Chris Silver Smith is the Director of Optimization Strategies at KeyRelevance. Chris has extensive background experience in search engine optimization and internet application development and he is a regular speaker at Search Marketing Expo, Search Engine Strategies, American Marketing Association seminars, and other technology and marketing conferences.
Chris previously worked as Lead Strategist at Netconcepts where he provided search marketing consulting and product development for their GravityStream automated optimization software. Prior to that, Chris served as Head of the Technology Department for Verizon’s Superpages.com sites, leading teams which focused upon advertising applications, taxonomic development, usability, user interface design, and more. Chris worked at Superpages for over a decade and his projects included work in: R&D, map-based search, Campus Area Yellow Pages, weather forecasting systems, ecards, XML APIs, RSS feeds, mobile applications, city guides, and more.
While at Superpages.com, Chris founded their extensive SEO program, initiating research on increasing search engine referral traffic naturalistically as far back as 1997, and he was later honored with the corporation’s highest award for this work in 2004, the Verizon Individual Excellence Award, for increasing site visits and associated click-through revenues by many millions of dollars. In 2006, Chris went on to found and chair the Idearc SEO Council, pulling together individuals from across the organization who worked on elements of natural search optimization.
Eric Enge: What are the most important things for people to be concerned about when they want to rank well in local search?
Chris Silver Smith: In my opinion, local search optimization is based upon a foundation of regular search engine optimization, but there are a number of additional factors beyond what we see in regular SEO, so there is a little bit more complexity here. Although some of the same classic SEO ranking factors are some of the things that feed into local search rankings as well, including well-formed titles and good H1 tags on pages.
There is also another way to rank well within local search for non-businesses websites. Even if a business doesn’t have a website, it can rank within local search because it may have listings within business directories whose listings get indexed and ranked by various local search engines. (For more on this, see Chris’s article on how Google Maps may’ve switched from ranking sites to ranking businesses, independent of website.)
Eric Enge: That’s one of the big problems in local search. There is a very little control over the way that data is maintained and propagated in both on and offline directory listings. It seems almost like a mass of random Brownian activity at times.
Chris Silver Smith: That’s a really good description of it. All these different little pieces of information are in a way feeding off of and influencing one another, and then showing up in different places within search results. All of them may have something to do with the business that you are particularly interested in.
Eric Enge: Right. There are actually a lot of things that can go wrong, including someone incorrectly typing a phone number or website address, the business may change locations or possibly going out of business. These are just a few examples of things that make the data go bad.
Chris Silver Smith: Correct. There are many factors, and you’ve already touched on a few of them. Another example is that there may be multiple ways to write a street address. I’ve seen this happen before in big cities and small towns. In big cities like New York City, there could be an east version and a west version of a street or an avenue, for example. Local businessmen could be writing their street address in the way locals refer to it, and may not include the East or West.
Google, and other mapping systems, may pinpoint the address in the wrong spot along the street. That has impacted me personally, and consumers are impacted by it very heavily in general, as it impacts their trust of online directories, online mapping systems and local search systems. It could also affect someone’s overall assessment of a business, if they go to an address and the business is not there, they get irritated. They are not going to have a very high tolerance for this, and even if they eventually find the business their opinion of it has probably suffered.
The difficult thing about this is that it may be completely unrelated to anything that business did, and it can affect a customer’s appreciation and review of a business. It can impact customer satisfaction before they’ve ever even arrived at the business. The mapping issue has been one of the biggest problems with local search since the inception of the Internet. There are a whole lot of reasons why businesses may be incorrectly located on maps, and it’s one of the areas for which Superpages received more complaints about than anything else over the years. Of course, we didn’t even provide maps that we made in-house, we used a few different external mapping systems, and each of the different mapping systems had its own problems and issues.
All of those factors feed into the process of getting listed and located correctly, and they affect the local search engine and directory’s ability to canonicalize listings and all of the different specs of a business’s information within one particular listing. I refer to the Brownian specs of information floating around as a sort of “constellation of local search information sources”. In a recent article, I wrote that if the search engine successfully associates all those diverse specs of info with each other then they can help to build a particular business’s rankings within the search results.
Eric Enge: One issue I think most people don’t understand is that if a search engine doesn’t have confidence that a business is at a particular location, it’s enthusiasm for ranking that business highly for related searches is going to drop.
Chris Silver Smith: That’s true.
Eric Enge: This could be potentially harmful for business if they go in and correct their listing at Superpages, for example. It’s great that it’s correct there, but it could still be wrong at yellowpages.com, business.com or at thousands of other websites. The business could then have one place where their listing is correct and a bunch of other places where it’s wrong, and what’s worst is that they are different. So if the search engine sees a bunch of data and it’s not really confident that the data is accurate then, that can be a ranking issue.
Chris Silver Smith: I can describe how that works to some degree. Search engines, local directories and online yellow pages use a variety of methods to try to associate businesses’ information that they get from multiple sources all with the same listing. There are a few different things that they do, including comparing the business name, street address and phone number.
The phone number has in the past typically been considered something that doesn’t vary as much as some of the other information from all the different business sources. As a result, it may be used for associating those various pieces of information all within one listing, but there are cases where people start adding on phone numbers, and then these directories don’t know which is the primary number for a particular listing.
In addition, there are businesses using various tracking phone numbers to determine how many calls they get from the various types of promotional work and advertising they do. They might use a different phone number in their newspaper ad, in each of the different yellow pages print directories and on their different ads online, so they might have a whole series of different phone numbers showing up across these different mediums.
If the phone number is different, it may result in the search engines having difficulty associating the same business’s information if some of the other pieces of information are not identical or very similar, such as the business name and the street address. There are additional problems with that, however, because there are many variations in the way people cite street addresses, as I mentioned before.
Google may think that a street address is “Highway 1” for example, whereas the more common name locally may be “Main Street” or some other alternate name. I’ve seen cases where streets have three or four different possible names or spellings, and an address could have multiple different businesses all at the same street number, like in a shopping center, a large office building or a shopping mall. This is how it starts getting more and more difficult for the search engine to associate these pieces of information all with one listing.
There are multiple different ways that directories cite the business name as well. Doctors, for example, often have their last name listed first in directories. There are also other cases where people use variations in business names, and they all may be valid, just different and used for different reasons. So if a business has different listings in InfoUSA and in Superpages, then associating those pieces of information gets very difficult. And if a business has one listing associated with one website and another associated with an alternate website, this is not going to give them a good chance to rank well on the search results. The same is true for reviews and ratings. If three or four different online business directories have reviews and ratings for a business, they can’t get collected together under a single unified rating when Google pulls all those pieces of information together. In this situation that particular business is not going to have the best chance to rank highly.
Eric Enge: I interviewed Pankaj Mathur of InfoUSA a few months back, and he told me that InfoUSA has 14,000,000 different businesses listed in its data, and Google has four or five times this many, almost one business for every five people in the United States.
The reason Google’s number is so much higher is because it gets its data by crawling all the web, whereas. InfoUSA does work to verify and confirm every listing it has.
Chris Silver Smith: There are a couple of reasons why InfoUSA might show fewer listings. One of them could be that Google has a variety of different information sources and is having problems collapsing those listings together. The problem is that Google is taking information from sources that are not as high quality as InfoUSA, which is one of the very few business listing aggregators that actually calls every single business in its directory once a year to verify its information. One problem is that businesses fail all the time, and they are not real good about notifying directories that they are no longer in business. Those dead, old listings get left in directories everywhere because there are not any good processes to get them deleted comprehensively. Unfortunately for Google, this is one case where “having more” search results is actually an indication of inferior quality.
Eric Enge: We have established that if a listing aggregator isn’t managing and monitoring its data, it is eventually going to go wrong, so what’s the best way to then clean it up?
Chris Silver Smith: There are a few different ways, and unfortunately there is no universal way that is going to work for everyone. One of the best ways is to try to clean it up with a main data aggregator such as InfoUSA or Axciom. They provide their data to many of the most important places, including Google, Superpages, and many other directories. If the business goes to those main data aggregators and tries to get its listing information updated, then that’s great, but it can be challenging because those companies are not set up to deal with a lot of small businesses. They rely on getting information back from some of their data partners, including superpages.com, yellowpages.com and Google.
The best thing to do is have a shotgun approach, where they make a list of all the top directories and then go and check their information in each directory periodically to see how they are showing up.
I’ve had clients who were not very careful about this, who would check only one listing that looked right and was ranking well within that directory. If they had looked more closely, however, they would have found a handful of other listings associated with it that were also showing up.
One of the ways to solve that problem would be to go in and search by phone number if reverse search is offered. They have to ask themselves if there is possibly some other listing showing up under their phone number.
I even found one egregious case where one of my client’s listings had been hijacked by a competitor who added their own URL into the listing in an attempt to steal their referrals!
Eric Enge: Right, they are using the phone number to hijack the listing.
Chris Silver Smith: Yes, exactly.
Eric Enge: That gets back to what you said before about how most people assume a company’s phone number is the item least likely to change.
Chris Silver Smith: Right.
Eric Enge: Right. So, working with InfoUSA, Acxiom, Localeze, and also working directly with the major yellow pages sites as well, would be the basic recipe.
Chris Silver Smith: That’s correct. All of those data sources are really good places to search for local listings, and I have seen variations on how they’ve operated over time. Localeze could be a very good partner if a business doesn’t have a lot of time and it wants to pay someone to go out and try to get their information updated in all those different locations. They are a little odd in my view because they straddle the line between being an information provider and an advertising publisher for businesses.
They are selling on both ends of the equation, the information to business directories and search engines, and advertising to end-users.
Eric Enge: Of course companies like InfoUSA and Acxiom are originally direct marketing companies, so they sell lists for people to mail, email, or call.
Chris Silver Smith: Yes, that is correct, but they are not really selling advertising to small businesses, at least I don’t think that they are.
Eric Enge: Can you talk a little bit about links and web references in the context of improving ranking?
Chris Silver Smith: Google is using as many ranking factors as possible in an effort to broaden its sources and stop people from exploiting the local search results. Google wants to give fair ranking status to all businesses and to provide high quality information to its end-users. They don’t want to be exploited by more simplistic ranking routines, as we’ve seen in the past, so there is no overemphasis on some ranking factors like inbound links.
Inbound links used to be the web references or citations method of choice for Google, and it was the foundation of its PageRank linking algorithm, but it recently broadened to a larger spectrum of different ranking factors that could play into and help influence what should rank best. In terms of ranking businesses, the old ranking methods used by business directories were proximity and alphabetical order, and of course there were people who ranked businesses based on how much money they spent on advertising as well.
Now, I am talking a little bit about online yellow pages with the evolution of local search, because online yellow pages were the only sources of local search before local search engines and map-based search engines were developed. Those two ranking criteria, proximity and alphabetical order, were the original dominant ranking methods. Google changed that paradigm and tried to make keyword relevancy the higher ranking factor, which was a real interesting development.
They have since broadened beyond mere keyword relevance to also taking other factors like ratings and popularity of a business into account. Popularity is a very vague notion and is very difficult to define or quantify, but Google uses a number of different ranking methods to try and do this as effectively as possible. One of those is to measure how many times a business is referred to by people, so a business that is talked about or referred-to regularly would rank higher than a business that is not.
They may be looking at a whole lot of different sources of information for these types of citations, which could include how many times a particular business is mentioned within blog posts, within microblogging platforms like Twitter or Facebook, or within news stories. There have even been some people who claim that Gmail could factor into this, based on how many times businesses are mentioned within emails. I think that could be a really compelling signal for Google to use. When we talk about citations or web references online, there are a number of different types of references.
Links used to be the basis of Google’s PageRank algorithm, and they continue to be a factor in the ranking of businesses in local search results and of regular web pages in web search. There are additional types of references that Google is now allowing to influence rankings within Google Maps, including how many times a phone number of a business is referred to in all those various sources on web pages, blog postings and news stories.
It also possibly considers how many times an identifiable business name or URL is mentioned in relation to a local area. There are many news feeds and newspaper sites that have a policy of not linking, but they will occasionally mention a URL in plain text within a news story.
Another factor that influences rankings within Google Maps is how many times the address itself is mentioned in that web space. I mentioned this in an article I wrote on the topic of using reverse search for local search optimization.
If there are two different businesses across town from each other, but one is in a more highly popular location, then perhaps that business should be ranked more highly. This is especially applicable in tourist hotspots, like next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles or in a shopping center that has various other businesses within. Those businesses could be cited as more popular because the street address of that shopping center is referred to over and over again in many different media sources.
So even though someone might not mention the restaurants by name, for example, it might have a better chance of getting ranked higher because it’s in a popular location. If there is a particularly popular shopping district, even mentioning it and associating it with the business could be very worthwhile. There are a handful of different types of web references, and they seem to be getting weight within Google Maps.
Eric Enge: There is a fairly strong consensus that these types of web references are a factor in local search. Any reason why they can’t use that kind of signal in global, regular search?
Chris Silver Smith: They certainly could be, particularly if those local search ranking factors could easily be feeding back into regular web search. If a business is ranking well within local search, why wouldn’t the same types of ranking factors feed back out into the regular web keyword search results? Some of those references could be feeding back into the overall keyword rankings for pages. A business’s phone number could be associated with its website, and perhaps that could feed into the overall rankings, which are spread out through the pages of that particular business’s website.
Eric Enge: In simplistic terms, a newspaper article could mention a URL and not implement it as a link. That’s a very simple case of a web reference that could easily be associated as a vote by a search engine.
Chris Silver Smith: That’s right.
Eric Enge: Also, one might also have high authority sites that implement links but use Nofollow, which is supposed to restrict link juice from being passed. If by context the search engine knows that that’s really a policy and still wants to treat it as an endorsement, it can.
Chris Silver Smith: That’s exactly right. Many of us in the SEO profession have the sense that even Nofollowed Links might have some level of value. I think that NoFollowed links could be considered by Google, as well as mentions of URLs within text that are not hyperlinked could be considered to some degree. I think that Google probably considers those two types of references at a lower rate, and I think they probably rate links from different sources in varying value levels.
Those Nofollowed Links could still feed in and give a fractional amount of PageRank transfer compared to a pure link from the same site. Wikipedia is probably the biggest example of this at this point. If Google didn’t pay attention to links within Wikipedia pages, then I don’t believe we would see those links and their anchor keywords listed within Google Webmaster Tools, but that’s actually what we do see in practice.
If someone has a valuable link that they’ve added to Wikipedia for a valid reason, they could then see that link appearing within the metrics that are shown in Google Webmaster Tools. I don’t think Google would be listing these if that wasn’t something they are going to use in some way, so I believe they have some influence. Google probably just weights them a little bit less heavily.
Eric Enge: Even if the links aren’t Nofollowed, Google certainly knows when a link is coming from a blog or from a comment from a user. These are things that they think about all the time. To bring it back around to local search, can you talk a little bit about how social media plays into this situation. How can people use social media to help with their web reference campaign?
Chris Silver Smith: The social media services that are out there are the closest thing Google has to word of mouth endorsements, which is the golden standard that Google would ideally like to use as a relative ranking signal. Since they obviously can’t hear what we are all saying to each other all the time, the next best thing currently is all the different types of social media. We believe that Google will see these as signals for relative popularity.
Google was interested in this with blogs, in terms of “burstiness”. They might look very suspiciously at a site that suddenly got thousands of inbound links. If all those inbound links came from credible sources, however, that is considered to be normal bursty behavior for something that just abruptly appeared on the scene and became popular overnight.
Social media is a good source for this, and we can see that Google is interested in it because many people believe their recent search engine development, the “Caffeine” test platform, was geared in large part to try to absorb highly bursty messaging from sites like Twitter. They are trying to absorb that content and get the information to feed into the system, not just so those little pieces of information can be available, but also so they can influence the rankings of other pages.
Eric Enge: It’s great stuff and a great opportunity for people. I think we are still at a stage where there is a lot of bias introduced by the people who use various social media platforms, which are not yet used by a large percentage of the people who use the web. It’s a signal, and you can count on them using those types of signals. As those platforms grow and get broader, they are likely to give it more and more weight.
Chris Silver Smith: I think that’s right. They see a future within all sorts of social media, even if it’s a little bit undefined right now.
Eric Enge: Thanks Chris!
Chris Silver Smith: Thank you Eric!