RC Jordan – Local Search Interview

For this interview we’re talking with RCJordan who’s been around SEO forums and boards from the very beginning.

I know you like to keep things private, but could you tell us just a little bit about yourself for my readers who may not know you.

1972: BS in Commerce and Economics from WLU.edu, Mid-70’s: Worked for Burroughs (now Unysis) for a couple of years selling mainframes door-to-door. They taught me some programming, enough to be dangerous.

Late-70’s to present: Work in the family businesses. Wrote the A/R, A/P, and Inventory software from scratch for a mid-size wholesale supply house. Got heavily involved in price books, catalog production and, later, desktop publishing. My computer background led me to PC’s but it was the unrealized promise of desktop publishing that whetted my appetite for the web.

1995: My first 4 domain registrations were free. The current registrar system wasn’t set up yet.

1996: The beginnings of the high-content, official tourism network goes online. These sites were, and remain, responsible for generating the revenue needed to develop and maintain the project, which is still done through banners (now contextual), affiliates, sponsorships, and ad sales. Today, the sites continue to cooperate extensively with numerous regional and community chambers of commerce, museums, historic sites, and organizations. For most of them, it still provides their primary ‘official’ tourism leads and referral traffic.

1997: Get C&D from a billion-dollar chemical company, they wanted one of my geographic domains. Seems they had a trademark, but in a different classification. They ended up buying it for about $7,800.Lawyers got $2k of that.

1998: First super-long tail local site went up. Though there are so many sites like it out there now that we all damned as a class, mine was close to groundbreaking but probably not the absolute first, though I can’t recall having a competitor when it went live. Being unique and having enough real utility, it was listed as a good travel resource by newspapers, major magazines, edu sites (yeah!), library sites, etc. It even had a book credit from Neil Gaiman …just goes to show how perceptions change or, more importantly, how a good niche gets to be shoving-room only. Interestingly, it was also the one that was absolutely at its dog-ugliest while it was piling on the authoritative incoming links and racking up significant hotel bookings.

As for my involvement in SEO, I was sitting at the keyboard when Digital Equipment’s Altavista changed the web. I say it changed everything because AV was the first spidering engine with a hint of mass appeal and popularity. (“Mass” in 1995 was still pretty pitiful in media terms.) The realization of just how much this would profoundly alter the linear nature of web surfing even caused me to call a meeting on how to deal with it. I still remember the subject line of the email; Whoa! This changes everything! I guess if you’re looking for the definitive moment when my SEO thoughts crystallized, that meeting would be it. The thoughts? [1] Long Tail and [2] Doorway pages. A few months after that, as Altavista started making inroads with the general public, a local Chamber of Commerce president called me, he was very much agitated and alarmed. His town had been the location of a very negative event that would blacken tourism and relocation prospects and Altavista’s serps were chock-full of references to it. He wanted me to get them removed from the search engines. I explained that while no one other than the search engines themselves could remove them, I thought I could push then off the front page. The Game was on! I was an early subscriber to Danny Sullivan’s new-ish paid site, SEW, but dropped out of it after a few months. I drifted around a bit between a few SEO forums (there weren’t that many). I was an active member in Jim Wilson’s searchengineforums, quit, came back a year or so later, started hanging out online with Oilman. Online forums just weren’t hitting on what I knew was working, what I knew would manipulate results. Then, as now, the newbies drowned out any real chance of having a serp-jerking discussion. Oilman moved to a site with about 40 members –searchengineworld, the predecessor of webmasterworld. I visited, it seemed to be primarily about cloaking, I left. I came back a few months later, though, and became active. Later, I became the first admin, or at least one of the first. There I met or re-met my online friends, many of whom have gone on to become the brand-name nicks of SEO today (though most have also moved on from life in the forums). Mackin came up with the initial spark of what became Pubconference and we started that as a semi-private, international SEO meeting.

I retired from admin life in 2003, I believe, and left public SEO forums soon after. (The problem with the global village is all the global village idiots. Paul Ginsparg) I still post some water-cooler chat and, every now and then, try to provide a reality-check or counterpoint. Other than the occasional newspaper reporter, I’ve given up on minding the mindless, there are just too many of them. Mostly, I just read and watch the developments in search.

Let’s pretend you’re not involved in Internet marketing for just a
minute, what types of local searches like Maid Service San Antonio, Arizona Day Spa, Plumbers in Pittsburgh do you find yourself doing frequently?

Using your definition, I make zero local searches frequently. Wait, unless we include weather… oh, never mind, I have my own weather sites, no need to search. But people do look for weather. Anyway, as you know, I travel quite a bit and when I’m planning an itinerary to an unfamiliar destination there are periods of a day or two beforehand where I search fairly deeply and intensively on local travel terms. But even there, I am often using search to flesh out and/or double-check local knowledge that I acquire through specialty websites like, for example, Venere.com. Other than that, four or five times over the last year I’ve used the search engines to look up a phone number. Seriously, that’s all.

You’ve been involved in building sites for a long time, and I know you have a few travel and local websites, what do you think are some key factors that people can do but aren’t that can help them rank for local terms?

I guess you mean besides paying college students to link to your site from their .edu student homepage? A few weeks ago, I made a comment on Threadwatch went something along the lines of “if someone hired me to rank a website for ‘plumbers in Podunk,’ I wouldn’t know where to begin.” That’s not quite true, I know the basics and maybe a bit beyond, but the truth would be that I wouldn’t WANT to begin because it’s a long, hard, frustrating, time-consuming process. There is a great chance that the investment in ranking on local terms is going to have an abysmally low ROI. That hard truth is one of the bulwarks of PPC.

My specialty, what I really enjoy doing, is large site development. I can’t think very well in terms of a Podunk plumber’s 5 page site. I’ve been doing large sites since the beginning, long before they came up with the term “long tail.” (I’m beginning to get uncomfortable now, that ol’ paranoia is setting in.) For onsite stuff, I’m still a big believer in the old themed pyramid structure and systematic in-site linking. You want some do-this tips?

  1. Raise the content density. Do it even if it means sacrificing your English Major or, Heaven help you, your School of Art & Design background. Think of legitimate ways to be redundant. Personally, I like to increase the footprint of the primary content by stripping non-content items out of pages by writing them in javascript. The page makes sense, though in a stark sort of way, even when viewed with javascript off.
  2. Start a photo gallery. A FLAT, non-dynamic photo gallery. Everyone and his dog has 5 megapixel camera, put it to use. Do a tour of the main buildings in town, put the street address, postal code, maybe plot them on a local search map. Oh, you’re a bad photographer? Here’s a related tip; search engines don’t judge photo quality.
  3. Always try to put you money pages as a directory root (index.whatever file) and never link to it with the full url to file name, just the directory. I’ve had some well-ranked pages that started and .htm, then were .html, then .shtml, and are now .php yet never broke their link in the serps.

I know you’re also a big fan of “ugly sells” and sometimes and “sparse designs”, however for many people throwing up a few flashy banners is a quick easy way to make a few bucks. What are some way people can monetize local traffic without looking like the Las Vegas Strip?

Contrary to what most people think, I’m not really into the red, orange, and yellow H1 School of Design that the Las Vegas Strip boys use. They are very effective for certain types of sales sites, that I’ve verified, but they aren’t for local –at least not mine. Then again, lavishly designed, 4-color glossy, slick brochureware sites with palm trees and the ubiquitous couple silhouetted against the ocean surf may not be the best for local, either. Yes, you may have read that I do like pastel lime and pastel orange. They work great to background highlight key sentences and get your readers on track, so if you’re looking for something to try, it might be worthwhile. But I gave them up to keep the design more current, more in line with users’ expectations of an information site. It has cost me in the short term, but I’ll make it up later. The point, though, is that if you use a sophisticated design you’re running the risk of tripping head-on the into the user’s anti-marketing bias. Add some confusion with a mouseover multi-level dhtml menus or expect them to use the search box properly and you’ve lost them.

Of course, with contextual ads, some things are easier now. Just get the traffic, let the adbot do the selling. But, unless you’re the plumber in Podunk and are directly reaping the rewards via increased business, monetization at the local level can be thin. I recently read an economics article somewhere that said monetizing videos would be tough because there appears to be no scarcity of supply and advertisers are going to respond accordingly. For broad local terms that’s been borne out by my experience in the travel sector. So, if you’re going after the long tail you might consider house ads to get them up to the money page.

For many people in local search getting that trophy phrase of “widgets in Wisconsin” is all they focus on. Is that the best approach or is there a long tail for local search as well?

For those who have struggled through reading this far, it should be more than apparent that I think of the long tail first. Note, though,that I mentioned my affinity for themed pyramids and in-site linking. In the non-linear web, you’ve got to land them, then direct them as best you can. The themed pyramid seems to work for me. Of course, I try to weave the trophy phrase(s) throughout the site and, over time, I’ve seen the long tail pages push the site upwards for the trophy phrase, too. Now, whether this is on-site cause or the off-site effect, I don’t really care.

Let’s look into the future what do you see for local search in the next 2-3 years, and do you see mobile devices and phones playing a significant role?

When I can pick up my nearly-new (i.e., untrained for voice commands), privacy-invading, ever-tracking-me, GPS-laden phone and with my usual Southern drawl (which plays hell with voice recognition) simply say –not key, SAY– “Mapquest, where’s the closest Italian restaurant?” or “Access HamptonInn.com. What’s your closest hotel with a Non-smoking King Study available tonight?” then I think pocket-size mobiles will become a truly significant factor. I think that’s 5 years away, technology-wise, but even then there will be an additional 2 or 3 years before it has enough users to worry about the web traffic you’re missing.

Update: Heck, I’d better get this article off the text editor and over to graywolf. I’m being scooped. Looks like I’d better knock a year or two off that development time for this app. http://battellemedia.com/archives/003306.php

I worry less about the threat of mobile than I do about “specialty browsers” or “surfing channels” being built into the X-box, Wii, and other gaming and home entertainment servers. John Q. Public will accept channeled/gated browsing and, worse, full-blown Push technology because he’s lazy. Searching is work and, to make it worse, he isn’t very good at it. Local may be slightly more buffered from this than games or movies, but it’s not a far stretch to key segments of the market -real estate and travel.

Thanks again for taking the time to talk me today.

Glad to do it, I needed to surface and get a stardust fix (inside joke).


Tags: local+search, , RCJordan

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