TalkingLocal – Interview with David Mihm of Moz

TalkingLocal – Interview with David Mihm of Moz
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This is the first interview in the TalkingLocal series, where we will be chatting to some key figures from the local search industry. We hope to find out more about the work that they do what exactly motivates them.

David Mihm TalkingLocalWe are delighted to kick off the TalkingLocal series by interviewing David Mihm. David is a highly regarded local search expert and is also the Director of Local Search Strategy at Moz.com. Prior to Moz, David started getlisted.org which was then sold to Moz. In addition to being a founding member of LocalU, David is also the curator of the widely studied Local Search Ranking Factors survey – which we’ll be discussing today. In short there are few people who know more about the local search space than David, so we are delighted that we could entice him to be interviewed today.

Key discussion points:

  • The early beginnings & subsequent success of the Local Search Ranking Factors study
  • How the study has changed over the years & what goes into the process of producing it
  • To what extent local search has become more competitive in recent years
  • What we can expect from the 2014 Local Search Ranking Factors study
  • How David has adapted in his transition to Director of Local Search Strategy at Moz

Keep a look out for more in the TalkingLocal series coming soon. We’ve got some key interviews with big personalities from the local search world lined up – so do stay tuned! You can also keep up to date with the latest TalkingLocal videos on our YouTube playlist.

Video Transcription:

Myles:  Hello everyone, and thank you for watching the first interview in our new “TalkingLocal” interview series.  In the “TalkingLocal” series we’re chatting to the great, and the good, of the local search world, and finding out about the work they do, the insights they have into the local search industry, and also what motivates them.  You know, what makes them get out of bed, every day. I’m very excited to kick off the series by interviewing, the one and only, Mr. David Mihm.  Hello, David, and how are you doing today?

David:  Hey, Myles doing well.  Thanks so much for the invite.  It’s a little early out here on the West Coast of the United States.  So, forgive me if I have any slip-ups, but looking forward to our conversation.

Myles:  That’s fine David I’m sure you’ll be absolutely brilliant.  So, I’m sure that David needs no introduction for many of you, but in case you’re sitting there scratching your head, you’re wondering who this guy is let me give you a bit of background to David. David is a highly regarded and respected local search expert.  He’s the Director of Local Search at Moz.com.  Prior to Moz, he started and ran GetListed.org, which, he subsequently sold to Moz.com.  He’s the curator of the widely regarded and widely used Local Search Ranking Factor Study, which we will be talking about quite extensively today.  He’s also a founding member of LocalU, and to really cut to the chase there are very few people out there who know more about local search than David.  So, I’m extremely excited that I could encourage him, and entice him, to be interviewed today. So, David thank you very much for that.
So, David when you started the Local Search Ranking Factors Study, which so many people use extensively today. Many will plan their businesses around it.  Did you have any idea that it would ever grow to be so important, and so well used by people in the industry?

David:  So, it’s a great question.  I’d like to say that I had the foresight to see where local search was going, back when I started in 2007, 2008.  I would say that I certainly hoped that it would be useful to the community of local SEO’s who were doing search optimization campaigns for small businesses full-time. But that community has really grown by leaps and bounds of the last three, four, five years.  Google has increased the number of search results, they show local businesses. Obviously, with the advent of mobile search, it’s become so important to so many more people than I expected. So, yeah I think I really have to thank the initial local search community for coming on board with my survey, and yeah I am glad that’s it been useful for so many people, and yeah I appreciate everyone’s contributions over the years.

Myles:  Great David thank you. Obviously, because it’s so widely used by so many people it’s an incredibly important piece of research.  I think it’s now into its sixth year that you’ve been running it.  Do you feel any pressure because of how widely used it is, and anticipated it is?  When you’re putting it together every year, do you sort of feel any kind of pressure to reinvent it, or to make sure it’s as current as it possibly can be?  How much of your year is spent working on it?  Is it a lot or does it kind of run itself these days?

David:  Yeah so, I mostly focus on the survey for about a month.  I’m not sure that it’s a full-time job for that month. But certainly you know twenty hours a week or something like that, for the month leading up to the publication.  Back when I was running it on my own, on davidmihm.com, a lot of that time was spent actually building out the pages themselves.  Right. I didn’t have any contractors, or anybody helping me with the design or anything like that.  Now that I’m over at Moz thankfully a lot of that stuff has been taken up by our design department and our inbound engineering department, so I get to focus on what I think is really the fun part, which is figuring out how to ask the questions. If we need to ask about any additional ranking factors that have come up over the previous year, things of that nature. I think last year we had a little bit of a different framework for asking the questions. I wanted to split up the foundational ranking factors from the more advanced ranking factors, and the reason for that is I felt like the audience for this survey over the years has really kind of bifurcated.  There’s certainly in the early days everyone was a beginner in local search, ourselves included with the folks who participate in the survey.  I think we were all sort of learning together, learning at the same pace, and most search results were just not competitive, right?
I mean, if you’ve heard of the factors in your survey and were taking advantage of them chances are you were ranking pretty well ahead of your competition. I think over the years as more and more people have been optimizing for local search you know there’s a set of readers, there’s a set of agencies, and community members, and professional marketers, who really need to know, okay well we’ve already done all the baseline stuff, what can I really do to move my clients in competitive markets?  So, that’s kind of why I split the questions the way I have.
Then just from an organizational standpoint just try to make the survey as quick as possible for the experts to actually take.  I think, you know, I’ve definitely taken their feedback into consideration over the years, and trying to make the survey drag-and-drop, and just as easy possible, so that doesn’t eat up an inordinate amount of their time.

Myles:  Yes I’m sure, and it’s also great that you get those guys to contribute.  I mean, you know a big thanks to them as well. So, I’ve studied the sort of the Ranking Factors Survey quite a lot. Looking back over the five years that it has run, and the key thing that stands out to me is how much more granular now the study is.  How much more, kind of, sophisticated the analysis is you know you’ve broken down the number of factors from quite large, chunky factors.  You know as an example, there was one I think in 2008 there are only one, or two, factors around citations.  There’s now maybe six, seven, eight, you know?  It’s really much more granular, is that because Google’s algorithm has become so much more layered and sophisticated for local? Or is it because our knowledge has moved on that we’re able to appreciate the different factors that might go into the algorithm, or is it a bit of both?

David: Yeah, I would definitely say both. I think it’s primarily the latter. I think that probably many of the…especially as it relates to citations, many of those factors probably were present at the advent of when Google started rolling in local search results.  I think our knowledge over the years, and our experience working with clients for the last, six, seven years has certainly enabled us to be able to tease these things out a little more.  I wouldn’t say that the survey is an attempt to sort of re-engineer the algorithm.  I don’t think that’s really what we’re getting after.  It’s more a matter of, which tasks would we focus on if we were optimizing a given client, or a given company’s web presence.  So, there maybe things out there that Google is looking at that we’re not even taking into consideration. But I think we’re trying to, with the survey, we’re really trying to get, dispense as much practical advice as we can to this community of local search marketers.

Myles:  You talked a little bit about I guess the changing faces in local market and it getting much more competitive.  Do you kind of have a gauge of how much more competitive it is to do well in local now as it was back in say 2008?

David:  I wouldn’t say I have any kind of absolute gauge.  I could certainly give a relative example.  I think, in 2008 the Local Business Center had just been launched the previous year. Google allowing people to…or a few years before maybe, but fairly recently, and there weren’t that many claimed businesses, right?  So, there weren’t that many businesses out there with rich information about themselves. So just the very act of claiming a Google local listing, and adding categories, and hey if you had a you know keyword in your business title, that was probably enough to rank number one in just about every market, and I think today that that’s certainly still a foundational element.  I think it’s one of the first things that every local business should do when they’re getting started marketing themselves online. But that act in and of itself is probably not going to get you anywhere in the search results.  I think, today it’s more of a… much more important factor just for conversion to make sure that people who actually visit your plus profile, your plus locals profile, know that you exist and that you’re an ongoing business. But I think that to judge the…You know, if you’re asking about how much harder, or how much more competitive is it?  So, there’s a step that probably took twenty, thirty minutes 2008 and you would rank number one.  I think now we’re probably looking at if you want a really solid long-term presence you’re probably looking at twenty, or thirty, months’ worth of work.  Especially in a market like, real estate, or law, or travel, these competitive markets where that’s the amount of effort required if you want a sustainable, number one, or top of the search results presence.

Myles:  Yeah, that’s very interesting, because I think it’s a common question we will get is how long does it take to see an impact through the use of local search kind of optimization?  It varies depending on the competitiveness, you know, of your concept and location. But yeah looking back to 2008, it sounds like life was a lot easier then 2014. What factors are you expecting, or anticipating, might have changed this year in terms of what’s gone up, what’s gone down in terms of significant impacts of ranking factors?

David:  Yeah so, to be honest, I’ve seen a fairly consistent algorithm the last few years.  I think when Google+ first came out we were all expecting… I think when it first came out everyone had basically the same opinion, which is, that yeah you know it’s out there, we don’t think it’s going to be an influence for a year, or two.  Well, now Google+ has been out for a year, or two, and there are any number of factors that you could ask about related to Google+.  Like, plus ones on a website, and number of circles that the business is in, those sorts of things. I’m still not sure that this has really move the needle in either a baseline setting, or even a competitive setting. I think that the mix of factors is more or less constant these days, and it really is the business considered they’re doing well across all of those factors that are the ones that are ranking at the top of the search results. I do think that one area that I’m paying particularly close attention to just sort of like theoretical, or a patent level, our mutual friend Mike Blumenthal has written some posts, and done presentations about the impact of mobile behavior, and even desktop behavior, on rankings for local businesses. For example, if you’ve got a Google Map embedded on your contact page with a link that says, “Click for driving directions,” those sorts of requests are, very indicative to Google of a strong intent for visiting the business.  They’re quite an interesting indicator of popularity. There are certainly some things that go into, the extent to which those factors can be gamed, which I think significantly mitigates the you know sort of the absolute ranking power of those types of factors. But I think that we’re getting…As Google’s algorithm becomes more sophisticated, and more mature, I think on the baseline level, I think that they are going to be taking many more sort of real world indicators of businesses popularity into account. Especially now that you know half the world is using Android devices, and a lot of them have location enabled. Google’s acquisition of Waze probably has helped them ingest some of this real world data about who’s visiting what.  We may start to see that those types of factors play a role in the future, and I started to ask about them last year, and I’ll continue to do so in the 2014 survey.

Myles:  Great, that’s really interesting.  Moving on a little bit from the survey …What issues, what do you think that the key, the main issue that your SMB.’s face in today’s world when they market themselves online?  What do you think the kind of number one issue they face is?

David:  Yeah, I think it’s probably the same issue that businesses of all sizes face, which is sort of the fragmentation of the online market, and not having the time or the expertise to be able to perform well, you know, across all segments.  I think in some sense visibility today, is a little bit analogise to visibility in the kind of mid 2000’s when Google was just really taking off, right?  You worried about Google, and the Yellow Pages.  Well, now you’re probably worried about Google, and Facebook, and Pinterest. There’s still sort of a… everybody knows that they need to be performing well in Google, but there’s still this other set of media that people know that they need to perform well in. In some cases, you know, print and traditional media still really works well for a given industries, or especially in smaller markets, I think, where their audience might not be so sophisticated.  So, I think just like it always has, boils down to fragmentation of the market, the time required to do well across multiple areas. As new media forms come online and gain adoption the expertise required is exceeding those is pretty overwhelming for a small business owner.

Myles:  Yeah, it certainly is when you kind of throw in those things on top of running a small business.  You know, all the operations and aspects that they have to deal with you can see why so many of them either shy away from online marketing, get frustrated about it, or you know, ultimately, or hopefully, go use services at a reputable agency.  There’s such a focus in the industry on, kind of  local data issues you know kind of cleaning up, your kind of mapping information making sure it’s distributed as kind of cleanly, and accurately, and consistently, you know across the board. For me it seems like such a basic issue, you know, it’s like getting your basic business information right, and in lots of places.  You know, it’s always a hygiene factor; it consumes so much of our time and attention.  Where it’s really we should be focusing on much cooler, or interesting, or even glamorous sub-tasks except cleaning up data.  Do you see a time, and you know, in the short-term, long-term when we will no longer have this issue, it will be solved by some sort of business, or other, and have you got any kind of inkling when that might be of who might be the person to come along and do that?

David:  So, I certainly don’t see any change in the short term.  I think that…That Google doesn’t have a good enough data set yet in and of itself to be able to say okay we’re going to, sort of, stop taking feeds from various, you know, primary data aggregators to help sort of augment our business listings.  I think that they probably have the top of the market covered quite well.  Here in the United States, you know, I think the estimates are probably something like 25 or 30 percent of businesses that have claimed their Google+ Local pages.  So, I think that the popular businesses are probably really well represented.  I think that the quality of search results though would degrade pretty substantially if Google, sort of, removed the backfill that those aggregators are providing them in smaller markets, and less popular industries. So, I don’t know that…and in the U.S. I think is probably well ahead the rest of the world in terms of, in terms of sort of data quality across the board.  I think it significantly degrades when you get into some of these European markets, certainly develop the emerging markets, like Brazil.  I think it’s very tough for Google to say, “Oh yeah, we’re going to go out on our own.”  So, I think that there’s still going to be this fragmentation issue, you know even at Google, where you really need to do, as you said, I think the appropriate word you know the hygiene for your business listing.  So, I don’t think that’s going to change in the near terms.  The other thing I’d say is that, you know, as apple comes along, as Facebook now seems to be getting very serious about places with, you know, switching out the place information that Instagram uses away from Four Square to their own with the, you know, who knows what the next hot app will be?  Right now it’s Pinterest, which is still using Foursquare data, who knows what the hot app will be in 2016?  I think that there will always be a need for a non-Google business listing source, and so I think that you’re still going to continue to see some, someplace for aggregators in the market.  I don’t, you know, who knows what those aggregators will be.  I think, as I said, in the U.S. it’s still the same ones there have always been Acxiom, Localeze , and then Factual is a relatively new player that I think is you know increasing in importance, but I think that you’re always going to have some place for data aggregation in the ecosystem moving forward simply because there will be competitors to Google that do continue to gain traction, and adoption, where you’ll want to make sure your business is represented accurately.

Myles:  Great, I’ve watched your video about the, you know, how kind of local data gets into the ecosystem, you know, through obviously, kind of, aggregators, governments, and individuals.  I thought it was really good, and really kind of explained.  So, if there’s anyone out there watching this who hasn’t seen David’s, kind of, whiteboard Friday video go to Moz.com to the local section, and look out for it.  It’s a really good, and very simply explained insight into how data gets out there about local businesses.
So, moving on to, I guess, a kind of more about your individual situation kind of.  Obviously, you ran GetListed.org.  That was sold to Moz at the end of 2012.  How’s it been moving from you know kind of running your own independent business where you do everything yourself, as you implied earlier, the early days of the study to being part of the Moz team?  How has it affected the way you work, the opportunities you have to maybe kind of execute some of those kind of grand plans that you would have loved to do, you know, kind of back in the day, and how’s it generally affected your life making that switch?

David:  Yeah, I would say that the transition to Moz has been about as smooth as I could have expected.  You know, it’s really the first, it’s the first…It’s not the first company that I’ve worked for, but it’s certainly the first I would say real job for a company that I’ve had, and so there have definitely been some adjustments with respect to, you know, being available for meetings, and you know needing to communicate a little bit better with my co-workers, and things like that that have been, I think, healthy new experiences.  The great thing about Moz is it’s a very, it’s a very open and you know transparent company, as many people probably know from our tag feed motto, and so I certainly haven’t felt constrained or you know sort of, I don’t know what the word would be, but restricted from you know doing and saying the things that I would like to do. I think, you know, software is a very hard business.  I think that that’s probably the biggest take away that I’ve had in the last sort of year and a half, and we were really excited to you know actually get Moz Local out the door, the first version, and we’ll certainly be continuing to iterate on that product.  I think now that it’s out I am going to be focusing a little bit more on research, projects, and sort of generally getting a little bit more back in the weeds on what’s going on in local search, doing some more webinars, or interviews like this, some more blog posts, things of that nature.  So, I’m looking forward to, sort of, you know swinging the pendulum back to more in the middle from consulting, to software, and now somewhere in-between.  So, I think that’s what’s on my, sort of, projected road map for the next six months.

Myles:  So, as your role evolves, and obviously, you wear many hats you’ve been focused on the development of the software, and kind of getting that right.  Are you…were you kind of brought in to be a kind of evangelist to do your research on the Moz banner?  I guess I sort of don’t understand, was it the software, or was it your brain that was kind of the sort of driving force of you joining Moz and they wanted to kind of bring you in as the Director of Local Search?

David:  I think it was a little bit of both.  I think, you know, obviously it’s nice that I sort of have a little bit of a presence in the local search community.  You know, the combination of the existing Moz brand, which you know is already incredibly strong, with you know my name attached to blog posts, or speaking engagements, or those sorts of things I think is just a great combination for both of us, but we had a pretty you know GetListed was a pretty robust software product.  We, at the time we sold, we had just about a hundred thousand business look-ups per month in the U.S., and so I think Moz was also you know pretty excited about the opportunity to reach into a different market than they were you know currently addressing at the time.  I think the focus on you know sort of professional marketers for Moz, you know, married a little with the less sophisticated broader audience that we were typically seeing at GetListed I think was a nice combination, and good, to use an overused business term, good synergy, so.

Myles:  Yes, so I can certainly see why, kind of, those two things come together, kind of a very powerful offering.  So, last question for you, Moz Local, what can we expect in the next six months, in terms of features, enhancements, potential roll-out?  internationally I’ve seen a few questions regarding that.  What can you tell us about the, kind of, next six months of road map?

David:  Sure so, we launched Moz Local just right about two months ago. It was our two month birthday, or whatever, earlier this week.  So, right now we’re actively soliciting feedback from, from both customers and prospective customers. So, if there’s something that you would like to see as a user, or a potential user, of Moz Local we would really love to get that feedback directly, DavidM@Moz.com is my email address.  Feel free to overload my inbox.  I would say our near term road map is a little more clear.  We are working on really beefing up our duplicate resolution feature. That’s one thing that I see as big pinpoint, as you said Myles, with data hygiene and being able to surface and close duplicate listings efficiently I think is something that we’ll continue to focus on as a primary feature.  There’s obviously quite a bit of demand for, you know, all the factors that play into local search, and some way to assess those, and you know easily address those, and easily address them.  So, there are a lot of things on our perspective road map for, kind of, later this summer, and as I said we’re really looking at what the community would like to see from our product as a place to start.
You mentioned international I’ll just give you a little bit of background on our thinking there.  So, when we…When GetListed was still GetListed, back in the late sort of 2012 time frame, as I said, we had about a hundred thousand look-ups a month in the United States.  We did have both a U.K. and a Canadian version of the site back then, and we got about a thousand look ups combined per month in both of those markets. So, it was a pretty dramatic difference, and that’s a big reason why I’ve been a little bit hesitant to commit resources so far into those two markets is that we really feel like we need to, you know, really make our U.S. product the best it can be before we move on to international markets.  I do think you know it’s natural for us to look at the U.K., and Canada, and Australia where we had a lot of customers requesting this product, and we’re starting to do that. I’ve got quite a few friends in the U.K. data space, in the Canadian data space, and we’re making some friendships in Australia.  So, I think that that’s, you know, if and when we decide to go international that those would be the first places, but for the time being it’s a little bit, little bit more about focusing on making our U.S. product great, and then expanding it to other markets.

Myles:  Yeah, that’s interesting, because those are unique. We’re a software business, and to Moz we’re based in the U.K., but you know over 95 percent of our customers are actually in the U.S. from North America.  So, you know we see a similar demand and a similar kind of demand from that side of the Atlantic, which is interesting.  So, David thank you very much.  I don’t have any more questions.  I’ve taken up a lot of your morning.  I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do, all of those meetings to attend! But thank you very much for joining us, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to speak at some point in the future. I’m looking forward to the 2014 instalment of the Local Search Ranking Factors Study, and I hope that we can stay in touch.

David:  Thanks a lot Myles.  I really enjoyed speaking with you, and yeah, hope to see you at the…for all of our U.K. listeners I’ll be at the Distilled Conference in London in October.  So, hopefully we can meet up then, if not before.

Myles:  Yeah, that would be really good.  Everyone thank you very much for listening to this instalment of “TalkingLocal”.  Have a great day.

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