Referrals via phone calls have historically been challenging for marketers to assess by promotion channel, although special tracking phone numbers set up to count calls have arisen to satisfy the need. Unfortunately, using different numbers per channel can impair local SEO, and lack of an alternative option is causing some to use a potentially risky SEO strategy: cloaking.
Let me preface this article by noting that use of tracking phone numbers for paid search campaigns is non-controversial. Doing so is clearly a best-practice for ads containing phone numbers and, if set up on landing pages that are set up properly to not be spidered, will not cause problems for organic local search optimization. (For info on tracking numbers for paid advertising, see previous articles here, here, here and here.)
I’ve written about the call-tracking issue before, using pretty heavy language (“Phone Call Tracking Companies: Your Product Is Poison!“) in an effort to highlight and emphasize the seriousness of the problem.
This is not at all because I dislike call tracking in and of itself — as a marketer, I’d actually like to have another tool available for assessing referral potential of channels and conversion efficiency. I felt I needed to use strong language to get the industry’s attention on an issue which will likely require some degree of common understanding and cooperation to solve it.
Unfortunately, some marketers either lack the ability to make a logical decision when confronted with the dilemma that call tracking can pose for local SEO, or else they have a serious conflict-of-interest and may be too invested as an agency providing a service to their clients — they feel it’s absolutely vital to be able to “prove” their value to their clients via providing the call tracking analytics.
But, there’s something seriously wrong if you are trying to argue that you’d prefer to have performance analytics if you’re willing to sacrifice the performance itself in achieving it. It’s rather like a doctor who says he’s okay with electrocuting his patient so long as he can get an EKG in the process.
What Does Google Say About It?
At the recent SMX West conference, during the session on “Up Close With Google Place Pages“, Google’s Director of Product Management, Carter Maslan, was asked in the Q&A portion whether it was alright to use call tracking numbers.
In answering the question, he very diplomatically tried to avoid vilifying the call tracking product wholesale, while very clearly stating that Google Places uses various pieces of listing data for ranking signals and using different phone numbers everywhere could cause a Place page submission with a tracking number to seem spammy. (I’m paraphrasing.) He further went on to state that consistency of the phone number is helpful to them.
I believe Carter was attempting to be diplomatic by avoiding overtly vilifying call-tracking products and their companies.
Also, I believe that Google’s algorithms can separate the wheat from the chaff to a certain degree — they are also using business names, addresses, URLs, and other information to identify individual businesses and associate a business listing’s data altogether.
Their algorithms might not fail to canonicalize a business’s listing information in every single case where tracking numbers are used — but, using disparate phone numbers is still a significant risk of causing issues, and they recommend against using it for that reason. (Blumenthal has adeptly shown issues in Google Maps where automated merging of business listings results in serious errors.)
In a webinar a year ago (transcript), Maps Guide Brianna answered a question submitted by “Mary B.” (I suspect this was one of our local search marketing colleagues, Mary Bowling) who asked “Can we use call tracking phone numbers in our listings? If not, why?”
The answer provided was: “No, please use the most local phone number available. As I mentioned in the presentation, Google aims to provide the most useful and accurate information for users, so a local phone number is preferred.”
There has likely been a level of confusion surrounding the use of tracking phone numbers because Google Places Policies has beaten about the bush with some vague policy wording. About phone numbers, they only say:
- Provide a phone number that connects to your individual business location as directly as possible, and provide one website that represents your individual business location.
- Use a local phone number instead of a call center number whenever possible.
- Do not provide phone numbers or URLs that redirect or “refer” users to landing pages or phone numbers other than those of the actual business.
The first and last guidelines about phones are probably the ones relevant to tracking numbers. It could be that they’re saying that a tracking phone number is not the “most direct” and it might be interpreted as a type of redirected phone number.
I think the problem is that most small businesses (and even larger company marketers) likely don’t know that a call tracking number likely forwards (or redirects, if you will) calls to the business’s main number.
Regardless, it should now be clear that Google has multiple times recommended against use of call tracking numbers and implicitly confirmed risk to local rankings when they are used. (Previously in 2009, Bill Dinan of Telmetrics discussed this issue with Search Engine Land’s Greg Sterling.)
Why Call Tracking Numbers Cause Issues In Local Search Results
There are two fundamental reasons why tracking numbers can cause issues with Google Place Search, other local search engines, and organic search marketing over time.
First of all, many local business directories and local search engines use the phone number as a key identifier for individual businesses. A phone number is often an easy ID to use for indexing businesses because they are generally prone to less variation in how they’re presented in databases or on webpages.
When an index database is processing a set of business listings to add to or update their existing listings, if a business’s listing in this fresh dataset does not match with the existing listing already in the database, there is a risk that the algorithm will not be able to associate the new listing information with the existing info in the database. So, any ranking factors associated with that new listing info may not get applied to the business.
PageRank, reviews, citation value, TrustRank, keyword relevancy, etc — all of these possible elements which could help the business in rankings might not get applied to the business’s main listing. That information might disappear into the void, or it might result in the directory spawning a second, duplicate listing for the same business — which can result in splitting of the ranking values across two listings over time instead of laser-focusing all of them upon one business listing.
Second, if the business ever changes call tracking solution providers or stops using the tracking numbers, the phone numbers they’ve been using will stop working. Considering the degree of data sharing among local directory companies, if you use the numbers outside of paid search you will almost certainly have them spread out to many other sites which you’re not even aware of. This can result in lost business referrals over time as consumers may call defunct numbers and figure the business is no longer there.
I’ve investigated cases where a company used tracking numbers in one yellow pages site and didn’t realize the numbers had spread to other local sites — utterly ruining their ability to detect how many calls came from which channels and obviating the entire point of using the numbers for non-paid campaigns.
The main issue with call tracking is the potential damage to local search rankings. SEO is sometimes a game of inches where you need to squeeze advantage from a wide variety of ranking signals. Use of a call tracking number may not result in your business dropping all the way out of the rankings in local search, but it could sandbag you, and you might not even be aware of it.
The dividing lines between social media promotion and organic search optimization are becoming blurry as well, and as companies attempt to leverage social media, I’ve no doubt they’ll employ tracking phone numbers there as well. Any place where a citation to your business may appear would be a place to avoid using the tracking numbers — including in Twitter and Facebook.
I’ve had individuals tell me anecdotally that they’ve used tracking numbers “with no problem”, but I can see that their ability to actually assess any potential impact is actually pretty low.
Are you adept enough to tell if you’ve lost 3%, 5%, 10%, 20%, or 30% of your potential local search ranking weight?
Where there are a few hundred variables involved in a constantly changing environment, detecting impacts and isolating causes can require significant sophistication. If you’re in position #1 for top keywords before and after introducing call tracking, you may not have cause for concern.
The Call Tracking Dilemma Spawns Cloaking
In the past few weeks since SMX, I’ve spoken to a few different well-known call tracking companies which are convinced that they could unilaterally fix the problem themselves. Unfortunately, these companies are much more versed in PPC advertising than SEO and do not recognize that they’re leading their clients down a bad path to the “Dark Side of The Force“ in SEO.
These companies have now built code to display tracking phone numbers to humans, while showing the canonical/primary phone numbers to the search engines. This is referred to as cloaking.
While I think the people involved were all well-meaning, Google’s spam-detection algorithms cannot particularly check motivation, so this practice is actually worse for a business than using the tracking numbers to begin with — instead of merely deoptimizing a business, this potentially risks getting the business’s webpages completely banned from the search engine. This is definitely a case where the cure is worse than the disease!
Google’s guidelines state that they do not want you “serving different content to search engines than to users.” Doing this “…may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index.”
How Can This Be Solved?
After analyzing this issue for a number of years, I feel that probably the best solution would be for all trusted call-tracking companies to disclose master lists of tracking phone numbers which will merely map the tracking numbers to business’s canonical, main phone numbers. These lists could be placed on their webservers at publicly-disclosed locations so that Google and other local information companies could periodically spider and cache them.
Local directory providers such as Google Places/Maps could use such master lists of tracking numbers to detect if any incoming business data has a tracking number, and they could map those numbers to the primary phone numbers in their database.
Each of the companies that provisions call tracking numbers would need to disclose their master list locations in some central place, or perhaps via their robots.txt files, similar to how sites can disclose their sitemap files via robots.txt.
However, our microformat solutions only address half the problem by enabling search engines to know the phone number on a spidered webpage is a tracking number. Google Maps has had quite a few partners who provide data directly in the form of XML or delimited data files, and the data formats of many partners already include information about tracking numbers when they’re present in a listing.
However, when ad agencies are setting up and optimizing listings in local directories and aggregator databases, and they don’t necessarily have the option of disclosing that the number they’re providing is a tracking number. There’s also no way of indicating to Google within Google Places that a phone number is a call tracking number.
Furthermore, there’s currently no protocol for a business that provides bulk uploads to Google to disclose any tracking numbers they may be using. (Yes, the Google Places bulk upload spreadsheet template has a field for “Alt Phone”, but there’s nothing to tell Google that this or the “Main Phone” may be a tracking number, and since Google Place pages display both numbers, most marketers seeking tracking clarity would opt to provide only the tracking number.)
How Google Could Solve The Issue
Google has launched its own call tracking solution for paid ads, Google Call Metrics, and it occurs to me that this could form the foundation for Google to eventually provide a solution to the call tracking number issue if they chose to do so.
While Google Call Metrics is set up to dynamically generate phone numbers to insert in their own ad campaigns, it likely would not take much for them to create an AJAX API which would allow developers to code phone numbers on a website to be dynamically replaced by a tracking number on page load.
Although this is technically what some of the call tracking companies themselves have done which I described above as being in violation of Google’s rules, it’s usually the case that Google would allow webmasters to do things through their own products that would not be allowed if supplied through a third-party’s products.
If this is going to be solved, I believe that some combination of call tracking companies, Google, online directories, and data aggregators likely will need to come together to agree upon a best method to enable alternate phone numbers to be used for multiple channels while reducing the risks that doing so may impair local search.
I think that further out in the future it may be the case that phone numbers themselves may fall into disuse or become obscured to the point where people don’t have to explicitly type them into devices to initiate calls — something like click-to-call may become dominant and might naturally allow various kinds of referral source tracking.
Current Options For Local Businesses
If you’re currently using tracking numbers for your local business or considering doing so, here are my tips until or if an industry solution emerges:
- Avoid call tracking numbers for your website and for any online directories or online yellow pages which are being actively indexed by Google and other local search engines. Using them in banner ads, in PPC ads, and on landing pages which are set up to not be indexed is fine, so they can be used for paid search advertising with zero local SEO impact.
- If you have used call tracking numbers in the past or are using them now, discontinue it. You’ll need to periodically audit local information sites to see if your listing info with the tracking number continues to appear on websites online, and carefully update/remove the tracking numbers from them.
- If you think you’ve been penalized for using call tracking numbers from a provider who added cloaking software to your site, remove the offending code and submit a reinclusion request to Google explaining what happened.
- As part of your standard phone script at your business, consider asking callers directly where they found your listing. Have employees who answer the phone write down responses for you to see later. This remains an excellent and free way of polling to see how effective different channels are performing.
- If you are in some sort of unavoidable situation where you must get some phone tracking information, implement the tracking numbers for a brief period of time without using any sort of cloaking code. I would suggest only using tracking numbers for two or three months, maximum, and that should be sufficient to get a rough idea of how effective a particular channel is performing — then, return to using your regular phone number and audit to fix any places where the tracking number continues to appear.
I hope this article is helpful in describing the issue, and helping to drive towards some practical improvements. I’m not trying to beat up on anyone in particular here, but to adequately outline what’s going on and point towards some possible paths for resolution.
This is such a common practice in advertising, and it’s a basic need for businesses to be able to assess how promotions are performing. It’s good that call tracking companies now recognize the problem and are actively engaged in driving for solutions. Google’s interested in good data quality as well. A meeting of the minds needs to happen to make a clear solution possible which may work for all the constituents involved.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.