This week at the Yellow Pages Association conference in Las Vegas, I will be leading a session on the state of search engine optimization and how local directories can benefit (or not) from using SEO strategically.
For those of you who can’t make it to the show, I thought I’d provide some highlights of my presentation.
Since February of this year, Google has been rolling out an algorithm change (known as “Farmer” or “Panda”) aimed at identifying low-quality pages and sites.
As of last week, the update has been rolled out internationally and is apparently (in certain situations) using data provided by searchers about what constitutes a spammy site.
In my view, big local directories have a number of issues that make them susceptible to being filtered by Panda, let’s explore a couple of those issues now, followed by five SEO tips for local directories.
Millions Of URLs With Generic Content
Most local directory sites have URLs for each business in their database. They also tend to have similar “GeoCategory” pages (e.g. a list of Chicago Restaurants).
In most cases, these URLs tend to have the exact same information as every other local directory (e.g. name, address, phone number, services, etc.). One of Panda’s stated goals was to weed out “non-unique” content. These URLs are the definition of non-unique.
Many local directories are now also investing in creating editorial content such as “How To Hire a DUI Attorney” to try to distinguish their content. In many cases, sites are licensing this content from third parties which also means that this content is showing up on many sites and is not unique.
In other cases, the writers creating this content have done little to make the articles truly compelling so they don’t generate any links and they end up targeting the same keywords as everyone else, meaning they don’t tend to rank well.
Poor User Experience
Google has said that Panda’s algorithm takes into account the experience of the searcher when they hit your site. This could mean that any combination of factors such as page speed, ad density, user-interface design, average time on site, etc. could be impacting your search rankings.
Many local directories, particularly yellow pages sites, are known for cluttered design, an over-abundance of ads and high bounce rates. On the positive side, the entire industry suffers from high bounce rates, so if Google is judging you by your peers, you might be ok.
On the negative side of things, there are a handful of sites that most likely have significantly better user metrics (think Yelp) and therefore will have the edge in the SERPs.
Lack Of A Social Media Strategy
Over the past year, the major search engines have started incorporating social signals into their ranking algorithms.
Most local directory sites (and most sites in general) tend to have fairly rudimentary social media strategies, if they have one at all. If there is little or no social activity around your URLs, then you will not benefit from this part of the algorithm.
You Don’t Own The Best Local Real Estate
Contrary to popular belief, Google Places is not the best local real estate on the Web. It is in fact the SMB website. If you look at the Google’s Place SERPs, the SMB website is front and center.
Google clearly wants to promote the SMB website in as many local queries as possible (along with their Place Page of course). This makes sense in theory, because the SMB website should ultimately be the source of truth about the business (until they can get all of that data on the business’ Place Page of course).
As I said about four years ago in my Yellow Pages SEO 3.0 post, the SMB website is where the action will be in local. Local directories will still have a valuable place in the ecosystem, but the SMB website is a key piece to the puzzle.
You Don’t Have A Recognizable Brand
Over the past year, Google has made a lot of noise about showing preferences to brands in its algorithm. The problem with most local directories is that they don’t have a brand, at least not a meaningful one. This is true of start-ups as well as established print yellow pages companies.
In Google’s eyes, brands equate to links, mentions on third party authoritative sites, regular queries for your brand name, social activity around your brand name and a host of other variables. If no one’s talking about you, you don’t exist – or at least you are less likely to exist on page one of the SERPs for your target queries.
5 Tips To Improve Your Local Directory Site
1. Differentiate your content
There’s no way around this. The days of slapping a brand on a set of Localeze or InfoUSA listings and letting Google do its thing are long gone.
If you can’t add value to your content via reviews, editorial or some other way to make this stuff unique, you are not going to fare well with SEO. I would also argue that you are not going to fare well with attracting consumers to use your site in general.
2. Think about the user
I know you pay lip service to your consumer product guy about this, but one of the things the Panda update did was give the voice of the consumer more of a voice inside organizations that rely on Google traffic.
On many local sites, there often is a trade-off between monetization and usability. The next time the consumer guy argues for a little less clutter, you may want to listen because it may be directly impacting revenue.
3. Get social
Tweet, Facebook, Link in, whatever turns you on. If you are not thinking about a sustainable way for your organization to have an ongoing positive presence in social media channels, you may be missing out on more than just @CharlieSheen’s Tweets.
4. Own the SMB website
A number of the major local search players have rolled out SMB website offerings in the past few years. Have you?
5. Market your company
In many ways, this is the entire solution to the problem and most companies don’t spend enough time/effort doing it. In order to be a brand, you need to act like a brand. So go forth and market. If you do it well, people might pay attention and so may the search engines.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.