Mind your business: Our top local search columns of 2017

Local SEO practitioners have an increasingly important role to play in the digital marketing mix as searches with local intent continue to grow at a fast pace — particularly on mobile devices. Google has responded to this shift in consumer behavior accordingly, releasing several updates in 2017 that have allowed business owners to enhance their local listings.

This year, our readers seemed especially interested in learning more about new Google My Business features, particularly Google Posts, Questions and Answers and the new website builder. This interest may reflect increased competition for a limited number of spots in the local pack: When all of your local competitors have the basics down, utilizing new and advanced features is a great way to make your business listing stand out.

Although articles about Google dominated the top local search columns this year, there was one notable exception, by Local Search Association’s Wesley Young, that focused on how Facebook is solidifying its place in the local search ecosystem. Young’s column provided a compelling case for expanding your local marketing efforts beyond Google’s local pack.

Top honors this year go to Joy Hawkins’s excellent and thorough coverage of Google’s “Hawk” algorithm update, which impacted how local listings are filtered based on their proximity to similar businesses.

Wondering what else local search marketers were excited about this year? Check out our top 10 most popular Local Search columns for 2017:

    August 22, 2017: The day the “Hawk” Google local algorithm update swooped in by Joy Hawkins, published on 9/8/2017.Local SEO in 2017: 5 simple ways to dominate local search by Sherry Bonelli, published on 2/9/2017.5 ways you can improve your new business’s visibility on Google Maps by Wesley Young, published on 2/27/2017.7 unannounced updates to Google My Business we’ve seen in 2017 by Joy Hawkins, published on 5/18/2017.Hyperlocal marketing will soar in 2017: 5 tips to stay on top by Jim Yu, published on 2/21/2017.Google My Business website builder SEO review by Tony Edward, published on 6/27/2017.3 local SEO tips that deliver business results by Ryan Shelley, published on 2/7/2017.Do Google Posts impact ranking? A case study by Joy Hawkins, published on 11/2/2017.7 changes by Facebook that make it a real local search player by Wesley Young, published on 6/19/2017.6 business types that reap the most reward from local SEO by Pratik Dholakiya, published on 2/20/2017.

How independent reviews influence Google’s trust in your brand

Search Engine Land columnist Kevin Lee recently wrote a post about the prevalence of fake reviews, how they are damaging consumer trust and why it’s a bad move with permanent repercussions to attempt to use them yourself.

The reason for this growing problem is that online reviews have tremendous influence over the purchasing decisions of consumers, as well as the performance of brands in the search engines. Luckily, many major review sites — including Google, Amazon and Yelp — are taking steps to combat the issue.

With all of this in mind, now is a good time to address how to approach online reviews in an ethical way that will produce long-lasting, positive results for brand perception and search engine traffic.

Google associates trust with ratings and reviews

It’s important to establish the relationship between user reviews and SEO performance before moving forward. Understanding that relationship will inform how to best approach and build a strategy for earning reviews.

A recent study affirmed the strong correlation between ratings and search engine performance for local businesses. The study was conducted by LocalSEO Guide and worked in cooperation with the University Of California, Irvine as well as PlacesScout. It analyzed the correlation between over 200 potential search engine factors and rankings for over 100,000 local businesses.

Specifically, the study found that if a keyword is found in reviews of your business, or if your location is mentioned in a review, those enhance your rankings in the search results.

Do reviews enhance your performance in general search results, outside of local search?

That is a bit more contentious. Google itself has stated that star ratings in AdWords enhance click-through by up to 17 percent, and a study by BrightLocal has found that organic listings with 4- and 5-star ratings (in the form of rich snippets) enjoy a slightly higher click-through rate than listings with no stars. While there’s never been a formal confirmation, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that higher click-through rates (CTR) may indirectly enhance your rankings in the search results.

Even if reviews don’t directly impact search rankings, the fact that they enhance click-through rates may potentially affect your rankings in an indirect fashion. And increased CTR is a benefit in itself!

User-generated content and reviews also heavily influence consumer decisions. A study by TurnTo found that user-generated content influenced buyers’ decisions more than any other factor looked at in the study, including search engines themselves.

The fastest way to success

Google has made it easy for you to get your customers to review you, and this is the very first thing you should start with.

Find your PlaceID using the lookup tool that Google has provided here. Put your business name in the “Enter a location” search bar. Click on your business name when it appears, then your PlaceID will pop up underneath your business name.

Copy the PlaceID and paste it to the end of this URL: https://search.google.com/local/writereview?placeid=

For example, the Macy’s location listed above would have the following review URL:

https://search.google.com/local/writereview?placeid=ChIJ3xjWra5ZwokRrwJ0KZ4yKNs

Now, try that URL in your browser with your business’s PlaceID to test whether it works or not. It should take you to a search result for your business with a “Rate and review” pop-up window.

Share this URL with your customers after transactions to pick up reviews on your Google My Business account.

While the Google My Business reviews are likely to have the largest impact on search engine rankings, they are not the only reviews Google takes into consideration, and it is in your best interest to pick up reviews from third-party sites as well. Third-party review sites can help you pick up more reviews more quickly, and they add diversity to your review profile, which enhances your legitimacy. This, in turn, imbues the reviews with greater authority.

In addition to boosting the authority and diversity of your reviews, third-party review sites help in a few other ways. Many are designed to make it simple to request reviews from your customers in an organized way. (Though be advised that some, like Yelp, discourage review solicitation.)

6 more tactics for picking up reviews

If you want to take things further, listed below are a few more tactics for you to consider working into your review strategy:

    Identify any industry-specific review sites: Reviews from industry-specific sites (think Avvo for lawyers or ZocDoc for doctors) can be huge, especially if you know that your potential customers are using these sites. It’s important to identify which vertical review sites may be relevant to you and to devise a strategy for earning positive reviews on these sites.Seek reviews from product bloggers: While blogger reviews are an entirely different ballgame from user reviews, they are equally important. Links from trusted bloggers are a strong signal that can positively affect your search engine rankings, and if the bloggers have audiences who trust the reviewer’s opinion, their reviews can earn you referral traffic with conversion rates not achievable from most sources. Just be sure that the blogger discloses any financial arrangement you might have with them.Respond to your reviewers: So long as you handle it tactfully, responding to reviewers (including and perhaps especially negative ones) can have a tremendously positive impact on brand perception, as it shows that you care about your customers. The important thing to remember about responding to reviews is that your response is not only for the customer but also for anybody else who sees the interaction. How you treat that review is how they will expect to be treated.Contact your happiest customers: It goes without saying that the happiest customers are the ones most likely to leave a positive review. Tactfully encouraging these customers to leave reviews is an important move if you want people to perceive you in a positive light. (Just be sure that you understand each site’s review solicitation guidelines.)Use social media for customer support: While social media shouldn’t replace a customer support team, many consumers see social media as a place to solve any problem they are having with their product. Many also use social media as a place to complain, often without even trying to contact your business. Be prepared for this, and respond to any mentions of your brand on social media with an offer to help. Don’t make the mistake of asking them to talk to you and take the conversation offline. Keep it online and portray yourself in the best way possible.Ask the right questions: Whatever media you are using to encourage your customers to leave a review, it’s important to make sure you are asking the right questions. Asking them simply to let people know if they liked the product typically isn’t the way to go, since it leads to very generic reviews. Ask more specific, pointed questions about how the product helped them solve a particular problem. These are the kind of stories that encourage people to purchase a product.

Conclusion

Online reviews play an incredibly important part in a buyer’s journey, from interest to purchase. They have a heavy influence on rankings in local search results and play an important part in more traditional search engine performance as well.

Brick-and-mortar businesses should use thank-you emails and other customer communications to point consumers to their Google My Business pages. Take advantage of third-party review sites to easily encourage reviews. Reach out to your customers and online influencers to improve coverage of your products.

Do not neglect these efforts. User reviews influence modern purchasers heavily. If your product is strong, your efforts will pay dividends.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

3 inconsistencies in Yelp’s review solicitation crackdown

Last month, Yelp doubled down on its war on review solicitation. Yelp has long given mixed signals about whether you can ask customers for reviews on their platform, but they seem to now be unifying their message against review solicitation.

In November, they began sending messages like this to businesses and agencies:

Disclosure: We (Go Fish Digital) received the email above. However, they must not have really done a lot of research to compile this list, as we do help clients with reputation management, but we do not solicit Yelp reviews on their behalf. We don’t do any review solicitation.

This new crackdown is a little disturbing, and in many ways, quite misleading. Here are three ways in which I view this all as quite hypocritical.

1. They LITERALLY told us review solicitation was OK

I once emailed Yelp support and asked them directly if review solicitation was OK. The wording on their website was ambiguous, so I wanted a clear answer to the question.

I had just returned a rental car, and the rental car company (a household name brand) sent me an email asking for a review on Yelp. I screen-shotted the text of the email and sent it to support asking if this was acceptable. Below is a screen shot of their response, which I wrote about this last year in my post, “5 Yelp Facts Business Owners Should Know (But Most Don’t).”

You can see in the response that they discouraged it, but it wasn’t against their rules. But now, Yelp is saying that they’ll suppress you in their search results, and potentially add a consumer warning if they find you are systematically asking for reviews.

Interesting change of position, eh?

2.  They apparently speak for the whole internet

Much (but not all) of the communication talks about prohibiting requesting reviews from customers. And they aren’t just saying, “Don’t request Yelp reviews.” They are saying, “Don’t request reviews, period.”

From their site:

Asking for reviews at all, even if the business breaks norms and attempts to ask more than just their happy customers, can create a bias away from organically motivated reviews. And when some businesses ask for reviews and others don’t, it becomes difficult for users to compare reviews across businesses. Not only does solicitation lead to bias, it’s a bad experience for customers, too.

If there were only one review site in all of the land, I could see how a blanket declaration against review solicitation would be OK. But I think we could all rattle off at least five or 10 more review sites that exist besides Yelp. And most of them have not taken a hard stand against asking customers for reviews.

As a small business owner, I’d be very frustrated. Yelp is basically telling you how to run your business. In reality, reviews are just the “word of mouth” for the internet. Can you imagine an authority figure saying, “You can’t ask customers to tell their friends about your small business. You might bias the word of mouth.” It sounds ridiculous because it is.

3.  They misinterpreted (or misrepresented?) a study about reviews to justify their crackdown

Hat tip to my Go Fish Digital co-founder, Dan Hinckley, for catching Yelp red-handed with this one.

On July 31, 2017, Vince Sollitto, the senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs at Yelp, published a post on the Yelp blog titled, “Why Yelp Doesn’t Condone Review Solicitation.” It is a short post that includes this:

Part of what makes content high quality is a lack of bias. That’s why Yelp’s automated software does not recommend reviews it believes to have been solicited by businesses, since solicitation leads to bias.

That “leads to bias” phrase links to a research study by researchers at Northwestern University on review solicitation, “Understanding and Overcoming Biases in Customer Reviews,” and it appears that Yelp is using this study to justify its position.

But here’s the thing: While the study did indeed find that solicited reviews tend to be higher than those of “self-motivated web reviewers,” the researchers actually concluded that this is because the latter group is biased. The study highlights that, over time, there is a naturally occurring negative bias if reviews are not solicited. (The study notes that their data supports the findings of two other studies on reviews that show the same thing.)

In other words, if a business doesn’t solicit reviews, their rating will trend downwards — even if they “provide great customer service to anyone that walks in the door,” as Yelp recommends. Existing reviews bias users toward what they should write in their own review; so, if you start with a couple bad reviews, improving your customer service may not ever be enough to improve your star rating. The study found that “even the decision of a user to submit a review can be influenced by the current state of the reviews.”

On the flip side, the study found that reviews solicited over email do not have the same negative bias that occurs over time when reviews are left to be posted naturally. The average star rating of reviews solicited via email remained consistent over time. They say:

The plot suggests that email reviews are stable over time (i.e., the 20th email review for a product is, on average, equal to the 1st email review for that product), while web reviews display a downward temporal trend.

In the study’s conclusion, it literally says businesses should solicit reviews, as it will lead to a larger, more representative population of reviewers:

Furthermore, the introduction of email prompts does not disturb in any way the existing reviewing population while it incentivizes an entirely new segment of the population to submit a review. We think that this finding should provide motivation to retailers to send email prompts to their verified buyers. The reviews overall will become more representative (since a larger segment of the population will be reviewing), more credible (since the new segment of the population that starts reviewing are all verified buyers) and the ratings overall will increase (since the email ratings are on average higher than web ratings).

A swing and a miss

Yelp has a long list of things not to do, but I think the main one they actually care about is, “Don’t run surveys that ask for reviews from customers reporting positive experiences.”

This is a common practice, and I think this is what they are trying to avoid. But instead of just pinpointing this, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater by discouraging all review solicitation. This is in contrast to the study they cited, which literally says review solicitation brings about a more accurate rating.

Why does this matter?

Look, I rely on Yelp as a consumer, and we help brands navigate its confusing web of rules, filters and users. I actually like the product and think that it does a lot of things well.

However, I think Yelp really falls short in how they deal with businesses — from aggressive salespeople using high-pressure sales techniques to confusing and contradictory communication. After all, their revenue comes from these businesses’ advertising dollars, so you’d think they’d place a high priority on each touch point with their paying customers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

5 local search tactics your competitors probably aren't using

Local SEO is competitive and fierce. With more and more local businesses vying for the Google local three-pack — and ads and online directories occupying a large percentage of the remaining SERP real estate — your local SEO strategy has to be aggressive.

So, what can you do to outrank your local competitors down the street, especially when you’ve all got the basics down? One approach is to use local SEO tactics that your competitors may not know about or aren’t using. Here are five local SEO tactics you can implement to help get ahead of your competitors.

Google Posts

First, every local business should claim their Google My Business (GMB) listing. It’s a must-do. Non-negotiable. If you don’t claim your Google My Business listing, you essentially don’t exist online! (Okay, that’s an exaggeration — but not claiming your GMB listing will significantly diminish your chances of showing up in local search results.)

Of your competitors who claim their Google My Business listing, most will just walk away and forget about it. However, claiming your listing and letting it sit there gathering dust is like purchasing a new home and not putting any furniture in it. There’s so much more you should do, and this is one way you can outsmart (and outrank) your competitors.

Google has insight into how you and your potential customers are engaging with your Google My Business listing — and generally speaking, the more activity, the better. Does someone use the click-to-call option on their smartphone? Is a potential customer asking you a question using the new Q&A feature? Did you answer the question? Are you updating your business hours for holidays? Are you uploading quality photos of your business or staff?

And are you utilizing Google Posts?

Google Posts are almost like mini-ads with a picture, description, offer, landing page URL and so on. You can create Posts that tell potential customers about a product or service, promote upcoming specials, offer holiday wishes, let customers know about an event you’re having, and more. Having an open house? Create a Post for that event. Offering a free report or white paper? Create a Post about that white paper and add the link to where people can go to download it.

Creating a Post is easy. Simply log in to your Google My Business dashboard, and to the left, you will see the Posts option. Click on it to get started creating your first Post!

Whether you’re creating a post about an upcoming event, sale, special offer, product or service, try to include keywords relevant to your business and city in the copy of the post. (It can’t hurt!) Make your post compelling so that people who see your GMB listing will want to click on the Post to learn more. (Remember, Google is watching those interactions!)

Once you’ve created your post, here’s how it will look on your Google My Business Listing:

To make sure that the Posts are timely, Google removes Posts after seven days (or, if you set up an event, the Post will be removed when the event date has passed). To keep you on your toes, Google will even send you email reminders when it’s time to create a fresh new Post.

Does creating a Google Post help your local rankings? The verdict’s not 100 percent in, but Joy Hawkins and Steady Demand did some research, and they found that Google Posts did appear to have a mild impact on rankings.

Check your Google My Business category

Speaking of Google My Business, selecting the best GMB category for your business can make a huge difference in how your business ranks on Google. If you find your competitors are leapfrogging ahead of you on the local three-pack, scope out what category their business is listed under — you may want to experiment with selecting that same category.

If matching your competitors’ categories doesn’t move the needle for you, try getting more granular. (Yes, this is a case of trial and error. You may need to test until you find the right category that will get you better visibility and/or more qualified leads.) See the example below, where one of my clients jumped up on Google rankings when we changed her category from the more general “Lawyer” category to a more specific category, “Family Law Attorney.”

It’s always best to choose the category that most accurately fits your business type. Sometimes, people select too many categories, which can “dilute” your specialty. Selecting the best category for your business is a strategy that may mean you fall before you rise — but once you find the “sweet spot,” you can outrank your competitors.

Apply URL best practices

URLs are an important part of your search engine optimization and user experience strategy. Not only do URLs tell your site’s visitors and search engines what a page is about, they also serve as guides for the structure of your website. Your URLs should be descriptive, user-friendly and concise. When appropriate, include keywords (like your city, the name of a product, the type of service and so on) in the URL.

If your website runs on a CMS, you may have to adjust the settings to ensure that your page URLs are SEO-friendly. For example, WordPress URLs have a default format of /?p=id-number, which does not adhere to SEO best practices and is not particularly user-friendly.

To fix this issue, you need to create a custom URL structure for your permalinks and archives. This improves the look of the URL for visitors and people that share your link, and it also allows you to add relevant and local keywords to a page’s URL.

To fix this WordPress default setting, log in to your WordPress dashboard and go to Settings and click on Permalinks:

There you will be able to change your setting to “Post Name.” Changing this setting will allow you to create SEO-friendly URLs like:

https://websitename.com/products/blue-widgets

Please note that after you change the permalink structure on your website, you may need to create redirects from the old URLs to the new ones (assuming your CMS doesn’t do this automatically).

Make your site secure

If your site isn’t secure (i.e., not HTTPS), making it secure is something you should add to your to-do list. In January 2017, Google started showing “not secure” warnings for Chrome users on HTTP pages with a password or credit card field. And, as of October 2017, they’ve expanded this warning to display when users enter data on an HTTP page, and on all HTTP pages visited in Incognito mode.

Even worse, their goal is to eventually display this warning on all HTTP pages. With all the press about cyber-security and protecting your personal information online, seeing this “Not Secure” warning on your site could scare off potential customers. Google is essentially warning people not to visit your site. Since many people are apt to close a website if they see a security warning, that means you could be losing a lot of business.

The bottom line: If your site’s not secure, you could be losing business to competitors.

(For a primer on making the switch from HTTP to HTTPS, check out this guide by Patrick Stox: “HTTP to HTTPS: An SEO’s guide to securing a website.”)

There are immediate benefits to having a secure site, too. If you have a secure site, the https:// and the green locked padlock that appear next to your URL in Chrome will make your website seem more trustworthy than a competitor’s site that isn’t secure.

And, of course, Google has stated that secure sites receive a slight rankings boost. Though this boost is fairly minor, it could still give you an edge over a competitor, all else being equal.

Write quality content: End writer’s block

Not only does Google like fresh, relevant, high-quality content — your site visitors do, too.

When it comes to writing long-form content, however, some people freeze up with writer’s block. How can you determine what to write about in order to satisfy users and drive relevant traffic?

Rest easy. There are amazing tools out there that can help you find the most popular questions people ask about a particular topic, and these types of questions and answers make for great content fodder.

Each of these tools has a different algorithm they use to find popular questions that need answering, but many pull top-asked questions from Google, various user forums, Quora, e-commerce sites and more. Finding these questions and writing a piece of content that answers those questions can squash writer’s block — fast! Now you can write content that actually answers questions potential customers are really asking.

Here are just a few of the “content crushing” tools I use:

Question SamuraStorybaseAnswer the PublicBuzzSumo Question AnalyzerBlogSearchEngine.orgHubSpot’s Blog Topic Generator

Which local SEO tactics are YOU using to beat your competition?

I’d love to know what local tactics are giving you a competitive edge in rankings. Are you using any of the tactics above? Different ones? Let us know!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Top 10 local search insights of 2017

Is it just me, or does it seem time flies faster in the local search industry? Another year has gone by, with many changes and developments to boot. Here’s a list of my top 10 insights from 2017:

1. Customer data is the new competitive edge

SMBs often feel at a competitive disadvantage compared to larger companies who benefit from scale at every level, including the purchase of search advertising or other marketing services. Data is helping even the playing field as it emphasizes quality over quantity.

Better data resulting in better targeting means that local businesses experience lower costs, higher conversion rates and greater ROI. And while targeting is not a new strategy, what’s new is the access to and quality of data.

Just as the price of technology drops with increased adoption, data will be cheaper, more accurate and more insightful. The Internet of Things (IoT) is driving growth in data much faster than what could be achieved by mobile phones alone. It’s estimated that by 2020, there will be over 50 billion connected devices, including wearables, home devices and automobiles. And it seems that nothing is off limits — internet-connected ink for tattoos, mascara and contact lenses have already been developed, making the potential for the type and volume of data collection seem endless.

Ultimately, having the right customer data rather than scale is the new competitive edge.

2. Offline behavior is better at predicting online actions than online behavior

There’s been a lot of attention focused on understanding online actions and whether they drive offline visits, i.e., the ability to attribute store visits to online marketing efforts.

Yet perhaps the opposite is even more important: measuring offline actions to predict online behavior. While measuring offline behavior has, to date, been largely reliant on location of mobile devices, IoT devices now bring a much greater diversity of data into play.

Knowing real-life choices, actions and behavior better predict online decisions than clicks, search history and page views. That offline behavior is a deeper and more complete picture of the real world and forms more accurate indicators of intent.

3. Facebook makes waves in local search

As recently as 2015, Facebook’s local search functionality was woefully bad. Major changes since then have made Facebook a real local search player. Facebook uses location information, better indexing and richer business profiles to offer robust search results.

Yet the game-changer for Facebook is the way it is beginning to incorporate its vast bank of personal data into search results that allow targeting and profiling at an unprecedented depth.

Its social media data provides insight into preferences, hobbies, taste, beliefs and other personal behavior that will help Facebook predict intent or choices far more accurately than Google can. And that should scare the bejesus out of Google.

4. SEO ranking factors must now be customized by vertical

Whether it’s the threat of competition from the likes of Facebook or other reasons, Google has always striven to provide consumers with search results that best match what they are looking for and content that will be most helpful. So it is no surprise that Google is looking more deeply and more specifically at ranking factors that determine search results.

SEO can no longer be a one-size-fits-all solution. To be most effective, SEO ranking factors must be analyzed based on vertical and other business-specific characteristics.

For example, even though general statistics say that content with images performs much better in user engagement and action, studies have shown that the top-ranking websites for financial products and services contain 40 percent fewer images than the average universal benchmark. While many cite the large percentage of consumers who leave slow-loading websites, the top-ranking travel websites took on average three seconds longer to load than the universal benchmark. Users are willing to wait for the right content and read lots of text when doing so meets their needs.

Use of ranking factors such as backlinks and keyword frequency to boost search results needs to be customized based on content and relevance. Understand your consumers and how they utilize your business’s website and content. Do they rely on images for visual information, or do they look for detailed text that needs to be broken down into more readable, bite-sized bullet points? Does social media convey the type of image that you seek to convey? Does LinkedIn reach your audience better than Facebook?

Answering these questions and building a website showing Google you are mindful of what relevant content a targeted audience seeks will boost your search rank.

5. The local search audience radius is shrinking

It’s long been believed that the majority of shopping happens locally, despite the growth of e-commerce. A Google study conducted in May 2014, “Understanding Consumers’ Local Search Behavior,” found that 72 percent of consumers who searched for local info on a smartphone visited stores within five miles of home.

This year, Access released data that shows consumers stay even closer to home for the most frequent purchases, like gas, groceries, eating out and working out. For example, consumers travel, on average, only six minutes to fill up their cars and eight minutes to buy groceries. That correlates to roughly two to three miles away if traveling by car.

While consumers will travel farther for less frequent purchases like clothing or auto repair, 93 percent of all consumers typically travel 20 minutes or less for their general shopping needs. Urban consumers, who represent 83 percent of all shoppers, prefer even shorter distances, with 92 percent traveling 15 minutes or less. That is approximately a five-to-six-mile distance by car, or much less if by transit or walking.

Thus, local businesses must adjust their marketing reach to account for the small radius of their audience. However, that audience might include local residents, commuters who work nearby or out-of-town travelers. So remember that distance becomes relevant at the micro-moment when a need arises and isn’t a static point for each individual.

6. Google images are searched more than all non-Google searches combined

According to Rand Fishkin at Moz, search on Google Images ranks second among all web properties behind Google.com and is performed more frequently than search on the remaining Top 10 web properties combined. Google images are searched more than 10 times as often as any search on Bing or Yahoo and almost 40 times the number of searches on Facebook.

Search on Google Images constitutes almost a third of all search on Google-branded products, ahead of Google Maps and YouTube.

Yet many businesses fail to optimize images uploaded to their websites for search, leading to many missed opportunities to generate sales or be found otherwise. Optimizing image labels, data, tags and descriptors helps Google better index graphics and images, leading to better ranking. Further, being mindful of how images contribute to a better user experience will increase clicks on the image during searches, which will, in turn, improve rank. Some UX factors to consider when uploading images include quality, load speed, viewability, context, authenticity and general appeal of the image.

Businesses that rely on visual cues should take special note including retail and consumer goods, professionals (profile pics), destinations and design.

7. Over 85% of brand engagement by consumers is local

The majority of consumer engagement with brands (85-95 percent) happens through local listings, local web pages or other local search results. Location is often discussed synonymously with local, so the use of location data in marketing is a good indicator of the emphasis placed on local. This year, 50 percent of brands are using location data to target consumers.

Brands are also spending more on location-based marketing. Twenty-five percent of leading brands’ marketing budgets are spent on location-based marketing and projected to rise. In 2016, $12.4 billion was spent on location-targeted ad spending by US brands, and that figure is projected to rise to $32.4 billion by 2021, equivalent to 45 percent of all mobile ad revenue.

Those companies committed to the use of location marketing cite case studies that demonstrate the return of investing in local. Use of location in advertising provided up to a 27 percent lift in specific campaigns run by Wendy’s.

8. Some brands still struggle with location marketing

While brands are understandably increasing spending on local marketing, neither the dollars spent nor the quality of marketing appears to reflect the importance of local. That 50 percent of brands are using location data for targeting still seems on the low end when we can see how consumers are universally engaging, shopping, researching and evaluating brand products and services on the local level.

It’s even more surprising when comparing local search results for brands that prioritize location and those that don’t. Fast food restaurants, hotels and convenience stores are just a few of the examples I found where some brands were featured prominently in search results, while others were markedly less visible or even completely omitted from local search results.

The latter examples were not simply poorly ranked — rather, they did not show up at all on Google Map search results. For the many consumers who search for local businesses exclusively on their mobile devices, businesses that don’t show up on maps or search results might as well not exist at all.

One way brands fell short in using location data was by listing national corporate credentials and links instead of local ones for individual location listings or sites. And some brands failed to create or complete profiles for individual stores that were part of bundled retail locations. These mistakes reflect a lack of an overall strategy for making location a priority despite the importance of doing so.

9. Consumers are wrestling brand reputation away from corporate control

Social media and consumer-generated content such as reviews are the new battlegrounds for business reputation and identity. Gone are the days when PR teams could operate in a relative vacuum and shape the perception of product quality or business image in a series of closely controlled campaigns.

Shared pictures and video can portray a reality that is impossible to refute, and a single consumer can capture the world’s attention in real time through one tweet. Movements such as this year’s #DeleteUber empowered hundreds of thousands of individuals to join together in a united voice. And reviews demand accountability from businesses in every aspect of consumer experience and engagement.

As such, reputation is much less an internally generated message broadcast to the masses and more a management of public discourse in trying to protect or uphold brand identity. Businesses need to understand this shift and adapt brand management with this in mind.

10. New competition arises for marketing media and agencies

Technology has encroached into the advertising space in a variety of ways. Platforms such as social media and review sites created new ad inventory. Software products consolidate multiple media platforms into one-stop user interfaces. And programmatic ad services match ad buyers with ad sellers.

But the core service of strategic management and planning of marketing and ad campaigns is now also being threatened by technology. Technology companies are offering additional services outside of their core service area including marketing and advertising. And two numbers from the Local Search Association’s 2017 Tech Adoption Index Survey reveal that advertising media and agencies have reason to be concerned:

60 percent of SMBs prefer to work with a single SaaS tools provider.62 percent of SMBs favor technology companies over media companies if they were to purchase services outside of a company’s core product.

With more agency work being provided via online portals, and more technology companies offering marketing services, the numbers suggest that SMBs will shift that work away from traditional ad agencies.

In order to compete effectively, agencies need to keep up with the latest marketing innovations and demonstrate superior performance arising out of their core expertise.

Closing thoughts

As 2017 comes to a close and planning for next year’s goals and budgets begins in earnest, it is prudent to remember to take time for reflection. I hope you’ve had a successful and rewarding 2017 and that taking a look at some important lessons learned this past year will help continue that success in the year to come.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Law firms spamming Google My Business: Don't trust them!

Last year, I wrote a piece addressed to SEO companies showing how much they were spamming Google Maps and giving the industry a bad reputation. If I worked at Google, this type of stuff would make me hate SEO companies and have no desire to help them.

Lately, I’ve been seeing this same level of spam (or worse) in the legal industry. If you’re an attorney or a marketing agency that works with attorneys, this article is for you.

Personally, if I were looking to hire an attorney and trust my money and my life to someone, the last place I would look is Google, due to my knowledge about how unreliable the information is and how fabricated the reviews are. Let’s get into some specifics.

Fake reviews

Attorneys often complain about how hard it is to get their clients to leave reviews. I get it. Someone rarely wants to publicize who they hired to help them with their divorce or admit that they had to hire a criminal lawyer. This does not, however, excuse what attorneys are doing to get reviews in spite of this.

One common trend amongst attorneys currently is review swapping. Although sites like Avvo might have sections that encourage peer reviews, they do a good job of separating them so that consumers realize they are not reviews from clients.

Google has no such distinction and is very clear in their guidelines that reviews should be about the customer experience. Attorneys you are friends with all around the country do not count as customer reviews. I say this because so far, every review that fits this scenario that I’ve reported to Google has been removed.

In addition to violations of Google’s guidelines, quid pro quo attorney review circles may violate attorney ethics rules. According to Gyi Tsakalakis, a digital marketer with a focus on law firms:

Per the ABA Model Rules, with limited exceptions, lawyers aren’t supposed to give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services. The quid pro quo nature of some of these review circles could be construed as a violation of this rule. At the very least, these communications could be interpreted as misleading, which is also prohibited by most states’ rules of professional responsibility.

There also could be legal implications to review swapping. In addition to it being against Google’s guidelines, it could also get you in trouble with the FTC. In an article I wrote on fake reviews earlier this year, Brandon J. Huffman, attorney at Odin Law, mentioned:

The FTC looks at whether you got something of value in exchange for your review. The thing of value is usually cash or a free product of some kind, but the positive review you receive is also something of value. So, this is really no different than a typical paid-for review under the regulations. Businesses would need to disclose that they received a positive review in exchange for their positive review.

Review swaps aren’t the only thing that can get lawyers in trouble with their state Bar Associations. A variety of fake review tactics are likely to lead to sanctions, such as having your employees pose as clients to leave reviews or paying someone to write fake reviews. Indeed, many law firms are just flat-out getting fake reviews posted.

Recently, in looking at the top 20 listings that ranked for personal injury lawyers in a major city in the USA, I found eight that had fake reviews (40 percent).

Fake listings

The most common practice for attorneys who want to rank in several cities is to create listings at virtual offices. When these are reported, Google has been pretty good at removing them. However, attorneys (and their marketing companies) are getting smart at this stuff and have found ways to trick Google My Business support into thinking their fake locations are real locations.

These are also clearly false, or at least misleading, communications about the lawyer’s’ services — a clear violation of attorney ethics rules.

Fake photos

I have experienced this one many times. An attorney will submit photos on their listing that “prove” they exist there, even though the address belongs to a virtual office service provider. These photos are often:

• photoshopped.
• signs that were taped to a wall, only to be removed after the photo was taken.
• photos of a completely different location.

I actually visited an office recently that an attorney was using for a listing on Google. The photos of the signs that he posted did not exist there in real life. So he was willing to actually show up at the office and tape signs to the wall just to “show” Google that he is really at that location. There is a word we use in my circles to describe this type of thing — and it’s called lying.

As business author Stephen Covey says:

The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too.

Using other attorneys’ addresses

This is another tactic I’m seeing on the rise in the attorney world. One attorney will get another attorney to accept the postcard from Google My Business so they can get an “address” in that town. Usually, they aren’t competition and practice different types of law, so there isn’t any negative impact on either party. This is also against the guidelines, and when caught, will be removed by Google.

I’m seeing more and more videos being used as evidence on the Google My Business forum to help prove businesses don’t exist at the address they are using. User Garth O’Brien posted another clever idea as a comment on an article by Mockingbird Marketing:

I was aware of a local law firm that did this in Washington. Their competitors called up each city and pointed out that law firm had a physical presence within their city. They inquired if that law firm was paying B&O tax in each city. The law firm was not, so each city called up and asked them to fork over some tax money. That law firm quickly erased each profile for every city [where] they did not have a physical presence.

Keyword stuffing

The final tactic I see being used frequently is keyword stuffing. It’s an old trick that still works well. If you want to rank higher on Google, just shove “Best Attorney Ever City Name” into your business name field in Google My Business.

Good grief…You would think there is a point where keyword stuffing actually hurts the performance of a listing. #StopCrapOnTheMap pic.twitter.com/U4ech7Xobj

— Joy Hawkins (@JoyanneHawkins) November 30, 2016

The problem is that Google will remove the keywords when they catch you. I have also seen them recently suspend a listing for an attorney who wouldn’t stop doing it. Currently, this guy has no ability to edit or control his listing on Google.

Summary

If you are sick of the spam you see in the legal industry, please to continue to report it on the Google My Business forum. I urge you not to let these people get away with the tactics they are using. Also, no matter how tempting it is — never join them!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Google showing knowledge graph data in local panels

Google has started showing more information about local businesses in some local knowledge panel results. It is implementing this by showing additional tabs of information above the local panel for (a) locations (b) about, and sometimes (c) Google Posts.

Here is a screen shot showing a search for [kfc] which brings up locations for nearby KFCs and an “about” tab for knowledge panel information about the chain.

Sergey Alakov, who first spotted this, said it “looks like Google started combining knowledge panels and local packs in mobile search results for businesses that have a knowledge panel displayed for their brand name search and local presence in the user’s area.”

I cannot consistently bring this up, so it might be Google is testing this feature still or it is currently still rolling out to searchers.

Where to go next with your Google My Business listing

When it comes to digital marketing and search engine optimization, the devil is truly in the details. Seemingly trivial choices can have a dramatic effect on your web presence and search visibility, and nowhere is that more evident than in Google My Business (GMB).

GMB optimization has quickly become something of a cottage industry within the broader scope of SEO. By now, you’ve probably heard all about the importance of keeping your listings up to date with accurate store hours, phone numbers and addresses. Those are the no-brainer changes. How do you go beyond the low-hanging fruit to really make your GMB listing stand out?

Some relatively straightforward tweaks to Google My Business can have a profound effect on your listing’s visibility and your local pack ranking. They may seem deceptively simple, but these GMB hacks could make all the difference in the world.

Address standardization

OK, so you’ve updated your store listing with an accurate address — but does it follow recognized and standardized guidelines? Any irregularities within your GMB listing could adversely affect your local ranking.

Compare your address with the acceptable formatting and standards laid out by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and see how it stacks up. It may seem minor, but updating your address to bring it in line with USPS standards will help your local page ranking.

For organizations outside of the United States, be sure to check with your national guidelines on address standards.

Geocode precision

Google My Business uses your listing address to generate geocodes, which in turn dictate where your store appears in Google Maps. This is not a foolproof process, however, and it’s not unheard of for businesses to have wildly inaccurate geocodes. Google Maps could put your store at a nearby intersection, or even several blocks away from its actual location.

You don’t want to make it any more difficult for your customers to find you, which is why it’s so important to ensure your listing has precise geocodes. This is doubly important for any business located in a larger metropolitan area. Denser areas could see more inaccurate geocodes, so city dwellers need to be extra mindful of this factor.

Listing categories

Google doesn’t change its algorithm for the fun of it. The company is always trying to improve its search engine so it returns results that closely align with users’ queries. With each new update, relevance becomes an even more important factor in a listing’s visibility.

The more precise you can be with your store category, the more likely your listing will appear for searches that match it. Don’t settle for overly broad store categories, even if they are technically accurate. Drill a little deeper to provide an accurate characterization of your business, and you’ll likely see better results.

Proximity to search

That same need for precision applies to your store’s listed location as well. It may be tempting for businesses located near a larger city (but still outside of it) to list that metropolis as their location. Why not, right? It could broaden your potential customer base.

Google takes location and proximity into account when calculating local page ranking, however. It won’t be fooled by businesses misrepresenting their location, and if anything, doing so will hurt those stores’ visibility. If your shop is in Skokie, Illinois, say so. Don’t pretend it’s located in Chicago to draw more eyeballs. You’ll be far more likely to rank for searches done in your area.

Cultivate (and respond to) reviews

Unknown quantities tend to scare off consumers. No one wants to be the first diner at a new, non-vetted restaurant or roll the dice on a barber with no track record of leaving customers satisfied with their haircut. More than ever, online reviews are critical to local page success. Encourage your customers to go online and leave a review for GMB to pick up on. The more reviews you have, the more exposure your business can get.

Business owners may be a little wary of online reviews given their mercurial nature. It doesn’t take much to get negative feedback, and those kinds of comments could reflect poorly on your store. However, such instances are opportunities to engage unhappy individuals and show other potential customers that you take their satisfaction seriously. Google recommends responding to both positive and negative reviews to improve your listing.

Create engaging content

An inactive site could be mistaken for a dead one. One area of optimization that’s easy to overlook is filling your site with engaging content. Creating new material to share with regular or potential customers is a good way to improve your local page ranking. Moreover, content that focuses on local events or area-specific concerns can help your search efforts immensely.

Additionally, consider making use of Google Posts, which allows you to publish events, promotions and other business updates directly to Google Search (in the Knowledge Panel) and Maps.

A recent study by Joy Hawkins and Ben Fisher suggests that use of Google Posts may have a mild impact on ranking.

Add relevant images

A picture says a thousand words, yet many stores neglect to include images in their Google My Business listing. Customers today like to do their online legwork before visiting a business and actively look for photos of products, store interior, signage and so on.

Uploading images can have a profound effect on your local ranking. I just recently worked with a client to optimize 70-plus GMB listings and saw that adding images alone increased traffic by 300 percent.

Remember when I said the devil is in the details? These are the kinds of details I was referring to. Something as seemingly insignificant as adding a store image can drastically increase the performance and visibility of your page listings.

Optimize those listings!

The beauty of it all is that none of the suggestions above are very time-consuming. It’s pretty easy to make some quick optimizations to your Google My Business listing and website that have the potential to increase online traffic.

Just remember: Every little bit helps when you’re trying to gain that competitive edge, so don’t ignore any updates because they seem inconsequential. With Google My Business, nothing is inconsequential.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Understanding the interplay of SEO and a 5-star reputation

Is your online reputation fully optimized? Online reviews are a fundamental part of local search. That’s because 97 percent of consumers read online reviews for businesses, and 85 percent report that they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, BrightLocal’s 2017 Local Consumer Review Survey found.

It’s not a matter of if your business will get reviews, but when. Poor reviews can sink even the strongest businesses. Here’s a guide to understanding the interplay between reviews, local search and earning (or keeping) a five-star reputation.

How reviews influence local search

Online reviews are not only influencing consumers, they’re also influencing search engine results. According to this year’s Moz Local Ranking Factors Survey, local search experts believe that review signals (in terms of the quantity, velocity, diversity and so on) are estimated to determine about 13 percent of the local pack rankings and 7 percent of the local organic rankings in Google.

The three pillars to local search are relevance, proximity and authority. How can reviews influence these pillars? By adding content and context.

Unlike local business websites, reviews are made up entirely of user-generated content. The content provides unbiased details and additional keywords to associate with the business in question, which contributes to relevance. The reviews provide Google with context as to which businesses merit the greatest visibility and which deserve to be buried. Google also looks to reviewers for confirmation that the local business location and details are accurate, thus improving proximity.

While there’s no denying the power of links in SEO, strong reputations with reviewers can also convey authority to search engines. It’s easy for businesses to focus on the negatives with online reviews. But they’re also helping businesses rank well on Google and pursue their target audience.

Controlling business information

Knowledge is power for Google. It aggregates information from review sites in order to improve search results. But how does Google make sure that this information is accurate?

Business information is used for two types of search: organic and local. On the organic side, Google pulls information from your website and reviews from sites like Facebook, Yelp and industry-specific sites. Google also pulls from Wikipedia and Wikidata. You should monitor all of these sources to make sure they are accurate and up to date.

The local side works differently. They use Google My Business to verify things like business category, hours, photos and general information. Business owners can control this flow of information by logging into the portal and making updates.

However, Google takes it a step further. They use primary data suppliers (Acxiom, Localeze, Infogroup and Factual) to verify business information. Google also has a second tier of data providers for local search, which includes directories and review sites like Facebook, YP.com and Yelp.

Reviews have the power to override business information on Google. For instance, let’s say you don’t list your business hours anywhere online. If a highly trusted Yelp reviewer reports that your business is closed on Sundays, then it’s possible that Google will trust their data and update your hours.

Google may give review sites a lot of power, but business owners can still control their own narrative. Tools like Google My Business and Yelp’s free Business Owner account allow you to make changes to your listings. Moz Local is also a powerful tool — you can create a business listing to be distributed across the local search ecosystem, and Moz will submit your data across all the sources and allow you to make changes to any incorrect data that pops up on the web.

Google’s Knowledge Panel

It’s easier than ever to access online reviews. You don’t even have to go to review sites to see your business’s reputation. They’re now being integrated into local search.

Google’s Knowledge Panel showcases reviews from Google, Facebook and other industry-related sites. The Knowledge Panel is an instrumental tool for users, especially on mobile platforms. It helps them research a business, get key information and take action without even clicking on their website.

Let’s say someone is doing a search for “Infusion Coffee” in Tempe, Arizona. This is what will be displayed:

Potential customers can call, get directions, order and look at Facebook and Google reviews without ever visiting Infusion’s website. The Google Knowledge Panel can also drive local search. Let’s say a separate user is looking for coffee in Tempe, but they don’t know about Infusion. This is what they will see instead:

The results are once again determined by relevance, authority and proximity. But it’s also clear that reviews are a factor in search rank. The top hit, Cartel Coffee Lab, has a 4.5-star reputation and over 400 reviews. Users can even refine their search by star rating.

Yes, you can control basic information on a Google My Business Page. But that only takes you so far. User-generated content and reviews are featured prominently in the Knowledge Panel. Translation: There’s no substitute for a stellar online reputation.

Promoting reviews

You might notice that a quick Google search of your industry yields mixed results. Some businesses have star ratings attached to their organic results, while others lack reviews altogether.

Do you want to add reviews to your organic results? The secret lies in structured data markup from schema.org. This is HTML markup that gives search engines more information about websites. Rich snippets that appear in the Google results can be composed of text, images, and/or review stars and give the searcher more details to help him/her choose the best, most relevant listing.

Google can display review stars as a rich snippet if it discovers valid reviews or ratings markup on your page. However, businesses have to include reviews on their website in order for them to be displayed, and there are some strict guidelines to follow in this regard:

• Ratings must be sourced directly from users.

• Don’t rely on human editors to create, curate or compile ratings information for local businesses. These types of reviews are critic reviews.

• Sites must collect ratings information directly from users and not from other sites.

So, copying and pasting review text from other review sites (like Yelp) is prohibited under Google policy. The reviews must be unique to your site and not duplicated on other platforms.

Controlling bad reviews

Good reviews can be a valuable tool for driving conversions. But what about bad reviews? It’s true that bad reviews can damage businesses — many potential customers will not purchase from a business with negative reviews.

Some business owners have tried to control bad reviews, but there’s no simple solution. Businesses looking for a quick fix might seek out a pay-for-review site. Not only are these sites illegal, but using them might end up in a penalty from Google and other sites.

Incentivizing reviews can be just as damaging. It’s a violation of Yelp and Google’s terms of service. “Astroturfing,” or creating fake positive reviews for reputation management, is a big taboo in the digital space, and it can lead to penalties from Google.

So, what’s a business to do if they’re stuck with bad reviews? The simple answer is to build a solid reputation. Focus on enhanced customer service, set the right expectations and listen to customer feedback.

You can also score your customer service internally. Net Promoter Score provides a structured way to solicit and analyze customer feedback, giving you a single customer satisfaction metric. Continue to keep an eye on this metric. You can see what is helping (or hurting) your online reviews and adjust your strategies from there.

Sometimes you get lucky and can make a negative review go away simply by offering to make things right for the customer. Fellow Search Engine Land columnist and online reputation strategist Chris Silver Smith describes how to turn things around when responding to a bad review.

Yelp and some of the other prominent reviews sites allow owners to post responses to customer reviews. On Yelp, if you respond to the reviewer and offer to address their issues, then they hopefully will post a follow-up of how you addressed their complaint and exceeded their expectations — making the combined review storyline even more beneficial to your business than an unbroken line of positive reviews.

GetFiveStars is an invaluable tool for improving your reputation on certain sites. It uses your Net Promoter Score in the decision tree; customers/clients are interacted with differently based on their satisfaction level. The service also lets you automate the outreach for feedback. You can focus on getting legitimate, quality reviews and better understand what’s contributing to your online reputation.

Online reviews are embedded into modern search engines. Reputation building doesn’t happen overnight. You must take a proactive approach and use reviews to your advantage. You can’t hide bad reviews, but good reviews can be an integral part of your local search strategy. Online reviews are part of your business, for better or worse. It’s up to you to make the most of them.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

Local ranking factors study finds reviews, organic SEO best practices boost local visibility

LocalSEO Guide has released its 2017 Local Ranking Factors study results. The methodology is quite different from the Moz Local Ranking Factors survey. Both are worth detailed examination.

LocalSEO Guide, together with the University of California, Irvine, and PlacesScout, looked at “200+ factors over 100,000 local businesses” in 150 cities to determine variables correlated with ranking in Google’s local results.

The basic conclusions of the study are that: (1) organic ranking factors (e.g., links, keywords, anchor text, etc.) boost local visibility; and (2) reviews are critical. The study argues that “local and organic search algorithms are still highly interconnected.” It adds that while Google is trying to include unique variables in the local algorithm, “traditional organic SEO tactics” are effective to rank locally.

Google My Business

Reviews are an explicit ranking factor; Google has said this. But according to the LocalSEOGuide report, “At a high level, having a keyword you are trying to rank for, and a mention of a city you are working to rank in, in reviews has a high correlation with high ranking Google My Business results.”

Engagement also emerges as a positive ranking factor. This includes adding photos and hours. In addition, “[R]esponding to reviews and claiming your profiles are ways to engage with your potential customers and Google’s platform and show them you have invested.”

Links

Those who have done their traditional SEO work are being rewarded, says the study. “Google still seems to be rewarding some level of optimized anchor text, around both keyword and city.”

Off-page signals 

Off-site signals are declining in importance and have “even less correlation  . . .  than last year.” However, citations and reviews on third-party sites have value, the study finds.

Website factors

“If you want to be in local packs, the best thing you can do is crush it in organic search . . . If you want to rank for a term, make sure it’s on the page you want to rank.”

Categorical ranking factors

“[B]asic SEO ‘blocking and tackling’ was something that most businesses who performed well in packs had done. Things like optimizing their meta tags, making sure their website is mobile friendly etc. ”

There’s more nuance, detail and discussion available from the full study.