Scott Smith – Local Search Interview

In this interview we’re talking with Scott Smith also known as “Caveman” around the SEO forums and blogs.

Scott could you tell my readers who may not be familiar with you a little bit about yourself and your experience?

Sure. I was raised in Southern California and spent a lot of time around the beaches growing up. Sadly, my greatest claim to fame is probably having scored 100% on the SAT math test in high school … the upshot of which was that I got a couple of universities offering scholarships for weather forecasting, hehe. Passed on that. I fear that intellectually, I peaked a bit early.

So two and a half years into college, I still didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do for a major. Which is bad, ’cause you need a major to graduate. So in desperation, I went to the campus bookstore, walked up and down the aisles and grabbed every book I liked. When I was done the list included photography, art, business, marketing, advertising, PR, psychology and persuasion, music, writing … and it hit me. Advertising used all that stuff. So now I am one of the few people in the world who actually has a degree in advertising. Once I got my degree, I packed my bags, hoped on a plane to New York with a tourist map in my pocket, made my way to the local YMCA, and a week later, got a job at JWT.

I spent the next 20 years at ad agencies on the marketing and client management side, working on accounts like Warner-Lambert, Coca-Cola, Gillette, Citibank, and Grey Poupon Mustard. But after those 20 years I felt like Bill Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day” so I got outta there before I became a lifer. Took a little time off to play, and ended up starting my own Internet publishing company. It became clear that search was going to be important, so I spent a few months doing nothing but studying the engines, reviewing search papers and irritating Webmaster World mods. In fact I think they decided to make me a mod there, just to shut me up. Now I’m an owner or partner in several companies including Clientside SEM, and having a blast.

We’re going to be talking about local search, taking of your SEO hat for minute what type of searches do you do when your looking for things locally?

I moved to the SF Bay Area a couple of years ago, and with that came the need to find local resources. So I do a lot of searching for restaurants, home stuff, plumbing services, electronics stores, and so on. And maps of course. Wanna know something Michael? I hate local search. I instinctively start every fact finding effort by heading for my keyboard. What I’ve learned is: Keep an updated copy of the Yellow Pages nearby.

It’s just far more efficient using that book. With the book, my worst trouble is figuring out what category they’ve put a given product in. But the Web is a mess. Yes, the search engines are getting better with their local pages (though their maps are still bad compared to Mapquest). The aggregators or whatever you want to call them are getting better too, slowly. But the information is still so spotty and incomplete, and takes way too long to access and wade through it all. I can usually get what I need in a fraction of the time with the book.

OK, the local search interview is over.

Hey, not so fast, hehe. I don’t think local search is easy. From talking to people in a position to know, it’s tough to put together a database that accurately and comprehensively covers local markets across a broad array of categories, and stays current. And even when the facts are more or less present, there’s very little texture to what the engines show us.

But as a search marketer I see nothing but opportunity, precisely because everywhere I look there is inefficiency, poor quality, and insufficient information being made available. I’m involved with a number of sites that target local regions and markets, and as I’m sure you know, it’s not that hard to grab local traffic with good marketing and creative thinking. It involves everything from making sure sites have local addresses on appropriate pages whenever possible, to getting good coverage in local directories and authority sites, to PPC, to direct nav traffic.

The biggest problems I see with providing a good local search product are accurate and up-to-date data, thoroughness of the coverage, and texture of the information. The good news is, 2.0 is coming to the rescue. The shopping sites, for example, have been using simple user reviews and other user generated content to great effect. All of that content and opinion adds both credibility and searchable keywords. What needs to happen in local search is for leading sites to combine hard business data from every possible resource, with user input that brings richness, texture and trust to the experience. Then, worst case, even if a given local search page only partly covers its topic, but still offers up a few excellent providers, the user will be happy, and that will drive more merchants to that vehicle. Insider Pages is an example of this approach . AngiesList is another. You gotta love a site that has “wallpaper removal” as a pre-defined item on a drop down list of things to find in your area. These sites have a long way to go, but I think they keep getting better, and a few years out I see them at the leaders in this space, on the marketplace and aggregators end.

I see you’ve got a lot of marketing experience and work with medium and large sized companies. What are some good strategies for companies who are bigger than mom & pop shops, but still want to play smaller local SERP’s?

One of the most basic things for bigger companies with multiple bricks and mortar locations, is to get all of those locations onto spiderable pages. I makes me crazy how many high value sites are out there with tons of link juice, that don’t take advantage of this. Just adding complete addresses on their local/geo pages would snag them lots of highly targeted searches, even if just to drive people into the stores.

Also, I know for a fact now that the SE’s are actively looking for signals like addresses, for inclusion of that data into their local listings. So providing a page with an address, phone, etc., establishes the provider as a local SERP’s candidate, and also picks up lots of long tail searches in standard search. It’s about the closest thing there is to a no-brainer on the Web right now. It just kills me, how many searches some big chain hardware and home supply retailers are missing out on right now. Ugh.

On the more advanced end of the spectrum, I don’t think that most big and medium sized companies have given much thought to creating more of a presence on local authority sites via promotional efforts and partnering of various sorts. Web marketers just haven’t got there. Half of the big sites don’t even have their page titles right.

If I could I’d go out and buy every local chamber of commerce site on the Web. Hehe.

I also see from your bio that you also work with a lot of financial companies, are banks, brokerage houses, or financial consultants taking much an interest in local search at all?

Yes, the financial companies are starting to get it. Not all yet, but some. Plus, more and more are starting to ask questions. A lot of the big players have so many things to think about that they are just now starting to get their heads around the full potential of search marketing. Eighty percent of current SEO’s probably don’t get local search completely, me included. It’s still a sloppy, broken market. There are lots of CMO’s out there who barely understand the importance of keyword lists, let alone the intricacies of local search. So there’s a long learning curve in search engine marketing before you even start getting into local search – beyond frequently appearing geo targeted keywords, that is.

This relates to the whole organic versus PPC debate too. Thinking only about search marketing, many of the bigger marketers have been mainly just in PPC. But PPC margins are getting badly squeezed as the big money continues to pour in. Result? More and more marketers are turning to organic search, realizing that organic still offers huge potential. At Clientside, Aaron and I get queries all the time from PPC players who are starting to look at organic seriously, for the first time.

Why weren’t the big money types more interested in organic search before? Because, PPC is measurable, predictable and therefore easy for non-technical marketers to get their heads around. Spend X, make Y. In PPC, it’s down to how many tens of thousands of keywords you can generate, and how you can outfox competitors with copy tweaking, daypart selection, arbitrage and the like. But increasingly, it’s getting tougher to make a buck. I know three different CMO’s who’ve told me in the past several months that they’ve maxed out on PPC keywords and are looking at opening stealth sites just to be able to grab more bidding spots. Shhhhhh. I don’t advocate that.

Now let’s look at organic. Organic search is part science and research, part intuition, part experience, and greatly influenced by existing Web sites that are very often NOT easy to change. Organic search is therefore MUCH tougher for classically trained marketers to get involved with, and their heads around. What will happen if I spend ten thousand? A hundred thousand? We can make educated guesses, but there are tons of uncontrollable factors, from algo shifts to competitive activity to positive and negative buzz. I was really proud of one client recently when I literally saw the light bulb go on in his head, with respect to organic search. His comment was basically that, “organic search is like other forms of marketing in that we are only limited by our knowledge, experience and imagination.” That client is going to get to local search a lot sooner than most.

Looking into the future where do you see local search growing, and what role do you see mobile or other portable technologies playing?

I think if you’re on the desktop or laptop, it’s a battle between the search engines and sites like Insider Pages and AngiesList. From the advertiser side, forget about PPC. That will be what it will be, and soon it will be software battling software for pennies instead of dollars. But in organic, things haven’t even heated up yet.

I’m also intrigued by the technologies that allow portable devices to beep at you as you walk past a store that sells something you’ve indicated you’re looking for. Now that’s cool. I might even make an exception to my privacy restrictions for that.

What’s your number one tip for local businesses to make sure they are represented in local SERP’s for their keywords?

I’m sorry to sound so basic, but I have to, because I see the problem every week. Small businesses everywhere: Get a darned Web page! Ideally a unique domain with a little site. Worst case, at least a page on a larger local vertical directory of some sort, that you can control and change. On a higher level, start paying attention to click-to-call.

Thanks for the interview Scott, I’m looking forward to finally getting to sit down and chat with you at SES in New York. If you’re looking to get in touch with Scott for some SEO consulting contact him at Caveman SEO Consulting or Clientside SEM his new joint venture with Aaron Wall.


Tags: local+search, , scott+smith, caveman

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