Be Wary Of Call Tracking Numbers In Local Search

Call-tracking phone numbers are often hailed as a best practice strategy in paid search campaigns thanks to their ability to demonstrate a specific number of conversions or inquiries generated by the campaign.

The kind of at-a-glance analytics these numbers offer make it easy for businesses and search agencies to calculate Return On Investment, a desirable metric for both parties to gauge the success or failure of their engagement.

Agencies and service providers are eager to demonstrate the value of their SEM acumen to small businesses and large corporations alike, and because it’s such an easy concept for business owners and traditional marketing VP’s to understand, it’s often sold as a value-add for a particular product suite.

Because the local search space is so fragmented, it seems like call tracking numbers would be even more useful.  After all, wouldn’t it be great to know exactly which customers were coming to you from Superpages vs. Yelp vs. Citysearch vs. your own website? Some companies that offer call-tracking may also offer call recording, so that you can gauge not just the quantity of the phone calls but their quality.

Conceptually, both of these possibilities sound wonderful, but in reality, the negative effects on your Google Maps, Yahoo Local, and Bing Local rankings could be significant. Let’s take a look at why.

The importance of citations for local business listings

Given the vast number of small businesses without a website (~50-55%), or weakly-optimized one (probably an additional 40%), Google Maps and the other local search engines need indicators of relevance and authority that are not based primarily on links. User reviews on major portals like Yelp or Citysearch are obviously key indicators, as is the information that businesses tell the engines directly at the respective Local Business Centers.

But citations are also a critical component of any Local SEO strategy—recall that Local Search Ranking Factors contributors placed them as the #2 most important factor for ranking this year.

What’s a citation? Essentially, just a mention of your business information (your name + address, your name + phone number, or both) somewhere out there on the web—even if it doesn’t contain a link—remember that most businesses don’t have anything to link to!  The bottom line is that search engines’ ability to tie a particular phone number to a particular business gives them increased confidence in that business’s information, especially if that information matches what the business owner has entered into the Local Business Center—so they’re more likely to rank it.

Phone numbers may even be seen as a stronger confidence indicator than addresses, as Chris Silver Smith stated eloquently in his interview with Eric Enge last month:

“The phone number has in the past typically been considered something that doesn’t vary as much as some of the other information from all the different business sources.”

Citations and call-tracking numbers don’t mix

To maximize your rankings on Google Maps, Yahoo Local, and Bing Local, your business’s Name, Address and Phone number (“NAP,” to borrow a Localeze-inspired acronym) should broadcast the same rock-solid signal on every platform.  Think of them as your business’s thumbprint.  As Gib Olander of Localeze  says, they are “not the place for advertising.”

Remember, as Brownbook’s Marc Lyne pointed out, that “you don’t own your business information.” For instance, what happens if you give your business a unique tracking phone number at a directory that Acxiom happens to spider for its own index? That number is now considered authoritative by Acxiom, and gets pushed out to every partner that’s leasing Acxiom’s data. Meanwhile, infoUSA and Localeze probably still have your main line. You now have two different thumbprints.

In a perfect world, Google, Yahoo, and Bing would be smart enough to see that the business name and address information matches, even though the phone numbers differ. They’d “count” all of them as citations for the same business, but continue to display the Local number you’ve given them in the Local Business Center. But given some of the issues with Google’s merging algorithm, do you really want to take that chance?

Other possible scenarios include duplication, which will split your “citation equity” across multiple listings and confuse customers about how they should actually contact you. This is especially possible if Google sees the same tracking numbers on multiple portals, as in the Acxiom scenario I described above.

And what happens if you want to cancel your contract with the provider through whom you’re running the tracking number? It’ll take months to get a new phone number flowing through the Local search ecosystem, even starting right at the top with the major data providers.

Maintaining absolute consistency with your business information is the key to a successful long-term Local SEO strategy.

Not all call-tracking is bad for Local SEO

The safest form of call-tracking is the old fashioned way: train your receptionists or salespeople to ask “Do you mind telling me how you heard about our business?” at the end of every initial phone call. Just keep a running chart in excel (if they’re at a computer) or even on a hardcopy piece of paper. I also quite like the way Matt van Wagner’s favorite bakery, Patisserie Bleu in Nashua, NH, handles call-tracking: by putting up different colored Post-It notes on their refrigerator when orders for new cakes come in.

You’ll obviously want to get a baseline level of call volume before you start your campaign so you know where you’re starting from. Make sure you’re not picking an unusually active (like the holidays) or unusually dead (like summer vacation) sample time in your business cycle.

If you decide that the benefits to call-tracking outweigh the possible risks to your rankings, at the very least ask if the marketing company or search portal with whom you’re engaging can hide these numbers when they display them to search engines.

In some cases, this might be done with Javascript or even something as simple as a non-alt-texted image tag.  This way there’s at least a chance of picking up an address-only citation from that page; No-indexing the page isn’t really a good solution because then you’re just cutting off any chance for potential ranking benefit.

But I doubt that many companies that are providing call-tracking numbers in local search have considered their implications for ranking, so most are probably hard-coding them at present.

Chris Silver Smith posited an interesting solution by calling for an industry-standard “canonical phone” microformat but the Local search engines may have more pressing issues to deal with than trying to adopt a brand-new standard.


Call-tracking numbers are not always bad for your local search presence, but hopefully this column has made small business owners aware of some of their implications. Extreme care should be taken during implementation of a call-tracking campaign to ensure a healthy long-term local presence. It may not be worth the risk of polluting your business’s signal or confusing the primary search engines.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Small Is Beautiful


About The Author: is Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and the architect of Moz Local — a newly ­released software product that distributes U.S. business listings to the primary local data aggregators and important local directories.

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  • Pterobite

    Any SEM worth it’s salt will handle all these issues. Yes, customer beware, but done right the citation issues are handled correctly.

    A local business needs to be sure have the ability to port the number, or numbers, to their own provider. Check the contract.

    The tracking numbers can be critical for many reasons not the least of which is the ability to engage in a pay for performance program. Put the SEM to fire and get them to be vested in the results. The local business will come out ahead.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I think David’s right — small businesses or chain-store companies which are struggling to achieve healthy rankings should maybe stay away from using call-tracking numbers until their positioning in local SERPs is well-established.

    There needs to be some sort of meeting-of-the-minds between Google Maps, other local search engines, and the other business information directories in order to address this issue, because there’s some lack of clarity all the way around.

    At the recent Kelsey Conference, I understand that the overall yellow pages industry is encouraging one another to provide increased call-tracking to businesses in order to respond to requests for greater accountability. So, IYPs who are going to be pushing call-tracking more are also going to be passing data to local search engines through partnerships, and the question is: What phone number should they send to the local search engines and other partners? The primary business numbers, or the tracking phone numbers?

    My canonical tag solves the issue posed for bot-crawled pages, but another format has to become standard for local directory partnerships. If three different directory sites provide separate phone numbers for a single business to a local search engine, whose number should trump? It’s one thing if each data provider is supplying additive content to a business listing that their partner already has, but quite another if the partner wouldn’t otherwise have the listing at all.

    And, can a tracking phone number redirect to a tracking number that redirects to the primary phone number? I’m supposing it could, in which case three different local search providers could all count a single call…

  • niftymarketing

    David, great article and great points. I have been playing around with call tracking for a while and agree that in dealing with N.A.P., it can really mess with citations. This isn’t a perfect solve, but since call tracking is important to some companies here a few ideas to make it work….

    1. If you are a newer business with few citations, You could use a tracking number as your main phone number. I have seen people starting this with google voice. But, once you start, you are committed to that number because changing it could seriously effect your listings all over the place.

    2. If you are strictly interested in your website being call track-able, then make sure your real phone number is used as part of your citation, But, use a click-to-call button or an 800 number next to your contact us form or call to action item.

    I have seen both of these methods work, and not effect citations. Just be careful that you stay consistent. The issue currently is if you want to separate and track calls from different website or local listings, you are best off doing exactly what David has said….train a receptionist.

  • tacimala

    In the implementation of call tracking that we use, the phone number on the website is the business’ actual phone number. That means that if a user goes directly to the website or a search engine spiders the site, the number stays the same. The call tracking portion comes into play when a visitor comes through a medium we are tracking and the HTML phone number on the site changes based on a simple of addition of a piece of JavaScript that handles the number changing functionality. Google organic gets one number, Google AdWords gets one number, Yelp gets one, etc.

    This does not change the number in the local citations or directly at the source, but allows for better tracking of those mediums. This does account for a slight loss of conversion tracking, but we have found that most users do not click call the number listed in Google Local or other local portals without clicking through to the website. This helps bridge that gap of being able to track a very large portion of those leads while still ensuring the lack of interference with the issues you posed in the article.

  • Marc Lyne

    Hi David, thanks for the mention. Your article makes absolute sense. I too am a great advocate of training staff (receptionists, salespeople…) to track leads. The technology and the need for the IYPs etc to track their success in lead volume is a completely false metric that proves nothing of value. Specific ‘lead conversion’ and ‘order value’ however are real metrics and for most businesses the only way to get this information is from the staff that answer the phones and make the sales. I feel a new article coming on…

  • Wickerpedia

    Two points:

    1. Training staff to track calls works great in theory but rarely in practice. I won’t pen a long diatribe but it’s a practice that is rarely achievable by an SMB. It’s like telling someone struggling with their weight to just diet and exercise.

    2. I’m confused by Marc. I don’t see why call tracking “is a completely false metric that proves nothing of value.” Call tracking provides data on phone calls generated from a marketing activity. In that sense, it certainly doesn’t appear to be a “false metric.”

    From the points made by Chris and David I can see the negative impact of call tracking to SEO efforts but as David mentions if 50-55% of SMBs don’t even have websites. How much value is there in SMB citations when they don’t even have a website?

    The value on the other hand is certainly debatable. I would argue from the SMB perspective phone calls are the most palpable form of measurement. If I’m a locksmith what other data points are more predictive of a lockout estimate? Is it worth having disparate phone numbers if it means I can cancel unproductive advertising?

    Last point…I know the Yahoo Local feed has room for both an actual number and tracking number. Can’t imagine it will be long for other local search sites of note to follow.


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