One of the true experts in the local search space is Mike Blumenthal. Mike works with other local search luminaries like Matt McGee and David Mihm on their Local University. He is most well known though for his tireless tracking of Google Maps and Google Places over the years. In other words, Mike has been working the local angle of search for much longer than since the time local became the new black. His blog is evidence of that and it is required reading for any SEO worth his or her salt.
Mike took some time to talk with me and answer a few questions about the local search space and share some of his insights. One thing I will say about Mike is that he knows his stuff inside and out and you better be ready for information that carries no spin whatsoever. It’s pretty refreshing considering the era of hype, shameless self promotion and butt kissing that we exist in currently.
Frank: What is Google doing in the local space that has really caught your attention?
Mike: Well, Google has a culture and dynamic of scale and automation. They are obviously hitting the local market hard but most agree that the SMB self serve market takes up about only 25% of the businesses. Not everyone will be able to do programs like Tags and Boost on their own.
Google has actually put real people in place to sell Tags and future related services to the approximately 4 million or so place pages that have been verified (of the approximate 50 million in Google’s system). It may be worth the $25/month for Tags just to have the chance to talk to a real person at Google if you have a problem with your listing.
Frank: You have spent a lot of time in the Google help and support forums around maps and places. What’s your take on that experience for those looking for help with Google issues?
Mike: I feel sorry for those people because it is only occasionally that you will get a Googler addressing problems and even more rarely fixing one. They (Google) have essentially pushed their support off to those who are ‘expert’ enough to offer advice. It’s time consuming but interesting since there is about a 70/30 mix of actual SMB owners to SEO’s. There are a lot of small business folks out there trying to figure this stuff out with little guidance and a somewhat buggy product. I can relate because I have been involved in small businesses for most of my working life.
Frank: The recent Groupon courtship and rejection has given some insight into a possible new course for Google. How do you see that?
Mike: Well, as I said, Google is not a company that has focused on customer service and that is painfully obvious. Ingrained in their culture is trying to handle customer service algorithmically. In other words, the algorithms will work out the details. That DNA is deeply ingrained in the culture.
The attempt to purchase Groupon gave an indication that Google is thinking about moving out into the people side of the business. That’s a major switch but one that needs to take place if they are to compete against the feet on the street of Groupon and others who see the SMB market needing a more personal approach.
Frank: Mike, there is a lot to cover in the local space and most SMB’s don’t have the time to do it all, let alone stay on top of the rapid change we have seen in Google from last October to present. What would be the most important things you would recommend for anyone trying to make progress in the local search game?
Mike: That’s a pretty tough question because there are so many variables to consider but here are 7 that I would recommend to anyone as being foundational to good local search marketing practice.
1. Pick a business name for the digital era and stick with it. I am amazed at how often small businesses change names and in this data driven environment that can kill them in the SERP’s. I have worked with companies that have three or four iterations of their business name and I force them to pick and to pick something that is descriptive. A business’ recognition equity in the local market doesn’t always translate online. Make sure your front facing name is solid, tells your story and is consistent.
2. Build a website and be sure that is properly optimized around your local efforts.
3. Verify your Google Place Page. This is a mantra you hear more and more and Google is requiring this part of the process in order to take part in other offerings like Boost and Tags. Oh and make sure you use the name you are choosing to stick with!
4. Seed online and offline data suppliers. Get your business name everywhere you can across the local Internet ecosystem. Focus first on the primary data suppliers like InfoUSA and Localeze and Axciom (via Universal Business Listing,).There are services to do this. Be sure that your real world records (DBA filing, phone listing & utlity bill information) are correct.
5. Write a compelling business description in 200 characters or less. Also do one in 400 characters. While this sounds simple many SMB’s have a real tough time putting this part together and they need help with use of keywords to write descriptive and compelling copy. Google is becoming more stringent as to what can be included so be sure to read and memorize their guidelines.
6. Review your categorization. This is an important part of the local search equation especially in Google. You can have up to 5 categories with 1 fixed (Google ‘qualified’) and 4 of your choice.
7. Only claim as many other directories as you have time to maintain and manage. Don’t claim listings that you will lose track of because any changes you make in contact information but don’t update across the board you can hurt your efforts regarding local citations and search success in general.
Frank: Great advice, Mike. One last question. Who is going to come out on top of the local search space?
Mike: As for general local search, I think it’s Google’s game to lose. They have the lead for now but there are others out there who could make their mark as well.
Facebook has a lot of talent (including ex-Googlers) and rapid development cycles although they have yet to really do much in local. Bing is a darkhorse in the race but they have incredible resources and technology. They are in it for the long haul and you can never count them out. I don’t see that Yelp’s model is a dominant one as it currently exists.
Frank: Any parting words for our readers?
Mike: All of the things we put such huge emphasis on in the online space is not the real world. There’s more to life than online marketing and the behaviors of the large local search related firms. How’s that for a non-marketing message?!
Like I said at the start it’s refreshing. Make sure you read Mike’s blog. He will also be presenting at the Universal Business Listing User Conference on January 25th in Charlotte, NC and at GetListed Local University in Birmingham on January 26.
Thanks to Mike for his time and openness. We are certainly looking forward to watching and learning from him for a long time to come.