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The Zen Of Local SEO

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Have you ever searched the web for a totally solid guide to implementing Local SEO and come up empty handed? There’s an excellent reason for this. Unlike traditional SEO, in which ongoing new tactics can be added to a base of actions that have been reasonably similar for more than a decade, Local SEO exists in so fluid a world that change is practically the only constant. Talk to Local SEOs and and they will chuckle that so much of what they write becomes obsolete almost as soon as they hit ‘publish’. Active blogs do a great job of covering the changes, but writing a static tactical guide may end up being nothing more than an exercise in futility.
So, let’s do something different. This guide will not speak to the specifics of listing yourself in X number of directories, choosing between schema vs. hCard, or creating your Google+ Local Page because tomorrow, some of the directories may close while new ones spring up out of nowhere, hCard could become unsupported and Google may decide to alter their handling of creation and merging in Google+. Instead, I want to talk to you about the elements that I have not seen change since the dawn of Local – the intentions, mindsets and attitudes which I believe make up the Zen of Local and mean success or failure for the local business owner and the Local SEO.
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Barbarism vs. The Civic Mind
2012 marks the sixth year that I’ve been tuned into Local, and in that time, I have been able to identify two distinct camps of participants.
On the one hand, we have the barbarians who are definitely in it for themselves. These business owners or marketers cut a looting-and-pillaging swath through the Local web, fully willing to falsely represent physical locale while funneling business through an 800 service, hijack the listings of their competitors, pen phony positive reviews for themselves or false negative ones for their peers, attempt to have competitors’ businesses marked as closed, sabotage accounts they hold hostage and demand protection money.
People do these things because there is gain to be made, but the gain is short-term, and not because Google is going to wake up one day and hammer down with an iron fist on these tactics. No – the gain is short-term because these tactics solicit their own demise. If you run roughshod through a business district with a spray paint can in one hand and a club in the other, you will eventually create such an ugly mess that the public will stop trusting the district as a place to do business. I can’t pretend to predict when the ultimate threshold of untrustworthiness will be crossed so that no one believes local data and the whole thing falls apart, but I do know I already tell everyone I care about to be careful of locksmith listings on Google. That whole vertical, so intimately linked to safety and security, was quite literally been ruined for years. Things are a bit better now, but hardly squeaky clean. Car dealerships are a problem area, too.
If making a temporary killing, regardless of causing wreckage in the place you live or are pretending to live, is all that matters to you, then the weakness of search engines and directories has laid the barbarian path open before you. But the risk of your actions is the eventual demise of your income source, so you’d better be able to make your buck fast and then get out of town.
I think most of us can do better than this. And that brings us to the second camp, where the civic-minded business owners and Local SEOs are hunkered down for the long haul.
I have concluded that nearly all ethical actions connected with Local SEO can be distilled down to the simple concept of civic-mindedness. That’s not a term you hear very often these days, but I think Local is breathing new life into the idea. I didn’t know that when I started locally optimizing clients’ sites and creating their Google Place Pages that I would end up orating on civic-mindedness to callers who wanted to bend and break rules to suit their selfish little aims, but I’ve done so repeatedly. The outcome is that I am sincerely heartened every time a local business owner phones and expresses real care for the place he lives and works. I’m instantly on his side and ready to do all I can for him.
Eschewing barbarism, the civic-minded local business owner recognizes Local as an amazing opportunity to increase his visibility and he is willing to play by the rules. Whether his services answer urgent needs or fulfill dreams of luxury, he knows that his company makes life better in his town or city and he is convinced that his reputation is his greatest asset. Knowing this, he will refuse to do anything underhanded that might jeopardize his good name, and hopefully, he has enough education to fire any marketer who wants to lead him astray.
Also eschewing barbarism, the civic-minded Local SEO may be well aware of certain shortcuts and loopholes but will not exploit them, putting his clients’ accounts at risk. This Local SEO is actually honored to get to be part of commerce in his clients’ locations and sees his work as integral to building more informed, enriched communities. He also knows that successful clients generate future clients and that by making Local as error-free and inclusive as he can, he is ensuring his own future income.
Participating in Local Search builds the web-based mirror image of communities around the globe. By approaching this task with regard for the people who live and work there, by seeing the local searching public as neighbors, you will have developed a mindset that will lead to outcomes that are healthy and successful for all involved.
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Cracking The Koans Of Google
“Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?”
The #1 problem in Local isn’t hijacking, spamming or bugs. It’s Google’s dire lack of communication. The teaming hordes of local business owners who crowd the Google And Your Business Forum in a state of ALL-CAPS distress trying to get answers to astronomical numbers of problems receive very few solutions directly from Google employees, though the rate of answers from volunteer Top Contributors has been a valid improvement. But even when Google does make public statements in response to the bigger questions raised about policies, ethics and problems, their wording can be as elusive and circular as a Zen Koan to the western mind.
Google’s patent answer to most critical Local commentary and cries for help tends to be that they realize such and such is important, they are certainly working on it and they have something akin to faith in the goodness of the data being fed into their system. Much of what I read from actual Google employees comes across as fine sentiment rather than actionable response. One can start to feel that Google is operating up in the clouds somewhere, estranged from real-world living by a corporate culture that is far too insular.
What I see as the most challenging aspect of approaching the biggest player in Local lies within incorrect expectations on both sides. Google and local business owners frequently fail to apprehend one another correctly. I would like to offer my theory to local business owners and Local SEOs as to why messaging coming out of Google can be so confusing and mixed.
I think it helps to remember that Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have publicly credited part of Google’s success to their Montessori educational background. In my work as a copywriter, I’ve had occasion to research and write about Montessori, and its tenets include strong beliefs in the ability of individuals to be self-governing, work effectively independently and undertake projects for the sake of accomplishment itself. In an ideal Montessori/Google world, you wouldn’t have fierce competitors because you’d be satisfied with doing your own thing. You also wouldn’t have spammers and crooks running around ruining the shared creative space because everyone would have too much self-confidence to descend to such disruptive behavior.
Add it up, and there is something that really rings true about the similarities between the Montessori method and Google’s most idealistic-sounding messaging. Someplace, deep in the heart of Google, there is a belief in goodness and a belief in people that may come off as admirable but out-of-touch with reality in our ultra-competitive times.
And then came all the money.
Google reported earnings of $14.10 billion for the third quarter of 2012. People and companies have been tempted into compromises and corruption for a lot less money than that. You have to decide for yourself what you think about the growing list of anti-trust, anti-privacy and other ethical issues that has begun to trail this Internet giant. What I would suggest as the key to all of the confusion between high ideals and accusations of wrongdoing is that Google is a corporation and as the years have gone by and the coffers have grown ever more laden, Google has acted more and more like you’d expect a corporation to.
Google’s origins were crowned with a halo of humble charm, but if you read the Google And Your Business Forum and the blogs of influential Local SEOs, you will see that the salad days are over and that the old image of Google as cool, geeky friend is being replaced by Google as profit-oriented money-making machine. It may be a little sad, but I think by viewing Google realistically as a corporation that will make whatever decisions are necessary to maximize profit, you will stop expecting them to act in the human-friendly, small-business-friendly ways you wish they would.
Similarly, Google needs a reality check in their apparent expectations that the public eternally supports brands that ignore them or put livelihoods in jeopardy though bad data or downright negligence. You can map every business in every city in the world, but if your company neglects the humanity of the people who live there, they won’t love you, even if they have to work with you to survive.
In sum, I think the meager messaging coming out of Google’s Local department is confusing because their original Montessori ideals are now sitting in tense and uneasy company with their corporate yearn to earn. For your own good and sanity, view them realistically instead of idealistically and very few things will surprise you.
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The Art Of Service
“No shoes, no shirt, no annoying idiots, no service”
Thanks to the volatile status of online reviews, I have spoken to many local business owners who would like to nail a sign like that to all of their public profiles. There’s a wail of grief coming off the planet over both deserved and undeserved negative reviews and the chore of having to cope with them, not within the four walls of your business, but right in the public eye.
When confronted with a negative review, remember this: when you went into business you knew you were opening your doors to all comers, from sweet little old ladies to folks who are raring mad. You had the confidence in your own people skills to cope with whomever walked in the door and the task before you now is to commute those skills onto the web. You can pause to reflect, count to 100, consider possible outcomes of different responses and then reply in your most professional, polished manner. In fact, one of the chief luxuries of user reviews is the time you are given to make a calm decision before responding, if you choose to respond at all. This isn’t something you get when a complaint hits you live, in the middle of the dinner rush, on the floor of a crowded restaurant.
The power of choice is yours. You can determine to invest large sums of money in getting any negative press about your business buried, or you can deal with things the way they are and respond to deserved and undeserved criticism the same way you would if it happened within your place of business. I think it’s helpful to know that nearly every discussion centered on negative reviews includes mention of the fact that review profiles that are 100% positive can look suspicious. Anyone who works for a living knows that you can’t please everybody and that some customers are pains in the neck. A profile that is mainly positive but reflects the reality of serving the varied public is an authentic representation of life and not something to waste much worry over.
Even competitive negative review spam can be handled well with the right words and unless you’ve got enough grounds for a libel suit to go to a lawyer, your time is probably best spent getting back to the task that will make or break your business: customer service.
If you’re not prepared to treat your customers excellently, no amount of marketing money or reputation management will cover it up. Both online and off, people will tell others about their experience with your business. User reviews have highlighted and heightened the need to employ a well-trained staff with above-average skills at handling all kinds of tough situations. Accountability, humility, transparency and the ability to say I’m sorry when mistakes have been made are prerequisites for you and everyone in your employ. No matter how you market your business, it will not succeed without customers and satisfying those customers’ needs will always been job #1 for you.
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Strength In Diversity And E For Effort
Because of Google’s dominance, they stand at the center of most discussions of Local Search, but it pays to remember that there is a busy world beyond Google. Just recently, a talented marketer shared some analytics data with me that showed that for every 100 visitors being generated by Google’s local results, she had managed to get an additional 75 from diverse little directories. The upshot of this would be that if this was you something befell your local presence in Google, you would still be receiving at least 3/4 of the missing Google traffic from other sources.
Identifying these diverse opportunities hinges on your efforts to stay current and educated. Free education is being published daily on a number of high quality Local SEO blogs. All you have to do is read, and no matter how busy you are, don’t think of continued education as a luxury. It’s an essential.
Your education will also prove invaluable should you decide to hire specialists to assist you with certain tasks in Local. What you have learned may save you from putting your business in the hands of a crook. Learn a little each day, and it will amount to eventual possession of powerful knowledge. Here is my current list of inspiring Local SEO blogs:
I’m sure there are other fine local search blogs out there, too! All you have to do is start reading.
The only one who owes you a living is you. Little ringing bells of success go off in my head when local business owners’ voices light up as I describe the ongoing efforts they will need to be making to achieve success. Conversely, little hairs on the back of my neck sting and stand erect when I hear from people who feel entitled to A rankings while planning to make the least possible effort and investment in their somewhat nebulous goals.
I sincerely view Local as an arena in which effort stands a better-than-average chance of being handsomely rewarded. Measured and consistent effort towards improvement, coupled with an effort to make sure your business data is consistent across the web, makes a winning strategy. The business owner who is consistently publishing new copy on his website, consistently pursing new opportunities for visibility, consistently talking with his customers to discover what they really want, consistently setting aside budget to improve both on and offline aspects of his business – he is setting himself up for success.
The Bottom Line
The rules will change. The players and tactics will change. Real concern for civic welfare, a realistic view of the companies, apps and tools at your disposal, a commitment to outstanding customer service and dedication to a gentle and steady acquisition of education and visibility – these are the things that have not changed and will remain the same in the foreseeable future. Equip yourself with these traits and attributes and approach your future in Local with a caring and honest civic mindset, and you will be well on your way to mastering the Zen of Local.