Top 10 local search insights of 2017

From location data to SEO, columnist Wesley Young of the Local Search Association provides his top 10 list of local search lessons learned in 2017.

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Is it just me, or does it seem time flies faster in the local search industry? Another year has gone by, with many changes and developments to boot. Here’s a list of my top 10 insights from 2017:

1. Customer data is the new competitive edge

SMBs often feel at a competitive disadvantage compared to larger companies who benefit from scale at every level, including the purchase of search advertising or other marketing services. Data is helping even the playing field as it emphasizes quality over quantity.

Better data resulting in better targeting means that local businesses experience lower costs, higher conversion rates and greater ROI. And while targeting is not a new strategy, what’s new is the access to and quality of data.

Just as the price of technology drops with increased adoption, data will be cheaper, more accurate and more insightful. The Internet of Things (IoT) is driving growth in data much faster than what could be achieved by mobile phones alone. It’s estimated that by 2020, there will be over 50 billion connected devices, including wearables, home devices and automobiles. And it seems that nothing is off limits — internet-connected ink for tattoos, mascara and contact lenses have already been developed, making the potential for the type and volume of data collection seem endless.

Ultimately, having the right customer data rather than scale is the new competitive edge.

2. Offline behavior is better at predicting online actions than online behavior

There’s been a lot of attention focused on understanding online actions and whether they drive offline visits, i.e., the ability to attribute store visits to online marketing efforts.

Yet perhaps the opposite is even more important: measuring offline actions to predict online behavior. While measuring offline behavior has, to date, been largely reliant on location of mobile devices, IoT devices now bring a much greater diversity of data into play.

Knowing real-life choices, actions and behavior better predict online decisions than clicks, search history and page views. That offline behavior is a deeper and more complete picture of the real world and forms more accurate indicators of intent.

3. Facebook makes waves in local search

As recently as 2015, Facebook’s local search functionality was woefully bad. Major changes since then have made Facebook a real local search player. Facebook uses location information, better indexing and richer business profiles to offer robust search results.

Yet the game-changer for Facebook is the way it is beginning to incorporate its vast bank of personal data into search results that allow targeting and profiling at an unprecedented depth.

Its social media data provides insight into preferences, hobbies, taste, beliefs and other personal behavior that will help Facebook predict intent or choices far more accurately than Google can. And that should scare the bejesus out of Google.

4. SEO ranking factors must now be customized by vertical

Whether it’s the threat of competition from the likes of Facebook or other reasons, Google has always striven to provide consumers with search results that best match what they are looking for and content that will be most helpful. So it is no surprise that Google is looking more deeply and more specifically at ranking factors that determine search results.

SEO can no longer be a one-size-fits-all solution. To be most effective, SEO ranking factors must be analyzed based on vertical and other business-specific characteristics.

For example, even though general statistics say that content with images performs much better in user engagement and action, studies have shown that the top-ranking websites for financial products and services contain 40 percent fewer images than the average universal benchmark. While many cite the large percentage of consumers who leave slow-loading websites, the top-ranking travel websites took on average three seconds longer to load than the universal benchmark. Users are willing to wait for the right content and read lots of text when doing so meets their needs.

Use of ranking factors such as backlinks and keyword frequency to boost search results needs to be customized based on content and relevance. Understand your consumers and how they utilize your business’s website and content. Do they rely on images for visual information, or do they look for detailed text that needs to be broken down into more readable, bite-sized bullet points? Does social media convey the type of image that you seek to convey? Does LinkedIn reach your audience better than Facebook?

Answering these questions and building a website showing Google you are mindful of what relevant content a targeted audience seeks will boost your search rank.

5. The local search audience radius is shrinking

It’s long been believed that the majority of shopping happens locally, despite the growth of e-commerce. A Google study conducted in May 2014, “Understanding Consumers’ Local Search Behavior,” found that 72 percent of consumers who searched for local info on a smartphone visited stores within five miles of home.

This year, Access released data that shows consumers stay even closer to home for the most frequent purchases, like gas, groceries, eating out and working out. For example, consumers travel, on average, only six minutes to fill up their cars and eight minutes to buy groceries. That correlates to roughly two to three miles away if traveling by car.

While consumers will travel farther for less frequent purchases like clothing or auto repair, 93 percent of all consumers typically travel 20 minutes or less for their general shopping needs. Urban consumers, who represent 83 percent of all shoppers, prefer even shorter distances, with 92 percent traveling 15 minutes or less. That is approximately a five-to-six-mile distance by car, or much less if by transit or walking.

Thus, local businesses must adjust their marketing reach to account for the small radius of their audience. However, that audience might include local residents, commuters who work nearby or out-of-town travelers. So remember that distance becomes relevant at the micro-moment when a need arises and isn’t a static point for each individual.

6. Google images are searched more than all non-Google searches combined

According to Rand Fishkin at Moz, search on Google Images ranks second among all web properties behind and is performed more frequently than search on the remaining Top 10 web properties combined. Google images are searched more than 10 times as often as any search on Bing or Yahoo and almost 40 times the number of searches on Facebook.

Search on Google Images constitutes almost a third of all search on Google-branded products, ahead of Google Maps and YouTube.

Yet many businesses fail to optimize images uploaded to their websites for search, leading to many missed opportunities to generate sales or be found otherwise. Optimizing image labels, data, tags and descriptors helps Google better index graphics and images, leading to better ranking. Further, being mindful of how images contribute to a better user experience will increase clicks on the image during searches, which will, in turn, improve rank. Some UX factors to consider when uploading images include quality, load speed, viewability, context, authenticity and general appeal of the image.

Businesses that rely on visual cues should take special note including retail and consumer goods, professionals (profile pics), destinations and design.

7. Over 85% of brand engagement by consumers is local

The majority of consumer engagement with brands (85-95 percent) happens through local listings, local web pages or other local search results. Location is often discussed synonymously with local, so the use of location data in marketing is a good indicator of the emphasis placed on local. This year, 50 percent of brands are using location data to target consumers.

Brands are also spending more on location-based marketing. Twenty-five percent of leading brands’ marketing budgets are spent on location-based marketing and projected to rise. In 2016, $12.4 billion was spent on location-targeted ad spending by US brands, and that figure is projected to rise to $32.4 billion by 2021, equivalent to 45 percent of all mobile ad revenue.

Those companies committed to the use of location marketing cite case studies that demonstrate the return of investing in local. Use of location in advertising provided up to a 27 percent lift in specific campaigns run by Wendy’s.

8. Some brands still struggle with location marketing

While brands are understandably increasing spending on local marketing, neither the dollars spent nor the quality of marketing appears to reflect the importance of local. That 50 percent of brands are using location data for targeting still seems on the low end when we can see how consumers are universally engaging, shopping, researching and evaluating brand products and services on the local level.

It’s even more surprising when comparing local search results for brands that prioritize location and those that don’t. Fast food restaurants, hotels and convenience stores are just a few of the examples I found where some brands were featured prominently in search results, while others were markedly less visible or even completely omitted from local search results.

The latter examples were not simply poorly ranked — rather, they did not show up at all on Google Map search results. For the many consumers who search for local businesses exclusively on their mobile devices, businesses that don’t show up on maps or search results might as well not exist at all.

One way brands fell short in using location data was by listing national corporate credentials and links instead of local ones for individual location listings or sites. And some brands failed to create or complete profiles for individual stores that were part of bundled retail locations. These mistakes reflect a lack of an overall strategy for making location a priority despite the importance of doing so.

9. Consumers are wrestling brand reputation away from corporate control

Social media and consumer-generated content such as reviews are the new battlegrounds for business reputation and identity. Gone are the days when PR teams could operate in a relative vacuum and shape the perception of product quality or business image in a series of closely controlled campaigns.

Shared pictures and video can portray a reality that is impossible to refute, and a single consumer can capture the world’s attention in real time through one tweet. Movements such as this year’s #DeleteUber empowered hundreds of thousands of individuals to join together in a united voice. And reviews demand accountability from businesses in every aspect of consumer experience and engagement.

As such, reputation is much less an internally generated message broadcast to the masses and more a management of public discourse in trying to protect or uphold brand identity. Businesses need to understand this shift and adapt brand management with this in mind.

10. New competition arises for marketing media and agencies

Technology has encroached into the advertising space in a variety of ways. Platforms such as social media and review sites created new ad inventory. Software products consolidate multiple media platforms into one-stop user interfaces. And programmatic ad services match ad buyers with ad sellers.

But the core service of strategic management and planning of marketing and ad campaigns is now also being threatened by technology. Technology companies are offering additional services outside of their core service area including marketing and advertising. And two numbers from the Local Search Association’s 2017 Tech Adoption Index Survey reveal that advertising media and agencies have reason to be concerned:

  • 60 percent of SMBs prefer to work with a single SaaS tools provider.
  • 62 percent of SMBs favor technology companies over media companies if they were to purchase services outside of a company’s core product.

With more agency work being provided via online portals, and more technology companies offering marketing services, the numbers suggest that SMBs will shift that work away from traditional ad agencies.

In order to compete effectively, agencies need to keep up with the latest marketing innovations and demonstrate superior performance arising out of their core expertise.

Closing thoughts

As 2017 comes to a close and planning for next year’s goals and budgets begins in earnest, it is prudent to remember to take time for reflection. I hope you’ve had a successful and rewarding 2017 and that taking a look at some important lessons learned this past year will help continue that success in the year to come.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Wesley Young
Wesley Young is the Local Search Association’s Vice President of Public Affairs. He blogs about the industry on the Local Search Insider blog.

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