Webinar Recording: Local Search in 2018/2019 – Looking Back and Forward
Carrie Hill

We hope you were able to join us yesterday for the LocalU Webinar, Local Search in 2018/2019 – Looking Back and Forward with Darren Shaw, Joy Hawkins, Mary Bowling, David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal. If you were, or if not – we’ve provided a recording of the event below – feel free to watch at your leisure.

We have also included some Q&A that we didnt get to during the webinar for your use as well. Please feel free to review that below the video.

All links mentioned in the webinar are included as links within the video at the appropriate area – just look for the button in the upper right-hand corner!

As a reminder, you can subscribe to the LocalU Newsletter and/or Podcasts here: https://localu.org/last-week-in-local-live/


Marc C.

Where does LinkedIn fit into this space as it seems to be working on brand pages?

Carrie: LinkedIn seems to be pretty effective for B2B, and larger businesses, and it can rank well for brand searches. I’m not seeing a ton of value for any local B2C or SMB/service business applications – most consumers looking for a locksmith, car dealer, or plumber aren’t going to visit LinkedIn to find it. I’d make sure to claim the company page and optimize it for your brand/top keywords – but I wouldn’t use to find customers if you’re a SMB

Mike G.

Did i hear David say review gating on google has now been removed?

Mike: David said that review gating, the practice of only asking your happy customers for reviews, was explicitly prohibited by Google in their April update to the Terms of Service. He, like many in the industry, think that every customer should be encouraged to leave a review.

Joy – Review gating has actually been against the guidelines for a long time and the guidelines just became more clear this year in April.  IMO, Google is still really terrible at enforcing it automatically but we’ve seen them take down large numbers of reviews for businesses that were gating and were reported on the GMB forum (Reference: https://www.sterlingsky.ca/review-gating-is-now-against-the-google-my-business-guidelines/)

Linda K.

Are there stronger performing programs in different regions of the US vs others for any of the programs mentioned? West coast v East coast consumer preferences e.g. GMB v Next door vs Yelp

Carrie: I think GMB is powerful no matter your location. I think Yelp and Nextdoor are great for denser population centers.  I live in the mountains and Nextdoor is non-existent, but Facebook Groups are really active. I think it takes some research to find out what is active in your market and what can generate leads.  

Francios L.

One of my location have been listed on google my business for 5+ years. Recently, I tried to have google merge-in a “ghost listing” of that same location but my request was declined with the following reason: “ the local Google page(s) you reported into one page as this business is not eligible to be on Google”. This location has a multi-year lease contract with a co-location office company, but it seems like Google changed their policy about co-location spaces. What advice would you give me to protect that listing?

Carrie asked for clarification on signage and if there was a person manning the location that represented the business – his reply:

“Yes, signage is visible from the entrance area and there is a reception service available at the location

Mary: This sounds like a virtual office, which is specifically against GMB’s terms and has been for several years. If you actually staffed the office with your employee during published business hours, you could likely  make it legit and protect it.

Joy: Reception services are not allowed. In order to qualify, the staff that work there during the hours on your GMB listing need to be your own staff (people you employ).

Eve M.

Are citations still relevant?

Carrie: Yes, but like Darren said – consistency on the aggregators, top tier, and any local citations is much more valuable than the “outer edge” sites. Structured AND unstructured citations are still important and relevant – but obsessing over 2nd and 3rd tier consistency is probably not going to move the needle.

Mike: And like I said, a citation that has its own prominence is worth its weight in gold. A high ranking Yelp page for the business, a Wikipedia page for the business are much more valuable than a buried page on Avvo that Avvo doesn’t link to and which has no prominence.

Joy: Most of our clients are already listed on the major directories when they get to us.  If they’re not, we’d definitely submit them to the top 20 and the major niche sites.

Elizabeth P.

How do you do testing without throwing your listing into “3-day review” which seem to happen to us every.single.time?

Mary: I’m assuming you mean testing your GMB listing. I’m unsure what you would want to test? Description maybe? What else? (I wouldn’t be messing with the business name or address or phone numbers.) If you find value in testing some fields on GMB, then the 3 day wait is part of the opportunity cost for you.

Joy: It’s hard to say without knowing what industry/country you’re in.  I’d suggest posting on the GMB forum and someone can ask Google.

Jason R.

How do you grow prominence?

Mary: some of the ways:

  • Brand searches
  • Check ins
  • Recognizable visits to location
  • Relative volume of reviews
  • Positive sentiment of reviews
  • Location(s) of reviewers
  • Authority of reviewers
  • Local media mentions
  • Mentions (citations) on local-to -your-business websites
  • Local links
  • Social mentions and shares
  • CTR to website
  • Conversions
  • CTR from Local Pack/Local Finder/LKP
  • Requests for directions
  • Authority of link and citation sources

Joy: What Mary said 😉

Nestor Vazquez

Do you think Q/A with keywords could be a ranking factor in the GMB pack?

Mary: It likely reflects relevance to Google (and searchers) for those terms, but it probably has more impact on long tail search results than on results for categorical/fat-head/mid-tail terms. I think this is something you could easily experiment with to better understand the effects.

Joy: We’re testing this currently.  Come to LocalUAdvanced and I’ll be sharing what we found.

Video Transcript:

Mike: Hi, thank you for joining us for LocalU, sort of, look back, look forward webinar with many of my dear friends including, David Mihm, Mary Bowling, Joy Hawkins, Darren Shaw, and Carrie Hill. I don’t need to introduce any of them. I think you know who they are. You can see their websites if you need to go look them up. I do want to thank you for joining us and also remind you that Mary and I do a weekly podcast and email newsletter that you can sign up for at localu.org and that we periodically, usually once a week, do a “Deep Dive” available as both a video transcribed on the website as well as a podcast. If you know of somebody who would like to be on the “Deep Dive,” let us know. Send Mary or myself a proposal, we’re going to take a look.

I also wanna remind everybody that we have an upcoming LocalU Advanced in beautiful Santa Monica in February. It’s a great place to be. Hopefully, there won’t be forest fires. Early bird pricing for it ends 12/21 and you get an extra $50 off using the “WEBINAR50” code. So you can get in for $549. Love to see you there. It’s a great event. One of my favorite events in Local. Everybody on this Webinar with the exception of David, he’s got a good excuse, will be there as well as many others, including Joel Hedley and Cindy Krum [SP] and a number of other folks that we respect. So it’s a great event. Hope to see you there.

So with that, let’s kick this off and dive right in.

You know, we’re going to cover five major topics here. What does the local ecosystem look like at the highest level these days? What’s going on with Google MyBusiness, what do we think will be going on? A discussion, you know, about our current understanding of the local search algorithm. A look beyond Google in terms of what other digital opportunities there are. And sort of a look into the future. And then a Q&A. Feel free to ask your questions during each of these slides. Carrie is going to be moderating them and letting us know if there’s something that we should answer in real time. If we don’t get to them, we’ll try to get to them in the Q&A section. If we don’t get to them there, you know, either we’ll do a follow-up or we’ll answer them in a blog post if we can. So let’s dive right into it.

So yesterday I tweeted that Kudzu had finally put its website to rest, they were really stalwarts in the local industry. And for me, it was a sad moment, but it also reflected the sort of nature of local. The major general sites, for the most part, have gone away. I’m just curious each of your views of who you think are the major players, in a general sense, like broadly across all industries, and then specifically. Let me just start with you, Joy. You’re in the upper right of my screen so I’ll start with you and then go to Darren, and Mary. And David, I’ll close with you on this one.

Joy: Yeah, I mean we’ve put like a huge majority of our efforts towards Google because we see consistently that it’s the driver of at least 80% of leads for our clients. Other than Google, we’ve focused a little bit on Apple Maps, and Facebook, and Yelp. And then depending on the industry, there are some industry-specific sites that get a decent amount of traffic. Other than that, like we don’t focus on Bing and Yahoo at all. We did some testing with tracking numbers and stuff and even for clients that get tons and tons of phone calls, it was like less than 1% of their total call volume was coming from Bing & Yahoo. So we kind of leave those out of our strategy.

Mike: Yeah, I mean, every year we always say to each other, “Oh, Facebook is going to kill it this year in Local.” And every year they manage to disappoint. Darren, and David, and Mary do you have anything to add to it?

Darren: Yeah, I would say like, okay, definitely in terms of driving actual humans, Google is the king and Google drives everything. You’re not going to get much traffic from Bing, you’re not going to get much traffic from Yahoo. Yelp is still a significant player. I think they are certainly on the demise. But I know a lot of businesses that drive a lot of leads from Yelp when they got on that like, you know, someone searches “Top 10 hair salons in X,” you know, that page can actually drive a decent amount of leads.

And then while they may not drive direct humans, I think there’s still certainly great value in being listed in the U.S. on the primary data aggregators in order for a full distribution of your business listings. You wanna be out there on all the different sites because all of those mentions do help to improve your prominence. And it’s kind of a quick, easy thing. So while I wouldn’t call them major players, they are certainly important to be listed on. You wouldn’t wanna just be like, “Oh, well I’m just doing Google.” You wanna make sure you are listed on all the sites that you can be.

Especially the industry-specific ones. I would say like if you are a lawyer, you definitely wanna be listed on like, you know, the top five legal sites or if you’re, you know, in the home services area, you wanna be listed on the top five of those. Make sure that you’re listed on those. And they’re also a good place to drive reviews. Those reviews can also help to solidify stuff. So yeah. I don’t know. What do think, Mary?

Mike: Mary?

Mary: So to add to this, because I agree with all of it, rather than repeating it, I think that some of the major players in the local space are the players that are in the local space of your clients and that you need to research these, you need to figure them out, you need to become familiar with them, you need to encourage them or your clients to try to interact with them and give them what they need in order to promote your business in your own individual market space.

Mike: Before we move on to David… Are you done, Mary? Sorry, didn’t mean to.

Mary: Yeah.

Mike: So before we move to David I wanna ask one question about Apple. You know, Apple sends what I will call “dark traffic.” It’s very hard to track it, to know, you know, when I dig in, a lot of calls are generating from Apple. It’s not clear how many of those are coming from Apple directly or via a Google product. Do you have any thoughts on tracking Apple’s impact in the local space?

Darren: I would advocate to put a call tracking number on it. I know we’re talking a little bit about citation and consistency, but I wouldn’t stress too much about it. And I think that on your Apple listings you could probably get a call tracking number on there and Google still will keep everything together. I think it’d be a good way to sort of measure the impact, but I think Apple’s, you do it more for driving directions than anything else.

Joy: So David we actually tried that and Apple wouldn’t allow it. Like we actually reached out to them and asked them because they wouldn’t accept the phone number. They said they don’t accept tracking numbers. So I don’t know. Yeah, it was a few months ago. I know, because we were like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” And I mean that might change, but that was…

David: Darren, I was wondering how many of those Yelp leads that you mentioned were actually coming in through Apple maps? I mean, I don’t know if those numbers count in the Yelp reporting, especially phone calls, which I find myself using all the time. Even though I don’t have the Yelp app installed on my phone, the listings that show up 9 times out of 10 are driven by Yelp rather than something that’s a pure Apple listing. So I don’t know if you have dived into that, is that the right grammar? But that’d be interesting to look at.

Darren: I don’t have data on that, but like I don’t think Yelp can report it. If it’s a call from Apple Maps, it doesn’t show up in your Yelp dashboard, does it?

David: I don’t know. That’s a…

Darren: …have a policy of asking, “How did you hear about us?” And then that’s where they’re gathering that like, “Oh, we actually get quite people that have heard about it from Yelp.”

David: All right. Well, let me add one more player that I haven’t mentioned yet. And I guess you could think of them as industry-specific, which is specific to retailers. Amazon I think has made a very strong play this year. I’ve actually been a part of a pilot program with the city of Portland and talked to a couple of dozen, or at least a dozen-ish entrepreneurs in the last couple of months, and almost all of them had been reached out to by somebody on the Amazon storefronts team to try to get them to get their products on Amazon. I think we already know that you know, Amazon, whether it’s an outright majority of product searches as was reported by Bloomberg a couple of years ago or a significant plurality of product searches, Amazon’s a pretty strong player and I think that they are making inroads with SMBs. And I think, as you know, Alexa currently maintains a device lead over the Google Home Assistant. I think there’s some interesting plays there for local businesses who sell products. So I would start paying a little bit more attention to Amazon if you work with historically, local focus retailers.

Mike: Great. Let’s move on here. So Google MyBusiness, obviously, it might be, you know, Joy said over 80%, you know, the stuff I look at it, it’s over 95%. Certainly, in some regions of the world, it might be 98%. Google definitely contributes to a lot of new clients. More so than staying in touch with old clients.

So, let’s go in reverse here. David, you get to go first since Joy started the last one. What do you see? Let’s deal with significant changes in 2018, what you saw. I know you had a prediction about this and you created your own prediction. Maybe if we could start there.

David: Sure. So my prediction was essentially that, GMB would slow down, relative to its 2017 changes, which I found to be very dramatic with the addition of Posts. In particular, some of the new tabbed options around service menus and almost like about pages within GMB. A lot of that functionality rolled out in 2017, which Mike has covered assiduously. I don’t know that I saw the same level of sort of groundbreaking feature development in 2018. So I rated that as a pretty accurate prediction. I’m sure that there’s stuff coming out. I know that the new app just came out a few weeks ago. I’m sure Google’s going to be driving SMBs into that app pretty heavily, but I didn’t see 2018 as quite a significant year as 2017.

That said, in terms of the biggest change for me or the most significant GMB-related developments, I think it’s the integration of Reserve into so many more industries as well as search results. So the fact that you can now book directly from a mobile SERP with Reserve partners I think is a very big deal, and I see Google either expanding its network of Reserve partners in industries going forward or potentially building its own product in industries where it’s financially profitable for them. So that was, kind of, my biggest change I think was the increasing rollout of reserve this year.

Mike: And before I let you, Mary, I’m going to just add a few things to what David said that from a big trend pictures, certainly, the Reserve with Google is one, but transactional capabilities of all sorts have expanded. The LSA, which is very transactional. They’re changing up their hotel product, which is very transactional. They’re even putting a reserve with Google-like product behind the hotels and they’re stealing some of that hotel traffic direct. In fact, when I spoke with a hotel in Vietnam, they said 5% of their bookings were coming directly from Google now in the hotel space. Which I thought was interesting. So a big focus continuing trends focused on transactional. I’ve seen them as developing an increased focus on communication, B2C. Also, there’s these sort of quasi-social moves we’ve been seeing. And obviously, ongoing and massive monetization.

In terms of features, the API has been released, I think, at least three updates this year. They did the agency dashboard which was a big investment of time, money, and change. And then most recently, well starting in April, but we see it now in the last couple of weeks, on a client side, on the searchers’ side, this “for you” product where they’re doing increased personalization. They are even starting to show this idea of how likely you are to find a location that’s appealing to you in the search results. So we’re seeing much more personalization as well.

So I personally saw it as a reflection of ongoing huge commitment at the highest levels of Google to, you know, stay competitive, be competitive, and play the local game better than anybody else.

Mary: So I thought in 2017 I was getting kind of annoyed because it really looked like Google was giving features that brands could use and that there wasn’t really that much that SMBs we’re going to be excited about. And I think that kind of evened out in 2018 that now brands and SMBs are both being given the types of features they need. And they are somewhat different. And Google’s finally realized that the big brands need certain things and SMBs need, you know, kind of an easier-to-manage version of everything. So that’s really pleased me that the small businesses are getting what I consider to be a fair shake in Google MyBusiness these days.

I also think that we have to remember that Google throws stuff out there and sees how we use it. And then they refine their products by what they learn from how we use them. And sometimes they learn things that they never thought of, that people think of ways to use things that Google never thought of. So I can see that these features that have already come out are going to be improved and refined according to the way that we’re using them. You know, everybody jumped on Posts, I see Google saying, “Oh, SMBs love Posts, let’s see what else we can do with Posts.” And that things are going to grow in that fashion.

Mike: I think one thing you could generalize from what you just said is that Google is verticalizing. Within the many verticals and the many industries. They’re obviously creating different products for different industries. And I think that’s the trend that we need to keep an eye on because LSA is for home visits where there’s security issues. Whereas, with Google is for, you know, categories that don’t have those. And you know, we’re seeing Google understanding that each of these industries may need slightly different touch. I find that fascinating.

David: Just to be clear for attendees, Mike’s not talking about the Local Search Association, it’s local service ads, which is unfortunately overlapping acronyms. So I’m also a big believer in the future of local service ads. That’s that’s a phenomenal product.

Mike: So Darren, what do you have to add to this conversation about significant changes, 2018?

Darren: Yeah, I would say that, you know, to echo what everyone said, the changes still seem to be coming pretty fast and furious. They look pretty significant to me. All of this stuff that they’ve been working on is really solid. I’m really excited about messaging and the GMB app. I think that’s going to be hugely valuable to small businesses. You know, it’s like, “Oh, I got a message now I can just have a conversation with a potential customer right through the app.” I think that’s pretty amazing.

You know, and to Mary’s point about how they continue to sort of test out these features, one thing that I find really frustrating is that they bury features. So they have like this new services menu, but you can only find it if you’re using the maps app on a Nexus device.

Mike: The same with setting up messaging in the new app. You’ve got to go to a customer tab, and within the customer tab, there’s reviews and another tab blah, blah, blah.

Darren: Yeah. Put it on a desktop. Put It on all the devices. Just make it available. It’s like if you wanna actually measure the impact of it, don’t hide it on just one little device. But maybe that’s part of their plan. They wanna just like do a small launch and just test it out with a small portion of a user base. And they do that by making it device-specific. But it’s really frustrating to see something like services so buried because I think that’s a great feature that I hope to see really take off in 2019 where it’s available everywhere because it’s excellent content that business owners can use to populate their listing.

And then also, thinking about this like, okay, Joy said 80% Google market share. You said 95%. All of these features I think are going to be slowly pushing all the other players out because there’s not a lot of reason for a searcher to have to go to Yelp anymore. It’s like once you have all that awesome data in Google. So it’s such a smart play from them because they have the eyeballs, you don’t need to send them anywhere else. And I think that that difference will continue to shrink where Google just absolutely dominates everything.

Mike: Joy. Last but not least,

Joy: I should clarify too when I said 80% I wasn’t including Google ads. So yeah, with Google ads added in it’s going to be definitely over 90%. I’ll throw out two negative ones like things I think that got worse this year. Everyone’s talking positive.

One would be the decision that someone made at the end of September that we’ve posted at the bottom of the knowledge panel. I actually started a thread this morning at the Local Search Forum about this because we’ve seen a huge decline in traffic coming from Posts or from the appointed URLs as a result of that movement. which is unfortunate, but I feel like, you know, the reach of Posts has gone downhill since that change.

Mike: Certainly unfortunate from a small business perspective who’s looking for traffic to their website, but from Google’s point of view who’s trying to keep searchers on Google, it’s probably a very positive change.

Joy: True

David: You know, as president of the Tin Foil Hat Society, putting that hat on, I feel like that decision may have been driven by the AdWords team, but…

Joy: That wouldn’t surprise me. Yeah. And then the other one would be fake reviews. Like when you see fake reviews this year, like never before. I feel like there are more and more companies that are buying reviews. They’re getting smarter about it. It’s harder to detect them. Google has no good ability to detect them at all. As we learned with that recent attack that 39 people were able to post 3 million fake reviews in a matter of like four to five days. Like that’s insane that Google system can’t automatically catch that.

Mike: You call them people. They’re profiles. They’re not people, we know that.

Joy: Yeah. Like whoever was behind it’s programming it. Like the fact that they could actually make that happen. That’s just to me…..

Mary: So I kind of have the feeling that they did that just to say F-you to Google and all the people that are trying to stop fake reviews. I mean, it didn’t really accomplish anything other than proving that they could do it.

Mike: I used to suggest features and capabilities to Google thinking they were just stupid. Well, they’re not stupid. They just choose to see the world in a different way and act in a different way. For example, I don’t remember, it was three or four years ago, I said, “Gee, why don’t you throttle when you see reviews all of a sudden take a spike a from a profile or from a business, just put in an automatic throttle it.” And then send someone a note so they can say, “Let me go look and see.” I stopped making suggestions to Google as they don’t listen. And we know they’re not stupid. So the question is obviously, there’s some willful decisions that, you know, who knows why they choose to let reviews be the way they are. I don’t know.

David: This was a prediction that I will own up to as being a failed one. I thought they would do a better job with tackling review spam this year. That said, there was one minor improvement in this regard which is the ending of a review gating as an allowable practice. So I think that that’s a step in the right direction. It made a lot of companies scramble, who were competitors to gather up, but to Mike’s credit and his team’s credit, they already had that feature built into the product. So.

Mike: Let me respond to David directly on this spam. I think two things. One is in the low volume spam, the algorithm is doing a better job, but on these huge bot networks, they still have not wrapped their head around the volume and the techniques to control them. I’ve seen a lot of spam taken down automatically so that we know it’s working. The problem is it’s either they’re not changing it fast enough to keep up with, you know, the technology they’re up against. Whether that’s a resource issue or commitment issue, we don’t know. So there actually have been some improvement in the spam algorithms. Unfortunately, they’re not ahead of the game, which is where they need to be.

Darren: I wanted to address one other thing that recently launched in Google, the ability for service areas to specify their service area by ZIP Code in a better way. That is a feature that I hope has good potential because it allows the service area to… Right now, I think they just provided the feature, but it doesn’t actually have any real-world benefit. Hopefully, one day, you’ll actually be able to rank in the different ZIP Codes you set depending on like specific parameters they can set around that. Obviously, you don’t wanna give businesses the power to rank in every ZIP Code. But I hope that that lightens it up because it doesn’t make any sense for a service area business to only be able to rank in a two-mile radius around their location because that’s not the area they serve and it doesn’t really impact their business. So maybe Joy and Mike as product experts could speak to the potential of that feature. But I hope that there is some potential there because that proximity thing is an issue for service area businesses.

Mike: All that I can say is I’m under an NDA.

Joy: Me too.

Mary: Their lips are zipped.

David: All right. Sure. Well, I’ll take that as a hint hint wink wink

Mary: But I have the same concerns, David, that you know, if proximity is, you know, just roughly speaking, a third of the local algorithm. What’s going on here? What’s happening?

Darren: Too much.

Mary: Yeah.

Darren: Same thing with keywords in the business title. Google, fix that in 2019, please. Just turn down the dial. It’s too much. I understand that they probably need it for branded search, but it’s still a little emphasized. If they could get better at their brand search intent detection and maybe they could fix some of that up a bit, but it’s just too easy. That recent article that showed how many position points you’re going to move with keywords in the business title, it’s upsetting. I really hope they fix that.

Mary: I know. And it’s especially upsetting since they’ll just going to take them out and you can put them back in again. I mean, it’s just…

Mike: Or you can change your business to “Denver Signs Near Me” or businessing [SP].

Darren: Yeah, exactly.

Mike: All right. So I am not a big future-gazer. I sort of figure whatever the reality is, I’m prepared to adapt or even cope. But I know some of you are. Would anybody like to make predictions for 2019? Just jump on in.

David: Well, I’m going to jump in. Oh, go ahead Mary.

Mary: I was just going to say I think that there’s a lot of agencies and consultants, one-man shops, who have been living off of very old school tactics and they’re not doing their clients any service taking their money to do things that don’t move the dial. And I think that there’s going to, you know, kind of, have to be some kind of cleanout of these local SEOs who are not really keeping up with local SEO. David?

David: I hope you’re right. I’m a little more skeptical, but I hope you’re right. I was going to actually piggyback…

Mike: I have to interject that. The local SEO practices are a trailing indicator of just about everything, right? It’s the last thing to change but.

David: Yeah. I mean, I agree with you Mary 100%. I mean, so many people are still selling sort of, you know, onsite SEO practices from 2007 as the core of their offerings. And I think those need to evolve for sure.

So I was going to piggyback in terms of predictions on Darren’s comment on messaging. I actually wrote a prediction for the LSA that I submitted yesterday around this exact topic. I think messaging solves a ton of problems for Google. It’s certainly a strategic, sort of, deficit relative to Facebook. It is a feature that can keep searchers engaged with Google as opposed to sending them to a website, which I think aligns with a lot of their strategic moves in the last few years. And it’s also a way for them to sort of build a lightweight transactional SERP without having to have all of the structure behind reserves. So in categories that, you know, appointments aren’t so easy to fill if you have, you know, just as an example, multiple doctors, you know, at a clinic who might be there one day but not the next, you know, all of that sort of scheduling apparatus can be difficult to hook into. So messaging can, I think, be a lighter weight version of making a SERP transactional.

So, I think, I agree with what Darren and Mike have said in terms of messaging being a big push for the GMB team in 2019.

Mike: So, why don’t you wrap it up real quick, Joy, and then we’ll move on.

Joy: Yeah. So I would think that they’re going to add things to the dashboard that aren’t there yet. So like Q&A would be nice. I also have a strong sense that they’ll probably allow scheduling of Posts in the dashboard since, you know, you can already do it through the API, so why not have it in the dashboard? So I think they’re going to kind of close some of those loops.

Darren: Quickly. I had one thought when David was speaking about messaging that if you think about AI and chatbots and all that kind of thing, maybe the messaging app will be like, “Oh, do you wanna send the appointment of your link?” Like if someone mentions, “Book an appointment or consultation,” or something in the messaging app, then Google can suggest like, “Oh, click here to auto send a link to our transactional thing so we can make money.” So that’s something that may come. And I’m skeptical of this prediction, but I hope Google implements some features to make spam reporting and spam management a little bit better and they do a better job there. I’m skeptical though.

Mike: Topic three, one that probably most people came for, but the Local Search Algo. Significant changes, context. What do you guys think or you think it might change? Where should we start?

Mary: You know, I think that the local algo, just like the other search algos is quality is just getting cranked up. Every time there’s a change it seems like we want better quality in something. We want better quality in lengths, we want better quality in content. And I think that we can expect to see more of that in 2018. But I think the key to it is that the local search algo is now focused around Google ranking, the best relevant business of its type within a certain area. And you know, that is what the whole algorithm is based on, even though it’s taken Google, you know, 20 years to kind of get there. I think they are approaching it.

Mike: And I think a big part of that approach evolves around entity search and the local variation of the entity search algorithm which was basically being refined since 2012. You know, Google said to us years ago, and this is one thing where I actually believe them, and this is in their pet, that local search is about three things. Relevance. Is it in the category of search? Is it germane to the search query? Prominence. Which is, you know, how popular is this business? And proximity. You know, how relevant, on a distance basis, to the searcher? Right?

And I don’t think those three big areas have changed much since 2012, but we have seen the dial, for example, with pigeon clearly proximity, which was 2014, I think. Correct me if I’m wrong. We saw proximity become significantly more important in those three things. If you go back and you read the original patent, it’s fascinating because they basically rank each of those three things separately and then they normalize them across the single scale for the final list that they produce.

And to me, the research that Darren talked about, which showed the impact of business name on rank. To me that actually demonstrates something very important about relevance, which is that relevance, if it’s really strong, in this case, if the name of the business matches the search query, that’s really strong, it can overcome prominence, right?

So each of these three elements can be built upon, let’s say you’re not in this specific area, but if you’ve built up your prominence and relevance enough, you can overcome proximity. It’s not easy because proximity, as we know, is strong, but I think to some extent that the big picture of that hasn’t changed and what we’re looking at is sort of variations within that. Joy, David,

Joy: So I could literally talk about this for a long time. So I’ll try a little bit. All right. So there’s two big things for me, kind of, like, I think, this year. One is like I’ve noticed a lot with the local search ranking factors and just quotes from people. Like there seems to be this idea that a lot of GMB features inside the dashboard have some type of direct impact on ranking. And we’ve been doing a lot of testing and found mostly the opposite is true. Like, you know, you can add things to your listing like menus, appointment URLs, Posts, etc. But you don’t have, like, this situation where you do all that and then tomorrow you’re ranking is somehow increased. And I think like it kinda shocked me to hear some quotes. So I’m like, “Are people actually testing this or are they just saying it Because they think that’s what should happen?”

So, I don’t wanna give away too much because this is like, basically, going to be the foundation of my presentation at LocalU, so if you wanna hear it, you need to come. But we’re just continuously seeing that like still if you want something that has the strongest ability to impact ranking directly and quickly, it’s all still stuff on the actual website. That’s kind of what we’re seeing even more so than links for the local results. But yeah, I’ll dive more into that in my presentation.

And then the other thing that it’s kind of a bit of an eyeopener for me this year was just when search queries came to GMB insights. How, you know, typically, in local SEO we’re always obsessed with, like, for example, if I’ve got an attorney, I’m looking at “Car Accident Attorney, Dallas,” and I’m just obsessed with that specific query. Whereas, like we’re seeing in GMB insights that a lot of the top queries are actually keywords without city names in them. So just, “Car Accident Attorney.” And the ranking for those is very different than when you have the city.

So lately, I’ve been analyzing a bunch of clients using the local falcon and just looking at the reach for those non-city specific queries. And it’s amazing because you see so many opportunities. Like we’ve been knocking out spam left, right, and center around the edges and just expanding their reach and like, you know, results from that are super impactful and quick. So, you know, that’s something to definitely keep in mind.

David: Good. I will sort of point to something that the screenshot actually illustrates really well. And I have nothing to do with putting this deck together, but I think that the snippets from reviews on here are pretty illustrative in terms of where Google is assessing relevance. I think, especially for longer-tail, queries. So I think that the ability for Google to tie semantic relationships to a given entity I think has been an improving consistently over the last five years or I guess, seven years since Hummingbird in 2012. And I think that we’re going to continue to see more of that moving forward.

I also think in terms of, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with some of the experts who have, you know, talked about GMB feature usage driving rankings. I think that that could be entirely possible, but the relationship may not be 1:1. For example, Posts may increase the sort of time spent on knowledge panel for specific searchers and it’s that engagement with a knowledge panel actually that makes Google feel that that business is more relevant for a given a term.

So I don’t know that it has to be, “Oh, if you post X, you know, you’re going to rank for Y.” I think it’s if you create a compelling post and enough people, you know, kind of engage with that or you post a really great photo and enough people engage with that, that it might be that engagement that’s actually driving rankings. And I think, you know, to me, that’s actually a good ranking factor is “Hey, let’s build a really quality Google MyBusiness profile that customers actually seem to like and that they get value from.” And that the business gets rewarded for that behavior.

So I don’t know that there’s a straight silver bullet with feature usage, but I think the building a quality profile probably has significantly more benefit than I would say it used to in the early days where you really just needed a great custom category and it didn’t matter what else you had.

Mike: Joy, maybe you can speak to this better, but I did a couple of experiments with very long-tail Posts about content that wasn’t on the website, did it intentionally. And we did see, you know, a small ranking boost from it. But really what I think is happening, it’s not rank per se, it’s not prominence. It’s that now the entity is more relevant in this context of this search. So we saw a slight increase of reach, right? Which speaks to this question of relevance versus ranking. Google’s language about this stuff. We always say, you know, when Google says, “Oh, it doesn’t impact rank.” I think if you translate that slightly and say, “It doesn’t impact prominence,” then the statement is true. But if you say, “It doesn’t impact relevance,” then the answer would be slightly different. In fact, Gary Illyes in an interview at SMX said that brand mentions can actually impact what searches you show on.

So you can take their language and if you analyze it in terms of relevance, prominence, and proximity, can actually better understand them and look at them and not call them bald-faced liars. But you can actually make their statements fit if you understand it slightly differently.

So the increase of relevance does increase reach a little bit. We see that with naming for sure. I saw on my experiments that having a third party category, and a first-party category, review content – it all impacted, you know, relevance. It didn’t necessarily impact rank, but because there was nobody else in that category, we ranked for it. Right? So I think by increasing our understanding of the algorithm a little bit, we can see how some of these side cases might fit in. But I would agree with Joy that the site is still a critical and in-depth resource that Google has about you and it’s going to be more in-depth and trusted than virtually any other site.

That being said, you know, we have seen that a high-ranking Yelp page for business seems to influence whether that business shows or not. So I think one could argue that it’s not just the site that’s contributing to the entity strength. It’s any site that has a high ranking page because if you can get a Wikipedia page about your business, it’s like, you know, instant jump. If you get a Yelp page about your business, instant jump. So I think you’re going to maybe take Joy’s idea, extend it a little bit. It’s not that any citation is worth it. It’s that if Yelp is going to throw page rank at your page on Yelp, and that page then is more prominent in Google, and that page is associated with entity, and the one where you have the most control over that is your own website. Right?

Joy: So Mike, I’ll have to send you this thread, but there was a thread along that concept the other day that I came across on the forum. It was insane. It was talking about the spamming tactic where this guy was creating pages on the Google site with all these competitors names in order to drive relevance to his phone number so that his listing would rank for competitor names. And it’s like insane. It actually worked. But this person was basically outing him on the forum and I was just like, it goes along exactly with what you were saying. I was just like, “Holy cow, how does this still work?”

Mike: Well, it’s an algorithm. And as an algorithm, Darren pointed out that is manipulatable, right? Now, the reality is it’s much more complicated and is it worth manipulating? And the answer is probably not. And Darren, do you have of anything? I know you’ve been sort of quiet here. You asked to sort of step back on this conversation because you’ve had so many interviews today. But anything to add to this?

Darren: I just have one thing to add. So if you’ve looked at the local search ranking factors, you will see the piece of the pie that’s Google MyBusiness has grown a lot. And I just wanted to let people know that that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s reflective of the algorithm. I think a lot of that is influenced by the participants and the contributors of the survey. They are excited about Google Posts, they’re excited about services, they’re excited about all these awesome new features in Google MyBusiness and they’re seeing some positive benefits from that. And so it’s amplified by perception. The perception is that these new features Google is adding are awesome. And so they’re getting higher ratings so that people drag factors over and rate them.

And so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the algorithm has changed, and I always love referring to, I think you wrote the post in 2007 or 2008, Mike, about, like, the fundamentals of local search rankings. Right? And that stuff is still the same. It’s like you got the three buckets of proximity, prominence, and relevance, and you’ve got like, sort of five areas that you wanna focus on. You’ve got your website, you’ve got reviews, you’ve got business listings and mentions around the web, and you’ve got your Google MyBusiness listing, and you’ve got links to your website. Right?

So, you know, these different factors impact the algorithm and it hasn’t changed that much. Like we might see the pie increased a bit, but how much of that is perception versus actual tweaks to the algorithm. And to Joy’s point, so you know, like all of these new features, they might not directly drive rankings, but to David’s point, a lot of these features drive more engagement, which we do think impacts ranking. So.

Mike: I’ve been working with data so long, I don’t remember who originated this quote. It could be me, it could be David. But it’s something to the effect that Google never throws a good algorithm away. They keep this stuff forever and you know, may have less or more prominence in terms of that, but they never throw it away. If it works, they keep it. And so that’s true and I think you need to understand that, that it’s baked in once it’s baked in pretty much forever.

So we were running a little short time on this topic, but what each of you could pick if… I hate the conversations where, “If you had to pick one thing, what would it be?” But if you are going to focus on a few things going into 2019, what would it be? Let me start with you, Darren. Let me start with Mary as Darren is thinking through it.

Mary: I would focus on really becoming a partner with your clients, becoming their business partner, understanding their business, getting them involved in doing some of these things. Because Carrie and I have a couple of small business clients that we’ve, for example, instead of changing up the posts, we taught them how to change up the posts. We’re trying to teach them how to do the things that are simple, that are easy, that they can do themselves so that we can keep focusing on the harder things for them. And I think that that’s something that’s really lacking in a lot of agencies is really paying attention to your customers’ wants and needs and understanding how they wanna grow and what’s most profitable for their businesses and really acting like marketers and not like online hacks.

Mike: Joy, what would you focus on?

Joy: So I mean we’re doing more testing than ever before. So I would say, you know, just constantly having your strategies change and be adaptable because frankly, there are things that used to work that don’t necessarily work anymore and there’s new things that we wanna find that nobody else has thought of yet. So I really think testing should be a huge part of any agency strategy if they wanna stay ahead.

Mike: David, I’m going to sort of, skew this question a little bit and you can answer whatever you want beyond it, but do you think that new searcher behaviors in terms of things like voice and even Google Lens, which I see as really the first real AR in local search, do you think it’s time to start thinking about those in terms of day-to-day tactics?

David: Well, so I don’t necessarily know what you would do differently. Right? Which I think is kind of the common theme that a lot of us have been talking about. Yeah, I mean, I’m a bigger believer in voice than most people on this panel, but I don’t necessarily think that you know, change your optimization strategy. You know, with Lens you’re going to wanna upload a ton of great photos to your GMB profile, which I think is an essential element of you know, good local optimization anyway. So, with voice results, you probably wanna have, you know, a fully fleshed out service menu and you wanna, you know, post and answer good questions and answers on your knowledge panel, and you probably want that same content to appear on your website so that you have a chance at a featured snippet.

So I don’t know that you would necessarily do anything different, but you know, you might be sort of adjusting the priority of what you do based on some of these new technologies. For instance, you know, if I’m a business just getting started with SEO, I would actually now start with my GMB knowledge panel and you know, eventually hire somebody to update my website with the same content once I had, you know, a little bit more budget or technical know how. So it might just shift the order of priorities. I don’t know if that necessarily changes a whole lot about what you do.

Mike: It’s a new product, you can see it in Google without an android for a while. It’s not an iPhone mobile only, but it basically allows you to point your cell phone at something and it tells you more about it. One thought I had about it was that businesses very rarely put their phone number, for example, on their site. I was like, “Hello, why not put your phone number on your site?” Something like Lens that could point the lens at it and dial they you, right? Or other, you know, different things.

David: The thing you say about that Lens is not necessarily a transactional mechanism. It’s more of a discovery mechanism. So I would say you’d be better served posting photos of your food so that when somebody…..

Mike: Yeah, I don’t know. I just think that on-street information has always been valuable. It should have always been complete. Very rarely is. Now there’s actually a use case in the digital world for it. I would agree with you that having great photos on your website uploaded critical.

So in all of that, Darren, back to you for one final quick thoughts before we move on.

Darren: Yeah, I would say that you know, there’s a lot of talk about different things, but nothing really like, “What is the one thing you would do?” Right? So if I had to focus on sort of one area of local search, I do think that reviews might be the one that passes the most value. There’s all the new features in GMB, that sort of business provided information, which is great, but when Google sees, you know, crowdsourced information being provided in the form of reviews, as shows in this screenshot right here that David pointed out, you know, the key phrase is “Air Conditioner Repair.” They’re highlighting reviews that mention “repair.” That I think really illustrates the value of reviews from both a relevancy factor, maybe even prominence. Maybe reviews get spread across both prominence and relevance and engagement because when you have more reviews, you get more engagement. So why I love reviews if you had to pick one thing to focus on.

Mike: I agree, wholeheartedly. Let’s move on.

So, obviously, this is the obligatory, “What do you do in digital marketing beyond Google?” And you know, the reality is that we’ve pointed out that business websites still generates significant leads. Word of mouth, which is nondigital is still related back to what Mary said in terms of businesses being great. And you know, David’s old standby and one that I find incredibly useful is email. Beyond those three. Well, maybe not beyond those three. Maybe you could address what other tactics or including those tactics where one can win outside of Google and whether you think the importance of that is increasing or decreasing? Where should I start?

Mary: Joy.

Mike: Joy.

Joy: I’ll throw a GatherUp in there. That’s one that we make mandatory for our clients. you know, unless they have a strong reason not to use it. Having some type of platform to do review generation I think is key because it’s something to keep it streamlined and send reminders and make sure that you actually get your customers submitting feedback.

Mike: You know, Mary and I were at a LocalU in Omaha and one of the guest speakers did a great presentation on Facebook where he pointed out that boosting Posts was basically a waste of money and that targeted advertising with the goal of generating an email list, where you could then convert these unknowns into somebody closer to the mother ship that you could actually reach out to, was a very powerful tactic. What’s your opinion of that as a tactic?

Joy: They brought that up at Pubcon as well, a session that I attended and a guy was talking about doing that same exact strategy I believe like, I just added it to my list at the end of October to test, but we haven’t tested it yet.

Mary: Yeah. To me, that’s kind of what Facebook’s come down to for most local businesses is it’s a way to capture email addresses and doesn’t offer all that much value otherwise.

Mike: Darren, what would you say? Is there something beyond Google that you could wholeheartedly recommend going into 2019?

Darren: I would certainly look to email. I think email is huge in terms of customer retention and in terms of engaging your existing customers. There’s a great opportunity there for small businesses and enterprises. Basically, any business, email is a massive opportunity.

You know, I would look to David’s, you know, answer to this one as the creator of that local marketing stack or you know, he’s sort of thought about all of this and you know, all these other ways you can drive business to your business. And so yeah, I wanna hear from David.

David: Yeah, I mean, I think whoever put this logo on here from Nextdoor, I think Nextdoor in and of itself, you know, may not move the needle for a business, but I do think that there’s something to be said for local networking for sure. I think that you know, all the studies out there still say that something like 80% of business comes through word of mouth And even if that word of mouth is just generating a search for your business, you know, A, that’s going to help you rank for more searches, B, all the stuff you’ve been doing with GMB, you know, you should be looking to convert those people who have heard about you somewhere else and are now looking you up. So, you know, I, I definitely believe in sort of community-level marketing. Whether that’s digital platform or not, I think that’s important.

And then tying back to the email conversation, you know, it’s pretty apparent. I don’t know if anybody would disagree that, you know, either ranking in Google organic results is going to get more expensive because it’s just getting more competitive or Google is going to monetize more and more and more. So you as a business or as an agency helping a business, you know, you really got to be thinking about “How do I increase the lifetime value of anybody that I actually convert from this more expensive channel?” And so I think that you’ve got to maintain a relationship, whether that’s through email, whether that’s through SMS, whether that’s through direct mail.

You know, one really interesting development that we haven’t talked about that’s not necessarily local is MailChimp coming out with postcards this year. Right? I think that…

Mike: And research that shows that direct mail has increased.

David: More effective than SEO according to Street Fight survey. So, I think that you know, Mary brought this up as well in an earlier conversation that you got to think more as a marketer, not so much as a sort of SEO Hacker. And I think that that’s where I’d say you can win. There’s not necessarily a tactical piece of advice there, but expanding the channels that you as an agency help a client with I think is a good general strategy to look at for 2019.

Mike: And looking back at this word of mouth question, I think it’s fascinating, it’s one I’ve [inaudible 00:52:08] myself with professionally, right? That if word of mouth is 30% of your business or 40% of your new business or maybe as David says, 80%, it could range, it’s still a very significant source. And yet, so few people, and it’s one of the reasons that we’ve added the things we have to gather up so that businesses can stay in touch with their existing customers, understand which ones are happy, which ones aren’t so that they can fix the problems, figure out what’s replicable, and focus on customer experience, in addition. Right? And that can be automated digitally. So it’s like if that’s a big chunk then why would you ever ignore it? Right. I’m sorry, go ahead, Mary.

Mary: I was going to say that I think that there is so much opportunity to kind of mesh online marketing and offline marketing together. That that’s an opportunity that an awful lot of online agencies are missing. You know, for example, if you have an event, you can push it online, you can push it offline, you can meet people at the events, you can collect email addresses, you can ask for reviews. I mean, you can put together a whole package by kind of marrying those two forms of marketing rather than thinking of them as distinct things.

Mike: All right. Well, let’s move on. We’re down to six minutes. I think rather than this, let’s just go…

David: I blame the moderator.

Mike: I am time challenged by now. So let’s just dive right into Q&A. So, Carrie, are you with us? So the audience can ask us any question you want and we’ll see how we do….

Carrie: I’m just going to start at the top of the list and we’ll get to as many as we can in the time that we have available here. And if we don’t get to one I’ll try and put a blog post up with some answers for you guys if I don’t get an answer in our time here together.

So the first one is from Sharon. And Sharon wants to know, specifically from David, do you consider a service offering in the same category as retail products when it comes to Amazon?

David: Interesting. Yeah. So Amazon has sort of their own version of thumbtack with respect to services. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s quite as strong right now. I don’t know that most people would necessarily think of Amazon when they think of “I’m looking for a plumber” or whatever. Just an Amazon consumer, I’ve gotten a couple of those emails from Amazon sort of letting me know that they have this product now. Confusingly, the service-oriented product, but you know, I don’t know that it’s quite as strong for service businesses. It’s certainly something I’d take a look at. I think that the sort of direct cost per lead model is one that’s appealing to clients. And if you’re the agency who is bringing them that opportunity, that probably builds, you know, positive brand associations for you. So.

Darren: Amazon is probably a pretty strong citation to have. So to just having your business mentioned and listed on Amazon probably provides some slight prominence. But at least, it’s probably worth getting listed.

Mike: Great. Carrie, next.

Carrie: The question about links aren’t necessarily the goal of a citation anymore. I mean, there are a good goal, but if you don’t get a link, then that mention is still so powerful.

The next one I have is not necessarily related to past and future. Christian would like to know if there’s any tips on migrating to the GMB agency dashboard. They’re finding it a mess and are wondering if anybody else has had issues with it.

Mike: Go ahead, Joy. I think this one is yours.

Joy: Oh God. Yeah, it is a mess. They did launch a migration tool that hopefully, takes away a lot of the issues that I experienced when we switched over in the summer. So if you haven’t used that tool, definitely use that tool. There’s also a contact form that will specifically get you to the agency dashboard team, which is not really readily available. But I can send Carrie the link to include in the blog post because it’s in my guide, I just have to look it up. But yeah, it was a little bit of a nightmare of transitioning. So.

Mike: And there’s still a lot of bugs. I mean, just recently, there were bugs where agencies couldn’t add new customers and Google was aware of the bug and didn’t fix it globally. Is fixing it on a one-on-one basis. Go figure.

Joy: Yeah. Once you migrate it though, honestly the experience is way better. I would never go back. But the process of migrating is such a pain.

Mike: what’s next, Carrie?

Carrie: Sharon would like to ask David to expand on why he likes local service ads.

David. Okay. So for the reason, I’ll just say, well, first of all, they’re everywhere in the categories where they’re present. You know, they’re top of the search result, especially on mobile. It takes up a huge chunk of the screen.

Mike: They’re simple, they’re cheap.

David: Well, yeah, exactly. So there’s no hard copy, there’s no creative, there’s no bid management, there’s no landing page to build, and there’s a fixed cost. So there’s a lot of things that small businesses like about them. I mean, solves a big problem for Google in terms of actually monetizing the same number of pixels at a higher rate than they are able to get with a generic AdWords click through. So I think that product is a keeper and it’s going to roll out to more and more industries and locales. We just saw it was released in Canada last week. So that train’s going to keep going.

Mike: And one reason small businesses like it that I’ve spoken with is that they can turn it off and on like that, right? So they need leads that day or that week they can turn it on. They don’t, they turn it off. So It’s very easily moved into a real-time lead-generation stream

Joy: Carrie, I will send a link to you as well. You can share if you want. That was a study we did where we found the cost per lead is like half of what it was in AdWords.

Carrie: Awesome. I will share that.

The next question is from Michael. “As a business owner offering professional services, legal professional services, the distinction between Google+ and GMB has always seemed blurry to me. And any depth updates or Posts on either have not seemed to drive traffic, but lookIng at 2019 with the shutdown of Google+, what should business owners focus on in terms of Google Posts? What appears to be the most effective?” I think he’s asking like what tactic? What posting?

Mike: I know Joy has seen some ups and downs, but go ahead.

Joy: Yeah. like literally the Posts that I made on the local search forum I was referencing about Google Posts was for a lawyer that we work with. And then two of the people that have replied before this were also agencies that work with lawyers. And basically, the consensus is that hosts are not as effective for lawyers, that we’re finding anyways, as they used to be. Like the, you know, use are the same but the clicks to the website are down like crazy. So honestly, as a lawyer, I wouldn’t focus on Posts a ton. Like I wouldn’t put a ton of effort into it. I would say like spammer mobile is the number one thing we do for lawyers, but it’s the best results honestly. Like it’s crazy, but yeah……

Mike: So there is a strong indication though that Posts on specials and deals and coupons are still working well even though they’re in the main serves. Also as a reputation control mechanism, because they’re in the main serves, they can drive territory. So that varies. And I think there’s broad marketing value that if you can get the process down to a low-cost effort scheduled etc., they have value in that context as well. So if you’re looking for immediate return, I think you need to go with coupons or some really obvious call to action. Beyond that, you have to assess whether their new occasion there’s enough benefit to pay the cost in a lot of these new posting services where you can schedule a bunch of Posts. Rescheduling are quite inexpensive and you can schedule them out. So it’s like a little bit of work could offer some benefits.

Mike: I think that wraps up our time. Does anybody feel a need to make any closing statements here or should we just call it a wrap?

Mary: Come see us in Santa Monica.

Mike: There you go. There is that, for sure, reminder. And our sponsors, they include, Whitespark, GatherUp, Rio SEO, ZipSprout, PatientPop. We do hope to see you there. And be sure, if you come, to introduce yourself so that we know who you are and how we can help. So thank you very much for joining us. Take care.

David: Thanks, everybody. See you.

Carrie: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Carrie comes to Sterling Sky with SEO experience that dates back to 2005! She has a passion for figuring out what works for each and every client and picking apart the problems that arise in our “it depends” relationship with Google. She has also been organizing and nurturing the LocalU Conference Series since 2017 – through to today – across a hectic few years of pandemic and back into in-person conferences again.