Can SEOs make local search great again in 2017?
The road ahead looks rough for local SEO practitioners and agencies, but is there hope? Columnist Andrew Shotland takes a look at what recent trends mean for those who serve local search clients.
It was bad enough that Prince, Leonard Cohen and Mrs. Brady checked out in 2016, but then I had to go and read David Mihm’s excellent 2017 Local Marketing Predictions, and I couldn’t find a cocktail fast enough to drown my misery.
Mihm’s piece is a sober look at how Google has been leading us all down the path to a single result and how SEO is going to get even tougher over the next year as Google culls the SERPs in favor of entities (aka Knowledge Panels, Local Packs and so on) and voice results. Kind of reminded me of this old sunshine and rainbows post.
Thing is, Mihm is right. As he states:
SEO will not die in 2017. But the number of beneficiaries of organic visibility from Google will decline dramatically.
So, what’s a guy with the word “SEO” in his brand supposed to do in the face of this one-way ticket to the End of SEO Days? And what about all you other SEO agencies and in-house types?
Let’s look at the situation:
Local is fragmented
This is the case for every local marketing niche and is one of the reasons so many local search-oriented companies have been able to thrive over the past decade. When it comes to local SEO, there are three main buckets of businesses that can benefit:
- Low-end and high-end SMBs with one to a handful of locations
- Multi-location brands
- Non-local brands that target local traffic but don’t have a physical location in the target market (think local directory sites, media sites and so on)
Of these three, it’s the Low-End SMBs and the Non-Local Brands that are probably the most at risk from these trends. And it’s the SEOs who serve them who will have to figure out how to make lemonade.
SEO agencies that service low-end SMBs
It may just be that the time of the “scalable” SMB SEO agency is finally ending; these are companies that looked into the ever-expanding deep ocean of SMBs that knew little about digital marketing and saw an endless stream of revenue. While I am sure there are good ones out there, in general these are the types of vendors who have destroyed a lot of the industry’s credibility by offering cookie-cutter solution factories.
There is always going to be a need to help these low-budget customers get the basics right, but the ability to show ROI on anything beyond the basics at low budgets is getting tougher. So the smile-and-dial vendors are going to have to get good at selling multi-channel solutions.
The problem is that all of these solutions run into the same problem when you have to do thousands of them per month at very low budgets. Now, instead of having a weak SEO product with heavy churn, you have a weak multi-channel product with heavy churn.
Companies with this kind of challenge should probably figure out either how to migrate up the food chain to higher-dollar engagements with fewer clients they can keep happy (the “Jerry Maguire” strategy), or how to move into a full-fledged software business — because that’s basically the model they’ve built, but without the software part.
The good news is the scaleable agency’s problems are the boutique agency’s opportunities. Smaller, more nimble SEO shops should be able to cherry-pick the best customers from these types of services and provide better customized solutions.
And everything isn’t doom and gloom for the factories. As long as you build the “burn and churn” into your model, you should (unfortunately) have plenty of room to play for the foreseeable future. Despite the challenges of Google, SMBs that don’t know what they are doing in digital marketing aren’t going away any time soon.
Businesses with no physical location have been getting a steady Google haircut for years. Even the biggest local directories out there have likely seen double-digit drops, particularly as 3-packs have anchored themselves to the top of most local SERPs and truly local businesses have started to invest more in SEO.
There is still a place in the SERPs for these sites, particularly those that have their “answers” strategy tuned in. While a single voice-search result might be good for some local queries — like best steakhouse in town, oil change coupon, or set egg timer near me — for the most part, I think it highly unlikely that a V-SERP, and even a desktop SERP with a limited set of results, will prove useful for the majority of queries.
Mihm’s post referenced the failure of beacons “because they don’t solve a consumer problem.” I would argue that the single-result SERP, particularly for voice, will suffer a similar fate for many query types. This Instant Answer SERP he included for the phrase “best teeth whitening dentist” couldn’t be more useless.
So, what can the SEO for a non-local brand do? Earlier this year, I posited in “The Future of Local SERPs” that publishers will need to focus on:
- Ensuring Google understands its content via mark-up and page structure.
- Constantly improving user engagement with its content.
- Prioritizing content that best answers relevant questions.
- Evolving the standard “Local Directory SERP” from a list of business listings to a highly structured collection of the most important information a consumer needs to make a decision.
In other words, your typical local directory is going to have to be better than what Google can cobble together by looking at all of the sites in a particular niche/geo.
So, if you are a big national to local directory site, you’d better get good at some specific subjects fast. I recommend starting with the ones that make you the most money first!
Multi-location brands & high-end SMBs
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but there’s a significant opportunity in the local SEO space for multi-location brands and those SMBs that want to compete at the high end of the market (e.g., attorneys, plastic surgeons, dentists).
In fact, in most cases we see brands big and small still underinvesting in SEO. We have one multi-location retailer client that makes more than 40 percent of its revenue from organic traffic, of which half comes from non-branded queries — yet according to Google Search Console, almost 90 percent of the site’s Google impressions come from non-branded queries. That means they still have a huge upside of untapped SEO potential, even in a world of shrinking SERPs.
So, brands still need to be doing more local SEO, but it’s incredibly hard to hire local SEO talent in-house. Generally, the reason that brands aren’t moving on local SEO is that they lack the internal knowledge to understand the full extent of the problem and operationalize the solution. (I mean, it’s hard enough for people who are doing this all day long to keep track of it.)
This means that many brands are going to have a hard time hiring talent, because they aren’t going to be able to properly identify and nurture talent. Thus, agencies with the right skill set are still in a great position to be able to help brands break into, and capitalize on, local SEO.
So yeah, things are getting tougher every day for agencies and practitioners of local SEO.
But Google still can’t resist showing a picture of a slice of pizza as the main image of the Google My Business (GMB) page for one of our car dealer clients. And it can’t resist dropping the website links from thousands of GMB pages to one of our retailer clients. As long as the Borg keeps trying to assimilate all of the garbage data out there, there are good odds we local SEO types will live long and prosper.
Now, where’s that damn cocktail? Happy holidays!
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