Category Archives: Local Search

General information about Local Search techniques, technology and trends

A Reason Not to Move to Canada?

Since starting blogging I have made a number of very good friends and often times get to meet these folks in person. The other benefit (?) is that I occasionally receive unsolicited gifts in the mail. Google sent me a very cool Nexus Phone and a coffee mug. Once I even got a box of 40 count potatoes (the source of all potato jokes… how big was it?…) from your favorite Idaho internet marketer.

Today, in the mail, this Mountie Hat showed up. Obviously a Canuck reader was trying to convince me that while there are possibly good reasons to move to Canada there are also reasons not to. To see why …. Continue reading

ReviewBiz – Making Reviews Friction Free

I am a big fan of an ethical review solicitation process that smooths the path between customers and creating reviews. If reviews are going to reflect the overall impression of your business accurately, a broad sampling of your customers needs to participate and it needs to be easy.

I think that the opportunity to easily leave these reviews should be available to all customers not just a select few. In the past, I have suggested that visitors to your website should be provided direct links to leave reviews at a range of popular review sites. I am also a big believer in free tools that make the job of the SMB and their web designer easier.

Brightlocal.com has just introduced such a tool: ReviewBiz. The tool automates the process of locating the relevant review site pages, generating the correct url for leaving the review and creates a widget so that these review links can quickly and easily be included on a website’s testimonial/review page. The tool is an admirable replacement for Michael Jensen’s Leavefeedback.org that unfortunately died in a server crash and was never revived.

The process as outlined on the BrightLocal site to create the widget for your website is quick and easy:

1. Select the country you are in – UK or US (it shows review sites for both countries)
2. Enter your business name & zipcode
3. Review the returned business listing details & confirm that they belong to your business
4. Choose the ReviewBiz widget style that you want to appear on your website
5. Pick the review sites that you want to include
5. Copy & paste the ReviewBiz code into your website

The result is a widget, offered in a choice of widths and two styles; one that offers a window shade drop down and the one shown below that provides a full view of the selected review sites:

Review 'blumenthals.com' with ReviewBiz local SEO tools from BrightLocal.com

As a new product, it still has a few minor quirks but generally works well. For example it sometimes included sites that I explicitely asked it to exclude (like Merchant Circle) and it could do a slightly better job of auto generating the URLs to take a user slightly closer to the actual input screen to leave the reviews. Myles Anderson of Brightlocal has noted that both issues would soon be fixed.

These are minor criticisms. It is valuable product that is presentable, facilitates customers leaving reviews and it is free. For the web designer it is a useful, readily usable product that significantly shortens the time to get the job done. For the SMB that is maintaining their own site, it automatically generates the necessary code and makes the job adding these links to your website easily doable.

As designers and small businesses let me know what you think of the tool. To test it simply select my Google link above and leave a review. :)

Google Places Search to IYPs – What is the Message? Go Microformats, Young Man!

There has been a lot of discussion* (David Mihm, Greg Sterling, Chris Silver Smith, Andrew Shotland) in the local search community about the meaning and impact of the new Places Search organo-local blending of results on IYPs, directories and Review sites. All interesting and all of value. Clearly there will be winners and loosers, clearly Yelp made out better than Superpages. But is Google passing judgement directly on the IYPs and their future?

I would contend not. To me the message from Google to all of these (and other) sites that want to be included in the Places Search results: Send us unique review content about local places. Google has plenty of directory information, they pretty much have figured out location information…. what they want now is reviews.

When you combine this “message” of more reviews with the recent announcements around supporting Rich Snippets in Places and supporting testimonials marked up in hReview format as reviews, the message becomes even more nuanced and is no longer directed at just the IYP sites: Send us your reviews about local places in semantically marked up syntax.

This message applies as much to the up and coming reputation management company that focuses on presenting microformated reviews like Customer Lobby as it does to the small real estate website that has taken the time to properly mark up their testimonial page. Google is saying that everyone, big and small, directory or newspaper, local or national can now play in this arena.

Google has democratized the sourcing of unique review content around Places and has highlighted it front and center with a link. All comers are welcome. You no longer need a unique special relationship with them like CitySearch or DemandForce have. Everyone can play.

But is this just about reviews? I would contend that going forward it will be about other unique, high level information about local businesses…. coupons, sales events, specials… as microformat standards evolve and as microformatted content becomes widely available.

If you are building a site that deals with local, include microformatting as an integral part of the plan now and for the future. Go deep rather than wide as quantity about specific businesses is what will land you on Google’s front page. Keep track of the rapidly evolving world of microformats and be sure to apply it to unique content whenever possible.

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* Others that have provided excellent high level overviews of Places Search but didn’t address the questions of Google’s “message” to IYPs:

Miriam Ellis – New Integrated Google Local A Game Changer
Matt McGee – 5 Quick Impacts of Google’s New Local Search Results

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.

Yelp.com & Unique Vistors: Would the Real Number Please Stand Up

While there may be some dispute about the origins of the saying: “there are three kinds of lies, lies, damned lies and statistics” there is little disagreement about its general truthfulness. It seems particularly appropriate in regard to Yelp’s unique visitors.

Yesterday Yelp.com announced at SMX East that they had 38 million uniques on the desktop and it picqued my curiosity. Yelp.com has done a great job of generating reviews and adding value around them and I have been following them over the years as both a user and a professional, watching thier efforts to move from a niche restaurant site in the major markets to a broad based general site. Have they moved out of the niche and into the mainstream? Certainly 38 million uniques would indicate so.

But I was curious for some verification of Yelp’s numbers so I went to Quantcast, Compete and Comscore to see if I could independantly confrim them. The results, far from enlightening, illustrate the many ways that unique visitors can be counted.

Source Yelp Uniques Chart (click to view larger)
Yelp 38 Million
ComScore 24 Million
Quantcast 12.6 Million
Compete 10.1 Million

Your thoughts?

Locksmith Mad as Hell -Sues AZ Attorney General to Enforce Law

The ALOA (Associated Locksmiths of America, the locksmith trade group) has recently posted the legal filing from a lawsuit initiated by a locksmith in Arizona. The complaint for violations of Arizona’s laws preventing misrepresentation of “the geographical origins or location of the person’s business” attempts to

1)Get an injunction against the offending locksmtih (Atlas Locksmith Soltuons among others) and

2)Require the attorney general to “take over the crimianl and consumer fraud aspects of the case

It is interesting that a local locksmith, in his frustration, is “going after” the attorney general to do their job of enforcing laws on the books. It will be interesting to see if he manages any success in either convincing the AG or perhaps embarrassing him to take on the case.

At the bottom of the filing it notes: Charley requests donation to his legal fund because he feels the expertise of an attorney is now needed.

It seems a little late in the process to think about hiring a lawyer but heck, better late than never. Good luck Chuck! For more information about Chuck’s quest you can visit his website.

From the filing: Continue reading

Old News But Interesting News: Merchant Circle Pays $900,00 To Settle Alleged Unlawful Marketing Practices

I spend a lot of time reading about and writing about the Local Search industry so I am not sure how this one slipped by. I was poking around the BBB of San Jose and came across a notice of government action indicating that Merchant Circle had settled an allegation of unlawful marketing practices from the Santa Clara District Attorney. A quick check showed that the settlement occurred in May of this year. From the release:

Agency: District Attorney
Description: NEWS RELEASE

MERCHANTCIRCLE PAYS $900,000
FOR UNLAWFUL MARKETING PRACTICES

Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores A. Carr announced today her office has settled a consumer protection lawsuit against WYBS, dba MerchantCircle, an internet social networking company for small businesses. The action arose out of an investigation by the District Attorney’s office.

The District Attorney alleged that from 2006 to 2008, MerchantCircle engaged in improper automated telemarketing campaigns which violated California “live voice” requirement for automated calls. Some of those calls also contained unverified statements that the MerchantCircle website had reviews, ratings, or video footage of the recipient business.

Without admitting wrongdoing, WYBS, dba MerchantCircle, consented to a judgment entered in Santa Clara County Superior Court requiring it to pay $700,000 in civil penalties and $50,000 in investigative costs. MerchantCircle with also pay $150,000 into the Consumer Protection Trust Fund, a trust used to fund investigation and prosecution of consumer protection law violations statewide. MerchantCircle cooperated with the investigation, has brought its telemarketing practices into compliance with California laws, and has agreed to implement additional procedures to ensure future compliance.

“These penalties should remind any business engaging in telemarketing in California that this state has strict laws requiring the use of an actual person to allow call recipients to ‘opt out’ of the message.” said District Attorney Dolores Carr.“These business are also placed on notice that any statements they make to consumers must be true and verified.”
Date of Action: 5/20/2010

Merchant Circle has been criticized here and elsewhere (here, here and here) over the years but complaints had been quiet of late. No wonder.

Yahoo Local Filled with Locksmith Spam

I look at Yahoo Local rarely and report on it even less. However, my lack of attention to it doesn’t mean that Locksmiths are not interested in playing there. And while this is old news, with Google Places having become a difficult place for them to play, locksmiths have moved on (for the most part) to the next easy pickings. I am sure that the exposure is not as great but a small fish is better than no fish at all and one can still marvel at their audacity.

Jeff Magner of Trumpet Local Media pointed out this search for watch repair in Boulder, co at Yahoo that turns up locksmith spam even in categories as unrelated as watch repair. When you do search on Locksmiths the results are “impressive” with the top 4 listings each showing more than 450 reviews each.

Since Yahoo’s algo so heavily favors review count, they appear to be in an arms race with number 3, Boulder Locksmith Service 24/7 having gathered over 400 reviews since the first of August… a clip of almost 7 reviews a day…. The number of their reviews alone amount to 1% of all households in Boulder. The top 4 listings have procured reviews from over 5% of the households. No small task that. :)

Obviously, as Jeff pointed out in his email, this decay doesn’t just affect the locksmith listings but has moved out and is polluting other categories as well. I recognize that Yahoo has other things on their plate. But unless they are going to proactively manage local they should be selling it off to Microsoft as well.

Google Places Coupons Now Integrating Coupons from CitySearch

It appears that Google is bulking up Places Pages with coupons from CitySearch. I had not seen any third party coupons in Places previously but according to Google the ability for “various partners to make coupons and other content available on the Place page has been available for some time”.

I ran across the coupon sharing when the owner of the La Quinta Inn Sedona in Arizona noted in the forums that:

I’ve got a citysearch coupon showing up in my coupons section. I did not authorize any city search coupon and it is a SCAM and its causing problems with customers because they are seeing this stay for $45 a night coupon valid through to sept 16th. IF this is what things are going to be like when you sign up for google places then no. I will end the account today I will not put up with crap like that. These are dishonest b/s scam ads that are placed in a coupon section knowing it will cause problems.

Obviously not all of the kinks are worked out just yet. CItyGrid has noted that: “The coupon in question was created and approved by La Quinta Resorts corporate offices via their digital advertising agency. All offers created by Citysearch are approved and authorized by advertisers before loaded in our system.”

One of the interesting points about the coupon from CitySearch is that it is created using the Open Graph Protocol, (although apparently that is not used by Google, see below) a microformat that was originally announced by Facebook in April. This is the first use of the protocol I have seen in Local (although I must say, I hadn’t been looking). The initial version of the protocol is based on RDFa and it allows for location & human readable addresses (although it is not clear that this coupon did so):

The Open Graph protocol supports the ability for you to specify location information for your object. This is useful if your object is for a business or anything else with a real-world location. You can specify location via latitude and longitude, a full address, or both. The property names used are defined within the Microformat hCard.

Whether Google is using the Open Graph format to insert the coupons is unclear. Citysearch sent me the following: We wanted to clarify that Google is not scraping our content; we provide them with a feed to our data.

Chris Silver Smith noted the following:

Citysearch is apparently a data partner with Google Maps, so it isn’t clear to me that these pieces of data are being harvested via the semantically-marked coupons on Citysearch — they could be getting fed via Google Maps’ partner data format protocols.

It’s possible that Google Maps could harvest Open Graph content, and I’d even expect it might well happen, considering Google’s desire to get Facebook data by hook or by crook.

However, unless we can find instances where Google Maps appears to be harvesting Open Graph data from someone who isn’t formally a partner, I’m not sure it’s happening yet. I could be wrong. I don’t know of a way to easily tell the difference between data harvested through parsing a semantically formatted page versus through a separate data format like XML. The resultant data is generally the same either way..

For a good summary of the history of RDF & microformats, how they play into the web of things and how the Facebook Open Graph format fits into all of that read Facebook Open Graph: A new take on semantic web.

Integrating Your Bike Into the Local Social World

I am an avid biker. A low tech, drive an old clunker, commute 9 miles on a back country road to work kind of biker. But a biker none the less. I really love my 33 minute commute along the Allegany River every day on my way to work.

Going home at the end of the day is another story. I would never (well mostly never) use something like the Copenhagen Wheel to power my way too work but I would definitely consider flicking that switch after a long day.

What is even more intrguing to me is their attempt to totally integrate the device with not just your bike but with your iPhone and your social network… I have trouble imagining myself ever checking in someplace but I can imagine my bike doing it on my behalf. The idea of switching the focus of the social activity from the person to the object with which they have an affinity is an interesting shift. It is a switch that many would find more comfortable than the idea of the self absorbed check in.

The types of data that would be accumulated to the network and the value of the interaction in the local environment would be immense. Ah the internet of things will be an interesting place indeed (assuming they work and are not just one more thing that in the end slows you down).