Organic + Local + Paid: A Holistic Approach for Fast-Changing Local SERPs

Organic + Local + Paid: A Holistic Approach for Fast-Changing Local SERPs

Every time you open your phone and search for a local business, something in the SERP has moved or changed. So what’s the solution for PPC? Here, guest contributor Chris St. Jean explains why, at a time of great uncertainty for fast-changing local SERPs, local businesses need a holistic and data-driven approach to paid search.

It’s no longer sufficient to think about local marketing on the city level. Every city is a biodiverse collection of neighborhoods, communities, and consumers; and in proportion, every comprehensive local marketing plan should include a more granular methodology to develop, execute, and measure a local Search Engine Results Page (SERP) campaign.

In practice, I exercise this principle with my own clients: “Don’t stop digging until you’ve reached the zip code.”

A comprehensive local marketing strategy breaks the silos of SEO and SEM into a unified SERP strategy in order to counter the trend of a Google ecosystem that continues to transition to zero-click search results.

Evolution of the Local SERP

Before we dive into developing a unified local SERP strategy, let’s rewind to a simpler time in local when ads were ads, and organic was lush and unencumbered by boxes and stars. Local search has so many stars now, it should be a charity event hosted by Jon Stewart.

In local, we continue to see ads dominate the SERPs for most queries. While we have recently seen a slowing of Google’s ad revenue growth in Q1 of 2019, we have also seen Google expand ad placements into more areas of search than ever before. As Cindy Krum has said, “follow the money.”

If you’re already helping clients in the local space, expect paid search to play a larger part of your overall strategy moving forward. If Google’s ad revenue slows in one area, it will simply expand ads into new areas of search (enhanced GMB profiles are potentially on their way) and/or continue to modify the appearance of the ads to increase CTR.

In local, the biggest change has been the expansion of Google Local Services Ads (LSAs), an ad type most suited to service-area businesses.

While Google continues to expand this ad type into other verticals and increase reach across the US, we have seen disruptions in traffic and paid search metrics. In the home services categories, this change has typically resulted in higher CPCs in PPC and/or a reduction of organic traffic, as LSAs can be zero-click due to increased visibility in voice search.

Below are LSAs for electricians and plumbers, as they appear on mobile.

How to Install a Fan / How to Unclog a Drain

When you combine the introduction of LSAs into a market with increased mobile usage trends, we can expect a natural slowing of growth in organic traffic along with an increase in leads and GMB actions. In the image above, Google LSAs have dominated real estate in local, including “how to” queries that are combined with action keywords such as install, repair, etc.

Think with Google

Source: Think with Google

In addition to LSAs, the rise of zero-click search has also affected local search. Recently, Rand Fishkin’s Sparktoro published an article, using Jumpshot data, which shows zero-click actions at more than 50% of all searches for the first time ever in Google this year. While this study does not isolate national versus localized search data, it does further substantiate the trend of Google searches staying in the Google ecosystem and the need for a more unified Local SERP strategy.

Whereas a few years ago I would have focused almost all of my efforts on increasing organic visibility for a local client, my philosophy to local search has since evolved. Taking into consideration all of the changes Google is making to the local SERP, as well the mass consumer transition to mobile, a more stable and long-term strategy would be to build the brand offline/online so that when consumers are at the moment of decision, they are more likely to choose a listing via a paid ad or direct GMB search.

Focusing too much or solely on organic will present long-term growth roadblocks as local organic real estate continues to disappear and become more volatile, especially in mobile SERPs.

Breaking Silos of SEO and SEM

Breaking the silos of SEO and SEM into a unified strategy is not a new concept; just one that needs more attention and execution in local search. Silo marketing limits us because it deconstructs the buyer’s journey into elements, but never reassembles them into a unified strategy.

That said, silo breaking does not exist in a vacuum and will require more than a strategy; it will require buy-in from the stakeholders and leadership at your organization. If you have been able to successfully align the needs of your search teams into the process of your production or development teams, this will just be another natural unification. If your inbound and web development teams have not yet aligned, get buy-in from the top. It is far easier said than done to force integration amongst teams.

Heather Physioc (agency and search icon) recently spoke about this unification at MozCon 2019 and provided a variety of tips to integrate teams and break silos.

A unified local SERP strategy begins with an evaluation of your client’s needs. Are they established in the market and looking to gain new customers? Or are they new to the market and looking for a sustainable growth strategy? Once you’ve identified the client’s needs, match your research into the typical buyer’s journey for that client’s vertical.

A typical unified local SERP campaign will include:

  • Optimized GMB listing (not quite the “new homepage,” but getting much closer)
  • Mobile friendly/first website (Google speed scores are overhyped – don’t @ me)
  • Geo-focused content, including meta descriptions, headings, and location pages
  • Online reputation strategy (responding to reviews is just as important as gaining new ones)
  • Google Local Services Ads (if applicable)
  • Geo-focused PPC strategy (see below – use PPC to supplement organic visibility)
  • Retargeting (GDN, YouTube, social channels)
  • Local link building (referral traffic is going to be the new DA)
  • Aggregated reporting
  • Citations and NAP consistency

When your teams are separated by silos, you can miss opportunities by blind spots from each team’s perspective. For clients with limited budgets, breaking silos is even more valuable as you can be more strategic with their paid spend for areas where they do not have organic visibility.

Finally, when combining marketing teams, it is vital that someone is assigned to oversee the collaboration. At our organization, I manage a team of digital strategists that oversees all marketing channels and who have begun having cross-functional meetings with inbound, SEM, and our media teams to ensure we are adapting to Google’s changes, sharing data and reporting with one another, and focusing on ensuring our strategies are as “algorithm-proof” as possible for long-term and sustainable growth.

City-Level Keyword Tracking Limitations

If you solely track keyword positioning using a city as the location, it may be time to update your process, depending on the client. City-level keyword tracking does not tell the whole story and may be resulting in a distorted or limited view of data.

On the left below is a search for ‘plumber’ using ‘33142’ as the location (random zip in Miami) vs the same ‘plumber’ search with ‘Miami’ as the location setting in Google’s preview tool. We can expect the local pack results to differ based on location, but notice the discrepancies in the organic results. If you were managing the campaign of the individual plumbing companies below, you may think your visibility is worse/better than it would be if you were just using city-level data.

Plumbing SERPs

Integrating Zip Code Level SERP Data into Paid Search

Now that we’ve established the growing importance of paid search in local and highlighted the potential discrepancies of city versus zip code keyword tracking, let’s integrate local and organic visibility data into paid search strategies.

To begin, collect your client’s local and organic visibility data from BrightLocal, focusing on Google results for the highest 100 keywords by search volume, including geo-modified terms. For this example, I am using Ellington Air Conditioning & Heat. I will focus on their primary location on the Space Coast of Florida.

BrightLocal Ellington Data

I ran BrightLocal reports for all zips they are targeting for this location, and then created and exported a roll-up report to understand which zips/keywords they had the best visibility in.

BrightLocal Roll-Up Report

Once you have a better understanding of the client’s visibility in local and organic, you can create a strategy to utilize PPC to supplement visibility in zips where the client does not have organic reach. You can also use this information to create an awareness and remarketing strategy.

If they are not in the map pack or the top five in organic, the client will essentially be invisible in local search.

Again, your strategy will depend on the client’s needs and budget limitations. If you have a limited paid budget, start with the zip codes closest to the client’s location and build outward. Or if the client is more established and looking to grow into new areas, identify the highest potential for growth using zips with the least local and organic visibility, and build your PPC, awareness, and retargeting campaigns based on those targets.

Once you’ve executed this plan and are collecting paid search data, share it with the SEO teams to identify keywords that are producing the best conversions and spend more effort increasing the visibility of those terms. This will require reporting to be shared across teams and the appropriate attribution model to be used if you are utilizing more than just PPC in your campaigns.

Google Scripts and Automation

Once you have implemented your paid strategy based on organic visibility, you now have a variety of options, such as using the visibility reports from BrightLocal and either inputting results into Excel or Google Sheets.

From there, you can create bidding rules using search data such as increasing bids for keywords or locations in campaigns that are not currently in the top five results in local or organic.

Another option is to use a location-based Google Script such as this one from PPCnerd. This script is especially beneficial for marketers managing clients with multiple locations and will allow you to set performance metrics based on your client’s specific location metrics.

If you are managing local clients at scale and need to extrapolate from a larger data set, consider using Python’s Excel capabilities.

Local Remarketing

Another important element of a unified Local SERP campaign should be remarketing. However, remarketing on the local level can be tricky. We tend to think of remarketing from an e-commerce or B2B perspective, which can produce a variety of metrics that speak to the efficacy of remarketing.

But what about local companies like home services, health, attorneys, and auto repair? In many of these cases, a consumer has completed a transaction, typically at the time of need, and a typical discount-based e-commerce strategy would not necessarily apply. In these cases, a more thoughtful approach must be taken.

An interesting approach to retargeting, and one I’m going to start using more, is drip retargeting. This tactic not only helps to reduce some of the inherent annoyance of retargeting ads, but it allows marketers to be more strategic in their offerings. For example, in the home services category, we can use seasonal offers that naturally trigger as the seasons change.

You can also use the zip code-level visibility data when creating a retargeting campaign. If a client wants to grow their brand presence, apply the same methodology to increase spend in your remarketing campaign where the client has less organic visibility, especially in the local pack.

An example of a local retargeting campaign we did with this summer was Griffith Energy Services. This client is an energy provider in the mid-atlantic region, primarily known for fuel delivery. However, Griffith also provides air conditioning and heating services. We changed our heating-focused remarketing campaign in May to one that offered new AC systems with $0 down.

For this retargeting campaign, we saw a 774% YOY click increase, and while most of the ads were on apps, we saw a 140.4% YOY increase in time on site with less than a .75% bounce rate increase. We also increased traffic to our primary target market of Washington D.C. to correlate with Griffith running a major broadcast tv campaign there, which we also supplemented with YouTube bumper ads and FB videos to increase the likelihood of brand recall. Unity!

As of late summer 2019, Griffith has improved its system installation numbers.

Griffith Retargeting

Conclusion: You Need a Granular, Comprehensive Marketing Plan

I predict a few things will happen in local search over the next couple of years. Once consumers are more comfortable and trusting of Google Local Services Ads, they will continue to expand into all local search categories and will transition from a pay-per-lead structure into an auction model. Secondly, we will continue to lose control over our ability to control keyword match types and bidding in paid search due to Google’s machine learning models.

Google is going to have to rip negative keywords from my cold dead hands, though. Never!

The best way to adapt to the changes that are already happening in local is to have a granular and comprehensive marketing plan that does not rely too heavily on any one channel and that unifies your SEO and SEM efforts into a common goal of constant improvement.

Chris St. Jean
About the author
Chris St. Jean is the Senior Manager of Digital Strategy at Mediagistic, which specializes in local marketing solutions for SMBs in the home services vertical along with QSR, fitness, resorts and travel, power sports, power equipment and more. Chris manages a team of local search-focused digital strategists and assists in evolving the overall digital strategy for new clients. Chris has been working in digital marketing since 2005 with a background in both SEO and SEM.

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