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No. 316
May 20th, 2009

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A Framework for Thinking About Local Search Campaigns

Photo Credit: Shanghai South Train Station by Carolina Doug

Despite not having a panel of its own at SMX Advanced this year (maybe next year, Danny?), it seems to me that Local Search is coming of age right before our eyes.  I get invitations to more and more Local Search webinars, and innovative companies and business models are not only popping up with regularity, but many of them are staying and actually starting to make money.  The controversies surrounding Yelp and the recent introduction of the generic 10-pack continue to raise the profile of Local in the eyes of the general public as well.

Almost since Day One, and certainly since the idea for the Local Search Ranking Factors started to form at the end of 2007, I’ve espoused the opinion that the Local algorithms are different enough that they need to be considered as unique from traditional organic search.

Now, I think Local Search has reached a level of prominence where it’s time for SEO companies (and large, location-sensitive companies who do their search marketing in-house) to truly start thinking about Local as its own search division, deserving of its own strategy, budget, and human resources.  

My concept of a new framework for Local was spurred by discussions with Adwords specialist Tom Hale at our monthly SEMpdx event in May (which also featured Matthew J. Brown’s timely and exhaustive presentation about how Google might be incorporating user signals into its search algorithm).

Rand’s recent post over at SEOmoz, Did Google Change SEO at its recent Searchology conference?, also got me thinking about the importance of a deep knowledge of the search verticals relevant to a specific client, and a breadth of knowledge across many verticals to be able to service any client.

Next came my participation in the OrangeSoda Fizzinar on “Local Search for National Brands” in which Alex McArthur highlighted the necessity for national companies to come up with a strategy for Local.

So the prominence of Local, the increasing specialization required to do any aspect of search marketing well, and the difficulty that larger brands seem to be experiencing with respect to Local has led me to the following conclusion:

In short, it’s time for companies to start thinking about Local Search more like PPC than traditional SEO.

Here are four parallels that I notice, anyway:

– A decent Local Search campaign doesn’t take a ton of time to get up and running.
Do your keyword research, figure out which phrases you want to target, claim your Google and Yahoo local listings with proper categories, submit to Infogroup, Localeze, and Acxiom (via Moz Local).  That covers 90% of your bases.   This basic process for one location shouldn’t take more than a few hours.  Obviously ongoing optimization, particularly in competitive niches, requires expertise and more diligence, but think of the ‘claiming your listing’ and submission process as an analog for researching keywords and writing your ads.

– Your business title is analogous to your ad headline.
Even if it doesn’t affect ranking, matching Business Title keywords to what searchers are looking for means they get bolded and increase your clickthrough rate.  Kind of like (actually just like) an ad headline.  And because it’s bad form to try to stuff too many keywords into your title, a good rule of thumb might be to limit any additional keywords to 25 characters.

– The opportunity for robust analytics and A/B testing is comparable to paid search campaigns.
Martin Beijk’s 
amazing Local Analytics technique makes it possible to monitor clickthroughs from the 10-pack to your website.  Add in the concept of tracking phone numbers and you’ve got yourself a fully-trackable campaign.

Additionally, Jeff Howard of Catch Search Marketing, which does Local Search Training, left the following comment about my recent post on the immediacy of LBC changes in Google Universal:

“This [immediacy] makes it possible for business to A/B test different homepages. Perhaps some days they can run a PPC landing page, other days a home page.

Or if a small business is having a sale over the weekend they temporally promote it by running a new homepage to raise awareness.”

It’s not quite that simple since the content and PageRank of the landing page may have some influence over 10-pack ranking (we’ll find out what the other experts think next week), but the opportunity for extended A/B testing is certainly there.

– Your can think of your “Listing Score” (Moz Local) along the lines of a Quality Score.

The more places your information exists across the web, and the richer and more consistent it is, the higher your Local Business Listing is going to rank in both Google Maps and Yahoo Local.  Our Listing Score at Moz Local attempts to quantify this factor. 

Studies like Conductor’s highlight the preference of large brands for PPC–an auction in which you can set your bid and overall budget in exchange for a rock-solid number of clicks is a fairly straightforward concept.  Local should be equally straightforward.

There’s also plenty of evidence, like the Conductor study and this one from Enquisite, that suggest a huge chunk of that effort would be better spent on SEO. I can only speculate based on client experience that the ROI on Local SEO would be even greater for many location-sensitive companies than it is on organic search optimization.  Universal traffic from a well-optimized 10-pack or 3-pack listing, let alone an Authoritative OneBox, can easily match or outpace that from a well-run paid search campaign.

And now is the best time to pay attention.  The prevalence of mapspam suggests that the sophistication of Google Maps’ algorithm is probably about where Google’s organic algorithm was in 2001-2002 (remember link farms and meta keywords, anyone?).

There are probably about as many companies doing ANY kind of Local optimization today as there were doing any kind of SEO seven or eight years ago.  There are even fewer companies today who understand the basic underlying premises behind the Local algorithms, meaning it’s still comparatively easier to rank in the 10-pack than it is in organic search, where the real estate is by-and-large much harder to come by.

If you get foot traffic or phone calls from geo-targeted searchers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor and start incorporating Local as part of your everyday search marketing campaigns.  Hopefully, starting to think about Local Search more along the lines of PPC will encourage companies to stop making excuses like the ones Alex discussed in his presentation last week (“I already do SEO” , “I’m afraid of/don’t understand Local Search”).

Well, that’s it for this edition…what do you think, dear readers?

  • Man I’m sorry I missed the reschedule of the Fizzinar.

    Great starting point for the discussion David.

    I think there’s still a blurry line between organic and Local. Notwithstanding one needs different techniques our customers are thinking of them as “A Bundle” (and perhaps that’s our fault).

    Great post. Somebody send me a link to Alex’s slide deck 😀


  • Jeez you’re fast, Will, I’m still cleaning up the typos!

    I wouldn’t necessarily blame US, as in you and me, for encouraging the bundle mentality…I think it’s partly an ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way) on the part of the SMB and partly the way organic search providers price their campaigns and present their proposals.

    But larger brands should certainly have recognized how to handle Local by now, and 99% of them haven’t, it seems to me.

  • I think the “organic” v. “local” SEO distinction will gradually fade in significance as the search engines get better and better at serving local results to potentially local queries. The “non-local” organic results will still be the place to go for the long-tail but 90% of the head terms will all show localized results. So I agree David – now is the time to go long on local.

  • Hi David,
    I think the bundles thing is a mistake every company makes in the beginning. Then after a client asks you “isn’t local included” and you say “no” they tell you the contract wasn’t clear in that way (and you end up giving it to them for free), then you learn that your contracts need to be modular with each item having a breakdown of what’s included. That’s only provided you’re not one of the agencies that jsut sell you an “all-inclusive” on liner for a few hundred a month with “guarantees” of top three positions in search and one box 😉

  • @Andrew – I agree that the line between organic vs. Local will continue to get blurred with all of the location-sensitivity coming out in future browsers, along with better IP targeting. Interested to hear you would put the figure at 90% of short tail queries. I don’t have an opinion on the overall percentage but agree that it will be significant.

    @Olivier – Glad to get validation for this idea from someone at your scale. I try to be very line-item-oriented in my proposals, but as you say, and as Will pointed out, that can be a difficult distinction to make sometimes.

  • One thing I’ve noticed in the rise of prominence of local search, regardless of if you separate “local” (via maps) from “organic”, is the significant rise in user behavior on the local side of the net. For clients who I have been managing their search campaigns for a few years now, small businesses targeting only their local area, their traffic steadily grows though they’ve had top rankings all along. Beyond that, the conversion rates are growing at an even faster pace.

    Sure there are incremental changes being implemented on these websites for “conversion optimization” but it seems to me the strongest factor is the growing (accelerating?) shift in average web user activity as they do more searching at the local level, and grow the trust of contacting these local businesses via the web.

    Add this to your great arguments David that the time is now to get serious about local search campaigns.

  • Karen Groe


    Great article, first time poster, regarding the quote below:
    “claim your Google and Yahoo local listings with proper categories, submit to infoUSA, Localeze, and Acxiom (via Universal Business Listing). ”

    Looking at Universal Business Listing it looks like it already submits to infoUSA, so if I submit to UBL, infoUSA and Localeze won’t this be a duplication of registrations, can this hurt me? Or is there some other strategy here I can’t see.


  • Hi Karen, thanks for reading!

    UBL definitely submits you to infoUSA, as you say. It is also supposedly a faster submission via UBL than if you submit to infoUSA directly, since UBL is one of their ‘preferred partners’ or whatever. In Mike Boland’s SMN presentation yesterday, he mentioned that infoUSA recommended to him that businesses still submit directly. I do not think you will risk duplicating your information or anything of that sort.

    Acxiom, meanwhile, has no web interface through which to submit listings, so UBL is the only way that I know of to be included in their index.

  • You can also apply social aspects by narrowing down users geographically and reaching out individually. It is time consuming but when they respond you have their full attention.

  • Thought provoking article. As one of your frequent commentators once said, I’d be a pain in the @ss client. I’m more of an in house web company for a group of businesses we own and operate. From that perspective my response is more like that of the in-house SEO specialist.

    I believe in the bundle. It works. As an inhouse guy with the results and profits going to my bottom line, I want all the traffic I can get and all the conversions.

    Simply Maps doesn’t cover the full scope of the potential in the enormous long tail. It probably isn’t worth it from an SEO perspective and that of the SMB to try pay for and cover every phrase imaginable, but it is incredibly valuable.

    I run surveys of traffic and conversions looking back at what was being shown in Maps versus purely organic traffic. The long tail can still work dramatically well. How well? I guess it depends on how long tail you go.

    Having said that, and having been both a skeptic and lazy with G Maps….I’m now a believer. The two areas of optimization are related…but different. They require attention to different details.

    Of note, David, you and I traded notes about the “synergy” or “the combined impact of showing up well in PPC, organic and maps”. That is extremely effective.

    I can’t apply hard numbers to that data, while we have witnessed the impact of multiple visibility in various forms of media for years. Yet I can state without any doubt that having dominant visibility multiple times is incredibly effective. It absolutely works wonders with conversions.

    In that applying expertise to simply Maps and Y local is a rather quick endeavor, as you suggest, one would need lots of clients to fill one’s time sheet…or alternatively charge lots and lots of money for those clients.

    People who practice these skills should hone their skills with Y Local and G Maps. Hell, I need to improve.

    Its an excellent thought provoking article.


  • Excellent post! I’m a first time reader and this sums up what I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the hard way and mentions many other good articles/tools for the local search space. Well done!

  • Hi David,

    There’s a great deal of interest in local search by small businesses, but it’s still a baffling area. Thanks for helping de-mystify it.

    — Anita

  • Hello David,

    I’m a first time poster and wanted to say thank you for writing this beautiful article. You are right, NOW is the time to take advantage of Local Search while its still maturing. The lack of competition in many industries allows for early adaptions to rank high almost instantly compared to the gradual efforts it takes with organic SEO in page ranks. For our clients Local has been a great addition to their marketing campaign because it adds an element to their campaign which their competition are not doing, giving them a huge leg up.

    We believe its a great principle to not go head-to-head if possible but rather to dominate in the areas that our competition’s campaign that are the weakest. When we combine multiple marketing techniques along with SEO we have seen a great results because we are going after the market share that our competition have left unprotected.

  • David –
    What a great article and one that will put the readers mile beyond some Major SEO firms that have overlooked the power of local search. I have been really getting into local search over the last 6 months and have done decently well in vastly different markets. But, I am amazed at how few people are still claiming their listing. Being from Idaho, I am getting people to the 3 pack practically overnight simply because they are linking a website to the listing. Other places its simply adding pictures and being a bit more specific on categories. But, what is going to happen in the day when most listings are claimed, with linked pictures, good keywords in categories, videos, and great descriptions? Is is going to settle on the physical address and where they are hosting? What are your thoughts?

  • Man are you right. Local search can be very powerful for advertisers and most of the time advertisers don’t even know what it is.. There is huge opportunity there. Nice Post. You should write more on this subject.

  • David: I would be interested in hearing more about the mystery behind Yahoo Local. Man I can’t figure out what they are doing. My business, a local preschool went from position 4 to 14 after a negative review hit about our strict “tour hours”. Any insight on Yahoo would be appreciated.

  • David,
    Quick comment… re: your advice about keywords in titles: I just got the smack down from Google on a mid-sized company I’m managing with 50 addresses.

    Apparently, they are getting more strict with titles in the local listings. An addition of “home inspections” in the title behind the company name was enough to warrant a brief ban. I’m told that the listings will re-appear in about 2 weeks… at least that is the response I received after I filed a reconsideration request.

    I’ve been doing testing on this for about a year, and actually have noticed quite an improvement in local rankings. But I’m going to have to re-think my strategy and proceed with more caution on keyword usage.

    Thought your readers would want to know…

  • David,

    I think local search is definitively where the search engines are heading, but as far as an agency is concerned it think local strategies will have to be more integrated with organic. It seems as if the lines are becoming more blurred and now is a great time to get a head of the curve with local.

    On a side note, I was also wondering if you’ve tried out google boost ads and if you have if you’ve seen success with it.

  • Boost can be very successful in less-competitive markets…in more competitive markets, lots of ad spend goes to completely untargeted broad-matched category terms and the ROI has just not been there for those clients.

    Thanks for stopping by.