Image credit: Migaspinto
If you own or market a business location that makes a real-world community more serviceable, diverse, and strong, I’m on your side.
I love interesting towns and cities, with a wide array of useful goods and services. Nothing in my career satisfies me more than advising any brand that’s determined to improve life quality in some spot on the map. It does my heart good to see it, but here’s my completely unsentimental take on the challenges you face:
The Internet, and Google’s local platforms in particular, are a complete mess.
Google is the biggest house on the local block; you can’t ignore it. Yet, the entries into the platform are poorly lit, the open-source concept is cluttered with spam, and growing litigation makes one wonder if there are bats in the belfry.
Google comprises both risk and tremendous opportunity for local businesses and their marketers. Succeeding in 2020 means becoming a clear-eyed surveyor of any structural issues as well as seeing the “good bones” potential, so that you can flip dilapidation into dollars. And something beyond dollars, too: civic satisfaction.
Grab your tools and get your teammates and clients together to build local success in the new year by sharing my 3-level plan and 4-quarter strategy.
Level 1: Feed Google
Image credit: Mcapdevila
Information about your business is going to exist on the Internet whether you put it there or not.
Google’s house may be structurally unsound, but it’s also huge, with a 90% search engine market share globally and over 2 trillion searches per year, 46% of which are for something local.
Residents, new neighbors, and travelers seeking what you offer will almost certainly find something about your company online, whether it’s a stray mention on social media, an unclaimed local business listing generated by a platform or the public, or a full set of website pages and claimed listings you’ve actively published.
Right now, running the most successful local business possible means acquiring the largest share you can of those estimated 1 trillion annual local searches. How do you do this?
By feeding Google:
- Website content about your business location, products, services, and attributes
- Corroborating info about your company on other websites
- Local business listing content
- Image content
- Video content
- Social media content
Remember, without your content and the content of others, Google does not exist. Local business owners can often feel uncomfortably dependent on Google, but it’s really Google who is dependent on them.
Whether the business you’re marketing is small or large, declare 2020 the year you go to the drafting board to render a clear blueprint for a content architecture that spans your entire neighborhood of the Internet, including your website and relevant third-party sites, platforms, and apps. Your plans might look something like this:
I recommend organizing your plan like this, making use of the links I’m including:
- Begin with a rock-solid foundation of business information on your website. Tell customers everything they could want to know to choose and transact with your business. Cover every location, service, product, and desirable attribute of your company. There’s no chance you won’t have enough to write about when you take into account everything your customers ask you on a daily basis + everything you believe makes your company the best choice in the local market. Be sure the site loads fast, is mobile-friendly, and as technically error-free as possible.
- Create a fully complete, accurate, guideline-abiding Google My Business listing for each location of your business.
- Build out your listings (aka structured citations) on the major platforms. Automate the work of both developing and monitoring them for sentiment and change via a product like Moz Local.
- Monitor and respond to all reviews as quickly as possible on all platforms. These equal your online reputation and are, perhaps, the most important content about your business on the Internet. Know that reviews are a two-way conversation and learn to inspire customers to edit negative reviews. Moz Local automates review monitoring and facilitates easy responses. If you need help earning reviews, check out Alpine Software Group’s two good products: GatherUp and Grade.Us.
- Audit your competition. In competitive markets, come check out our beta of Local Market Analytics for a multi-sampled understanding of who your competitors actually are for each location of your business, depending on searcher locale.
- Once you’ve found your competitors, audit them to understand the:
- quality, authority and rate of ongoing publication you need to surpass
- strength and number of linked unstructured citations you need to build
- number and quality of Google posts, videos, products, and other content you need to publish
- social engagement you need to create.
- As to the substance of your content, focus directly on your customers’ needs. Local Market Analytics is breaking ground in delivering actual local keyword volumes, and the end point of all of your research, whether via keyword tools, consumer surveys, or years of business experience, should be content that acts as customer service, turning seekers into shoppers.
- Use any leftover time to sketch in the finer details. For example, I’m less excited about schema for 2020 than I was in 2019 because of Google removing some of the benefits of review schema. Local business schema is still a good idea, though, if you have time for it. Meanwhile, pursuing relevant featured snippets could certainly be smart in the new year. I’d go strong on video this year, particularly YouTube, if there’s applicability and demand in your market.
The customer is the focus of everything you publish. Google is simply the conduit. Your content efforts may need to be modest or major to win the greatest possible share of the searches that matter to you. It depends entirely on the level of competition in your markets. Find that level, know your customers, and commit to feeding Google a steady, balanced diet of what they say they want so that it can be conveyed to the people you want to serve.
Level 2: Fight Google
Image credit: Scott Lewis
Let’s keep it real: ethical local companies which pride themselves on playing fair have good reason to be dubious about doing business with Google. Once you’ve put in the effort to feed Google all the right info to begin competing for rankings, you may well find yourself having to do online battle on an ongoing basis.
There are two fronts on which many people end up grappling with Google:
- Problematic aspects within products
- Litigation and protests against the brand.
Let’s break these down to prepare you:
Google has taken on the scale of a public utility — one that’s replaced most of North America’s former reliance on telephone directories and directory assistance numbers.
Google has 5 main local interfaces: local packs, local finders, desktop maps, mobile maps and the Google Maps app. It’s been the company’s decision to allow these utilities to become polluted with misinformation in the form of listing and review spam, and irrelevant or harmful user-generated content. Google does remove spam, but not at the scale of the issue, which is so large that global networks of spammers are have sprung up to profit from the lack of quality control and failure to enforce product guidelines.
When you are marketing a local business, there’s a strong chance you will face one or more of the following issues while attempting to compete in Google’s local products:
- Being outranked by businesses violating Google’s own guidelines with practices such as keyword-stuffed business titles and creating listings to represent non-existent locations or lead-gen companies. (Example)
- Being the target of listing hijacking in which another company overtakes some aspect of your listing to populate it with their own details. (Example)
- Being the target of a reputation attack by competitors or members of the public posting fake negative reviews of your business. (Example)
- Being the target of negative images uploaded to your listing by competitors or the public. (Example)
- Having Google display third-party lead-gen information on your listings, driving business away from you to others. (Example)
- Having Google randomly experiment with local features with direct negative impacts on you, such as booking functions that reserve tables for your patrons without informing your business. (Example)
- Being unable to access adequately trained Google staff or achieve timely resolution when things go wrong (Example)
These issues have real-world impacts. I’ve seen them misdirect and scam countless consumers including those having medical and mental health emergency needs, kill profits during holiday shopping seasons for companies, cause owners so much loss that they’ve had to lay off staff, and even drive small brands out of business.
Honest local business owners don’t operate this way. They don’t make money off of fooling the public, or maliciously attack neighboring shops, or give the cold shoulder to people in trouble. Only Google’s underregulated monopoly status has allowed them to stay in business while conducting their affairs this way.
Brilliant people work for Google and some of their innovations are truly visionary. But the Google brand, as a whole, can be troubling to anyone firmly tied to the idea of ethical business practices. I would best describe the future of Google, in its present underregulated state of monopoly, as uncertain.
In their very short history, Google has been:
I can’t predict where all this is headed. What I do know is that nearly every local business I’ve ever consulted with has been overwhelmingly reliant on Google for profits. Whether you personally favor strong regulation or not, I recommend that every local business owner and marketer keep apprised of the increasing calls by governing bodies, organizations, and even the company’s own staff to break Google up, tax it, end contracts on the basis of human rights, and prosecute it over privacy, antitrust, and a host of other concerns.
Pick your battles
With Google so deeply embedded in your company’s online visibility, traffic, reputation and transactions, concerns with the brand and products don’t exist in some far-off place; they are right on your own doorstep. Here’s how to fight well:
1. Fight the spam
To face off with Google’s local spam, earn/defend the rankings your business needs, and help clean polluted SERPs up for the communities you serve, here are my best links for you:
2. Stay informed
If you’re ready to move beyond your local premises to the larger, ongoing ethical debate surrounding Google, here are my best links for you:
Whether your degree of engagement goes no further than local business listings or extends to your community, state, nation, or the world, I recommend increased awareness of the whole picture of Google in 2020. Education is power.
Level 3: Flip Google
Image credit: Province of British Columbia
You’ve fed Google. You’ve fought Google. Now, I want you to flip this whole scenario to your advantage.
My 2020 local SEO blueprint has you working hard for every customer you win from the Internet. So far, the ball has been almost entirely in Google’s court, but when all of this effort culminates in a face-to-face meeting with another human being, we are finally at your party under your roof, where you have all the control. This is where you turn Internet-driven customers into in-store keepers.
I encourage you to make 2020 the year you draft a strategy for making a larger portion of your sales as Google-independent as possible, flipping their risky edifice into su casa, built of sturdy bricks like community, pride, service, and loyalty.
How can you do this? Here’s a four-quarter plan you can customize to fit your exact business scenario:
Q1: Listen & learn
Image credit: Chris Kiernan, Small Business Saturday
The foundation of all business success is giving the customer exactly what they want. Hoping and guessing are no substitute for a survey of your actual customers.
If you already have an email database, great. If not, you could start collecting one in Q1 and run your survey at the end of the quarter when you have enough addresses. Alternatively, you could ask each customer if they would kindly take a very short printed survey while you ring up their purchase.
Imagine you’re marketing an independent bookstore. Such a survey might look like this, whittled down to just the data points you most want to gather from customers to make business decisions:
Have pens ready and a drop box for each customer to deposit their card. Make it as convenient and anonymous as possible, for the customer’s comfort.
In this survey and listening phase of the new year, I also recommend that you:
- Spend more time as the business owner speaking directly to your customers, really listening to their needs and complaints and then logging them in a spreadsheet. Speak with determination to discover how your business could help each customer more.
- Have all phone staff log the questions/requests/complaints they receive.
- Have all floor/field staff log the questions/requests/complaints they receive.
- Audit your entire online review corpus to identify dominant sentiment, both positive and negative
- If the business you’re marketing is large and competitive, now is the time to go in for a full-fledged consumer analysis project with mobile surveys, customer personae, etc.
End of Q1 Goal: Know exactly what customers want so that they’ll come to us for repeat business without any reliance on Google.
Q2: Implement your ready welcome
Image credit: Small Business Week in BC
In this quarter, you’ll implement as many of the requests you’ve gleaned from Q1 as feasible. You’ll have put solutions in place to rectify any complaint themes, and will have upped your game wherever customers have called for it.
In addition to the fine details of your business, large or small, life as a local SEO has taught me that these six elements are basic requirements for local business longevity:
- A crystal-clear USP
- Consumer-centric policies
- Adequate, well-trained, personable staff
- An in-demand inventory of products/services
- Accessibility for complaint resolution
- Cleanliness/orderliness of premises/services
The lack of any of these six essentials results in negative experiences that can either cause the business to shed silent customers in person or erode online reputation to the point that the brand begins to fail.
With the bare minimums of customers’ requirements met, Q2 is where we get to the fun part. This is where you take your basic USP and add your special flourish to it that makes your brand unique, memorable, and desirable within the community you serve.
A short tale of two yarn shops in my neck of the woods: At shop A, the premises are dark and dusty. Customer projects are on display, but aren’t very inspiring. Staff sits at a table knitting, and doesn’t get up when customers enter. At shop B, the lighting and organization are inviting, displayed projects are mouthwatering, and though the staff here also sits at a table knitting, they leap up to meet, guide, and serve. Guess which shop now knows me by name? Guess which shop has staff so friendly that they have lent me their own knitting needles for a tough project? Guess which shop I gave a five-star review to? Guess where I’ve spent more money than I really should?
This quarter, seek vision for what going above-and-beyond would look like to your customers. What would bring them in again and again for years to come? Keep it in mind that computers are machines, but you and your staff are people serving people. Harness human connection.
End of Q2 Goal: Have implemented customers’ basic requests and gone beyond them to provide delightful human experiences Google cannot replicate.
Q3: Participate, educate, appreciate
Now you know your customers, are meeting their specified needs, and doing your best to become one of their favorite businesses. It’s time to walk out your front door into the greater community to see where you can make common cause with a neighborhood, town, or city, as a whole.
2020 is the year you become a joiner. Analyze all of the following sources at a local level:
- Print and TV news
- School newsletters and papers
- Place of worship newsletters and bulletins
- Local business organization newsletters
- Any form of publication surrounding charity, non-profits, activism, and government
Create a list of the things your community worries about, cares about, and aspires to. For example, a city near me became deeply involved in a battle over putting an industrial plant in a wetland. Another town is fundraising for a no-kill animal shelter and a walk for Alzheimer’s. Another is hosting interfaith dinners between Christians and Muslims.
Pick the efforts that feel best to you and show up, donate, host, speak, sponsor, and support in any way you can. Build real relationships so that the customers coming through your door aren’t just the ones you sell to, but the ones you’ve manned a booth with on the 4th of July, attended a workshop with, or cheered with at their children’s soccer match. This is how community is made.
Once you’re participating in community life, it’s time to educate your customers about how supporting your business makes life better in the place they live (get a bunch of good stats on this here). Take the very best things that you do and promote awareness of them face-to-face with every person you transact with.
For my fictitious bookseller client, just 10 minutes spent on Canva (you have to try Canva!) helped me whip together this free flyer I could give to every customer, highlighting stats about how supporting independent businesses improve communities:
If you’re marketing a larger enterprise, a flyer like this could focus on green practices you’re implementing at scale, philanthropic endeavors, and positive community involvement.
Finally, with the holiday season fast approaching in the coming quarter, this is the time to let customers know how much you appreciate their business. Recently, I wrote about businesses turning kindness into a form of local currency. Brands are out there delivering surprise flowers and birthday cakes to customers, picking them up when they’re stranded on roadsides, washing town signage, and replacing “you will be towed” plaques with ones that read “you’re welcome to park here.” Loyalty programs, coupons, discounts, sales, free events, parties, freebies, and fun are all at your disposal to say “Thank you, please come again!” to your customers.
End of Q3 Goal: Have integrated more deeply into community life, motivated customers to choose our business for aspirational reasons beyond sales, and have offered memorable acts of gratitude for their business, completely independent of Google.
Q4: Share customers and sell
Every year, local consumer surveys indicate that 80–90% of people trust online reviews as much as they trust recommendations from friends and family. But I’ve yet to see a survey poll how much people trust recommendations they receive from trustworthy business owners.
You spent all of Q3 becoming a true ally to your community, getting personally involved in the struggles and dreams of the people you serve. At this point, if you’ve done a good job, the people who make up your brand have come closer to deserving the word “friend” from customers. As we move into Q4, it’s time to deepen alliances — this time with related local businesses.
In the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street, the owners of Macy’s and Gimbel’s begin sending shoppers to one another when either business lacks what the customer wants. They even create catalogues of their competitors’ inventory to assist with these referrals. In Q3, I’m hoping you joined a local business alliance that’s begun to acquaint you with other brands that feature goods/service that relate to yours so that you can begin dedicated outreach.
Q4, with Black Friday and Small Business Saturday, is traditionally the quarter in which local businesses expect to get out of the red, but how many more wedding cakes would you sell if all the caterers in town were referring to you, how many more tires would you vend if the muffler shops sent all their customers your way, how many more therapeutic massages might you book if every holistic medical center in your city confidently gave out your name?
Formalize B2B customer referrals in this quarter in seven easy steps:
- Create a spreadsheet headed with your contact information and an itemized list of the main goods, services, and brands you sell. Include specialties of your business. Create additional rows to be filled out with the information of other businesses.
- Create a list of every local business that could tie in with yours in any way for a customer’s needs.
- Invite the owners or qualified reps of each business on your list to a meeting at a neutral location, like a community center or restaurant.
- Bring your spreadsheet to the meeting.
- Discuss with your guests how a commitment to sharing customers will benefit all of you
- If others commit, have them fill out their column of the spreadsheet. Share print and digital copies with all participants.
- Whenever a customer asks for something you don’t offer, refer to the spreadsheet to make a recommendation. Encourage your colleagues to do likewise, and to train staff to use the spreadsheet to increase customer sharing and satisfaction.
Make a copy of my free Local Business Allies spreadsheet!
Q4 Goal: Make this the best final quarter yet by sharing customers with local business allies, decreasing dependence on Google for referrals.
Embrace truth and dare to draw the line
Image credit: TCDavis
House flipping is a runaway phenomenon in the US that has remodeled communities and sparked dozens of hit TV shows. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to the activity, as it can create negative gentrification, making life less good for residents.
You need have no fear of this when you flip Google, because turning their house into yours actually strengthens your real-world neighborhood, town, or city. It gives the residents who already live there more stable resources, more positive human contact, and a more closely knit community.
Truth: Google will remain dominant in the discovery-related phases of your consumers’ journeys for the foreseeable future. For new neighbors and travelers, Google will remain a valuable source of your business being found in the first place. Even if governing bodies break the company up at some point, the truth is that most local businesses need to utilize Google as a search utility for discovery.
Dare: Draw a line on the pavement outside your front door this year, with transactional experiences on your side of the line. Google wants to own the transaction phase of your customers’ journey. Bookings, lead gen, local ads, and related features show where they are headed with this. If Google could, I’m sure they’d be glad to take a cut of every sale you make, and you’ll likely have to participate in their transactional aspirations to some degree. But…
In 2020, dare yourself to turn every customer you serve into a keeper, cutting out Google as the middleman wherever you can and building a truly local, regenerative base of loyalty, referrals, and community.
Wishing you a local 2020 of daring vision and self-made success!