When it comes to local SEO and Google in particular, one of the first names you’ll hear cited as an expert from SEOs and business owners alike is Mike Blumenthal. His blog, Understanding Google Places & Local Search – Developing Knowledge about Local Search, is one of my go-to resources for the local ecosystem and a great repository for the ever changing Google Local landscape.
I reached out to Mike recently asking if I could pick his brain, and when he said yes I was psyched. He didn’t disappoint in the slightest either, offering his usual mix of historical context and unique observations. While the interview is a bit of a lengthy read, it is more than worth the attention of anyone interested in the state of local SEO, how Google has gotten to where it is today, where Google is going in the future, and how SEOs and business owners can take some control over their online presence.
David Carrillo: Local search is a complicated animal, and when it comes to Google a very fractured, complicated landscape. It seems they have come full circle, from the early days of Google Local back in 2004 to their current product, Google+ Local. There’s been a lot of stuff in-between—Local Business Center, Hotpot, Places, etc.—and it is difficult to make sense of even for people who keep up with it full-time. How do you recommend single location and multi-location businesses get started? What are some of the challenges to each?
Mike Blumenthal: There are a great many products and companies competing in the space and as you point out even Google has a multitude of ways to present the data and products to present it in. But the reality is that far and away the leading place your listing will be seen is on the front page of a Google search result. Google has 65% of overall search but probably much higher % in local and mobile search, by my estimates as much as 80% market share. They deliver somewhere on the order of 3-4 billion (that’s BILLION) local searches a month from their home page in the US alone.
Everything else pales in comparison. So the place to start is to focus on getting your listing on that front page of Google AND making it look great so that when someone does see it, they have a reason to choose your listing over a competitor.
If you look at what Google shows on the local result on the front, you will know where to focus your energies. Firstly, making sure the basics are correct; hours, location and driving direction, and then working on great looking photos and reviews at Google and around the web.
DC: Over the past couple of years Google has taken more real estate away from traditional organic search by adding elements like the Knowledge Graph and Local Carousel. How do you see these types of products evolving and where do you think Google is going next?
MB: Having been in local my whole adult career I don’t see it as much as taking away from organic as giving local its fair due.
Clearly Google is looking to provide answers to questions and not just offer up relevant pages. We are in the early stages of the Knowledge graph defining real world people, places and things and their relationships but those will all gain in importance as Google learns more about how to process them and build out the relationships.
DC: I love your response about local finally getting its fair due. Do you think Google+ Local and local SEO as a whole is a way for the “little guy” to compete in search? A lot of SEOs will tell you how much Google favors big brands in organic search, but local seems to be an equalizer of sorts. Would you agree?
MB: I also think that Google favors brands. But Google local search is really about brand as well it is just about brand writ small (ie local) inside some predetermined geo radius. Google, in localizing search, is attempting to offer local answers to local questions. Their local algorithm, first released in a 2005-6, really attempted to establish the prominence of bricks and mortar brands within their markets and was very brand focused. A critical element at that time was the idea of the citation- how often was a local business name mentioned in the context of that market. Not a link but just a brand mention was an important metric. What is that but a very granular approach to branding?
In the 2010 timeframe, Google developed a merging algorithm that blended web and local results to minimize to some extent the opportunity for any one local business to have too many listings in the results. But it was also a result that favored local businesses that were both brand prominent and had done a decent job of becoming web prominent as well. In the post Venice timeframe (early 2012) they went so far as elevate web pages that were truly local in nature over similar pages that had a national or international flavor, giving local entities additional exposure to searchers that were in the same market.
This all has meant that local businesses do in fact have an opportunity to be seen on searches that are relevant to their local market by searchers that are in their market or interested in their market. It has in fact generated a great number of leads for local businesses with and without websites.
So I don’t see it so much as a way for the “little guy” to compete but for Google to give searchers the answers they want. The opportunities for local brands though have been significant and will continue to be as Google builds out more and more local data and they offer up that data through the ever increasing local context provided by mobile devices
DC: Probably the number one point of frustration I hear from search marketers and business owners alike as it relates to local SEO is the pain of trying to claim, verify and manage Google Places/+Local. Do you ever seeing Google being able to get a handle on this?
MB: You have to understand that over the past 18 months Google has torn out the complete guts of local, all of their internal processing mechanisms and various input UIs and rebuilt them from the ground up all the while continuing to deliver local results across their many properties.
Last year in January they replaced local results that were essentially a web result generated periodically with a canonical listing in their Knowledge Graph. That is a huge architectural change. They then started rebuilding the pipelines into that database and developing new UIs for users to give them that information. First they upgraded MapMaker and gave it a fast pipeline to the canonical record. Then they rolled out the G+ Page interface and gave it the faster pipeline. Earlier this year Google started the process of upgrading the Dashboard and pushing that data through the new pipeline and making it easier to integrate with Plus. That is a tough problem because the old Dashboards allowed for so many variables that it created a difficult transition for some of the listings to the new dashboard. A listing might have AdWords Express and be claimed in three dashboards…it’s not simple to migrate that over to a new environment.
But we are nearing the end of that process. Once the new Dashboard is completely rolled out the whole of their architecture will be updated and provide speedy movement of data from the input to the output. On top of all of the architectural changes, Google has implemented a very functional support and moderation process to be sure that listings are correct.
This is not to apologize for the state that Google Local has been in, just to put it into some context. The good news is that we are nearly at a point where things will be better for everyone.
DC: One of the points of confusion I initially struggled with is even after all of Google Places accounts were transitioned to Google+ Local properties, management of the account was still done through the Google Places for Business Dashboard. And even inside of that you could change listings with bulk uploads, but downloading your bulk sheet wouldn’t show changes you made manually through the dashboard. Then there was the confusion between Google+ Local pages (which were formerly Google Places), Google+ Business Pages, and the combo Google+ Business and Local pages. Of course, Google hasn’t been much help is explaining what’s happening.
MB: I think there are several conceptual hurdles that people have when understanding Google’s approach to local.
One is that the business does not control the local record. That record currently sits in the Knowledge Graph and the business contributes data to the record. Google has multiple interfaces that allow a business to contribute data to that canonical record; Places Dashboard, MapMaker, UGC via the feedback link, Google+, etc.
The problem is that Google has never provided any links between these various input interfaces and the actual canonical record. Thus, data that comes into the canonical record is only visible to the interface from which it came. Some of the data comes from web scrapes and third party data suppliers, so a business cannot even see all of the data that Google has about them (and they have a lot).
I have always advocated to Google that they should provide a single interface for businesses to peer into this canonical record so that they can understand where the data comes from and how it got there. Unfortunately, they have not taken my advice.
So, in the end all you need to understand is that each of the UIs that you used is just handing data off to the Knowledge Graph. Some of those interfaces, like the old Places Dashboard, use an old data pipeline and are very slow. Some of those interfaces, like MapMaker and the new Dashboard, use the new interface and are very fast at depositing data into the canonical record.
The reality is that the business is only contributing current, somewhat trusted information to the cluster of data and really has very little control over what Google chooses to show or not to show.
DC: Many people know you as an expert in Google’s local offering, but you’re also extremely knowledgeable about the local SEO ecosystem as a whole. Outside of Google+ Local, where do you recommend people spend their time on?
MB: The biggest issue that affects everything from your Google ranking to the ability of your customers to get driving directions is NAP consistency [editor’s note: NAP = Name, Address, Phone Number] and geo accuracy across the web. It is incredibly important to be sure that the data is correct at all of the primary data suppliers, the top tier IYPs and directories, and the map data suppliers.
Once that is done then the business can think about higher rank and broader exposure, not just accuracy. I think beyond Google then, the next stop should be industry specific sites that offer obvious value to the business; TripAdvisor for Hotels, Yelp for Restaurants, etc.
Then, before I moved into social (in most cases), I would focus on developing an internet-wide review corpus.
DC: Are they any tools or services you recommend for people trying to manage their local SEO experience?
MB: I use Getlisted, OpenSiteExplorer, and BrightLocal on a regular basis. And I can’t recommend enough becoming familiar with the likes of LocalEze, InfoUSA, Axciom, Mapmaker, TeleAtlas, Nokia Mapping and OpenStreetMap. Oh and a new product that I helped develop for customer feedback and reputation management called GetFiveStars.com. J
DC: Do you think Google will ever be open to partnerships with platforms like Yext?
MB: If you are asking about Yext in particular, I would say no. Google, though, is always looking to improve their dataset and if a company brought them a solution that allowed them to dramatically increase the quality or accuracy of their local data, they would partner like they do with InfoUSA and others.
DC: My personal ranting aside, do you see a time in the near future when Google makes it easy for non-experts to manage this?
MB: When you factor in bugs and the fact that Google tests new products in real time and often doesn’t fix old problems, then the answer is: No
That being said, Google is attempting to offer up a single interface, the new Places Dashboard, which will be a launching pad for most activities. That should ease confusion for most users but will not add clarity to the complex job that they are attempting.
Big thanks again to Mike for being so generous with his time! To continue the conversation about local SEO, leave a comment below or reach out to Mike or myself on Twitter at @mblumenthal and @davidcarrillo.