get in touch

Local Search Like It’s 2020 (Not Like It’s 2010)

A couple of recent industry stories and conversations have prompted me to come out of hiding, so to speak, and write my first blog post in over a year. (I was laid off from ThriveHive in May, and given Tidings‘ focus on email marketing, this website seems the most natural publishing venue. And my friend Mike Blumenthal and I retrospected around a number of similar topics in our final StreetByte conversation, if you’re curious.)

I. Realize that Local Search Is Central to Your Digital Success

Those of you who have been around this space for as long as I have surely remember the perpetual “Year of Mobile” in the late-oughts/early-teens. Like Lancelot running towards the castle in in Monty Python, it always felt like something far off in the distance…and yet once it was here, it managed to impale many slow-moving brands.

Given how interconnected Local and Mobile are, it stood to reason that Local would have its prominent place in marketing awareness shortly after. But a recent study by SOCi and Forrester suggests otherwise. 61% of 154 multi-location brands still call local digital marketing “a largely untapped opportunity.” 

For large brands, Local is arguably easier today than it was 10 years ago: an era of awful content management systems and a much more fragmented local search ecosystem. Good news for companies like SOCi that the market remains so addressable, I suppose!

But many of the brands (and small businesses) who do “get it” still seem to have a 2010 view of the local search world. It is a dangerous and potentially expensive mis-apprehension.

II. Local SEO in 2020 ≠ Citations. Traditional Citations Are Irrelevant.

Though Mike and I discussed this topic at length in our StreetBytes column over the past couple of years, the extent to which our thoughts from a decade (or longer) ago still mis-inform SEOs today frustrates both of us. Without speaking for Mike, here are my current thoughts about citations, as clearly and plainly as possible.

Local search has, quite simply, changed in the last 10 years. And I don’t just mean on the SEO side, but on the consumer side as well.

In the early pre-mobile days, the landscape of sites that drove consumer eyeballs (and authority in Google’s algorithm) was vast. You needed a widely-distributed presence because the long tail still drove a significant number of customers to your business. And your Google Places listing earned a significant amount of ranking potential via these citations of your business.

It’s now 2020, and Google My Business has eaten the long tail of local search.

Even from the very beginning, two things made a citation “count” towards your local rankings:
1) could Google associate the mention of your business on a third-party site with its own business index? and
2) was the site on which you were mentioned authoritative enough for keywords that you hoped to rank for such that it would convey some of that authority to your business?

In the early days of local search, there just weren’t that many vertical sites that had built a significant amount of authority — Google’s algorithm was skewed towards large horizontal Internet Yellow Pages directories.

Two things have happened in the last 10 years: vertical players have begun to dominate the organic local results, and the old Internet Yellow Pages directories are basically out of business.

So, it makes me sad that so many small businesses, and it surprises me that so many brands, continue to pay such a premium for listing management. Many appear to be doing so for the wrong reasons. I’m not saying listing management is worthless, but the retail prices I see some companies charging are nowhere near justified by the value they deliver.

To be as clear as possible:

Consistency of citations will no longer help you rank better in Google, except on the extreme margins.

Google’s entity recognition is light years ahead of where it was in 2010. Stop worrying about exact business name matches, suite numbers, and street abbreviations (the latter two never mattered anyway).

Volume of citations will no longer help you rank better in Google.

Stop buying listing management packages based on the number of sites in their distribution network.

Facebook, Yelp, and key sites in your industry are the only citations that will help you rank better in Google.

Stop buying listing management packages that do not include the key sites in your industry. All of the formerly-important horizontal directories like Superpages, Citysearch, and the like are completely irrelevant. In fact before publishing this post, I had to look up whether they are even still in business!

If you’re buying listing management for its citation value, search for a couple of your “money” keywords and take note of which directories rank in the top 20 or 30 results for those keywords.

Either pay those directories directly to manage your listing (if you feel they’re valuable enough), or buy only listing management packages that include those directories.

Don’t believe me? Test with your own data.

If your listing management package comes with a fancy analytics dashboard, compare your impressions and actions within Google My Business, and Facebook and Instagram, to comparable metrics from every other source combined. (Here, I’d imagine that Facebook and Instagram do quite well in terms of impressions, and their value as engagement-builders for existing customers should not be understated.)

Those of you doing call-tracking, look at your call analytics. How many calls per month do your GMB listings generate compared to all other local search directories combined–including Facebook and Yelp?

Those of you segmenting traffic sources in Google Analytics, aggregate your referral data from every local directory–including Facebook and Yelp–and compare it to utm_source=GMB (or however you’ve labeled your tracking parameters).

Tweet me @davidmihm and let me know what you find.

What would I do?

I’d align my time-spent and dollars-spent with the percentages from my investigation above.

If Google My Business is driving 90% of your leads, it should get a corresponding percentage of your time, effort, and resource budget. Posting great photos, encouraging reviews, responding to reviews, updating product/service menus…and now that the Messaging API has been opened up, being responsive to messages and Q&A.

And of course, if I’m wrong and GMB is driving a much smaller percentage of leads for your business relative to the long tail of directories, then by all means I’d continue to invest in that tail.

Those who know me well know that I’m no fan of Yelp (to say the least!) But if you’re a larger brand, I’d also pay at least a little attention to where Yelp is in the mix above. It may be worth paying Yelp’s premium directly to manage your listings there in bulk.

For what it’s worth, there may still be a value to cleaning up bad, out-of-date data if you’re an established business with a messy footprint, and potentially to seeding data far-and-wide if you’re a brand new business.

III. Local SEO in 2020 ≠ Engagement, Either…But It Still Could

I wrote this article three-plus years ago. Directionally, I believe its thesis is still accurate: that is, engagement is on its way to becoming the primary way Google ranks local businesses. However, I was clearly wrong about the time horizon.

The transactability (apologies to the folks at Merriam-Webster) of Google Business Profiles has seen a dramatic increase in the last three years, and consumer engagement with photos and other buttons that Google has enabled within GMB is clearly on the rise.

But Google’s chronic under-resourcing of the intersection of Google Maps and Google My Business relative to their centrality in the search experience means that it may take another four years to get to a place where engagement truly dominates as an organic ranking factor.

In my estimation–and it is just that, an estimation–reviews and links (and of course, proximity to the point of search) remain the primary signals Google is using to rank local businesses today.

IV. Realize That PPC Agencies Are the Frogs in Google’s Stock Price Pot

In a considerably more prescient prediction, I also wrote three-plus years ago:

[A]bsent a rising inventory, I predict Google will monetize mobile local searches even more than they have already to keep Wall Street happy with that sustained 50% increase in paid clicks. This means more hybrid ad units, whether Home Services or Product Listing Ads, as well as more industries where transactions happen right on the SERP.

We’ve continued to see organic results for local searches demoted to what may as well be the second page of results on mobile phones — ads, local packs, and answer boxes absolutely dominate. And, IMHO, this will continue to accelerate.

Now, you might say this is great news if you’re a local PPC agency — more ads = more money for Google and more money for you. And I understand the skepticism of Google’s AI (at least today) with respect to Smart Campaigns for the traditional units formerly known Adwords.

But if there are two developments from 2020 that I suggest you pay attention to, they are these:

Google enabling free Google Shopping feeds
Google radically expanding Local Service Ad categories

If you’re an agency whose revenue comes primarily from paid search for local businesses, between Google Shopping (and its easy entré into Product Listing Ads) and Local Service Ads, I’m not sure where there is left for you to add value — and make a margin. These ads require:

  • no keyword research — Google decides where to show them
  • no “creative” — the ads are the product or service themselves
  • no landing page — checkout happens entirely on Google
  • virtually no bid management — a small merchant can turn ads off or on themselves

Between Google’s massive expansion of PLAs and LSAs and the COVID-fueled decrease in budgets across so many industries, 2020-21 will be the tipping point.

Don’t be the frog who couldn’t feel it coming: Google’s pot of PPC agencies is reaching a rolling boil.

There will always be value in advising businesses on the appropriate mix of advertising and marketing for their business, and in getting business owners set up with these new ad products from Google. But it’s getting increasingly hard to justify an ongoing percentage of spend, or even a management fee, with these new formats.

Where Is Local Search Headed?

I’m still not sure that, as a whole, marketers or business owners realize the paradigm we’re in right now.

Your website’s content and and traditional organic signals are still essential for rankings in Local Packs and Google Maps, but increasingly customer engagement — decision-making AND conversion — is happening directly on the SERP, inside of GMB and inside of Google’s newer ad units.

2010 local search paradigm:
Search -> Organic Result -> Website -> Contact Form -> Conversion

2020 local search paradigm:
Search -> Ad/GMB -> Conversion

That’s an oversimplificiation, but Google is clearly building more and more features into Google My Business that will give consumers less and less of a reason to visit that business’s website (and give Google even more behavioral signals than it has already).

Spend your time and money optimizing for that reality.