The State of Local Search 2018
On January 17th, InsideLocal host Myles Anderson and a panel of four of the brightest minds in local search explored how the industry changed in 2017 and looked ahead to what search engines might have in store for us in 2018.
Featuring expert insights, real-world examples and no small amount of crystal ball-gazing, ‘The State of Local Search 2018’ has everything you need to kick-start your local SEO strategies this year.
Video: The State of Local Search 2018
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No problem! Just use the time-stamps below to find the correct point in the webinar!
- What were the biggest developments in local SEO in 2017? (4:02)
- Google: Will Pay-to-Play kill Organic in 2018? (12:40)
- Is the SMB website a thing of the past? (28:58)
- Does the Mobile-First algorithm spell disaster for SMBs? (39:34)
- Is Reputation the new King? (45:25)
- Should SMBs care about the rise of Voice Search? (53:49)
- Facebook, Apple, Yelp (and the other guys!) (60:20)
1. What were the biggest developments in local SEO in 2017? (4:02)
Joy Hawkins, Founder & Owner, Sterling Sky: Introduction of ads in 3-pack. That was a game-changer; we’re seeing awesome results from clients using these. I’m pro-‘ads in the local packs’ but I know a lot of people hate it. Google Posts is a really unique way for business owners to get their messaging in front of customers, in a way they couldn’t do with Google+.
Dan Leibson, VP of Local & Product, Local SEO Guide: We’ve been dealing a lot with the way SERP features have been changing for local. Ad units is a huge part of that. Also on mobile, the way that the ad units and other SERP features interact with local organic results. We’ve seen a stark decrease in traffic from mobile organic.
Mike Blumenthal, Co-founder and Chief Review Officer, Get Five Stars: For the first time ever, Google introduced a raft of new features for small business and enterprise in the GMB. Rolling this many products out over such a short period of time suggests Google is putting a focus on local.
In the ad world, what I see is the quality of AI and the ability for machine learning to deliver low end ad campaigns effectively in products like AdWords Express and Local Service Ads. I think this focus is because local is where their revenue growth is going to come from in the next five years. They also need the data.
In the case of India, for example, which skipped the original web, Google built a very nice, low-end web product which they updated today, that attracts entry-level businesses and gives them access to data. Local is the lead in that as opposed to being a pawn in the bigger game of social and maps.
David Mihm, Founder, Tidings: If your mobile organic traffic for local is dropping, it’s not necessarily a sign that your SEO campaign is failing or your clients aren’t getting the visibility that they used to. It’s that, more and more, the interaction with a business, and in some cases the transaction, is happening through knowledge panels, NAP results, clicks-to-call or driving directions. All those kinds of things are just as valuable, if not more valuable, than someone coming to the website and reading a piece of content. That’s a big shift that has been going on for some time but that has really come to the forefront this year.
Rich Snippets and ‘position zero’ type answers are all part of the same trend. While your website is still a central and essential element of any digital marketing you’re doing for yourself or your clients, the website is now a data source for Google, as well as a destination that your customers will be coming to.
Dan Leibson: It changes the way you have to do metrics around your site and campaigns, too. We’ve seen the decrease in mobile organic traffic equalized across clicks-to-call, listings, and various other places, but you have to gather and collate those data sources to be able to pinpoint and explain traffic losses. It’s not that you’re losing traffic, it’s that that traffic is happening in other places.
Mike Blumenthal: It’s added a limited view and we’d need to integrate the Google Insights plus indicators from Facebook and wherever else you’re getting significant traffic from, and you have to do it in a way that identifies critical actions on the part of the consumer. I think we’re getting to the point where web views or likes are being put in the position they deserve, which is tertiary beyond critical conversions that can be tracked.
Joy Hawkins: It’s going to be harder for companies that offer ‘cookie cutter’ local SEO packages that maybe worked well five or six years ago. It’s better to not charge the client anything and tell the client not to bother if they can’t invest much as you’re not going to be able to do anything with three or four hundred dollars per month.
David Mihm: I couldn’t agree more. I think the days of fixing a couple title tags and blasting out twenty citations as your standard package and then reaping the benefits without doing any ongoing work – they’re gone. It’s more competitive, the algorithm’s more complex. If that’s how your agency is operating, I’m not sure those things are going to move the needle any more.
2. Google: Will Pay-to-Play kill Organic in 2018? (12:40)
Mike Blumenthal: Google, as a stock-held company, needs to shows increasing returns for a number of reasons: they need to keep their stock price up so their engineers feel appropriately compensated, so they have a flow of capital into the company. They have a pressure to increase revenues, and local is an area they’re going to be increasing revenues in in a ton of different ways.
There’s this contradication within Google, in terms of declining traffic through organic. Google lives and dies by the web, so there’s a very difficult balance where they have to try not to kill the web while monetizing it. We’ll continue to see increased monetization in Google, but I also think they’ll continue to offer free products and organic traffic. We saw this recently in the news competition with Facebook, where AMP is all of a sudden delivering more traffic to the newspapers, because, long-haul, it’s in Google’s best interest to occasionally throw Facebook under the wheels and give away free traffic.
You’ll see free traffic and organic as part of their bigger play alongside ways to increase revenues. Google’s going to give a well-done website some share of free visits. I think there’s still some opportunity in that, but it’s not actually “free” as it takes time, good photos, asking for reviews. None of those things are free – the cost has just shifted from Google. Google has every motivation to deliver customers without you having to play with them. In some markets, you absolutely have to do pay-to-play; not so with others.
Dan Leibson: Google’s biggest advertisers have invested heavily in organic search, whether it’s traditional organic search or local organic search. Giving in to their customers and giving them the full advantage in local or organic would cut off their nose to spite their face for their other investments. Users are engaging with those organic search results and Google, to sell ads, needs to give users what they want.
Google needs to keep providing free organic traffic in order to get people to pay for ads. We’ve seen a ton of new features coming from Google this year; shockingly, it’s the same year they decided to move into heavy monetization of the local search product. The more money they can get into local, the more they can engage in feature improvement, which is something I think everyone wants to see when it comes to the Google My Business product on the SMB and brand side.
Mike Blumenthal: A quick note on pay-to-play: with the advent of machine learning algorithms, improvements in Google AdWords Express and Local Service Ads, I think you’ll see them extracting profit and leaving less money on the table for “AdWords partners”, particularly at the lower end.
David Mihm: Mike and I agree that Local Service Ads solve at least three problems for Google. They’re in a lot of high-spam categories. By forcing people to pay, they decrease the spam. They increase the inventory, because of the carousel nature of these things, and quotes from multiple bidders; they can actually monetize more from a single paid click.
The third reason is voice search. I think Local Service Ads make voice search monetizable. By taking a cut of the transaction, rather than saying “These are sponsored advertisers”, they can say “We’ve vetted these three roofers; would you like to get a quote from them?” without inserting a very clear advertisement into a voice search result, which I think no-one really wants. I see them rolling this out to every high-spam service area business in the next couple of years.
Dan Leibson: If Google wants to monetize voice, and if they can control certain features to guarantee quality results, then that makes it easier to monetize voice searches versus monetizing the real-time organic search algorithm that sees millions and millions of queries all the time, as that seems very difficult. Having a set, controlled unit that you can work into voice search seems more manageable.
Mike Blumenthal: I would position Google’s ambitions as beyond voice search into wanting to control and create local marketplaces where they can interject themselves in that sale. I think their ambitions are very broad, very large. I think we’ll see more examples of them inserting themselves between the customer and the business. I think they’ll do that on a vertical by vertical basis. You can’t underestimate their ambition. They want a piece of every local transaction, and they’re up against Amazon, who want exactly the same thing.
Dan Leibson: You can see that in the way that they deal with lead aggregators right now, or sites that work to get in between a business and its customers and sell them leads. Those sites are having precipitous drops in traffic as Google uses them as less valuable search results. If you’re going to be a skeptic, Google sees there’s money to be made there and give users a better search result, which is an ad product that they control.
Joy Hawkins: My strategy for local businesses is to expand the number of local queries that they show up for. We’ve seen really good success from taking a business, for example – say they’re a dentist and they rank for ‘dentist’ and not a lot of other queries, we’d build out more service names, product names.
A lot of people fail to realise that 15% of queries on Google are new, every day. The concept that there are just two or three keywords you should care about it just crazy. We combine organic with AdWords as a requirement, for the main reason that it’s the best way to drive results and also get more information on what actual queries are getting conversions. We rely heavily on AdWords to give us conversion data that we can then use on the SEO strategy side.
Answer boxes are fascinating; they drive a crazy amount of traffic but they’re generally not high-converting keywords. It’s important for SEOs to get not too obsessed with them. They’re good in combination with other things.
David Mihm: Video is an under-appreciated and under-targeted market in a lot of small businesses and SEO agencies. The type of content that’s going to rank in these answer boxes will generally do quite well as a video. Giving a really good answer via video is: a) typically easier for an SMB to do than sit down and write a blog; and b) the conversational element of a video answer is easier to develop and will probably have a better chance of ranking in position zero.
Mike Blumenthal: I would add that, having just come from a jacuzzi dealer conference, their basic photographs on their knowledge panels are terrible. If they can’t get their photos looking good, how are they going to get their videos looking good? There’s been an under-appreciation of all visual commercial tools and it’s past time for that to change.
Dan Leibson: I actually blame the entirety of the issues with photos and the Knowledge Panel on Google; they make it virtually impossible to control for business owners at this point. They’re full of pure happenstance. Often it’s not even the most ‘liked’ photos, it’s I assume some kind of image pattern-matching to get something better, like they want something that’s like interior versus exterior photos, it seems to be.
Mike Blumenthal: But you can interact with that in a constructive way. If you’re looking at search results, say for a hotel, they switched from exterior views to interior views. If you regularly upload better quality interior and exterior photos, they will pick one of your pictures. Part of it is just having professional photographers help you with your work. You wouldn’t put crappy photos on your website, so you shouldn’t be putting them on your Google My Business. The jacuzzi ones I looked at, they’d uploaded blurry pictures of their chlorine stock room, rather than quality photos of families swimming in their hot tubs.
Dan Leibson: We have a multi-location client that pays for a trusted professional photographer to regularly take and upload quality photos and 360-degree views, but Google defaults to the ugliest inventory waiting room photos in 90% of these locations, regardless of the cadence and frequency of the other photos uploaded.
Joy Hawkins: I saw one a couple of weeks ago where the main photo was the apartment building on fire.
— Yan Gilbert (@YanGilbertSEO) January 10, 2018
3. Is the SMB website a thing of the past? (28:58)
Joy Hawkins: You’re always going to need a website, because you can’t rank without one. I mean, it is possible but it’s incredibly difficult. A lot of conversions have already started not actually happening on the website itself, so you need to make sure you have proper tracking metrics in place to track calls from Google My Business, and things like that. That gives you a better idea of what’s happening on your online presence versus just using Google Analytics.
David Mihm: The SMB website isn’t a thing of the past, it’s just a mental shift that we have to make to consider it a data source for Google as much as a destination. I’m starting to think of Google’s ideal website as being really just a JSON file. They want as much data as you can present them in a structured format that loads as quickly as possible that they can easily incorporate into their knowledge graph and semantic index, to the extent that you can make your site load really quickly and answer questions in a really clean, easy-to-understand manner. All of those things are really going to benefit you in the ‘new world’ of knowledge panels and answer boxes.
Dan Leibson: Totally agree with that ‘JSON file’ comment. Your website powers lots of other things; think of it as a prominence engine for your business. It helps drive all these other things you want to do well in when it comes to search. Your website is your owned asset, whereas these other things are not. If you want owned, key marketing resources, you need your own website. It’s critical for things like email marketing landing pages and PPC landing pages.
But you’re going to have to start directionally thinking about the way you’re going to be driving leads, not traffic, from some of these other third-party sources. It’s not about funneling everything to your website and letting your website be the conversion engine anymore; that’s not how users interact with the web these days.
Really tightly structured data markup around a brand that has multiple business units with different names will help solve a load of local search problems around branded name search because Google can pull the structured data from the website and see that all the locations for a brand have a different name but are associated with a brand.
As long as Google is still looking at things like links and prominence as a way to power various web features, the website is still going to be very valuable for that. In order to attract links, you need to have things like content, and your website is going to be a better publishing platform for most companies, big or small. There’s still tons of value to be gained from the website.
David Mihm: The future’s safe for web designers until a new thing I saw yesterday, that generates HTML code from mockups, comes to fruition, so the AI bots are coming for web designers, too.
Mike Blumenthal: In the case studies I’ve done, 70% of the conversions came from Google but 25% came from the website, and that was ten times greater than Yelp and maybe eight times greater than Facebook, so I think that you should be focusing on those areas that you’re actually getting conversions. You need to focus your efforts on where you’re being rewarded.
I know sometimes people say that Yelp, because they’re making so much noise in the marketplace, are actually contributing a lot of new customers. They might be in some places, they might not be in others, you just need to understand that and act in proportion to the benefit.
Joy Hawkins: On not trusting Google My Business Insights, there are two different case studies that I’ve done where it was wrong. One is Posts. We started using Posts for clients shortly after it came out. It was kind of disheartening; you’d look at the metrics and see that you’d got all these views but no engagement or clicks. And then when we started using UTM parameters in the URL, Google Analytics would tell us there are actual clicks happening on these posts.
The other area is calls. The calls that show up in Google My Business are not the number of calls you’ve gotten from your Google My Business listing; they’re the number of people that clicked on the call button on mobile. That doesn’t mean they’ve actually called you. They could click the call button and not complete the call, and Google has no way of knowing whether the call was actually made. We’ve gotten around this for clients by using call tracking on their GMB listings and it gives lots of valuable metrics that most people are clueless about.
Mike Blumenthal: Also, they don’t always overcount; they sometimes undercount for privacy reasons. They may ignore a whole batch of driving directions or calls because they’re coming from an area that would divulge the person’s identity. The biggest problem with Google is that they’re not transparent about this.
Joy Hawkins: Yelp does the same thing; they give you the number of calls but no detail around that. It’s only capturing mobile clicks. I’m actually doing a case study on Yelp that I’m publishing in the next month; it’s enlightening, let me tell you.
Mike Blumenthal: I spent three years on Twitter looking for somebody to give me that data, and I couldn’t find anybody with a successful Yelp ad campaign.
Joy Hawkins: I couldn’t either.
4. Does the Mobile-First algorithm spell disaster for SMBs? (39:34)
Dan Leibson: This is allegedly going to happen in 2018, but every time Gary (Illyes, from Google) talks about the date for the mobile-first index, he keeps pushing it back. At a high level, Google crawls all URLs on the desktop and uses a desktop crawler to render the pages and understand how to index it. They’re switching that entire system over to their mobile crawler.
They’ve been crawling with their mobile crawler but it’s hyper-complicated how they’re splitting between the two systems now in order to populate their index. They’re going to move to the mobile web as the primary way they look at the web.
Google is allegedly looking for the most “neutral” launch they can. I would expect that to be very similar to ‘mobilegeddon’, where nothing happens.
David Mihm: This seems like a complete red herring from Google. Their entire worldview is framed by mobile, so them saying they’re going to maintain two different indexes seems far-fetched to me.
I would definitely be designing my site to convert on mobile and capturing as many desktop people as I could, unless I was in some obscure B2B industry where desktop was the main driving factor for conversions. Focus on mobile, unless you’re in an industry where desktop brings your heaviest traffic.
Joy Hawkins: If Google announces something ahead of time, it’s usually not important. I’ve found the most important things are those that they don’t talk about or that they talk about after they’ve already happened.
Dan Leibson: I’m really skeptical that it’s going to impact the way Google search results are ordered at the drop of a hat. My bet is that it doesn’t launch in 2018.
Mike Blumenthal: But if businesses don’t have a responsive site at this point, they’ve been missing conversions all along, and what’s worse than that? Every business should have a responsive site that converts well in mobile and scales well to desktop, but I’d be more worried about whether my website was converting rather than whether Google’s bringing out a mobile-first index.
Dan Leibson: I personally think enterprise businesses, in this situation, are actually worse off than SMBs because they have these huge technology investments on disparate platforms. I think that’s part of the reason the mobile-first index isn’t going to launch soon: there are all these non-responsive websites that Google wants to serve high up in search results that, were Google to penalize sites based on how their mobile performance was, they’d be hurting the websites that they want to rank.
David Mihm: In many cases, even internal business logic makes many of these things very difficult or actually impossible to resolve with a single canonical answer, so I generally think that that’s right, that SMBs have it easier than enterprise businesses.
5. Is Reputation the new King? (45:25)
Mike Blumenthal: From where I sit, reputation is the one value that businesses should hold near and dear to their hearts. And that’s never changed. Google is looking to emulate local purchase decisions by finding the best customers. You see this in Local Service Ads, with their vetting and advanced verification.
Where I think the issue has shifted is people think there’s some magic bullet to getting good, new reviews, but it’s like link building: if you put link building before content, you’ve put the cart before the horse. It’s the same with reviews. Reputation has always been important, always be important, and should be the primary focus, next to brand, of every business in the world.
How they go about that should be improving business quality and then put in place a program to ensure that their reputation is reflected accurately online. Given that, Google certainly has emphasised rich snippets. If you search for a brand now, compared to two years ago, you’ll see many more organic results with rich snippets on them. That isn’t just because there are more rich snippets in the world; they’ve given a ranking boost to pages with rich snippets because they’ve tested what users want to see and users want to see reviews.
I think SEOs who are interested in sustaining their work with local businesses who think of reputation as a way of helping the business find more customers.
Joy Hawkins: Reputation is huge for local businesses. Google definitely puts an emphasis on it. The scary thing with reputation is how behind Google is on recognizing fake reviews, both positive and negative. I’ve seen a lot of cases in the last three months where a lot of our clients have received blatantly obvious fake reviews. We’ve seen a lot of success reporting them, but there’s a strategy you have to take to get Google to recognize that they’re fake. It’s all about building a case to show how the reviews are in fact against the guidelines. It should be easier than it is.
That being said, the ones where we have reported fake reviews, there have been a few cases in the last month where Google has actually removed all of the reviews on a business with enough fake reviews. I’m hoping this is something Google will pay a lot more attention to this year, and get better at algorithmically detecting them, as right now it seems that manually reporting them is the only real way to get Google’s attention on it.
Negative reviews are another spam problem. I’ll see businesses on forums freaking out because they’ve seen a ton of negative reviews come in one day, and they’re trying to prove that these aren’t customers. But how do you prove someone’s identity?
It actually happened to me yesterday: I had three one-star reviews come in the span of five minutes from really obvious fake usernames.
David Mihm: I see the review content being a key way Google is assessing semantic relevance, especially for longer tail phrases. So even if you only care about rankings, you’re going to be needing to generate reviews with content about the product or services you’re selling in order to be seen as semantically relevant for those phrases by Google.
6. Should SMBs care about the rise of Voice Search? (53:49)
Joy Hawkins: Voice Search is definitely something people are using for local, but it’s still small, in terms of traffic anyway. I certainly don’t have a separate strategy I use for Voice Search.
David Mihm: It’s really early on right now. At this point it’s most important to be aware of the concept of Voice Search and the kinds of results that voice will return. I don’t think I’d be doing anything different to what I’m doing now, but I’d be aware of the movements of Google and Amazon.
I think that right now the quality of results from Alexa are more or less irrelevant; it’s all about getting the device into people’s homes and getting people habituated to that behaviour. I do think Amazon will be a major player in voice, generally, and local voice particularly. A lot of analysts think 2020 or 2021 will be the tipping point when voice will really be something.
What I’d be thinking about is ‘how do I solve a consumer problem better through voice than my competition?’.
Mike Blumenthal: The one tactic that might work for Voice Search, if you’re in the right market, is Local Service Ads. I see the market so fragmented from a marketing point of view: the bulk of voice is Siri (65% of voice commands are coming out of Apple); it’s often senior citizens who don’t like to type. The demographics are unusual.
And there are some technical things that are missing, such as good natural language processing. Also, it’s not clear to me that voice is a platform rather than a feature. On my Apple TV, when I need to search, I use voice because in that context searching is easier, but it’s within the context of a whole range of interface options.
Dan Leibson: In terms of what you can do to influence search outcomes right now, other than the Local Service Ads and making sure that your name on your Google My Business profile is correct, is for brands and SMBs to pay attention to potential online reputation management issues arising from misunderstood voice search queries or misinterpretation of brand voice search queries.
7. Facebook, Apple, Yelp (and the other guys!) (60:20)
David Mihm: I think Facebook’s primarily about engagement. The changes they announced last week around limiting your feed to posts from friends and family, rather than those from businesses, signals the direction Facebook is going in. It’s becoming more pay-to-play if you’re trying to use Facebook as an acquisition platform.
It’s still a great place to place content that’s going to provoke discussions, though. Facebook Groups are potentially much better as an acquisition channel, as you’re actually engaging with customers and answering questions that your community members are asking. Facebook can be a great acquisition channel if you’re using highly targeted ads, which Facebook is unparalleled in, but I don’t know if you’re going to be acquiring many more customers by posting organic content on Facebook.
Joy Hawkins: My sister’s husband started a handyman business this year and she has him booked up three months in advance solely from posting in Facebook Groups, targeting the ‘mom’s mom’ kind of groups. She responds to people asking for plumbers and so on, but she also posts pictures of projects he’s done. You have to be careful and read the rules of the group if you do this, but it’s insane how many jobs she’s generated for him this way.
Mike Blumenthal: I did an analysis of reviews per location per month over the course of the year. At the start of the year, Facebook and Yelp were generating one review per location per month, and at the end Facebook was generating 1.5 reviews, whereas Yelp was still just generating one. So we’re seeing Facebook taking off in the review space, and Google is rewarding that by showing Facebook results higher in search results than Yelp.
But Facebook’s local listings are a mess. There are three or four for every location; the likes and reviews might go to the unauthorized one. Their Facebook Local app has potential but, like everything with Facebook, they have potential for years and you get tired of saying how much potential they have.
Google Q&A is an area that’s of interest to me, because it’s one of these crowdsourced areas where it could be of great benefit for the business or it could be terrible for the business. Google doesn’t really have a handle on it in terms of regulation.
David Mihm: If you’re posting interesting Facebook content that provokes discussions among your fans, that stuff will still show up in people’s feeds because there is that engagement mechanism. But if you’re just posting promotional things like time-limited offers, I’m not sure that’s the kind of post that’s going to get shared too often.
Dan Leibson: I like using Facebook as an advertising platform for full-funnel content. One of the great things you can do, as they have the best psychographic and demographic targeting around, is tailor content to those groups at various points along your purchasing funnel and move them to some owned or third-party asset elsewhere in order to drive conversions or later engagement.
Mike Blumenthal: With regard to Apple, at a high level their Maps product has continued to improve, month in and month out, to become a functional map product, and so Apple users are using Apple Maps frequently. They’ve succeeded in building an adequate platform, but they’ve never really focused on it. Instead, they’ve used partners like Yelp, Foursquare, and TripAdvisor to inform the content there.
Part of the issue, though, is it’s dark traffic. It’s hard to quantify how many of those are converting. It’s difficult to go through Google Analytics to work through the questions you need to work through to see how many Apple users are converting and where they’re coming from.
Dan Leibson: We tried desperately to get a tracking parameter into various Apple apps URLs and it never happened, despite the various ways of trying, so yeah, it’s totally dark and really, really difficult to expose at this point.
Mike Blumenthal: In some markets we see that 60% of traffic is mobile and 70% of that is Apple. It’s delivering customers, but it’s just difficult to understand how they’re getting there. Clearly they’re a player, but it’s very difficult, when you can’t track it, to know what to do about it.
Our Expert Panelists
David Mihm is the founder of Tidings, a whitelabel-able product which helps small businesses send awesome email newsletters in no time flat. You might also know him as the creator of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey and co-founder of GetListed.org.
Dan is a data-driven marketer with over a decade experience in search. Having worked both in-house and agency side, Dan works to drive business results for Local SEO Guide’s clients.
Mike has worked in the online local search world since 2001. Many of you know him from his blog, Understanding Google Local and the local search training organization he helped co-found, LocalU.org. Most recently Mike co-founded GetFiveStars, a feedback platform that focuses on helping business owners put reviews to work for their business.
Joy Hawkins has been working in the Local SEO industry since 2006 and loves being a Google Top Contributor. She also loves spending time managing Google AdWords accounts and has been certified in both Google Search & Display. She is also a speaker at various search engine marketing conferences such as SMX & LocalU, as well as the founder and owner of agency Sterling Sky.
Host: Myles Anderson
Myles is Founder and CEO of BrightLocal. He has worked in the local search industry since 2009 and has been a major contributor to the Local Search Ranking Factors Study. Myles also writes a regular column for Search Engine Land and talks at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).