To wrap up our Local Search Optimization interview series, I thought it only fitting to get first hand advice from David Mihm of DavidMihm.com and the Director & COO of GetListed.org, an online resource that helps small business owners claim and enhance their listings at major search engines. His 2008 Local Search Ranking Factors, and recently released 2010 version is recognized among the most important studies of Local Search Engine Optimization.
Elise Redlin-Cook: There are just so many local search sites out there. I’d like to know your opinion…Do you see the market continuing to grow, or narrowing down to a few key players?
David Mihm: Unfortunately for small business owners, I see the market continuing to fragment. 15 Miles does an annual study of the space–the most recent version from October 2009 and it seems like each year Google remains below 40% in Local market share…which is pretty astonishing when you consider its dominance in traditional search. There are a bunch of long-tail players like Superpages, Insider Pages, Citysearch, and Yelp that cumulatively make up a major chunk of the market. Now, this year, it looks like we’ll be adding Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to the mix as significant players. I say it’s unfortunate for small business owners because they’re typically the ones with the fewest resources to devote to online marketing, and it’s truly becoming important to be involved in a lot of different places in Local. Even before the addition of Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, I illustrated the complexity of the Local Search Ecosystem last year.
Elise: What would you say are the best free local search sites today?
David: Well, I think we cover most of the big guys on GetListed.org — Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yelp, along with Best of the Web Local — and an even fuller list, for those who have the time, is on that same Local Search Ecosystem page I mentioned earlier. It’s also important to note which directories and Internet Yellow Pages are ranking well organically for some of the keywords your business is trying to rank for & ensure you have plenty of visibility on those sites.
Elise: How about the best paid local search sites today?
David: As with any other branch of search marketing, it’s important to track ROI…and in Local, that means tracking ROI across individual verticals (for instance, paid ads on Yelp may be terrific for restaurants but not cost-effective for plumbers) and geographies (Kudzu ads may be great for Atlanta businesses but not so much for Seattlites). As a general rule, though, three of the most worthwhile places to spend money are on the major data aggregators for local search sites–infoUSA, which has just launched a new product called Express Update, Localeze (enhanced listings only currently available in bulk), and Acxiom–currently only accessible via Universal Business Listing.
Elise: Merchant Circle allows you to add coupons, reviews, blog posts, etc. Will the other local search sites continue to adopt this trend of allowing more user generated content?
David Mihm: I wouldn’t single out MerchantCircle as a shining beacon of customer service, but they surely have done a nice job with their SEO and some of the features you note above help quite a bit with long-tail search traffic. It’s going to be more important after Google’s MayDay update for IYP’s–already sucking wind since the introduction of the 10-pack–to create as much unique content alongside their business listings as they can.
Elise: Is it more important to be listed on niche sites that are specific to your industry, or the big sites with lots of traffic?
David: Depends completely on the vertical…not only for rankings at Google Maps/Google Universal, but also for the degree to which the particular players have established themselves in a particular market. For instance, if you’re a hotel and you have a weak presence on TripAdvisor, you’re in serious trouble–both for searches at Google, and on TripAdvisor, because Google relies so heavily on TripAdvisor ratings, reviews, and business data for its own hotel/hospitality index. There are plenty of longer-tail examples, including HealthGrades.com for doctors and medical professionals, AngiesList.com for plumbers, etc. You can almost always count on the major IYPs to have a solid presence across multiple verticals, though.
Elise: So, I’ve got to ask…do you see value in the paid listings versus the free listings?
David: I think Google by-and-large has done a nice job with its flat-fee product offerings via Places…including Tags. I’m not sure that their earlier Local Listing Ads wouldn’t ultimately make them more money, since they essentially guaranteed a slot in/near the 7-pack, but it certainly is easy–and relatively inexpensive–to set up a Tags campaign for a single-location business. I think the more complex the paid offering, and the more complicated the billing procedures, the harder it is for small businesses to understand what they’re getting.
To answer this question from a marketer’s perspective, again, it’s important to track ROI using your analytics. On some sites, paid listings might be incredibly worthwhile, but not so much on others. Experiment frequently and track assiduously.
Elise: If a business doesn’t actually have a brick and mortar location, should they still try to list themselves on local search sites?
David: There’s no solution (PO Box, UPS Store, fake address, etc) that will really work in the long term. Although Tim Coleman did quite a thought-provoking post recently about some of the difficulties Google may face in combating the latter. Yes, Google recently started allowing go-to-client and service businesses to include service areas and hide their address, but given the reliance of its algorithm on location information, if the only place you’re listing yourself is Google, your chances at ranking are pretty poor.
Elise: That’s the perfect segue into my next question. What would you say are the top local search ranking factors right now?
David: Funny you should ask, given that this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors came out only a couple of weeks ago :D. Most panelists felt that claiming your listing, having a physical location in the city being searched, categorization, and what I would call traditional citations (from IYPs and data providers) remained at the very top–where they’ve been since I began this survey in 2008. I was somewhat surprised to see unstructured or non-traditional citations (such as those found in a newspaper article or blog as opposed to another local search site) ranking so highly since those haven’t been showing up for all that long–folks are obviously finding that those mentions of your physical location are critical for ranking, no matter where the search engine spiders find them.
Some of the other traditionally-important factors like keywords-in-business-title and proximity-to-centroid seem to be declining somewhat. And frankly, I’m a bit surprised that review quality isn’t rated higher by the panel (positive ratings were only #42 out of 58 total positive factors)…but I can’t say I disagree, based on all the local search results I’ve looked at in the past year.
Elise: Well, thanks David. It sounds like I have some reading to do!
If you are interested in learning more about Local Search, check out our our webinar, “Go Local or Go Home“, tomorrow, on July 15th at 11:30 a.m. EST (8:30 a.m. PST, 10:30 a.m. CST). In this webinar, attendees will hear from Sarah Moraes, Internet Marketing Specialist, and Jason Hendricks, SEO and Link Acquisition Specialist of Vertical Measures as they explore everything from the basics of setting up a local search listing to what it means for SEO.