Grinches, Scrooges and big, toothy sharks are out there in growing numbers, waiting to take the money of honest local business owners in return for very poor advice, promising Local SEO glory and delivering bad practices. In 2010, through my work as a Local SEO for my firm, as a Q&A forum consultant for SEOmoz, a Cre8asite moderator and writing articles here and elsewhere, it has become increasingly clear to me that some of the most important work legitimate Local SEOs do revolves around drawing lines in the sand for clients, steering them along the straight and narrow path while voices clamor to encourage detours that forsake the best interests of both owners and users.
In this article, I would like to identify what I have come to see as the areas of Local SEO that require the cleanest, clearest guidance in working with valued clients. Unsurprisingly, these are the very components of the industry that are suffering most from confusion, poor implementation and downright spam. In your work as a Local SEO in 2011, I hope having read these scenarios will help you to come across with the very best advice that will generate positive results for your clients and pride in your own business.
Identifying Local SEO Client Type
By the end of your first phone conversation with an incoming client, you will likely be able to categorize the business owner in one of three ways:
The Utter Neophyte
Whether this is the owner of Grandma's Quilt Shop or the bewildered CEO of a major corporation, this client knows almost nothing about Local Search and may know little about the Internet or computers. He has never heard of Place Pages, may be fearful of user reviews and is likely running a completely unoptimized website, in terms of Local Search. If this client comes to you, ready to trust in your counsel, the work ahead of steering him along a good path should be relatively easy, provided he understands the value of Local.
You are basically starting with a clean slate because, apart from any unclaimed Local profiles that may have been automatically scraped by Google et al., nothing has been done to promote the business thus far. There is no problem here teaching the neophyte client good Local business practices and you can expect excellent results from your work with him.
The Halfway-There Client
This client is already aware of Local SEO and its value but is seeking professional advice because he isn't sure whether he's doing things correctly or whether he's doing everything he can.
These clients tend to require more work than group one because, in their solo efforts to pursue Local rankings, they will have engaged in various tasks which may or may not have been done well. Very often, you will find innocent violations on their Google Place Pages. You will find a lack of local signals on their websites, creating a weak overall Local SEO total package. They may have a few reviews here and there, but haven't responded to the negative ones and aren't actively encouraging positive ones. And, most problematically, they may have gotten bad advice in the past that has caused them to take actions which could have very negative impacts on their standings.
In these cases, you, the Local SEO, must first decide if anything has been done that is so negative, you can't see a good way to amend it. Hopefully that won't be the case and you will have plenty of ways to help this client, teaching him all the while the difference between allowed and forbidden practices. In most cases, you will be able to expect good results and, perhaps most importantly, you will have taken a client who was halfway-there in his efforts to being totally current with best Local practices.
Little Horns On Their Heads
Business owners who have gone over to the dark side may make very poor choices for clients. If, in your initial consultation, it becomes apparent that the potential client has been buying reviews, has set up virtual offices across the country in order to appear Local when he isn't, had created tons of Place Pages without reason or similar problematic practices, it's time to step back and consider your options.
A good place to start is to figure out how the client got this way. Was he sold on these practices by a dubious marketer? Did he come up with these crazy ideas himself and thinks he's a genius for doing so? And how deep is the damage? Sometimes, you will find yourself chatting with dyed-in-the-wool spammers who lack the moral compass to see that their manipulation is actually ruining the results for everyone, but more often, you may be hearing from business owners who have been misinformed, hoodwinked and scammed by unsavory marketers. They may even be coming to you because they've been penalized or have read something that has filled them with doubt about the tactics their marketer is using.
You will have to decide whether you can help. Whether you are speaking to a spammer or an owner who has been duped, telling it like it is is the first step. You need only point to Google's Quality Guidelines to back up your explanation of why what they are doing violates the rules. Their reaction to this will likely help you establish whether you are dealing with a little devil or a victim of misinformation. Depending on their attitude and how deep the trouble is, you can determine whether this is a client you can take on, being fully transparent that the work ahead may or may not result in a cleaner profile and good rankings for the client.
Looking For Trouble
You may meet clients who don't fit any of my three profiles, but my bet is that you have recognized most of your current clients within those descriptions. With that in mind, we're ready to move on to the specific places in which trouble happens with local business owners. If you've been doing Local SEO for even a few months, you will doubtless recognize some of these, too:
Place Page Business Title. The legal business name, the whole legal business name and nothing but the legal business name. If the client's pre-existent Place Page business title contains extraneous words, it will need to be edited to comply with the guidelines.
Categories. Has the Place Page got more than 5 categories? Prune them back to size. Spamming in this area generally occurs when the owner is putting multiple categories in each of the five fields, separated by commas.
Business Description. This has become a little iffy as of Google's November update of their guidelines which previously forbid the repetition of keywords in the business title within the business description field. My friend and colleague, Linda Buquet, wrote an excellent piece citing the disappearance of this rather cumbersome, awkward historic rule. Is Google still penalizing for this? I have yet to see data one way or the other, but the statement is gone from the guidelines. Beyond this, making sure that the business description reads as a description and not a string of keywords will be important for you and your clients.
Duplicates. Definitely one of the most poorly understood factors. I recently wrote an article devoted solely to the number of Place Pages a business is allowed to have. The business model (single shop, franchise, multi-partner firm) dictates the answer. Whether the duplicates are intentional (made with the hope of ranking where the business doesn't belong) or have happened accidentally as a result of Google's wonky data aggregation process, dupes must be identified and, if possible, cleaned up.
Reviews. The writing is definitely on the wall that less-than-upstanding marketers have discovered a cash cow in making a commodity out of reviews. Don't miss Mike Blumenthal's most recent post about this, the latest in his ongoing reportage surrounding this truly problematic topic. Google forbids the purchase or incentivizing of reviews. So does the review giant, Yelp. So does your grandmother who always cast a dark eye on shakedowns and boondoggles. In 2011, you'll have your hands full steering incoming clients away from monetized review schemes.
Poor On-Page Local SEO. With the recent rollout of Place Search, the health of clients' websites is now irrefutably a major part of the work of Local SEOs. Business owners who are happy with terrible websites will make very poor clients, and if you can't touch the site, chances are you can't help the business. In many cases, your work as a Local SEO will begin with an audit of the client's site and implementation of your list of recommendations for the optimization of all of the basic components of traditional SEO, with geo modifiers, plus the focus of special attention to contact information, contact pages and so-on. Your chances to teach well are awesome here, taking vague, un-optimized sites to a whole new level of local usefulness.
Copywriting. Critical to your work as a Local SEO will be determining whether your client or an employee in his office is capable of writing the content that appears on his website. If not, you will be doing the writing or at least the editing of all website copy. The power to rank, influence and call to action is embedded within the words on web pages and this is not a step that can be disregarded. Here, too, will be your chance to influence clients for good, in the common scenario of go-to-client business models wishing to rank for a variety of cities in which they serve. A lazy marketer might simply create a bunch of duplicate landing pages for the bevy of cities. A good one will encourage the client to write unique content for each of these city pages, content that really helps his community, or he will be doing the writing himself. This is such a major issue, it really merits an article of its own
Good Old Greed. This is where your mettle as a Local SEO will really be put to the test. Clients will come to you wanting to rank beyond the scope of their just deserts. They will be feeling tempted to bend the rules for their own gain. There are so many bugs, loopholes and grey areas, the temptation can be quite strong. This is the arena in which I have come to see that we Local SEOs can do our best work, drawing for our clients a line in the sand between what is legitimate and allowed, and what is greedy and devoid of civic-mindedness. This means you will be telling lawyers that they cannot have Place Pages for every different type of legal work their office does. It means saying 'no' to virtual offices and generic, duplicate content. It means acting to preserve what we, as Local SEOs, like about Local. I'm hoping your incoming clients will take your advice and walk a good path through this maze of choices, but if they don't, you win anyway, avoiding the pitfalls of working with clients nobody sane would want.
Bringing Local Home
When I am looking for someplace to meet my in-laws for dinner, I want to see real reviews of restaurants. I don't want to be swayed by phony praise. When I am looking for the nearest local attorney, I want to be able to go to his real nearby physical office; I don't want to end up at a P.O. Box station. When I am looking at businesses by order of ranking to get the gist of Google's opinion of the merits of various entities, I'd like that to be based on Google's algorithm - not the gaming of it.
I use Local Search, and so do you. As Local SEOs, I think we have a unique opportunity to help make Local genuinely useful. Sure, there will always be spammers and unwitting business owners who serve as easy prey to fly-by-night salesmen, and the combination of this, coupled with Google's mountain of bugs, will likely always degrade data quality. But I think of it this way: every client who comes to you or I equals one really good record and presence we are putting out there, and this excellent data is going to be helping our neighbors, friends and family to find answers to their needs.
In days gone by, city planners invested amazing amounts of time and money creating beautiful resources for community residents. A trip to San Francisco, California will show you a wealth of 19th - 20th century parks, museums, gardens, accessible beaches, fountains and paths - all created with the good of the citizen in mind. These days, with evidently changed priorities and money troubles, new neighborhoods are lucky to be given a Quick-e-Mart as a resource for better living.
I believe that, in a small way, Local SEOs are the city planners of the 21st century. What we do builds an infrastructure of resources in the form of data our communities need. While we may not enjoy the beaux-arts glory of erecting sculptures and pavilions, we are enabling our neighbors to find doctors, schools, libraries and merchants. We are fostering community interactions, commerce and social betterment. Because of this, I would like to encourage every marketer who takes on a Local client in 2011 to take the highest possible road in the process, happy in the knowledge that our work - and the methods of our work - really do matter.
Happy Holidays to all our valued readers, and best wishes for a great Local 2011!
December 23, 2010
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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