Andrew Shotland helped launch websites for Showtime and NBC back when some of us were still trying to figure out what the internet even was. He then helped launch Insider Pages, which became City Pages.
Now he's the force behind Local SEO Guide, which is both a local SEO company and a place to find lots and lots of in-depth articles about the industry.
Who better to talk to about the direction the local SEO industry's going in?
Andrew was also more than happy to provide advice for new agencies and to talk about some of the challenges he and other local SEO specialists are facing.
Here's the transcript of our old school phone interview (lightly edited for easier reading).
Carmen: How has the local SEO industry changed in the last year, and what are the biggest changes in local SEO that you anticipate going forward?
Andrew: On the one hand, I haven't seen a change at all. Things change, Google's algorithms or layouts change, but the industry itself? I would say whatever's been happening is happening more.
So as an example:
More and more companies are selling SEO as a service because the demand has gotten greater. What that leads to is more and more companies who shouldn't be selling SEO, but who are doing it. So we're seeing more demand for us to audit another other company's work.
I just got off the phone this morning with a 28-location company that's had another SEO company doing stuff for them. They said, "We don't know what these guys are doing, they claim it's Google's problem that it's not working, can you look at it and tell us what they're doing?"
This isn't uncommon. We're just seeing more and more of that.
And it's getting more complicated. You can't just update title tags, fix citations, and fix console problems and expect everything is going to work fine. What's happening is, as Google evolves the types of things you have to do to try to troubleshoot SEO are getting more diverse.
Basic SEO is great, but it's not as effective as it used to be.
Carmen: What are some of these more diverse things?
Andrew: So instead of there being five problems, there's 50.
Instead of it just being about links and technical stuff, it's about links, technical stuff, reviews, knowledge panels, instant answers, video carousels...on, and on, and on.
Google's giving us more data than ever.
At the same time, as best as we can tell it's almost like it's a SERP by SERP problem. A reason you might not rank for "local SEO in Pleasanton" might be different than for why you don't rank for "SEO Company, Pleasanton." You think they're the same searches, but they're not.
The intent Google is assigning to specific queries is changing.
As an example, we work with a bunch of national companies. Let's say you've got a company like TaskRabbit. They might want to rank for "package delivery."
The search might be "package deliverers, or something like that." Maybe a year ago, Task Rabbit would have had no problem ranking for every search term. But now, Google has decided "package deliverer" is a job query, so Indeed starts showing up in first place. This is just an example, but say Google has decided that.
Now, you have to figure out a way around this because there are still people running that query who want to hire you, not get a job. But now you don't rank as well thanks to Indeed being up there.
We see this happen over and over again with search results of all types.
Carmen: What's more important for local SEO agency consultants to learn, technical SEO, on-page SEO, or off-page SEO?
Andrew:There are basic things you have to do in all those areas.
We're getting a lot of success on content optimization, particularly post-Medic. We find our clients who are doing content optimization and link building are the most successful after this update.
The clients destroyed by that update had problems with topical overlap, too much content focusing on the same stuff.
So. Links, and content.
In a lot of cases technical SEO can be a huge problem for a lot of sites, but if you're talking SMBs most of the time they don't have technical problems because their sites aren't that complicated.
We're talking about standard Google Bot accessibility issues here.
Carmen: In your opinion, what's the biggest challenge for local SEO agencies and consultants when it comes to earning clients, and what is your best advice for overcoming that obstacle?
Andrew: It's always trust.
"Can you do what you say you're going to do? What are you even saying? Do we understand what you're talking about? The last guy I hired totally B.S.'d me. I know I need to do this but how are you different?"
You have to be 100% transparent with these companies about what your experience has been. What you can and can't do. And it's always good to talk about what you can't do.
I'm always talking about how badly I've failed at SEO, because it's how I learned, and it's why we actually partly do what we do. We understand this is life and death for a lot of these companies. When we talk about what our mission is it's not, "Oh, we can get you more business." It's: "We know we can help you save jobs."
That's kind of how we look at it. We've seen companies shut down. Being empathetic is the number one thing.
Also, references. Case studies.
We also believe in telling them everything we think is the problem before they sign a contract. Sometimes we can figure that out quickly. Within 5 seconds this morning [on a call with a potential client] it was clear their current vendor is doing the worst link building you can think of.
Carmen: What's more important to the success of a local business? Inbound links or a strong review portfolio?
Andrew: It's all on a vertical-by-vertical, market-by-market basis.
As an example, if you work in a niche where every site was crap and generic, and it's clearly a spammy sector, well, Google's going to weight links probably better than other things.
If you work in a restaurant, well, maybe they might weigh reviews more. The words and the sentiment might have more bearing.
So you can just see in some cases reviews shouldn't really matter. I'm guessing psychiatrist's reviews don't matter much. Who is reviewing their psychiatrist? Why would Google overweight reviews in that vertical?
That's why with some local searches Google will show businesses in a tight radius, and some in a wide radius. They know there's different intents and different needs.
You can't have a one-size fits all strategy.
Carmen: You've done extensive research on reviews as ranking factors for local SEO. What can consultants and agencies learn from the study that will help their clients?
Andrew: The first thing I can tell you is we have our 2018 version coming out some time in the next month.
What the previous two studies kind of showed is that links and reviews are pretty much the dominant correlating factors.
We can never say they're the dominant factors because all we have is correlation. The other things we see seem to correlate with making a difference are I guess what you'd call "GMB authority."That's a fancy way of saying your page has a lot of photos, reviews, activity, stuff.
A lot of the spammy tactics, things that are easily spammable, all correlated with strong rankings.
Putting the keyword in the business name.
Anchor text links with the keyword or city names in the anchor text.
Landing pages, local landing pages that had a lot of text on them.
Not a lot of good text, but just a lot of text.
So whenever we write landing pages for clients we write hopefully good text, but we write them long.
Carmen: What's your advice when it comes to providing review management services as part of local SEO services? Do you believe it's a complementary offering, or should it be offered as its own standalone?
Andrew: I guess both or either.
What we've found with review management is it's sufficiently different from SEO engagement. The mechanics of it are different. It kind of requires its own skill-set of engagement.
To do SEO you need a little bit of client involvement, but for the most part you can do it without spending a lot of time interacting with your clients. You should, but you know, you don't need them to talk every day about this stuff.
To do review management, you need to be really in sync with the client about how to implement this correctly.
Especially if there are multiple locations. It involves reaching out to the customer. That's a bunch of moving parts that have nothing to do with SEO.
They're complimentary for sure. But the person who is good at SEO auditing and content creation...it's not the same skill set as managing the review program for a moving company.
Carmen: Who is your ideal client?
Andrew: In a generic sense, someone who understands the value of SEO and understands the vaugeries of SEO. And is really invested in it. Believes in it. Whether it's big or small.
That's what we really want to hear from the perfect client.
And then obviously if they have certain assets that make it easier to do what we do, that's great too!
Carmen: What's the best thing about running an SEO agency, and what's the worst thing?
Andrew: It's an interesting thing to spend your time doing.
I find it such an interesting subject for a million different reasons. If you're a curious person there's just endless rabbit holes to go down and figure out. And it really does feel like magic when you get it to work.
It has this amazing outcome for your customers, right?
I remember when one of our clients told us they were hiring 3 more people next year because the SEO program was so successful. It had worked out so well for their company they were able to grow their business. That's pretty cool.
I've got something going on this week where for a very big company we figured out their paid search was cannibalizing their SEO because their paid and SEO people weren't talking. We probably saved them half a million dollars this week. You can have these amazing outcomes.
The worst? When clients clearly don't value it and don't work with us to create a system that makes it work for them.
When you have clients who you'll shout at them for a year, "Hey, you need to do this, you need to do that..." and they won't do it for a million reasons. Some of them are fine reasons. Priorities, whatever.
But then something bad happens and they're like, "Where's the SEO?"
And usually that happens when the culture of the company is just, at the top-level, SEO isn't a highly valued thing for whatever reason. Rightly or wrongly. And so that can be frustrating.
Here's an example that's a million years old, but it underscores the point.
One of my first clients was a men's grooming product company called Jack Black. They're probably still around. They sell fancy, high-end lotions and shaving cream.
I did an audit for them. I noticed when I was doing research back when Google gave you a lot of keywords data, that they were ranking really well for "black men skin care" queries.
It was because they had the word "black" in their business name. So they'd get a lot of links.
And Google, at the time, thought they were similar.
I told the CEO, "You're going to think I'm crazy, but I think you should start a line of products targeted at African-American men, and I almost guarantee just launching the pages you'll be at #1 for all these queries in a week, because you're already at #4 without even trying."
She was like, "What are you talking about? Why are you wasting my time?" She said that wasn't her strategy for her brand.
I said, "You should really think about changing your brand, because this is like gold."
She just couldn't wrap her head around it, and at the time I didn't have the language to really convince her.
And I want to say like, four years ago, I can't remember the name of the service, but a guy who used to work at Foursquare launched a company that does just those sorts of products, and it's worth a hundred million dollars.
I'm not going to say she could have done the same thing, I wasn't talking about creating a whole new brand.
It's just the type of thing where had this company been interested in this stuff it might have changed the company in some dramatic fashion.
That's what we like doing. Someone says, "We want to rank for dog food," but we say, "no, you should go after French dog food," or "Cat food," because that could be a whole uncovered opportunity for your business.
Carmen: Uncovering opportunities for businesses, and not just ranking, is a cool way to look at the job you do. Thanks for sharing that with us, and all the other insights you've brought to the table today!
Andrew: No problem, it was nice talking to you.