Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Local Business Marketing Tip: Turn Economic Lemons Into Sales Lemonade For The Holidays

The chain-reaction of foreclosures, mortgage company failures, banking sector woes, and see-sawing stock market are making for a very scary-looking retail season here in the fourth quarter. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently said that business sales have dropped the largest amount in two years, further fueling speculation that the holiday shopping season might not be so rosy this year.

However, all is not dark, and the nervousness that consumers are feeling right now may be tapped to effectively help improve one’s business right now and for the long-term. I’ve got a marketing tactic that can help with search engine optimization while simultaneously bumping up sales and even store visits for local brick-and-mortars. Read on!

My secret local search engine optimization tip du jour is exquisitely simple: coupons!
It’s unsurprising that consumers are searching for coupons more than ever, since they feel the need to cut back on expenses. Google Trends is showing a really sharp increase in searches for [coupons] as we approach the end of this year.

The potential for tapping into this consumer hyper-interest is remarkably clear!

Local businesses should provide a special coupon page on their websites for each of their local outlets. The page should be accessible to search engine spiders, and it should clearly state what the coupon is for, using all the classic SEO signals. You should particularly frame the title of that page with keyword-rich, targeted text. For example, something like:

“Blue Widgets in Anytown, State Coupon - Blue Widgets Discount”

People are going to more effort right now to research deals, discounts, rebates and coupons before they make purchases, so if your business site has content of that sort, you may be able to achieve additional sales.

Even better, the coupon content can be a good magnet for obtaining external links, so having coupon and other discount pages can help with your search engine optimization. Getting good quality links from other sites helps to increase your PageRank and will therefor help improve your pages’ rankings in all search engines.

There are a number of coupon directories sites out there which love to list deals and may link to you. While some of these may only list coupons if you pay them as an advertiser, there are sites out there which may list your coupons for free. Consumer blogs seem to be springing up all over, focusing on reporting best prices and discounts — some of these are even local city or regional blogs, specializing in particular geographic areas. If you put up a coupon page, do some searches in regular web search and blog search to find sites which might list your coupon and link to you, and report your coupon to them.

Don’t be afraid to ask various organizations and blogs which report on deals to link to you. You could even research local clubs and associations which post their newsletters on-line, and you could offer their members a special coupon with a link to a specific info page on your site, outlining the deal.

Even advertising on some of the coupon directories could be useful to you, depending on what your product or service is, although some coupon directories are not accepting further partners at the moment.

Additional coupon optimization tips:

Link to the coupon page from your homepage. Promote it on your homepage, even — display a small thumbnail of the coupon, and have linked text below that reiterates the coupon’s title.

Make the coupon “meaty”! There’s nothing more irritating than coupons for the stuff that no one buys, or coupons that are so insipid that they only bring your price down to what everyone can get at the corner discount store.

It’s hard to tell whether a blog is essentially a “sham blog” made up of all paid article content. So, some blogs which appear to be on the level may come back asking you for money in return for posting your coupon information. Pay-for-blog posts of this sort can be frowned upon by search engines, particularly if they’re not clearly labeled as sponsorships. I’d recommend avoiding these, since the search engines may have discounted the worth of their links anyway, and I think they typically have fewer subscribers/readers.

Always include expiration dates in your online coupons. Just to keep them live through this holiday season, you could have them expire on January 1. Or, have them expire more frequently if you’re planning to put up new promotions — churning your promotions could result in more links.

Ask people to print and bring in the coupon — this will let you get an idea of just how effective this promotion is.

Provide links to the top most popular items you might sell on your site, below the coupon information. The coupon might draw people into your site, but don’t waste the opportunity to show them a few other things they might also buy. Limit to only two or three items, though!

Ask people to rate your business or your product at one of the big ratings sites out there, such as internet yellow pages, in order for them to qualify for the coupon. Positive ratings can help your site to rank in local and regular web search! State outright that the review doesn’t have to be positive, but that you’d appreciate honest feedback in order to represent your business well and to obtain input in how to make improvements. You could ask them to write on the coupon the name of the site where they reviewed your business in order to validate the coupon. It’s not a good idea to reward people for only good ratings, or the host sites might take a dim view of the promotion — but, incenting people to give objective ratings should be acceptable. Also do not require that they write their usernames on the coupons.

Always include your URL on print advertising, including printed coupons.

To further engage holiday sentiment, offer to make a donation to a well-known charity for each coupon purchase, and outline that deal on the coupon webpage as well — and invite people to email the page link to others they know. Consumers will be more supportive of businesses which are supportive of their communities, and this can also help to attract more links as people report on the deal. When doing charitable tie-ins of this sort, it’s also worthwhile to coordinate an optimized press release announcing the program and linking back to the coupon page.

Offer a “serial coupon”, such as if the consumer makes purchases on three successive visits, they qualify for increased savings each time. This could really pump things into overdrive!

Don’t make the fine print of the coupon so extensive that no one can comprehend the exclusions.

People know what “bait and switch” is, and they really hate it. Avoid anything close to that such as luring people in by ambiguous language and stuff. Do this wrong and you can turn people off and lose potential longterm customers.

Be darn sure you have enough product for everyone who might bring the coupon by your store!

There’s nothing worse than getting excited by a coupon only to find the store ran out. The economic crunch has caused many businesses to keep much smaller inventories, but try to be prepared to rapidly reorder product if your coupon promotion appears to be working.

Using a good coupon strategy this season can allow you to take advantage of the hot consumer interest in discounts. Use this opportunity to get some great inbound links for your longterm SEO benefit, while also pumping up your short-term sales.

Chris “Silver” Smith is a Search Marketing Consultant and writes for the Locals Only column at Search Engine Land.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Google Answers Your Local Questions

Oct 6, 2008 at 1:48pm Eastern by Greg Sterling

In an earlier post, I solicited questions for Google about local search. My intention had been to present them at the What’s New in Local Search panel at SMX East this morning. But I didn’t get my act together to distribute them at the session. Google’s Eric Stein, who was on the panel, coordinated the response to the questions.

Here are the unedited, verbatim questions and answers:

Q: Are there any techniques for tracking clickthroughs from the 10-pack, 3-pack, or authoritative OneBox in Google Analytics (or other tracking programs)? The current URL strings only seem to show them as organic clickthroughs.

Google:: Local Universal results are organic results and there is no plan to separate them.

Q: It is considered a best practice in all of Google’s other properties (Adwords, Organic Results, News, Blogs, Images) to include keywords in titles. Why does Google consider local results to be an outlier in this ecosystem? Does Google have plans to stop bolding keyword matches in Local Business Titles? If not, why not, as there have been plenty of studies that show that a keyword match dramatically increases clickthrough rate?

Google:: On Google Maps, our mission is to show users the proper names and addresses of physical businesses. The Business Title is not the title of a website - it is the title of the actual business. Adding keywords to this field moves away from giving users the proper representation of the businesses they see on the map.
We have no plan to stop bolding keyword matches in titles. Bolding matches in titles and categories for example helps the user understand why we’re showing the result.

Q:: Can you tell us about authoritative sources in Google local? If a user makes a comment or requests a change, vs. a business owner, vs. a competitor, vs. a validated business owner, vs. a third party submission site (yellow pages, Yelp), whose content takes precedence? For us that is the biggest problem because it appears that Google takes that information and somehow creates a listing…not using the business owners listing.

Google:: A business owner’s verified listing trumps all other sources in terms of fields displayed. LBC-verified listing is the most authoritative source. The least authoritative is a single reference on an unverified web page. Everything else is in between those two ends of the spectrum. In terms of creating the listing, we distinguish between the “listing” and the “cluster.” We display the “cluster” which is composed of the union of one or more listings. When the fields in a listing overlap, the listing with the highest authoritativeness trumps the others; but it doesn’t block additional fields (like cuisine, parking, etc.) from being associated with the cluster.

Q:: Are you penalized for submitting your data on a weekly basis? Or should you let your data mature?

Google:: No; however if you’re making changes to your listing that prevent us from recognizing that it’s the same business as the one referenced by other sources in the cluster, then there is a risk that your listing becomes “orphaned” from the cluster and thereby loses the associated content and any positive ranking from that content.

Q:: How do you handle mergers? We purchase/manage many facilities and need to change their name and contact info. But the third party sources make changing the name almost impossible. We were told by one third party submission company that we had to pay them to change the company name and if we stopped paying the monthly fee they would switch back all our data to the old inaccurate data. In the end if we don’t pay the information is not correct and the users get less relevant results.

Google:: You should claim the old listing in Local Business Center, by finding the listing on Maps, clicking More Info, Edit, then Claim Your Business. Then, once you’ve claimed the business, update the name and contact info.
If you can verify neither the old/acquired business’s address nor phone number, then you should create a new listing with the new info, again using LBC. If the old listing continues to show alongside your new one and you can’t claim/verify it, you can click More Info, then Edit, then Remove Place to flag the old listing for deletion.

Q:: Why does the 1-800 number take precedence over the local number even if the local number is listed as the primary number?

Google:: This shouldn’t happen. There is no precedent for an 800 vs. non-800 number. The choice is determined by the sources of the data.

Q:: Do the old category listings have a higher value than the newer user generated categories?

Google:: All categories, including one you create in the LBC or if you edit a listing, get indexed and are searchable. A brand new user generated category may not have as many known synonyms as an existing category. Also, to clarify, the categories in the LBC are not user-generated categories - they are simply an improved set of suggested categories.

Q:: Does Google have any plans for a single corporate validation instead of a site validation? For us we have almost 700 locations and to get all of them validated on Google is a lot of work. On a side note we have done this twice in the last year.

Google:: We don’t have a definitive answer to this question. Rather, we’d like this to be a discussion topic. We would like to hear from business owners what inspired this question and what challenges they’re facing with their local listings.

Q:: How does Google plan on enforcing local spam?

Google: We started by documenting some quality guidelines, which you can find in the LBC help center. Our plan is to identify listings that don’t meet these guidelines and to remove them.
Google has a long history of dealing with spammers - on web search, as well as in Gmail and some other Google products. The Maps team is working closely with these teams to identify what methods work best for Google Maps, and we are even inventing some new spam fighting methods that attack the unique types of spam that plague Maps. There will always be some spam out there, but very recently we’ve made some big strides in catching and blocking spammers. That’s just the beginning.

Q:: How do some listings have more than four phone numbers?

Google:: We use the best data we get from multiple sources. Data provided by the business owner will show at the top of the list.

Q:: If I create an LBC entry for my business, why does other information that I did not provide also show up?

Google:: When we get data from multiple sources, we want to show the best data we get. The business owner’s data will show first, and for fields where we show only one piece of data, the business owner’s data will trump other data.

Q:: Is Google still using the Base feed?

Google:: Yes. LBC bulk upload uses Base. There was an older Base feed that does still submit data to Local, but it is not the preferred method.

Q:: When will Europe receive the upgrades/updates to the Local Business Center as they were launched earlier this year in the US/Canada/etc. (or is this considered a future product?)

Google:: The most up-to-date version of LBC has been launched in all European countries where LBC is available: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.

Q:: When will we be able to distinguish local traffic from the 1box/3pack/10pack in our Google Analytics. Now it still accounts as “organic” and unless you are using parameters there is no way to tell if the path was taken from a universal search result Onebox. (Asking, because the LBC still provides very poor and basic information: views/impressions).

Google:: Local Universal results are organic results and there is no plan to separate them.

Q:: What would you say to the many florists whose listings were hijacked in mid September by affiliate mapspamers?

Google:: We won’t always be ahead of the spammers - that’s a tough race to run. But we wil be increasingly effective at putting an end to situations like the one you mentioned as soon as they pop up. And we don’t just blacklist the bad guys - we put systems in place to block the next guy who tries to do what the last guy did, so we’re making it increasingly hard for spammers to hurt the legitimate business owners.

Q:: What % of US businesses have claimed their record in the Local Business Center?

Google:: We don’t have a number we can release, in large part because we don’t have a definitive answer to how many local businesses exist in the US.

Q:: Why are the results of the 10 Pack sometimes different than the results from Maps?

Google:: Sometimes the data and scoring differ slightly on Google.com and on Google Maps.

Q:: When the stars were removed from the Local 10 Pack in August did you see much change in user behavior? Did it generate more visits to Maps from the main results page?

Google:: The stars were removed as part of the overall redesign that resulted in the current 10 listings view (from the prior 3 listings), so we don’t have any data about whether the stars specifically influence click through rates. The star ratings are still visible once you click through to Maps.

Q:: Should businesses take a proactive role of encouraging their customers to write reviews or should they take a more passive, wait until they are reviewed policy?

Google:: That’s a personal style decision for the business owner. As long as the reviews are legitimate and useful, it doesn’t matter how you gather them.

Q:: What is your opinion to the ethical questions surrounding a business incenting customers in some way to write a review? What would you see as best practice in this area?

Google:: We don’t have a stance on this.

Google’s Eric Stein also pointed people during the session to a relatively new site within Google: submit your content, which has guidelines and links for a range of content types including local.