David Mihm is more than just an SEMpdx Schwag Ho. He is one of the top experts in the ever-growing specialty of Local Search Optimization and he focuses his consultancy on helping small business clients generate online revenue in their respective marketplaces. His Mihmorandum blog is a "mandatory add" to the feedreader of anybody remotely interested in the Local SEO niche.
David is Portland's newest SEO transplant (...plenty of room for more of y'all to move here BTW...) and on the eve of his appearance at SMX Local & Mobile, he agreed to answer questions on topics on which he is definitely one of the pre-eminent experts.
1) Please give us your background and tell us what you do for a living.
(I usually give a stock answer here, which is on my "About" page, but I'll try to branch out with this one a little bit J .)
My fascination with SEO started way back in 2000, when I launched a college basketball webpage on my Williams College student webspace. I had started the page just to give my buddies and myself something to banter about over IM and email, and all of a sudden out of the blue I get an email from a random guy telling me I'd made a mistake in something I'd written.
He told me he found my site because I was ranking #2 on Yahoo for "NCAA Tournament Predictions." Amazed, I started to investigate a little bit more about why that was happening--Title tags, meta keywords, etc. but it remained a hobby (obviously, I was still in school).
In February 2005, after I'd tried graduate school and a couple of other "career paths," I got an email from a New York Times writer and a call from a producer for Stephen A. Smith. Within a couple of weeks, I had a front-page feature in the Times and an appearance on ESPN, thanks to my search engine presence.
So that experience proved to me the incredible potential that the web held, beyond just design, which I'd been interested in since high school, and I decided to pursue it full-time. And today I run my own web design and SEO shop in Portland, Oregon .
2) There were a lot of diverse opinions given in your Local Search Rankings Guide. Do you think local search will be easier to define and measure as time goes on?
Yes and no. I think there will be more agreement on the ranking factors once the Local algorithms start to settle down a little bit (if people think Google is mixing up the organic SERPs these days, they should pay attention to the results in the 10-pack!) and a broader set of search marketers get more and more experience with optimizing sites specifically for Local.
But as I said in some of my comments, the relative importance of each factor seems to vary pretty widely depending on your industry and level of competition. A big-city hotel, for example, where there are a lot of signals for Google and Yahoo to consider, proximity to centroid doesn't matter very much, and things like inbound anchor text and review quantity seem to matter more. But a plumber in Hays, Kansas, is probably going to do fine just by locating her office close to downtown and getting a couple of profiles that validate her information on Superpages and Insiderpages, for example.
3) My friend @ matthewjbrown twittered me the name of a local BBQ restaurant and when I looked at the comments, I was very impressed at how the owner actively engaged each negative reviewer. How can you convince small business to monitor and participate in relevant online conversations?
For small business owners, marketing decisions seem to come down to two main questions: how much time am I going to have to spend on it, and how much money can I make from it? They're incredibly busy running their business, so they need to prioritize what they spend their time and money on. If they're lucky, they may have a part-time marketing "executive" but rarely is there someone in-house responsible for marketing.
Obviously, the best incentive would be to show a measurable ROI in terms of web traffic, foot traffic, or revenue, based on other business owners' participation. The difficulty in making that connection in this case is that participation might not *make* you any money, but it might be something you need to do to keep from *losing* money.
So I'd show them a few concrete examples like the one you cited, and these great articles about the power of user reviews: two by search industry pros Matt McGee and Greg Sterling, and one terrific run-down in the San Francisco Chronicle.
4) What criteria should a small / local business use in deciding where best to place their online advertising budget?
Each business's needs are different, so this is a little bit of a tough question.
I'd think first and foremost about how much time you want to spend doing things yourself vs. how much you're willing to pay someone else to do them for you. Especially in Local Search, because the level of search engine competition is generally a little lower, there are a lot of things you can do yourself, if you know the right places to look and sites to target.
So if you're a DIY-er, I'd say your best bet is to schedule a site review and personalized consultation for a couple hundred dollars with a respected Local Search expert like Mike Blumenthal or Miriam Ellis and get his/her opinion about what your business needs. He or she will tell you the low-hanging fruit that you can grab yourself, and offer services where he/she thinks you'll get the most value from his/her expertise.
If you're a delegator, and/or have a little bit larger budget, I'd still schedule that consultation. But then you can also consider some additional options like signing up for a listing with Localeze, getting a premium listing on some high-traffic sites like Yelp or Citysearch, etc. You might also consider paying an employee or a contractor to blog on behalf of your business, if you don't have the time or the inclination to do that yourself. (See my answer to question #7 for more.)
5) Should a small business with a limited budget even bother with having a website? Could resources be better used elsewhere if a "suck" website is all they can afford?
Greg Sterling hosted an interesting discussion about this very topic on his blog just last month. I come down on the side of each business having a website of its own. That could be just as simple as having a landing page with that business's offline contact information and an email address.
Every business should have its own destination online. Even if they don't intend to build it out in the short-term, it's important not to be dependent on other "free" profile websites...who knows when they won't be free any more, when they'll require you to display advertising, etc.
These days, it's so easy to register a domain name and get set up with a reasonably snazzy-looking Wordpress blog with places like Dreamhost, using a templated Theme, that there's no financial excuse not to make that initial step.
6) This John Andrews post about mobile ads made me curious to get your opinion on how mobile search and local search might converge.
I think John's on the right track there. People on mobile devices aren't typically looking for a "rich" user experience. They're looking for information FAST , that they can use to contact a business right from their phone, or at the very least remember to check out in more detail once they're at a laptop or a desktop. The screen is smaller, so there should be more text and fewer graphics.
That's why I think we've seen Google and Yahoo integrate their 10-packs and 3-packs the way they have. Business information like address and phone is available right there , at the very top of the search results, without even clicking through to the website. And there are a lot of businesses listed Locally that don't even HAVE websites.
Some of the stuff that companies in Japan are doing with in-store coupon codes being served right to your phone via a text message is pretty fascinating, too. I think we'll start to see more of that kind of tracking/promotion in the States as a way to drive offline business via mobile. Offline and mobile will continue to reinforce each other, especially for retail stores dependent on a lot of foot traffic.
7) How can small business effectively engage with social media? What social media should they engage with?
HyperLocal blogging is definitely #1. Find out who the top bloggers in your area are (to get started, just do a search for "Portland, Oregon blog" or similar), read their stuff, and start to make comments on it (perhaps mentioning your phone number or address if it's appropriate--see #9). Write about events and other non-competitive businesses in your area and provide some credibility for yourself by demonstrating your expertise and how you stay on top of current trends in your industry.
As you know, I'm also a HUGE fan of Twitter, and I think it's probably the easiest kind of Social Media to understand, because the conversations are so direct.
Research your community and your industry with Summize. See what people in your city are talking about & follow them. See what people in your industry from around the world are talking about. Create content on your own blog or promotions on your own website that you think would interest them, and promote it on Twitter. Those kinds of connections lead to visibility for your own blog and can really help you hone your business messaging and positioning.
On Twitter, there's no such thing as a "power account," which is critical to success on Digg, StumbleUpon, etc. All the interaction is real, and if you are following the right people for your company or your business, and putting out content they like, your visibility, notoriety (and incoming links) can skyrocket.
8) Small businesses are the easiest prey for online search marketing "predators". How can they best protect themselves?
Say no to anyone who emails you or calls you soliciting their services. Seriously. Take down their information and do some investigating. Very few reputable SEO / SEM shops feel the need to troll for business because they've already got a steady growth in their customer base through word-of-mouth or search engine traffic of their own.
If someone refers you to a provider, search for their business name and look at the first three pages of results to see if anyone is making negative comments about them. Look at their own websites, look at some representative clients. If there's any question about their ethics, move on to another firm.
Beyond that, the best way to combat predators is to become educated about search engine marketing yourself. Teach yourself the basics of SEO and SEM so that you can spot a shyster who's trying to pull a fast one. SEOmoz's Beginner's Guide and Aaron Wall's SEObook are great, inexpensive places to start.
So is attending an SEMpdx event--or similar events for the group in your area. You'll generally get high-quality referrals, and meet high-quality practitioners, at events like these.
9) What action items can a small business perform if they read your " Citation Is The New Link" blog post and decided that they needed to better themselves in that area?
The #1 priority for all businesses that have Local customers should be claiming their listing at Google and Yahoo.
Beyond that, take a look at who is ranking well in the Local algorithm and specifically look at the 'Web Pages' tab within their own listings. You'll start to get a sense of the kinds of sites Google is considering as relevant to businesses like yours. Yahoo pulls from a similar set.
Sign up explicitly with your address and phone number for sites that are showing up frequently underneath those tabs for multiple businesses.
Localeze and UniversalBusinessListing.org are great places to syndicate your business information as well.
And just like real estate, "Location, location, location." Google in particular seems really big on citations from blogs whose geography it can pin down definitively. So you can get a lot more high-quality citations from HyperLocal blogs in your area, as I've already mentioned.
10) Please talk about online reputation management in a small business context.
Online reputation management goes hand-in-hand with Local optimization. The overarching strategy of ORM, as I understand it anyway, is to push negative search results further down the search result page by inflating the value of positive or neutral results. How does one do that? By creating profiles across a number of social media sites and industry platforms, getting mentioned in local press and online media.
Guess what--all of these positive or neutral search results that are pushing down the negative mentions are likely going to count as citations in the Local algorithm. So you get bang for your buck both organically AND Locally.
But unlike larger companies, smaller businesses also need to bear in mind reviews across a mushrooming number of portals that get a lot of traffic in their own right. Yelp, Google, Yahoo, Citysearch, MerchantCircle, InsiderPages, TripAdvisor, just to name a few. I don't see an analogous situation for larger businesses, except maybe in the tech and auto spaces where there are a ton of popular, high-trafficked review sites specifically focused on products in these verticals.
It doesn't help that companies like Yelp are putting up such high barriers to engagement by business owners. It's a tough situation -- small businesses have to work twice as hard as larger businesses to manage their online reputation, with fewer resources.
Todd Mintz is the Director of Internet Marketing & Information Systems for S.R. Clarke Inc., a Real Estate Development and Residential / Commercial Construction Executive Search / Recruiting Firm headquartered in Fairfax, VA with offices nationwide. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon's Search Engine Marketing Association.
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