Optimizing for Mobile Search: New Tips and Old Tricks

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The other day I had the opportunity to join Greg Sterling of LSA in co-presenting a webinar on tactics for local search optimization on mobile. I thought I’d use this column to review and expand on some of the ideas I shared in the webinar.

A lot of what I have to say on the topic of optimization for mobile search will sound familiar to anyone who has been around listings management and local SEO for a while, though there are a few new strategies and ways of thinking that are important when it comes to today’s usage trends and emerging technologies.

We hear a lot these days about shrinking real estate and increased competition for consumer eyeballs. Google local results have shrunken from 7 to 3 on the organic search page; Google shows a single Knowledge Panel result wherever it can; Alexa, Siri, and Google Home want to offer the single best answer to every query.

All of this is true but should be taken with one or two grains of salt. Yes, Google and others recognize that search on mobile means a reduced form factor, and that mobile searchers, because they tend to have higher intent, want the best answer quickly so they can visit a store and transact business.

On the other hand, some queries just don’t have a single best answer. Consider “restaurants near me,” maybe the most common local query in existence. Does the user in this case really want only one option to consider? Of course not. The choice of a restaurant is subjective for a ton of reasons — individual preference, the consensus of whatever group you’re in, whether they’ve got something for your vegan friend besides salad, and so on.

Then there’s proximity, which has always been a huge ranking factor and is even more important now. It used to be that you wanted to be situated as close as possible to the city centroid, or clustered with similar businesses. Now you might literally have to be the closest shop to the place your potential customer happens to be standing. How in the world do you optimize for that?

If you’re a mobile food truck, you go where the people are, but most businesses don’t have that flexibility. Instead, they need a version of local optimization that is geared to the needs of the mobile audience.

It should be somewhat reassuring that a lot of the tried and true methods for local optimization are still relevant. Not knowing where your user is located means you need to stand the best chance of showing up in whatever searches you happen to be a candidate for. Constriction of search real estate means you need rich data in order to be competitive and to surface in the right kinds of long tail searches.

I still advocate that “The Big Six” sites are the ones that matter the most: Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Bing, Apple, and Yelp. Almost all of the local offerings from these companies get more mobile traffic today than desktop. Effective listing management means filling out all the available information on every site and making sure it is always perfectly accurate and up to date. Core listings should be augmented by syndicating your info to aggregators like Localeze, Acxiom, Infogroup, and Factual who license data to hundreds of local endpoints.

Local pages or locally optimized websites are still important too, even if your customer never interacts with them in a mobile environment, because Google sees organic optimization as a local ranking factor. In other words, better performing local websites should equate to better performing local listings. When they do encounter mobile versions of your pages, users want to see fast-loading content that is responsive and answers common questions quickly.

Some old tricks matter now in a new way. For instance, you still want to be sure to add lots of photos to your listings and update them often. Google is now tracking this activity in Google My Business Insights if you want see how you’re doing in relation to competitors. According to Forrester, 40% of consumers have decided to visit a store after viewing a photo in an online listing, and in the limited real estate of a mobile device, photos are a huge differentiator as well as a ranking factor.

As for new techniques, one emerging feature that’s available via the Google API and in the Google console is called “attributes”; the idea is that, according to your business category, you can specify to Google what amenities, services, and features you offer that might make your business the right one to show in a specific long tail search. If you’re a restaurant, you can indicate whether you have a happy hour or you can provide a link to your menu. Google hasn’t revealed too much about what they’re doing with attributes, but it’s pretty likely that they serve a similar purpose to amenities in hotel listings, and also that Google is trying to consume as much structured local data it can in the interest of presenting the best voice search results.

Then there are reviews. You can’t control how a customer reviews your business, except of course by trying to provide the best possible service. But you can influence how those reviews are perceived, so that once a consumer is engaged by your listing, you’ll stand a greater chance of turning consideration into action.

All reviews represent an opportunity to engage the customer writing the review, as well as other potential customers who will see it when they visit your listing. Review response is the way to make your influence felt here. You can respond to negative reviews in order to address service issues and convey that your business cares about its customers. Respond to positive reviews to express gratitude and build loyalty.

Even neutral reviews are an opportunity to nurture a customer and extend your brand voice. Reviews themselves are a ranking factor you can’t do much about, but review response is where the business owner can step in and ensure you’re getting the greatest possible performance benefit from reviews.

I recommend responding in particular to reviews on Google, Yelp, and Facebook where consumer engagement is especially high. Remember that Yelp reviews also surface on Apple and Bing.

Machine learning and AI are starting to have an impact on search, especially in mobile and voice services. For a while now, Apple Maps has been tracking where I’ve probably just parked my car, and Google has just released the same feature. Cooler than that, Apple eventually figured out last fall that every Saturday morning I was driving my 10-year-old to the soccer field, so began offering an ETA before I even asked.

Where will machine learning lead in local? You can bet that Apple and Google are working on that now, and I’d expect to see recommendations based on prior store visit patterns in the near future, something that will also probably make use of rich data like Google attributes and consumer reviews.

In the end, you can’t control all of the factors that influence mobile and voice search rankings or the behavior of AI-driven services, but you will stand a much greater chance of surfacing for the right searches if your listings and pages are highly optimized and if you’re active in engaging with customers who review you.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the definition of local is always dynamic and dependent on the emergence of new technologies. The much-hyped internet of things isn’t having a tremendous impact in local yet, but it’s coming. More to the point today are apps like Snapchat that have a huge user base and a local hook. Last summer, everyone was trying to figure out how to use Pokemon Go to drive new business to stores. That fad may have passed, but any popular app with a local or geographical angle is potentially a place where your business should be looking for leads.

So to recap, here’s a checklist for mobile optimization:

1) Claim your listings on “The Big Six”: Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Bing, Apple, Yelp

2) Syndicate to aggregators: Localeze, Infogroup, Acxiom, Factual

3) Make sure your basic location info is always perfectly accurate: name, address, phone, website, and hours

4) Add as much rich content as you can; think LinkedIn’s “100% optimized” profiles

5) Make sure you have plenty of fresh, engaging photo content; it’s great to use different photos on different sites

6) Check to see if Google attributes are available for your business category, and if so, use them

7) Respond to reviews on Google, Yelp, and Facebook; look up Yelp’s review response guidelines to get started

8) Keep an eye out for marketing opportunities on popular apps

These are the fundamentals; there’s plenty you can do beyond this but if you don’t have these bases covered, you’re not fully optimized for mobile search.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.