No. 316
May 20th, 2009

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?