Video Deep Dive: How to rank in cities where you don’t have a physical location
Mike Blumenthal


Mike Blumenthal & Darren Shaw take a Deep Dive into how to rank in cities where you don’t have a physical location.

This is our Deep Dive Into Local from June 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. Welcome to Deep Dive. This week we have the infamous Darren Shaw of Whitespark, and with perfect…near perfect hair.

Darren: Thank you.

Mike: And we have a great topic for this week’s Deep Dive, which is how to rank in cities where you don’t have a physical location. So, it’s a topic that is a frequent topic for businesses that have broad service areas. It’s true for many rural businesses and it’s true for urban businesses located in the suburbs that want to be ranking in the city. It’s a difficult problem, given the way Google has reduced the radius of their search delivery in local results, and one that we get a lot of questions about.

So, what do you see as the broad strategy for a business that’s looking to achieve more geographic coverage?

Darren: Well, broadly there’s a lot of different ways you can approach it. You can open new offices, you can get virtual offices, you can forget the local pack and go to the local organic results — try to rank in there. You can just focus on paid ads, of course, paid ads if you want to get around there. But yes, the big problem is that since the radius has been reduced, you can hardly rank outside of about a 5-, maximum 10-mile radius from the searcher.

So, if a searcher is sitting somewhere…if it’s in a dense category where there’s like hundreds of businesses that are also doing that across the city, you’re generally going to get businesses that are within that 5- to 10-mile radius for you.

So, sometimes it’s not even about ranking outside of the city, sometimes it’s about ranking in different areas of the same city. How do you rank? Like if my business is located on the south side, but of course I can service the whole city, how do I track customers from the west end or the north end or the central area?

Mike: Yes. I mean, Google has really localized search results around the mobile user and the radius that it draws — which sometimes can be as little as 2 miles, which gives you a 4-mile diameter — has continued to be reduced, and it’s been going on these last three major updates, each one has reduced it more and it is more difficult.

I mean, one area … a couple of things, one is, I think people need to move out of the idea of the keyword to some extent, or to expand what that means, because with voice search, there’s a much…not only is there…with mobile there’s this physical attribute to searches which makes more business to show up. But there’s also more variety in the search phrasing, and we don’t know anymore, given that we can’t see what people are searching on, exactly how they’re searching. So, there’s this problem, too, that there’s a strong focus on “plumber, San Diego,” or whatever, when the reality is much, much more complex I think than that.

Darren: Yes, it would be something like “clogged drain,” “fix my clogged drain,” and then a local pack will appear.

Mike: Or “emergency plumbers open now to fix my clogged drain.”

Darren: Yes.

Mike: So, one area, I think — one thing is to expand the content on your site to be really useful to users, and to expand your approach to review so that you’re generating this sort of unusual content that maybe you didn’t anticipate, where users get to speak in their own voice about the more unusual things you’re doing.

Darren: yYs. Making sure you’re putting that content on your web pages. A lot of people collect testimonials or feedback, but they don’t put it up on their website.

Mike: Yes, making sure that’s available on the website, and that you’re getting it on an ongoing basis.

The other thing…it strikes me when I… that research I did on Google+ and reviews, that you sometimes can overcome the limitation of distance by being incredibly relevant to a query. And relevance is…can be aggregated over multiple attributes, it’s not a single thing. It’s not just a category at Google, it’s a category at Google+, maybe even a long-tail category, like we talked about earlier — the Yellow Pages, might give you a leg up in that category, combined with review content or social content that speaks to that extended thing.

So you can move into these other longer tail areas by being relevant to them, by being sure that you’ve distributed your categories to the maximum possible among the sites that Google looks at, for example.

Darren: Yes. And then also I think there’s a huge thing to be said for not just improving your category distribution across — you mentioned the sites that Google looks at, but also the sites that Google looks at in your industry, improving your reviews there has a huge impact because what happens is you end up ranking higher on those sites because you have reviews, and so you get better visibility on that site and Google sees that and then increases your relevance. So it’s really important to diversify review strategy, and making sure you’re getting reviews on whatever niche sites are important to your industry.

Mike: So, one thing I’ve seen is that AdWords Express has gotten a lot better at both targeting and delivering customers cost effectively, geographically. So it allows you to target very precisely a given neighborhood or a given zip code or a given city. How accurate that targeting is in real world use, I don’t know, but I do know that I’m seeing it deliver very cost-effective leads, high-quality leads that are actually calling you, and I see that in some cases much more cost effective than I’m seeing in AdWords. I don’t know if that’s a temporary thing, that Google has jiggered with the prices to make it more attractive, but I see AdWords Express…and Google is obviously pushing AdWords Express with their advanced verification, with their ads in the pack just through AdWords Express. So they’re pushing AdWords Express, clearly.

Darren: AdWords Express is an interesting product because when it came out, the whole industry was like this is a piece of garbage, it’s terrible, you’re way better off to just get an AdWords account because otherwise you’re wasting your spend. But I think a lot of people haven’t looked at it since the initial, like, three years ago when everyone were complaining about it, to today it’s probably a much better product. I personally haven’t looked at it in ages.

Mike: I’ve continued to play with it. And somewhere around four or five months ago it just took an incredible leap in terms of value. And it does this pre-roll where if somebody dials you, it says this call is coming from Google AdWords Express, so that business knows where the call is coming from, which is a huge issue, it’s sort of like a built-in call tracking but much more visceral.

And two, you basically set your goal for the ad when you start. You say your goal is people visit driving directions or your goal is calls or visits to your website — you set your goal, and they really do seem to focus on delivering that goal.

Now while it does do…it does use the broad network as opposed to Google search, 98% of all the results are coming out of Google search. So, even though it is showing on the other networks, very little activity is occurring there, most of the activities are occurring in Google search. So I think AdWords Express is one thing to think about.

I think one of the caveats about virtual offices when you’re service area business is Google is much stricter for a lawyer. That’s certainly a legitimate strategy and Google doesn’t enforce against lawyers using it. But if you’re a plumber, you’re going to have a hard time putting them…too many of them. Google’s going to really keep an eye out on that and…

Darren: So, is lawyers…are lawyers just simply ignored as a category in their virtual office run? Because let’s say you’re a lawyer in a city and you open up five virtual offices around the same city?

Mike: I have not seen any enforcement in the legal space in several years.

Darren: I haven’t seen much enforcement in any space. So I think virtual offices are like — they ‘ll deal with them if identified either by you contacted support or someone reported you, but otherwise they’re not hunting them down and finding them. So I think that they’re a strategy that works until they don’t work, and I think that there’s no real penalty, it’s just like, oh, we’re removing that listing.

So, I think a lot of people could do it and, there’s a bit of an expense there, right? Is it worth it for you to spend $200 a month to have that virtual office somewhere?

Mike: Well, one area where they have cracked down is UPS and low-end virtual offices. I mean, what’s the difference between a PO box and a virtual office? Nothing when it comes down to it. But they have cracked down on the low-end, so there is some cost to it.

There is, though, some issue with service area businesses where if the location is too close to your other location, they’re going to not approve it, they’re going to nuke it.

Darren: Sure. Then is that just Possum filtering or…

Mike: I think it’s more than Possum filtering, I think it’s…

Darren: Like it actually looked for that and identified it?

Mike: I think, I’ve seen it, where they’re just too close. So there are some risks there.

The other problem is in the rural areas, where you need 50 miles to be effectively…achieve a reach, where the density is lower, so your opportunity of showing is higher, but what will happen a lot of times there is Google will show a one box if there’s even anybody remotely in that business nearby as opposed to expanding that and showing a three-pack. So there you have to break into the one box by being relevant in that city somehow.

Darren: Yes. And those cities, if they’re small, they’re not going to have a virtual office option anyways, but you might be able to contact some leasing companies and get a closet somewhere, just a really small space.

Mike: I wonder though, the other side of it is I look at so many knowledge panels … and I see the fact that so many conversions occur on Google. People look at the reviews from third parties, from Google, from your website, they look at your pictures, they look at whatever, and they make the decision right then and there. Part of the problem is a lot of these service area businesses spend no time visually optimizing, doing what I call conversion optimization of the knowledge panel. I mean, if Google is going to give you X number of views to the customer base, whatever X is, why not make every one of those count, instead of trying to find…

Darren: Yes, for sure, they completely ignore that. And it’s a pretty easy win, like it doesn’t take much time to just pretty up that knowledge panel.

Mike: It takes really good professional, high quality pictures, it takes reviews around the web. I mean, reviews at multiple spots including the relevant vertical sites. I think it includes something like Google Posts. It’s like why wouldn’t you be using Google Posts to stand out? And not to sell. I mean, part of the problem with Google Posts, I think, what I’ve seen so far with them is that people interact more with the educational ones than they do with the selling ones, and I think it’s important that it’s one more chance. Somebody is still trying to make a decision, okay, an opportunity to get them to your website and really convince them that you’re the person.

Darren: So you think like the process is, okay, I’m looking for a plumber in small town Minnesota. So they type in the city and “plumber,” and then they see the three-pack, and then you think they’re going to Google each individual’s business names with the knowledge panel?

Mike: No, they’re going to click through…

Darren: …find the knowledge panel.

Mike: They’re going to click through…

Darren: …when you click to the local finder.

Mike: Well, I think however it is viewed, I think that both processes occur. I think that there are exploratory and research-based, things where they go and they say…they look, they do the…they say maybe find two or three people then they look them up in more depth, and then I think there’s just the click-through to the local finder, and they see what’s there, and Google is including more and more information there — menus and reviews, particularly mobile, and I think Google is including the things that people need to make the decision, and I think people are making the decision there.

Darren: Yes, they’re not going anywhere else.

Mike: They’re not going anywhere else. I mean, in my research it’s somewhere between 50% and 80% of new leads are making the decision there.

Darren: I think about a recent purchase I made, I’m calling a local plumber and that’s exactly what I did. I did not go beyond the local finder.

Mike: So, there’s this whole issue of not worrying as much about which keywords you’re showing up for that city, as making sure that when you do show up, you look really good, and you get that conversion. I mean, what other…

Darren: Well, I think there’s a huge opportunity in local organic. So, even though in a specific city if I typed in “plumbers Edmonton” for example, if I’m not close to the searcher, I’m not going to rank in the local pack, but I can definitely rank in the local organic results, so the blue links underneath the pack, across the entire city. That is not localized to the searcher, it is basically city specific. And so that means that that visibility across the entire city, if you can get a top ranking in the local finder…I mean, in the local organic results.

And so there’s a number of things you can do. Basically for every city…okay, let’s say I’m located in a suburb, I want to rank in the big city and then these other suburbs, even though I don’t have a physical location, I can still create a really good webpage on my website for that city, where we talk about, you know, plumbing in…like the suburbs around Edmonton, we’ve got Sherwood Park, St. Albert, so I go like, plumbing St. Albert. And I make a really detailed page on that, and I go into excruciating detail, I talk about any projects we did there, I have photos, I have unique content, we don’t just spin content from all the other pages, you make a brand new piece of content and you sort of write it up, talk about all the different services you do, photos. A huge one a lot of people miss out on is collecting testimonials for any jobs you’ve done in there, and then putting that up on the site and then marking up in schema, there’s so many things you can do.

And then this is something that…obviously we wrote a post about how to rank outside of your city and it was focused completely on these city pages, and we could not find a good example. We searched high and low because we wanted to be like, okay, here’s how you do it, here’s some great examples. We could not find it, people are not doing it properly. What you see happening all the time are good location pages where you actually do have a physical location, but this opportunity to build a good city page is being missed by so many service area businesses.

Mike: Time for a shameless plug. I know both Review Builder and GetFiveStars both allow automated distribution of those testimonials and this tagging, as does Nearby Now I think. So there’s three products that will automate the flow of testimonials onto those pages, generating rich snippets and rich content that automates that process, makes that page unique.

Darren: It’s so great, yes. yes, I think you’re talking about the Whitespark Reputation Builder?

Mike: Yes. Sorry.

Darren: Yes. So, yes, it’s like if you have…if you’re using a service like that, you’re going to be getting a ton of feedback and testimonials, and you just put the widget on a page and you’re generating fresh content to those pages all the time. And so service area businesses really should be tapping into that, but it’s so hard to find anyone that’s doing it. It’s a big opportunity. So, if the question is, I want to rank in all these cities that I don’t have a physical location, then that’s…that is a huge answer. AdWords, the local city pages, and…

Mike: To me, I think that all too often I see businesses that neglect the basics of, say, email. I mean, if you’re a plumber, you should be gathering the email address for every one of your customers, and if you have a slow time and you’re looking at a period where you don’t have as many bookings as you need, let them know. I mean, everybody keeps these jobs, these ad jobs, like they save them up. If I got an email from my plumber that said I’ve got some time next week, do you have anything? God, I’d be jumping for joy.

Darren: And no one thinks about that. That’s such a good point, Mike. It’s like we have this sink in the basement that the taps have been totally dripping and they don’t work properly, and…

Mike: What? You’re not going to go down there and fix them yourself?

Darren: No, I’m not going to do that. But if I got an email from my plumber saying, “Hey, we’ve got a slow week coming up. If you have any jobs, we’re available.” I’ll be like, oh, I’ve been meaning to fix that sink for so long. And so, yes, email is amazing, and I really do think…especially service area businesses, they’re not really on top of that, not really thinking about the opportunities.

Mike: I see email as one of the low hanging fruits that’s obvious on David’s chart, that is so amazing because you’re not paying for the privilege to access these customers. Like with Google AdWords or with Facebook ads or Facebook post, you’re essentially paying to access your own customers, which is crazy, right?

Darren: A lot of people download their mailing list, they put it into Facebook so that they can target Facebook ads to their mailing list, but then they never send any emails.

Mike: And MailChimp is free, for example, Up to 2,000 customers. So, yes, I think any service area business that isn’t collecting email addresses should really should think about changing their focus.

I think the other area is direct referrals. I mean, if you’re doing…if you’re — Reputation Builder does this, as does GetFiveStars — if you’re not serving your customers and knowing which ones are happy, again, you’re losing an opportunity to go back to the ones that are happy and saying, “Gee, does anybody need my services?”

Darren: You don’t have the information otherwise.

Mike: Exactly. I mean, it’s another big area where I think they fail, And just basic, fundamental, business 101, getting information to stay in touch with the customer and then staying in touch with them. In fact, even before you start a job say, “Gee, if you’re really happy with me, I’m hoping that you’ll consider recommending me to your friend,” even before you get started. And then exceeding their expectation in such a way that they feel grateful, that they say, “Poor Darren for having to go down the basement and rip that sink apart and still call the guy.”

Darren: It’s like so many businesses…maybe we’re biased because we talk about local search all the time, but it seems that they’re so focused on that local pack ranking. Like this is the ticket for driving more business to my business, that they completely miss all of the other opportunities that are out there.

Mike: So, if you’re going to increase your conversions from say 1% to 3%, even with the same search ranking, just by improving your photos, improving your reviews, and doing Google Posts, okay, easy 3X improvement.

Darren: Yep.

Mike: Likewise, if you could get as busy as you need to be just from referrals, why wouldn’t you want to do it that way? It’s cheap because you own that customer list. And if you are open, why not leverage that open…those open dates and let your customers know that you’re open?

Darren: Via email. You can even do it via Facebook. So, you could leverage your email list as far as…the problem is they’re not collecting the emails. If they had the emails, we could send the email, plus maybe it went to their promotion section of Gmail, they didn’t see it. You could also get them on Facebook as well through an ad where you’ve put — you’ve created a custom list based on that, and that’s cheap, it’s super cheap.

And going back to the AdWords thing, like, I want to get customers from these other areas of the city, I find that I’m only getting customers from around my business, then it does make a lot of sense to look at AdWords Express. It’s an inexpensive way to get your business in front of those other people that are looking for that specific service.

Mike: So maybe the answer to…do the best you can, continue to do whatever you’re doing to increase the prominence of your business, articles in the newspapers, links, reviews, and then stop stressing about it and start doing a better job of running your business.

Darren: That’s true. It’s like the local search strategy of 2020 — just be a good business.

Mike: And then be sure that you communicate how good you are through the tools that are readily available — email, Google Posts, etc.

Darren: And you have to ask for reviews. If you don’t ask, you’re not going to get them, but once you start asking, and going back to one of the things you said earlier about diversifying reviews across other sites, that’s going to pay you dividends in many different ways.

Mike: I know that. I look at a lot of branded searches, and you can…the way Google handles with snippets across multiple sites is they will give a boost. If your yellow page listing has reviews on it, it will boost it up to that front page. If your Facebook page, it will elevate it, right? So they give a ranking boost to that page if it’s got reviews. And then it will show up on the front page, then shows up in Reviews Around The Web, someone is looking at Reviews Around The Web, they see, not only do you have Google reviews, they have reviews at your website, you have reviews at these other three websites. It’s a very powerful and compelling story that allows the consumer to make the decision there without having this cognitive, “Oh, my god, am I making the wrong decision?”

Darren: And if you’re not pushing reviews on some of these other sites, some reviews might happen, but typically they’ll be negative. If you don’t reach out and you’re not asking, only the people that are unhappy generally tend to go and just leave a review. So, you really want to control your reputation by making sure that everything that’s said about you online is as positive as it could be, and encouraging as much of that as possible.

Mike: All right. So, give me the five things we’ve talked about that you think are most important then for this business that’s trying to improve their multi-city approach.

Darren: Sure. I really think that that city page thing, so you’ve made a page on your website that’s specifically about your services in that one particular city that’s really well built out. And you should link to our post on that in the show notes, it has every detail you can imagine about how to make a great city page. That is a huge missed opportunity.

I think virtual offices are a thing, we can’t really promote them — they are against Google’s guidelines, it’s not the way you’re supposed to be setting up businesses, but it’s not like we haven’t seen it work a thousand times. Every lawyer that wants to rank in every city in the state is doing it, and they do work. They are at risk of getting sort of taken down by Google if Google…if they get reported or if they get…if you have a contact support and they see it, then they can…they’re going to take it away.

AdWords, I really think, like, it’s a great way to get your business in the local pack and the local finder. So that’s AdWords Express, getting in those other cities. And you could do it for a pretty reasonable budget just to start attracting business for some of those other cities.

Email. Email is just massive. You’ve got to be doing email and you better be collecting email addresses from your customers, and then utilizing that. You had such a great point about most people that are sending emails, they don’t think about that idea. Is like, oh, we have a slow week coming up, let’s just tell everybody we’ve got some availability, that’s really smart. And you can take that email list and then target those same people on Facebook, and you only pay for the clicks, you only pay like when people click on it or they engage with that post on Facebook. So, it’s really a cheap way of starting to reach them that way as well.

You could get into direct mail, I guess, actually direct-mailing people. I haven’t experienced….I don’t have any experience with that, but I assume it’s expensive, but it’s a way to reach people in those other cities.

Well, is that it? Is that all we’ve talked about?

Mike: I think…I think that’s it, but I think you did a great, great job summarizing it. And with that, we’ll say goodbye.

Darren: Thank you, everybody.

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