What's the biggest challenge when you're a national company with multiple locations all around the country? How do you make effective use of some of Google My Business's newest features? How do you help businesses with their local SEO data management? And how do you function in a world where you have to hunt mammoths, when your biggest competitors for top rankings happen to be the behemoths Google and Amazon?
You may have heard Cori speak before at the LSA Conference, and at Moz Con. As a team leader, she is engaged in the process of teaching other professionals how to get top notch results. She has plenty of insight into where big multi-location companies are going wrong, and how they can improve. If your agency handles these sorts of clients (or wants to), you won't want to miss this one.
Don't miss her observations about Google or her predictions about review management, either.
On how she got into local SEO
Carmen: So, how did you go from being a music major to getting into local SEO?
Cori: That's a good one. The program that I did in undergrad was a Bachelors in music with an option to focus—basically do a minor on steroids—in another field. So, I studied communications as well.
My senior year, my capstone course, my final class was a media sales class. My professor had worked 40 years in radio advertising. We worked with a real client. She usually divided the class into print, TV, and radio. That year she was like, "I've heard this 'Facebook thing' started selling ads."
Everybody with a last name near the end of the alphabet (my maiden name is Shirk) is going to be the Facebook group. Go figure that out.
I was thrown into it that way and thought, actually this internet stuff is pretty cool! I kind of like it.
When I graduated, I started looking for internships at anything digital. I landed at a really small web design agency. Ended up doing their SEO for them and then for their clients. I kind of stumbled into it that way.
On working with clients and delivering early wins
Carmen: Got it! How do you approach working with your clients over at Seer?
Cori: In what regard? Generally?
Carmen: Where do you start with your clients?
Cori: We don't work too, too often with single location clients. Most of our clients are national enterprises, just by nature of the clients we work with on general SEO projects. That's usually how we end up working with local clients.
Typically, to get started, we will do some form of a competitive analysis to analyze the search landscape as a whole, to better understand what their competition looks like, and how we're going to get into working with them.
We'll pull down a few thousand keywords to try to understand what features are there, to better understand the intent around search, and what their audience is looking for. We discover how to leverage things by looking for the types of things that rank, the type of features that rank. We look at where local fits into that user journey.
Sometimes it's (amazingly) showing up for terms you wouldn't necessarily expect to be near the point of conversion. But we then map out the user journey and figure out how and where local fits.
From a tactical perspective on local, we like to make sure that their data is set up, a foundational layer of location data out there. We start with Google and make sure they're squared away there, and then work to make sure they're present on other platforms where users are going to be searching for them.
Carmen: What are some of the typical early big wins you help make happen for them?
Cori: Early big wins. I would say (this sounds really simple, but) helping clients get control of all of their location data that's out there. Sometimes we even start internally. You would be surprised by how many multi-location businesses don't actually know where all of their locations are.
A lot of times our process starts with getting their internal database squared away so it can be pushed out. I consider that a huge win when we can get over that hump.
Carmen: Why do you think that is?Local SEO has been around for a long time. You would think big organizations would have a better handle on it.
Cori: One would think. I think it's one of those things that people know is important, but until they realize a competitor is doing really well, and eating their lunch, or something goes wrong, then it becomes a priority. But it's sort of one of those, "Oh yeah, it's out there, people use Google."
A lot of times, it's a lack of awareness about how influential it is or how to even go about tackling it. It can be intimidating for some folks.
On developing longer term strategies
Carmen: What are some of the longer-term strategies that you launch for these clients?
Cori: So typically, longer term, content obviously is a huge piece of this. What we try to do for all of our clients is make sure we're building content that really connects with the end user and speaks to their triggers and their pain points, connecting them. We're aiming to have that client show up when the person searches at their time of need.
Whether that's early in the funnel, we're helping to educate them on some things. All the way down to the point of conversion when they've actually gone through the consideration steps, looked at their options, and have ultimately decided to buy (hopefully from our client). Or convert, whatever their conversion is.
Long term, that's where a lot of our projects take us.
Where local fits into that is typically closer to the end of the conversion funnel. We make sure the content we're building for their site is highlighted somehow on their listings and is tied into that. Whether that's the actual location landing page we're building out, we make sure that has the right language and speaks to those same triggers and the same "why to buy" moments that the rest of the site is speaking to. We make sure it's all cohesive and put together.
We also highlight specific features and strategies like using Google Posts. We make sure that we're showing that the whole way through all of the digital touch points a person can have while interacting with the company.
You need to leverage different elements of the SERPs. You can learn a lot about the intent behind a keyword based on the SERP features present. If there's a featured snippet, you can infer that the query is informational and that the person is probably higher-funnel. Your content around that topic should match that stage of the journey. Aim to be informational and not too salesy. If there's a local result, maybe they're closer to converting so you can highlight more bottom-of-the-funnel content in a Google Post.
On Google Posts and content at different parts of the marketing funnel
Carmen: I am not seeing a lot of effective use of Google Posts for any of the businesses I've been looking up in the course of my own work. What's the most effective way for companies to make use of this feature?
Cori: I think it's tricky. Right now, the way that it's set up, just technically, there's no way to send posts for more than 9 locations at a time through the API. I think that's why we're not seeing much effect from it. It's obviously really manual right now and time consuming.
We have seen some success from healthcare clients highlighting patient journeys and patient stories on Google Posts. We use that with a call to action to book an appointment at whatever location they are at. I believe it comes down to showing people something that's useful at that point in their journey.
Highlighting something too top-of-funnel on Google posts probably won't be too effective for you, with the caveat that it comes down to your industry and your business.
I really think it comes down to showing people something that is going to help them make their decision and help them along the way.
If that's top-of-funnel content, the goal is to highlight your services or introduce people to your brands. Maybe that's useful for some people at some points in their journey. If you're trying to get them to convert from your listing, use that feature to leverage an additional call to action.
I think events are underutilized. Promoting events on local in general is pretty effective. It's pretty easy to do, and it's a great place to highlight activities that are happening at that location at a specific time to get people interested.
Carmen: Given all of these different points in the journey, from those who are just looking for great content, (ie. how-tos, things they can share) to middle or bottom of the funnel content for a specific location, have you worked out a firm strategy for what pieces of content go where? How do you make sure your clients catch people at the right point in their journey?
Cori: It's not cut-and-dried. It's going to depend on the industry and the market you're working with. I think generally speaking it comes back to making sure the site has touch points for all of those stages. Thinking larger than just the individual locations.
I see those as the very bottom of the funnel. By the time someone goes through your site on their search journey and interacts with your site enough times to search out your specific location, you've got them by that point. They're actually coming to visit you.
We focus on connecting with customers first. We do a lot of audience research up front, including interviews, reviewing chat logs, reviewing phone transcripts if we can get our hands on them. Even to the point of going and observing locations and observing how people interact with each other, the questions service people are asked. All of that information helps us understand: what is the reason someone came on location today to interact with a person? How can we help them earlier on through their search journeys to head off the need to actually go and visit the store? We help them get information earlier online, build the answers into the content, or put Google Q&As up on the listings to help clients answer their customers' questions before they even need to interact with a person.
So I don't have a clear-cut answer for you in terms of "this is the methodology and the right way to do it." In our experience, it all comes down to answering your user's questions as they come up throughout the journey and making sure you have content that speaks to that.
On Google using reviews in suggested answers and review management strategy
Carmen: How are you responding to the fact that Google Q&As are now auto-suggesting reviews to answer customer questions?
Cori: Yeah, that upset some clients, concerned some clients. I think, rightfully so. To me that just reinforces the need to have a solid reputation management strategy in place. You can't hide from user-generated content. Google is not going to take it away. They're only going to highlight it more.
We've seen in our cities and our work with our clients that's a huge factor in people's decision when they're trying to decide who to do business with, who to take their business to. I think if you are scared of the fact that Q&As are now pulling into reviews, that means you need to improve your review strategy.
I think just being active. It doesn't need to be 5 stars all the time. I think people actually trust that less. If it's too good, if the business looks too good, people think it's fake and spammy. Obviously if you have negative reviews you're concerned about, responding to them. You should be responding to the positive ones too.
I think that's the table stakes these days, but I think it can be a huge decision-making factor towards pulling people through to actually deciding to do business with you.
Carmen: How do you set clients up for success with their reputation management and review strategy?
Cori: We always recommend that is managed in-house. We will give clients recommendations. We'll research around tools and platforms to consider investing in. But, at the end of the day, a person is going to be able to tell if it's a scripted response.
So I typically recommend an actual human responding, taking the time to craft a response, and make it useful for whatever the reviewer is talking about. Training the client's team up on how to respond appropriately and setting them up with some recommendations in that way. But we aren't the ones actually jumping in and responding. I think that should come from the business owners.
Carmen: Yeah, I agree. I wish they'd get on their own social properties, too.
Cori: Oh, yeah. Don't even get me started on that!
On advanced local marketing tactics
Carmen: So, you gave a workshop at the Local Search Association in February about advanced local marketing tactics. What are the top advanced topics that businesses should be implementing?
Cori: Yeah, my talk at LSA was around how to build a strategy for your clients using larger data sets. I discussed how to use a data visualization tool called Power BI to analyze data at scale. Seer is releasing a study here soon around influential ranking factors and correlations between ranking factors in the financial industry soon.
What we found from that research is it varies so greatly from market to market (what's influential). But at its core, the basics still win.
So to compete in local, you have to have a sound local SEO data management strategy. It sounds so basic, but the fact of the matter is I think having a sound foundation of location data, review management, and content are the three areas that consistently stood out in our analysis as being really influential.
I see reviews as the future of connecting with your customer.
Any place you can have a conversation with people and genuinely connect with them is going to be the future of staying ahead of the competition in local search. Whether that's through any of the touch points we talked about, like Q&As and features like that, but also indirectly by the content you put on the site, and making sure that speaks to people's needs.
Carmen: Why the financial industry?
Cori: We work with a handful of clients in the financial industry so we wanted to explore that a little deeper. Healthcare's coming next, sometime soon, but Places Scout and STAT were really generous in getting us a data set of a couple million keywords to dig through. So, that was a lot of fun! Obviously it was a lot of data to work with, but the consistent thing we found is not a ton is consistent, which is pretty interesting.
More on that when we release it.
On comparing the maturity of local SEO data management for different industries
Carmen: What industry would you say is pulling ahead of the pack in terms of being effective with their local SEO data management strategies?
Cori: None come to mind immediately. I would say probably retail if I had to come up with one. Just because they rely on people getting to them. An industry I'd like to see improve more would probably be healthcare. I think that's also on Google and their ability to parse healthcare systems. Understanding the location of a hospital, the ins and outs of it, is complicated.
One client we work with, on their listing for their emergency room, the map marker got moved to a mile away from where the actual emergency room was for some reason. We had a situation where someone from the organization ran into someone who was frantically looking for the emergency room and was a mile down the hill. It was really sad and highlighted the importance of that.
I don't know why Google is so confused by hospitals. There's a lot of conflicting information between all of the physical practices and all the practitioners that are there. It's tough to get that local SEO data management done well.
Carmen: Yeah, I don't know either, except my son works for a food delivery service, and he says he hates delivering to the hospitals because every time he goes to one he just gets lost! That might have something to do with it.
Cori: Yeah. It's both internal and external mapping that is just really, really difficult. We worked with a client who was testing beacons for wayfinding in their hospital which was pretty interesting. But it's a mess. Not that pilot, but just navigation around hospitals in general is traditionally difficult. It's not surprising that gets translated to the digital world.
Carmen: Is there an industry you enjoy working with the most?
Cori: I really do love working with healthcare. Probably because it's so challenging and so quirky. I also genuinely see so much value in that work, literally helping people find people to make them well again. I think it's easy to connect with personally. It's also an industry that generally needs a lot of help in the digital space, and I enjoy being able to help them.
On the June 2019 Google Core Algorithm Update
Carmen: Let's talk about the 2019 Core Algorithm update. How do you think it's going to impact local search?
Cori: Hopefully it makes it better. But I haven't seen a really huge impact on local yet. If anything, we just saw in our data sets a lot of clean-up on lower pages in Google in some ways. We didn't see too much of an impact on our clients on their page one, page two rankings, but a lot of movement on page 5 and beyond, which is pretty interesting.
I would hope that any algorithm update Google makes is going to make things better for us. But in terms of specific impact to local, nothing really comes to mind. Sorry!
Carmen: It's fine! "There isn't one" is still an important answer!
Now...Danny Sullivan recently said there's a separate roll-out trying to diversify the top results. Do you think it's a good thing, and how do you think it will impact your clients?
Have you ever done a search and gotten many listings all from the same site in the top results? We've heard your feedback about this and wanting more variety. A new change now launching in Google Search is designed to provide more site diversity in our results….— Google SearchLiaison (@searchliaison) June 6, 2019
Cori: Yeah, I do think it's a good thing. I think, personally, this is targeting Amazon specifically. The fact that they were taking over 5 results sometimes for products and product pages. I've seen that drop significantly. We were tracking one particular keyword where Amazon was literally taking up half of the first page. Now they're down to just 2 results, which is nice to see.
It's going to open opportunities up for a little more competition. As far as our clients, hopefully we're able to compete a little better too, because Amazon is obviously a mammoth to try to go toe-to-toe with.
Carmen: Yeah! And with Google taking up the rest of the space...it's tough!
Cori: Yeah. So much scrolling to even get to the organic results. Come on guys! Google search, right now, from a US perspective, is confusing. I don't know quite what they're after right now.
Well, no. I do know what they're after. They're trying to keep people on Google as much as possible. Everything from the change in favicons on mobile, have you heard about that update?
Carmen: No! I haven't!
Cori: So mobile results now, alongside every result, is a card. Next to the page title, Google's now displaying favicons, which are those little 16 x 16 icons that specify to show up on the top left of a Chrome tab. Now they changed the ad format, the ad label format, on mobile as well. So the "ad" is just a little 16x16 favicon that just says "Ad" in black text.
It just looks like any other favicon on the mobile results. So I fell for it! And I work in this industry! The first time I did a search on mobile, but with the new lay out, I said, "Oh weird, there are no ads."
Then I clicked on it, and it wasn't actually related to what I was looking for. I went back and was like...damn it! They got me! I was pretty disappointed in myself!
But I think the changes they're making to layouts are definitely getting to a point where it's becoming more and more difficult to understand what is and isn't actual organic content and where it comes from. It's obviously frustrating when you're working so hard to build content to be featured. Then Google sometimes doesn't even show where that content is coming from, or doesn't even feature that information prominently. It can be frustrating.
But at the end of the day, if we're helping people with their questions, hopefully they'll find the brand somewhere. Hopefully we're helping people along the way.
On Google's dominance as a search engine
Carmen: Right now, it seems like Google is a giant in charge of everything. But do you think there's a point where, because they're doing things like this, they might undermine their own trust and usefulness as far as being a search engine at all?
Cori: Oh yeah. For sure. I think we are fast approaching that tipping point. I would love to know the market share of Duck Duck Go and more privacy focused search engines. I think between all the chatter: Facebook, GDPR, people are more aware of the data being collected on them and how it's being used. I don't think Google has set themselves up to be on the positive side of that discussion. I think people are becoming aware of that.
But I don't see a future anytime soon where the general public gets so fed up with it that they don't use Google anymore. If that time were to come, I think we're a way out from that. My two cents. Just talking to people who don't work in the industry, I think people are aware of data concerns, but I don't think most people, myself included apparently, still know the difference between a paid ad and an organic search result.
On what she loves about her job
Carmen: Finally, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What do you love most about what you're doing.
Cori: Lots of things! I just really love helping people. Whether that's through search strategy or my role right now at Seer, team management. Helping people grow in their careers and helping them grow their clients, helping people find answers when they need it, I think that's probably the most general answer I can give. Assisting in any way I can.
Keep up with more of Cori's insights by following her on Twitter at @corigraft.