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Sunday Interview: Whitespark.ca’s Darren Shaw



We contacted Darren Shaw to talk to our Marketing Pilgrim readers about local SEO. Darren is the founder of Whitespark located in the Edmonton, Alberta area (that’s in Canada for those geographically challenged readers).

Darren has made a name for himself in the local search community with his development of the Whitespark Local Citation Finder. Darren was kind enough to conduct an e-mail interview with us so we could learn more about the local search game. Enjoy!

MP: Darren, give our readers some history about your time in the industry.

Darren: I started developing websites in 1996 while in my first year of computing science at university. I would skip my calculus classes and hang out in the labs fiddling with HTML and Javascript. I failed calculus 3 times :(

In 2000, after developing a few websites for friends and my employer (I was a waiter at a French restaurant) I worked with a friend to develop a PHP driven e-commerce site for my sister’s company, a

It was awesome back then. I wrote a script to automatically email hundreds of teacher websites and let them know about this great new teacher resource website they might want to add to their links page. About 70% of would send a happy reply thanking me for the information and add the link. Every week I would drop new sites and email addresses into the script for more link building fun.

Education Station started ranking for every term we wanted, and with this success, I was hooked on SEO. I started doing some occasional SEO for my own site and for my client sites.

In 2005 my freelance web development business had grown to the point where I felt comfortable going full-time with it, and I started Whitespark. I was mostly focused on web development, and would do some basic SEO for my clients as they needed it, but really, it wasn’t my strongest skill.

In 2008 I was contacted by Austin Culley, an SEO that freelanced in the city, and we started doing some SEO projects for my web development clients together. Austin is an excellent SEO, and I learned a ton from him through the client work we did together.

Eventually I hired and trained some full time SEO consultants to help me with the workload.

MP: Tell us about Whitespark and what you do.

Darren: I guess my official title at Whitespark is ‘founder’, but really, I don’t know what to call my position. I work with clients, manage the development projects, do a little coding, do SEO for a few clients, manage the books, and spend a ton of time on email, skype, and the phone.

Whitespark primarily does custom web development, a few SEO projects, and our own toolset development. We’re working on a number of tools, and we hope to establish Whitespark as a leader in the Local SEO tools space. Our local citation finder has been a big hit thus far.

MP: Explain the idea of a citation for SEO v an inbound link and how has the citation changed with the changes in Google Places?

A citation is any mention of your business out on the web, with or without a link. It can come in various forms:

  1. Company Name (by itself).
  2. Company name & phone number.
  3. Company name, phone number, & address.
  4. Company name, phone number, address, & link.
  5. etc.

In Local SEO, a citation is theorized to be as good as a link in terms of helping out your rankings. You certainly need both citations and links to get rankings, especially now with the new blended results that Google came out with at the end of 2010.

You used to be able to rank in the local results without a website. All you needed was an optimized Place Page, some quality citations, and some reviews. Not the case anymore. Now you need an optimized website as well, and it needs to be specifically tweaked with local signals.

The citation hasn’t changed at all with the changes Google made to the place page. We’re not seeing any changes in rankings. Google has simply stopped displaying the citations on the Place Pages. I think this is a good thing, because it wasn’t displaying all your citations, or the best citations. It was completely random. Google deliberately obfuscated the citation listing on the Place pages in the same way they do with the nearly useless link: command.

Google has never been a good source of competitive intelligence, and this is why tools like Open Site Explorer and MajesticSEO exist for competitive link research and it’s why we built the Local Citation Finder.

With the removal of the partial citation list they were displaying in Places, people will finally stop asking why their citations aren’t being “picked up” by Google. Many people believed that if the citation wasn’t showing on the Place Page, then it wasn’t counting towards their local SEO, and this was never the case.

MP: Explain the Whitespark local citation finder tool. Why did you build it?

Darren: The Whitespark Local Citation Finder does what the name says, it helps you find citation sources. There are two kinds of searches you can run: keyword searches, and phone number searches. For keyword searches, you’ll search a term like “chicago plumbers” and the tool will identify the top businesses that are ranking locally on page 1 of the search results, then search the web to find all the places they have citations. You’ll get back a nice big list of citation sources automatically sorted by how often the source appeared in the results. Presumably, the sites that appear as citations more often are higher value.

We also pull in MajesticSEO’s ACRank and SEOmoz’s DomainAuthority metrics for each source so you can sort by these as well.

The sites with the highest DomainAuthority will usually be higher quality citations to get. We also provide direct links to the pages where you can add your business listing on many of the directories and Internet Yellow Pages in our database. Phone number searches are great for getting back a list of citations that your own business has, or, that a specific competitor has.

We built the system simply because a tool to find citations didn’t exist. We got the genius idea for how to prospect for citations from Garrett French of Citation Labs and built the tool by automating his technique.

We’ve been adding tons of features since we launched and now have an API and affiliate program We are also working on some great new features that will be launched in the coming weeks. Most notably, we’ll be categorizing all the sites that are returned. So, in the list of 200+ citation sources you get back, you’ll be able to sort them by type to identify the directories, IYPs, social sites, and others that you can take action on to get your site listed.

Another great feature that’s coming soon is the ability to re-run a previously run search. This is especially useful for phone number searches. You’ll be able to simply click the re-run button and the tool will find any *new* citations that weren’t showing up before and append them to the list. This is great for monitoring your own citation growth over time, or for monitoring when your competitors get new citations. We’re going to provide options to set up re-runs to run automatically on a weekly or monthly schedule. This way you won’t have to do anything but sit back and wait for email notifications about new citations found.

MP: What should an SMB (small and medium business) do for local search success?

Darren: These days, it feels like local SEO is more work than the standard organic SEO. You still need to do all of your standard organic SEO such as basic onsite optimization (proper keyword placement in relevant content) and offsite optimization (link building), but you also need to make sure you have good local signals onsite and and offsite. This includes:

- Make sure your name, address, and phone number (NAP) is consistent across the web. I discuss this in more detail below.

- Add your phone number and address to the right places on your site: I recommend every page, in a header or footer, in hCard microformat. I also have seen local ranking boosts from adding the phone number to the title tag. If the business has multiple locations, be sure that each location has its own dedicated contact and information page. Make sure you link to your Google Place Page from your individual location pages as well.

- Get citations: We recommend the finder :-)

- Get reviews: See this for review advice

- Get links with city, service, or both in the anchor text. I like to use sponsorships of local sports teams or charities and guest posting on the blogs of similar businesses in different cities to get custom anchor text. Also, see this post for local link building ideas

MP: What are the most common issues that confront the SEO and and the SMB in doing local search?

Darren: Google Places is a mess. There are tons of problems with duplicate listings and listings being merged. This is because Google is gathering local data from different sources.

Make sure your Name, Address, Phone number are consistent throughout the web. Otherwise, you’ll see these slight variations start to show up in Google places as duplicates and you’ll effectively be splitting your “citation juice” as some of the citations will get associated with one listing, and some citations will get associated with other listings.

Many of the smaller citation sources are fed data from one of the big three data providers, so it’s always best to start with making sure your NAP is consistent at Localeze, Infogroup and Acxiom. You can also run phone number searches on your own business in the Whitespark Local Citation Finder to get a list of all of your own citations, and then go through them making sure the information is consistent. Key events in a business’ history to watch out for include past phone number changes and moves to new locations.

MP: What’s your opinion of how Google “supports” the local search industry?

Darren: Local businesses are not Google’s customers, they are the products. Google is in the business of collecting and presenting data so they can sell ad space. So, there really isn’t very much support at all. If you have a problem with your listing on Google Places, you can try the forums, and the Report a Problem feature, but it’s very difficult to get an issue resolved and it can take as long as four to six months. Apparently if you sign up for Google AdWords Express you’ll get a direct line to call your rep and they can sometimes expedite a solution, but I’ve heard some stories that many of the reps are more confused than the SEOs. I think it just depends on who you get.

MP: Give us two or three peers in the industry that you think our readers should pay close attention to?

Darren: Only two or three?! That’s tough. There are many great local SEOs that I respect.

1. David Mihm – @davidmihm

David is crazy smart and is probably the most recognized expert in Local SEO. He compiles and publishes the Local Search Ranking Factors every year, and runs the excellent free service GetListed. I recently saw him speak at MozCon 2011 and he blew me away with the depth of his knowledge. Readers interested in local SEO should definitely be reading everything he publishes on his blog.

2. Mike Blumenthal – @mblumenthal

Mike is in the trenches every day working on Local SEO issues and solving them for his clients, and for random strangers in the Google Places forums. I think he might be addicted to combing through the forums and trying to help people with their Google Places problems. He blogs almost every day about the space as well.

3. Mike Ramsey – @niftymarketing

Mike is a smart local SEO publishing quality info on Search Engine Journal and his own local SEO blog.

Three isn’t nearly enough. I also love these fine folks:

  1. Matt McGee – @mattmcgee – http://www.smallbusinesssem.com/
  2. Chris Silver Smith – @si1very – http://silvery.com/ & http://www.nodalbits.com/
  3. Andrew Shotland – @localseoguide – http://www.localseoguide.com/
  4. Chris Piepho – @smallbizshift – http://smallbusinessshift.com
  5. Will Scott – @w2scott – http://www.searchinfluence.com/blog/
  6. Linda Buquet – @CatalystLocal - http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/

MP: What is the future of local search? Will there be true local SEO or is the blended approach that Google is taking moving away from pure SEO to more of an integrated search / social mix? How will local search be managed in the coming years?

Darren: There are still some search phrases that return pure old-style 7-packs, and although I haven’t looked closely at this myself, I have heard that these results still let businesses without websites rank purely on local factors (place page, citations, reviews). I suppose this could be considered true local SEO. How Google decides which style of local results to display, blended or 7-pack, is completely random at the moment. There is no logic to it.

I have no idea what Google’s going to do next, but my guess is that eventually there will only be one algorithm, the blended algorithm, and businesses without websites will lose their 7-pack rankings. Local search will be managed the same way in the coming years as it is now: optimize your website with local signals, optimize your place page, then spread your business footprint (NAP) as far and wide as you can around the web. Social signals are becoming more and more important in organic SEO, and this is the same in Local SEO. The more mentions, shares, likes, and +1′s a business has, the better. Small businesses would do well to get into social now and start building a following.

MP: SMB’s have limited resources. Should they be putting aside time and money for Yahoo and Bing?

Darren: Bing has an excellent listing management tool called the Bing Business Portal. I think it’s actually better than the Google Local Business Center, and I highly recommend getting your business added and claimed. This is some low hanging fruit because not many people are doing this, and just taking this one small step can often result in top local rankings on Bing. Matt McGee has written an excellent guide to Bing’s Business portal.

Beyond claiming a listing in Bing, I don’t do any extra work for Yahoo or Bing for any of my clients. On all of the sites I manage, Bing accounts for only a tiny fraction of search traffic, so all of my optimization work is focused on Google. The idea is that any work I do to improve my rankings in Google will naturally improve my rankings on the other two engines. This isn’t always the case, but in my opinion, it’s not worth specifically tweaking for Bing or Yahoo when it could potentially have a negative effect on Google rankings. If you’re a small business with limited resources, you already have your work cut out for you optimizing for Google. If you manage to secure #1 Google rankings for all your keyphrases, then I’d start to look at dominating the Google search results page with other verticals such as videos and news. Then, maybe, if you’re completely killing it and are out of things to do, sure take a look at Bing. Ignore Yahoo altogether though, as it’s powered by Bing now.

Thanks to Darren for helping bring some clarity to and area of SEO that doesn’t often offer much clear direction.

About the author Darren Shaw

Dad, husband, and founder of Whitespark. SEO and PHP/MySQL web developer with a focus on local SEO. Have been building websites and optimizing them since 1996.

  • http://www.optilocal.org Nyagoslav

    Wow, Darren, that’s a truly top-class interview! I was also particularly interested in the part covering the Bing Business Portal. I think it will be getting more and more important with the time and I think more attention and testing should be done on that part of local SEO.

  • http://www.whitespark.ca Darren Shaw

    Mike Blumenthal asked me why I recommend linking to the Google Place page. I suppose it’s just because I had heard this “tip” a few places before, so I always do it and recommend to others to do it. I have not done any thorough testing on this, nor have I heard of any tests that verify that there is a benefit to do so.

    Mike believes it’s one of the local SEO myths. He says “Since the page is not indexed, and the don’t show in organic results I have trouble envisioning what google would do with the link. ”

    Makes sense to me. There may actually be no value to linking to the place page.

    Now I’m curious about this though, and plan to do some testing.

  • http://www.canuckseo.com Jim Rudnick

    Great interview here Darren!

    Love the idea Frank and the background that is given on gaining help for Local search issues via the signing up for AdWordsExpress is noted!

    :-)

    Jim

  • http://www.prescreenedmktg.com Bob Ramanousky

    Great interview. I am also interested in what Google might be planning to do as far as merging local and organic. My guess is that they will blend them as well eventually or try to make a revenue source of them at some point. Thanks again.

  • http://www.SmallBusinessOnlineCoach.com matthew hunt

    Darren, Great interview!

    You rock and you know I’m a fan. Love the citation finder and don’t know what’d I do without.

    My 2 cents “adwords express” sucks and no SMB should use it.

    I hope with Google + business pages will have some cooler stuff.