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.
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.
“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.
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.