Broadening Local: Expert Roundup

A trio of local search experts expound on the latest in the industry. Claire Carlile proposes Google My Business as a CMS and covers how businesses should approach the channel; Miriam Ellis explores the increasingly blurred lines between different categories of sites and businesses; and Damian Rollison delineates the major trends shaping the trajectory of local search, especially on Google.

Claire Carlile, Local Search Expert at BrightLocal

For me, working with small- and medium-sized businesses in the UK, communicating the concept of ‘Google as your homepage’ (h/t to Mike Blumenthal for this conceptualization) continues as a key theme in local search.

I’m increasingly adopting a focus on an extension to that: ‘Google My Business as your CMS.’ Imagine, if you will, a content management system with a less-than-user-friendly interface, which random people have logins to (allowing them to mess with your carefully crafted content). Add to that updates that get pushed through in the absence of a staging environment and minimal user (business or consumer) testing and bingo, there you have it: Google My Business as a CMS!

Small businesses (and the agencies that work with them) ask me the same Google My Business-related questions over and over: Where is this information being pulled from? How do I control what’s shown here? How can I delete that? Who changed that information? What happens when I turn this on?

They’re all struggling with the vagaries of managing new systems and processes that get released into the wild with very little guidance on what these features do and even less on how to manage them. Key frustrations from the business’ perspective are usually a lack of internal resources and an absence of procedure for monitoring. This all makes it hard to show the meaningful difference that Google My Business can make to their bottom line.  

Take the ‘Messaging’ function, for example: Cynical marketers might not bat an eyelid when they notice that potential customers clicking on the ‘Request a quote’ button actually get invited by Google to send the same message to three local competitors.

Google My Business makes it seem really easy to turn this messaging feature on and get on with it, but if you’ve recommended that a client does so, then you really need to know this is how it works, and you’ll need to work with that client to explore the pros of messaging versus the cons of Google immediately serving up a list of competitors and inviting you to message them also.

Damian Rollison’s foray into personalization in the local search space summed up the factors that I’m pushing hard when strategizing for my clients: Far from being a one-and-done process, optimizing Google My Business requires depth of content; joined-up thinking (in terms of having a consistent narrative regarding the business USPs and noteworthy attributes); an understanding of changing consumer needs, wants, demands, and preferences; as well as a clear inventory of their most important products and/or services.  

To highlight one aspect of personalization that particularly interests me, try searching for ‘gold’ on Google. You’ll most likely see a Wikipedia entry on the chemical element, top news stories on gold prices, videos of songs that include ‘gold’ in the title, as well as a local three-pack showing jewelry designers, jewelry shops, and the like. Even with a search term as simple as ‘gold,’ Google reads local intent into it, serves up a map pack, and draws content from a range of sources to ‘justify’ the appearance of local listing results.  

Those ‘justifications’ are key to personalization of the search. If you’re not monitoring the SERP for how your competitors are getting justified and planning opportunities to ‘justify’ your clients’ listings, then you’re missing a trick. Shrewd marketers will be monitoring search queries that serve local results, making a note of the nuanced mid- and long-tail queries, and making sure that semantically relevant content that will earn the click is weaved through their GMB Q&A, their posts, their photos, their products, their business generated attributes, their services, and of course their websites. They’ll also be exploring ways to impact the features that are naturally less easy to influence, such as reviews and user-generated business attributes.

As Google continues to replace foundational functions that SMB agencies have traditionally completed for their local clients as part of service delivery (writing title tags and meta descriptions, ad copy, and so on) with their own algorithmic approach, the real value lies with marketers and strategists to fully understand Google My Business and the opportunities that it presents to SMB clients. For the moment, though, Google can’t replace our strategic marketing or our human insight into the real world in which both business and customer operate.

Miriam Ellis, local SEO subject matter expert at Moz

A conversation I’ve been having with SEO colleagues concerns updating old ways in which businesses, SEO, and software have long been categorized because Google and the pandemic have done so much to blur the lines. Rather than thinking in traditional terms of “e-commerce sites” or “local businesses,” almost everything on the Internet is now tied together by being transactional.

Google has organized search so that virtual, shopping cart-based brands that ship everything face local competitors in the organic SERPs. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar brands have rapidly implemented shopping carts during the pandemic and are both shipping and providing local home delivery. They can add virtual window shopping to their Google My Business listings via GMB Products and upload their products for free to Google Shopping, which can be filtered to reveal businesses that are “available nearby” or “smaller stores.” 

Both virtual and local businesses have an equal opportunity to embrace video sales and social commerce. Is an Etsy seller e-commerce or local? It depends on how you filter the results. Is Etsy a social platform? You can use it to connect with microbrands, and products feature a running queue of public comments. Even websites that have typically been labeled as “informational” will have some sort of transactional or conversion-oriented goals. The swim lanes just aren’t as clear as they used to be and, as a longtime local business advocate, I’m happy to say: Local businesses can no longer be seen as sitting off in a corner by themselves

What this trend means for developers and marketers is that SaaS and SEO have to take into consideration every manner and method through which a customer can connect with a business and think more about conversions than formerly clear business types. What it means for customers is that there are many ways in which they can pursue their stated goals, captured in countless surveys, of shopping with small brands that share their values rather than with monopolies that economists cite as monumental blockers to progress on climate change, racial equity, human rights, innovation and functional democracy. 

Damian Rollison, director of market insights at SOCi

Some readers may be aware of a four-part series I’ve been writing for Street Fight on local search trends with a focus on Google. (Article three on socialization will appear on Street Fight this week.) The series covers the four major trends of our current moment as I see them:

Personalization: Customized, tailored search results matching the specifics of a query (somewhat different from personalization in the traditional SEO sense) — the most important evidence of this is query-specific photos and justifications in local packs. 

Verticalization: Dedicated interfaces and features for traditional verticals (hotels, restaurants, retail services) and non-traditional groupings of businesses by service offering (appointment booking, pickup, and delivery) or identity (Black-owned, Latino-owned, women-led). 

Socialization: Relates to the growth of UGC in local platforms, Google in particular, with some business profiles containing far more individual data elements (reviews, photos, videos, questions, answers, even basic facts like hours of operation) supplied by Local Guides and other users, as opposed to the business itself.

Federation (coming soon): The breakup of the Google My Business API into smaller single-purpose APIs working together according to a federated model, which began in early 2021 and will continue into 2022, leading to faster and more flexible feature releases in the near future, and potentially accelerating the trends identified above.

While I think these trends are both real and relevant, they don’t capture every nuance of what’s happening in local. For instance, when you make the claim that a bunch of disparate feature releases add up to a trend, you tend to make it sound as though there’s a smoothly executed master plan on Google’s part that everyone can easily understand.

In actuality, Google’s local ecosystem is often overly complex, confusing, and disjointed. Many features are tested but never see a full release; others seem only partially thought out with no clear end goal (the new Performance metrics and Call History come to mind). Still others (Order with Google) can only be partially controlled by the business.

As Tim Capper pointed out in a recent post, the knowledge panel, which looks like a unified business profile controlled via Google My Business, is actually an amalgam of different sources only some of which can be managed directly by the business owner. This is a source of frustration for many businesses.

Google local serves at least four different constituencies — consumers, advertisers, partners, and business owners — and the needs of businesses do not often take precedence. More than ever, the job of helping businesses navigate these waters is a tricky one that requires experience, skill, and dedication. It also helps if you’re crazy enough to enjoy it.  

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.