Mike Blumenthal and Joy Hawkins take a Deep Dive into Google and Local Search Success. In this episode Mike and Joy discuss some of the biggest issues confronting businesses and agencies in terms of ranking at Google, what to do in the absence of MapMaker, how to maximize your interactions with Google support and more.
This is our Deep Dive Into Local from May 10th, 2017. 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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Mike: Hi, and welcome to this week’s episode of “The Deep Dive.” Local this week, Joy Hawkins from Sterling Sky is joining me, and we’re going to be talking about Google and local search success. So obviously, in conjunction with Local U or maybe not obvious to all the listeners, you’ve recently published a new manual, pretty comprehensive, and wrote out your first month’s update, “The Expert’s Guide to Local SEO.” Maybe you could just introduce yourself, introduce that briefly, and then we’ll dig into some topics about relating to Google and success.
Joy: Sure, yes. I guess I’m most commonly known from different articles I’ve written. I have a column on Search Engine Land, I write for Moz, I write for my own blog. I’ve guest posted for Whitespark. So a lot of people have read articles that I’ve written. And I often get great feedback because my articles often are like, “How to do this” or “How to do that.” And I usually try to tackle issues that agencies are running into with their clients or small business owners that are kind of doing SEO themselves.
And one of the problems I ran into is just…I had written an article let’s say last year that no longer works anymore. People were still trying these methods that I had written about a year ago, and Google’s changed things like they always do. And all of a sudden, they’re looking at outdated material and then they’re asking me to update it. And depending on where it’s published, I don’t have the ability to update everything.
So I kept thinking to myself, “How great would it be just to have a guide, a huge massive manual that I continually update, continually add to that I use myself?” Because frankly, I don’t even remember all the things that I discovered or come up with for clients. If I can leave it to my memory…after having three kids, I feel like I just…my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. So now, I have it written down, so I’m constantly quoting myself and pulling stuff up, but I’m helping users in forums and stuff. Also, when I was working at Imprezzio where I worked for eight years, one of the primary struggles that we had was just keeping training up to date. It’s a huge time suck and resource for an agency to have someone who sits there and constantly updates things as we have…like, 15 new things come out every month, you know? And keeping up with news and updates and stuff like that isn’t easy.
So I think for agencies, the manual is supposed to be like a really affordable way for them to not have to pay someone at an expert level, in-house. And also, like, it’s really solid for training new employees. I am going to be using it for my employees now that I’m going to be hiring pretty soon. That was kind of the design going into it.
Mike: Nice. So let’s kick this off with a question to you. What do you see…Google, being an algorithmic system in which businesses are struggling to gain visibility, what do you see as the biggest problem today that agencies and businesses are confronting in their effort to, you know, increase their visibility in Google Local, wherever it may display? Whether it’s on the front page of Google, in a keyword search, or in Maps.
Joy: yes, I would say…the thing I hear the most recently is due to Possum, those businesses got filtered, that seems to be the most problematic kind of issue that I get asked all the time. And I get people that are hiring me for consultations…
Mike: Wait, so this is filtering not due to any penalties? It’s filtering just due to the preferences of Google not to show too many of something that’s similar within some given radius, right?
Joy: yes. So, like, it’s unfortunately, actually, taken a lot of legitimate businesses and filtered them out just because they happened to be in the same building as other businesses, in the same industry, or on the same block. You know, like a two-minute walk down the street. So there’s quite a few people that have been impacted by it.
One that kind of piqued my interest I talked to recently had this happen. He had no idea what happened other than just his phone stopped ringing late last summer/early fall when Possum happened. And he’s trying to remember, “Oh, I’m figuring it out.” Like, the average SMB is not going to be able to figure out that they got filtered. But I guess through reading up and hiring some people, that’s the conclusion they came to.
So now, this guy is like, “What do I do?” So he changes his address, and now, he’s using his home address. But now, all his citations are inconsistent and his website listing has his real address. It’s just a mess. Like, you’ve got all the signals that were working for you all of a sudden aren’t. But I do not think that’s necessarily a good approach.
Mike: So from a theoretical level, I look at Possum’s suppression, and how Google chooses who to show as a function as sort of relevance and prominence. In other words, if you’ve got five of the same things in close proximity…in my case, I had a restaurant filtered because there were four restaurants literally door to door, right? So there’s four restaurants right next to each other, and one of them got filtered.
And my sense of it is that they did not have enough relevance or prominence on the keywords. Like, for which they were being searched. So given that obviously changing their address was a bad idea, what would you suggest they do to fix it?
Joy: yes. A lot of it tied to organics. So that’s like the biggest number one thing in the link there. I mean, if you’ve got a keyword…like, let’s say you’re a dentist and the keyword is “Dentist, Seattle” and you’re like 15th organically, but the other buddy in your building is fifth, well, it’s like a no-brainer as to which one Google is going to choose, right? They’re going to choose the guy that’s got the strong organic ranking.
So I’ve seen a lot of cases where I guess these people…their SEO company is just hyper-focused on the three-pack and kind of left organic alone. Because you can rank in the three-pack without a strong organic ranking. But I’d say the two are really tied together. So that’s like the number one thing that I see often. When Google is deciding which one to pick, it’s just which one is ranking higher organically.
Mike: I actually…my research would indicate that isn’t just organic that could do that. That any strong presence in a social environment, like a strong Yelp! page, could also bump you into the back.
Joy: Yep. Definitely.
Mike: Or likewise, leave you out of the pack. Or a strong Healthgrades listing could bump you in if it ranks high on the search phrase, or leave you out. Or I’ve even seen…like I talked about Moz, Google+…really strong Google+ play moving you in or out of prominence.
Obviously, the website’s visible, and the others are sort of not as visible. But I think it could be almost any authoritative local site in which your listing is doing well could bring you in or, likewise, leave you out.
Joy: yes. I think people are expecting a magical answer when they ask that question. Like, “Oh, it’s one thing.” It’s never one thing with ranking. There’s what, like, 200 something ranking factors? So yes, it’s just that. You need to look at all the ranking factors, obviously focused on the ones that make the bigger impact. Because links obviously make a bigger impact than, you know, like, updating a citation here and there. I mean, it just depends.
Mike: Would you recommend going for, perhaps, a longer-tailed category as a way of sort of breaking out of that limit?
Joy: No. I just say like you’ve first got to identify who’s beating you, and then do a thorough analysis on what they’re doing, how they’re beating you. Because you’ve got to know, like, “What part of all those ranking factors are they doing better than me at?” right? Which is not impossible to find out. Like, I usually just do a really thorough analysis of the competitor and base my strategies off of what they’re doing differently, plus, obviously, my own insights on what I know makes a difference in ranking. Because there’s no reason why you can’t get unfiltered. I’ve seen plenty of cases where businesses have gotten unfiltered. I’ve worked on…
Mike: Part of the problem with the tools is they’re all web-focused, right? They don’t look at prominence of your Yelp! page…
Mike: …or prominence of your Healthgrades page. So it takes somebody like you with a strong intuitive sense and a strong observational experience to understand that you might be able to achieve it with one of these other sites, right? Because the tools are also web-focused. They’re not very local-focused.
Mike: All right, so let me ask you another question. Map Maker’s gone away now…or lived now at least a month, a little bit longer without it. We still see these questions about, “Oh, my god, what do I do? Map Maker’s gone?” What’s your take on that whole thing?
Joy: yes. Map Maker definitely was awesome. I was a huge fan of it. That was one thing while I was writing the training, I was constantly looking for new processes because I knew Map Maker was leaving. So I didn’t write anything in there about Map Maker. Everything that I used to do on Map Maker, I was learning how to do on Maps, because it is slightly different. Most of the stuff you could do on Map Maker, you can do on Maps. It’s just harder. Some of the ways of doing it isn’t quite as straightforward. But then, there’s some things that are way easier.
Like, Maps has this move feature, for example, that is so much better than Map Maker’s way of doing it where you had to manually update the address, then drag the pin. Maps does it all automatically, and they have, like, a pin on the map that’s associated with a specific address already. So it just automatically moves the pin for you. Like, we used to have with driving directions being wrong and stuff. Which I’m sure you’ll recall, we used to get complaints all the time on the forum. We don’t get those anymore. I think better.
Mike: The mobile interface to that is very good, too. It’s like desktop and mobile. Very sweet interface on both. A little bit different, but…
Joy: yes, it is different, and that’s the other thing people got to realize, too. There’s things you can do on mobile that you can’t do on computers and vice-versa. Especially when it comes to editing and improving edits. That’s a big one that’s changed. So everyone keeps saying, “Oh, there’s no such things as reviewing edits anymore without Map Maker.” That is such a lie. So I don’t know why people don’t realize that you can still review edits on Maps. It’s just, you do it on a phone, right? When you pull up a listing that has a pending edit, you would say, like, “Yes” or “No” kind of thing. Same as you would have done on Map Maker. And they do have the functionality on desktop; it’s really awful. But it’s there, only if you’re a Level 5 Local Guide, though. So anyone that’s not that can’t do reviewing.
That’s just…I don’t know why people seem to think that’s like dead now that Map Maker’s gone. I think it’s just a matter of people getting familiar with Maps and knowing all the processes. But most things are still achieveable without Map Maker.
Mike: Which brings up a point, though, that if you are a Level 5, your edits are more likely to be approved with less intervention. Would you agree with that?
Joy: yes. I found that the editing, it’s one of those things. It’s not just like any edit will go through. So for example, I have a much more trusted profile in the States than I do in Canada. So a lot of my edits for listings in Canada are more likely to go for review than edits in the States, and that’s just due to my history. Like, I’ve made a lot more edits in the past in the U.S.
So I think people forget that, like, different types of edits give you different trust levels for those types of edits. So going and leaving a bunch of reviews to get to Level 5 is not necessarily going to help push your edits through. You’ve got to actually do editing, approve other people’s edits, get them to approve yours. Like, it’s the whole social, like, reviewing kind of thing that makes your profile trust go up.
Mike: I see. So it’s edits, approved edits, and you approving other edits. Right. So it’s like…it’s even like Google…it works much the way Google+ works, right? It’s not a function of having followers, per se. It’s not a function of uploading a bunch of photos. It’s a function of having done edits, getting your edits approved, and you approving other edits. Interesting.
So obviously, sometimes, these things can’t be edited in Map Maker, and it’s necessary to use Google’s reporting mechanisms. What is your suggestion there? I know you have a strong opinion.
Joy: Well, they have a feature for reporting duplicates that I think people just default to. Because they’re like, “Oh, I can just report this as a duplicate.” The problem is there’s no field to tell Google what it’s a duplicate of. So you’re leaving it up to Google to figure it out, and that’s never a good idea.
So unless it’s like identical, like the exact same name, the exact same phone number, the exact same address, likely, this has Google what you’re talking about. In my testing so far, it’s like a black hole. Like, using the duplicate reporting method doesn’t work. But I have a long detailed article coming out on Moz on, I think, the 16th of May, which is literally a copy out of my manual that talks about how to properly report duplicates depending on what it is. And it’s like, I don’t know, five pages or six pages because it’s not like you want to do the same method. It depends on what type of duplicate it is.
Mike: And whether it’s verified or not verified.
Joy: yes. With a long checklist of stuff. So Moz is going to be publishing basically like a tiny little piece of my…like, five out of the 160 pages on their blog. So it’ll give people a good idea of what they should be doing instead of using that function on Maps.
Mike: So in general, then, if you do need to report something to Google that you can’t resolve yourself in Maps, how would you suggest you do it?
Joy: yes, well, two rules of thumb. Usually, you want to contact Google My Business if it’s for your own business. And then the second thing is, like, if it’s a verified listing, there is really nothing you’re going to be able to get done without getting ownership of it. Like, if someone else has verified this duplicate and you don’t know who that person is, Google is not going to get in-between like a competition war of who’s the real owner. So you have to get ownership first before you can do anything with it. Otherwise, Google doesn’t know which one to keep and which one to toss, right? So I think that’s a big thing that people don’t realize as well.
Mike: And what would you say is the escalation path for an agency or user in terms of this process of reporting and resolution and such? Should they, you know, get a callback via GMB? Should they reach out to Google on social? Should they go into the forum? How do you see that decision and escalation path that works best in your mind?
Joy: I haven’t called Google My Business since they came out with social support. So never call. That’s my advice. Especially when you’re just dealing with multiple listings, you have to read off the address, the phone number, and try to get that person on the phone to actually figure out what listing you’re even looking at. Whereas if you’re just on Twitter or Facebook Messaging them, you just copy and paste the link. So the amount of time it takes you to send a message to Google is like a fraction of the time that you would have to take using phone support. So never use phone support.
Mike: And another big difference is that Twitter is staffed by people currently in Mountain View.
Joy: Huge difference.
Mike: There’s less language barriers, and there’s also, I think, more…they’re directly employed and trained by Google. So we’re not dealing with a subcontractor. So I think…
Joy: yes, I know, exactly.
Mike: …the general quality of that staff is higher.
Joy: Way higher, yes. There’s no comparing.
Mike: So first suggestion is to do social. What happens if it’s a real problem and social isn’t solving it, though?
Joy: yes, so the Google My Business forum is another great place to get a second opinion. Because obviously, you and me and lots of other people are there. A recent case I…
Mike: We’re going to have to stop meeting like this, Joy.
Joy: So there was this one lady that posted recently, and Google had told her…I can’t remember if it was phone support or if it was social support, but they had told her, basically, that they were not going to remove this review. And I guess she maybe didn’t realize, like, what kind of evidence you need to show Google in order to get stuff done.
So it was a review that basically violated HIPAA and disclosed private information about a patient on a doctor’s profile, which is not allowed, it’s illegal. So I was able to give Google the proper evidence proving “This is illegal. That’s why you need to remove it.” And they removed the review, even though this girl was originally told by Google “No.”
So it’s just a matter of getting the information, right? It never hurts to get a second opinion. What irritates me, though, is when people get their second opinion and if Google still says “No” and then they argue, it’s like, “Okay, at that point, really, there is nothing you can do.” So yes.
Mike: But I think it’s important for people to understand that the forum is staffed by volunteers like yourself and myself and many others. And that we don’t directly make these decisions. That the best we can do is escalate serious problems that we think are in violation of some guideline, and that we then are entitled–big entitlement–to take that case back to Google and argue it on behalf of the poster.
So it’s like…but, as you pointed out, it is an esclation path. So you try it direct first for most things, and then you bring it into the forum. And there are some things that are really only effectively reported in the forum…like, if you find a spam network, for example, whether it’s fake listings or fake reviews, and it’s thousands of entities or hundreds of entities, you really can’t report that via the GMB support. That a situation like that is probably…direct to the forum is your only real choice, and then get the attention of one of the top contributors who then can escalate. Would you agree with that?
Joy: yes. I guess the only exception would be if you are editing it yourself and reported them yourself and you have a high trust profile, that you can get rid of spam pretty easily. But if you’re not in that case, I still tell people, “Always report it first. Because the more edits you’re doing and stuff, that will help you get to that point eventually.” Like, it took me years to get to the trust level that I’m at now. So if I hadn’t started at some point, I would have never got here.
Mike: Although, I’m dealing with…I’m looking at a review spammer network that is literally…
Joy: Oh, gosh.
Mike: …a thousand people. And it’s like, “Gag me with a spoon.” It’s hard enough finding them, and then you’re supposed to spend your time reporting them? No way.
Joy: No, definitely not a spam network. If it’s like…those ones where I find that are, like, thousands of listings, which I found a few, I always send those to Google. And I specifically tell them, like, “Please dig into this and get rid of all the fake listings. Because I’m only showing you a few here.” But yes, I would agree; the forum is best for that.
Mike: So one last question, it relates to your book. Obviously, we’re in a dynamic environment, which is very exciting, but it changes a lot. I saw that for the month of May on Local U, you posted a new version of the book that included updates. How are you planning on updating your training guide and what does that cost, and how does it get distributed, and how frequently are you going to do it?
Joy: yes, so every month, I literally have hours of time devoted to updating the book on my calendar. And I have a long-running list of stuff to add. Like, I’ve already got probably a list of about 20 items that I needed to get added to it already, even, like, so far this month.
So each month as I go and I add stuff to it, I kind of base it on what I think is getting the most traction out there. You know, what items people really want to know about. And then as I update the book, people…if they subscribe, it’s like $29 a month, hey get a copy of the new version every single month. And that also ensures that, like, the processes in it are accurate. So if Google decides to make another change like they did with getting rid of Map Maker, getting rid of the classic version of Google+ that impacts the way we do things, they won’t have to scramble to find new processes. I’m going to basically make sure I delete things from the book if they don’t work anymore and update them with things that do.
Mike: Great, that’s great. So for anybody who’s interested in Joy’s guide, it’s available at localu.org. And it’s “The Expert’s Guide to Local SEO.” And I can speak from experience that I have spent a lot of time in the bowels of Google Local, and I learned some great tips with Joy’s book.
So personal endorsement, obviously, caveat, that I am a on Local U and I have a small benefit as an outcome of this, but I really can strongly endorse it. So I think that’ll be a wrap for today. Thanks for joining us, Joy.
Joy: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Mike: All right, talk to you later. Bye-bye.