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Mihm & Blumenthal: How Google’s Monetization Shift Will Impact Local Search

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In this new Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal will semi-regularly kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!

Mike: We both have been in the industry a long time. I am getting ready to celebrate my 10th year of blogging about local.

David: Happy “Tin” Anniversary (had to look that one up)!  Can’t say that I’ve been blogging for quite as long as you have, but it feels like we both picked a pretty interesting space to pay attention to.

No shortage of hot topics these days, from beacons to Pokemon Go to mobile payments… What’s top-of-mind for you at the moment?

Mike: Google has been heavily monetizing local of late. How do you see this impacting local search results? Do you see it as fundamentally different now?

David: Well, from where I sit, we’ve seen three shifts in the last 12 months that are as dramatic as anything Google’s ever done with paid placement in Local.  The first was the pilot of the home services style ads in San Francisco, the second was the change to four Adwords above the organic results–which impacts everyone, not just local businesses–and the third was the introduction of a paid slot within the 3-pack.

And it’s hard to talk about this stuff without thinking about the device context.  At this point, if you’re a heating repairman or repairwoman in the Bay Area, you’re probably lucky to have one traditional organic result above the fold on a desktop, which maybe isn’t that big of a relative shift… but you might have to scroll 1000 pixels on a mobile device to see an un-paid result.

That’s a huge change from the days of 10 blue links, and even from the 10- or 7-pack (which often featured only one ad above it in the traditional Adwords unit).

Mike: And also Nearby ads, and more recently paid elements in the Knowledge Panel. I compared Nearby Ads’ radius with that of the local pack. While the Local pack has been reduced to a 2 mile radius the amazing thing about Nearby Ads was a 17 mile radius. Imagine how much inventory Google could have as they reduced the ad radius to 2 miles.

David: Is the Nearby Ads radius still 17 miles? If so, we finally have an answer for our most-popular question at SEO conferences–”how do I rank in a 3-pack if I’m not actually in the city that’s being searched?”

Mike: I did my most recent test about 2 weeks ago in Seattle. And it was a 17 mile radius. But that could just be due to limited inventory. It was the first thing seen on the mobile screen and you had to scroll to see any other results. Interestingly the Ad results were sensitive to open hours while the local pack results were not.

David: Wow, crazy. A real-life example of a case where an ad might truly be a better result for a searcher than what is presented organically.

Which — jumping ahead a little bit — is quickly becoming an essential feature for Google as they are forced to monetize smaller and smaller screens (like watches), or in the case of voice search, no screens at all.

But, let me turn your original question back onto you–how have these recent changes impacted the advice you give clients or readers of your blog? Are you telling them to do anything different? Do you still put as many eggs in the Google basket as you did one year, three years, five years ago?

Mike: Great question! Obviously a business is still going to get organic traffic from Google if they have a well designed website. There may not be as much head traffic but there will still be significant traffic. So that hasn’t changed.

I would be paying to play with a well planned strategy at both Google AND Facebook, with good tracking to be sure that the ROI is there and not just ego.

But I would also be focusing much more on those elements of the customer experience that you do still have control over – post-sale; gathering email addresses, phone numbers for SMS, et cetera, and creating a really tight bond with your customers AFTER the sale. A direct relationship will provide your best long term value. What about you?

David: Totally agree that the potential for long-tail traditional organic website traffic is still there. Google doesn’t (yet) have a comprehensive semantic mapping to show a three-pack for every long-tail query, and it’s also harder to target Adwords at these queries.  Here’s where basic Title Tag and site architecture blocking-and-tackling can really still help the average small business.

Prior to Google’s recent monetization “enhancements” though, I was far more likely to promote local SEO as a primary customer acquisition channel, regardless of the business, than I am today. I think it’s a little more nuanced depending on category, existing SEO foundation, and engagement of a business owner.

It certainly makes the average agency or consultant’s job more difficult — if I were starting my consulting business all over again today, I’d need to wear a lot more hats than I did in 2005, ‘06 and ‘07.

Mike: Absolutely. Probably a topic for another day about how hard it can be to be a solo consultant these days.

Certainly the basic tactics of local SEO still have merit not just for ranking, but to be sure that customers can find you. Finally, the time has come where diversifying your local marketing strategy seems to be both possible and the best route.

David: Which many of us have been saying for quite a few years… it’s just taken a little longer for Google to validate our advice than we thought!

Good chatting with you this week as always, Mike — looking forward to the next one.

Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.