The craft that is your business navigates the local waterways. Whether yours is an independently owned natural foods store or a medical enterprise with hundreds of locations, it can be easy to get lost cresting all of the little waves that hit our industry, week by week, year after year.
Google endorses review kiosks and then outlaws them. They pop your dental practice into a carousel and then disband this whole display for your industry. You need to be schema-encoded, socially active, mobile-friendly, voice-ready… it’s a lot to take in. So let’s weigh anchor for a few minutes, in the midst of these never-ending eddies, to evaluate whether all of the developments of the past few years add up to a disjointed jumble of events or represent a genuine sea change in our industry. Let’s see which way the wind is really blowing in local search marketing.
If you’ve only been working in SEO for a couple of years, you may think I’m telling you a fishy yarn when I say there was a time not long ago when this otherwise brilliant industry was swamped with forum discussions about how much you could move the ranking needle by listing 300 terms in a meta keywords tag, putting hidden text on website pages, buying 5,000 links from directories that never saw the light of day in the SERPs and praying to the idol of PageRank.
I’m not kidding — it was really like this, but even back then, the best in the business were arguing against building a marketing strategy largely based on exploiting search engines’ weaknesses or by pinning your brand to iffy, spammy or obsolete practices. The discourse surrounding early SEO was certainly lively!
Then came Panda, Penguin, and all of the other updates that not only targeted poor SEO practices, but more importantly, established a teaching model from which all digital marketers could learn to visualize Google’s interpretation of relevance. There were many updates before these big ones, but I mention them because, along with Hummingbird, they combine to set much of the stage for where the SEO industry is at today, after 17 years of signals from Google schooling us in their worldview of search. If I could sum up what Google has taught us in 3 points, they would be:
Most of what I see being written across the SEO industry today relates to these three concepts which form a really sane picture of a modern marketing discipline — a far cry from stuffed footers and doorway pages, right? Yes, I’m still getting emails promising me #1 Google rankings, but by and large, it’s been inspirational watching the SEO industry evolve to earn a serious place in the wide world of marketing.
There are two obvious reasons why the traditional SEO industry’s journey relates to our own:
This means that for our agencies’ clients, we’ve got to deliver the goods just the way an organic SEO company would. I’d bet a nickel there isn’t a week that goes by that you don’t find yourself explaining to an SAB owner that you’re unlikely to earn him local rankings for his service cities where he lacks a physical location, but you are going to get him every bit of organic visibility you can via his website’s service city landing pages and supporting marketing. And for your brick-and-mortar clients, you are filling the first few pages of Google with both company website and third-party content that creates the consumer picture we call “reputation.”
It’s organic SEO that populates your clients’ most important organic search results with the data that speak most highly of them, even if this SEO is being done by Yelp or TripAdvisor. Because of this, I advocate studying the history of Google’s updates and how it has impacted the organic SEO community’s understanding of Google’s increasingly obvious emphasis on trust and relevance.
And, I will go one further than this. You are going to need real SEO tools to manage the local search marketing for your clients in the most competitive geo-industries. Consider that with the release of the Local Search Ranking Factors 2017 study, experts have cited that:
Add to this the top placement of factors like domain authority of website and the varieties of appropriate keyword usage.
In other words, for your client who owns a bakery in rural Iowa, you’ll likely need basic organic SEO skills to get them all the visibility they need, but for your attorney in Los Angeles, your statewide medical practice and your national restaurant chain with 600 locations, having organic SEO tools at the professional level of something like Moz Pro in your marketing kit is what will enable you to grab that competitive edge your bigger clients absolutely have to have, and to hold onto it for them over time.
The organic river is definitely feeding the local one, and your ability to evaluate links, analyze SERPs, and professionally optimize pages is part of your journey now.
I sometimes wonder if my fellow local SEOs feel humbled, as I do, when talking to local business owners who have been doing their own marketing for 20, 30, or even 40 years. Pre-Internet, these laudable survivors have been responsible for deciding everything from how to decorate the storefront for a Memorial Day sale, to mastering customer service, to squeezing ROI instead of bankruptcy out of advertising in newspapers, phone directories, coupon books, radio, billboards and local TV. I call to mind the owner of a family business I consulted with who even sang his own jingle in an effort to build his local brand in his community. Small business owners, in particular, really put it all on the line in their consumer appeals, because their survival is at stake.
By contrast, our local SEO industry is still taking baby steps on a path forged by the likes of Wayside Inn (est. 1797), Macy’s (est. 1858), and the Fuller Brush Man, (est. 1906). These stalwarts of selling to local consumers have seen it all (and tried much of it) in the search for visibility, from Burma-Shave billboards to “crazy” local car dealer ads.
In the 1960’s, Pillsbury VP Robert Keith published an anecdotal article which promoted, in part, a consumer-centric model for marketing, and though his work has been criticized, some of his concepts resemble the mindset we see being espoused by today’s best marketers.
Very often, being consumer-centric is nearly analogous to being honest. Just as the organic SEO world has been taught by Google that “tricking” Internet users and search engines with inauthentic signals doesn’t pay off in the long run, making false claims on your offline packaging or TV ads is likely to be quickly caught and widely publicized to consumers in the digital age. If your tacos don’t really contain seasoned beef, your 12-packs of soda aren’t really priced at $3.00, and your chewing gum doesn’t really kill germs, can your brand stand the backlash when these deceptions are debunked?
And even for famous brands like Macy’s that have successfully served the public for decades, the simple failure to continuously create an engaging in-store experience or to compete adeptly in a changing market can contribute to serious losses, including store closures. Offline marketing is truly tough.
Yes, the “three grumpy woman” price gouging and doing “the dodgy”, the desk clerk who screams when asked about wi-fi, and the unmanaged but widely publicized wrong hours of operation — they say local business owners fear negative reviews, but local SEOs are the ones who walk into these situations with incoming clients and say, “My gosh, just what have these people been doing? How do I fix this?”
The forces of organic SEO (high visibility) and offline marketing (consumer-centricity) face off on our playing field, and often, the first intimation we get of our clients’ management of the in-store experience comes from reading the online reputation they’ve built on the first few pages of Google. Sometimes we applaud what we discover, sometimes we quake in our boots. It’s become increasingly apparent that, as local SEOs, we aren’t just going to be able to concentrate on optimizing title tags or managing citations, because the offline world we work to build the online mirror image of will reflect all of the following attributes pertaining to our clients:
This list has nothing to do with online technical work, but everything to do with the company culture of the businesses we serve.
Because of this, local SEOs who lack a basic understanding of how customer service works in the offline world won’t be fully equipped to consult with clients who may need as much help defining the USP of their business as they do managing its local promotion. Predominantly, we work remotely and can’t walk into our client’s hotel or medical practice. We glean clues from what we see online (just like consumers) and if we can build our knowledge of the history of traditional marketing, we’ll have more authority to bring to consultations that address in-store problems in honest, gutsy ways while also maximizing overlooked opportunities.
I once walked into a small, quaint bakery selling dainty little cakes and expensive beverages, decorated in a cozy floral scheme; a place my auntie might have liked to take tea with a friend. The in-store music in this haven of ladylike repose? Heavy metal so loud it hurt my ears, despite being popular with the two kids left to man the shop while the owner was nowhere in evidence. The place was gone within a year.
As local SEOs, we can’t fix owners who aren’t determined to succeed, but our study of traditional marketing principles and consumer behavior can help us integrate the offline stream into the local, online one, making us better advisors. Likely you are already teaching the art of the offline review-ask. Whether your agency builds on this to begin managing billboards and print mailers directly for clients, or you are only in on meetings about these forms of outreach, the more you know, the better your chances at running successful campaigns.
In communities across the US, townsfolk have long carried out the tradition of gathering on sidewalks for the pageantry of the annual parade in which the hallmarks of local life stream by them in procession. Local school marching bands, the hardware store’s float made entirely out of gardening tools, the church group in homemade Biblical costumes, the animal shelter with dogs in tow, and the Moose Club riding in an open car, waving to the crowd.
This is where we step in, leading the the local parade to march it past the eyes of digital consumers. We bring the NAP, citations, locally optimized content and review management into the stream, teaching clients how to be noticed by the crowd. And, we do this on the shoulders of the organic SEO and offline marketing communities’ constantly improving sense of the importance of truth in advertising.
In other words, everything that is offline, everything that is organic is now our own. We are simply adding the digital location data layer and a clear sense of direction to bring it all together. And, just to clarify, it’s not that the organic and offline streams weren’t feeding our particular river in the past — they always have been. It’s just that it has become increasingly obvious that a multi-disciplinary understanding does really belong to the work we do as local SEOs.
In the lingo of old salts at sea, a “yare” ship is one that is that is quick, agile and lively, and that’s exactly what your business or agency needs to be to handle the small but constant changes that impact the local SEO industry.
From the annals of local SEO history, you can find record after record of some of the top practitioners stating after each new update, filter or guideline change that their clients were only minorly affected instead of sunk deep. How do they achieve this enviable position? I’ve concluded that it’s because they have:
It’s by building up a sturdy base of intelligent, homocentric marketing materials (website, citations, social contributions, in-store, print, radio, etc.) that businesses can stand firm when there’s a slight change in the weather. It doesn’t matter whether Google hides or shows review stars, hammers down on thin content or on suspicious links because the bulk of the efforts being made by the business and its marketers aren’t tied to the minutiae of search engines’ whims — they’re tied to consumers.
It’s because of this dedicated consumer tie that enough that is good has been built to protect the business against massive losses with each new update or rule. Even a few bad reviews are really no problem. Consumers are still finding the business. Revenue is still coming in. Because of this sturdy base, the business can be yare, making quick, agile adjustments to fix problems and maximize the benefits of new opportunities which arise with each small change, rather than having to bail themselves out on a ship that has been sunk due to lack of broader marketing vision.
Let’s sum it up by saying that to chart a good course for future success, your company must know the technical aspects and historical tenets of local, organic, and offline marketing — but above all else, you must know consumers and have a business heart dedicated to their service. A mature heart is one that wisely balances the needs of self with the needs of others. I, for one, find my own heart all-in participating in this exciting and necessary maturation of our industry.