“People don’t go to Web sites anymore. Web sites come to them. This is, perhaps, the best way to explain the impact of search on the online experience.”
William Flaiz, Search Engine Watch, Aug 1, 2008
Better than any other, the above quote sums up the reality of online marketing today. People aren’t concerned about remembering your web address or even your name or brand. Search Engines like Google have opened up a wonderful new world for consumers where they simply have to enter their wants, needs or problems into a little box and magically, several solutions immediately appear and give them what they are looking for.
This, of course, dramatically changes the relationship between the consumer and the marketer. Interruption marketing has been on a long & steady decline ever since Peppers & Rogers penned “The One-To-One Future” in the early 90’s. The Internet, and search specifically, have dramatically accelerated this decline. For most of us, this is a welcome change. As Consumers our lives become exponentially easier when we have the world’s information at our fingertips. This evolution presents both a threat and a tremendous opportunity for marketers. And, the greatest opportunity falls to organizations that serve local markets.
What’s interesting is that when we say “local” almost everyone jumps to the conclusion that we are only talking about small business. The reality is that even for the world’s biggest brands, success often comes down to relative search between you and the ultimate consumer of your product or service.
This paper explores the current local search landscape. We will explore some trends and introduce the concepts and tactics around organizational blogging to succeed in legitimate, widespread Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and engagement, specifically, at the local level.
LOCAL SEARCH OVERVIEW
Beginning with the scope of the opportunity for local marketing, let’s consider some current facts. $100 billion will be spent on local advertising this year according to the respected Insider’s Report authored by Robert J. Coen for UniversalMcCann, December 2007.
Doubt it? Local automobile advertising alone accounts for more than $400 million a year. Yellow pages in general have 3.2 million local advertisers generating about $15 billion a year. The Small Business Administration (SBA) says there are 25 million businesses under 500 employees….you might be one of them. What do you spend annually? Under that lens, $100 billion might seem conservative. The SBA data doesn’t include national advertisers (e.g., brands, retailers) targeting local consumers. Historically, this money has been spent in traditional ways leading with the most expensive, local TV. In a recent Wall Street Journal article about the automobile business, it was found that literally 28% of all local TV revenue came from local car dealerships. (Personally, I was shocked, until I started to scroll through all the “Hurry on Down, Partner!” noise I’ve been ignoring thanks to my DVR). To continue on the local auto industry theme… they represent 18% of local newspaper revenue and 14.7% of the local radio business. Bad news for those mediums, because a huge chunk of those local dollars are moving online. In a recent report entitled “The User Revolution: The New Advertising Ecosystem and the Rise of the Internet As a Mass Medium,” Piper Jaffray estimates local online advertising; (here defined as local search), IYP (Internet yellow pages) and classifieds to be worth $4.589 billion today. The firm contends the medium-term local market potential is $25.9 billion. Piper also believes that local can eventually represent 50% of all search volume. How can this happen? Look at some stats below. The Internet has now surpassed the print yellow pages and newspapers as the primary local resource for consumers looking for services. This is not to say that print newspapers and yellow pages don’t have meaningful usage anymore, but it’s clear where the momentum is. The Pew Internet and American Life study recently took a daily ‘snapshot’. Since 2002, the number of Internet users who search at least once a day has risen from approximately one-third, to almost half, or 49%. Overall, the amount of daily search users grew 69% between 2002 and 2008. While coming in a close second to email in this study, search beat out other daily Internet activities such as reading the news (39%), checking the weather (30%), researching a hobby (29%), surfing for fun (28%), and visiting a social networking site (13%). The two studies referenced above independently reflecting this shift in 2007 were from TMP Directional Marketing-comScore and WebVisibile-Nielsen. Both studies showed search and/or the Internet, generally as the medium with the greatest reach among U.S. consumers for local information.
60% of local information comes from one of three forms of online search. What’s really interesting is that most experts believe yellow pages directories receive 90 percent of their traffic from search engines.
The idea is that most people search in the main search engines; they may find a directory and then are forced to repeat the search within the directory. This isn’t good for either the searcher or the marketer. Consequently, it’s not good for the search engine either. Google and the others want the searcher to find the answer they are looking for through Google, rather than send the searcher to a competing directory for a solution. This is a gigantic insight if you consider that; given the choice between you and a directory you might advertise in……Google wants you to win.
Directories have a lot of other problems as it relates to local search.
Businesses that rely on online directories basically take a tired “paper- based” strategy and simply transfer it online. The lowest common denominator of this strategy is the business profile. The majority of businesses out there pay little attention to these beyond wanting their name, address, and phone numbers to be correct.
If you want to engage people searching for products or services you provide, you have to provide a lot more than just a basic name, address, and phone number. Businesses need the ability to add other elements, since all the information provides competitive advantage and helpful information for consumers.
We know from the above that local search is great for online business. But what about companies that don’t sell online?
SEARCH DRIVES OFFLINE ACTIVITY
Clearly, on paper, the local market has enormous revenue potential; that’s the tantalising part for everyone involved. But the complexity of local “on the ground” far exceeds that of national online advertising or general paid search. A recent study by comScore Networks and TMP Directional Marketing, found that local search grew 24 percent in 2007, while general Web search grew only 14 percent. What does this all have to do with offline activity?
Think instant gratification.
Instant customer gratification means that local is now big business. Piper Jaffray notes that 30 percent of all queries conducted today contain a city, state, or ZIP code. According to Yahoo! Research, 88 percent of sales revenue generated from online advertising is derived from consumers who have done their research on the Internet, then made their purchase in a brick and mortar store.
According to The Next Wave of Advertising, John Kim, Senior Director of Advertiser Product Marketing, Yahoo! Search, 2007; Consumers may initially browse online, but more than 90 percent of them choose to complete their transactions offline.
BigResearch (www.bigresearch.com) said 89% of consumers making in-store purchases in key categories have conducted research online.
In my research for this paper, I think the most profound finding was that a vast amount of local search consisted of product purchasers conducting what local queries for in-store product availability. Given that inventory information is still very difficult to locate and reflects pent up demand for information that helps consumers make the online-offline connection. This is a problem that online or offline directories can never solve….but is easily solved through business blogging.
THE BUSINESS BLOGGING SOLUTION
To understand and appreciate the power of business blogging to drive successful local search it helps to grasp some key fundamental tactics for organic search. There are many spam tactics (known as Black Hat in SEO ligulas) to trick the search engines into short term rankings. At the end of the day, the key principle to keep in mind is make the searcher happy by giving them what they want based on keywords/phrases they are searching for. What marketers can’t control in search marketing is how the searcher is describing their need or want. This is where keyword research comes in to play. Most marketers know the main keywords that drive their business. The key to a local strategy is knowing and using the specific keywords that drive results locally. Ask yourself, does what works in Chicago work in Dayton, Ohio? In the end, all search is a content driven strategy. If you want to be successful you need to have pages and content that focus on the local market. So, how do you leverage a business blogging strategy to drive local search success? By leveraging the great blog components search engines love: Keywords, Titles, Multiple Blogs, Blog Content and Recency & Frequency. Keywords. Great content depends on understanding the keywords that drive your business. What’s great is that keyword research is relatively easy. Depending on your blogging software provider, they will provide this as a service for you. Other options include a little research using other service providers, various online tools and even your own weblogs. What terms are people entering today that leads to you? You can even do research on your competitors and see what keywords drive their traffic. It’s all part of the magic of online marketing…there is very little ambiguity about anything and most data is available to anyone.
Titles: Begin with your page titles. Once you know the keywords that people use locally to find the product or service you offer, it’s critical to create individual pages that are titled with these phrases. Take a look at the blog for this Lawyer. Here we see one of many blogs for this bankruptcy attorney. He didn’t title it “Mark’s Musings”. The title directly relates to one of their major keyword phrases “Bankruptcy Lawyers Columbus”.
Whenever possible include locations in your page titles. The <title> element is one of the most important signals your page provides to a crawler, so be sure to make that a local signal when appropriate.
Matt MaGee the famous search engine optimizer says: “Imagine a law firm in Philadelphia with four offices and one Web site. A common mistake is to list all four locations on a single page of the Web site. This page would list an office in South Philadelphia, an office downtown, an office in Yardley, PA, and one in Cherry Hill, NJ. That one page will never rank highly for any of the appropriate keywords. If each office had its own page, the firm could optimize each page for terms like “Cherry Hill NJ lawyers” or “South Philadelphia Attorneys.”
Single vs. Multiple Blogs. Change is taking place. Previously, companies blogged with a single blog. Emerging is the multiple blog strategy. Each strategically targeting specfic keyword phrases. Even the smallest of businesses can leverage blogging by adding multiple titles. The lawyer in the above picture currently has 50 blogs through Compendium Blogware all with unique titles targeted different keyword phrases based on location and topics.
This is what the searcher wants….In a mass of results, they are looking for pages that reflect their desire right? Not only does the title help the search engines understand what your page is about…based on the phrase the searcher entered, it also helps the human being differentiate you blog page from the noise.
Recency and Frequency. Many bloggers stall because they think they have run out of things to say. Don’t let this happen to you. Search engines love frequently updated content, and they love focus. It’s ok to talk about the same thing over and over again, as long as you change the story a little bit. Back to our contractor example let’s say a plumber. A website or directory might say “We fix frozen pipes”.
That’s it. One chance, handful of keywords to describe a plumbers business. A Blog can tell 100 different stories and anecdotes about your experiences fixing broken pipes. All the while targeting 100 different relevant keywords and phrases. Guess which will win the ‘frozen pipes’ search in your community?
Blog Content. At the most basic level, Search is about content. If you are relying on an online directory or even a website, it’s just about impossible to create enough content to capture all the possible things your potential customer might enter that you are able to serve.
A business blogging strategy eliminates this constraint. Imagine an unlimited palate…no volume constraints at all. Successful business talk not just about their business, but take advantage of this space to use their keywords frequently, talking about locations, using addresses, phone numbers, directions as well as the products & services. It’s really important to talk about the customer as well. Use as much description as possible when talking about how you can help people. At the end of the day, searchers are looking for solutions. More and more they are looking for human beings that seem knowledgeable about their specific query. Blogging about your current customers, how you help people who have similar problems is a great way not only to win the search, but to win the engagement that must follow for any web strategy to be effective.
Remember the earlier statement that a vast amount of local search consisted of product purchasers conducting queries online for in-store product availability. Blog about your products. One of my favorite Compendium Blogware clients is a small liquor store in the town of Greenfield Indiana. The owner reads the Wine Speculator and other high end beverage trades. She then posts on those specific products, often introducing drink recipies that use these ingredients. What she knows is that she sells plenty of Bud Light, and her real opportunity is on the high end/high margin products. When people read the Wine Speculator, often the first place they go is online to see where they can source this product. Type “Svedka Vodka, Greenfield” into Google and see who wins. In a recent feature story in her local Indianapolis newspaper the owner stated; “I used to buy a couple of bottles of these products, now I buy cases.”
Here are some other content ideas from top SEO’s Matt MaGee and Chris “Silver” Smith is Lead Strategist at Netconcepts:
• Include detailed directions. Don’t just grab a map and put it on your Web site. Frequently include text explaining where you’re located, including detailed driving directions using as many location descriptors as possible: the neighborhood you’re in, the landmarks along the way, and the cross streets. Local consumers search with more targeted terms. You want to be ready to capture that search traffic.
• Use your local phone number. You offer customers an 800 number for customer service, but that doesn’t help a search engine crawl for your location. Use your local phone number, with the area code, to help the engines connect you to local searches. Another big mistake that some make is the insistence upon using their vanity numbers—instead of just displaying the area code, prefix, and suffix, they may want their vanity numbers (alphabetic letters which represent each number key on a phone pad) to be displayed. Vanity numbers have been used by businesses in many forms of advertising because they were considered to provide a mnemonic aid to remembering the phone number, and because they may improve brand awareness or conversions but they don’t help search engines find you.
• Business name. While this element may seem straightforward, it’s possible for you to adjust your company name or name usage in your blog content in such a way as to derive more natural referral traffic online. While it’s easiest to trademark a unique/esoteric name, if it’s not combined
with keyword terms that are most apropos to your business, you could miss out on some referrals over time.
• Street address. A business’ street address is one of the most important parameters for appearing in local search results and enabling consumers to locate their stores, but many businesses seem to be careless in correcting or adjusting them to function well online. There’s lots of variation as to how addresses are written, and the top online mapping systems don’t universally recognize the variations and pinpoint them identically. I see many business addresses like “80 US 40” or something similarly user-unfriendly, which could potentially be interpreted a few ways, since roads might be cited in a few different formats: Rd, Road, Highway, Hwy, US, Interstate, F&M, Farm & Market Road, FM, H, I, etc. In some areas, roads can be cited in multiple ways. For instance, Dallas, TX, Interstate Highway 35 is a major artery, but sections of it have been called different names, like: “North Stemmons Freeway,” “R.L Thornton Freeway,” I-35, I-35 North, and I-35 South.
You should check to see if major online mapping systems like Mapquest, Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, and MSN Maps can pinpoint correctly as well. Mild correction or adjustment as to how you write your address in each directory may ensure that maps and driving directions work. Some local businesses simply do not have a fixed location and may operate out of their truck or something, such as in the cases of plumbers and contractors. In internet directories, local search engines, and online map sites, not having an address can be a big disadvantage. Local search engines often rank listings in order of proximity to a city center and only display businesses they can display on maps, and businesses with no address or post office box addresses end up being left out of results entirely. If your business doesn’t have a street address, I recommend that you rent a mailbox from a mail store or a UPS Store, and consider choosing a store that’s close to the center of most of the online mapping services. Renting a box can give you a street address and will make you start appearing in many more online searches, nearly overnight! It may seem obvious but using streets that you might have serviced is great blogging content “Last week we were called out at midnight to a distraught homeowner on South Maple Street here in Columbus, OH with a frozen pipe that had burst. I’m proud to report that we were able to guide the woman on how to turn off the water, and were onsite within 45 minutes.” Great blog post.
• Services, products, & brands. For a service oriented business, blogging frequently about the specific services that are provided is a must. What are the top few services you offer? Don’t assume that just because you’re categorized in a particular industry, you don’t need to mention the obvious. For instance, a photographer might talk about “wedding photographers” but should blog about other services they offer such as “wedding photos, formal bridal portraits, candid shots of wedding parties and rehearsals.” Blogging about products & brands with a business can also help it return more relevant for users’ specific searches.
• Specialties & amenities. The specialties & amenities are really important to provide attributes that can differentiate between you and your competitors. Specialties for a lawyer may bring in more clients who have cases for which they’re particularly skilled. Amenities in hotel listings like pools, exercise rooms, free breakfasts, and others can draw in more business than nearly anything and are vital details.
• Photos & Video. For accommodations or specialty products businesses, including clear, large enough photos really help consumers in choosing. Be sure when using photos that you properly tag them with the keywords that drive your search.The search engines love photos, but they can’t actually see them so it’s important that you give your photos the right descriptions using your keywords. The same is true for video tagging. Also don’t fight the wave. Host your video on YouTube. You can easily embed your YouTube code into Compendium Blogware or other blogging platforms, but hosting it on will YouTube will dramatically influence your Search success.
• Email address. Including an email address in all your postings can be as useful as a phone number, but there are caveats with it. There are apparently quite a lot of businesses which do not keep up with their email in a professional manner, and in these cases, having an email address can actually reduce referrals which might’ve otherwise come in via phone calls. If you list an email address, have it checked at least once per business day and respond to inquiries. If you can’t commit to checking it, just don’t display one.
• Hours of operation. Listing times is quite helpful to everyone who works 8 to 5, but hours of operation should be considered a commitment or a contract which you won’t ever break except on major holidays. There is nothing more irritating than showing up for a business only to find that they’ve closed early or they’re only randomly open.
• Areas served. You’ve already listed your city, so this parameter is where you list alternative or regional names and neighborhoods. “Upper West Side,” “Nob Hill Neighborhood,” and “Serving the Mid-Cities” are some examples.
• Associations—Minority owned / Chamber member / Religion / Environmental / Professional associations. In most cases, I’d say that blogging about various associations typically helps gain new customers and rarely turns them off.
• Certifications. Few consumers may know what’s involved in obtaining various certifications, but using your blogs to educate searchers on the ones you have is an indicator of your professionalism and expertise, absolutely sets a higher bar for your competitors.
• Languages. Talking about, or even in, the languages you can support is a no-brainer for getting some particular clientele who need alternate language support.
• Professional endorsements & ratings. Blog posts that include quotes from major news media, well-known experts, and other recognizable companies can be effective. Quoting positive professional ratings you may have can help convince consumers of your worth and add the perception that your superlatives are not just hollow claims. These don’t always have to be recognized professionals either. People are inclined to trust ‘People like themselves’. A good strategy is to solicit content from all of your clients or customers. One of the most common myths associated with Business blogging is that just by simply building a blog, you will automatically generate inbound comments from people who might visit your blog.
This almost never happens and if it does, it never happens with enough volume to be meaningful. Successful business bloggers incorporate all of their communications channels to solicit direct feedback in the form of blog posts and contributions from their customers. Leveraging follow up email to solicit customer stories is a very easy and successful tactic.
• Prices are content. Make sure your prices accurately reflect the typical costs of what most users pay for your services. If a price parameter makes sense for your profile, you should assess whether it is expected or vital to your type of business. I’ve been very frustrated a number of times when viewing Restaurant websites, only to discover online menus with no prices, failure to mention pricing could result in far fewer customers as people can become disgusted or distrustful at the lack of info.
FINAL BLOGGING THOUGHTS Comprehensive blogging gives your business the opportunity to control your own destiny. Given your online choices, building your own blog network focused on local search gives you the opportunity to not be dependent on either directories or random reviews. Reviews on other sites are out of your control. You may not show well for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with your quality. Directories put only the minimal information out and your success or failure may be as arbitrary as how many other businesses advertised with the same letter or how much money your competitors spent. Blogging for the most part takes budget out of the equation. And gives you the opportunity to actually tell your own story… in your own words. A few notes on Blended Search. In an effort to be more relevant, the search engines are beginning to introduce a concept to their algorithms called Blended or Universal Search. The net result is that no longer will a search return only web sites. Now searches return a ‘blend’ of traditional sites, blogs, pictures & video. Business blogging is a critical part of the new search paradigm and local search can be the primary beneficiary.