Brian Smith – Search Engine Land News On Search Engines, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Tue, 27 Aug 2019 18:08:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The convergence of data quality to consumer discoverability /the-convergence-of-data-quality-to-consumer-discoverability-320870 Tue, 20 Aug 2019 18:17:18 +0000 /?p=320870 Data cleanliness and accuracy must be a priority for brands because it will affect marketing performance at the local level.

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While technology is driving longer buying journeys for customers considering big-ticket items such as travel, vehicles, or major appliances, at the local level it’s all about efficiency. A consumer may use up to 13 different sources to find out information about a business but when it comes time to convert to an in-store visit, they turn to Google. Four in five consumers use search to find local information and when they do, 50% of mobile consumers will visit a store within a day. Customers want Google to bring back the best answer to meet their needs, and they want it now

There, they’ll find your location’s address and directions, hours of operation, phone number, customer reviews, and more—often enough to make a decision about your business, without ever having left the search engine results page. Understanding this customer journey is mission-critical, and high-performance marketers know it; in fact, 88% think a customer journey strategy it’s critical to marketing success, according to the Local Search Association. However, only 65% of these marketers said their brand has taken a customer journey approach to marketing, and 39% are not even actively mapping their customer journeys.

Where’s the disconnect? In this post, I’ll talk about how to identify and combat friction caused by data quality in your local customer’s journey, in order to improve the experience people are having with your locations, where and whenever those interactions are happening.

1. Are your local listings helping or hindering?

Inaccurate local listings have a hugely detrimental effect on customer experience. Searchers may be met in their moments of need with the wrong store hours, for example, or directions to a store that has been closed down. Poor local listings data does even more damage to your brand’s online presence by eroding the search engine’s trust in the brand, as well. Google doesn’t want to show searchers the incorrect answers to their query. If searchers are having negative experiences with your listings, it’s a strong signal to Google that they should not recommend your locations to others.

Our data shows that just 1 in 60 local searches result in a click-through to a website. In an age where searchers find everything they need to convert in your local listings, brand marketers need to be able to manage them at scale to prevent friction and stopping points in the customer journey.

2. Brands can reduce friction in location discovery and the pathway from search to store with local pages. 

Accurate, complete local listings are the solid foundation on which brands can begin to level up their customer journey enhancements. Once listings are optimized, you can focus your efforts on providing and measuring the effectiveness of value-add experiences such as BOPUS (buy online, pick up in-store), integrating local inventory levels with online search, facilitating local bookings or reservations, etc.

Mobile-responsive local pages with integrated reviews, schema, local or brand events and promotions, and other hyperlocal content help consumers take action. A dynamic locator further reduces friction by guiding consumers to their closest location and can also help brands showcase specialty offerings, dealer locations, service areas and more. 

3. Local reviews are key for both customer experience and search visibility. 

Brands need to be a part of the online conversation about their locations in order to protect and grow the business. Consumers take reviews seriously – 92% read them and 40% form an opinion by reading just one to three reviews. This is a vital part of the customer journey, where decisions are made in an instant.

In addition to their importance to consumers, local reviews are an important MapPack ranking signal that Google uses to gauge the credibility and reputation of business locations. Review data appears in local search listings for locations with five or more reviews, but can be integrated in local pages, as well. This provides the social proof consumers crave as they’re deciding whether to proceed with your brand, or head back to the SERPs to keep looking. It happens that fast.

People are looking for brands to engage, too. Reviews with brand responses are up to 15 times more likely to be considered helpful, but reviews more than three months old are disregarded by 85% of consumers.

Brands with hundreds or thousands of locations need a technology-driven strategy for reviews management that enables real-time listening, alerts and response assignments, competitive benchmarking and sentiment analysis at the brand level. This reduces friction in the customer journey and ensures that your reviews data is sending the best possible signals to Google, to boost your local search visibility for all locations.

4. Bad data cannot result in a good customer experience.

Poor quality or outdated data is a major obstacle for brands. As Forrester VP Kate Leggett said, “Garbage in/garbage out erodes customer satisfaction.” She cited the example of an international bank “that could not meet its customer satisfaction goals because agents in its 23 contact centers all followed different operational processes, using up to 18 different apps – many of which contained duplicate data – to serve a single customer.”

Data standardization is critical in marketing, where consumers are interacting with brands across devices, platforms, networks and search engines. In a previous column, I talked about the obstacles multi-location brands face in making location data actionable beyond its originally intended purpose. Enterprises typically have multiple databases containing disparate location data sets from different departments and while all of this data likely meets the individual needs of the unit it came from, it typically doesn’t meet the stringent data quality standards Google and the other search engines require.

Brands need a single source of truth for location data – one platform in which all location data is gathered, cleansed, formatted, and activated. 

Clean data drives superior local search performance for all of your locations.

Solve customer pain points and remove barriers to conversion across the brand with a proactive, holistic approach to local.

  • Simplify and improve the efficacy of local listings management by using technology to push bulk updates, claim listings, resolve duplication errors, and otherwise improve/protect the validity of your local listings data at scale.
  • Map out your most common customer journeys. How do searchers progress from local listings to in-store visitors? How do searchers find you if they are already familiar with the brand? How do they find you if they are not, but have an expressed need for a product or service you provide? How can you facilitate the journey for each of these different types of customers?
  • What do local reviews tell customers and search engines about your business locations? Manage all reviews within a single platform for access to competitive benchmarking, alerts and assignments, local responses, and qualitative/quantitative data that can help inform brand decisions and identify both top performers and locations where opportunities exist to improve.

Data cleanliness and accuracy must be priority number one for brands looking to improve marketing performance at the local level. The impact of poor data on your local visibility and customers’ journey cannot be ignored.

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Learn how to build an online to offline attribution model for local businesses /learn-how-to-build-an-online-to-offline-attribution-model-for-local-businesses-311104 Mon, 28 Jan 2019 13:51:38 +0000 /?p=311104 Offline pickup with online ordering and coupons are just a couple of ways you can build your ideal local attribution stack.

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This year, nearly half of holiday shoppers said they would shop online exclusively, if they could. On the other hand, results from the same study showed that 61 percent of shoppers would rather shop with brands that have a physical location than ones that are online only.

While these may seem like competing interests, it’s indicative of an overall shift in the customer journey. Mobile has made it easier, more than ever for consumers to discover new products and brands online, comparison shop and validate their choices with reviews. When it comes to a consumer completing a purchase, many still prefer to shop where a connection can be made, a local storefront.

Complex mixed market models help us understand which individual online source provides better visibility, but our line of sight into the consumer journey falls short when consumers leave their online searches behind and go into a store and transact. Online to offline attribution is critically important for all forms of local businesses including SMBs, franchisees, or multi-location brands.

Here are some of the more current and innovative ways that are available to holistically track and attribute earned media sources to an offline transaction performed in-store.  Ad serving attribution solutions are not being considered for this article.

The new funnel equals blurred lines

Google recently took a deep dive into the journeys of over 2,900 real-world consumers by tracking their cross-device click data over a period of six months. While each consumer’s journey is unique, this study gave us a decent look at how the “average” funnel has been transformed.

The constantly-connected consumer journey is no longer a linear path from discovery to purchase. In fact, Google found that a single makeup purchase generated over 40 organic searches and 125 digital touchpoints. In the end, the consumer searched for a nearby location to complete the purchase.

In another example, even a lower price-point candy bar purchase generated over 20 touchpoints as the consumer researched different products and retailers to meet their needs. Ultimately they, too, decided to visit a local store to complete the transaction in person.

You can assume that people are still finding your store in the real world and dropping in. People live in your neighborhood and know that you’re there. But how can you tell how many customers have been influenced by your digital marketing efforts? And is there any way to tell which ones saw your maps listing via organic search versus those who spotted your store while driving by?

This is the problem plaguing local stores – large and small, private and corporate, solopreneur and franchisee alike. Last-click attribution models simply don’t account for the many touchpoints that may have influenced the consumer’s decision to cross your physical threshold.

Unfortunately, there’s no single solution that gives you 100 percent insight into every online-to-offline transaction, but you can use these methodologies to widen the lens – even if inferred.

Facilitate offline pickup with online ordering

To further localize and monetize your store’s local landing page with “smart-bars” that highlight local store products consumers can reserve online and pick up in-store (ROPIS). Localized data can help tailor content based on a variety of sources like eComm browsing behavior, store-level inventory, weather, POS transactions and more.

This is one of the easier online-to-offline transactions to track, and you can use this data to extrapolate to larger audiences and groups of locations.

Targeted online-to-offline coupons

Offer your local landing page visitors a geo-targeted, serialized coupon. In-store couponing is the new old in online-to-offline attribution, made more powerful with personalization options driven by consumer data. Adding a single-use coupon can eliminate the biggest negative of this methodology and eliminate sharing. The acceptance of the coupon and redemption of it within the store can be used to attribute that an online to an offline transaction.

Post-click device tracking

In this model, all users that visit your local landing page receive a measurement pixel. The user’s mobile ID is tracked to a geo-targeted, presumably in-store event. Some solutions allow you to serve a survey to learn more about the consumer’s complete journey, digging deeper into other touch points, what the consumer ultimately purchased and the total of their order.

Depending on the reporting functionality of the solution, you can add store level transactional data to each market to understand possible nuances between markets.

You can take this even further with omnichannel solutions that can match anonymized mobile IDs against in-store POS transactional data for household intelligence gleaned from identifying a user via credit card data. This gives you greater insight into what action your customer took and who they are, as well, through detailed segment analysis.

Post-transactional attribution

An identity resolution service that connects online to offline consumer identifiers is another way of closing the loop and offering truly people-based marketing. Through DMP solution providers, consumers can be served a cookie and tracked through other anonymized consumer identifiers post-purchase or transaction at the desired location.

Siloed first-, second- and third-party data can be resolved to a persistent identifier, enabling brands to find their audiences online using offline data. This option provides marketers a greater level of insight into attribution throughout the entire consumer purchase cycle.

Building your ideal local attribution stack

It’s important to accept that even if you were to implement any of the above solutions, you’re still going to have gaps. The point here is, there’s no single solution that provides absolute coverage of the online-to-offline consumer journey.

So which online-to-offline attribution solution is the best for measuring your local marketing success?

First, determine which metrics give your business the information you need, so you know where it makes sense to focus your tracking efforts. For example, do you want to know that a visitor went into your store? That they made a purchase? Or both? What do you need to know about that consumer to inform your marketing strategy going forward?

This informs which methods can be used to measure what matters. You’ll need to make sure your methods comply with privacy regulations in your region, as well.

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How to manage multiple GMB listings for service area businesses /how-to-manage-multiple-gmb-listings-for-service-area-businesses-304399 Fri, 24 Aug 2018 16:55:00 +0000 /?p=304399 Contributor Brian Smith offers insights on how service area businesses can use GMB's bulk syndication service to increase their visibility and decrease their CPA.

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It’s a question that comes up frequently, and it’s a concern for small businesses and enterprise businesses alike: Can Service Area Businesses (SABs) use Google My Business’s (GMB) bulk syndication to manage their listings?

In short, the answer is yes, but it does come with several caveats. In this post, we’ll look at the various nuisances involved in setting up SAB listings through the lens of a successful implementation where listings on GMB helped a brand improve map pack visibility across 3,500 local markets.

It’s worth getting right. Appearing prominently in Google’s map pack results puts your brand right in the crosshairs of motivated searchers with an expressed need for a service like yours. Let’s see how it works.

Improving map pack visibility

Let’s say a company (we’ll call them “example brand,” or EB for short) had a need to improve its map pack visibility in each of its service areas across the United States. We had to define what success would look like for EB and decided to utilize the following performance metrics:

  • The number of GMB phone calls from map pack insights.
  • Bring cost per acquisition (CPA) down to less than $50.

The brand had determined through an internal review process that they closed roughly 50 percent of all phone calls (which is excellent and would be highly desired by anyone!). This closed rate metric was applied against the GMB call volume and compared against the cost of the program, in order to determine CPA.

Sounds easy enough, right? But the challenge here is getting Google to validate and show your SAB listings, which might serve the entire country or large swaths of it. How can you achieve this when your product or service is delivered at your customer’s address and not to your location?

With success metrics in hand, we planned a two-pronged approach to improve map pack visibility across all relevant markets.

Local landing pages

Local landing pages were developed for each SAB to support and authenticate the relationship between the page and the brand. We needed to prove to Google each service area listing was a legitimate location so the Google My Business SAB account would be verified.

Dedicating a local landing page to each SAB offers other benefits as well:

  • Encourages user engagement.
  • Improves client experience by continuing a branded experience.
  • Boosts conversions through elements like hyperlocal content and integrated customer reviews.

These pages were responsive, properly marked up with schema and integrated seamlessly with the brand’s current site design.

Local listings

There are several different options for verifying local business listings on Google:

  • Mail (postcard).
  • Phone (not available for all listings).
  • Email.
  • Instant verification (verified websites in Google Search Console).
  • Bulk verification.

We chose the mail (postcard) option because once the business listing is verified, it allows for SAB business to be established and managed by a single user.

This was a very involved process that took a lot of careful coordination from the brand from the mailing all the way down to the specific locations we were trying to verify for each local listing. An email was sent from the EB corporate office to the local-level SMB managers that explained the broad initiative and what they were to expect. Once the groundwork was set, we targeted a subset of 15 to 20 locations each week and changed them to SAB listings after verification was complete.

By going after a smaller group each week, we could be hyper-focused and not distracted by the larger number of locations that still needed to be mailed a verification postcard. Overall, it took nearly a year to verify all locations and turn them into SAB listings. The hard work would eventually pay off with positive results.

Improving map pack results

The combination of SAB pages targeting a specific local area with verified local listings and ongoing listings management is a powerful one. Six months post-implementation, EB experienced a 145 percent increase in call volume!

The CPA was above where it needed to be, but not all locations were added to GMB, as we were working our way through the verifications.

After 12 months, the 145 percent increase in call volume held steady. As more locations were verified and added as SAB listings, EB’s CPA began to steadily decrease, and by the first-year point, we achieved a cost per acquisition under $40. Over the course of 18 months, EB experienced a 26 percent year-over-year (YoY) increase in call volume across SABs and achieved a CPA of $37.


Here are the pieces I have identified as key to achieving similar results. I hope they will work as well for your own enterprise-level SAB brand:

  • Create local landing pages to validate locations and show a brand connection.
  • Add physical signage in front of each location so it can be seen via Google Street View.
  • Add an email address on the brand’s top-level domain email system for verifying the GMB account. I recommend you have the email address forwarded to your listings provider to streamline the communication process, so they can communicate directly with Google My Business.
  • Get the ability to extract GMB map pack insights from GMB’s API, to assess performance across your multiple SABs.

Enterprise service area business brands have tended to steer away from local GMB listings, given how hard it is to verify SABs.  But the upside of doing so can be tremendous for those up to the challenge.

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Where to go next with your Google My Business listing /go-next-google-business-listing-286525 Fri, 17 Nov 2017 16:17:16 +0000 /?p=286525 So, you've set up your Google My Business listing but still aren't seeing results. What's the next step? Columnist Brian Smith lays out some suggestions to further optimize your listing for better local search visibility.

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When it comes to digital marketing and search engine optimization, the devil is truly in the details. Seemingly trivial choices can have a dramatic effect on your web presence and search visibility, and nowhere is that more evident than in Google My Business (GMB).

GMB optimization has quickly become something of a cottage industry within the broader scope of SEO. By now, you’ve probably heard all about the importance of keeping your listings up to date with accurate store hours, phone numbers and addresses. Those are the no-brainer changes. How do you go beyond the low-hanging fruit to really make your GMB listing stand out?

Some relatively straightforward tweaks to Google My Business can have a profound effect on your listing’s visibility and your local pack ranking. They may seem deceptively simple, but these GMB hacks could make all the difference in the world.

Address standardization

OK, so you’ve updated your store listing with an accurate address — but does it follow recognized and standardized guidelines? Any irregularities within your GMB listing could adversely affect your local ranking.

Compare your address with the acceptable formatting and standards laid out by the United States Postal Service (USPS) and see how it stacks up. It may seem minor, but updating your address to bring it in line with USPS standards will help your local page ranking.

For organizations outside of the United States, be sure to check with your national guidelines on address standards.

Geocode precision

Google My Business uses your listing address to generate geocodes, which in turn dictate where your store appears in Google Maps. This is not a foolproof process, however, and it’s not unheard of for businesses to have wildly inaccurate geocodes. Google Maps could put your store at a nearby intersection, or even several blocks away from its actual location.

You don’t want to make it any more difficult for your customers to find you, which is why it’s so important to ensure your listing has precise geocodes. This is doubly important for any business located in a larger metropolitan area. Denser areas could see more inaccurate geocodes, so city dwellers need to be extra mindful of this factor.

Listing categories

Google doesn’t change its algorithm for the fun of it. The company is always trying to improve its search engine so it returns results that closely align with users’ queries. With each new update, relevance becomes an even more important factor in a listing’s visibility.

The more precise you can be with your store category, the more likely your listing will appear for searches that match it. Don’t settle for overly broad store categories, even if they are technically accurate. Drill a little deeper to provide an accurate characterization of your business, and you’ll likely see better results.

Proximity to search

That same need for precision applies to your store’s listed location as well. It may be tempting for businesses located near a larger city (but still outside of it) to list that metropolis as their location. Why not, right? It could broaden your potential customer base.

Google takes location and proximity into account when calculating local page ranking, however. It won’t be fooled by businesses misrepresenting their location, and if anything, doing so will hurt those stores’ visibility. If your shop is in Skokie, Illinois, say so. Don’t pretend it’s located in Chicago to draw more eyeballs. You’ll be far more likely to rank for searches done in your area.

Cultivate (and respond to) reviews

Unknown quantities tend to scare off consumers. No one wants to be the first diner at a new, non-vetted restaurant or roll the dice on a barber with no track record of leaving customers satisfied with their haircut. More than ever, online reviews are critical to local page success. Encourage your customers to go online and leave a review for GMB to pick up on. The more reviews you have, the more exposure your business can get.

Business owners may be a little wary of online reviews given their mercurial nature. It doesn’t take much to get negative feedback, and those kinds of comments could reflect poorly on your store. However, such instances are opportunities to engage unhappy individuals and show other potential customers that you take their satisfaction seriously. Google recommends responding to both positive and negative reviews to improve your listing.

Create engaging content

An inactive site could be mistaken for a dead one. One area of optimization that’s easy to overlook is filling your site with engaging content. Creating new material to share with regular or potential customers is a good way to improve your local page ranking. Moreover, content that focuses on local events or area-specific concerns can help your search efforts immensely.

Additionally, consider making use of Google Posts, which allows you to publish events, promotions and other business updates directly to Google Search (in the Knowledge Panel) and Maps.

A recent study by Joy Hawkins and Ben Fisher suggests that use of Google Posts may have a mild impact on ranking.

Add relevant images

A picture says a thousand words, yet many stores neglect to include images in their Google My Business listing. Customers today like to do their online legwork before visiting a business and actively look for photos of products, store interior, signage and so on.

Uploading images can have a profound effect on your local ranking. I just recently worked with a client to optimize 70-plus GMB listings and saw that adding images alone increased traffic by 300 percent.

Remember when I said the devil is in the details? These are the kinds of details I was referring to. Something as seemingly insignificant as adding a store image can drastically increase the performance and visibility of your page listings.

Optimize those listings!

The beauty of it all is that none of the suggestions above are very time-consuming. It’s pretty easy to make some quick optimizations to your Google My Business listing and website that have the potential to increase online traffic.

Just remember: Every little bit helps when you’re trying to gain that competitive edge, so don’t ignore any updates because they seem inconsequential. With Google My Business, nothing is inconsequential.

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A brief history of Google’s most important local search updates /brief-history-googles-important-local-search-updates-284973 Fri, 20 Oct 2017 14:42:29 +0000 /?p=284973 How has Google's local search changed throughout the years? Columnist Brian Smith shares a timeline of events and their impact on brick-and-mortar businesses.

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Deciphering the Google algorithm can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. The search engine giant has made many changes over the years, keeping digital marketers on their toes and continually moving the goalposts on SEO best practices.

Google’s continuous updating can hit local businesses as hard as anyone. Every tweak and modification to its algorithm could adversely impact their search ranking or even prevent them from appearing on the first page of search results for targeted queries. What makes things really tricky is the fact that Google sometimes does not telegraph the changes it makes or how they’ll impact organizations. It’s up to savvy observers to deduce what has been altered and what it means for SEO and digital marketing strategies.

What’s been the evolution of local search, and how did we get here? Let’s take a look at the history of Google’s local algorithm and its effect on brick-and-mortar locations.

2005: Google Maps and Local Business Center become one

After releasing Local Business Center in March 2005, Google took the next logical step and merged it with Maps, creating a one-stop shop for local business info. For users, this move condensed relevant search results into a single location, including driving directions, store hours and contact information.

This was a significant moment in SEO evolution, increasing the importance of up-to-date location information across store sites, business listings and online directories.

2007: Universal Search & blended results

Universal Search signified another landmark moment in local search history, blending traditional search results with various listings from other search engines. Instead of working solely through the more general, horizontal SERPs, Universal Search combined results from Google’s vertical-focused search queries like Images, News and Video.

Google’s OneBox started to show within organic search results, bringing a whole new level of exposure that was not there before.  The ramifications on local traffic were profound, as store listings were better positioned to catch the eye of Google users.

2010: Local Business Center becomes Google Places

In 2010, Google rebranded/repurposed Local Business Center and launched Google Places. This was more than a mere name change, as a number of important updates were included, like adding new image features, local advertising options and the availability of geo-specific tags for certain markets. But more importantly, Google attempted to align Places pages with localized search results, where previously information with localized results was coming from Google Maps.

The emergence of Places further cemented Google’s commitment to bringing local search to the forefront. To keep up with these rapidly changing developments, brick-and-mortar businesses needed to make local search a priority in their SEO strategies.

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2012: Google goes local with Venice

Prior to Venice, Google’s organic search results defaulted to more general nationwide sites. Only Google Maps would showcase local options. With the Venice update, Google’s algorithm could take into account a user’s stated location and return organic results reflecting that city or state. This was big, because it allowed users to search anchor terms without using local modifiers.

The opportunity for companies operating in multiple territories was incredible. By setting up local page listings, businesses could effectively rank higher on more top-level queries just by virtue of being in the same geographic area as the user. A better ranking with less effort — it was almost too good to be true.

2013: Hummingbird spreads its wings

Hummingbird brought about significant changes to Google’s semantic search capabilities. Most notably, it helped the search engine better understand long-tail queries, allowing it to more closely tie results to specific user questions — a big development in the eyes of main search practitioners.

Hummingbird forced businesses to change their SEO strategies to adapt and survive. Simple one- or two-word phrases would no longer be the lone focal point of a healthy SEO plan, and successful businesses would soon learn to target long-tail keywords and queries — or else see their digital marketing efforts drop like a stone.

2014: Pigeon takes flight

Two years after Venice brought local search to center stage, the Pigeon update further defined how businesses ranked on Google localized SERPs. The goal of Pigeon was to refine local search results by aligning them more directly with Google’s traditional SEO ranking signals, resulting in more accurate returns on user queries.

Pigeon tied local search results more closely with deep-rooted ranking signals like content quality and site architecture. Business listings and store pages needed to account for these criteria to continue ranking well on local searches.

2015: RankBrain adds a robotic touch

In another major breakthrough for Google’s semantic capabilities, the RankBrain update injected artificial intelligence into the search engine. Using RankBrain’s machine learning software, Google’s search engine was able to essentially teach itself how to more effectively process queries and results and more accurately rank web pages.

RankBrain’s ability to more intelligently process page information and discern meaning from complex sentences and phrases further drove the need for quality content. No more gaming the system. If you wanted your business appearing on the first SERP, your site had better have the relevant content to back it up.

2015: Google cuts back on snack packs

A relatively small but important update, in 2015, Google scaled back its “snack pack” of local search results from seven listings to a mere three. While this change didn’t affect the mechanics of SEO much, it limited visibility on page one of search results and further increased the importance of ranking high in local results.

2016: Possum shakes things up

The Possum update was an attempt to level the playing field when it came to businesses in adjoining communities. During the pre-Possum years, local search results were often limited to businesses in a specific geographical area. This meant that a store in a nearby area just outside the city limits of Chicago, for instance, would have difficulty ranking and appearing for queries that explicitly included the word “Chicago.”

Instead of relying solely on search terms, Possum leveraged the user’s location to more accurately determine what businesses were both relevant to their query and nearby.

This shift to user location is understandable given the increasing importance of mobile devices. Letting a particular search phrase dictate which listings are returned doesn’t make much sense when the user’s mobile device provides their precise location.

2017 and beyond

Predicting when the next major change in local search will occur and how it will impact ranking and SEO practices can be pretty difficult, not least because Google rarely announces or fully explains its updates anymore.

That being said, here are some evergreen local SEO tips that never go out of fashion (at least not yet):

  • Manage your local listings for NAP (name, address, phone number) accuracy and reviews.
  • Be sure to adhere to organic search best practices and cultivate localized content and acquire local links for each store location.
  • Mark up your locations with structured data, particularly Location and Hours, and go beyond if you are able to.

When in doubt, look at what your successful competitors are doing, and follow their lead. If it works, it works — that is, until Google makes another ground-shaking algorithm change.

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Google is making strides with Google My Business  /google-making-strides-google-business-282689 Fri, 22 Sep 2017 14:21:50 +0000 http:/?p=282689 Though Google My Business isn't perfect, columnist Brian Smith believes that recent updates and added features illustrate Google's commitment to making the platform work for local business owners.

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If you wanted to boil down marketers’ fears in the digital economy to one single idea, you might argue it would be loss of control.

How your brand is being presented and talked about across all the various sites, channels and platforms out there can sometimes feel entirely out of your hands. There’s always that lingering concern that potential customers will be misled, either through malicious reviews or inaccurate business information that pushes people toward your competitors.

Google My Business (GMB) has been one path to help brands solve the latter issue. GMB serves a similar function to business listings, much like Yelp or Yellow Pages, but has the added benefit of being tied directly to the tech giant’s search engine.

Customers search for your business, and Google My Business returns a customizable listing to go along with other search results. Information like location, store hours and customer reviews is available right from Google’s search engine results page, giving users a more direct line to your business and eliminating potential barriers to engagement.

GMB’s rocky road to excellence

Over the years, it hasn’t been all unicorns and rainbows for Google My Business. As I’ve noted previously, GMB’s service for enterprise brands left a fair amount to be desired, with pretty significant gaps in geocoding and its ability to extract traffic insights from the platform.

For instance, if Google Maps generated the wrong geocode for a particular location, GMB users would need to go into that store’s listing and manually make the switch. If several stores — maybe even hundreds, in some cases — have inaccurate geocodes, a relatively simple process becomes an arduous time sink.

A similar store-by-store limitation affected a brand’s ability to pull metrics and analytics at scale, as users would need to pull this data from each location separately, rather than have it all easily available from a wider repository.

Even so, Google My Business continues to show a lot of promise for businesses interested in converting online visitors into brick-and-mortar shoppers. To Google’s credit, the company has done a lot of work since the last time I discussed the platform, adding enhancements and new features, as well as building out its overall functionality. There’s still room for improvement, of course, but it’s made some impressive strides.

So, what’s new with Google My Business over the past 12 months? Plenty, as it turns out.

Google Posts

One of the more exciting developments is Google’s new Posts feature. Posts allows Google My Business users to build out the type of information included in your SERP sidebar beyond location, store hours and so forth.

Brands can take advantage of this platform to promote the latest sales and offers directly from Google’s search results. Individual store managers could go in and add location-specific promotions as well, helping them build awareness with a digital audience.

If you need further reason to take advantage of Google Posts, consider how it is presented on mobile formats. Post content appears at the top of SERPs when displayed on mobile devices, so it will be among the first things users see. It’s a good way to grab the attention of mobile users with the latest deals and offers.

Q&A feature

In recent weeks, Google has also added a Q&A feature to GMB to address frequently asked questions before customers even visit your site. These questions could include everything from what credit cards are accepted at a particular location to the best places to find parking.

What’s unique about this feature is that it’s both crowdsourced and curated by the merchant, so users can give a “thumbs up” to helpful questions and answers to push them higher up in the listing, while the business can add its own responses.

The one downside to the Q&A feature is that, as of now, it’s only compatible with Android devices. Everyone else is just going to have to wait for Google to roll it out to other platforms.

Chat capabilities

Another recent feature that has turned some heads is Google My Business’s chat capabilities. Although still in pilot mode, this program allows customers to communicate with businesses in real time straight from the SERP. Want to clarify holiday store hours, check available stock or hold an item for a customer? It can all be done through Google My Business without picking up a phone or going through a dedicated web portal.

That level of responsiveness is good for business and your brand image. If customers are able to speak directly with store associates at any time during business hours, they’ll associate your brand with convenience. It’s just another way for companies to bridge the gap between digital and in-store experiences.

And more!

Other noteworthy GMB updates include:

Google My Business isn’t perfect, of course. Some of my earlier criticisms still stand, and I’m still waiting for Google to do something about those metrics oversights.

That being said, what Google’s done in the past 12 months is show that it’s committed to making Google My Business work, building out the core functionality with new features that help brick-and-mortar stores engage digital users and guide them to their location.

It’s a heck of a start. Let’s see if Google can keep it up.

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Augmented Reality: Where are we now, and what does it mean for marketers? /augmented-reality-now-280884 Fri, 25 Aug 2017 14:40:21 +0000 http:/?p=280884 With big players like Facebook and Apple committing to the technology, contributor Brian Smith argues that AR is becoming more than just a novelty for marketers.

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Summer 2016 seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Barack Obama was president, the Chicago Cubs were carrying on their 108-year losing streak and swimmer Ryan Lochte was busy fabricating a story about getting robbed at gunpoint while representing the US at the Rio Olympic Games.

One of the biggest digital stories to come out of last year was the meteoric rise of Pokémon Go. The mobile game brought augmented reality (AR) to the masses and effectively demonstrated the technology’s potential as a new platform for customer engagement.

Pokémon Go disappeared from the limelight almost as quickly as it appeared, solidifying its place as a pop culture curiosity that will almost certainly be covered in an “I Love the ’80s”-esque retrospective 20 years from now.

Pokémon Go’s story may be over for most, but what about its underlying technology? How has that fared over the past 12 months?

Well, augmented reality isn’t just for gamers anymore. It can be a major asset for brands and their local marketing initiatives.

Tech giants pick up the AR torch

In many ways, Pokémon Go served as a proof of concept for AR’s potential as a marketing tool. Imagine billboards and advertisements that exist purely in the virtual world and offer exclusive deals and promotions to AR users. It’s a whole new ballgame, and some of the biggest names in tech are racing to cash in on that awesome potential.

Apple, for instance, is making a concerted push into this space, with hopes of building its forthcoming iOS 11 operating system into the world’s premiere AR platform. The tech giant recently ramped up its hiring efforts to bring in dozens of professionals with skills like “geospatial information services” to support AR software projects.

Meanwhile, Facebook demonstrated its growing interest in this technology, releasing a closed beta for its own AR mobile platform earlier this year. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the company’s commitment to AR at the recent Facebook F8 conference:

“Over time, I think [augmented reality] will be a really important technology that changes how we use our phones and all our technology,” Zuckerberg said. “This is the type of technology we love to build.”

Where does AR fit in for local marketers?

It’s encouraging to hear that the big boys are throwing their full support behind AR, but what does the technology mean for digital marketers within the local space today? Over the past year, companies have made strides in the AR field, developing new use cases for marketing applications.

For example, Blippar has worked with a number of widely recognized brands to create AR-based banner ads that don’t require an app to view. When mobile users click on the ad, AR functionality is enabled, and they can interact with both their physical and virtual environments in new and innovative ways.

By pointing their cameras at particular objects, users can receive suggestions on similar or complementary products. A couple at a restaurant for dinner, for instance, could get wine pairing recommendations just by opening their camera apps.

Marketing teams could take advantage of this capability by providing information on local promotions. So, if users direct their phone’s camera to a bottle of Pepsi, the AR platform can show them where to find it on sale in their area.

Bridge the divide between digital and in-store experiences

We’ve all been spoiled rotten by digital platforms. Thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and connected devices, consumers expect to have an enormous amount of information about any given product at their fingertips at any time.

In this environment, comparing product labels in a brick-and-mortar store seems pretty quaint. Companies like watch retailer Jura have developed AR applications that allow shoppers to find out more information about products as they walk through store aisles and compare different brands in far more detail. In Jura’s case, customers can virtually try on different watches and see which styles suit them best without getting near the display case.

It works the other way too. AR can enhance the digital shopping experience by putting products into consumers’ homes before they make a purchase. IKEA, for instance, has experimented with an AR functionality that would allow shoppers to view how, say, a dresser would look in their bedroom. More recently, the company announced a deal with Apple to develop an app for iOS 11.

With AR, the line between purely digital and physical shopping experiences starts to blur, creating untold possibilities for customer engagement.

“This technology makes it easier to make buying decisions in your own home, get inspired and try many different products, styles and colors in real-life settings with the swipe of your finger,” said Michael Valdsgaard, the leader of digital transformation at Inter IKEA Systems, in a press release. “I think that augmented reality and virtual reality will be a total game changer for retail in the same way as the internet. Only this time, it will be much faster, and accessible to billions of customers.”

As companies continue investing in this technology, new marketing applications will arise. Now that tech giants like Apple and Facebook have committed to AR, it’s safe to say this is more than a flash-in-the-pan fad. The future of AR is filled with incredible potential. Be sure you’re ready to take advantage of AR when it truly comes into its own.

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How local businesses can turn the threat of on-demand deliveries to their own advantage /local-businesses-turn-threat-on-demand-deliveries-advantage-279040 Fri, 28 Jul 2017 15:15:02 +0000 http:/?p=279040 On-demand delivery services are making local businesses nervous, but columnist Brian Smith explains why this new shift in consumer behavior should be seen as an opportunity to grow.

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As a digital marketer, you have to stay on your toes. It sometimes feels like new market disruptions have become an annual rite of passage. What were once generational, seismic changes are now just the normal order of business.

The latest development in a long line of digital commerce revolutions is the emergence of on-demand delivery. Like any disruptive change, on-demand apps have created a lot of anxiety for brands and their local stores. Is this technology a threat to localized businesses, or an opportunity to improve brand engagement and drive customer loyalty?

Amazon leads another digital revolution

You have Amazon to thank for the current fervor whipping up around on-demand delivery. While Uber Eats, Instacart and Soothe, among others, laid the foundation for this change, Amazon will likely be the company to catapult on-demand local services into the wider consumer consciousness. The e-commerce giant’s recently announced plan to acquire supermarket chain Whole Foods signals a radical change in the way consumers buy and receive groceries.

Although grocery delivery services are nothing new, having one of the biggest and most innovative names in e-commerce throw their hat into the ring should put the industry on notice that some major developments are underway. After all, this is the same company that’s been experimenting with drone delivery for years.

If Amazon does indeed grab the torch from the Instacarts of the world, consumers are likely to follow right along. At that point, on-demand apps will cease being fringe consumer channels and become the new status quo.

Are on-demand apps a threat to localized businesses?

If this does come to pass, local businesses will be rightfully concerned about what that all means for them. The problem’s not restricted to supermarkets, either. On-demand services could dramatically change things for any brand that operates localized store fronts. They’ve already had to weather the rise of e-commerce, but if on-demand delivery becomes the new normal, they may see foot traffic dry up entirely — that’s the fear, anyway.

But before we all throw up our hands and claim the sky is falling, perhaps we should be viewing the situation in a different light. Local stores may be able to capitalize on the emergence of on-demand services and use them to drive customer engagement.

Drive brand engagement with on-demand services

Businesses need to stay agile to compete in the omni-channel marketplace. We’ve seen this with the rise of e-commerce: Brands that embraced digital channels and facilitated the customer journey through them not only survived but thrived in this new environment. That’s because they were able to provide customers more options to deliver products and services, allowing the consumer to dictate the terms of brand engagement. As we’ve seen through eMarketer’s research, customer priorities are shifting away from differentiators like low prices in favor of service quality.

The on-demand economy takes this sentiment a step further by allowing customers to receive products they purchase over a digital channel to arrive in their hands within mere minutes. Cutting a trip to a physical store out of the equation may make brands nervous, but for the customer, this is an incredible development. Businesses that take the lead and openly embrace on-demand delivery will associate themselves with convenience and speed — and that’s great for your brand. If you want loyal customers, show them you’re not afraid to meet them on their terms and provide them the level of service they demand.

On-demand delivery also removes many otherwise unavoidable obstacles to in-store sales. When it’s pouring rain and you have nothing to make for dinner, do you take a trip to the grocery store or pull into the McDonald’s drive-thru? No, you order a pizza and let someone else brave the elements. Inclement weather, traffic and family obligations frequently prevent customers from visiting stores. On-demand delivery allows stores and brands to net those otherwise lost sales by bringing products straight to the customer.

Extend your reach into new markets

Your local stores can only reach so many customers. People residing just outside their immediate vicinity may be unwilling to make a longer trip to those stores when there are similar alternatives nearby. On-demand delivery allows stores to broaden their footprint by providing services to consumers outside of their traditional territory. If your brand is offering on-demand services while competitors are still dragging their feet, who’s the consumer going to choose? Even if your brand’s store is farther away, customers are more likely to opt for fast, convenient delivery than to make a trip to a competitor’s brick-and-mortar shop.

With on-demand services, local stores can stretch their distribution capabilities to tap into surrounding markets, drastically expanding their potential customer base.

It’s still money in your pocket

Even with the benefits outlined above, there may be obstacles in sharing revenue between local stores and full-time delivery people or even independent contractors. Don’t think of it as cannibalizing your sales, though. On-demand delivery is an additive channel, supplementing traditional brick-and-mortar stores with another arm to provide products to consumers. Although brands may need to funnel some of those sales to a third-party delivery service, it’s still an added revenue stream that will prop up both local stores and the overall brand.

At the end of the day, if you stand on the sidelines and take a wait-and-see approach to on-demand services, you’re essentially leaving money on the table. Now that the big boys like Amazon have gotten involved, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes part of daily business operations.

I suggest getting ahead of this change, embracing it, and making it work for you. You can’t fight the future, and as we’ve seen, you either roll with the changes or you get left behind in the dust.

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The future of local discovery /future-local-discovery-273648 Fri, 28 Apr 2017 13:41:01 +0000 http:/?p=273648 Columnist Brian Smith discusses some of the recent developments and technology that will impact local search, both in the short term and the long term.

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We’ve entered an exciting time for local marketing. Big Data, digital assistants, augmented reality and beacons will fundamentally change the way users discover locations. As Bob Dylan so aptly pointed out, “The times they are a-changin’.”

As such, local marketers and advertisers need to start thinking about how they’re going to change along with the times. Here’s what you need to know about the future of local discovery.

Big Data: ‘Who’ informs ‘where’

Proximity is the primary ranking factor in local searches. That’s not likely to change. After all, what’s nearby is the fundamental aspect of local discovery.

What is changing, however, is the filter that sorts out, ranks and presents those nearby locations. What filter, you ask?

It’s you.

Going forward, local discovery will function as proximity filtered by your individual preferences. The person searching will inform what locations are shown.

In truth, this is nothing new. Google, Bing, Safari and Yahoo have been personalizing search results for some time through tracking your browsing history. What is new is the sophistication of artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics.

With the burgeoning Internet of Things, the amount of customer and behavioral data is growing by the day. Even if Congress hadn’t cleared the way for internet services providers (ISPs) to sell your data, what marketers and advertisers know about customers was only going to increase thanks to the growing data fiefdoms of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

For good or ill, the ability to use that information to target the right customer with the right message at the right time is maturing. In fact, even back in 2012 ,Target had the capability to use data mining to predict the pregnancy of a teenager before her father could deduce the news himself. Big Data has come a long way since then.

In the case of local discovery, Big Data will help search engines personalize local results based on a user’s preference. The more the search engines know about you, the more relevant search results and maps will be.

For example, a search for nearby restaurants might include ranking factors such as your favorite dishes, food allergies, price point, time of day and how long it was since your last visit. Meanwhile, a search for a nearby product such as shoes might be filtered by your favorite brand, shoe color, size and any ongoing sales.

However, knowing your customer and targeting your customer are two different things. There needs to be a means of surfacing local information in a unified way, and that need will undoubtedly be addressed by digital assistants.

Digital assistants and voice search

Digital assistants will serve as the connection between customer profiles and the preferred locations and products around them.

Digital assistants will be everywhere. On your phone, in your car, your house, your office — everywhere and inside everything connected to the internet.

The ultimate goal of Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri is to become that universal connection between the physical and digital worlds.

In the context of local discovery, think of a digital assistant as your very own personal Rick Steves, providing you with everything you’d ever care to know about a location — and then some.

This omnipresent assistant, part tour guide, part planner, part shopping liaison, will provide users with the most relevant and personalized local recommendations for anything you can imagine.

And thanks to voice search, digital assistants are always listening.

Google Home and Amazon Alexa operate in this mode by default, and Apple’s latest iPhone update is pushing users to set up voice activation for Siri.

In addition to enabling ambient listening, voice activation establishes voice biometrics, which will allow digital assistants to become device-agnostic.

Whether it’s smart cars, smart homes or smart offices, the ability to distinguish between users is critical to translating your personal preferences regardless of location or device. This will provide a consistent user experience without a disruption to conversational context.

In fact, Google Home recently made progress on this front by being able to recognize up to six different voices from one device. It’s not hard to extrapolate this trend to the point that digital assistants will be able to recognize who you are regardless of where or what device you’re using.

Soon you’ll be able to make dinner reservations by talking to the digital assistant embedded in your hotel room, order an Uber from the digital assistant on your phone as you walk to the lobby and check your flight from the digital assistant inside your autonomous Uber — all without breaking the conversational context with your digital assistant.

Augmented reality

With the rise of voice search, it’s also necessary to replace the traditional screen on your phone and monitor. A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s unlikely that even a sweet-talking digital assistant will replace our need to visualize what’s in front of us.

As I outlined in a previous article, the solution to traditional screens is to replace them with augmented reality — your smartphone transforming into smart glasses. Based on Facebook’s recent plans for augmented reality, this indeed seems to be the direction we’re heading.

In my mind, augmented reality is likely to be one of the more exciting and less privacy-invasive developments of local discovery. You’ll be able to scout out a local restaurant, visualize the precise location of a product on a shelf or interact with custom location-based content triggered with beacons. Which brings me to the final trend you should be keeping an eye on.


Proximity targeting will flourish with the rise of augmented reality and digital assistants.

Beacons are perfect for surfacing content in a user’s immediate proximity. The challenge right now is alerting users to beacons. However, if everyone has a digital assistant embedded in their augmented reality glasses, it will be easy for users to discover beacon content and have that content personalized based on personal preferences.

Whether it’s triggering a coupon for a customer’s most likely purchase as he walks by a store entrance or promoting a fast food restaurant as a vehicle exits the interstate off-ramp, the potential for beacons is tremendous.

Start preparing now

Many of these developments might seem too far out in the future. However, technology is evolving at an exponential rate. The time to start preparing and laying the groundwork for these marketing developments is now.

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The newest addition to the marketing mix’s Ps: Proximity /newest-addition-marketing-mix-proximity-272062 Fri, 31 Mar 2017 16:09:55 +0000 http:/?p=272062 Columnist Brian Smith explains the impact of proximity on local searches and provides advice for how marketers can make it work for them.

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Any marketer worth their salt, or at least one who has managed to stay awake during Marketing 101, can rattle off a long list of marketing mix “Ps.” You know what I’m talking about: product, price, place, promotion, people, processes and physical evidence.

Unfortunately, those old pillars of marketing don’t quite hold up under the weight of today’s digital marketing needs. Our aging mnemonic sorely needs a renovation. It’s time we add proximity into the mix.

Digital puts you in the center of the map

Long gone are the days of unfolding a paper map to find out where you are and where you want to go. Back then, when you ran off the edge of the map, you either got a new map or assumed that “here be monsters.”

You’ll find no edges on today’s digital maps. You are limited only by the power of your zoom and the reach of your click. By default, you are the center of the digital map. The world fills in around you, depending on the whim of your search.

Proximity — the distance from the user to any given location — is a heavily weighted ranking factor for all “near me” searches. Only when you specifically move the focal point from yourself to an area without you in it does proximity seem to loosen its grip on rankings.

And it makes sense that digital maps should be organized this way. Something closer to you is usually easier to get to than something farther away. For marketers, the further a potential customer is from a store, the less likely it is that the customer will visit the location.

Since most people find businesses through local search and digital maps, proximity needs to be a major aspect of every marketing strategy. If you get everything else right but fail to optimize for proximity, you’ll have a hard time leading customers to your brick-and-mortar locations.

Local SEO: Tipping the scale of proximity in your favor

You can’t control where your customers are when they search, but you can put a finger on the scale of proximity to help you rank above another similarly distanced location in your business category.

How? You have two options: You either purchase a higher rank with PPC, or you optimize for organic and hope that the user is searching in an area wide enough that the map needs to filter out locations.

Google and the other major search platforms are making it harder to win the organic hustle with each passing year. But there are still things you can do that will help you improve your rankings on the map.

First, give yourself a chance to show up in local search results by doing the basics. Make sure that your location information is accurate and properly distributed to all the major location data aggregators. Specifically, your name, address and phone number (NAP) need to be accurate, and your geocoordinates for each location should lead customers to the right place.

But the bare minimum doesn’t really cut it anymore. It’s 2017, after all. If you’re relying on the incompetence of your competitors to win at local search, you’re in trouble.

So how do you tip the scales in your favor?

You increase the weight of your local credibility and authority.

Local citations, reviews and Google My Business attributes

Proximity’s influence diminishes as the map zooms out. The more area within your field of vision, the more important it is to filter out locations on the map to avoid clutter. If you’re only looking at the area covered by a city block, good luck trying to shake proximity’s influence. However, if you zoom out just a little, other ranking factors increasingly come into play.

Recently, Andrew Shotland and Dan Liebson gave a presentation about local search ranking factors at SMX West. Some of the most important factors they uncovered outside of proximity were local citations, reviews and optimizing for Google My Business (GMB).

Local citations are important in that they give Google a strong indication that your location is where you say it is and that you have enough clout to attract backlinks.

Meanwhile, reviews help establish the local authority of your brand. The more people vouch for your location with positive reviews, the more comfortable Google feels about sending customers your way.

Finally, Google My Business is critical for helping your cause in local search. This is especially true for filling out your GMB attributes. We’ve begun to see the proliferation of Google My Business fields for each business type. For example, a restaurant will have the opportunity to fill in fields ranging from payment options, takeout, delivery, patio seating and anything else you’d want to know about a location.

You can expect GMB attributes to become a significant ranking signal going forward, thanks to digital assistants and voice search. Why? Because digital assistants and voice search are allowing for much more discerning answers when it comes to helping us find locations.

Voice search and digital assistants

The way we ask questions is changing. Thanks to digital assistants and voice search, when we talk to Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa or Siri, we give these search engines much more information than we typically do with a typed search.

We’re often terse when typing in search queries, mainly because we grew up having to do precise keyword matching if we wanted to see relevant search results.

But Google and the other search engines are getting much better at understanding the meaning of words. More importantly, they’re getting better at interpreting user intent. As a result, exact keyword matching is no longer as important — much to the chagrin of advertisers. However, this allows questions and answers to be much more nuanced.

The growing intelligence of search engines is fueling the rise of voice search. Instead of typing a simple query on Google like nearby Mexican restaurants, we’re much more likely to get long-winded with voice search and say, “Okay Google, where’s a good nearby Mexican restaurant with patio seating and a short wait?” Thanks to the blossoming artificial intelligence of search engines, these nuanced questions are becoming much easier for digital assistants to answer.

But just because Google can understand the intent behind more complex questions, it doesn’t mean that Google has the data to answer them. It’s no mystery why Google is crowdsourcing business attributes through Google Maps by asking users about their recent trips to a location. Google is gathering as much information about a location as possible to have the data to answer more nuanced questions.

This presents marketers with an opportunity. If you meet the nuanced criteria of a user’s question by filling out as many applicable attributes as possible in GMB, your location can leapfrog businesses that might be closer but fail to meet the search criteria.

After all, there may be only be a handful of restaurants in an area that meet the criteria of my previous voice search question. Proximity is still a factor, of course, but you at least lessen its tyranny and raise your odds of ranking higher organically.

Final thought

No matter what marketers do, thanks to the way digital maps are organized, it’s hard to escape the influence of proximity on search results. That’s why, even though our list of marketing mix Ps is growing long, it’s time that proximity joins the list.

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