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Local SEO Is Not An Island (Or At Least It Shouldn’t Be!)
Local businesses' visibility on the SERPs took a hit when Google adopted the "Snack Pack," which shows only three results. Contributor Marcus Miller shares advice on how to handle the increased competition that's likely to result.
Local SEO has just seen the biggest shake-up since Pigeon in the last few weeks. We now have a single standardized set of local results across both desktop and mobile devices. The big change, of course, is that the variable pack of one, three or often seven results is now replaced with only three results across the board.
The real impact here, beyond UX changes, is that many businesses have just fallen out of sight. This is a reduction in visibility of almost 60 percent in many cases, so the competition for local visibility stands to get somewhat more fierce in the coming months.
We also have the threat of sponsored local results on the horizon, which look eerily like the new standardized local results.
Is a standardized local pack a step toward a sponsored local pack? Is the local SEO free ride about to come to an abrupt halt? Will this approach roll out across all local search or be limited to service-type businesses? Will we see local sponsored listings and local organic listings?
We have a bit of everything so far, so concrete answers are certainly hard to come by.
The following image shows ads for nearby businesses and sponsored listings for plumbers in San Francisco. So we have a specialized ad product for general local businesses (nearby), a separate one for service businesses and a separate product for general local business (nearby).
Certainly, we can’t predict the future, but with this sea change in the way local results are displayed, now is a good time to sharpen your local SEO strategy and start thinking about ways to diversify your approach.
Smart, proactive marketing always looks at potential threats with an eye to turning them into opportunities. So let us take a look at the changes, and I’ll also share ideas on what you can do to keep winning in local search and other local marketing channels.
Snack Pack Or Local Stack
There is some confusion about what to call the many variations on local results, but this new set seems to have picked up the moniker of the Snack Pack.
However, local search guru Mike Blumenthal suggests we call it the Local Stack to distinguish it from hospitality listings.
We will have to see what the majority of folks go with, but for the purpose of this article, I will use the name Snack Pack, as other analyses I’ve seen have done.
The following image shows our Snack Pack results on desktop and mobile:
The Search Landscape
When marketing local businesses, it can be easy to forget that there is much more to a page of local results than the local organic listings. We have a rich, blended page of results with multiple forms of paid adverts, organic results, news, images, local listings, and so on.
The positioning of these can vary somewhat. The variations we’ve seen include local results at the top of the page, adverts at the top of the page, local below ads, local below a single organic listing + ads, and who knows how Google will continue to tweak and refine this in the coming months?
If your marketing efforts are focused solely upon a single aspect of these results, you are inherently at risk because the search behemoth changes things constantly. As an example, if your business was in position five in local but had no ads or organic results, you have just been wiped off the map.
However, if you had visibility in paid, local and organic, then, whilst you have lost your local listing for now (bummer), you still have retained 66 percent of your visibility.
Certainly, you want that local listing back, but it’s better to have hedged your bets so you’re at least visible whilst you work on polishing your Local SEO.
On an observational note, we are also seeing more instances in local search where the Snack Pack is sitting at the top of the page and adverts are shown to the right. This layout is very similar to the new sponsored local listings we are seeing, which really makes me suspect that we are super-close to seeing a new sponsored local listing product from Google.
In fact, it seems that the local service ads are now live in AdWords Express in specific geographies, which should illustrate without any doubt that local is moving ever closer to a paid model.
The Rule Of Three
Beyond user interface changes, the biggest change with the Snack Pack is that there are fewer local results. Where previously we may have seen a seven pack if there were enough local businesses, there are now only three.
The big issue here is the increased competition for the remaining local slots. Folks who previously appeared in positions four, five, six and seven are now going to have to up their game for local visibility, and positions one, two and three are going to have to work harder to stay visible.
This will also make the organic and even paid (shock, horror) results ever more important for local businesses.
There is a lot of chatter online regarding the impact this change will have, yet the best analysis I have read to date is on the Moz blog by Jennifer Slegg. I sincerely recommend you read Jennifer’s article, but we can summarize the changes below for brevity.
What Has Changed?
- Only three listings where we may have had seven
- Smaller window of opportunity = increased competition
- Google testing paid local results
- Filter by review stars on certain local results
What Is The Same?
- Reviews still critically important for clicks
- Citation consistency is still critically important
- Links and local authority still important in competitive fields
- A marketing and branding mindset is more important than ever
In summary, not a lot has changed — the elements that were important are only more so. Focus on Google My Business, citation consistency, reviews and reputation plus good old-fashioned authority and local links.
Where You Gonna Click?
There is a second interesting study on the impact of the local pack by Casey Meraz that used click maps and tests with real users at a PC to determine where those clicks are going.
Again, this is all very new, and behavior may change over time, but there are some interesting takeaways here that I will summarize below:
In the first part of the test, users were shown a screenshot showing variations of the pack layout and asked where they would click with the following results:
- Listings without reviews are mostly ignored
- Local results can get around 50 percent of clicks, but only if there are reviews
- Organic sucks up most traffic where there are no reviews, and it typically gets between 30 percent and 60 percent of clicks
- The “more x” button gets around 10 percent of clicks
- Paid clicks hover around 15 percent
The second part of the test had real users sitting down and reviewing search results. They were given an emotive scenario where a family member was in jail and they needed a bail bondsman.
- Reviews were critical here, and listings without reviews were ignored
- Positioning was important where a review was present
- Negative reviews will be looked at and used to discount businesses
In person, the local results were very popular in these tests. There were only four subjects, so it is not a massive study, but it showed the absolute importance of reviews.
I can’t help but wonder what impact review-rich snippets on organic results would have had here. Certainly, if you have an organic listing — but not a local one — getting those reviews showing up using rich snippets can only help.
We have a one-two combo from Google here: local pack visibility reduced by 60 percent and the launch of a simplified advertising system for local businesses that it appears will replace the local pack.
Whether this will roll out across all local businesses remains to be seen, but certainly, those in the home service industries that rely on local results need to review their search marketing so they don’t find themselves cast adrift.
Let us take a look at how we can polish our local SEO efforts to remain visible in a smaller pack of results and how we can also diversify our strategy across organic, paid and social channels.
We can also look beyond search and make the traffic we have work harder.
Local SEO is at best more competitive, and at worst, could become pay-to-play in some areas, so we need to double down and get our local SEO completely dialed in.
Focus On The Core Elements:
- Google My Business
- Citation Consistency
- On-Page Optimization
- Reviews and Reputation
- Local Links
In a nutshell, you want to get your basics dialed in here, and then work on building more solid local links.
Citations and reviews, whilst important, carry diminishing returns, yet genuine links from local or relevant sources will continue to add value and are the primary factor in determining whether you’re able to jump in or stay visible in that smaller pack.
Organic is still alive and well for local businesses and provides a range of opportunities. From a second link to supplement your local listing to a broadened scope in terms of geography and service-related content, you should be focusing on generating more organic visibility.
- Ensure location-specific on-page optimization is fine-tuned
- Consider location-specific service and location pages
- Reviews are essential in driving clicks and ensuring you make it through the selection process
- Ensure your local pages are marked up with rich snippet reviews to drive click-through
- Links and authority are still crucially important, but they must be authentic and white-hat
- Get your marketing dialed in — appearing is great, but ensure you win the click
An additional area to consider is whether you have historic SEO problems related to Penguin, Panda or other qualitative issues. If you lose your local spot and you have no organic visibility, then you really are in a tight spot.
Ensure you work with a trusted SEO that can help you identify problems, clean things up and get on a good footing again for that all-important organic visibility.
In many cases where organic and local is well-optimized, we see a listing in local and organic results doubling your exposure around the key search terms. Organic can also broaden your visibility outside of local pack reach or into related but non-localized service areas.
Organic is the most flexible and consistently reliable driver of site traffic, so diversify and see your traffic grow.
The results in the second study described above would indicate that paid performs fairly weakly, yet our own experience with local businesses indicates that paid can be a useful string to your marketing bow. There is plenty of data out there suggesting that paid can outperform organic 2:1 around commercial search, and Google is making its billions somewhere, right?
Certainly, some geo-specific terms are fairly low volume, and if you are aggressive with regard to new business, then you can have a link in paid, local and organic if you push hard enough. This triples the chance of being found and certainly ensures you will not be missed.
Supplement these paid listings with reviews via seller ratings or pulled from Google My Business via location extensions, and you are ticking the reputation and review box, as well.
Paid also gives us other tools like re-marketing that are invaluable as brand-building and exposure-building elements and can generate thousands of impressions and a few clicks to boot with a tiny budget.
- Paid search adverts can be deployed with a sensible budget to build top-of-the-page visibility
- Paid search adverts provide click-to-call and review extensions to enable users to find what they are looking for or get in touch quickly and easily
- Reviews are likely to be critically important here, as they are in local and organic. Our own experience with hundreds of clients has borne this out
- Utilize all the PPC bells and whistles to build bigger, bolder and more convincing adverts: callouts, site links, location extensions and the new structured snippet extensions allow for visually convincing adverts
- Remarketing is a powerful and cost-effective way to build awareness and trust
- Focused display can be very powerful (this can be tough to get right, so talk to an expert)
- Utilize the geographic targeting options for tightly controlled ad visibility
We see a lot of stigma around PPC. Many small businesses have tried it out and been burned with no return on their investment. This has led folks to believe it does not work and, of course, no one clicks on adverts (right?).
The reality is that paid is a flexible addition to your marketing roster that can add extra visibility. It certainly can help those who have lost out in the Snack Pack shakeup.
If you have lost local visibility and have organic issues due to penalties, then paid may be your only option for a short time period whilst you work on these other issues.
Even if paid ends up being something you do now and again to provide a boost when orders are a little skinny, it is a useful and often rewarding platform for those who invest the time and commit to making it work.
Some simple lead generation can work wonders for local businesses and is often the missing piece of the marketing puzzle.
When we are working hard to drive traffic to the site, providing some simple content we can exchange for email addresses provides us with more ways to stay in touch and build our credibility with our target audience.
As a simple example, a plumber could create a simple document that details five tips people can use to avoid plumbing problems this winter. This content can be easily created and likely converted into several formats such as blog posts, social posts and even video marketing posts via channels like YouTube.com.
There’s a classic saying, “The money is in the list,” and lead generation is how you build that list.
Content marketing is typically either avoided entirely or done badly without any real direction.
Using the plumber example, again, we could re-purpose our five tips for winter home care and send them out in our email newsletter. We could provide links to our YouTube.com videos, and we could even invite questions on our social channels. (Of course, that means someone must be around to answer them.)
The point is that our content marketing should provide a way for us to engage our audience. Its role is not to be some magical SEO panacea which helps us rank or win legions of links.
If those things happen, then great, but just assuming they won’t is no reason not to tap into the power of content to build awareness and credibility.
We have found social to be a tough gig for most local businesses, and particularly service-related businesses. After all, who wants to connect with and follow their plumber?
So carefully consider your business area and how to implement social into your overall marketing plan. If you sell clothes or do something super-interesting, then social will likely play a bigger part in your marketing, but for many of the traditional (or boring) businesses, it can be a harder proposition.
Social ultimately becomes easier when we are engaging in a multi-approach marketing plan. Where we have content to share or a special guide created for lead generation purposes, our social channels can be a useful way to get this content in front of people.
Additionally, social adverts can target fine geographic areas, so building your email list via social and getting your name out there can be an affordable and effective strategy.
My advice here for the more traditional businesses is to limit the amount of time you spend on social, yet be authentic and look at the relevant social platforms as a way to build more social proof around your business.
Some strategies that can be taken care of in a few hours a week are as follows:
- Post links to external reviews and testimonials
- Request reviews from happy customers and tap into the power of referral marketing
- Provide content that is seasonal and relevant
- Be present and ready to respond to questions, as these could lead to an enquiry
- Consider adverts to promote your lead generation content
- Build your email list to stay in touch with timely updates
Setting out absolute specifics of a social strategy for local businesses is somewhat beyond this post, but don’t overcomplicate it. Detail the work you do. Build a community and be available as a helpful source of advice, and social will soon play an important part in a bigger picture.
Email is another important part of a well-rounded marketing plan for your local business. When we are gathering email from prospects and using it to stay in touch with existing customers, we can ensure that we are already in the prospect’s mind when the need for our product or service arises.
If the user goes to Google and conducts a search and sees our paid/local/organic listings and reviews — and already has had a positive experience with us — it makes winning the work that much easier.
The real trick with email marketing is to provide value and avoid being annoying. Whether we are sending out timely advice or providing offers, we want to ensure we utilize this important channel to stay on the prospect’s mind.
Some areas where we have had great success with local businesses are:
- Monthly newsletter with relevant tips and advice
- Drip feed campaign after a sign-up summarizing advice
- Offers or discount codes tied to seasonal activity
- Keeping in touch with previous customers and generating repeat business
- Generating reviews on Google+, Social and Citations
We really want to become an authority and help our prospects, so it is important our outbound communications are created with this in mind and we always aim to add value.
Last month, I took a look at how important solid marketing principles are in your local search campaigns, and this month I wanted to build on that by looking at how additional digital channels can be utilized in the marketing of your local business. This seems an especially relevant subject right now as we’re seeing a reduction in the local pack size and threats from paid local listings in some service areas.
Sensible marketing programs don’t rely on a single source of leads as that provides a single point of failure. Therefore, if your business relies solely on traffic from Google’s local results now is a good time to flesh out your marketing plan and ensure Google’s local results are not the only source of your inbound leads.
Looking at a digital marketing strategy that includes local, organic, paid, content, social, lead generation and email will not only deliver more leads but will allow you to survive the twists and turns of Google’s ever developing search algorithm.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences during these changing times. What impact have you seen from the move to the Snack Pack? Are you worried about the impact of paid local? Where do you see your local marketing being 12 months from now? What is working for you now? What are you worried about?
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.