides to create city landing pages for these other locales.
This is the scenario in which I most frequently find a lack of justification for the creation of city landing pages.
A dentist, a restaurant, a barber shop, is located in one place and offers a set menu of services to everyone who walks in the door, regardless of whether the customer lives down the street or twenty miles away. Yet, I’ve encountered many websites on which five or ten or twenty near-identical pages have been created in an attempt to target customers beyond city borders. Often, only the city name has been changed out in the title and header tag on the page and then the same text and same list of services is repeated ad infinitum. The bad news is, neither I nor Google are going to be impressed with this. Google may well penalize the website for having published duplicate content. And, of similar importance, if your customers have the least bit of web savvy, they are unlikely to be impressed with this effort, either.
To me, the creation of city landing pages in this brick-and-mortar situation seems like nothing more than an awkward attempt to grab at rankings. And, as there can be definite negative effects from creating duplicate or near-duplicate content, for clients that fit this business model, I don’t recommend the creation of city landing pages.
Where Does That Leave You?
For many brick-and-mortar businesses, the story need not end here. In fact, if you’ve got a story to tell about your involvement in neighboring cities where your business isn’t physically located, you’ve got something worth writing about. Rather than taking the lame and lazy approach of duplicating a list of services provided across a ton of city landing pages, consider building a blog on your website and starting to document what you do beyond city borders.
For example, a doctor may have hospital privileges at 3 hospitals in surrounding cities. He can write about his work there, with the goal of establishing his place in these neighboring communities. In his blogging, he can tie this back into his home base at his office.
A restaurant in City A may contribute leftovers to a food program in City B and can write about their involvement in this second community. They can tie this back to their restaurant and menu.
A sporting goods store in City A may sponsor a little league team in City B and can report on the team’s progress on their website, perhaps tying it back into the bats, balls and other equipment they sell.
In other words, you’ve got to take a creative approach. If you have legitimate involvement in communities outside your own, you have a legitimate reason to write about it and legitimate hopes for gaining visibility both organically and via social media that ties your company name to more than one city. Yes, this is a longer shot than the carpet cleaning company that is going to cities B, C, and D every day to clean rugs, but with creativity, you can offer your potential customers, and the search engines, something of genuine value to read. I consider this a much more authentic approach to a content strategy for brick and mortar business than those awkward, meaningless city landing pages I’d like to see vanish from the local web.
What Makes A Good City Landing Page?
If you’ve determined that city landing pages are a good match for your business model, then make the investment of time and money to do the work well. You need to utilize the services of the best writer in your company or hire a professional copywriter who is skilled in Local SEO to ensure the best outcome. Here are some simple suggestions that will help you craft quality city landing pages:
The creation of high quality city landing pages may not be the right strategy for every local business, but when done properly for appropriate business models, they can increase your visibility on the web and generate new leads, calls and conversions for your business. In this article, I’ve attempted to cover the FAQs I most often encounter, but if you have a question about this topic that I haven’t answered, please ask!