Video: Deep Dive Into the New Google Local 3-Pack & Review of Its Impact

This is the fourth installment of our Deep Dive Into Local series. For the week ending 9/18/15, Mary Bowling and Mike Blumenthal (David was still in England at the time of recording) share their thoughts about the previous week in local. The complete video is posted in the Local U forums (paywall). In the second half of that video, they take a deeper strategic and tactical dive into one interesting area that caught their attention during the week. These deep dive segments, made available publicly, will typically be about seven minutes in length and be posted one to two weeks after being posted in the forum.

Mike: Mary, it's been...I think the new pack rolled out the local pack with the three, replacing the seven-pack, rolled out August 7th. So we're five weeks since the pack rolled out. What has it brought? What changes have you seen? What business comments and outcomes have you seen?

Mary: Well, of course when it first hit, there was a lot of frenzy and chaos -- people wondering what was going on. I always have to try to calm my clients down and say, "Wait, this is not the final answer." That whenever Google makes a big change, we usually need to wait a while for it to settle down. And, they settled down very quickly, and they haven't come back with more questions about it. So I think that, for the most part, they're not seeing a decline in traffic, or enough of a decline to make them get on the phone or email and contact me about it. So I think that's a really good sign. I think the questions are still in the minds of the SEO world. That's where you're still seeing a lot of chatter going back and forth about what's happening with the new local packs.

Mike: I did an analytics survey this morning and looked at 5 or 10 small location-based businesses, five weeks before and five weeks after, which is not a great test because certainly the end of August is a slow time for a lot of people. It's August 7th through September 15th, compared to the five weeks before. In most of those we saw either a very small decline, occasionally very small increase, or sometimes a few declines down 10%, both in clients in New York state, but also clients that have multi-locations across the country. At least from a web traffic point of view, it doesn't appear to be a significant difference.

I don't have access to a lot of call tracking data, although I'm having a conversation this afternoon with somebody who does, so I'm hoping to learn whether call volume has gone down. I suspect that in some businesses that are very call dependent, where the users go to the front page of Google theoretically to get a number, those calls may have dropped for those in the pack. Those users, then, are probably driven into the new local finder, which opens things up a little bit. It spreads that benefit out a little further.

I don't know, if somebody is in the habit of going to Google for looking for numbers on the desktop, what their behaviors are now. Certainly on mobile, they're still delivering the numbers. Mobile really hasn't changed. It's been a three-pack there forever, and the phone number's been displayed there forever. As search moves towards mobile ... one of the reasons we're not seeing a lot of change is there wasn't any change in the mobile world. It's just in the visual desktop world.

Mary: Right.

Mike: I think some of it is, "Oh my God, we can see it now," but really it's what's been happening right along in mobile. Has this impacted your emphasis on organic or on AdWords?

Mary: Well, I have been a really big proponent for years and years about working on both sides of that equation, not ignoring organic, but working on that simultaneously with working on the local search side of things. I think there are a lot of agencies out there who were just riding local -- local ranking factors -- for a very long time. If they don't get on board with organic quickly, they're probably going to just fade away. You just simply cannot ignore the organic side of things anymore. I am emphasizing that people try to put their phone number in their meta descriptions now, towards the beginning of the meta description.

Mike: A tactic first highlighted in 2003, I think.

Mary: Right, right, but very few people did it. If you're not doing that, you want to make sure that you're doing that now. I think that local links have now become even more important. I saw a survey that Myles at BrightLocal did, asking SEOs and agencies what kind of link tactics they use. The biggest percentage of them said citation-building. Well, yes, you do get a few links from citations, but I think that you really need to go beyond that now, and get much more involved in the kind of links that are actually going to bring you local prospects from other websites.

Mike: And it probably has to be a function, as Wil Reynolds of Seer said, "real world shit." Google is getting much more sophisticated. Their algorithms are getting more sophisticated. They really are looking for online proxies of offline human values, in terms of how to determine whether somebody's prominent. That floats back to this idea of newspaper articles and coverage, and relationships with sponsorships with local groups that are highlighting your business, groups that one, could deliver real customers to you, but also groups that recognize your involvement in the community. I think that agencies, in addition to having to move into organic, I think they really need to be thinking about marketing in general, reputation in general.

Mary: Yes.

Mike: Reputation for me is a big issue. And figuring out how to, one, help the business get better, and two, how to promote that across the local ecosystem, not just with citations. I would agree with you wholeheartedly.

Mary: Yeah. Right now we all need to be thinking about building a brand among the audience that has the potential to become the business' customers, and forget about all the other fluff that we've been doing for years just to try to satisfy algorithms that were much less sophisticated than they are now.

Mike: Yeah, they're getting very human-like. Yesterday in the private Local U forum, there was a question about a car repair that was having problems with Google showing negative snippets in the knowledge panel, and how do you get Google to show something else. I think there, for example, clearly Google's going to do what Google does, in terms of their algorithm. But I think that the business needs to look at their business processes to understand why they're having negative reviews. Car repair business is totally obvious. But in that situation, what I recommended was he needs to put in place a feedback mechanism with the real clients in the real world in real time, so that he knows whether or not he's done a good job. If he hasn't, then those people come to him and feel motivated to come to him. Whether it means posting the owner's cell phone number right above the counter and saying, "Have a complaint? Text the owner," or whether it means using some automated system like GetFiveStars, whatever, it means that as an SEO, you can't fix it after the fact as easily as you could hopefully put in place systems before the fact that would prevent it from happening in Google, but also help the business grow and become better. I think agencies need to be thinking about moving in that more holistic direction of helping them be better, both better marketers and better businesses.

Mary: I wholeheartedly agree. I think that with the two aspects that are really important for -- two of the aspects that are really important for local, this reputation management, continually improving your reputation online and offline --

Mike: As Phil Rozek calls it, reputation development.

Mary: -- right, okay, reputation development. I like that term. And also, with local links, if you don't have a business that buys into this, and is willing to participate and help you, listen to you, and allow you to coach them and actually do what they need to do on their end, you're just about doomed. I have gotten to the point where I'm not taking on any clients who are not willing to work to help themselves anymore.

Mike: There you have it. Well, with that I think this is a wrap for Last Week in Local, Deep Dive. Thanks for your time. Thanks for watching. We'll see you next week. One of these weeks David'll be back from vacation.

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