With another year spent monitoring local search trends done and dusted, it’s only natural to take a lingering glance in the rearview mirror. What’s changed? What hasn’t? And, most importantly, what can we learn?

For the first BrightLocal Webinar of 2020, host Myles Anderson (BrightLocal) and expert panelists David Mihm (ThriveHive), Joy Hawkins (Sterling Sky), and Ben Fisher (Steady Demand) discussed how the changing trends and insights gained in 2019 can prepare local businesses and SEO agencies for the year ahead.

In our most active webinar yet (did somebody say 600 chats and the inception of a brand-new networking Twitter list?!), panelists explored new and existing local ranking factors, the possible emergence of pay-to-play, and the evolution of GMB. Plus, we got down to the nitty-gritty, talking local algorithm updates, platforms to watch and, of course, the ever-present issue of GMB spam.

Catch up on all the action below and put yourself in good standing for the year ahead.

Contents


Recording


Summary

After introducing our expert panel, Myles began the session by questioning what the biggest local search lessons from 2019 were.

Joy Hawkins kicked off the discussion, responding that “Ranking factors don’t really change year-to-year”, and instead advised that local SEOs “focus on traditional, organic SEO”, such as optimizing websites and other on-site factors. (Although she did emphasize that website optimization and the importance of it is by no means a “new thing”.)

Similarly, Ben Fisher agreed that little has changed in local, even commenting, “The same tenets that worked in the ’90s or 2000s, still really work today”. Links, content, and optimizing for your customers, rather than Google, were the headline factors here.

Although in agreement with Ben and Joy, David Mihm made a point to highlight the ever-growing importance of Google My Business optimization: “We see a continued path of more customer interactions happening through phone calls, driving directions, and walking directions”. He also commented that “In 2020 we’ll see Google double-down on messaging”.

So, for the year ahead it’s certainly important to ensure your GMB profile is as comprehensive and engaging as possible, beyond just having a well-optimized website.

State of local search webinar

Zero-click searches

Prompted by David’s claims, the conversation soon moved on to another prominent topic from 2019 — zero-click searches.

“2020 is probably going to bring us even closer to that zero-click search that everyone’s talking about, where transactions are happening directly on Google”, commented Ben.

That being said, Joy was quick to point out that zero-click searches are something that vary massively by industry. For example, “We noticed a very large difference between say, an attorney and a locksmith”.

As you can imagine, Your Money Your Life (YMYL) businesses are far more likely to require more research, whereas a hotel or restaurant might entice you to commit to a purchase without exploring reviews, website, etc.

Soon after Myles brought up the idea of “Google as your new homepage”, to which David responded that, for those less tech- or web-savvy, GMB can be a great way to bridge the gap and still create a great first impression through a strong Knowledge Panel and the like. He emphasized the importance of GMB posts, Q&As, reviews, and other customer-facing content.

Coming back to the idea of in-search actions, “Our data totally backs up what Joy said, it’s very category-dependent in terms of where interactions are happening”. According to David, insurance agents were likely to receive calls directly, whereas photography businesses received more website clicks — some stats that might subvert what you’d expect, given that insurance is an industry you’d anticipate would need more research.

Google My Business insights


With members of the live chat questioning the role Google My Business Insights can play, David offered his thoughts on the matter: “My advice would be to not look only at Google Analytics data”.

On a similar note, Joy emphasized the growing community frustration with GMB Insights and its data. She cited a recent issue people were having with the platform, saying, recently messaging isn’t showing up now — something she’s addressed with Google. Joy said, “I always vote for using UTM codes inside Google My Business, using call tracking”, stating that those methods are far more consistently reliable.

Although of course, GMB Insights does have its place: “There are parts of it that are valuable – [my agency] likes to look at trend line graphs. I think the search query data is also very valuable”.

2019 changes and updates

As the conversation progressed, the chat turned back to the major changes and updates we saw in 2019.

Myles questioned, “What tactic changed for you in 2019? To which Joy responded, “To be honest, not a lot has changed tactics-wise. Our focus has always been on on-site and backlinks.”

She suggested that “trying to get mentioned in the press” and “being part of local organizations” as important (and historically successful) tactics.

“One trend we have noticed, not specific to 2019, is that having more content on your site is not always a good thing”, she continued. “We’ve seen some good wins from consolidating content and cutting down the garbage”.

Once again, this differs by vertical, but according to Joy, “It doesn’t make sense for most SMBs to have a blog.”

For example, in the dental industry, it may be hard to come up with valuable content, whereas “With lawyers, you could have hundreds of pages because there are so many legal questions that people ask on Google.”

Foundational ranking factors

After our panelists finished reflecting on the changes that took place in 2019, Myles asked about any foundational ranking factors, new or old, that marketers might consider for 2020.

David kicked off discussion on the topic, saying “I think that a business name with keyword relevance still matters a great deal.” So for those yet to embark on their business journey, he suggests thinking about the semantic impact of what you choose to name yourself.

For example, if you’ve not yet set up your business, you might think about including search terms or keywords in your business name.

Additionally, he told viewers that, in GMB, “Primary category and secondary category [are important ranking factors] providing they’re relevant to what you want to do.” He also advises ensuring you have “a really strong, constant stream of reviews”, along with UGC such as photos and Q&As.

According to David, on the website front, you’ve got to know what types of content you should have for your industry, e.g. dentists might want before/after photos and testimonials from customers. He also recommended using “more traditional PR efforts”, such as those suggested by Joy earlier.

Jumping into the fray, Ben shared his foundational tactics for ranking: “We optimize GMB, make sure we’re doing the Q&A, and giving our clients a review strategy.”

He also emphasized the use of trying to make the GMB-updating process frictionless for clients as updating GMB regularly can help boost exposure. Rounding the conversation to an end, he naturally finished by talking about the powers of spam-fighting, something the panel discussed in more depth later on: “looking out for fake listings and name-stuffing is the easiest win for any client”.

Next, Myles shared a question from the audience: “Once you’ve fully optimized your GMB profile, what extra ranking value do you get from posts, Q&A, etc?”

Joy said, “Other than reviews, the things to keep an eye on that influence rankings are new business categories […]” similarly to Ben she suggests monitoring and reporting spam.

Regarding GMB Q&A, she advised that “It’s more of a customer management thing” and so should be thought of as a component of your business strategy, rather than a ranking strategy, in the same way that responding to reviews should be.

Ben agreed, commenting “If you’re thinking about the business implications of what you’re doing, then in theory, you’re going to be rewarded”.

Finally, and in a similar vein to his fellow panelists, David advised trying to focus less on rankings, and more on trying to stand out and retain customers. (e.g. spammy names might rank #1 but would a customer really engage with that listing?)

The role of agencies

Speaking on the role of agencies in 2020, Joy said “We’re starting to see the need for a more holistic view of what local search means” given that “the space is more competitive now”. She referenced new offerings like LSAs.

Regarding client matches, Ben shared his own experience: “When it comes to GMB, we find that our perfect client match is one that doesn’t want to worry about what’s going on with GMB. They just want to sit back and worry about what’s going on with their business.”

GMB and pay-to-play


A frequently-discussed topic in 2019 — and one we ourselves have covered on a previous webinar and poll — panelists began to discuss the possibility of pay-to-play.

Joy claimed that she doesn’t think that GMB is going to be paid, and doesn’t “buy into any of those conspiracy theories.”

Next, David referenced the infamous Google survey, calling it “bogus” and speculating that it was conducted by “a rogue employee, rather than being a strategic play by Google”.

According to David, it’s not in Google’s interest to put features behind a paywall, as they don’t want to lose out in the customer experience race to competitors such as Apple or Yelp. So ideally, they would want businesses to keep contributing great textual and visual content.

TL;DR – GMB likely won’t be an entirely paid-for solution, but we might expect the introduction of additional paid services around its core offerings.

Local Service Ads

Something that emerged as a great tool for businesses to take advantage of this year was Google’s Local Service Ads (LSAs).

Local Service Ads appearance

“If you are in an industry or market that has LSA, you absolutely need to be using it”, emphasized Joy. She recommended using Local Services Ads and PPC in conjunction where possible, but also mentioned that LSAs could become somewhat of a threat to agencies that only do PPC: “If I was a PPC-only agency, that would keep me up at night, and I would think that now would be a good time to transition [into LSA too].”

Similarly, David said that “At the very least, LSAs are going to force more transparent pricing on behalf of agencies.”

Ben described LSAs as “great” due to “the fact they’re backed by a Google Guarantee, so I’m not going to get a spammy, scammy business”. He also said that “in 2020 I think [LSAs] are going to roll out to more industries”.

In 2018, we conducted our very own LSA Click Study, exploring what impact their appearance had on consumer behavior, what drives decisions, and how they affect click-through rates.

RIP CallJoy?


As a quick side note, Ben shared his thoughts on Google’s AI phone operator. He asked his fellow panelist, “Dave, have you tried CallJoy?” before saying “It’s really bad”.

The “Joyous” subject of spam

It wouldn’t be a local SEO webinar without discussing the ever-looming presence of spam in SERPs.

To kick off the discussion, Myles asked Ben “What sort of success rate are you having, what tactics are using, and what value is that driving to customers?”

Ben quickly responded with some impressive figures, sharing that his success rate is currently at 96.6%. “We keep track of [our success rate] to a T every single day” he explained. “We fight spam at scale and mainly focus on location spam more than anything else, along with business name spam.”

He also referenced Google’s recent change to the redressal form. Google now asks that you don’t submit keyword-stuffed names, URLs, or addresses, as the redressal form is about fraudulent and inaccurate information.

Google wants you to use the ‘suggest an edit’ function instead for spam including keyword stuffing. Ben reminded users that, even if your edits aren’t applied, they do go directly into the machine learning model. So it’s still worthwhile to suggest one even if it seems a little tedious. In Ben’s words, “feed the beast”.

The biggest piece of advice that I’d give anybody that’s doing spam-fighting is: you need to focus as much as possible on proving that a business is not real.

Moving the conversation along, Myles asked if panelists think that spam is getting worse or better?

David Mihm commented, “I would say it’s about the same. I don’t think that Google has put any significant additional resources into fighting spam.” He also mentioned that spam is still prevalent even after the Bedlam update, which supposedly would have knocked things out based on natural language processing (NLP).

“I kind of don’t think [spam] will get better unless Google is forced to address it by regulators […] it’s not a financially painful enough problem for them,” he concludes.

Ben confirms that, although spam may feel prevalent to those fighting it, “From a big data standpoint the percentage of spam is very small.” He referenced the spam network operating in legal SERPs, saying what he saw may have been “huge and terrible” but “it’s not as bad as people think.”


Continuing the discourse, Myles questioned, “What impact does spam-fighting have for clients?”

“We just got a killer testimonial review from a client this week,” said Ben. He told viewers that last year his service removed over 1200 fake listings in just 3 months.

And so, his client’s business (operating in Dallas/Fort Worth in the garage verticle) actually tripled. “As soon as we removed 100 [spammy listings], they’d get a ton of new business.”

According to Ben, his client said that spam-fighting was the best SEO investment they ever made. Obviously, they were working on other local optimization in the meantime — links, GMB, content — but the impact of spam-fighting was second-to-none.


Resources


Q&A

As the webinar neared its end, Myles asked our panelists a final few questions that had surfaced in our live chat.

Q. Will reviews from Local Guides have more weighted value in 2020?

Ben: Meh, Local Guides.

Q. How much do you and your agency push or recommend LSAs as a typical offering? What sectors do you think LSAs will be rolled out to in 2020?

Joy: Any business we have that qualifies for LSAs, we tell them to do it. […] There’s no reason not to. [We often see] double the ROI compared to PPC. […] I still say to do both [PPC and LSAs]. Google is adding all these features to make [LSAs] standout.

Q. Does Google do anything with “sign of life”, for example, does logging in and having an active profile affect ranking?

David: I would guess extremely minimal if any. I think they’re much more concerned with consumer sign of life [e.g. actions, adding photos, directions, calling, etc.] Those kinds of things probably do have a more meaningful impact on rankings. Google does have access to something like 75% of all credit card transactions in the United States

Q. What can we expect from local in a year from now?

Ben: I don’t think anything’s going to change much. The SEO game has always been observe, learn, test, and adapt […] We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen this year, we don’t have a lens inside Google. Basically try, test, if it’s good, adopt it. Take short names; There was a small problem at first [during the testing phase], then after it stabilized they became a fantastic feature for sourcing reviews.

Before the webinar came to a close, Joy provided some final advice to agencies: “As an agency, if you’re not doing this already, make sure you’re tracking rankings for troubleshooting, figuring out what’s changed. If you are tracking rankings, it’s key to be tracking from multiple search location points.” She finished by saying that, “tracking from multiple zip codes is key.”

During the webinar, attendees were given the opportunity to have their most pressing local SEO questions answered. With an impressive 80 questions provided, we weren’t quite able to answer all of them, try as we might.

Below are some of the highlights from the live text Q&A. Thank you to BrightLocal’s Head of Business Development, Matt Coghlan, for providing his answers and expertise.

Q. Google is putting lots of effort into GMB, do you think this is going to be a paid-for service eventually?

A. “I think Google needs to balance putting its users first (i.e providing the most relevant results) versus increasing ad spend. I can definitely see Google continuing to increase the amount of paid features on GMB but I don’t foresee them going pay-to-play only for at least another five years.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. What are the 3-5 foundations a local business should have or do in order to begin increasing search rankings?

A. “Interesting question! This will vary depending on what type of SEO you talk to but, for me, if I had to choose the top 3 to rank in 2020 here’s what I’d go for 1)Backlinks from relevant sites are currently one of the most important factors to rank in search engines and grow authority 2) Website optimization — using correct title tags, great content, H1s, etc. 3) GMB optimization — having correct categories and a good review profile.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. Any advice for ranking in multiple cities without hurting my SEO?
A. “Make sure you’re dominating your own backyard before targetting other cities. It’s becoming more and more difficult to rank outside your local area in Google as they want to provide users with local results. We’ve got a great webinar that looks at tactics to rank outside your area.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. What changes do you predict are coming to Google My Business in 2020?

A. “More pay-to-play features. We’ve seen lots of investment from Google in GMB recently if we look at products, Q&A, services, more Local Service Ads. It would make sense for Google to look to monetize GMB further after their recent investments.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. How do you recommend selling local SEO in 2020?

A. “Create the need and make sure you qualify your prospects and understand what their pain points and goals are. Utilize case studies of similar businesses and try not to get too stuck in jargon. Shameless plug but BrightLocal customers get access to our pitch decks, proposals, and sales scripts for selling SEO to local businesses.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. Which tools would you recommend for small business owners wanting to improve their local SEO?

A. “There are a few options out there. G2 crowd is a good impartial site for evaluating software for local SEO. I believe BrightLocal is a good option to evaluate, but hey I work here!” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. What does link building for local look like in 2020?

A. “Here’s a few useful posts that look at local link building and are still relevant for 2020: Link Building Ideas, Expert Local Link Building Survey, Link Building Strategy.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. For suites, should the address on GMB use “suite” or #?

A. “It doesn’t matter. Google doesn’t put any weight into suite numbers so don’t worry about suite consistency. Joy wrote a post on this here.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. What do you think the best tool is for pulling historic data for GMB Insights? Default in the dashboard is only 30 days back.

A. “Paid tool: BrightLocal is a great tool for this – you can see 18 months’ worth of data instead of the limited view GMB gives you. (Full disclosure I’m biased because I work here!) Free option: If you export insights data to a .CSV from GMB Overview you can also access 18 months of data but only for individual data points, i.e. click or calls, so it’s super scalable with multiple locations.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. Where do you need reviews? On GMB? What about Yelp? What about your own website? What about domain-specific directories liked “HealthGrades” for doctors?

A. “It depends where your customers are searching for businesses like yours. Google will always be the most important. But if you have 500 reviews on Google and your closest competitor has 50 – then you’re better off targetting the next site. A good way to work out which sites are important is to reverse engineer your customer journey. Search for your target search term, see what ranks highly on the SERP — is it Yelp or Healthgrades? If so then aim to build some reviews there!” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. What do you think about businesses that use the same or similar response to all of their reviews?

A. “From a consumer standpoint – I think it looks very impersonal and could turn people off if all reviews get a canned response and no genuine thought has gone in especially with a negative review. That being said, if you’re McDonald’s with 1000s of locations, the responses are going to be fairly similar due to scale. So I think it’s a balancing act. I don’t think Google is too concerned if responses are the same from an SEO standpoint.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. So if my clients are ranking poorly on BrightLocal for local listings should I be concerned? Are you saying that link building doesn’t hold as much weight in terms of ranking as it once did?

A. “I think the role of listings has changed in the past few years – whereas it used to be a key factor to move the needle I think of listings as a pass/fail metric now, so they’re still important but not as much as they used to be. This is different from linkbuilding which is a key needle mover. We’ve got a great post that looks at the expert’s opinions on listings.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Q. How do you set client expectations for SEO, especially regarding the time it takes to rank?

A. “By clearly explaining the difference in metrics between your client and their top competitors and the work required to catch them up. They need to understand that for the first six months they will not make any money from SEO. But you should also explain the rewards of SE and that when invested in properly, it is incredibly profitable. Again, BrightLcoal customers get access to sales scripts and pitch decks to help educate prospects on this.” – Matt Coghlan, BrightLocal

Thanks to all those who joined us and submitted questions to Matt and our expert panelists!

We’ve got a bumper year ahead for webinars, so leave a comment below if there were any topics you wanted us to cover.


Our Expert Panelists

David Mihm

David Mihm

With 10+ years of research and evangelism of SEO best practices, David helps maximize the value of ThriveHive‘s search-related products & services for its small business customers. He also runs Tidings, a whitelabel-able email newsletter platform, named StreetFight’s Best New Product in 2018. David sold his former company GetListed.org to Moz, helping over 3 million businesses get better visibility on Google and other local search engines and is a co-founder of Local University.

Joy Hawkins

Joy Hawkins

Joy is the owner of the Local Search Forum, LocalU, and Sterling Sky, a Local SEO agency in Canada and the USA. She is also the author of the Expert’s Guide to Local SEO. She has been working in the industry since 2006. She writes for publications such as Search Engine Land and enjoys speaking regularly at marketing conferences such as MozCon, LocalU, Pubcon, SearchLove and State of Search. You can find her on Twitter or volunteering as a Product Expert on the Google My Business Forum.

Ben Fisher

Ben Fisher

Ben is VP of Marketing and founder of Steady Demand, and has been helping businesses grow online since 1994. He is also a Google My Business Gold Product Expert, hand-picked by Google to inform product decisions and help the community.

Myles Anderson

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 has also written a regular column for Search Engine Land and has spoken at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).