Bill Slawski – Local Search Interview

Today we’re talking with Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea.

Hi Bill thanks for talking with me today Bill could you tell us a little bit about yourself for my readers who might not know you?

Hi Michael, It’s my pleasure. About a decade ago, I helped a couple of friends get their new business online by buckling down with a book on HTML, and building a web site for them. Until the end of 2004, I’d been promoting their site during the evenings while working as an administrator for the Superior Court of Delaware. I added a handful of other sites to my efforts over that time, and joined a Maryland marketing firm in early 2005, providing SEO services for some fairly high profile clients. I decided to start my own firm around November of 2005, and incorporated SEO by the Sea, Inc., last January.

I am one of the founders and administrators of Cre8asite Forums, where I’ve had the pleasure to learn from, work with, and talk to, some very smart and talented marketers, designers, and developers. Around three years ago, I started paying attention to patents filed by search companies, and began writing about some of what I found within them at the Forums and later within my blog. In 2006, I had the chance to speak at a couple of Search Engine Strategies Conferences on Search Engine Algorithms and patents, and at the latest Pubcon on duplicate content. I joined Search Engine Watch as a correspondent on search related patents and research in April of 2006, and moved over to Search Engine Land as a correspondent in December.

Great just for a minute let’s pretend that you aren’t involved in Internet
marketing, what types of local searches do you find yourself doing
frequently?

I’m pretty familiar with the area around where I live and work in Delaware, and don’t do a lot of local searches to find places nearby. Delaware is a small state though, and I’m only about a couple of miles from Pennsylvania, and three miles from Maryland. I like taking daytrips to explore some of the historic towns in both of those states, and local search can be pretty useful for maps, and for finding some of the attractions in those places.

I’ve also used local search to help me do some planning for more distant trips, and to find places to dine and shop from my hotel room. I wish I had found Yahoo’s Trip Planner sooner, though. It’s a nice way for Yahoo to use some of their local search information in a context that also shares other travelers’ experiences.

Let’s get back to SEO, from an initial strategy perspective how would you
approach a local search project differently from typical search project?

One major difference involves getting a sense of how actively the site owners are, or might want to be, involved in their own community.

Making sure a site is optimized well for Web searches, and that information about their business is presented in a way that is easy for search engines to extract is important. But, in Google at least, mentions of a business with some related business information (address, phone number, etc.) can be a meaningful step in getting local search to relate a business with their location.

So getting involved with the local community might involve doing things like hosting special events, being active in Main Street type business organizations, joining the local chamber of commerce, sponsoring a little league team, holding seminars, and other ways of being a social and visible member of that community. These are all things that not only get a business known in the offline world, but also can attract mentions and links on local web sites. Social optimization for local search can mean being involved in social events offline.

I know you spend a lot of time looking at search engine patents, you
recently were looking at a
Patent from Google about local search , what do you think are some key points everyone who’s involved in local search should be thinking about?

I talked about one of the main points from that post in my answer above, discussing how a mention can be as important as a link. I wrote about another that I think people working in local search should consider carefully, in a post about Location Sensitivity in Google Local Search. The scale of the map shown to searchers, and the number of results displayed may depend upon the actual words that people use in their queries. For example, in my town a search for “car dealers” (without the quotation marks) is constrained to a very small area – there are a lot of car dealers nearby. Oddly, a search for “automobiles” (again, without the quotation marks) covers a much wider geographic range.

The take-away from that is that for some queries, the scale shown in a local search may be different than others. The patent filing notes:

“For example, location component may determine that users are generally more location sensitive for the topic “pizza” than for the topic “automobiles/cars,” so that users may generally be interested in documents on the topic of “automobiles/cars” that are far(ther) away from their location, whereas users may generally only be interested in documents on the topic of “pizza” that are near(er) to their location.”

Even then, the scale of the map on my search for “car dealers” was 2000 ft = 1 inch, while the map for “automobiles” used a scale of 2 miles = 1 inch. So queries that might seem similar may be treated differently.

Let’s take a look at it from the other side of fence, what are some of the
difficulties search engines face trying to get local search right?

One of the difficulties is in getting people to use local search in the first place. Providing that type of information in OneBox results, and showing maps for some businesses are a couple of steps in the right direction. Presenting it within a different content, such as the Yahoo Trip Planner I mentioned earlier is another.

Search engines purchase information for local search from telecom and other databases, and they crawl and extract other information from directories that provide business information in a wide range of formats that need to be understood, and from web pages where data about the business may be even more difficult to retrieve if it is even presented in a search engine friendly manner.

If a business moves, location information about it may not be updated on all of the pages of their web site, and within those telecom databases and upon those business directories.

Some types of organizations, such as nonprofits and parks, may not pay to be included in directories that charge to be listed, so local search may be more biased towards commercial than noncommercial endeavors. Some large organizations, such as Universities, may not publish street addresses of their buildings and may rely upon organizational routing mail addresses – so finding information about the addresses of their buildings may be very difficult – online or off.

Gathering geographic location information has some issues when words that seem to indicate locations really don’t such as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” or Denzel Washington. A web site may also involve different types of geographic information for different purposes. For instance, there’s the physical location of a business, the geographic range of the content that it covers, and the serving area of its customers.

One of the latest patent applications from Google on local search discusses how some locations are referred to in different ways by different people, and discusses a process by which it tries to capture that information, which it calls “human friendly” location information, with more exact “computer friendly” information such as latitude-longitude coordinates or GPS coordinates.

Those are some of the main issues involved in getting local search to work well.

Let’s take a look into the future, do you see mobile devices like cell
phones playing a bigger role in local search and in what way?

I live in a college town, and it’s a pretty common site to see students walking along by themselves with an ear pressed up against a mobile phone. Web enabled phones aren’t uncommon to that generation, and the amount of people who access the web through a hand held device is growing at a very fast rate. In a presentation that Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave at Stanford (video link) last November, he noted that the base of people using web-enabled handhelds is larger than the number of folks with desktop computers, and the rate of growth for handhelds is faster, too.

The portable nature of a mobile device makes it an ideal device for travelers, tourists, commuters, and even locals to look for information about a business near where they are at. Having local search provide a phone number that you can click on to call the business makes it even easier. We don’t carry the yellow pages with us where ever we go, but we can carry around our phones. If local search can make it easy for us to find the addresses we want, associated phone numbers, hours of operation, parking availability, directions, a web page for a business at that address, and more, it’s an improvement over that phone book.

Thanks for talking the time to talk to me today. if you’d like to read more
from Bill be sure to head on over to his SEO Blog SEO by the Sea.

Tags: local+search, , bill+slawski

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