How are the Big Changes in Local Search Impacting Local Businesses and What Can They Do?
Mike Blumenthal


This is the 21st installment this year of our Deep Dive Into Local series. For the week ending Monday, June 6th, Mary Bowling and Mike Blumenthal shared their thoughts about the previous week in local. The complete video, including links and commentary on critical happenings of the previous week 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.

In this discussion Mary and Mike talk about the increasing complexity of local search, the difficulty in gaining your share of the reducing number of search results and what businesses and agencies can do to maximize their opportunities.

Mike: With that, I think we’ll switch into the deep dive. There are two articles that relate back to the first article I spoke about. One is “Move Over, Text Ads: How Data Feeds Are Changing Search,” and it’s an article at Search Engine Land by Christi Olson from Bing, about how structured data in the form of feeds will become — as I noted about Google in the opening section — will be included in local. But those data feeds with specific data results and types will become increasingly important as we move towards headless search in voice and messaging with no interface and conversational commerce. Those feeds will become increasingly important.

There was another article about how artificial intelligence is changing SEO at TechCrunch, that pointed out how they think that RankBrain is now analyzing what Google trains it to be good sites. And within niches, making decisions within that niche about what sites are good. And if your site is like a good site, you’re more likely to be within that niche and your site is more likely to be ranked.

So, both of those things are, to me, confirmation about the massive changes that have occurred in local, that have taken it from the low-hanging fruit that was 2008 to 2012, into a much more complex mix of new algorithms and new interfaces that are going to make it more fragmented, more difficult to approach.

As I was sitting thinking about it, increased use of links for example, in the Venice update, with the move over to the Knowledge Graph and increased use of semantic search. These are both areas that as local SEOs are not all that familiar with and I think have a huge impact. And then you layer on top of that a self-training algorithm that learns what a good site is and matches your site to a good site of your niche. Those algorithms become daunting in terms of any ability to manipulate them.

And then you start looking at the new interfaces we’re looking at, right? Well, first, let’s look at mobile, where Google, for example, only shows three ads at the top of the screen. The whole idea of a local results showing in there is quite small. Then you look at Apple stealing searches off the top both at a hardware level with OS level searches, as well as at an application level, say Safari-level searches and Siri searches.

And then you see the segmentation due to apps, where Yelp is trying to push everybody over to their app. I don’t know if you’ve done a Yelp search on Google, on mobile, where you’re just hammered to move into their app. And Yelp has shown great app penetration so there is the segmentation (of searchers) on the app side. Then, finally, you’re seeing these feeds feeding the need, Google’s need, for increasingly more detailed semantic results.

And then you have the tendency towards voice search, which is headless search. There’s no interface, just a spoken result. Typically, it’s only going to be one [result showing]. And then that big move towards commerce and messaging where, again, there’s going to be one result. Google’s effort in the messaging and in other areas is to bring out things like GBoard, where you can bring up search results right from within any application, including messaging. But even there the results are extremely limited to one or two that are all you can see.

And then as you move to conversational commerce, again, those are typically relationships between Google and the big guys, right? Where Dominos or Pizza Hut are going to have limited paid relationships where there’s only going to be one answer — who’s going to get it? And it isn’t going to be the little guy. So, I just see local search as becoming an increasingly complex avenue for gaining top of funnel access.

Mary: That is very interesting because for so many years there, the SEO world in general looked at local SEO as, “Ah, that’s the easy stuff.” Now it is far from the easy stuff. But of course, competition has driven that as well. The fact that…yeah, it kind of snowballs.

Mike: That’s right. It’s a dialectic. There is a tension and stress that it’s easy, so a lot of people do it. Then it becomes more competitive because Google has more data. And then there’s all these various algorithms being thrown in the mix, location being one of them, where things are getting … just that one you talked about with the update to Now on Tap where Google’s localizing the data and doing a search very intrinsic to your specific location.

As part of the announcement, you could hold your phone up and point it at a local entity and Google would give you results about what those local entities are. So, we’re talking about a search radius of tens of feet, not necessarily a search radius of some miles. So you see, this location data with beacons getting much more, much, much more narrow and a lot of searches are occurring within its very narrow framework. And then you throw in all the other things I talked about, it’s just mind boggling to think of.

Mary: So, of course that makes me think, okay, what can local businesses do to either be a part of this or compete with it? And it kind of looks like a dismal future because even when you say, okay, it’s all pay-to-play, the big brands have more money to pay to play than the little guys do.

Mike: More importantly, about pay-to-play, they have better analytics, so they can understand really what a lead costs them so that they can spend more per lead and optimize it better and get a full — knowing that they’re still doing it properly. You see this in the insurance industry now. Pay-per-click and insurance can be $25. And it’s hard when you don’t have an optimized funnel to maximize your AdWords or the results of that ad.

And I don’t even know if it’s going to be pay to play all the time. It’s just going to be one result, either the person providing the most data, the most granular data, or perhaps having the app, access to the app. These are all things that require investments, right? Transaction capabilities in apps, feeds, pay per clicks, these are all huge technical investments that require sophistication and make it difficult. That being said, what they can do, and I think that this will continue to be important and you can see this with the new Google testing tool, is create a site that meets Google’s criteria for a good local site.

Semantically relevant, that you tell Google what you do, where you do it, that matches the best attributes of sites in your niche. Obviously, reviews are a strategy that will continue to be important. We’ve seen at the Local U forum, I’ve done reports on the semantic relevance of reviews and how just review content can impact rank and relevance. So, there are things that can be done and will continue to be, but from a local SEO point of view, I think it’s going to become more costly for SEOs to demonstrate success also. I think the agency is at risk in this as much as the small business is.

Mary: One opportunity I do see for small businesses is to just jump in whole hog with schema and JSON-DL. Because Google has kind of indicated that they would love to be able to, rather than take a feed, extract structured information from a site, which is what they’re doing right now in beta with some big brands. And I think that anybody who’s not doing that on their website is missing some of that low-hanging fruit, at least for awhile.

Mike: That goes back to my point about semantically relevant websites. It’s structured data. It’s sites that are structured properly so that you provide a clear guidance to Google — the most important things, the next most important things, what categories they’re in, that you think that you work with real language, with synonyms around the type of language that your customers are using. And then the other area that we’ve talked about in the past is…and this relates back to semantic searches. There was an article. In fact, I was going to put it in my thing, I forgot about it, that Darren sent around about a woman doing a billboard in Canada with laser eyes. It was a very popular billboard and it generated a lot of searches online, and it effectively boosted her rank from just the number of searches that were going on about it. So, the idea of doing more traditional public relations that creates buzz and semantic relevance is going to be another area where I think that both agencies and local businesses need to move.

Mary: Definitely.

Mike: So, with that, do you have anything to add?

Mary: No, I think we’re good.

Mike: So, I just want to say this is really the first week of summer here. We had snow as recently as two weeks ago. It’s beautiful today. I rode my bike in. So with welcoming summer, we will say goodbye today. Thanks for joining us.

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