Last Updated on August 13, 2015
Howdy, it’s Mike Ramsey here and I have a confession: I love interviews. When I got started I did a local search interview series and I personally learned a ton from it. A lot has changed in the industry since the first round of interviews and it is far past time for another series celebrating great minds in the local space. Each week on LocalU we will feature a great mind in local and beyond with questions covering business, local, life, and whatever else we fancy to ask. To kick things off, we have a man who needs no introduction:
Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca No local conversation gets far without mentioning his tools, his research, or his awesome hair.
Business Development Questions
What in the world possessed you to start your own company?
I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. My father was always chasing some kind of business idea, so I suppose I caught the bug from him. In my first year of university in 1996 I started “DS Web Design”, and it just grew from there.
(every site needs a “why?” page)
Why did you decide to go local?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was building websites for local businesses, and when the local packs came out, my clients started asking me how they could get ranked in them. So, I started researching and learning about local and eventually added local seo services to our offering. (Back then you’d just add the keyword to the business name and call it a day.)
What has been the hardest thing to do while building Whitespark?
Staying focused. There are so many opportunities to develop products and services in this industry, and I have a tendency to want to do everything.
Can you share any future plans or things that currently have you interested?
I’m very excited about the overhauled Local Rank Tracker that we’re just about to launch. It has been a year in the making, and will be the best tool on the market for tracking local search rankings.
I’m also very excited about our Reputation Builder review management platform that we just launched. It’s the best system I know of for acquiring feedback and online reviews, preventing negative reviews, and monitoring your online reviews.
I’m also working on a study of local search ranking fluctuations.
What has been your biggest business failure and what did you learn from it?
We invested a lot of time building a product similar to Moz Local, but Moz beat us to the launch and their product was/is excellent and extremely competitively priced. The development time wasn’t completely wasted, as we’ve been able to leverage what we built within our other products and services, but the learning opportunity was to be more careful and thoughtful with what we invest our time into.
What does your office look like right now?
Whitespark doesn’t have an office. We’re a decentralized company where everyone works from home, and we love it that way. No commute, no distractions, no pants. Even if we grow to 100+ employees, I’ll always try to keep running the company without an office.
Here’s my office:
If you weren’t running Whitespark right now what other job would you pursue?
I absolutely love what I do and truly can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m looking forward to when I can hire other people to run Whitespark (for the most part) so that I can focus on product development, research, writing, and speaking.
Who do you look up to most for business guidance?
My wife, Jill Davies-Shaw. She’s way smarter than me. I try to run all important business decisions by her.
What are your favorite books/blogs that have helped you along the way?
I don’t read business books, but these blogs have been the key to my knowledge and understanding of search and local search:
What do you think most people are missing when it comes to local?
Building a local brand. I see many businesses and agencies that are getting all the basics done – which is important – but not taking it to the next level. The businesses that are winning in local search, and more likely to hold their positions, are the businesses that are going beyond the usual website updates, citations, categories, and reviews. To build the brand you need excellent content written by subject matter experts, community involvement, and great local link building and outreach. This work requires involvement and effort from the business. It can’t be handled by the agency alone.
What do you think is important to track on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis?
Monthly: conversions, leads, and traffic. In that order. You also need to track the sources of each of those so you can understand which marketing efforts are working and which are not, so that you can continue to refine your strategy.
Daily: rankings. I think it’s important to track rankings to understand if your search engine optimization work is having any impact, and to alert you to problems in case your rankings take a nosedive. While I don’t think you should personally check your ranking positions every day (clients that do this are the worst), you should have a system in place that tracks daily. Rankings these days are fluctuating by the hour – sometimes wildly – so tracking weekly or monthly is an incomplete picture of your overall ranking average. Your rankings could generally be #1 for your primary keywords, but at the exact moment your weekly rank tracker grabbed those results, it just happened to be #16. If this is all you see, panic could set in. You need to look at the overall picture of your positions in search. Tracking hourly would be ideal, but it would be ridiculously expensive, so we’ve decided to track daily with our Local Rank Tracker.
Citations? Do you still see major value?
Citations are table-stakes. If you don’t have them, you won’t even get a seat at the local rankings table, but some people take them too far. I don’t think structured citations (business listing directories) are an ongoing strategy. Once you’ve got the data aggregators, the top 50 general sites, a handful of the important industry specific citations, and a handful of the important city specific citations, you can generally check citations off your to do list. Continuing to build more and more structured citations beyond that isn’t going to do much to move the needle for you.
Unstructured citations (your NAPW on blogs, news site, event sites, sponsorships, etc) are a different story though. They can really help you build your local authority, and there is no limit to the amount of these you should strive to build.
If someone had a gun to your head and said, you can do one thing and it has to move rankings up in a local pack, what would you do?
Build high-quality, high page authority, locally relevant links.
So your tests on User Behavior were fun. I did some too. How do you think marketers need to frame this information into what they do?
Google is incorporating new ranking signals beyond traditional local search ranking factors. These user behavior signals help Google understand which search results their users actually prefer and rank the sites that provide the answer for searchers. They are using click-through rate data, pogo-sticking data, search history, click stream data, and more. This means that a business that has almost no citations, hardly any links, no reviews, and poor onpage optimization could potentially rank, because they just happen to be the best answer to the query. Imagine a scenario where people are searching for something like “accountants Denver”, and the users typically bounce back to the search results researching many of the options, but they stop doing this when they reach one particular business. Time and time again, Google sees that their users typically stop searching once they get to this site. This tells Google that this business is meeting the needs of the searcher and they should rank it higher. It’s kind of like they’re now able to crowdsource their ranking data. This is perfectly aligned with Google’s goals. Google wants to be able to provide the answer to the query with the very first search result.
For marketers, this means that you need to stop chasing tactics and focus on building the brand. This can be challenging in local search when you’re dealing with small budgets and busy business owners that have a “I’m paying you, so get me ranking” attitude. Brand building requires collaboration with the business owner. In our LocalSpark SEO service, we carefully screen our prospects and make them sign an agreement that includes some points like “I understand that success is partially dependent on my own (or someone within my company’s) engagement and involvement with Whitespark.”
To impress the search engines today, you need great design and you need to be creating the best content in your market so that when searchers hit your page, they get all the answers to their questions and don’t need to keep searching. Your mantra in this new era of SEO is “be the answer”. Copywriting and conversion rate optimization become so much more important. The main goal is to keep those visitors on your page, convince them that you are the company they are looking for, and you have the information they’re seeking. And really, this should have been your goal all along anyway.
The baseline local factors of website optimization, citations, links, reviews, and Google+ page, are still important – you need these to even be considered – but if you’re not incorporating some of this next level digital marketing into your work, then you’re going to be overtaken by the competition.
What is the most messed up local problem you have solved?
We had a case where no matter what we did, the business’ map marker pin would not stay put after we moved it. It was affecting their rankings as well, since the pin kept jumping into another town. We’d edit the map marker in the dashboard, and their rankings would pop back up for a day, then the map marker would jump back to the incorrect position the next day and they’d lose their rankings. With the help of Dan Austin, we determined that the problem was with the baseline map data in Map Maker, and once he fixed it there, the problem was solved for good.
Can you give us the story about how your family came to be?
My wife Jill and I met at the bar when we were 17. Drinking age is 18 in Alberta, and both Jill and I had fake IDs (shout out to Rob Lightfoot!). We got married when we were 24, and focused on travelling for the next 10 years before we decided to have kids. Our daughter Violet was born in 2010.
Where do you live and why do you live there?
We live in a neighborhood called Glenora in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We’ve always loved older neighborhoods with heritage homes. When Jill and I were still teenagers, we used to drive around Glenora and dream of one day living there. Now we do, and sometimes I still can’t believe it. Both Jill and I are involved in heritage conservation associations in Edmonton.
What does a typical day outside of work look like?
This past Saturday was fairly typical. I got up with Violet and made breakfast while Jill caught a few extra Z’s, then I took Violet to her swimming lesson, then we all went to the farmer’s market to walk around, do some shopping, and have lunch. Afterwards, Violet and I played together for a couple of hours while Jill went to a heritage home owners meeting, then we had some friends over for dinner in the evening.
What are some hobbies that people would be surprised you are involved in?
I don’t really have any traditional hobbies, like building model trains, metal detecting, or playing dungeons and dragons. I’m in a book club with some friends. Is that surprising? 🙂
Are there any organizations in your local community that catch your interest?
I serve on the board of the Old Glenora Conservation Association. We are a voice for Glenora residents interested in preserving the character and heritage of our neighborhood.
Tell us about 3 things in your house that you are super proud of?
I love our collection of artwork, mostly from local artists.
I’m quite fond of my Swiss Metal Man. I saw it at our favorite local gift and flower shop, The Artworks, and really wanted it, but couldn’t justify the cost. When we were selling our house, my wife and I disagreed about taking an early offer that came in, or waiting it out to see how we did on the market. I insisted that we wait, and bet to get that metal man if we did well on the sale of the house. We ended up doing much better than the original offer, and now that metal man is in my office. It’s rare for me to be right in any disagreements with Jill, so I’m particularly proud of this one.
Personally, I’m most proud of my Anthropology degree hanging in the office. I was a high-school dropout, so I had to go back for 2 years of adult high-school, then struggle through 6 and a 1/2 years of university to get that degree. I was never a good student, so for me, it was a major personal achievement.
If you could give advice to our industry about non industry things… what would that advice be?
I’m not really qualified to give advice on this, because it’s something I’m always working on myself, but my advice is to work less, and spend more time with your family. Take the time to enjoy your non-work life and fully engage in it. Disconnect from your smartphones and connect with your family. Take the time to be fully present to your life outside of work, and all areas of your life will improve, including your work life.