Case in point #1. Last week Chris Silver Smith published a fascinating account of how Google uses automation and human input to glean usable data from Street View imagery, such as deriving street numbers and business names from building signage. Silver Smith suggests that businesses may need to start thinking about making sure their physical storefronts are optimized for Google image processing. It’s entirely possible, for instance, that if the signage on your storefront is partly obscured from the street or in a font that is hard for Google’s image processing software to make out, you’ll end up being represented inaccurately in Google Maps.
Case in point #2. As everyone in the local SEO space knows by now, Google has just released an important update to its quality guidelines for Google My Business profiles. Among the extremely detailed and specific requirements are these two:
- Businesses should list the most specific category that describes what they do and should not also list themselves in the corresponding “parent” category. Businesses should choose the fewest number of categories that accurately describe their offerings. In both cases these rules are designed to prevent businesses from using categories to rank for keywords outside their core specialization. But the rule would be easy for a legitimate business to violate unintentionally. An attorney with several specializations might feel it quite natural to choose specific categories like “family law attorney” and “divorce attorney” along with the parent category “attorney,” whereas such a choice could be deemed to violate Google’s guidelines.
- Professionals who work out of an office shared with other professionals, such as a law firm, an insurance agency, or a brokerage, may use only their own name and not the name of the firm as a business name. Only when you are the sole practitioner in a firm may you also use the firm name in your business name. So for a branch of Allstate Insurance with two or more agents, each agent’s business name should read “John Smith” or “Jane Doe” only, whereas a single-agent version of the same business would read “Allstate: Joe Miller.” Here again, Google is trying to provide clarity and avoid the user perception that a single listing stands for an entire firm when this would not be accurate. However, as with the first example it would be easy for a well-meaning business to disregard or misinterpret this rule.
Emerging developments like these are the bread and butter of local search consultants, who can act as guides and advocates to small businesses who otherwise might run afoul of guideline violations or obscure technological processes. On the other hand, these kinds of stories as they are often received and promoted within our profession can tend to obscure a simple truth. Yes, local search can be a complex minefield, a fact that is especially apparent to professionals who deal with all kinds of use cases and tend to focus their energy on the new and the challenging. But at the same time, it is entirely within the means of most small businesses to secure an effective local presence, and for many types of business, it’s quite likely that practicing the fundamental principles of local search marketing will give you a huge boost over your competitors, who are probably ignoring local search entirely.
Small businesses can sometimes find out at their peril just how important it is to take control of how they are represented online. I’ve mentioned before the story of the D.C.-area restaurant that went out of business due to an inaccurate Google Maps listing that said it was closed on weekends. In that case, far from being worried about meeting Google’s quality guidelines, the restaurant owner didn’t own a computer and was only vaguely aware that his Google listing existed. This is perhaps an extreme case, but it serves to illustrate the critical importance of taking action — any action — to influence how Google and other sites represent your business.
At UBL we recently completed a case study that measured the effectiveness of a broad range of fundamental local search management techniques for a group of hearing aid retailers in the United States. One of our key findings was the lack of meaningful competition in that sector. The work we performed for the clients in the study led to domination of organic search results for important keywords like “hearing aids” and “hearing protection,” with some businesses taking up as much as 70% of all listings on page one of the Google search result. I mention this not so much to trumpet our own expertise as to emphasize that the basics of local search marketing remain extremely effective for most businesses.
Those basics are well known to us but still insufficiently understood by small businesses:
Claim your listing on top sites like Google, Yahoo, Bing, Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter.
Update your content on these sites regularly and look out for opportunities to answer customer questions and respond to reviews.
Build accurate citations on multiple sites to ensure your accurate, complete profile is consistently represented on all the sites consumers might visit or search engines might index.
List with aggregators like Infogroup and Factual who license data to search sites, mobile apps, and GPS providers, to reinforce and expand on direct citation building.
Create engaging content to stand out from competitors, especially photos and videos.
Businesses will often find it convenient to turn to a local marketing company for some or all of these activities, whose expertise can save time and help avoid pitfalls. But motivated business owners with sufficient patience and willingness to learn can perform effective local search marketing on their own as well. Even if they choose to use the services of professionals, business owners should become comfortable with the basics of local search.
As professionals, we want to make sure businesses understand that our expertise has value, but not at the expense of scaring or confusing them. Instead we would do well to promote the idea that local search is accessible to all.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.