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Google Officially Launches the Local Carousel: What You Need To Know

June 18th, 2013 by

Like Bigfoot, Google’s Local Carousel had been seen in the wild but aside from random sightings no one could verify it’s true existence.  That is, until today.

Earlier this morning, Google made an official statement about the update on its Google+ Page confirming that the “carousel” was in fact real, and was rolling out to English local search results in the U.S.

The initial tests I have run, along with observations from other local SEO’s seem to indicate that at the moment these results are only appearing for restaurant, nightlife, and hotels.  My take is that it is currently limited to verticals that people tend to want to get quick “on the go” results for.  This may be why many people first started noticing these results on mobile devices as far back as December.

Local Carousel for Mexican Restaurants in Corona, CA.

Jade Wang, the Community Manager for Google+ Local, offered more insight into the update with advice for businesses wondering how they can benefit from the update in a post in the Google and Your Business Forums:

How can I get my business to show up in the carousel?

While we can’t guarantee inclusion in search results, we can say that the carousel will show results from listings in Google Maps using categories. Just as in regular ranking, Google’s algorithms take into account many factors to select the places and results that are most relevant to the user. This algorithm based approach is also used to decide which businesses are in the carousel.

Why is this feature only available for some business verticals?

We’re committed to providing users a high quality search experience for every query. The carousel filtering experience is a good fit for some categories of local businesses. We will continue to experiment with different designs and interfaces to make sure that users get the information they’re looking for, fast.

My business is on the carousel, but I’d like to change the photo. How can I do that?

The Google business listing is one of several sources we use for the photos in the carousel, and making sure high-quality images are posted to it will help improve your photo. However the image selection, like the actual ranking of businesses, is primarily decided by algorithms and so we can’t guarantee complete control over the image.

What You Need To Know, TL;DR

  • Currently the local carousel is limited to certain queries and verticals
  • Like organic and local search results before them, carousel results are generated via the algorithm, as are the photos selected for the business
  • The number of carousel results you get in your search results is determined by your screen size.  My 19 inch Dell monitor at 1280×1024 gives about 10 listings, as you can see in the screenshot above.  However, at the office I was getting upwards of 15 listings on a higher resolution widescreen monitor.
  • The rating system for carousel listings use the Zagat rating system, and not the recently announced star ratings.
  • The type of information provided by the carousel will vary based on query
    • Food related queries provide a photo, name, Zagat rating, number of reviews, type of cuisine and price range
    • Hotel and nightlife queries provide photo, name, Zagat rating, number of reviews, and address
  • When you hover over a carousel listing the pin on the map for that listing will get bigger, however hovering over a pin on the map does not provide any visual representation in the carousel
  • Clicking on a carousel listing will take you to a branded search for the business with your currently detected, or selected location tacked on.  (e.g. When I click on Miguel’s Jr in my example above it goes to a search for “Miguel’s Jr Corona”) Managing your reputation and your branded search space just got that much more important
  • The carousel will remain at the top of the page regardless of what listings in the carousel you click on. Clicking on the carousel result you are currently viewing results for will return you to your original query results

Update: Hat tip to Alicia Celeste for pointing out to me on Twitter that you can also generate a carousel with queries for ‘colleges in ____.’  She has apparently been seeing the carousel for these queries for the last six months.  What’s interesting about this carousel however is that it doesn’t necessarily focus on local, in fact the heading on the carousel reads “Universities frequently mentioned on the web,” as opposed to “Universities in…” the way the local carousel does.  If available these queries provide you with the school logo, the name of the school, and the school’s location.

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The Rankings Trap, Or Why That Number One Ranking Obsession Could Kill Your Business

June 10th, 2013 by

Rankings. They’re the sole reason SEO ever came into existence, yet it has gotten to the point that businesses are so obsessed with rankings that they have a tendency to ignore greater opportunities.  In my years in internet marketing I have dealt with a number of different clients who have varying degrees of obsession with rankings.  From the “All I want from you is to rank me for these five keywords” to the “I know traffic and conversions are up, but why am I not rankings for this keyword?”   As an internet marketer its frustrating.  Yes, rankings can be a useful metric, but they can’t be your only metric. In fact, if they’re the only metric you’re paying attention to, you may be setting your business up to fail.

Not All Rankings Are Created Equal

Personalization; its everywhere.  Regardless of whether you use Google or Bing your search results are being personalized.  Using things like search history, you social connections, and your location, your search results are being influenced.  The biggest issue with focusing on rankings is that no matter what an SEO tool says your position in the search results is, chances are what someone else is seeing is very different.  In a study I did for Plastic Surgery Studios following the release of Google’s Search Plus Your World, we found four different sets of search results for a query, all on the exact same office network, in the exact same location and using the exact same browser.  Now think of the variation you might see across cities, states, personas.  Rankings are a nice metric to have in the background, but you have no way of knowing if what you are seeing is the same thing your potential customers are seeing.

Don’t Lose the Forest for the Trees

Oftentimes the obsession with having a site show up somewhere within those first ten links in a search engine consumes all SEO efforts.  Businesses obsessed with top rankings will oftentimes put so much effort into earning and sustaining rankings for a particular core set of terms that they never look at the big picture.  It gets to the point where they tell their internet marketing experts just to focus on those core terms and not to bother with anything else.

Unfortunately efforts like this are very short sighted. First, as I mentioned before, even if you’re seeing your business in the top ten for your priority keywords, chances are the rest of the world might not be.  Second, it offers no room for growth. Once you’ve established rankings for those core terms you are only going to reap whatever rewards those terms bring in.  If you refuse to generate new opportunities your organic search traffic will most likely flatline and your website will see little growth outside of what you’re earning by sustaining those efforts.  Rank for “exterminator?”  Great, now lets explore “pest control,” “termite control,” and the like.  If you’re ignoring these other opportunities your online efforts are only going to be as good as the keywords you’re targeting.

Google Is Not Your Friend

What business owners often forget is that Google does not exist to help their businesses.  In fact, its the exact opposite.  Yes, Google gives you a number of tools such as Google Analytics, Google AdWords, Google+, and Google+ Local to help establish your business on their search engine, but at the end of the day the data you provide through those outlets is actually fueling Google’s business. Google is in the business of information and ultimately they choose whether your information is worth enough to their audience.  If it is, you just so happen to reap the benefits.  But if its not, or if you try and game the system and make it look like your information is important to their audience when it might not be, Google can choose to stop delivering your website to visitors for your keywords and nobody at Google will be losing any sleep over it.

A single algorithm update can be enough to bump a site out of the search results for a particular set of keywords.  If you are only focused on a select few keywords and those terms get hit, how will potential customers find you?

The rankings obsession has a number of motivational drivers behind it; ego, traffic, ignorance.  Regardless of what drives the behavior it’s important to realize that your priority keyword list is only going to drive so much traffic.  There are other metrics you can measure besides rankings that can help you better understand how SEO is helping your business and your website.  After all, at the end of the day your business won’t need SEO if its not making any money.

 

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Local Search for SMB and B2B Lead Generation

June 5th, 2013 by

It’s no secret that I have a special love for local SEO.  It’s a field that is ever changing, often frustrating, but in the end can be very rewarding for small businesses and that, is rewarding to me.  Over the years I’ve written about, spoke about, and ranted about this crazy niche of SEO I love so much.  So a few weeks back when Terry Van Horne of SEOPros hit me up to do a Google+ Hangout on local SEO I of course said yes.

The Hangout featured myself, Adam Steele and Darren Shaw, who I’ve been fortunate enough to be a guest with previously on a local SEO edition of Search Geeks Speak a couple of years back, discussing all things local SEO.  The Hangout had some solid advice from everyone involved and did a great job at suggesting best practices and what local businesses should be paying attention to in today’s local search space.  As such I thought I would share the Hangout with my readers that may have missed the event.

So for now, take a load off, kick your feet up and if you have any follow up questions following the Hangout feel free to comment below or give me a shout out on one of the many social media channels I frequent.

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Why Google’s Data Highlighter Shouldn’t Be Used As a Replacement For Structured Markup

June 3rd, 2013 by

Schema structured markup

Last December Google released Data Highlighter.  The tool was designed to allow webmasters a means of easily letting Google know about structured data on a page, without having to add any additional code to their website.  In its initial launch it was only available for events, however last week Google announced updates to the tool that expanded its use to products, local businesses, articles, software applications, movies, restaurants, and TV episodes.  But as I pointed out in my post last week, SEO tools can be dangerous, and Google’s data highlighter is no exception.

Google’s Data Highlighter is a great tool, in fact I used it to teach Google about the content in the event calendar on my hyperlocal blog Life In Corona because the event calendar plugin I was using didn’t provide a means for me to hard code it myself.  However, what I have seen many SEO’s and even small business owners do with the tool is use is as a shortcut to get their structured markup in front of Google.  And while this is definitely a quick point-and-click solution for teaching Google about structured data on your website, it’s perhaps a bit short sided.

While the Data Highlighter can quickly communicate to Google about patterns of structured data on a website, the problem lies in the fact that it only communicates with Google.  By using Data Highlighter you are only helping Google understand the context of your content and not other search engines or machines accessing your content.

The tool was designed to help website owners who may not be able to implement structured data on their site, but want to benefit from the enhanced search results Google is providing for certain queries.  Like in the case of my blog, I had exhausted all means available to me to code the structured data myself, and in the end I couldn’t.  The Data Highlighter was the only way I could provide Google with structured data recommendations for my website.  Sadly, many SEO’s and small businesses aren’t using it this way.  Instead they are using it as a replacement for applying structured markup to their website, ignoring the other engines and other machines accessing their website.

Making Structured Data Implementation Easier

For many, the reason to rely so heavily on the Data Highlighter tool lies in the fact that structured markup may just be too to implement.  Fortunately, along with the Data Highlighter updates, Google launched another tool to help you in the process.  Along with support for new structured data types, Google launched the Structured Data Markup Helper.

Like Data Highlighter, Structured Data Markup Helper is a point-and-click tool that allows you to highlight to key properties of the relevant data type, but in the end Google provides you with an HTML output that includes the microdata markup.  This code can be downloaded and used as a guide as you implement structured data on your website.

As search engines and the web continues to evolve, the use of structured data will grow in importance. Even Pinterest is enhancing its experience with the help of structured data as a means of providing more useful pins.  Appeasing Google is great, but why stop there?  Do the work and ensure that your content is found and understood by anyone who wants to better understand it.

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Why I Hate SEO Tools

May 30th, 2013 by

I hate SEO tools, and yes that’s a double entendre.  It seems harsh, but I do.  Tools make many SEO’s lazy.  Tools make many SEO’s look better than they are.  Tools, are just that. Tools.

In truth, I don’t hate SEO tools.  After all, I am the self proclaimed biggest fanboy of Raven Tools.  That said, SEO tools have really been getting under my skin as of late.  Or to be fair, SEO’s and their poor use of tools have been getting under my skin as of late.  SEO tools, when used properly, can help save people and businesses a lot of time and money.  They can help you to be more organized.  They can help you to collect large sets of data, and most of all they can make you more efficient.  But in the wrong hands, SEO tools can be dangerous.  Unchecked or left in the hands of someone who doesn’t fully understand them can lead to misinterpreted data and major mistakes in an SEO strategy.

The Keyword Research Tool

In the nearly six years I have been doing SEO and internet marketing I have done my fair share of keyword research, and in that time I have used a vast array of keyword tools.  Each tool uses their own data set and each tool offers its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day it is the responsibility of the user to take the keywords provided by the tool and identify if they are a proper fit for the website they are working on and ultimately the business they are doing work for.

I recently ran into some issues with another SEO, in which I was provided a rather extensive keyword list, clearly generated by an automated tool somewhere that took every possible related keyword under the sun and jammed it into a spreadsheet.  To the untrained eye it looked impressive, it would lead many to believe a ton of work went into it, but as you dove deeper into the list you could tell it was nothing more than the output of a tool with no rhyme or reason to the provided list.  The list featured terms blatantly unrelated to the business we were optimizing for, and worse yet it included fragmented keywords like, “Blue widgets for.”  Blue widgets for what?

In this case the tool made the SEO more efficient. They were able to quickly compile a list of related keywords based off of initial topics or products from the client, but they failed to dissect the list further to ensure that a) the keywords in the list were relevant and b) the keywords in the list made sense for the content we were optimizing, or better yet were going to create.

The “We’ll Tell You If You’re Doing SEO Right” Tool

There are a billion of these out there.  In the early days the one that always plagued me was Hubspot’s website grader.  Snake oil SEO salesmen would always run these reports and hand them to clients and try and sell them on the fact that their site wasn’t W3C compliant or similar nonsense.  But more recently I’ve run into issues with tools like Screaming Frog, or Yoast’s SEO for WordPress (both tools I use personally I might add.)

In the case of Screaming Frog I had a major content marketing company try and sell a client on all the SEO “problems” their site had.  Using just the data from Screaming Frog and no further analysis they tried to report numerous website errors, duplicate content, duplicate meta tags and the like.  However, upon further analysis many of the page errors were either temporary or an error of the tool.  When we went back and spot checked many of the URL’s in question, they were working fine.  The duplicate content and duplicate meta data was limited to category and tag pages on the blog, which had been properly optimized so as not to be indexed or a problem for SEO.  In the end, the data from the tool painted a very negative picture for those less trained in SEO, but with a closer look it was easy to identify the what and why and realize things weren’t as dire as the tool made them out to be.

With Yoast’s SEO for WordPress, the most common problem I see is what I call “green light panic.”  Over the years clients and other marketing people have tried to use the infamous “optimized” green dot as a means of saying if SEO is being done properly, but again without interpretation or understanding of the overall strategy there is no way for the tool to know if what you are doing is truly right for SEO.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plugin, Yoast has a feature that displays a little red, yellow, or green dot to designate how “optimized” a post is from an SEO standpoint.  It’s a nice little guide if you want to get a general understanding of best practices and the like, but where it gets dangerous is in instances where you might want to deviate from those a bit.  Let’s say for instance your title element uses one keyword and then you want to use a synonym as the H1, SEO for WordPress won’t see a keyword match for the “target” keyword and then may deliver a yellow dot instead of green.  For some, this is so absolute that it leads them to believe that content isn’t being SEO’d and in most cases that simply isn’t the case.  Again, these are used as guidelines, but nothing in SEO is absolute.

The Disavow Tool & “Bad Link” Tools

One Does Not Simply Disavow A LinkI’ve grouped these together because they have been partners in crime as of late thanks to Penguin paranoia.  The disavow tool, which is available from both Google and Bing is a webmaster tools feature that allows webmasters to notify the search engines of links they wish to disavow, or not receive credit for because they may be of poor quality or may have been obtained in ways that are against the search engine’s quality guidelines.  At face value it seems like a great tool, but thanks to strict link updates like Google’s Penguin many SEO’s are using this tool improperly, or worse yet using it as a threat against webmasters.

The disavow tool is great in instances where webmasters know they engaged in spammy link tactics and have either been penalized, or are looking to be proactive in their efforts to disavow links they know were obtained using spammy practices.  Unfortunately, the tool is now being used by many SEO’s to simply disavow any and every link that looks like it may be of lower quality, which brings us to our next set of tools.

Following Google’s Penguin update a number of new tools hit the market to help webmasters and SEO’s identify “bad” or “toxic” links in their backlink profiles.  I had a recent run in with such a tool, again with another SEO, and again the end result was a report of nothing but output with not other thought to what might be included in this list of “bad links.”

As I looked a bit closer at the report I began to pick out a number of links that were being deemed as low quality, but were of high value.  In this particular case they were high value because of their significance from a local SEO standpoint.  The links were directory links, however they happened to be within a directory on a local newspaper website and also included valuable local citation data along with the link.  Had this gone unchecked the client would have gone out to do link cleanup and may have inadvertently had a negative impact on their local SEO.

Ultimately the “bad link” tools and disavow tools have great uses, but its important to be mindful of what you are doing with the tools.  If your site has not been penalized or received a warning for unnatural links and you haven’t engaged in spammy link building practices in the past, how do you know that any of the “bad links” in your backlink profile are actually worth stressing over?  Chances are most of your low quality links in your profile are already being dampened by the search algorithms, but unfortunately many SEO’s and webmasters are being told by tools that they need to go out and remove all their backlinks or disavow them or Google is going to get them.

As Rae Hoffman so elegantly put it in a similar piece in her recent newsletter, “Calculators are nice, but they shouldn’t be depended on in place of actually learning how to do math. Especially when this game that we all love to play relies heavily on being able to discern connections, relationships, intent and the correlation between data.”

By all means, use tools, that’s what they are there for.  But don’t stop at the output of a tool.  Take what the tool has given you and then apply your knowledge, expertise, and analysis and make sure that what you are getting is relevant and accurate based on the variables that a tool will not have access to.  In the end it will make you a better SEO and lead to better decision making.

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