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Week after week I hear business owners and managers (even the marketing directors!) complaining that their websites do nothing for their business. This happens from Carlisle to Tynemouth as I move between my regular 4Networking groups up here in the North.

Yet, the answer to this problem is actually straight forward. Local markets are relatively low competition environments: even now for most areas of commerce. The vast majority of local small business owners just don’t get it yet: a website, when it is set up properly and kept fresh can be your best marketing buddy! Setting it up right is “relatively” straight forward, but it requires significant work.

I was working with a local (to Carlisle) business that was spending almost £1000 a month for a print magazine ad: ROI £zilch! It generated not 1 visit – not 1 phone call. It was a well set up ad in a publication where their best buyers would tend to be. A second business owner had spent £10000 on a traditional print, local media and flyer campaign to kick off a new business venture; as an add-on to his existing line of products and services. When he came to me, three quarters of the way through the roll out of that campaign, he had not received a single phone call or enquiry for the new venture! This guy, who is local to Carlisle as well, had actually put in the footwork as well; posting the flyers himself and talking to people on his rounds. I didn’t manage to win any work from him, but it confirmed in my mind that I was on the right track. A more recent conversation with a local media expert confirmed that their print and news effectiveness (and revenue) was plummeting and forcing them to look hard and long at the digital alternatives.

Small business saturday 2014Today is Small Business Saturday. For small businesses which have a local focus on the customers they need, there are simple answers which I’m afraid are not free, but can give a return on investment that is way ahead of traditional print. Is print dead? Nope! But it becomes part of the marketing toolkit – not the driver of your marketing. Not many small local businesses can afford the full page spreads in local media that do still get noticed and keep brand awareness high. Instead, you need to use your marketing pennies where more people are going to notice your message. That tends to be online and it needs to be mobile friendly.

I’m going to be a little provocative and suggest that Carlisle and Cumbria are a little behind the times, in terms of how heavily people are using digital search. It’s an undercurrent to many conversations I’ve had over the last 2 years: something that people are rarely comfortable saying out loud or publicly. However the keyword data tend to support this anecdotal evidence; when we look at search numbers for local services compared with places like Newcastle or Leeds. But that’s changing rapidly, as our infrastructure starts to catch up with the rest of the UK. There are already little hotspots of really innovative digital marketing and little clusters of savvy, digitally aware customers who are pushing their suppliers into taking their local digital marketing seriously.

There are three strands to this: the web design aspect which gives the brand its look and its functionality, the social media voice and finally (in most marketing plans: but should be first) search optimisation. Despite rumours of its demise, it’s actually more important now than ever. It’s not some black magic process; it’s the process of tuning your website in – to your customers’ need! So what’s changed in the local version of SEO? We need to turn to the conclusions of a well known American marketer and his now legendary annual survey of what works in Local SEO.

Highlights of the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey 2014

Fresh from the Brains of the Guys & Girls who Make Local Search Work for 1000s of Clients every Week!

Later than usual following his move to the Land of Moz (A mysterious land – far beyond the realm of the Marra!), David Mihm has again delivered the biggest round up of what works for local businesses who use the internet to market their wares. It’s important to understand that the bulk of the experience is US based, but the UK experience is again represented by Susan Hallam of Hallam Internet in Nottingham. Nottingham has a pretty vibrant business culture where the owners of businesses have to compete to survive in their sectors.

First of all the conclusions of this panel of around 40 individual agency owners came up with a general picture that looks very similar to last year’s picture, at first glance. That is an important thing to bear in mind. Despite Pigeon updates (USA only so far!), Panda refreshes and Penguin the general pattern of areas to concentrate on seems to be pretty stable.


Summary Chart of Local Search Ranking Factors Survey 2014

Summary Chart of Local Search Ranking Factors Survey 2014 from David Mihm and MOZ

A strong presence on Google Plus with a well set up Google My Business listing; Local citations (that’s those directory listings for the most part); a well structured website; proper backlinks; and business reviews still seem to be the top 5. The potentially important changes are quite subtle this year and are hinting at what businesses in a competitive local market might need to start planning in, for the years ahead.

For this post (and to avoid getting you bogged down in jargon) I’m going to summarise some of the major observations that David Mihm himself has come up with after analysing the responses of his collaborators.

The Noticeable Changes in Local Ranking Factors.

Some of you may have heard rumblings about another Google update – affectionately called Pigeon (Is that because it was crapping on your hard work?) which still only seems to have rolled out in the USA so far. In the UK, a couple of months after the Ranking Factors Report was issued, Pigeon doesn’t seem to have surfaced yet. Like all of these supposedly ground breaking updates, if you have been avoiding the overtly spammy techniques and have instead concentrated on getting your website built up with good quality helpful content for your visitors, then they shouldn’t affect you very much at all.

Visitor Engagement

Having a website that people actually engage with is becoming more important. In plain English, this means; do people actually click through from the search results to your website? Once they land on a page of the website, do they stay long enough to read your answer to their problem, click on stuff and dig deeper with you; or do they just bounce away? Engagement as a measure of a visitor’s experience is becoming a very strong factor in Google’s eyes.

How “Good” is Your Website?

It looks like the quality of your website; often referred to as “Domain Authority” is another factor that has increased in importance in the course of the year. What does that jargon mean? This relates to whether the website seems to answer the implied question in the search. Does it have a range of pages that address different areas of the business – in depth? Do people return to read more? Does the website have privacy and cookie policies? Along with the previous 2 does the website set out clear Ts & Cs for users. And those are just the “on-site” questions that Google’s algorithm tries to ascertain. Outside the site are any other websites pointing links towards the subject website? Whatever changes in Google have come through, whether Penguins or Pandas; links from other, decent, relevant websites are still one of the most useful things to try and attract.

Your Digital Footprint

Another area of change that this survey seems to have identified is the surprising (to most of the contributors) strengthening of the value of local citations. These are the local business directories, business listings and assorted mentions of your brand that pop up out there on the web. David Mihm’s explanation of this was that it’s all tied in with brand. Google loves a good brand it seems and if you can keep pumping out good, solid, consistent mentions of your brand in these directories, it seems to kind of reassure the Big G that this is a real business with roots in its neighbourhood. I think it may even be simpler than that. Google’s pretty adept at spotting when a business gathers a great splurge of extra citations in a short space of time. That gives a little kudos and a visibility boost. However if “The Spider from G” sees that these citations are growing in number consistently or in regular little bursts, it probably sees a business that is protecting and promoting its brand carefully. That is my take on what’s happening but I don’t have a big enough or long established enough client base yet to actually test that hypothesis!

Google’s Watching You!

Out of nowhere, came “Proximity to Searcher”! Many of the survey respondents are picking up on this. Results are much more tuned in to where the searcher actually is. With so much search happening on mobile devices with location services switched on; it is getting easier in many places (not in Carlisle it seems!) to pick up quite accurately, where the searcher is searching from. A lot of searches will lead to someone saying. “How do I get there?” This clickthrough to maps and travel directions is picked up by the analytics services and helps Google in particular, to serve up answers nearby. This is something that isn’t going away. It will continue to grow in importance. Businesses need to be tuned in to how they can tap into these micro-location factors and in many cases overcome them, to be seen. It’s all about to get more competitive.

What Do You Need to Do Next?

Now don’t suddenly think that these 4 factors have suddenly taken over in the game of local search, they haven’t yet. They are the things that seem to have changed the most. When you look at the pie chart above, those 8 broad pie slices give you a pretty good idea of the general importance of groups of factors. In the next post I’m going to pick over what you need to focus on to be picked up in the local organic results – that’s the normal boring list of websites!

The post following that, in this short series of Local SEO insights will focus on what has to be done to get better visibility in the local packs – the little lists of pin markers and the maps.
The final post in this series will be focussed on what changes you may need to make if you find the local competition is tougher. It’s like the difference between Penrith and Newcastle; or the difference between carpets and car sales. It really does force you to up your local game when your direct competitors are actually making the effort to excel.

While you wait for me to crank out the next instalment, you can listen here to Myles Anderson, Picking the brains of Mr Mihm, Andrew Schotland and Matthew Hunt. Myles is one of the founders of Bright Local a UK based local SEO agency with a few extra knobs on!  This webinar was recorded about a month after the release of the 2014 survey and the participants dig deep into what the results mean after a period of reflection.  It’s an hour of deeply detailed debate!

InsideLocal Webinar: Local Ranking Factors Discussed from BrightLocal on Vimeo.