Last October Vendran Tomic wrote a
guide for local SEO which has since become one of the more
popular pages on our site, so we decided to follow up with a
QnA on some of the latest changes in local search.
Q: Google appears to have settled their
monopolistic abuse charges in Europe. As part of that
settlement they have to list 3 competing offers in their result
set from other vertical databases. If Google charges for the
particular type of listing then these competitors compete in an
ad auction, whereas if the vertical is free those clicks to
competitors are free. How long do we have until Google’s local
product has a paid inclusion element to it?
A: Local advertising market is huge. It’s a
market that Google still hasn’t mastered. It’s a market still
dominated by IYP platforms.
Since search in general is stagnant, Google will be looking to
increase their share of the market.
That was obvious to anyone who was covering Google’s attempt to
acquire Groupon since social couponing is a local marketing
Their new dashboard is not only more stable with a slicker
interface, but also capable of facilitating any paid inclusion
I would guess that Google will not wait a long time to launch a
paid inclusion product or something similar, since they want to
keep their shareholders happy.
Q: In the past there have been fiascos with
things like local page cross-integration with Google+. How
“solved” are these problems, and how hard is it to isolate
these sorts of issues from other potential issues?
A: Traditionally, Google had the most trouble
with their “local” products. Over the years, they were losing
listings, reviews, merging listings, duplicating them etc.
Someone called their attempts “a train wreck at the junction.”
They were also notoriously bad with providing guidance that
would help local businesses navigate the complexity of the
environment Google created.
Google has also faced some branding challenges – confusing even
the most seasoned local search professionals with their
Having said that, things have been changing for the better.
Google has introduced phone support which is, I must say, very
useful. In addition, the changes they made in a way they deal
with local data made things more stable.
However, I’d still say that Google’s local products are their
Q: Yelp just had strong quaterly results and
Yahoo! has recently added a knowledge-graph like pane to their
search results. How important is local search on platforms away
from Google? How aligned are the various local platforms on
A: Just like organic search is mostly about
two functions – importance and relevance, local search is about
location prominence, proximity and relevance (where location
prominence is an equivalent to importance in general SEO).
All local search platforms have ranking factors that are based
on these principles.
The only thing that’s different is what they consider ranking
signals and the way they place on each. For example, to rank
high in Yahoo! Local, one needs to be very close to the
centroid of the town, have something in the title of their
business that matches the query of the search and have a few
Google is more sophisticated, but the principles are the same.
The less sophisticated local search platforms use less signals
in their algorithm, and are usually geared more towards
proximity as a ranking signal.
It’s also important to note that local search functions as a
very interconnected ecosystem, and that changes made in order
to boost visibility in one platform, might hurt you in another.
Q: There was a Google patent where they
mentioned using driving directions to help as a relevancy
signal. And Bing recently invested in and licensed data from
Foursquare. Are these the sorts of signals you see taking
weight from things like proximity over time?
A: I see these signals becoming/increasing in
importance over time as they would be a useful ranking signal.
However, to Google, local search is also about location
sensitivity, and these signals will probably not be used
outside of this context.
If you read a patent named “Methods And Systems For Improving A
Search Ranking Using Location Awareness” (Amit Singhal is one
of the inventors), you will see that Google, in fact, is aware
that people have different sensitivities fo different types of
services/queries. You don’t necessarily care where your plumber
will come from, but you do care where the pizza places are
where you search for pizza in your location.
I don’t see driving directions as a signal ever de-throning
proximity, because proximity is closer to the nature of the
Q: There are many different local directories
which are highly relevant to local, while there are also
vertical specific directories which might be tied to travel
reviews or listing doctors. Some of these services (say like
OpenTable) also manage bookings and so on. How important is it
that local businesses “spread around” their marketing efforts?
When does it make sense to focus deeply on a specific platform
or channel vs to promote on many of them?
A: This is a great question, Aaron! About 5
years ago, I believed that the only true game in town for any
local business is Google. This was because, at that time, I
wasn’t invested in proper measurement of outcomes and metrics
such as cost of customer acquisition, lead acqusition etc.
Local businesses, famous for their lack of budgets, should
always “give” vertical platforms a try, even IYP type sites.
This is why:
one needs to decrease dependance on Google because it’s an
increasingly fickle channel of traffic acquisition (Penguin and
Panda didn’t spare local websites),
sometimes, those vertical websites can produce great
returns. I was positively surprised by the number of
inquiries/leads one of our law firm clients got from a well
known vertical platform.
using different marketing channels and measuring the right
things can improve your marketing skills.
Keep in mind, basics need to be covered first: data
aggregators, Google Places, creating a
professional/usable/persuasive website, as well as developing a
Q: What is the difference between
incentivizing a reasonable number of reviews & being so
aggressive that something is likely to be flagged as spam? How
do you draw the line with trying to encourage customer reviews?
A: Reviews and review management have always
been tricky, as well as important. We know two objective things
consumers care about reviews when making a purchase and
reviews are important for your local search visibility.
Every local search/review platform worth its weight in salt
will have a policy in place discouraging incentivizing and
“buying” reviews. They will enforce this policy using
algorithms or humans. We all know that.
Small and medium sized businesses make a mistake of trying to
get as many reviews as humanly possible, and direct them to one
or two local search platforms. Here, they make two mistakes:
1. they’re driven by a belief that one needs a huge number of
reviews on Google and
2. one needs to direct all their review efforts at Google.
This behavior forces them to be flagged algorithmically or
manually. Neither Google nor Yelp want you to solicit reviews.
However, if you change your approach from aggressively asking
for reviews to a survey-based approach, you should be fine.
What do I mean by that?
A survey-based approach means you solicit your customers’
opinions on different services/products to improve your
operations – and then ask them to share their opinion on the
web while giving them plenty of choices.
This approach will get you much further than mindlessly begging
people for reviews and sending them to Google.
The problem with clear distinction between the right and wrong
way in handling reviews, as far as Google goes, lies in their
constant changing of guidelines regarding reviews.
Things to remember are: try to get reviews on plenty of sites,
while surveying your customers and never get too aggressive.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Q: On many local searches people are now
getting carouseled away from generic searches toward branded
searches before clicking through, and then there is keyword(not
provided) on top of that. What are some of the more cost
efficient ways a small business can track & improve their
ranking performance when so much of the performance data is
A: Are you referring to ranking in Maps or
organic part of the results? I’m asking because Google doesn’t
Q: I meant organic search
A: OK. My advice has always been to not obsess
over rankings, but over customer acquisition numbers, leads,
lifetime customer value etc.
However, rankings are objectively a very important piece of the
puzzle. Here are my suggestions when it comes to more cost
efficient ways to track and improve ranking performance:
When it comes to tracking, I’d use Advanced Web Ranking
(AWR) or Authority Labs, both of which are not very expensive.
Improving ranking performance is another story. Local
websites should be optimized based on the same principles that
would work for any site (copy should be written for conversion,
pages should be focused on narrow topics, titles should be
written for clickthrough rates etc).
On the link building side of things, I’d suggest taking
care of data aggregators first as a very impactful, yet cost
effective strategy. Then, I would go after vertical platforms
that link directly to a website, that have profiles chockfull
of structured data. I would also make sure to join relevant
industry and business associations, and generally go after
links that only a real local business can get – or that come as
a result of broader marketing initiatives. For example, one can
organize events in the offline world that can result in links
and citations, effectively increasing their search visibility
without spending too much.
Q: If you are a local locksmith, how do you
rise above the spam which people have publicly complained about
for at least 5 years straight now?
A: If I were a local locksmith, I would
seriously consider moving my operations close to the centroid
of my town/city. I would also make sure my business data across
the web is highly consistent.
In addition, I would make sure to facilitate getting reviews on
many platforms. If this wouldn’t be enough (as it often isn’t
enough in many markets), I would be public about Google’s
inability to handle locksmiths spam in my town – using their
forums, and any other medium.
Q: In many cities do you feel the potential
ROI would be high enough to justify paying for downtown real
estate then? Or would you suggest having a mailing related
address or such?
A: The ROI of getting a legitimate downtown
address would greatly depend on customer lifetime value. For
example, if I were a personal injury attorney in a major city,
I would definitely consider opening a small office near a
center of my city/town.
Another thing to consider would be the search radius/location
sensitivity. If the location sensitivity for a set of keywords
is high, I would be more inclined to invest in a downtown
I wouldn’t advocate PO boxes or virtual offices, since Google
is getting more aggressive about weeding those out.
Q: Google recently started supporting
microformats for things like hours of operation, phone numbers,
and menus. How important is it for local businesses to use
these sorts of features?
A: It is not a crucial ranking factor, and is
unlikely to be any time in the near future. However, Google
tends to reward businesses that embrace their new features – at
least in local search. I would definitely recommend embracing
microformats in local search.
Q: As a blogger I’ve noticed an increase in
comment spam with NAP information in it. Do you see Google
eventually penalizing people for that? Is this likely to turn
into yet another commonplace form of negative SEO?
A: This is a difficult question. Knowing how
Google operates, it’s possible they start penalizing that
practice. However, I don’t see that type of spam being
Most blogs cannot do a lot to enhance the location prominence.
But if that turned into a negative SEO avenue, I would say that
Google wouldn’t handle it well (based on their track records).
Q: Last year you wrote a popular guide to
local search. What major changes have happened to the ecosystem
since then? Would you change any of the advice you gave back
then? Or has local search started to become more stable
A: There weren’t huge changes in the local
ecosystem. Google has made a lot of progress in transferring
accounts to the new dashboard, improving the Bulk upload
function. They also changed their UX slightly.
Moz entered the local search space with their Moz Local
Q: When doing a local SEO campaign, how much
of the workload tends to be upfront stuff versus ongoing
maintenance work? For many campaigns is a one-off effort enough
to last for a significant period of time? How do you determine
the best approach for a client in terms of figuring out the mix
of upfront versus maintenance and how long it will take results
to show and so on?
A: This largely depends on the objective of
the campaign, the market and the budget. There are verticals
where local Internet marketing is extremely competitive, and
tends to be a constant battle.
Some markets, on the other hand, are easy and can largely be a
one-off thing. For example, if you’re a plumber or an
electrician in a small town with a service area limited to that
town, you really don’t need much maintenance, if any.
However, if you are a roofing company that wants to be a market
leader in greater Houston, TX your approach has to be much
The upfront work tends to be more intense if the business has
NAP inconsistencies, never did any Internet marketing and
doesn’t excel at offline marketing.
If you’re a brand offline and know to tie your offline and
online marketing efforts, you will have a much easier time
getting the most out of the web.
In most smaller markets, the results can be seen in a span of
just a few months. More competitive markets, in my experience,
require more time and a larger investment.
Q: When does it make sense for a local
business to DIY versus hiring help? What tools do you recommend
they use if they do it themselves?
A: If local business owner is in a position
where doing local Internet marketing is their highest value
activity, it would make sense to do it themselves.
However, more often than not, this is not the case even for the
smallest of businesses. Being successful in local Internet
marketing in a small market is not that difficult. But it does
come with a learning curve and a cost in time.
Having said that, if the market is not that competitive, taking
care of data aggregators, a few major local search platforms
and acquisition of a handful of industry links would do the
For data aggregators, one might go directly to them or use a
tool such as UBM or Moz Local.
To dig for citations, Whitespark’s citation tool is pretty good
and not that expensive.
Q: The WSJ recently published a fairly
unflatering article about some of the larger local search firms
which primarily manage AdWords for 10’s of thousands of clients
& rely on aggressive outbound marketing to offset high
levels of churn. Should a small business consider paid search
& local as being separate from one another or part of the
same thing? If someone hires help on these fronts, where’s the
best place to find responsive help?
A: “Big box” local search companies were
always better about client acquisition than performance. It
always seemed as if performance wasn’t an integral part of
their business model.
However, small businesses cannot take that approach when it
comes to performance. Generally speaking, the more web is
connected to business, the better of a small business is. This
means that a local Internet marketing strategy should start
with business objectives.
Everyone should ask themselves 2 questions:
1. What’s my lifetime customer value?
2. How much can I afford to spend on acquiring a customer?
Every online marketing endeavor should be judged through this
lens. This means greater integration.
Q: What are some of the best resources people
can use to get the fundamentals of local search & to keep
up with the changing search landscape?
A: Luckily for everyone, blogosphere in local
search is rich in useful information. I would definitely
Blumenthal’s blog, Andrew Shotland’s Local SEO Guide, Linda Buquet’s
Bowling and of course, the
Local U blog.
Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local
internet marketing agency. Please feel free to use the comments
below to ask any local search questions you have, as Vedran
will be checking in periodically to answer them over the next