Time to Reexamine hCard to Solve the Call Tracking Issue in Local

The Problem:

Call tracking is a valuable tool for business. With the advent of VOIP it has become very low cost and its benefits are available to even the smallest business.

The problem is that in Local it can cause much more harm than benefit in the current ecosystem. The use of call tracking numbers at directory or IYP sites can destroy a local business’s primary tool for gaining customers, Google Maps ranking. The negative affects can persist for a very long time in the Maps index. Thus most Local SEO practitioners strongly advise against its use.

The New Landscape:

The evolving semantic web has finally hit escape velocity. Google, providing real world validation of the concept, has announced their of support of hCard and microformats as a means of understanding which business a given web page is about. In that, lies a solution to the nagging problem of using call tracking numbers in Local.

The Solution:

The idea of using hCard to clarify and categorize a business phone number is not new. Chris Silver Smith  has already suggested it as a way to identify a canonical phone number using microformats that would work well.

A slight variation on the idea would be to add a specific definition to the hCard Standard to specify a number as a call tracking number. The hCard format has a property (tel) for telephone number to be defined as part of business listing. The standard also already supports a type product for further refining the type of phone number that is being referred to. Here are the current types of telephone numbers currently defined in the standard:

tel type: VOICE, home, msg, work, pref, fax, cell, video, pager, bbs, modem, car, isdn, pcs

It would seem that it should be a trivial task to indicate to Google and any other search engine scraping semantic content that a number is a call tracking number and not the main number and that it should be construed as such. The semantic markup could make it perfectly clear that the telephone number associated with a given business listing is not the canonical phone number and should not be used to categorize that particular listing. A simple additional type such as “ct” should do the trick.

<span class="tel"><span class="type">ct</span><span class="value"> +1.415.555.1212</span></span>

Regardless of the specific syntax, the difference now is that any solution suggested and agreed upon would be immediately able to be implemented and useful if Google buys into the idea. As Chris Silver Smith pointed out to me this does not solve all of the data integrity problems in Local:

One other aspect that this doesn’t solve is the issue of people using different tracking numbers for different directories which feed Google and other partners via delimited files — not HTML. So, it’d be cool to come up with an industry standard for that aspect of the issue as well.

Thus the use of a call tracking number in certain circumstances could still confuse Google. But one step at a time as they say.

The way forward:

According to Wikipedia the system for creating an add on type for the standard is very open:

Neither CommerceNet nor Microformats.org operates as a standards body. The microformats community functions through an open wiki, mailing list, and Internet relay chat (IRC) channel.[4] Most of the existing microformats were created at the Microformats.org wiki and the associated mailing list, by a process of gathering examples of web publishing behaviour, then codifying it.

Realistically this means that 1)there needs to be some industry input from both Local SEOs and Call Tracking industry at the Wiki to define the specifics and 2) the standard needs to be implemented. Google never likes to “predict a market” but if there is general agreement and usage Google needs to publicly acknowledge that they would read, understand and support the new type.

This simple addition to the standard would allow the keepers of primary local information to keep the record straight, it would open up the world of call tracking to be used by more businesses and in a greater range of situations and it would encourage the Local call tracking industry to refine and develop useful products for even the smallest SMB.

Now that Google has finally adopted rich snippet standards, it is time to make it work for everybody.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Time to Reexamine hCard to Solve the Call Tracking Issue in Local by

13 thoughts on “Time to Reexamine hCard to Solve the Call Tracking Issue in Local”

  1. Using semantic markup to allow a user’s calls to be tracked, while allowing search engines to know the canonical phone number on the backend would serve both needs.

    Unfortunately for call tracking service companies, most of us who recommend online marketing solutions for small businesses will strongly urge against the use of tracking numbers until this issue gets addressed one way or another.

  2. The main problem with this solution is that the burden is on the call-tracking providers AND the sites that are displaying their ads/listings/etc. to adopt this mechanism for publication…there’s no reason Javascript/un-alt-texted images couldn’t work either, but by and large I don’t think the call-tracking companies or the portals they’re feeding recognize the disservice they are doing to their advertisers by not implementing some kind of workaround.

    If a call-tracking company came out and said “in order to be part of our network we mandate that all partners implement an unindexable solution for our phone numbers” I’d be all for it. But it creates too much (unnecessary, from their perspective) IT red tape both for them and their distribution partners currently.

    I think even if the big search engines announced support for this kind of canonicalization of the phone number, it might take years before the important players in the space would get around to implementing it. It doesn’t affect their bottom line until their individual advertisers understand how important their NAP information is to their Local Search rankings.

  3. Great article, this has been something that needs to be dealt with for sometime now and is extremely frustrating for us to leverage.

    Little off topic, but I noticed that in the last week Google added something to the title in the SERP for one of the geo-targeted landing pages on our site. Before our page title they added “se portland -” so it now reads “se portland – original page title” we have hcards implemented on these pages, is that what could be causing this to happen? Does it maybe have something to do with their new “focus” on location in the SERPS? I Just noticed it within the last week, has anyone else seen this happen? It’s nice of them to do and all, but I don’t know how much I like Google determining the title of my SERP result, especially when they don’t even capitalize Portland. It is also now cutting off the end of OUR title, which could negatively effect CTR…

  4. I’m on the Microformats mailing list and recently enquired about businesses with multiple telephone numbers, i.e. dedicated line for sales, a separate number for customer service, technical etc.

    The solution to that seems to be the use of vcard agents.

    These are ‘agents’. You’d have a main vcard for the company () which along with the main contact (head office or switchboard perhaps?) then contains any number of children, each of which is another hCard, representing a different part of the company (organization-unit, or a person.) Since each agent is an hCard too, they can have phone numbers, addresses of their own.
    Ben Ward

  5. @David Mihm
    I wouldn’t say that it would take years to implement. Maybe you’re right considering some “dinosaurs”, but most local sites working for/with SMBs will sooner or later have to adopt, since full controll over ROI will always be a very good sales argument directed towards SMBs, who also gained much online-marketing knowledge in the last years… And technically, implementing microformats is not really a huge effort – not even in a big scale…

    Can you please post your site, since i really would like to see, what Google might manipulate there with the Title in the SERPs…


  6. I emphatically agree! Call tracking is the missing link in tracking & proving results. Of course some companies allow you to port over a number, but that comes with it’s own set of issues and what you’ve proposed is a much better solution.

  7. Hi, I notice this article is pretty old and am wondering if there’s been any update on this issue? Is it still dangerous for local businesses to use call tracking phone numbers? I hear plenty of SEO’s saying you have to track calls from the website to understand how the website is doing; then others say — can’t do it due to this issue.

    Is there a generally accepted way to deal with this?


  8. Mo, unfortunately there has not been any substantial change on this issue. The search engines seem insufficiently motivated to inact a solution, and the tracking companies typically are operating in a level of denial about it, or, worse, they are actively stating things that are untrue and advising risky approaches.

    Using a phone number on your site that’s a mismatch from what Google has in their local listings database for your business creates a risk that they’ll not recognize and associate your business with your local listing information. Even worse, it increases potential of a duplicate listing getting absorbed into their database, resulting in dilution of your ranking ability.

    The very hesitant, moderate stance I take is that if you really needed/wanted to track calls by source to figure out what channels work best for you, you could do it for a few months, no more than 3, and then revert everything back to your canonical, main local number. You’d then need to go back and check everywhere for a period of time to see if any doppelganger listings appear with the tracking number, and get those converted back to your main number as well. By doing this you could get a sample of traffic by referral source — and, that percentage is unlikely to change all that massively over time unless you have a change in your Google and Bing rankings.

    But, this is only really necessary if you’re doing paid advertising on various directory sites and want to see the relative value. Chances are you can figure out an estimate of how many calls they each send you based on how many website visits you receive from those same listings. You can get that through Google Analytics. You could do this without risking any harm at all of your rankings.

  9. Thanks Chris, I appreciate it. The thing is that my business model is based on the idea of only getting paid for results — i.e. traffic and phone calls. So….it would be really good if I could track those phone calls with certainty.

    What do you think of the idea of keeping the canonical number the same everywhere, including in the “about us” page on the website and maybe in the site footer — but — on various other pages have an image with the trackable phone number on it?


  10. And, I do understand this solution is limited as it won’t track calls from directory listings or even if someone sees the business info on google local and calls — since that will be the canonical number.

    But, it would pick up most calls from the website at least…

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