Video Deep Dive: Build Brands…Not Links!
Mike Blumenthal


This is our Deep Dive Into Local from December 3, 2018. In our Deep Dive series, we take a closer look at one thing in local that caught our attention and deserves a longer discussion.

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Mary: Blast off. Hi, everyone. This is Mary at Local U. Today, Mike Blumenthal and Carrie Hill and I are going to discuss on our deep dive local brand building. And this is particularly near and dear to Carrie and my heart because we actually started talking about local brand building back in 2007. We worked at an agency where we were starting to see that link building was necessary but directory links were starting to turn into crap because the only thing anybody was doing, as far link building went in local search, and it was just getting so out of hand with all the crappy directories and people thinking there was no end to the number of crappy directories that you should be submitting to.

So what we did is we looked at the keyword research and so we were doing brand building research for the SEO account managers, and we would look at things that we thought had the potential to actually bring them customers. And that’s where we started focusing our research on, “Where can we get links?” And we were definitely thinking in terms of links at that time. But where can we get links that have the potential to bring real customers from their market to a local business? Do you have anything to add to that, Carrie?

Carrie: Well, I think that our idea for it actually was borne from reciprocal linking. And around that time, they started saying, “You shouldn’t have too much reciprocal linking because, once upon a time, there was a lot of trading. I’ll give you a link, you give me a link.” And it was from irrelevant websites, and people had links, pages, and all that mess. And then we’ve started talking about reciprocal linking and how a reciprocal link was okay if it came from somebody who was related to what you do, if the website was something that would send you good traffic, like a qualified user. And then we thought, “Well, maybe that would make a good link building practice, like that qualified user, that good visitor to my website that might actually buy something from me. And maybe we should think of this outside of the reciprocal linking as well.”

And so that started our conversation about how we get these links and what do we do to make the most of them, and how do we find them, I think that was a big part of it and that’s kind of where brand came into it. And we started worrying a little bit less about anchor texts, although it was still kind of a big deal…

Mary: Pretty big.

Carrie: …about that time. We started thinking, “Maybe we just need to worry more about the quality of the traffic and the brand mention than the anchor texts, like what are the words they’re linking to us with.” And it just got kind of snowballed from there.

Mary: Yeah. And so when I was reading through Darren Shaw’s latest local search ranking factor survey, I noticed that at least one person in there, I think it was Blake Denmon who is an up and comer in local search, was talking about local brand building, and that really made me start thinking again about how this needs to be a thing in local search, and that talking about link building, I don’t think does very much for anybody outside of our industry anymore. Go ahead, Mike.

Mike: That’s why I had a little more historical context, 2009 it was Eric Schmidt that said that brands are how you separate the cesspool, the good from the bad in the cesspool that’s the internet. And in 2012, Google rolled out the Knowledge Graph where entities became the ranking…the thing that was ranked as opposed to websites which opened up Google’s ability to continue to use links as a ranking factor one step removed, but also to look at other factors.

And I think when you think about brand in a local market, there is the issue of trust, right? There is the issue of prominence. There is the issue of what people are saying about you. And those elements of building a brand all translate into the online activities related to local entity search, things like industry associations, links, reviews, and other aspects. So, virtually, all of the elements that build a local brand can be then translated to online activity. But the goal is to build the brand and continue to build the brand whether you’re building the reputation of the brand, the trust of the brand, the prominence of the brand, the relevance of the brand, all those things can translate to specific activities but the difference is the focus.

By saying link building, you put that front and center as opposed to saying brand building, what activities do we need to take…need to take place that’ll help build brand. So it just puts a little historical context and another level of extraction.

Mary: That’s a really good perspective to look at it because as SEOs, we still keep throwing this term around, link building. But when you go to talk to a small business client about it, they don’t quite get it. They never did get what the link building was all about. But if you start talking to them about building their brand in their local market and becoming more well-known and discoverable among people who have the potential to be their customers, then it makes perfect sense to them. That’s just good business, whereas…

Carrie: Well, and I would call it an evergreen tactic as well. So back in the day when we did directory listings and Google said, “Yeah, this is junk.” And all that work we did just kind of didn’t work anymore. And then it became anchor text links and reciprocal links, and then Google said, “No, it doesn’t work anymore. And the link farms went away and it doesn’t work anymore.” If you’re building your brand and you’re looking for links or mentions from websites that actually drive customers, that’s not really something that’s going to disappear and not work anymore like the old things we used to do. And so brand mentions and building on your brand is something that’s more evergreen, it’s more holistic and lasts a lot longer than those tactics that SEOs broke one after the other just to figure out what they were back in the day.

Mike: So if you use my model: trust, prominence in the community…

Mary: Reputation.

Mike: …social activity in the community, and reputation, those four pillars, how would you translate those to a local SEO campaign? If you assume those are the four pillars of brand and others, what people are saying about you, how prominent are you, how much trust do people have in you, and are you active in the community, how would you translate those four pillars into action?

Mary: So one of the most effective ways and easiest ways to do brand building is to start with Barnacle SEO. If there’s a site that’s ranking for something you want to rank for, make sure you’re listed on that site. And that’s really easy for people to understand and it’s fairly easy for small businesses to do. If Yelp is ranking number one for plumbers in northern Virginia, then make sure that you are on Yelp, that Yelp understands who you are, where you are. And then you need to build up your prominence on Yelp to try to get some stars and get on their best of pages.

Another way that I think, you know, a lot of this happened because Google had to use weird proxies for things. They wanted to model the real world but they had to use strange proxies like the Post Office for the Centroid. And the same is true with links. But now Google has gotten really good at understanding what you’re doing offline and being able to reword that for you online. And I think another way to do that is mentions in your local media is huge. Carrie, do you want to add anything to that?

Carrie: I think mentions in your local media and mentions overall, you know, we’re big proponents of having our clients do various sponsorships around their local communities. Not big things sometimes. Sometimes it can be just the small Veterans’ Parade. But then so and so mentions on Facebook that they saw Bloom Out was a sponsor, or it gets written up in the newspaper, the parade organizers have a website. There’s all these different places that that one little thing can get mentioned, and I think that that builds on that prominence in your community kind of thing. And that community karma, which that’s kind of a Mary phrase that you coined. But I think that that’s important. If you’re trying to do well in a local small-ish community or neighborhood, if you’re talking about a bigger city, then having your brand name associated with a feeling of good karma can only do good things for you online and offline, I think.

Mike: Yeah, it’s not only does it create karma, it creates links, right? So it goes back to the original technique but it doesn’t focus on it.

Mary: Right.

Carrie: Absolutely.

Mike: So it builds a brand tangentially to the activity of being a good citizen supporting local not-for-profits and good work, and being known for that.

Carrie: And that feeds back into the holistic evergreen concept of if links ever go away, if they ever become a thing that doesn’t matter anymore, you’ve still done work to further your business in your local community, and losing that link is, you know, sucks that that’s not a thing that works anymore, but it’s not lost work. You didn’t lose everything because the links don’t work anymore.

Mary: Right.

Mike: And even the same thing goes for no follow links. It’s like, who cares if it’s no follow or not no follow? The reality is if it’s visible, it will increase…and it’s a good link from a good source, it’ll increase the value of your brand, right? So it’s even to the point, “Well, why worry about the specifics of given links, if you’re doing the work you’re going to be rewarded?”

Carrie: And we don’t even look at follow and no follow when we do it, Mary. It’s been so long since I looked to see whether a link was followed or no followed. I don’t look anymore.

Mary: I mean, it’s always a bonus if it’s a high authority valid link but it rarely is in local link building.

Carrie: I was just going to say that a lot of this goes back to the old school networking that businesses did before the internet, like networking at your Rotary Club, or going to Friday afterhours and shaking some hands, and things like that. And maybe you, as the business owner, or maybe the business owner isn’t the right person for that, but maybe the salesperson is, or somebody in your office likes to drive in the parade. Take advantage of the resources that you have that are interested rather than either forcing yourself to be interested in something you’re not, or the flipside of that is doing nothing about it because you don’t care. Something has to be done. You should be building your local brand.

And if you are building your local brand, take advantage of the assets and the resources that you have whether it’s an email list, whether it’s somebody in the office that wants to drive your really cool car in the parade with a banner or something like that. Or the sales guy that goes to the Friday afterhours anyway, but maybe facilitate that for him a little bit, make it a little bit easier for him to get there. Pay him while he’s there or something like that.

Mike: So the networking at these meetings could generate prominence in the links, right, mentions in the newspapers, definitely around prominence, articles. Helping not-for-profits is around community service and how you’re esteemed in that community. Trust is an area we haven’t touched on yet. Joining industry associations, recognitions for your work, showing those signals visually on your website but also hopefully being recognized on the other website where you are a member of that association, I think, is a way to show trust. Do you have something to add on the trust front besides that?

Oh, one other thing. That is if you’re in a high-risk business, like roofing, or locksmithing, or garage opening, you probably want to also join the Better Business Bureau because you’re in a business that has very low trust amongst Google and amongst consumers, and the Better Business Bureau, for its worth, does provide some impetus of legitimacy on the trust front.

Mary: So the other side of that is actually being a really good business in your community. And when you are, people know that, they acknowledge it. We have a funeral home we’re working with right now that usually when you look in Google Insights, hardly any of the…most of it is discovery, very little of it is direct search. This guy has like 80% direct search. Everybody in that neighborhood knows them. They’ve known them for generations.

Mike: I have a question. Is he killing it on reviews?

Carrie: He’s killing it, yeah.

Mary: Killing it on reviews, yes.

Mike: Tough industry for reviews.

Mary: Yes, very tough industry for reviews.

Carrie: Well, and he’s got a bandwagon that follows him around. And if something, even the littlest bit negative gets said, man, he doesn’t have to do anything about it because the rest of the community just jumps right in there and defends him to the death. That was bad pun.

Mary: Yeah. So you could see how having the best, a really good business and a really good online brand building and offline brand building can work together to really, I mean, just make you blow the competitors away.

Carrie: Uh-huh, I would agree with that for sure. And I think that goes around, that spins around online into the word of mouth. I’ve said it before, we have a really active local Facebook group. I think it’s up to almost 30,000 members now, and I don’t even know there were that many people around here. But if somebody gets in there and says, “I need a roofer, I need a car mechanic, I need a plumber,” there’s all kinds of people advocating for small local business on there because you’ve done good work for them in the past or they know you, or something like that, and so that turns it around. Even that online mention makes a difference.

Mike: So I have two things on that. One is somebody said to me the other day, I use Barbara Oliver as an example, they said, “Well, it’s unfair because you’re using Barbara Oliver but you’ve done so much work.” I would point out two things about Barbara Oliver. One, she runs a great business so it’s easy to do work for her. Two, she’s been doing this for nine years, right? She’s been asking for reviews for nine years. She’s been trying to refine her messaging and her presence in the local community for nine years. And, first and foremost, she really, really cares about every customer that walks through the door and treats them like they are her only customer. And so when you have that sort of…you know, the dedication over time, the dedication in place to treat people that way, it pays off. But it’s been a nine-year investment. It’s not been something that’s quick.

Carrie: Absolutely. And that buy-in, that participation from Mary and I on our half, the client has to have. If it’s not the client himself, it’s somebody in his office or somebody who takes care of those things for him. We have a plumber client who has his admins in the office take care of a lot of this stuff because it’s not his…online is not his thing. And that’s fine. It just has to be somebody but you have to work at it, be proactive and reach out, go for these things instead of just waiting passively for something to happen. It’s not going to happen if you wait.

Mary: And you need to partner up with your clients and find out what part of brand building you can get them excited about and what you can get them to participate in. Because if you have somebody that’s just as shy as they could be, they’re not going to the Chamber of Commerce meetings on Friday night, you’ve got to find some other way for them to shine in their locality.

Mike: And it is going to vary by industry also, right? I mean, it’s going to be different in insurance than in jewelry. It’s going to be different in travel than insurance. And so what works wildly in one might not work in another. But I just published, recently published a post at GatherUp, and it was titled, “When You Don’t Need to Ask for Reviews, You’re Just That Good.” And on my recent trip to Vietnam, we booked a trip with a biking tour company that basically crafted a custom bike tour, supported bike through a forest. And they were so good, I mean, they were incredible. It’s like you didn’t go through the day or end the day without being appreciative of their efforts. And so at the end of nine days, eight days, and I asked, I said to them, “Well, where would you like us to review this?” And they said, “We don’t. We want you to give us your feedback on a survey.”

And so all they did was asked for feedback about how to make it better. And when I checked though, I mean, they were absolutely killing it on reviews. They weren’t asking for reviews. They were so good that they were getting them by the dozens, and all they were asking for is direct feedback. So it’s like they put the first focus on customer experience, customer satisfaction, and out of that came tremendous brand equity that if you do a search it’s called Grasshopper Adventures. You do a search on Grasshopper Adventures reviews, incredible. Just the volume of positive, constructive reviews they’ve gotten. So it’s a good…to me, an example of how excellence in whatever you do, like your…

Mary: Funeral.

Mike: …funeral, your mortician, whether it’s that or whether it’s Grasshopper Adventures, which is a much sexier business, either way though, they have strong advocates because they do their job so well.

Carrie: Absolutely, I agree. I think that if you’re in a business and you’re not trying to be the best, then why are you there? And it’s going to reflect. If you’re not trying hard, then your reputation, the community’s trust in you, it’s all going to falter. And so you have to put the effort in to get the payout out. Yup. I’m good. Hey, anybody else?

Mary: I’m good.

Mike: I’m good. I mean, just to summarize, I think that marketing agents need to view this and articulate it to their clients at this higher level, the specifics of how it’s executed is going to vary by industry and by the quality of the business. But I’m not even sure the business needs to know that they’re doing link building on their behalf if it is essentially building the brand simultaneously, that the activity is sort of, to some extent, abstracted so that you’re not forced into a position where you’re defending your activity against logic that doesn’t make sense, right?

Carrie: Well, that kind of feeds into that emphasizing as an agency, we emphasize the activities that support the key performance indicator. And so the key performance indicator is your trust, or the sentiment in your area, the activities are being the best you can be, participating in community, networking, getting those good reviews. All those little pieces add up into this bigger thing that makes a difference for the business. But we don’t really need to talk to them about this bigger thing because that…you know, we all know you talk about too many different concepts without direct activities to a client and they kind of glaze over a little bit, and they’re like, “Well, what do you just want me to do? What do you want me to do,” is the question. So I think if we talk about the things we need to do, we get to that brand build, or that point where the brand is being built without actually even talking about it.

Mike: Or, “Gee, we need you to support some local not-for-profit to help your reputation in the community.” I mean, there’s no reason not to give them the big picture but I agree. All right, I’ve said my piece.

Carrie: Me too.

Mary: Me too. All right. Thanks, everyone.

Carrie: Bye all.

Mike: Thank you.

Mary: Bye-bye.

Mike: Bye-bye.

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