Keyword Research for Local SEO

Doing keyword research for Local SEO has been somewhat difficult in the past, because many local search phrase combinations have relatively low volume, and the amount of data has been too small/granular for the limitations found in many keyword research services.

Even just a few years ago, I used to try to research local keyword phrases for things like “boston plumbers” in a service such as comScore’s qSearch tool, and such phrases would frequently have insufficient search volumes for the tool to reflect back any data. Even Google Trends today states that there’s insufficient volume to show graphs for “boston plumbers“.

The reason why such research is important is because a site seeking to grab as much qualified traffic from consumers interested in a particular type of business as possible, must first know which phrase(s) to focus upon to achieve search engine rankings. They must answer the questions of whether consumers are searching for “plumbers”, “plumbing”, “plumber” or “pipes”. And for local businesses, it’s ideal to match for exact phrases that include local keywords. Do consumers search for “boston plumbers”, “plumbers, boston”, “plumbers in boston”, “plumbers boston ma”, or “plumbers 02118” (a Boston ZIP code)?

There are cases that are even more complex, where an industry may have multiple terms used to find businesses (“accountants”, “accounting”, “tax preparation”, “CPAs”), and cities with multiple name versions and neighborhoods (“New York”, “New York City”, “Manhattan”, “New York, NY”, “NYC”, etc).

The problem is irritating when there’s little recourse available for researching consumer behavior.

However, various providers have been beefing-up the data they make available in order to help address the marketing demand. For instance, Google Insights will sometimes show us the relative search traffic for phrases in cases where Google Trends will not, such as for the “boston plumbers” example:

One reason why Continue reading

How To Rank Well In Google Maps – One Easy Tip

Google LBC Shop Iconby Chris Silver Smith

So, if you’re feeling intimidated by how Google Maps works, and can’t figure out what to do to get them to rank your website higher in the search results, I’ve got a tip for you. This tip is mainly for small-to-medium businesses who are pretty new to online marketing, and this is simply one of the simplest ways to get listed higher than you currently may be.

Chicago Plumbers in Google Maps

This tip is really pretty simple: Claim your business listing!

Yes, that’s right! If you merely claim your business in Google Maps, this factor alone can help you rank higher than other businesses which have not claimed their own listings in Google. This is an open secret amongst local search marketers!

This is one of the FEW ranking factors within Google Maps which Google itself has actually publicly STATED will benefit rankings by some degree. From surveying hundreds and thousands of listings in many cities, I can confirm that this ranking factor appears to be very influential.

There are a few reasons why Google rewards businesses which claim their listings. First, listings claimed by their owners contain information which Google and consumers can trust better Google obtains business listings from a great many sources, and a common problem is that old, stale and defunct business listings get into directories, but it’s hard to figure out what needs fixing without getting input from the business owners.

Second, Google wants to expand information they have about businesses, so when you’ve claimed your listing, be sure to add in other information about your company within the Google Local Business Center interfaces.

Third, Google desires to get lots of small businesses to be very familiar with them, so that one day you might become self-serve advertising clients and purchase some of their ads.

There are other incentives to claim your listing, too. Businesses which claim their listings in Google have a better chance of achieving “Landmark Icon” status, enabling them to appear on more map views when users browse their area.

Also, Google has sent claimed listings “Favorite Places” decals which can enable consumers who pass by your store to grab a digital address to your Place Page in Google Maps with their cellphones.

So, if you haven’t done so already, claim your business in Google Maps and begin reaping the rewards!

New Google Maps Labs Feature May Reveal PlaceRank Secrets

Google Maps blog recently announced how users may opt into their new experimental features by clicking on the “conical flask icon” near the upper right of the Maps pages (when logged-in to your Google account):

Enabling Google Maps Labs

For most users, these will likely be more of a novelty than really useful. However, for local search marketers, one of the new beta features appears to me to potentially reveal a bit more than perhaps Google intended.

Most of us are familiar with the “site:” advanced search query refinement when conducting Google searches. These allow one to list out all pages indexed for a particular domain, or, when including a keyword with the “site:” command, one can see all pages Google’s indexed on a domain which include that keyword. For instance, to see all pages from CNN, one would conduct a search for ““.

One interesting aspect of Google’s “site:” command is that the pages it returns from a domain are generally returned in ranking order. The highest-ranking pages on a domain are returned first, next-highest returned next, etc.

All this goes to show that most of Google’s special search commands will return results in ranking order, with the highest-ranking or highest-PageRank pages returned first. We already know that happens with keyword searches (albeit rank order is not solely based on PR any more — other factors are modifying order, such as various quality criteria and relevancy assessments). But, my point is that within the constraints of many special search commands Google provides, pages are returned to large degree in rank weighting value order.

Back to Google Maps Labs, one of the optional beta features really caught my interest – “What’s Around Here?”:

Enabling What's Around Here in Google Maps Labs

Once you enable this one, a “What’s Around Here?” button is added out beside the “Search Maps” button. It provides a very cool wild-card search capability to the Maps interface. So, if you first search for a map area, then click on this button, you’ll be shown the most-popular places in that mapped area.

From a local search marketer’s viewpoint, this wildcard feature is more than just a means to explore popular attractions in various cities. I think it’s potentially an invaluable tool for exploring what criteria factor into Google Maps’ search rankings. This tool provides marketers with a list of the most-popular business listings for any given city!

I think the “What’s Around Here?” feature is particularly useful for analyzing very small towns, since business listings in small towns have a lot fewer variables feeding into their search rankings. One can easily list out many of the variables between each business that ranks above another business in smaller towns, then compare those variables to isolate down which elements seem to be more prefered by Google Maps above others.

For instance, I love using one of the smallest towns in Central Texas for such comparative analysis – Round Top, Texas. It’s not at all a surprise to me to find Royer’s Round Top Cafe ranking tops for that tiny town, and it’s very telling to see all of the various on-page and off-page elements which factor into its rankings and the other top businesses in that town versus businesses which are ranking lower in Google Maps for that area.

Most Popular Businesses in Round Top, Texas

When Google Maps dramatically began introducing PlaceRank elements into ranking during the past year, the change not only added Places which may not be businesses into map results, but it also shifted to an algorithm which attempts to assess the relative popularity of addresses and locations within the maps, independent of business listing data. This paradigm shift added a lot of other factors into rankings that are less business-oriented and less-prone to commercial influences, such as Wikipedia pages about places.

Attempting to reverse-engineer Google’s algorithmic ranking methods in order to figure out what factors are more influential or less influential can be very helpful to the marketer or business that desires to change a website to improve its performance, and can make the difference in whether a business achieves landmark icon status in Google Maps versus being lost in the crowd. I think this tip on using the “What’s Around Here?” feature provides really great clues as to what elements work versus what elements are less influential.

I probably shouldn’t have revealed this local search optimization “secret” tactic, but it seems like so much of a no-brainer that I couldn’t resist opening a dialogue about the theory.

For another source of great info on ranking factors in Google Maps, see also David Mihm’s annual survey of Local Search Ranking Factors.

Easy Tactics To Leverage Wikipedia For Google Maps

WikipediaI recently wrote an article outlining how Wikipedia was abruptly rocketed into being heavily influential within Google Maps (see New Behemoth Emerges In Google Maps: Wikipedia). For small businesses everywhere, I predict that this change is going to bring Wikipedia to the forefront of SMB’s attention. With just a little bit of review, I think that small business owners are going to be noticing how Wikipedia has become very ubiquitous in Place Pages for Google Maps, and they’ll notice or suspect that those Places which sport a Wikipedia association tend to rank higher than others.

Once a business proprietor notices this, they may think to themselves, “Aha! Easy as pie! I know Wikipedia allows anyone to edit articles and add articles about any and everything, so I’ll have my clever nephew who does the internets add an article about my business!” Unfortunately, it’s not this simple.

The ease with which Wikipedia allows community user edits has been a prime area for criticism of the service over the years, and Wikipedia has responded by tightening review of whether subjects are notable enough to merit their own articles, and dedicated Wikipedia devotees try to scrutinize all edits to insure that they’re factual, backed up by respectable references, and worthy of mention. So, addition of articles in a willy-nilly fashion without good understanding of the service’s rules and practices will almost certainly lead to deletion of the content added. It may not happen immediately, but it almost certainly will happen at some point.

The brutal truth is that most businesses simply are not notable enough to merit having a Wikipedia article dedicated to them. There is some sense of the arbitrary about what characteristics are required to meet notability guidelines, because there is some element of subjectivity about it. Essentially, a subject likely needs to be historically significant, culturally significant, or be widely known. A highly significant, publicly-traded company such as Google would meet the requirements, while a small clock repair shop in Anytown likely will not.

Small stores can make the cut, such as the Gotham Book Mart, for which I researched and authored the Wikipedia article a couple of years back. But, few businesses have had as many newspaper articles about them, mentioned in books as much, or had as many associations with notable individuals.

"Wise Men Fish Here" sign, Gotham Book Mart
The iconic "Wise Men Fish Here"
sign which hung above the door
of the famous Gotham Book Mart
for decades.

So, what’s to be done if you’re a small business looking to increase your promotional game? Is Wikipedia completely off-limits to you?

No! There are a number of acceptable ways by which one may integrate with Wikipedia in valid, non-spammy ways, and I’ll cover two of the easiest here. These two methods are primarily for those small businesses which do not merit articles dedicated to them in Wikipedia.

Method 1: Set up your own User page and begin authoring and editing Wikipedia articles.

The best way to understand Wikipedia is to begin participating. Here’s an article on how to start. You may validly write up a User page with links to your own sites, and the more you help out with Wikipedia articles, the more important your User page becomes. As it becomes important, your business site may benefit.

Now, User pages and other pages in Wikipedia automatically nofollow external links as they are added, meaning that they are flagged for search engines as not being endorsed by Wikipedia. “Nofollowing” a link was intended to halt it from passing PageRank or ranking value in search engines, and was introduced to help fight spam in sites where users are allowed to add links. There’s a debate among marketing circles as to whether Google chooses to count Wikipedia’s external links in ranking algorithms or not. My suspicion is that as other spam-fighting methods have improved in Wikipedia, the links which have been added and have sustained over time likely do have some rank value — and are therefore likely used by Google for ranking purposes.

The User pages of those who add a lot of value to Wikipedia gain PageRank themselves, and, even if they do not pass PageRank, the links do pass traffic which can indirectly help increase a site’s rankings in other ways. (For instance, see MONGO’s User page, which has developed a Google Toolbar PageRank of 4 or Durova’s which has a 6.)

If you’re setting up your User page in part to promote your business, I suggest that you consider naming it beneficially with your business name, or a category/keyword name that refers to your type of business. Describe your business briefly. Link to relevant articles about your city or neighborhood. Link to your company with descriptive link text. And, to provide a chance of enabling this to eventually help your listing in Google Maps, include a Geobox in the profile (this addes geocoordinates to the page, a key element that Google looks for when deciding if a page is about a location).

If you’re a newbie at Wikipedia, I strongly suggest you proceed slowly and learn the environment. To get a good grasp of what people edit on pages, check out the History tab on a number of articles and click to compare revisions. This shows how people make changes, what they change, and many ideally provide a super-brief snippet of text to state what they’ve altered.

It’s very easy to find areas where you can add value: read articles of subjects you’re familiar with and interested-in, and you’ll likely find text needing grammatical correction, badly phrased sentences needing clearer writing, factual errors, and articles needing some additional vital pieces of information. Be sure to find and add credible references if adding or altering facts — you should ideally back up all facts with a reference source, just as if you were writing research papers for college.

Method 2: Donate photos of local scenes to Wikimedia Commons for use in Wikipedia articles.

I’ve written before about how it can be beneficial to employ loose licensing for images so that others may be incented to use them and link back to your site, and this is a variation on that theme (see: Why Free Photos Equal Good SEO).

Chrysler Building - Wikimedia Commons PicFor instance, the photographer who donated this pic of the famous Chrysler Building, David Shankbone, included URLs on the image’s information page which link to his site.

For another example, check out the page for the photo I donated for the Gotham Book Mart of the “Wise Men Fish Here” sign.

Is this allowed? Absolutely. Read Wikipedian Durova’s article on how adding images to Wikipedia is acceptable. Wikipedia desires to have good quality photos donated for use so that they may be used to illustrate articles. This is an area where helping the community can be mutually beneficial for everyone.

This tactic is actually pretty powerful, because releasing images into Wikimedia in return for attribution (a citation when anyone uses your photo, with a link back to you) enables you to achieve a lot of links from other sites as well, depending upon the popularity of and usefulness of your photo and its subject matter.

To figure out what photos to add, I suggest reviewing the Wikipedia articles of famous places in your area, and identifying ones which do not have pics. Then take a Saturday morning with good weather and sunlight, and snap photos to donate. You can also look at Wikipedia’s page for Articles needing images, but many of these may be more specific subjects for which you may not be able to provide photos.

Naturally, there are a number of “don’ts” when adding content to Wikipedia. I won’t expand on all those here, but they probably mostly boil down to “don’t be spammy” and “be polite”. I suggest reading up on Wikipedia Etiquette if you’re just getting started. Wikipedia desires content which is informative, factual, and neutrally presented.

There are a number of more advanced means of optimizing for Google Maps and local search via Wikipedia, for those who are more experienced with the service. I’ll likely be going into more of these tactics in upcoming articles at Search Engine Land and in presentations I make at upcoming conferences. So, stay tuned for more!

Use Newspapers for Local SEO

newspaperNewspapers and search engine optimization are made for one another, but the newspaper industry has been a reluctant participant in the internet age.

Today I posted a marketing advice article geared towards small, local newspapers entitled, “Local Newspapers Need To Embrace SEO To Survive“. Ironically, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corporation, has just stated this past weekend that they’re entertaining the possibility of completely yanking their news articles out of the Google index altogether! This, of course, would be a large mistake because there’s increasing evidence that information resources that are unavailable via the internet (and availability now is largely synonymous with “findable in Google”) are considered by consumers to be less relevant.

I think Murdoch’s idea of creating a walled garden is a bad strategy in this case, although I’m highly sympathetic to the plight faced by large and small newspapers all over the country. With news subscriptions having dropped all over, and advertiser revenue switching more to online and other channels, newspapers companies have been feeling the pinch terribly. It’s my believe that most have huge potential for online, and can turn this around. In my article, I described how the news archives with many papers contain a gold mine of information that a great many people don’t even know exists because it’s walled-off by badly-built sites.

Even so, it’s my opinion that newspapers continue to have a role in our day-to-day lives, and they have an important place in local marketplaces, both online and offline.

Small businesses who desire better exposure online need to keep their local papers’ websites in mind as one component of their online marketing. If you’re a small business desiring better rankings in Google, examine your local newspaper sites closely to see if there are opportunities for obtaining valuable links. Some tips:

  • Pages of newspaper sites which rank well in search engines are desireable places for you to obtain links. See what pages are exposed to the search engine, and find out what opportunities there may be to get a link to your business website from them.
  • Consider traditional promotion activites to obtain newspaper articles about your business! The old methods can still work today. Just ask the reporter really nicely if they can link to your business website at the end of the story — that makes the story more useful for their own users, too, so there’s a good reason for them to do this.
  • Link to the news story(ies) about you! So, if your local newspaper site is one of the badly-built ones, and the story about your business isn’t indexed by Google, help it out by linking to the stories about you from many other places on the internet such as from social bookmarking sites, your personal homepage, and other places. If the URL is publicly available, you can help the page get indexed by linking to it, and if it mentions you or links to you, the reference citation can only help your business site!
  • Don’t forget the classifieds! Online newspaper sites have online classifieds, frequently, and many people forget to make use of them. This can often be a free or low-cost option for you to further promote your business and business site.
  • Newspaper yellow pages? Many newspaper sites include helpful local directories of businesses, and these are places where you want to claim your business listing, expand your business profile, include links to you, and even consider spending advertising to improve your reach.
  • Comment! User comments on news stories online are also another way that one may be able to effectively interact with newspaper sites. You could comment on a news story about your business, thanking the reporter involved. You could comment about other news stories that my be related to your interests in some way. Interestingly, some major newspaper sites allow links in comments and they are not all “nofollowed”! They can do this since they may review/moderate comments prior to publishing them. In other cases, comments may not be good for links and many news sites don’t allow much customization of user profiles. Still, the references to your business are worthwhile, so consider interacting with the local news audience via comments.

So, while newspapers may be struggling to adapt to the internet age, and their sites may not be search-engine-friendly, they can still be valuable components of your overall local marketing mix.

Leverage Google Custom Maps As A Long-Tail Tactic

When Google introduced their customizable maps feature two years ago, I thought to myself, “Cute, but who has time to be messing around creating special maps in most cases?” Now fast-forward to 2009 and I’ve turned into something of a technical evangelist for the feature, touting it at the SMX East conference last week and publishing an article today on Search Engine Land which highlights it as a long-tail marketing tactic for Google Maps.

The premise is fairly simple, although I see relatively few companies and individuals using the custom maps (“My Maps”) feature in Google Maps to help market their website or business.

Many users are generating custom maps, some of which garner tens or hundreds of thousands of views, depending upon how well they’re optimized and how much they target subjects of general interest. There are maps pinpointing crimes around cities, maps to find wifi locations, tourist points of interest, and maps showing where to go for certain types of shops or charitable organization donation dropoff locations.

Here’s one example of a entrepreneur leveraging My Maps effectively in Google:

Crafty Portland - Custom Map in Google

The user, “Sister Diane”, has provided a very helpful map for people interested in her industry. The map shows stores where one may obtain various craft supplies all over the Portland, Oregon area. When one of her location listings is clicked, the information bubble that pops up on the Google Map contains a great description and address, and for some locations there are pictures, phone numbers and URLs.

She also filled out her Google Profile, so when her username is clicked or moused-over by the cursor pointer, map users can see her website URLs for her blog and another site where she writes articles.

This is a really good example of how developing and providing useful content within Google Maps can help to further promote your own content by exposing you to more consumers. While crafts in Portland is very much a small niche, Sister Diane’s map has achieved over 28,000 views since its creation two years ago.

Custom maps may be created by hand, using the simple tools for editing My Maps on Google. For larger lists of locations, I highly recommend creating a KML file as per Google Maps and Google Earth documentation, and either manually uploading the KML or submitting it via a geositemap from your website.

For more examples and tips on how to effectively leverage this long-tail marketing tactic, ready the full article at Search Engine Land, “Google Custom Maps: A Goldmine For Local Businesses“.

Embattled Yellow Pages & SEO

Online Yellow Pagesby Chris Silver Smith

My article on the “Brave New World For Yellow Pages” aired today on Search Engine Land. In it, I describe how Google Trends is showing that each of the major internet yellow pages has taken a sharp dip since the end of last year and early this spring. I diagnosed the cause of this apparent downturn in referred visits from Google as being due to Google’s change to display their local 10-pack in more cases where user queries don’t include geographic modifying terms (they’re incorporating users’ IP address geolocations).

There are many variables involved, so others may easily dispute my diagnosis. However, what is indisputable is that from Google’s perspective, these sites are now getting fewer referral visits.

This isn’t a complete surprise. There have been indications for some time that overall trends could go in this direction, and many of us in the yellow pages industry were concerned about search engine incursions into YP territory from the beginning. I’ve previously pointed out another concerning behavioral change shown by Google Trends – fewer and fewer users are searching for “yellow pages” in Google keyword search over time. That trend is still continuing:

Yellow Pages searches according to Google Trends

John Kelsey recently wrote about how these companies can turn things around, even though he implies their “backs are against the wall”. I agree. From an SEO perspective, it’s nowhere near the end-of-the-line for these companies.

It’s ironic that local search marketing experts all recommend that businesses update and enhance their listings within these websites, in large part for local SEO value. Yet, these sites now are struggling with their own SEO.

Almost uniformly, each of them have a huge amount of trust and PageRank from Google. This SEO goodwill can be employed to turn these trends back around, if that goodwill isn’t squandered.

In the SEL article, I mentioned Yelp’s success over the same period of time, and it hints at one of the elements needed. Good user-experience and an engaging interface can do quite a bit. Also, subtle details can make the difference between a site where people wish to interact and add value versus those where people really don’t wish to hang around.

Various SEO improvements should also be used – improvements to the amount of content on pages, the breadth of information about businesses, and forming that content into signals which effectively “sing” to the search engines. There are quite a few areas neglected by these sites, with little excuse. For instance, as far back as 2006, I recommended employing Microformatting for local SEO value. If all of these sites had been following my recurring recommendations on integrating Microformats, many of them would now be sporting improved display in Google search results, similar to Yelp — when Google rolled out Rich Snippets a few months ago, suddenly Yelp listings were decorated with eye-catching star rating icons, and stats have shown that these treatments likely increase click-through rates considerably. (Insiderpages was the only other one of these sites which I noticed were using the Microformats, and the only other ones which enjoyed the Rich Snippets icon treatment in Google SERPs.)

Microformats are only the tip of the iceberg for most of these sites. Basic building-blocks of SEO are lacking in many cases. Search engine friendly infrastructure such as bot-friendly URLs, robust linking hierarchies, good page titles, descriptive metadata, and stable URLs which don’t continuously appear/disappear are some of the items which these companies struggle to have.

I believe these companies can turn the trend back around and increase their natural search referral traffic dramatically. But, are they willing to make the changes necessary to do so? It will almost certainly require them to pull out all the stops in taking their SEO games to the next level.

Save Yourself A Thousand Dollars On Simba Yellow Pages Report

Simba Information has released a report on the state of the yellow pages industry entitled “The RBOC Bankruptcies 2009: The Impact on the Future of the Yellow Pages Industry” and will offer a webinar this week to those who bought it. At $995, I think the report is likely overpriced, and I thought I’d save you some money if you were tempted to pay that much to find out why some of the major yellow pages publishers are filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, what this means for the industry, and where things are headed.

Yellow Pages

I guess I’m reacting to the somewhat hyperbolic language found in the press release which I think was intended to appeal to fears of yellow pages publishers possibly the very people who should least afford to pay this much for the analysts’ report.

First of all, I think it’s a stretch to refer to Idearc and R.H. Donnelley as RBOCs. Since Idearc was separated from the telco function of Verizon and then spun off, I don’t believe people really consider it to be an RBOC any longer. I don’t think R.H. Donnelley could ever have been considered an RBOC, even though it acquired directory parts of old RBOC companies. “RBOC” refers to “Regional Bell Operating Company”, used to describe those companies which originally made up the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, earlier known as Bell Telephone Company, which were broken apart into separate regional companies as part of antitrust requirements. The main focus of the original splintering of the RBOCs was placed upon the phone services, and the general convention is to consider those telco functions as being the “phone company”, while when non-telco company portions are spun off, they are no longer refered to as “RBOC”. This is maybe pedantic of me, but I think such loose accuracy of description is inauspicious in an expert report.

Secondly, there’s not a whole lot of mystery about why Idearc and RHD got into financial straights and had to file for Chapter 11. Both were overly debt-heavy and when the economy turned sour, they could not properly service those debts. I wrote in-depth about Idearc’s case in a post on Search Engine Land originally titled “Idearc’s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy: Who’s Really Responsible?“, and you can see Bloomberg’s and other reports stating that R.H.Donnelley’s bankruptcy was due to overly high debt. Yell Group’s problems also stem from debt. Ambassador Media Group, another well-known yellow pages publisher, has also filed for bankruptcy protection this week as well.

So, let me save you a thousand dollars with the simple explanation of this. For a hundred years, the print yellow pages industry was a very profitable business. It was a very safe bet, as investments go. Such a long-standing business model, “ecologically adapted” to be interdependent with many other businesses, was simply not expected to see any major declines. However, the technological disrupters of first the internet, then Pay-Per-Click advertising, and then the Google search engine all had a very unforeseen effect. These companies increased capital investment, expecting longterm wins, but the rapid erosion of print advertising undermined their ability to pay on their loans quickly enough. Even though there’s increasing profitability on the part of their internet sides in many cases, the volume of internet profit is insufficient to both cancel out the losses in print revenue and simultaneously pay off their loans. In Idearc’s case, I further outlined how they were sandbagged from the very beginning by Verizon offloading an unreasonable debt load upon them.

What does the future hold for Yellow Pages?

Immediately, these companies which are restructuring will come out far stronger. They will be forced to further pare down their print divisions. Print will continue to see erosion in revenues, since overall usage is declining, just as it is with other print media (I solidly established that the yellow pages industry’s own statistical projections were considerably inaccurate, and that print directory usage likely continues to drop each year).

I’ve also been stating for quite some time that there appear to be too many players in the internet yellow pages (IYP) sector, and that I foresee collapsing of this is likely we can expect that there are likely to be some mergers of these companies in the near future.

There is also further weakening of these online directories in terms of marketshare from my perspective. For now, they can be profitable, but I see too much incestuous interselling among the players. It’s possible that once collapse within this sector occurs, that the resultant players left standing may be strong enough to continue competing and to grow. But, there is significant cause to be concerned with the growing local search marketshare taken over by the major search engines such as Google. If the IYPs cannot improve their game well enough and rapidly enough to compete with the major search engines, then there will continue to be financial instability on the parts of the yellow pages companies.

Simba’s press release mentions in passing how “…bloggers jump to their computer keyboard and pound out a call for the outright ban of books for the good of the people whether they want them or not and toss in the good of the environment as well…” wording that plays very well to those in the YP industry which have been very defensive about the attacks on the printed books. Yet, rather than playing up to the anti-environmentalist defensiveness of the YP industry, it’d probably be more productive to resolutely face into the difficult current truths. People who don’t use the printed media are increasingly irritated by having the books from multiple providers dropped unsolicited on their doorsteps these days, and environmental progressivism is a popular and rising trend, turning mild irritation into full-frontal attacks. It’s undeniable that in quite a number of markets throughout the U.S. there have been significant movements to restrict directory distribution. Quite simply, this trend is going to continue, and the industry’s thin bandaids in many cases are not going to perform well at resisting the attitudinal change.

Finally, why should you trust my analysis more than Simba’s (even though I’m saving you the thousand dollars)?

For one thing, I was one of the earliest analysts to state that I saw weakness in the yellow pages industry, and later that there were serious problems in store for yellow pages. There were quite a number of other research firms and analysts that cater to the yellow pages industry that were offended back then by my findings, but it’s now undeniable that print yellow pages have indeed experienced substantial declines. I forecast the decline, I warned of weakening in print, and I stated it out loud, even as other major analysts were dismissive and even angrily reactive. I simply observe the facts and attempt to project realistic possibilities rather than merely catering to popular notions I’m not afraid to speak the whole truth as I see it.

Interestingly enough, AT&T’s directory division hasn’t been experiencing the same degree of problems seen by other directory publishers, but they’ve been kept “within the fold” of the overall AT&T telco corporation, which can insulate them from problems experienced by the standalone directory companies. Simba’s webinar is including Frank Jules, AT&T’s president & CEO of Advertising Solutions, but I’m not at all convinced that AT&T’s yellow pages group will be all that informative beyond speaking to their directory products offered.

As I pointed out in my article showing weakening in online searches for the “yellow pages” keyword phrase, online consumers appear to be seeking out yellow pages sites less and less. It stands to reason that as Google’s blended search bubbles up local businesses to user keyword search requests more simply, there’s less reason for those consumers to be seeking out business directories. The younger generation is forgetting what a “yellow pages” is altogether, and sites like AT&T’s which have placed all their branding around the eroding concept will stand to lose out.

Simba’s report undoubtedly will have some good information in it. But, will it really be worth a thousand dollars? I seriously doubt it. If you’ve read my blog post here, I think you can safely save yourself the cost.

Why Use Microformats?

Microformats LogoI’ve written numerous times about how and why to code Microformats into the webpages of local businesses (see here, here and here), yet the question keeps coming up “Should I spend the time and effort on integrating Microformats into my site’s pages?”

Just during the past couple of weeks, the question has arisen yet again, and along with it there was an additional development which further emphasizes why it’s a good thing and why webmasters should be incorporating the protocol sooner than later. More on this in a minute.

I believe I was likely the first to ever propose using hCard Microformats as a component of local search engine optimization, back in 2006 (see: Tips for Local Search Engine Optimization). Back then, I had seen how Microformats were begining to take off, and I saw indications of converging trends: the sharp interest from the major search engines in local search and yellow-pages-like functionality; the increasing uses for types of open formats and extensible semantic tagging; and, most telling of all, the involvement of a number of key technologists from within Yahoo! in the Microformats movement.

I knew that as search engines attempt to match up websites which they crawl with more formal, local business listing data, they would encounter some difficulties in using algorithms to interpret the data properly. Questions such as: What is the street address of this business webpage? What is the Business Name vs. other text on the page? What is the Street Name vs. the City Name? Other questions arise as well, since website designers mostly design towards their human audience rather than algorithms attempting to interpret meaning from raw data. For instance, what Business Category should this local business website be associated with?

Like other forms of semantic markup, Microformatting labels webpage content behind the scenes, specifically telling what each piece of data is while still displaying the webpage normally for human users. If webpages of local businesses were to incorporate hCard Microformatting, I reasoned, then search engines would have an easier time of associating the sites with map locations and business directory listings. Further, if a site contained such markup, the search engine could have a higher degree of confidence in accurately normalizing their data and matching up with user queries, so such pages could potentially rank better in the future.

However, when I introduced the idea, I was not aware of any search engine that was specifically seeking out this type of semantic data. While some Yahoo! personnel were throwing support behind the movement, there was no clear indication that their search engine would seek out specially labeled data fields nor treat them any differently.

Still, there were additional reasons for using the Microformats: they provided additional functionality for some devices and for users who installed special applications to read such content out of pages in order to easily make use of it. A great example would be the Operator Toolbar for Firefox which could allow a user to easily copy out the contact details from a webpage and save it into an address book, quite similar to how vCard electronic business card info can be transfered and harvested easily from email notes (vCard is supported by such mainstream applications as Microsoft Outlook).

The Yahoo! Local search team obviously believed that people could find Microformatting potentially useful, because they incorporated it into their Local Search results earlier in 2006.

Further supporting my prediction that this was an important and growing protocol, Google subsequently immitated Yahoo by incorporating hCard Microformats in Google Map search results in 2007.

Meanwhile, at conferences and via email, many individuals asked me whether Google Maps was “reading” Microformats from webpages. I’d spoken with a few Google engineers during this period, and they answered pretty uniformly: if sufficient numbers of sites made use of this, they’d almost certainly incorporate it as yet another signal in local search data. I knew that there really wasn’t “sufficient numbers” of sites incorporating it yet, but I continued to see indications that the protocol was growing as a trend, and a number of other optimization experts also threw weight behind supporting it as a component of good, local site design. So, I’d still have to truthfully answer, “no, it’s not any sort of factor that will directly make your pages rank any higher, BUT, you should make use of it anyway!” In most of the cases of local info pages I analyze on the web, it seemed like integrating the Microformats should be relatively low-impact in terms of development effort required.

SearchMonkey LogoIn the Spring of last year, Microformats may have finally achieved a tipping point when Yahoo! announced the release of their innovative Search Monkey development platform. SearchMonkey allowed developers to somewhat customize the display of their site’s listings when they appeared in Yahoo’s keyword search results. More to the point, SearchMonkey showed us that Yahoo’s bot and content processing systems could and did read in Microformats from webpages along with other structured data protocols including RDF and DataRSS. While this did not prove that Microformatting influences rankings in Yahoo! Local, it showed that an important step had been reached in a major search engine which could enable the protocol to be a ranking and normalizing factor in local search.

Now fast-forward to the present in 2009, and the question of whether to use Microformats is still getting posed to search marketing experts. On May 4th, someone asked well-known SEO, Michael Gray whether hCard and other Microformats matter for SEO. I think Michael gave a pretty well-reasoned answer overall, although I believe Microformat protocols are just about excruciatingly simpler than he represents, and I think there’s some good reasons to not be quite as conservative about using them as he suggests.

First of all, I believe the main advantages to using Microformats are:

  • They can help search engines identify Business Name, Address, Phone, and Categories on webpages. Variations in formatting on various sites can contribute to misassociation of data elements. Imagine “Houston’s Restaurant on Dallas Street in Paris, Texas”. If an algorithm is attempting to interpret this in order to index the business/site, how does it know for certain what element is name vs. street address vs. city?
  • They can help search engines in associating the website with their listings within the engine’s directory listings content a vital step in “canonicalizing” business information. Google gets business listings from data aggregators and business directory partners, and they have to associate all the various sources of data for a particular business location with a single business listing. This is not a simple activity! Differences in ways a business name is spelled, different ways addresses are written, and different phone numbers all can result in businesses’ listings getting duplicated and diluted in ranking ability within Google Maps. So, having Microformats on your business webpage could help it get properly associated with directory listings already within Google.
  • Microformats facilitate the ease by which users can copy off a business’s contact information to store in their address books and elsewhere.
  • Microformats could also help open up content for use by other developers in unforseen and advantageous ways. For instance, by including the longitude and latitude of your business address in your pages, others can easily port the precise location over to the mapping app of their choice if left up to just using the street address, mapping systems can frequently make significant errors.
  • It’s just not all that hard to add them to sites which display addresses of local places. Some very simple development and coding which could be done within just an hour or two are all that’s required for most sites.

Google actually does a pretty good job of “canonicalizing” classic business listing data from local biz websites, so if my theories on why it could be beneficial for SEO in the future are correct, there are a lot of sites where it likely wouldn’t have all that much impact upon performance even if/after Google begins recognizing it as a local site search signal. It could help them collapse dupe listings down to a single one, which could boost that listing’s ranking weight. But, for businesses with already easy-to-interpret addresses or where Google hasn’t had difficulty in grouping related listings together, it likely wouldn’t have any ranking effect whatsoever.

As of just last week, there’s an even more compelling reason to incorporate Microformats, though: Google is following close upon the heals of Yahoo again and has announced that they’re introducing “Rich Snippets” in Google search results pages essentially the Rich Snippets are more enhanced search result listings, allowing the display of star ratings and the numbers of reviews for content on the pages. Similar to Yahoo’s SearchMonkey which allowed some customization of search listings, Google is allowing this special content display initially for pages which incorporate hReviews Microformat.

Google SERP listing for Yelp with Rich Snippets

Many of us theorized that Yahoo’s SearchMonkey could be potentially advantageous to sites, since search result listings which look different can stand out from the crowd, attract more users’ notice, and therefor have a greater chance of being clicked upon. Indeed, subsequent research showed that SearchMonkey’s special listing treatment could increase CTR by 15%!

There’s every reason to believe that display enhancements likely could improve CTR within Google search results as well, so there are great incentives to adopt the hReview protocol for those sites which have reviews and ratings content. This is only the first stage of Google’s work in Rich Snippets, however, and it’s pretty certain that Google will introduce more types of structured data into special display within search result listings. hCard and hCalendar content are some top candidates poised for imminent introduction when Google expands this.

We’re now seeing adoption of hCard in even some high-popularity sites such as Twitter now, so it may be time to actually declare Microformats to be “mainstream”!

So you see, there are compelling reasons to use Microformatting in the here-and-now, rather than putting it off. It’s generally not difficult to implement, it enhances site functionality for good user-experience, it generally won’t interfere with existing graphic layout, it could eventually help in rankings, and it might soon help in terms of click-through rates or overall conversions.

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