Scammers, black hat marketers, underhand tactics, pranksters etc, have unfortunately all been a part of the SEO industry, for quite some time. Local search is just as vulnerable, and it’s a problem that’s exacerbated by the growing complexity of the sector.
According to the Local Search Association (LSA) headquartered in the US, “on average, small businesses receive 24 sales calls each month from someone trying to sell them advertising or marketing services. In many cases these sales reps make lofty or misleading claims. As a result, business owners don’t know which marketing providers they can trust.”
It’s becoming increasingly tricky for local businesses to understand the intricacies that make up local SEO, and likewise for marketers to explain the scope of work they need to undertake. Google local SEO ranking factors and algorithms, for example, have grown exponentially over the past couple of years. Keywords, once the main way for a marketer to get a client’s website to the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs), is now a declining practice, rapidly being replaced with semantic (or intent-based) search. Voice search is booming and predicted to account for 50% of all search queries by 2020. It’s a landscape that’s continually shifting, and the promise of getting a client to the top of the charts is no longer as straightforward as it used to be. In many ways this creates further opportunity for small local businesses to be exploited by unethical marketers.
For the future of the industry, and local search particularly, it’s critical that marketers are careful to practice local SEO ethically. Here are a few reasons why we believe it’s an issue that is growing in importance, which local businesses need to be aware of…
Google isn’t the only player
For quite some time, talks regarding local SEO generally focused on Google optimisation. However, today Bing is bigger than ever and with Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Facebook search all offering strong competition, and ranking high on other search engines can be just as important as Google.
However, promising to maintain a competitive edge and market presence for a client across all of these search engines is unrealistic. The big players have differing standards, algorithms and shifting policies, and what works for one, won’t necessarily work for another. It’s important that marketers make this clear to local businesses and are honest about there being no easy fix.
Voice search is booming and transforming SEO
Traditional search taught us to communicate with search engines in crude, keyword-heavy phrases; a far cry from natural speech. But voice search is changing this and increasingly moving towards conversational and intent-based language, involving proper questions and answers.
It’s critical that local business move away from keyword-laden copy, and instead make sure their website incorporates natural language. So the focus is to write for humans first, and search engines second. Since digital assistants often read web copy aloud in response to a user query, it’s important that copy reads well, is clear and makes good sense. This marks a big departure from how local businesses have traditionally understood SEO, and it’s the responsibility of marketers to bring them up to speed.
Critically, local businesses need to be wary of marketers offering average content. Compelling, well-written content utilising natural language is nowadays of utmost importance, supported by video, audio and images, etc.
Desktop optimisation holds little relevance
It’s easy for local businesses to still think in terms of desktop optimisation when it comes to SEO, and this education gap can be tempting for less ethical marketers to exploit. However the fact is that we’ve long-ago moved to a mobile-first world, where mobile search has far surpassed desktop queries. All local SEO programmes should be focused on creating content that is well optimised for mobile devices. Marketers who fail to evolve and prioritise mobile are cheating their clients.
Local SEO spam tactics are an ongoing battle
The number of businesses that violate Google My Business terms and yet continue to win in the SERPs, is growing. The problem is widespread, and in some cases, local businesses are even suing Google for fake business listings. Currently the biggest problem in Google’s algorithm is the amount of weight it puts into a business name, and particularly those containing keywords or locations. More and more businesses (and marketers) are blatantly creating fake company names and successfully ranking within the Google three-pack, and completely fake business listings are just as rife. It can be tempting to fight back with equally understand practices, and this is why it’s so important that marketers are careful to promote only ethical practices. It’s critical that local businesses only work with marketers who stay constantly up-to-date with the Google My Business guidelines, and are careful to follow them.
Ultimately, what this teaches us is that there is no quick and easy win. Local SEO is only likely to become more complex, and keeping it ethical is critical for the future of the industry.