John Andrews – Local Search Interview

For this interview we’re talking with John Andrews aka the Competitive
Webmaster.

Hi John thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, can
you tell my readers who might not know you a little bit about yourself.

Sure Michael. I come from a background of scientific computing, and was on the academic networks in the late 80s when the Internet started. As technology advanced, I would bring my work in line with it, and I ended up leading an effort to increase the “dissemination and utilization” of some government funded medical research. Basically it was a mandate to get the information out of the research labs and into the taxpaying public’s hands instead of limiting it to the medical journals. Google wasn’t around then, but to me that was what search engines were for–reaching the people directly — so I dug into search engine optimization on Excite, Altavista, Infoseek and the others. As people adopted the web and used it for medical information, they proved me right and re-inforced my committment to SEO. I left the research labs to become an independent SEO in 2003, working on my own projects. I have since recognized that SEO is just one aspect of competitive webmastering. It is competition that drives me to use tools like SEO to achieve top rankings, or marketing tactics to get traffic of a certain type, or whatever it takes to achieve a goal. As a business consultant I focus on increasing competitiveness in the web markets.

OK John let’s pretend you aren’t involved in SEO for a minute, what types of local searches do you find yourself doing frequently?

I check Google like people check the weather. It’s so easy for me to navigate the web with Yahoo or Google that I use them automatically all the time, even if it doesn’t make sense to use them. The few seconds it takes to enter a query and scan a SERP gives me perspective, even if I don’t find “the answer”. I even find myself Googling during conversation, the way some people doodle. There’s a “sense” you pick up from the aggregated information. It’s almost like the local search SERPs whisper at you about trends and activities in the community, while Google whispers to you about what’s going on in the relevancy and ranking algorithm. After a while it’s like sensing the air temperature… you don’t need to think about it, you simply know when it’s a nice day, a frigid morning, or a storm is brewing.

Let’s talk about local search, many people tend to focus on the big terms like “auto insurance” and ignore local terms like “lexington kentucky auto insurance” completely. Do you think there is enough volume and profit to make going after those local terms worthwhile?

In a word, no. I think optimization on those terms is an attempt to apply long tail concepts to local search. The problem is, people don’t search that way. The Long Tail idea was based on the idea that the search engine handles massive amounts of queries, almost uniformly distributed with respect to the user intent. Most users who wanted “auto insurance” searched “auto insurance” but some users who wanted “auto insurance” searched “insurance for my car”, and other users who also wanted “auto insurance” searched “auto insurance policies for senior citizens”, etc. By chasing the long tail you got a cut of that same user intent, but at lower volume, which you could compensate for with more search terms. With local search, there is no such mass of local queries sharing an intent. Each locally-intended query is unque and is often unqiue in a context that is unknown to the search engine.

Let’s think about smaller mom & pop operations for a minute do you think
they can compete on their own without the help of a professional? Do you
have any tips for smaller businesses can use to help them get noticed?

I believe everything you do on the web has to be goal-oriented. If you don’t have a very specific goal, you will not operate cost effectively. Since most mom & pops I know have limited funds and need to prioritize their ad/marketing spends, that means the web should be a lower priority that other avenues. That said, there is an awful lot of waste and inefficiency in the yellow pages and those other non-web channels, too. So the real question for a Mom & Pop is, are you interested is optimizing your marketing spend? Are you looking to spend money to get more competitive? If the answer is not “yes”, save your money. If the answer is “yes”, then that becomes the goal, not ranking #1 in Google for “Seattle Law Firm”.

In my experience most businesses need the help of an expert consultant when it comes time to increase cost effectiveness and competitiveness. If that process includes web marketing, I have no doubt they need at least one high-powered consultant guiding them.

What about offline conversions, some services like landscaping, plumbers, and hair salons can’t make the conversion online, what are things they can do to get people to fill out the contact or pick up the phone and call?

I deal with creative people every day, often in an interview setting. One thing I love to ask them is “name two barriers to creativity” as an open question. I have a long list of colorful responses I’ve saved, but I really like two: “Obligation stifles creativity” and “the greatest barrier to creativity is good taste”.

Thinking about contact forms, special phone numbers, and coupons is like laying a wet blanket over an expensive audio speaker. All anyone will ever notice is how much the wet blanket stifles the sound. Those forms and coupons are vehicles that serve the marketer, not the small business. I’m afraid that as long as the small business holds back from paying the good people to do good work (creativity), they will get the average people who need to show their effectiveness more than they need to increase business profits.

I know I didn’t answer your question directly, but I think I did answer it: they need to be creative.

I’d like you to look into the future, where do you see local search going in the next few years and do you see mobile devices having a significant impact?

I have free Google Maps so I can get directions to anywhere, but when I’m on the road my computer is back home on my desk. Not very helpful. A mobile device is just a portable computer. Will my device give me Google Maps when I need it, wherever I am? Would that change the way you use the Internet? Now think of your local Yellow Page directory. If you had it with you at all times, would that change the way you use it? Of course it would. If you had your yellow page directory in your pocket, you wouldn’t search the Internet to find a local plumber. You would look in your local directory. And if it didn’t deliver, you’d curse it and want another one that was better. Local is not a search issue. It’s a UI problem plaguing directories. I believe it really is that simple. We only search for a plumber in our home towns because the search engines are so accessible.

Now there is a chance for Google (the search company) to provide a local directory via it’s search interface. People would think it was search generated, even though it would have to be a voluntary inclusion directory of some kind. People are impatient, and people are dreamers. We dream that one company like Google will do it all for us, and it will be great as soon as we have little portable interfaces to Google’s data. Sorry. Unless Google produces a meaningful, comprehensive, and efficient local directory service, we won’t be accessing it from our devices when we need to find a plumber or locksmith or whatever. From what I have seen from Google’s thus far, Google isn’t capable of providing such a meaningful, comprehensive or efficient directory even at a global level. Fact is, a spider-generated search index doesn’t include comprehensive local data. The original yellow pages go their data from phone hook-ups in a time when you couldn’t service customers unless you had a phone.

As for the next few years, I fully expect Google to exercise it’s near-monopoly powers to effectively shut out local players. I expect the local web pure plays to fold, or “partner” with Google via minimal profit share programs like AdSense. And while the SERPs get polluted with those minimally helpful and aging local directories and “finders”, I anticipate an offline-based local effort to start serving the market well and taking root as the “new” YP. Might be cable, might be professional associations, or might be community-based. Of course it would be accessed via a web interface, but probably not exclusively. With cell phones displacing land lines, we lose the geo-located starting point from which to build a directory. I think the economy will demand a replacement for that, and it might be a national business license, or a mandatory tax registration system. But since we are all such dreamers, I suspect it will be quite a while before that happens, because everyone seems to be waiting hopefully for Google to deliver local search.

Thanks for talking to me today, if you like to read more from John be
sure to stop by his blog Johnon.com.

 

Tags: local+search, , John Andrews

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