Local Search Needs a Standard Business Listing

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local-searchCurrently, there is no seal of approval or universal validation process when it comes to the local business listings that pop up on search engine results pages (SERPs).  No matter the source, consumers have no way of knowing in advance if the business listing information found on a SERP is accurate. Even though Google, Bing and Yahoo have sophisticated algorithms that provide consumers with extremely relevant search results, their data sources aren’t perfect.

With so much validating, filtering, sharing and cleansing of business information, we can understand how Yext found that across 40,000 listings, 43 percent had at least one incorrect or missing address and 37 percent had at least one incorrect or missing name in December 2012.  Similarly, according to a survey of 350 small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) conducted this year by Constant Contact, 50 percent of SMBs have seen listings for their business that are not accurate.

Local search can be extremely frustrating not only for the consumer who drives to the incorrect business address, but also for the merchant that isn’t found. And even listings publishers aren’t immune from the effects of incorrect listings — according to a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, Yext found that 22 percent said they won’t trust a source again after being given incorrect business information by that source.

Search engines are the preferred medium for local search — Moz’s David Mihm estimated that about 7.5 billion searches a month have local intent — and business listing information is the foundation on which these local queries are served. Whether you’re a listing publisher, data aggregator, consumer or local business, a verifiable business listing that complies with a standard will help everyone win in local search.

NAP+W as Standard
The industry widely embraced Gib Olander’s notion that the name, address and phone number (NAP) is “a company’s fingerprint.” Similarly, most of us agreed with Mike Blumenthal when he added the +W (website) to NAP.  NAP+W makes a sufficient standard because if the industry was able to guarantee the accuracy of these data points for every business,  then local search would function much more efficiently. Consumers would find businesses, visit/call/click the business, possibly make a purchase, and would return to the listing source for future searches because the information proved to be accurate.

On the other hand, not all local businesses have a website, and many in the service industry don’t even have an address. Even so, there are ways to make sure these kinds of businesses still comply with the NAP+W standard. For instance, those without an address should at the very least have a city, state and area code.  Also, those without a website could be tethered to one of their online listings or even their Facebook page. As part of the work of defining the standard, the industry would also need to take into account these special circumstances and develop an approach that helps these businesses rank on search engines.

In addition, by keeping the standard tied to just four data sets, it acts less prescriptive and leaves room for publishers to expand their business content. Publishers pride themselves on having “unique” information that users will not find anywhere else. With a simple standard like NAP+W, publishers will have the ability to match compliant listings efficiently without eliminating the secondary data points or resources they offer users such as hours of operation, service areas, videos, business description, et cetera.

Formatting NAP+W for SEO
“Tony’s Pizza” and “Tony’s Pizzeria” look like two completely different businesses in the eyes of the search engines even though they may be representing the same business. This inconsistency leaves Tony’s business competing with itself for SERP real estate. Similarly, having “pizza” in the business name would fare better than having “pizzeria” when a consumer searches, “pizza in city, state.”

The manner in which business listing information is formatted can make all the difference in the world when it comes to SEO. For this reason, the standard must not only select the most important data points, but also must utilize best practices and a consistent syntax method for each.

For example, search engines are pretty good at looking at “St.” and “Street” as synonyms.  On the other hand, the engines also view “St.” as an abbreviation for “Saint.”   In order to eliminate any possible confusion, if we agree that the address is part of the standard, we also need to agree on a uniform nomenclature that best serves local businesses and in this case, spelling “street” completely makes the most sense.  As an industry, it is important for us to put every data piece of NAP+W under a microscope and define the best syntax for each in order to help local businesses rank highly on search engines.

The biggest piece of the local search pie is the activity taking place on search engines, yet with such a fragmented space, finding your local mechanic is sometimes harder to do than finding out how to fix your car yourself.  With an industry recognized business listing standard, the local search space will have the foundation for generating uniform business listings.  Guaranteeing accuracy with business owner validation would come next and communicating this accuracy with a seal of approval would follow.  Defining the standard is just the first step toward helping Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines provide consumers with relevant and accurate information when searching locally.

Morsello_JoeJoe Morsello contributes to the Local Search Insider and is the Communications Manager at the Local Search Association, a trade organization of print, digital, mobile and social media companies that help local businesses get found. Follow LSA on Twitter @LocalSearchAssn.