The In Search SEO Podcast
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Taking Your Local SEO Strategy to the Next Level: Summary of Episode #81
Mark Bealin joins the podcast to discuss how to differentiate your local SEO strategy:
- How to think strategically about local SEO
- Why strategic local SEO beats out a more tactical approach
- How links and reviews fit into the strategic mindset
Plus, we take a look at why the COVID-19 SERP seems to have stabilized!
Google Algorithm Updates
Suds and Search
Mobile-first Indexing Delayed to 2021
GMB to Notify for Duplicate Listings
Twitter Carousel Temporarily Removed from SERP
Google SERP Showing Travel Trends
Buy on Google to be Commission Free
Why the COVID-19 SERP Has Calmed [04:18 – 14:53]
Since March 11th, literally the same day that COVID-19 officially was named a pandemic, Google rolled an unconfirmed update that saw the SERP for COVID-19-related queries go nuts. But no longer!
Before the recent June update, sites were bouncing all over the place. Imagine a line graph where the lines were just going up and down. Sites were jumping up 10 spots one week and losing 10 the next week. Gaining 5 ranking positions then 3 days later losing 1 million! Lots of volatility, lots of spikes. But after June, silence. No jumping lines. Just straight flat lines. Maybe a little movement here and there, but overall the same sites in the same ranking positions day after day on the ‘COVID SERP’! And it’s been like this for a month with no real reversals.
Unfortunately, Mordy thinks this means that COVID-19 has become the norm. After 5 months, Google has figured COVID-19 out and it’s not novel anymore, it’s just the norm. As proof, COVID-19 topics that are still up in the air still produce very volatile SERPs. For example, the query “is COVID-19 Airborne” is, in reality, still a matter of debate which is why the query is still very volatile on the SERP.
It also seems that Google is boosting rankings for government sites and this change finally made Google feel “comfortable” with what it shows on COVID-related SERPs. Mordy wonders if it was about feeling comfortable on SERPs that are indirectly related to COVID as a virus, as opposed to queries that directly relate to COVID. Examples of directly related queries are ‘COVID-19 virus’ or ‘COVID-19 cure.’ Indirectly related queries can be ‘walking in the park during coronavirus’ or ‘mortgages during COVID-19.’
When you see Google making change after change after change (which it was doing before the June update), it sends the message that they’re not happy about what the algorithm is producing on the SERP. So they make an adjustment, they’re not happy, they make another, still not happy, they make another, and another, etc. Finally, they found something that works, i.e., the boosting of government sites.
Mordy doesn’t think that Google was not happy with the SERP for direct COVID-related queries. Those queries have good sites on the top like the CDC, WebMD, WHO, NIH, state government sites, etc. and the order of those (very authoritative sites is not going to upset Google to the point where they make change after change to the SERP. But when you have indirect SERPs for queries like ‘walking in the park during coronavirus’ or ‘mortgage during COVID-19,’ those really do touch on the topic of COVID in a way that demands very authoritative information.
Mordy believes that Google is upped the rankings of the .govs to help improve the SERP for these kind of COVID queries, queries not dealing with just the virus per se. For example, in the case of ‘COVID-19 mortgages,’ a government site related to financial assistance is now consistently outranking Investopedia. So stuff like that is where the boost has really helped.
Thinking About Local SEO Strategically: A Conversation with Mark Bealin [15:36 – 49:47]
Mordy: This is an In Search SEO podcast interview. Today we have with us an in-demand speaker, author, and SEO contributor. He hails from the land of Ditka and is the host of the extremely well-produced video series, Suds and Search. He’s Chicago’s own founder of Search Lab. He’s Mark Bealin. How’s it going, Mark?
Mark: Good morning. That intro makes me feel so welcome. Thank you very much.
MO: My pleasure. I tell my guests this is the highlight of the interview. It’s all downhill from here. I love the name Suds & Search. Until I moved to Israel, I was a very big craft brew guy. We do have that here but it’s expensive. How did that whole thing start?
MB: I’m talking to you right now in Chicago in my office. We’re located at Irving Park in Ravenswood and all up and down here are agencies like mine and microbreweries. So what would happen a lot is we get done with work, you go over to one of these microbreweries and you run into somebody in a similar field. I found all these interesting conversations that would happen and that was the best stuff. It was just sort of a eureka moment. Our video partners came up with the name and we started to film from breweries in Chicago.
That was the beginning of it, but then COVID-19 happened and all the breweries were shut down so what are we going to do now? Greg Gifford who works with me told me this is an opportunity. We can now Zoom and do it all over the country and so it allowed us to go national and international. Just a couple of weeks ago I was drinking gin with Joe Quick. It was great. I like it because it’s more my speed. I like the hangout vibe. I’ll have questions, but very often, we just start on a topic and just let it rip.
MO: It’s a really good series. What’s your favorite craft beer?
MB: There’s one from Old Irving Brewing called Beezer that actually won an award. It’s a hazy IPA which is run of the mill here but it really stands out and is really good.
MO: So today we’re here talking about strategic local SEO. You talk about this cool concept of thinking strategically with local SEO versus tactical SEO. To get us all on the same page what do you mean by that?
MB: I’ll try and set this up a little bit. When I got started speaking at SEO conferences, I felt like I needed a little bit of an angle. There are so many local SEO so what was I going to talk about that’s going to be different? I racked my brain and one of the things that’s different about me than just about anybody I know in local SEO is that I was a football coach. I worked pretty competitively. I was a Varsity defense coordinator and 2018 was my last year. I took over at a place called St. Ignatius. We were one of the worst teams in the whole state. Everybody scheduled us for their homecoming because they wanted to play a team they know they will beat.
My first year there we went one in eight. That was rough. There was a lot of soul searching after and I went to work. I went to a bunch of coaching clinics. I was really gung ho about it. I wanted to be a good coach. At the end of the year, we had a coach get fired and we had a new coach come in who I liked. The next year we came out again one in eight.
Fortunately, we got to turn around. After those first two years, we went five in four and made it into the playoffs. The next year, we won our first championship. And then the next year, we defended our conference championship and went all the way to what’s called the Prep Bowl that’s played the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It’s as many games as you can play. It was great. We didn’t win, but it was kind of amazing to see this whole thing turn around.
What I learned from that experience that I think relates to my position now in SEO is that what we did differently once we started to win was we really focused on the process. By focusing on that process, we put it in the players’ hands. The other thing that we did differently was we were always pretty good at schemes, but we weren’t very good at tackling or blocking. It’s really great to have a good scheme, but if you can’t tackle the other guy then that’s not going to be good. So we totally changed the way we tackled and in layman’s terms, we started tackling like a rugby player as it was safer and more effective. We went back to basics and we became very good at attacking.
When I think about my coaching experience, and I think about SEO, I think they have a lot of similarities. I think there’s a lot of content that comes out that’s very tactical. For example, “Here are 25 things you should do about local SEO this year.” That doesn’t click with me in terms of doing that job. Doing that job is about coming up with a strategy, coming up with solutions, and then going to work. The other part of it is that there’s a lot of just watching every little tiny update to Google My Business or every little thing. A lot of that stuff is minor and if you’re not good at link building, lead generation, and two or three other things, then you better get good at tackling.
MO: You’re very much speaking my language. One of my complaints about local SEO or local SEO content is that it sort of all sounds the same at a certain point. So what’s the equivalent of tackling in local SEO?
MB: To me, there are two things. You have to be a good link builder. You have to come up with ways to get links for your clients. That’s the hard work that people I don’t think talk about enough. Coming up with a strategy that you can repeat over and over again is hard. The other one would be to review generation and management. I don’t think any of that is shocking to anyone. I think most local SEOs would agree with me on that. You might also say spam-fighting would be up there.
MO: That’s the funniest thing about local SEO. If you don’t have any good spam to fight and put it on Twitter then you’re not worth your weight in SEO.
How do you start thinking strategically about these things? Yes, you need link building and reviews but strategically speaking, what do you do?
My other complaint about local SEO, and to all the local SEOs listening I don’t mean any offense, is that you hear these pieces of advice, but no one actually walks you through with a real case study. Can you please walk me through how it worked out in a particular case?
MB: There are a few examples. I want to give you a recent one. I think the part that is murky, that people have a hard time understanding, and that I think gets overlooked a lot is that you need involvement from your client. If you have no bullets in your gun, there’s only so much you can do. It becomes challenging. This is the hard work of being a consultant. That’s the other thing that we don’t talk about a lot is you have to have frank conversations with clients. Sometimes they need to be pulled in a certain direction to do what needs to be done because if they’re not interested in being involved in their community, if they’re not interested in sponsoring little leagues, or doing events, or doing the sort of things to get links, then we’re very limited in what we can do.
MO: So how do you push them?
MB: I think the beginning of your strategy is to have ideas that you’re presenting to the client. Here at Search Lab, I think too much of this hinges on the onboarding part of the client where we give them everything they’re going to need for the next three years and there should be a check-in that happens a lot. If you think about your business, the ways that you’re involved in the community have likely changed in just under one year. And the world’s changing in just one year.
MO: Yeah, being a part of the community now during COVID, or even post COVID, is a totally different ballgame. I don’t want to redirect you into different directions but local link building is really about getting out there, interacting with the community, and building real relationships that result in link relationships. But if you can’t do that because you’re stuck in quarantine, now what?
MB: Right, so we have a client who does HVAC plumbing. So what could you possibly do now that we’re in COVID? They got on board with us for an event and that’s what they agreed to do. Now our job as an SEO is much clearer. Now it just becomes about stitching things together. It’s figuring out how to promote that event and how to do outreach. The event was about giving away masks. It was clever and helpful. They did want to promote it and now we got seven links. So that’s good.
What’s really cool about this is that the client said this is annoying, you guys always want us to do stuff. We’re just plumbers. We don’t do that. We never sponsored anything. Once it clicked with them and they saw it’s a win-win, we wrung out all the juice we could bring out of them.
After you have the idea it becomes a much more traditional link building. You prospect with outreach, you measure, and you come back to the client saying you need to come back with more ideas. So you lather, rinse, and repeat that process over and over again.
MO: It’s almost like you’re creating a mindset. It’s funny, the first thing that snapped into my mind was that no one talks about local SEO as being marketing.
MB: Right. It’s the difference between a tactician and a marketer. A marketer is strategic. That’s the idea. You can see how our task management tool works. But I’m interested in the mind that decided to do those things. That’s the fun part. How did you decide those were the tasks and why? How did that come about? Knocking out tasks is one thing, but to decide that this client needs this kind of link building or that kind of link building, that’s the hard work of being an SEO. You’re being a marketer and a consultant.
MO: Again, not to offend, technical SEO and being creative are very different things. I find that there’s a lot of technical proficiency, there’s a lot of process of what we’re supposed to do, but the creativity out there in the industry is pretty much lacking, particularly, in local SEO. The obvious question to me right now is when you have a new client and you bring them on, how do you go about it?
MB: We will start with some onboarding process. Once we’ve done that, there’s a questionnaire that gets us started. Very few businesses say they hate their city and won’t do anything for it. So there is some setup. But what I really want to get to starts with a conversation about what we’re actually doing.
One of my favorite local SEO tips at this time is from a guy named Blake Denman, who’s been on my show, and is really good. You can come in and say that this month you want to get testimonials to work the other way. We ask, “Who are your vendors that you really like?” We’re going to sit with all the vendors and say, “Hey, we’re really happy with your service. Would you like us to put a testimonial on your website? Then you can come back and happily link to us.” You execute that, you do everything you’re supposed to make sure you’ve got every single link you can, and then you need to return to the client and get the next idea going. You should be the one who pushes that next idea. You can say, “That went so well. Now we’re going to be involved in events and I want to have events every three months. Are you guys involved with your Chamber of Commerce? Can we partner with them? Cool. Let’s do a Chamber of Commerce sponsored event. How can we promote that? Well, there’s a sister chamber. Let’s try and get them involved as well.” And then you execute, prospect, outreach, and measure.
MO: So what goes through your mind with an idea like that? When you’re thinking about finding opportunities, what goes through your mind? What’s that creative process look like to you?
MB: There are some places you can draw from because you’ve done it before. Events work, sponsorships work, and the idea of a reverse testimonial works. I think the biggest thing is you need to have a conversation with them. This is hard work. People don’t talk about that you have to talk to your client, you have to get to know what they are interested in. If you want to know what I’m interested in, I have a dog and I love dog stuff. The Canine Society is really important to me. We have dog yoga at my office. There was a Make Chicago a No-Kill City video filmed in my office because I’m just passionate about dogs. You wouldn’t know that about me if you haven’t asked.
MO: You’re right. I had no idea until right now.
MB: You have to be a person. You have to get on the phone with your client. You have to start asking these questions and you have to realize that they’re probably pretty busy people and they might not be super happy to get that call but you need to get the job done.
MO: It almost sounds like you’re trying to personally identify with them. It’s almost like empathetic marketing. Like looking from your client’s point of view.
MB: Correct. Adam, one of our employees, says all the time, “We don’t have this stuff. I’m firing a gun with no bullets. I need something from the client.” So that part of it is murky and hard to define. The hard part is what can we actually do? And if we’re driving the ship, that’s not good, either. We’re going to sponsor stuff on their behalf? Sometimes that’s sort of what you’re left with. If you don’t get anything from the client, what you’re left with is doing the sponsoring yourself.
MO: It’s a funny thing that no one really talks about this in the industry. We talk about onboarding, to understand what their needs are, but here we’re actually connecting to them emotionally and that is the key to understanding where the opportunity lies for them.
Run me through some other keys of your mindset, how you’re approaching your clients, and how it’s actually worked out.
MB: We have a client with 20 locations. They sell prosthetics and orthotics. They were the original Search Lab client. And it’s just been one of those that just went spectacularly well. We didn’t have to nudge them, they were doing it. They were involved in their community. They had all these doctors traveling to different places. So you just have opportunities all the time. Then you had to do some technical work to improve their site. We’re getting backlinks from local universities. We got a link from Northwestern just because this guy was at an event. That was two months of SEO work just done in 15 minutes.
You may know Northwestern but you want to get as localized as you can and so our link building for this client has just been a dream scenario because they were on board with us before we even got involved with them. Our job was so easy. It was just connecting. For example, we’ll ask, “You’re involved with this hospital group. Who do I call? How do I get in touch? Who do I email?” It became an amazing success story. We did a little bit too well because they just got acquired by a big competitor, but we remain involved with the client. It’s been amazing.
MO: That’s amazing, but on the other hand, I’m assuming not all of your clients are like that.
MB: Most are not.
MO: Frank’s plumbing, might not be so interested in doing marketing.
MB: The one fun thing about very small businesses is there is no red tape. If you want to get something done just talk to Frank and you’ll get a yes or no and it’s over. Sometimes you have multiple stakeholders and that’s a pain.
MO: How do you get Frank on board when he doesn’t want to do it?
MB: This is very much like human psychology. There’s that book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ You have to sell a little bit. There are times where it’s just hard and it’s a challenge. That example that I said at the beginning was a good one because that was a client that did not want to come along. Then all of a sudden they do this great event with great link building. And they don’t need 500 links. Getting seven referring domains from local businesses is great. In international SEO, seven is not a lot but for local that’s a good day’s work.
MO: I would imagine once you get the ball rolling, one success breeds more success.
MB: Momentum is an amazing thing. That’s what you want but that’s what you hardly get. That’s what you’re aiming for. And to your point, you’re dealing with human beings so it’s never a straight line. Even with our great client that I mentioned it’s not like it always went smoothly. They were times when they said, “Can’t you just do what you did last time again? We’re busy.” I’m always about seventh on their priority list so you have to make yourself a little bit more important.
That’s how I feel. It’s a little bit of a sales job, a little bit of a marketing job, and a little bit of being a strategist.
Optimize It or Disavow It
MO: Since we’re talking about small things like citations, if you had to spend all of your time doing one of these two ridiculously silly things, would you either focus all of your time and energy on your Local Panel’s logo or getting more of those highlights in your Local Panel? (For those who may not be aware, let’s say you’re a local brewery, Google will have these little highlight icons like ‘fun atmosphere’ or ‘quick service.’)
MB: I can’t do logo stuff so I’m going to choose the highlights.
MO: Do you know how to get the highlights?
MB: There are some things you can put into your Google My Business profile that can help you, like saying you’re a veteran-owned business or a woman-owned business.
MO: Thank you, Mark. I really appreciate you coming on.
MB: Thank you for having me.
SEO News [51:03 – 55:53]
Mobile-first Indexing Delayed to 2021: Mobile-first indexing will not be done by Sept. 2020. Now, Google says it will be March of 2021 until the move over is 100% complete.
GMB to Notify for Duplicate Listings: Along with telling you when your GMB listing has been suspended, Google is now letting us know when a profile has been found to be duplicated.
Twitter Carousel Temporarily Removed from SERP: Twitter was gone from the SERP and then it came back. After high profile Twitter accounts were hacked, Google pulled the Twitter Box off the SERP. However, everything is back to normal now.
Google SERP Showing Travel Trends: Google is starting to show travel trends based on COVID-19. For example, the SERP may now show how many hotels are open and have availability.
Buy on Google to be Commission Free: Google has done away with checkout fees for Buy on Google. Meaning, retailers will not have to share their profits with Google as there will be no commission fee.
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.