Posted by MiriamEllis

64% of 1,411 surveyed local business marketers agree that Google
is becoming the new “homepage” for local businesses. Via Moz
State
of Local SEO Industry Report

…but please don’t come away with the wrong storyline from
this statistic.

As local brands and their marketers watch Google play Trojan
horse, shifting from top benefactor to top competitor by replacing
former “free” publicity with paid packs, Local Service Ads,
zero-click SERPs, and related structures, it’s no surprise to see
forum members asking, “Do I even need a website anymore?”

Our answer to this question is,“Yes, you’ve never needed a
website more than you will in 2019.” In this post, we’ll
examine:

  • Why it looks like local businesses don’t need websites
  • Statistical proofs of why local businesses need websites now
    more than ever
  • The current status of local business websites and most-needed
    improvements

How Google stopped bearing so many gifts

Within recent memory, a Google query with local intent brought
up a big pack of ten nearby businesses, with each entry taking the
user directly to these brands’ websites for all of their next
steps. A modest amount of marketing effort was rewarded with a
shower of Google gifts in the form of rankings, traffic, and
conversions.

Then these generous SERPs shrank to seven spots, and then three,
with the mobile sea change thrown into the bargain and consisting
of layers and layers of Google-owned interfaces instead of
direct-to-website links. In 2018, when we rustle through the
wrapping paper, the presents we find from Google look cheaper,
smaller, and less magnificent.

Consider these five key developments:

1) Zero-click mobile SERPs

This slide from a recent presentation by Rand Fishkin
encapsulateshis
findings regarding the growth of no-click SERPs
between
2016–2018. Mobile users have experienced a 20% increase in
delivery of search engine results that don’t require them to go
any deeper than Google’s own interface.

2) The encroachment of paid ads into local packs

When Dr. Peter J. Myers surveyed 11,000 SERPs in 2018, he found
that
35% of competitive local packs feature ads
.

3) Google becoming a lead gen agency

At last count, Google’s Local Service Ads program via which
they interposition themselves as the paid lead gen agent between
businesses and consumers has taken over
23 business categories in 77 US cities
.

4) Even your branded SERPs don’t belong to you

When a user specifically searches for your brand and your Google
Knowledge Panel pops up, you can likely cope with the long-standing
“People Also Search For” set of competitors at the bottom of
it. But that’s not the same as Google allowing
Groupon to advertise at the top of your KP
, or putting lead gen
from
Doordash and GrubHub
front and center to nickel and dime you on
your own customers’ orders.

5) Google is being called the new “homepage” for local
businesses

As highlighted at the beginning of this post, 64% of marketers
agree that Google is becoming the new “homepage” for local
businesses. This concept,
coined by Mike Blumenthal
, signifies that a user looking at a
Google Knowledge Panel can get basic business info, make a phone
call, get directions, book something, ask a question, take a
virtual tour, read microblog posts, see hours of operation, thumb
through photos, see busy times, read and leave reviews. Without
ever having to click through to a brand’s domain, the user may be
fully satisfied.

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too
little.”
– Epicurus

There are many more examples we could gather, but they can all
be summed up in one way: None of Google’s most recent local
initiatives are about driving customers to brands’ own websites.
Local SERPs have shrunk and have been re-engineered to keep users
within Google’s platforms to generate maximum revenue for Google
and their partners.

You may be as philosophical as Epicurus about this and say that
Google has every right to be as profitable as they can with their
own product, even if they don’t really need to siphon more
revenue off local businesses. But if Google’s recent trajectory
causes your brand or agency to conclude that websites have become
obsolete in this heavily controlled environment, please keep
reading.

Your website is your bedrock

“65% of 1,411 surveyed marketers observe strong correlation
between organic and local rank.” – Via Moz State of Local
SEO Industry Report

What this means is that businesses which rank highly organically
are very likely to have high associated local pack rankings. In the
following screenshot, if you take away the directory-type
platforms, you will see how the brand websites ranking on page 1
for “deli athens ga” are also the two businesses that have made
it into Google’s local pack:

How often do the top 3 Google local pack results also have a 1st
page organic rankings?

In a small study, we looked at 15 head keywords across 7 US
cities and towns. This yielded 315 possible entries in Google’s
local pack. Of that 315, 235 of the businesses ranking in the local
packs also had page 1 organic rankings. That’s a 75% correlation
between organic website rankings and local pack presence.

*It’s worth noting that where local and organic results did
not correlate, it was sometimes due the presence of spam GMB
listings, or to mystery SERPs that did not make sense at first
glance — perhaps as a result of Google testing, in some
cases.

Additionally, many local businesses are not making it to the
first page of Google anymore in some categories because the organic
SERPs are inundated with best-of lists and directories. Often,
local business websites were pushed down to the second page of the
organic results. In other words, if spam, “best-ofs,” and
mysteries were removed, the local-organic correlation would likely
be much higher than 75%.

Further, one recent study found that even when Google’s Local
Service Ads are present,
43.9% of clicks went to the organic SERPs
. Obviously, if you
can make it to the top of the organic SERPs, this puts you in very
good CTR shape from a purely organic standpoint.

Your takeaway from this

The local businesses you market may not be able to stave off the
onslaught of Google’s zero-click SERPs, paid SERPs, and lead gen
features, but where “free” local 3-packs still exist, your very
best bet for being included in them is to have the strongest
possible website. Moreover, organic SERPs remain a substantial
source of clicks.

Far from it being the case that websites have become obsolete,
they are the firmest bedrock for maintaining free local SERP
visibility amidst an increasing scarcity of opportunities.

This calls for an industry-wide doubling down on organic metrics
that matter most.

Bridging the local-organic gap

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is
not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

A 2017 CNBC survey found that
45% of small businesses have no website
, and, while most large
enterprises have websites, many local businesses qualify as
“small.”

Moreover, a recent audit of 9,392 Google My Business listings
found that
27% have no website link
.

When asked which one task 1,411 marketers want clients to devote
more resources to, it’s no coincidence that 66% listed a
website-oriented asset. This includes local content development,
on-site optimization, local link building, technical analysis of
rankings/traffic/conversions, and website design as shown in the
following Moz survey graphic:

In an environment in which websites are table stakes for
competitive local pack rankings, virtually all local businesses not
only need one, but they need it to be as strong as possible so that
it achieves maximum organic rankings.

What makes a website strong?

The Moz
Beginner’s Guide to SEO
offers incredibly detailed guidelines
for creating the best possible website. While we recommend that
everyone marketing a local business read through this in-depth
guide, we can sum up its contents here by stating that strong
websites combine:

  • Technical basics
  • Excellent usability
  • On-site optimization
  • Relevant content publication
  • Publicity

For our present purpose, let’s take a special look at those
last three elements.

On-site optimization and relevant content publication

There was a time when on-site SEO and content development were
treated almost independently of one another. And while local
businesses will need a make a little extra effort to put their
basic contact information in prominent places on their websites
(such as the footer and Contact Us page), publication and
optimization should be viewed as a single topic. A modern strategy
takes all of the following into account:

  • Keyword and real-world research tell a local business what
    consumers want
  • These consumer desires are then reflected in what the business
    publishes on its website, including its homepage, location landing
    pages, about page, blog and other components
  • Full reflection of consumer desires includes ensuring that
    human language (discovered via keyword and real-world research) is
    implemented in all elements of each page, including its tags,
    headings, descriptions, text, and in some cases, markup

What we’re describing here isn’t a set of disconnected
efforts. It’s a single effort that’s integral to researching,
writing, and publishing the website. Far from stuffing keywords
into a tag or a page’s content, focus has shifted to building
topical authority in the eyes of search engines like Google by
building an authoritative resource for a particular consumer
demographic. The more closely a business is able to reflect
customers’ needs (including the language of their needs), in
every possible component of its website, the more relevant it
becomes.

A hypothetical example of this would be a large medical clinic
in Dallas. Last year, their phone staff was inundated with basic
questions about flu shots, like where and when to get them, what
they cost, would they cause side effects, what about side effects
on people with pre-existing health conditions, etc. This year, the
medical center’s marketing team took a look at Moz Keyword Explorer and saw that
there’s an enormous volume of questions surrounding flu
shots:

This tiny segment of the findings of the free keyword research
tool, Answer the Public,
further illustrates how many questions people have about flu
shots:

The medical clinic need not compete nationally for these topics,
but at a local level, a page on the website can answer nearly every
question a nearby patient could have about this subject. The page,
created properly, will reflect human language in its tags,
headings, descriptions, text, and markup. It will tell all patients
where to come and when to come for this procedure. It has the
potential to cut down on time-consuming phone calls.

And, finally, it will build topical authority in the eyes of
Google to strengthen the clinic’s chances of ranking well
organically… which can then translate to improved local
rankings.

It’s important to note that keyword research tools typically
do not reflect location very accurately, so research is typically
done at a national level, and then adjusted to reflect regional or
local language differences and geographic terms, after the fact. In
other words, a keyword tool may not accurately reflect exactly how
many local consumers in Dallas are asking “Where do I get a flu
shot?”, but keyword and real-world research signals that this
type of question is definitely being asked. The local business
website can reflect this question while also adding in the
necessary geographic terms.

Local link building must be brought to the fore of publicity
efforts

Moz’s industry survey found that more than one-third of
respondents had no local link building strategy in place.
Meanwhile, link building was listed as one of the top three tasks
to which marketers want their clients to devote more resources.
There’s clearly a disconnect going on here. Given the fundamental
role links play in building Domain Authority, organic rankings, and
subsequent local rankings, building strong websites means bridging
this gap.

First, it might help to examine old prejudices that could cause
local business marketers and their clients to feel dubious about
link building. These most likely stem from link spam which has
gotten so out of hand in the general world of SEO that Google has
had to penalize it and filter it to the best of their ability.

Not long ago, many digital-only businesses were having a heyday
with paid links, link farms, reciprocal links, abusive link anchor
text and the like. An online company might accrue thousands of
links from completely irrelevant sources, all in hopes of
escalating rank. Clearly, these practices aren’t ones an ethical
business can feel good about investing in, but they do serve as an
interesting object lesson, especially when a local marketer can
point out to a client, that best local links are typically going to
result from real-world relationship-building.

Local businesses are truly special because they serve a
distinct, physical community made up of their own neighbors. The
more involved a local business is in its own community, the more
naturally link opportunities arise from things like local:

  • Sponsorships
  • Event participation and hosting
  • Online news
  • Blogs
  • Business associations
  • B2B cross-promotions

There are so many ways a local business can build genuine
topical and domain authority in a given community by dint of the
relationships it develops with neighbors.

An excellent way to get started on this effort is to look at
high-ranking local businesses in the same or similar business
categories to discover what work they’ve put in to achieve a
supportive backlink profile. Moz Link Intersect is an extremely
actionable resource for this
, enabling a business to input its
top competitors to find who is linking to them.

In the following example, a small B&B in Albuquerque looks
up two luxurious Tribal resorts in its city:

Link Intersect then lists out a blueprint of opportunities,
showing which links one or both competitors have earned. Drilling
down, the B&B finds that Marriott.com is linking to both Tribal
resorts on an Albuquerque things-to-do page:

The small B&B can then try to earn a spot on that same page,
because it hosts lavish tea parties as a thing-to-do. Outreach
could depend on the B&B owner knowing someone who works at the
local Marriott personally. It could include meeting with them in
person, or on the phone, or even via email. If this outreach
succeeds, an excellent, relevant link will have been earned to
boost organic rank, underpinning local rank.

Then, repeat the process. Aristotle might well have been
speaking of link building when he said we are what we repeatedly do
and that excellence is a habit. Good marketers can teach customers
to have excellent habits in recognizing a good link opportunity
when they see it.

Taken altogether

Without a website, a local business lacks the brand-controlled
publishing and link-earning platform that so strongly influences
organic rankings. In the absence of this, the chances of ranking
well in competitive local packs will be significantly less. Taken
altogether, the case is clear for local businesses investing
substantially in their websites.

Acting now is actually a strategy for the future

“There is nothing permanent except change.”
– Heraclitus

You’ve now determined that strong websites are fundamental to
local rankings in competitive markets. You’ve absorbed numerous
reasons to encourage local businesses you market to prioritize care
of their domains. But there’s one more thing you’ll need to be
able to convey, and that’s a sense of urgency.

Right now, every single customer you can still earn from
a free local pack listing is immensely valuable for the
future.

This isn’t a customer you’ve had to pay Google for, as you
very well might six months, a year, or five years from now. Yes,
you’ve had to invest plenty in developing the strong website that
contributed to the high local ranking, but you haven’t paid a
penny directly to Google for this particular lead. Soon, you may be
having to fork over commissions to Google for a large portion of
your new customers, so acting now is like insurance against future
spend.

For this to work out properly, local businesses must take the
leads Google is sending them right now for free, and convert them
into long-term, loyal customers, with an ultimate value of multiple
future transactions without Google as a the middle man. And if
these freely won customers can be inspired to act as word-of-mouth
advocates for your brand, you will have done something substantial
to develop a stream of non-Google-dependent revenue.

This offer may well expire as time goes by. When it comes to the
capricious local SERPs, marketers resemble the Greek philosophers
who knew that change is the only constant. The Trojan horse has
rolled into every US city, and it’s a gift with a questionable
shelf life. We can’t predict if or when free packs might become
obsolete, but we share your concerns about the way the wind is
blowing.

What we can see clearly right now is that websites will be
anything but obsolete in 2019. Rather, they are the building blocks
of local rankings, precious free leads, and loyal revenue,
regardless of how SERPs may alter in future.

For more insights into where local businesses should focus in
2019, be sure to explore the Moz State of Local SEO industry
report:

Read
the State of Local SEO industry report

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