Transcript of What Local Businesses Need to Know About the State of Local SEO

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John Jantsch: Perhaps one of the hottest things in marketing today is local SEO. In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, we’re going to visit with Neil Crist. He’s the Head of Product and Engineering at Moz, probably knows more about local SEO and the industry insights around SEO than most people.

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Neil Crist. He is the Head of Product and Engineering at Moz. We’re going to talk about their annual State of Local SEO, industry insights for a successful 2019. We’re going to be all over the place with local SEO and you guys know how I love to talk about that. Neil, thanks for joining me.

Neil Crist: Thanks John for having me.

John Jantsch: I said this was an annual survey and I think it is, isn’t it? Is this something you do or have done for a number of years?

Neil Crist: You know, we’ve done a number of studies on annual basis. We’ve done local ranking factors, local SEO predictions, et cetera. This is somewhat of a new one in that we decided we wanted to look at the local landscape from a marketing perspective and get points of view on how the local landscape is changing from both search and then more broadly marketing as well.

John Jantsch: Who did you survey then? Just to get a baseline on some of the results we’re going to talk about.

Neil Crist: We surveyed I think roughly around 1,800 marketers, local marketers. These are SMB marketers. There’s some embedded within enterprises but mostly skewed toward SMB.

John Jantsch: Yeah. I know it’s about a third were called themselves small business focused agencies, which is really in our sweet spot for a lot of listeners. These were really the insights from them and being one of them, I’m going to say, that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Neil Crist: That’s good point.

John Jantsch: For context, let’s just start with, because you mentioned the ranking factors. Right now today, and I have to emphasize that today because it might change tomorrow, what are the most important ranking factors for small business as far as Moz has discovered?

Neil Crist: Well, in terms of local specifically. There are number of things that I would touch on about that. I think if I were to take one step back from it, I think to connect it to why we did this study, it really was about this notion that local continues to change in a pretty dramatic way in terms of local search. Part of our work that we’ve been doing at Moz is really diving into an understanding the increasing role that local is playing not just in local search but in every type of search. Right? Local is becoming a core ranking factor regardless of if it’s a local business or not. In our minds, part of this study was really to get inside the heads of marketers to understand do they understand the change in landscape? Do they understand the complexity? By and large, what we found is they understand the complexity, but in terms of double clicking down into the details, they have trouble prioritizing across the 15 plus tactics they could employ to impact local search.

John Jantsch: Let me clarify something. Are you suggesting then that if I’m a national business and I don’t, maybe I don’t even have an office necessarily like I’m a consultant or something, it doesn’t really matter where I work? Are you suggesting that good solid local ranking factors that happen to be with where I am are going to help me rank nationally?

Neil Crist: No, actually I think I’m saying the inverse, the point I was trying to make which is, what we’re seeing is this case where because local is a personalization aspect of any search regardless of device that you’re on, we’re seeing that personalization aspect taking part in determining what shows up in the search engine result pages, regardless if it’s a local search or not. What I mean by that is we have cases today where we have clients, large national brands that have local locations and they’re competing with non local results for their products and their services. Even though we have brands that aren’t local or online market places that aren’t local, they are actively competing in that local search use case. The lines are blurred. Then you enter in a local marketer who now is trying to compete in local but then also has national brands and then also has even non local brands competing for space. It becomes a very active landscape.

John Jantsch: Well, and let’s not forget to throw in the aggregators that are out there doing the 10 best blah, blah, blah in their city. I mean, they’re essentially national lead aggregators and they’re messing up the local results. It seems like Google right now likes them.

Neil Crist: That’s right. I think local data has been a very messy landscape for quite some time. I do think that Google is making good moves towards trying to find sources of truth that it can rely on, which is I think in the longterm going to help in local search. Today that’s not the case, but we’re at least seeing movements in that direction.

John Jantsch: Well, I think ironically they were part of the problem.

Neil Crist: Yes.

John Jantsch: Going from Places to Google Plus to whatever it is, but I think they finally landed, it seems like that. Doesn’t it? With Google My Business, they seem serious this time.

Neil Crist: Yeah, I agree with you. Google My Business I think is a confluence of a couple things. One is with local searches being so close to the intent to purchase, I think Google has really gotten a handle on the monetization opportunities that exist in that local search use case. Right. Also, I think there’s a secondary effort for Google to maintain a really positive experience for searchers that are searching in the local context. Some of it’s having effects that local marketers might not like. Right? One example of that would be you search for a particular good or service and you actually find a business but you never do visit their website, but you actually may end up clicking the call. You may actually end up clicking to navigate and become a customer of that local business, but there won’t be any attribution to the website, right? Those traditional metrics get thrown sideways but when you look at the experience that Google is trying to promote, they’re trying to create a consistent ability for a person searching to find what they’re looking for and take action because it’s so close to that transaction.

John Jantsch: That seems awfully generous. I think what they’re trying to do is control the transaction itself. You look at local search ads and somebody can actually be all the way to a truck coming to their house and not even know who … I mean, they’ll know who they’re working with, but that the entire transaction has gone through Google.

Neil Crist: Without question. I think I was taking the customer experience first point of view, which is an argument, but you’re right. The disintermediation potential there in what’s happening today in certain verticals is absolutely a byproduct. I think for local marketers, I think one important thing to do is understand depending on the vertical that they play in and the geography, right? Because those have a factor as well. Understanding the dynamics of local search, even to the point where I would say, become a customer and search for your goods and services on different devices. Ask questions on Google, look for topics surrounding the area that you work in and that you serve and really start to understand what is showing up in search engine results, and what should I understand, what kind of contents popping up? Are there featured snippets that show up that I should be aware of as a local marketer? Those sort of things.

John Jantsch: Then do repeat the entire process in incognito mode.

Neil Crist: Exactly, incognito mode, even employ friends because we see personalization creating lots of variability in what that search result looks like.

John Jantsch: Let’s talk about-

Neil Crist: Yeah. Go ahead.

John Jantsch: I was going to say, I want to jump to proximity. In today’s world, especially so many people on a mobile device searching for stuff and the maps listing basically takes over the entire screen, for certain types of home service businesses that maps listing has become live or die, I think in some cases. Yet it still seems that it doesn’t matter how many reviews you have or how good you are, all the social signals in the back links, proximity is still such a big factor that you might not have much range.

Neil Crist: Right. Definitely for certain types of searches, proximity wins when it’s tight, when it’s clearly a local search signal. I would say though, the types of content you’re referring to like reviews that there’s some new content types on Google My Business like question and answers and that type of content is playing a factor. There have been some test done within the local search community that’s starting to prove out that. I think one of the studies that we recently conducted probably in 2018 sort of mid 2018 was understanding the relevant or the inclusion of ads within local. We did a broad study across 11 different verticals and across I think a hundred different cities in the United States, the largest cities in the U.S. and we found broad variability in terms of where those monetization efforts were going on with Google.

It really created this situation where marketers may be playing in a space where they think they have some room to gain organic opportunity. Then that space changes the characteristics of that space, changes from week to week and changes the opportunity. That’s why I think for us, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about how do we bring forward the insights and also the changes, the variability I talked about for local marketers so they can start to adapt as those changes occur.

John Jantsch: Let’s talk a moment about, we already mentioned Google My Business, but I mean, would it be your advice that because Google, they added text messaging and posts and question and answer and descriptions now in service listings, I mean, they seem to keep adding things to it and encouraging you to put videos on it. I mean, would it be simple advice to just say if Google seems to be all in on that, we as marketers have to be all in on every opportunity they give us to optimize that?

Neil Crist: I would say I hesitate against saying yes as a blanket answer only because I think part of the calculus here is it depends on the competitiveness of your particular local business and your particular local search landscape. Right? I would always say with any local business, both as part of Moz and as a colleague of folks that own local businesses, I would say without question that you should make sure that your details, your profile is well appointed on Google My Business. Right? It feels like a table stake, particularly given that with the experience of search, keeping you on that Google My Business property for a number of clicks, right? It used to be the website click, the website link was within the search result of the local pack. At some point last year I got relegated down one step and now it’s down another step. If you really want users to interact with the Google My Business profile and a customer end up on your website, ultimately, it’s important that that profile stand out.

John Jantsch: Let’s do a little bit of an offshoot of that. The knowledge panels had been with us for a couple of years. If somebody does, as you said, they know the business they’re looking for in the city, they’re going to pull up that knowledge panel. I’m starting to see knowledge panels show up for local businesses for organic searches. It might be something closely related to their business and maybe because their name has that search term in it or something, the knowledge panel shows up on the right side. I mean that would suggest to somebody, wow, that’s an important thing. How important is it that we’re not just optimizing, but we’re paying attention to what the knowledge panel means to local business?

Neil Crist: That’s a great question. The way that we’ve talked about the knowledge panel and local is if you think about it from just a percentage of the page, just real estate, pure real estate, the idea that you could take actions and earn that space makes it incredibly valuable because it stands out even more so than the traditional 10 blue links that you’d see as well as featured snippets. Right? Dr. Pete Meyers from Moz talks about featured snippets being position zero. I would say also that the knowledge panel is probably just as valuable real estate. I think users that are marketers rather that are trying to gain that space, you know, your Google My Business profile is going to be your first step in making sure you secure that. Then I think it is important to understand if you’re not showing up in that knowledge panel, why? Who is showing up for related searches?

John Jantsch: It’s interesting though, because back to an earlier point, a lot of times that knowledge panel will say people also look for your five competitors listed right here.

Neil Crist: That’s right. That’s right.

John Jantsch: Again, another good thing, bad thing, right?

Neil Crist: That’s right. The one thing that I would say it’s pretty interesting that we’ve seen of late is that does matter particularly in the local spaces, not only other people searched for but this other area around people also asked, right? Just below a featured snippet, the people also ask is becoming a really important signal for local marketers to understand in the clusters of topics that searchers are looking for, like what are they looking for? How are they thinking about the topics that they’re looking for? Then you cross reference that with how close that is to intent to purchase or intent to take action. You can start to build out somewhat of a mapping of the types of content you should be publishing to capture those eyeballs.

John Jantsch: Yeah, it’s amazing. If you really look at what Google is suggesting quite often, they’re suggesting your path in many cases.

Neil Crist: That’s right. That’s right.

John Jantsch: Let’s jump to another really big and contentious topic, reviews. I’ve been saying for a long time, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that reviews are a ranking factor for a local business. Now, they certainly add social proof. We’re not going to buy from certain kinds of businesses that don’t have nice reviews and a nice aggregate number, but are they truly a factor that gets you in the three pack or whatever we’re calling it these days?

Neil Crist: Well, a couple of things about reviews. We were just taking a look at some data around this. I think some of the latest data we’ve seen is that within a local context that up to a third of decision making by searchers is impacted by whether or not their review is present. I think that’s important to understand. The other piece that we’ve looked at is if you take a broad swath of just the local search experience, whether you’re on mobile or another device, in almost every case, whether it’s a list view, the local pack itself, whether it’s within the traditional blue link structure that we’re used to seeing, reviews are a key component of those results. If you also just eyeball those, you’ll notice that what you see are those businesses that have strong reviews, either strong in volume or strong in terms of number of stars and ratings. While, well, I don’t have a direct signal that I can quote and say, yes, it definitely is. All of these tea leaves come together and seem to illustrate that it’s an important factor.

John Jantsch: Yeah. I think where a lot of folks we work with gets thrown off sometimes, and I don’t have an answer for is that there are plenty of examples. I think it goes back to your point of maybe not such competitive industries, but there are plenty of examples where somebody can type in a search term with a clearly local intent and there’ll be a couple companies you never heard of that have no reviews. You’re like, why did they get in there and I didn’t?

Neil Crist: That’s right.

John Jantsch: That’s a tough one to explain away.

Neil Crist: It is. One of the investments that we’re making at Moz is really trying to provide more intelligence around local search to the point where with certain topic, keyword and question research, we can actually show you and show the marketer and show the SEO expert, here are the results and here are your competitors for eyeballs within a search within a certain geographical context. That type of intelligence I think will help inform what a local marketer needs to take into account. That’s very on really cutting edge stuff that we’re working on but it’s really taking it to that … It’s really representative of this idea that we understand how important local is to the broad search ecosystem and so we’re making investments in that area.

John Jantsch: It used to be so easy. You’d see who’s ranking, you’d go figure out what they’re doing and just do it two links better and you would rank above them but it’s gotten so complex now, hasn’t it?

Neil Crist: Those were the good old days.

John Jantsch: All right, let’s talk about link building as a matter of fact, another big topic. Probably the hardest thing for a small business marketer to do or wrap their head around especially since there was so much garbage for years about how to get links. What’s the best way to get links and are they still as important?

Neil Crist: Within local, we know that link building is important, right? Some of the things that we found in the study was generally a lack of understanding about how to go about building links. Right? I would relate a lot of what link building is in a local context is around community building, right? Within a local context, being able to reach out to local and adjacent and proximal organizations and even adjacent businesses that are non competitive or maybe coop-petitive you might say in really promoting this idea that there’s a better together sort of reason that users or people that are searching on the web should be able to sort of move between sites. I think that’s a really interesting approach.

Link building is also I think on a local basis, I think it’s a confusing conversation to have around creating links between pages and organizations. What I sort of think about is some of the really common use cases which are things like, if your business is sponsoring a local baseball team for Little League, if you’re donating to the local YMCA chapter and taking part in the community, part of taking part in the community is that attribution back to your business. Those are real tactical things that I think local marketers can wrap their head around.

John Jantsch: Well, I think it’s the low hanging fruit and I’m right with you on that. Go get the alumni directory listing. Go get the Chamber of Commerce listing. I mean, these are gimmes and they’re strong local signals. In some cases they’re .govs and .edu and they’re local. Yeah, I’m totally on board with that.

Neil Crist: That’s right. The other thing I would say about that too is there’s not a lot of competition for local link building. If you’re a small business and you’re reaching out to build that connective link between you and another organization, it’s not like some other areas of the web where people are getting thousands of inquiries about links and about building links. Right? It’s a very grassroots activity.

John Jantsch: It’s networking, it is all it is, right?

Neil Crist: Absolutely. Absolutely.

John Jantsch: Okay. I saved the best for last. You ready?

Neil Crist: Okay.

John Jantsch: At what point does this all become pay to play?

Neil Crist: That is a great question. I don’t know if I could prognosticate that. I will say certainly we’ll see and we have been seeing, and I don’t know if I quoted the exact number, but when we did that study on local monetization by Google, we were expecting to see low single digit prevalence of ads across 11 of the top verticals across a hundred top cities in the U.S. What we saw was 35% prevalence. In those verticals whereas we’re prevalent, they were always there. It’s not like they showed up, disappeared, and they were testing. They were becoming a permanent part of the search result. I think without question, monetization is going to spread to all the verticals where monetization or intend to purchase is clear. Do I ever think it will be a pure pay to play scenario? I don’t think so. I just don’t see it going that direction because at the same time I think there still is a function of search which is to be a source of information and if it’s only a source of paid information, I think that becomes a very different place than where we are today.

John Jantsch: Yeah, it is as you comment at the high commercial intent, stuff is pretty darn easy because they’re so good at relevance. That’s probably what makes, I mean, that is the key to Google, isn’t it?

Neil Crist: That’s right.

John Jantsch: Neil, where can people find out more? I know everybody that listens to my show knows about Moz, but the state of local SEO report is available and maybe you can point people to where they can find it.

Neil Crist: It is. If you go to moz.com/blog, you’ll see a link to the report. I believe also there are a couple articles that had been written by folks at Moz referring to and deep diving into certain aspects of the report. It’s a pretty informative report. It’s about 40 pages so a lot to it. I’d encourage folks to check it out.

John Jantsch: From a practical stand point, if you’re a consultant or an SEO pro of any kind, there’s some great sales data in there. What I mean by that is just sales talking points about how you need to be talking about describing SEO, local SEO I think to some of your customers. That was one of my big takeaways anyway.

Neil Crist: Yeah, I would agree. I would even go a little bit further and say, as a local SEO shop consultant, it’s also great data to determine, “Hey, which verticals should I focus on within my geographies that I work in?” Because there’s definitely some low hanging fruit in terms of business opportunity where we know local businesses need more help than others given monetization, given other aspects of search.

John Jantsch: Well, Neil, thanks for taking the time. I’m a big fan of Moz and I appreciate you stopping by the show. Hopefully we’ll see you out there on the road somewhere.

Neil Crist: Happy to do it, John. Thank you.

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