Thoughts On Categorization In Local Search

Properly categorizing your business at Google Maps is one of the most important Local Search Ranking Factors, as I mentioned in last month’s column. There’s been a lot of chatter about business categories since then, most notably at the Local Search Summit in San Jose, during August’s Search Marketing Now webinar on Local Search, and on Mike Blumenthal’s Understanding Google Maps blog.

Fellow Small Is Beautiful columnist Hanan Lifshitz offered a glimpse into how most IYP portals categorize the average small business in his own column last month. He found that over 60% of SMB’s in Alexandria, VA are placed into two or fewer categories by Internet Yellow Pages portals. This should be more than a little disturbing, both for SMB’s and end users.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, allow me to reiterate my view that Local search is focused around businesses and locations not necessarily websites. After all, barely 50% of small businesses even have websites, and among the 50% that do, only a handful are even moderately optimized for search. So even for advanced Local search engines that are able to take website information into account, such as Google Maps (presumably), there’s just not a lot of HTML content about the vast majority of small businesses.**

So in my mind, proper (and exhaustive) categorization remains one of the keys to both Local Search Engine Optimization and a good user experience for the local searcher. Other than trying to fix incorrect NAP information (Name, Address, Phone-thanks Gib J ), categories probably cause the most headaches in Local search. Let’s take a quick look at why.

Data mis-entry or mis-translation

Back in the Dark Ages (OK, so it wasn’t that long ago, just before the Internet), NAICS or SIC codes were the primary way that business information was organized. Business data aggregators like infoUSA and Acxiom assigned each business to a particular code to keep track of them in their computer system. Use of these codes, or at least of the data previously organized by these codes, is still widespread today.

Obviously, when you’re talking about a numerical entry corresponding to a verbal translation, one slightly mis-entered keystroke could place a business in a completely different area of the taxonomy.

A similar situation occurs when aggregators try to map other portals’ taxonomies to their own. Even with a proper entry, some categories become lost in translation.

As this data spreads throughout the Local Search ecosystem, the error just compounds itself, and a florist is all of a sudden listed as an auto mechanic. Or a museum is listed as an advertising agency.

And frankly, I was shocked to hear from Pankaj Mathur on last month’s aforementioned SMN webinar that infoUSA sometimes edits the categories that business owners tell them. It certainly goes against the industry grain (and against common sense) not to trust the business owner above other sources.

Incomplete taxonomies

Problems often arise when data providers’ category taxonomies simply don’t describe their business adequately.

One of my favorite Local search portals, CityVoter, is a good example. CityVoter is one of the most powerful citation sources for Google Maps, showing up an amazing number of times on Web Pages tabs in all kinds of industries and locations.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine who runs an environmental consulting company asked me to help him with his Local Search presence. Naturally, CityVoter was one of the first places we submitted him. My friend’s CityVoter profile currently shows up as the #2 citation on his Local Business Listing in Google Maps.

But, it turns out that CityVoter doesn’t even have a category for Environmental Services. So we put his business in the closest matching category: Home Services > Contractors. It seemed to me to be far better that he be listed in a marginally-related category than to ignore CityVoter altogether and lose the ranking power that its citation brings with it to Google Maps.

Explicit restrictions

CityVoter may not have as complete a category taxonomy as infoUSA, Superpages, or some of the other major data providers.  But even more complete taxonomies that unrealistically restrict the number categories into which a business can place itself are detrimental to Local Search.

Not to continue to harp on infoUSA, but in last month’s webinar, Pankaj explicitly discouraged businesses from using categories to more fully describe their products and services (beginning at the 9:55 mark in the webinar). Given everything that we know about the long tail of search (greater volume in aggregate, less competition, higher conversion rates) this advice simply makes no sense to me as an SEO. And if I were running Local Search portal, why would I want a less-rather-than-more complete picture of what a business does?

In her recent comment on Mike’s categorization post, Miriam Ellis wondered whether Google wants Local Business Center categories to be used to add long-tail information, as well. Their current tooltip in the LBC simply reads: “Which categories (up to 5) best describe your business? Ex: Dentist, Wedding Photographer, Thai Restaurant.” It’s a line which Chris Silver Smith rightly points out confuses the long-tail issue, and may inadvertently encourage unwitting small business owners to enter multiple categories in the same field, a definite No-No.

But at least the United States version of the Local Business Center is still allowing business owners to submit custom categories. Darren Shaw, an SEO from Edmonton, Alberta, reported to me last week that custom categories were no longer available in the Canadian LBC.  One hopes this is a temporary glitch rather than a permanent decision on Google’s part.

To Google’s credit, Maps Director Carter Maslan stopped by the thread on Mike’s blog on multiple occasions and we may see some interface improvements rolled out shortly.

Categories and the future of Local search

Restrictions and incomplete taxonomies aren’t just bad for small businesses; they’re bad for searchers. Studies everywhere highlight that keyword search strings are getting longer. Borrowing two of Gib Olander’s favorite examples, and adding a third of my own: “Pet-friendly hotel downtown San Francisco,” “café with wi-fi in Pearl District Portland,” “old-fashioned diner in western suburbs.”  Without allowing businesses to input that kind of rich information as a category (i.e. “pet-friendly hotel” or “old-fashioned diner”), the results that Local Search portals return for those phrases are simply not going to be as relevant.

Google’s response has been that that information belongs in custom attributes or on business’ websites. But Google, quite frankly, is better at crawling the web than a traditional Internet Yellow Pages portal, which won’t be able to take that kind of information into account. And rather than placing limits on the completeness and accuracy of categories, why not use better-defined, longer-tail versions of them to help solve Local search’s service area problem?

Bringing things full-circle back to Hanan’s column, it might be helpful for data providers and portals to consider categories more like tags-one-size does not fit all. Localeze already seems to have adopted this mindset; UniversalBusinessListing, too, advises clients right on its submission page that “Adding more items to your business listing improves how search engines see your business.”

From the business owner’s perspective (at least the ones that I work with on a daily basis), successful Local SEO is not about spamming the search engines with marginal categories. But I hope I’ve laid out in this article why I always encourage SMB’s and agencies who represent them to “max out” their available categories in Google Maps and Internet Yellow Pages, and to use custom categories where appropriate.

(**Incidentally , this lack of HTML content–i.e. lack of links–is one of the reasons citations are a major ranking factor for Google Maps.)

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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  • MoniqueTheGeek

    Fantastic post David. I definitely agree with the lack of long-tail categories. We hear so much about Google serving relevant, quality info and sites to users, and yet the categories are so broad. We have a lot of small business clients that are in niche fields with keywords that don’t even come close to any of the suggested categories. What’s worse (as noted in Blumenthal’s Post earlier today), Google is now mandating that the first category field be a category chosen from their list of general categories. That’s one less opportunity to rank for a target term, and we all know how much of an impact that can make with a small business. We’re also huge believers in the power of local directories like CityVoter and Universal Business Listing, but how far can these citations take us when competing with the ever-increasing maps results? Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Looking forward to more posts.

  • richrosen

    Hi David – It’s Rich Rosen from FastCall411. I learned at my first job (as a product manager for a record label) that in retail if there is no category for an item in the store, the consumer won’t know where to look for it. Of course, more data on a business is always better, but the searcher needs a starter category (restaurant, home services, personal services, professional services). I believe that we need to throw the NAICS and SIC codes out the window and start from scratch to categorize local industries. Start with the basics: Retail, Commercial, Both and work our way down. I also believe our industry needs to coalesce around an industry standard / clearinghouse. Otherwise, the merchant will lose and the consumer will never find what they are searching for *on the shelf*.

  • David Mihm

    Thanks for your feedback, Monique and Rich. It’s going to be very interesting to watch the data-provider space in the coming months to see if there is any sort of coalescing of the kind Rich talks about. It sure would make business owners’ lives easier.


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