Encouraging Google +1 votes For Local Business Websites

Search has been going through changes. Lots of changes. A search ranking position is no longer a number as much as it is a probability within a range. Localization, personalization, search history, logged in or out Google users, mobile device users – from one searcher to the next your position in the search results will vary considerably.

Now enter “Search Plus your World“. Google’s latest big shake up in the search ranking algorithm. Here Google is looking at social media clues, specifically through it’s own social network Google Plus. In a nutshell, if you are a Google Plus user and do a search while logged into your Google account you may see some results from pages people in your network have shared in G+ or have clicked on a +1 button for that page. Those pages, regardless of how they ranked without these social clues, will now rank much more favorably for that searcher. Plus the searcher will see icons of the people in their network who have +1′d that page. In other words, people they know have already vouched for that page/site.

Search result with Google + notice

This will become important for local businesses. As Google + use grows, and now that they inject this stuff into the search results it’ll get more exposure and see more growth, average users will mainly have networks of friends and family and those networks will be predominantly local.

As a local business you want to encourage mainly locals to be plus 1 voting on your pages. This will cause your search results to be favored for more and more local searches by local people logged into a Google account.

Forget the new schemes popping up to buy hundreds of plus 1 votes. Those will be meaningless to a local business as it is very likely nobody in that network are local to that business. That and it is likely a manufactured network just to sell +1’s in bulk so again the people within the circles of those accounts are not likely to be local either.

Here are some ways to encourage +1 action on your small business website.

Place +1 Buttons on Every Page of Your Site

This is a no-brainer. Most of us have seen the proliferation of Facebook Like buttons, Tweet This buttons and now the Google +1 button. Place these in a prominent place like your header or near the top of a sidebar. Simply having them on your pages means some people may actually click them. As a small local business it is likely the bulk of your website traffic is local, so most the +1’s you obtain will be locals.

An example is this website I just put together for a friend who is a painting contractor in Kelowna, BC (it was a Christmas gift from his wife and myself :) ). You’ll see +1 and FB like buttons in the header area just below the phone number. These appear on every page.

Use this tool to generate Plus One buttons

Include the +1 Button with a Message in your Contact Form Thank You Pages

If a user lands on a thank you page after submitting a form (or making an ecommerce purchase) you’ve just had a conversion. Yay for conversions! Now that user is a special user, they’ve made an action that makes them more connected to your business. This person is probably more likely to take an extra action to share you on their network. Show them a special message on that thank you page about sharing your link in Google+, Facebook and/or Twitter.

Be sure to set your buttons here to share your home page, not your thank you page. When creating a +1 button use the Advanced options to set that button for a specific page.

Here’s a screen shot of the painters thank you page with a section about sharing.

Google Plus One buttons on thank you page

The thank you page could also include links to your social media profiles, if your business has them (this painter does not, yet), and ask for a follow on FB or Twitter and an add to Circles on Google +.

Include a Message About Sharing your Link in Thank You Emails

Are you collecting customer emails and sending them a little thank you note after doing business with them? You should, or try to as much as you can (not everyone wants to give you their email addy). These thank you emails are great places to be asking for online reviews with links out to your Google Places listing, Yelp listing and maybe a couple other local review websites. Some of your customers may take action from those emails and go leave you a coveted review.

Besides reviews you should now be placing links to your social media profiles and asking for the share, like, tweet or +1. Some may take action.

Create a Google + Profile for your Business

Google has now opened up Plus to businesses and brands. Set up a business profile here. Once you have a plus account for your local business go about building circles and try to add locals.

Link to your Social Profiles in your Email Signature

Are you using an email signature? You should. It should have your name, phone number and website address at a minimum. It should also link to your Google Plus profile, Facebook page, and/or Twitter page. Below is a screen shot of my current email signature.

Social Profile links in email signature

These are just a few simple ways to give more exposure to Google Plus buttons for your website. Over time people will slowly click those buttons and you will expand your local reach in personalized social search. It likely won’t be long before Google Places listings become more integrated into Google Plus and those listings become social profiles for local businesses.

Like it or not, Google Plus will become more of a contender in the Social space. By placing these Plus signals right into search results Google is becoming very aggressive about promoting its social network and have decided that beating Facebook is worth selling their soul. Expect it to have an impact in local search too.

If you have more ideas on how to encourage more +1ing for local businesses be sure to add them in the comments below.

Google Maps as Entertainment – Story Telling with Street View

Have you spent hours cruising through Google Maps? Looking at, or for, features and landmarks near your home or places you’ve been, or places you wish to go? Have you used street view to take a stroll down your home street? The streets of places you’ve lived in the past? The streets of where you may visit or live next? I know I’ve don’t all that and more with Google Maps.

It’s fun and a great way to kill time. Both productive time killing and unproductive time killing. As a location based internet marketing guy I’m a full on map geek. There are many more like me.

One other group of geeks know how to make a movie and tell a story, and it seems they like to play with Google Maps too. Take a look at this amazing stop motion animation short film made with Google Maps Street View imagery.

Address Is Approximate from The Theory on Vimeo.

Be sure to click the little expansion button to view it in full screen. Watch it a few times, it’s worth it.

Blogging as a Content Strategy for Local SEO? – You’re Doing it Wrong!

I just read a great post by Yousaf Sekander, a local SEO colleague based in the UK. He was speaking about the conundrum faced by many small businesses who’s expertise is in running their business, not in being a blogger and spewing out content to satisfy the search engines and that silly internet mantra of “content is king”.

Think about it, what is the prerequisite of being a good locksmith or a mechanic or a painter decorator? Is the prerequisite being “good content” creators? I don’t think so.

I know this is an issue many small local business owners struggle with. I’ve had this conversation over and over with clients. They don’t know where to start with blogging, nor are they sure they have the time. Not to mention the fact that they get inundated with bad advice on the topic of how to blog for their business.

Now, I originally was going to write this as a comment on Yousaf’s post but it got long winded and I felt it deserved to be a full blog post instead. It’ll also illustrate my point better as a stand alone post. Read on.

Hello – You’re Blogging to the Wrong People

Where most local businesses fail on content generation (additional blog content – not the home page, services, about us, and contact pages) is targeting the wrong audience.

Take the locksmith example. Typical blog posts you’ll often see might be things like;

  • 5 things to ask before hiring a locksmith
  • How to recognize a reputable locksmith
  • The Chicago locksmiths people trust most is AAA Locksmiths, LLC
  • just another self promotional fluffy fluff blog post, powered by wordpress

What these locksmiths, or their hired gun seo’s, don’t realize is NOBODY CARES. Really they don’t. You see the same crappy stuff over and over from plumbers, lawyers, or just about any local business trying to go down the content creation route. Boring topics. Crappy writing. Keyword stuffing. They’re just doing it wrong.

Don’t blog to customers, they don’t care. Is your average Joe local customer gonna come back and read a locksmith’s, or plumber’s blog again and again? Will they subscribe to the RSS feed for that? Pfft! Fat chance of that.

Who Then is Your Blog Audience?

I tell most my clients, those that are thinking about going down the blogging road, the blog should be a separate portion of the site and is primarily NOT a marketing channel. Instead it is an authority building tool that should be directed to their peers, not their customers.

Blog about the industry you are in. Trends, changes, challenges in marketing, hiring, taxation, regulations, education, etc… It is the professional development arm of your website. Engage primarily with others in your industry (maybe not those in your immediate competitive local, but that rule is not set in stone).

This kind of approach will make that locksmith a better locksmith and a better business person through information exchange with others in the same industry. It’ll foster link building far better than the crappy self promotional blogging that nobody wants to link to, at least not naturally link to. Others in your industry who are blogging, serious industry blogging not crappy self promo blogging, can be engaged, linked too, and they may link back as well. Industry level controversies may get covered by the press. If you’re at the forefront of blogging about those issues you may get a mention, and possibly a link from a local, regional, state or even national newspaper, or a prominent industry website, or even government website.

I stumbled across a rather stellar example of this recently. The people at Energy Vanguard, an HVAC training, consulting and design firm in Decatur, GA are doing a top notch job of blogging about technical issues and standards for high performance and energy efficient home cooling and heating. Their home page is a common Page Rank 3 yet their blog page is a PR5 – that’s link authority for you!

Look at a few of their posts and check out whose commenting – other HVAC professionals from around North America. Look at the content of the posts. Often quite technical stuff – not quite what the average homeowner in need of a new HVAC system needs, or even wants, to actually know. And it’s working for them. Check out what they wrote about blogging over the past year and half, what they learned and how it’s been great for business.

Freshness is a Stale SEO Tactic

I hear fresh content mentioned as an SEO factor far too often. I don’t believe it! Well, not entirely.

A new blog post can get some extra ranking love for its freshness, but freshness wears off – rather quickly. And that blog post is not ranking for the primary search terms customers are using to find a local business. In the case of a locksmith, or any other kind of local business (landscaper, painter, lawyer, dentist, plumber, restaurant, etc…..) it is usually the home page of the website that is ranking for these primary terms. Separate internal service pages may target other offshoot phrase variants and related business services. These static pages can rank and continue to rank for years and years without ever so much as a single edit, providing they are worthy of ranking in the first place (good on-page SEO, keyworded anchor text linking to them, domain age, etc…). A fresh blog post just won’t be outranking those pages for those kinds of terms.

It’s in the long tail you may see a blog post get great rankings the day of posting it only to see it slowly slip away, to where it actually deserves to rank in the grander scheme of things, over the next days and weeks.

So if you’re thinking you need a blog on your local business website solely for satisfying the “freshness requirement of SEO” and that it’s somehow going to help you rank better for your primary search terms just because it’s fresh, well, you’re probably wasting your time.

Oh, I See What you Did There

Dear reader, let me guess, you are probably a fellow SEO practitioner, most likely in the local search marketing space. I’d bet money on it. I’d probably win that bet far greater than 50% of the time, making it a profitable bet. Why? Because my audience here on my blog is mostly other SEO’s. Look at all the other prominent SEO blogs out there. Who is reading them? Who is commenting? Who is sharing links to those posts on twitter? Who is taking the discussion further on their own blogs, and linking back to their sources of inspiration for the topic? It’s other SEO’s!

My blog builds my authority in the industry. It’s mostly other SEO’s that interact with my posts here. I gain a few links here and there that way too. These are internal links to the specific blog posts, but that link juice flows through the site and in turn helps my service pages rank for terms my potential customers can find me with. Some customers, small business owners looking to hire an SEO, mention that they checked out the site and even looked at some blog posts. They didn’t actually read them so much as just scanned through them. The content of the blog posts is often over their head but those that mention it say it seems like I know what I’m talking about. And that’s authority, real authority that goes beyond what Google interprets as authority based on link profiles.

See, this is why I ended up writing this as a post instead of a comment. Yousaf got himself a couple links out of it. I might too. There’ll be a few comments from some of my local seo colleagues, and it’ll make the rounds on Twitter for a bit. There’s a good chance the majority of potential customers that find my website will never read this post, and that’s just fine. I’m not really blogging to them anyways.

Why Details in Google Places Pages Should Be Essential Content.

Yesterday I ordered pizza for home delivery. I turned to my smartphone, dialed up Google, clicked the Restaurants icon as a short cut into Places, searched for “pizza” and scrolled through the results.

I was on a mission to find a new pizza joint. My long time favorite independent pizzeria had shut down recently and after a spattering of trying the big national chains (I had been taking advantage of coupons that arrived in the mail) I had enough of mediocre pizza.

The search results are dominated by the big chains (Domino’s are very active in the local SEO space and kill it in many cities across the US and Canada) so I had to do some scrolling and investigating. Sorry Domino’s but your SEO skills were not enough to persuade me.

A couple prospects looked interesting and some others I was not sure about. Clicking through to the Places profile should give me some info like – do they deliver? Do they service my end of town? Basic stuff you’d want to know from a pizzeria. But that info was nowhere to be found. Seems Google, in it’s infinite wisdom has decided, with the recent cosmetic update of Google Places profile pages, that descriptive text was no longer of value to users. I beg to differ.

One result, D’Agostino Italian, I was not sure if they were just a sit in restaurant that happened to also make pizza. My wife and I thought that was the case but were not sure, and Google was telling me nothing other than a Name, Address and Phone Number (NAP). The listing is claimed and verified by the owner, but there is no link to a website, they must not have one. I bet the info I wanted used to be there on the profile page.

In the end I chose Canadian 2 for 1 Pizza, a smaller regional chain. Listing off names to my wife she recalled that Bill, downstairs neighbor, usually orders from them. Google was not supplying enough info to make a decision on my own. It required the collective wisdom of me and my wife with Google only giving us a long list of names and phone numbers. Are we almost back to the basics of mere phone books again?

So there, a perfect everyday example of why Google should be keeping the descriptions, and likely the additional info fields for display on Places pages.

Apparently the basic descriptions missing is just a bug still being worked on. But also MIA, and likely for good are “more about this place” citations, 3rd party reviews, even email addresses, service areas, menus and other additional details fields. What is all this? A cleanup before Google+ integration, a flex of muscle to squeeze out other big boys in the local space, or preparations for paid inclusion? Perhaps all of the above.

I’m all for clean design, minimalism and lots of white space to make web pages more user friendly, but when you remove essential information, information users rely on to make decisions, what then has a re-design accomplished?

Paying for Directions – Is it a Money Grab by Google?

Paying for Directions

Google has officially announced that it will now be charging for directions in Adwords where advertisers have location extensions activated for their ads. Myself and all my clients got the email notice today. Needless to say my clients are asking how it will effect them.

Honestly, I’m left scratching my head over the value of this to advertisers.

How Do You Track It?

Google will be reporting those clicks via the click type segment. Fine, we can track the clicks. But from that point what are you tracking? How do you gauge how many of those clicks where a user wanted to see directions to your location actually end up at your door. Off hand I can’t think of any way to track that. It’ll be the mystery ROI. Which is great for, as Google puts it in the email, helping you meet your marketing goals.

Every marketer knows that invisible goals are the best goals. amiright?

How Do You Turn it Off While Keeping Other Parts of Location Extensions?

Location extensions are great. From my testing they significantly improve click through rates as the ads appear even more local, thus relevant, to the user. This for normal web clicks to a landing page. Plus it shows phone numbers which can entice a few phone calls. Particularly in mobile ads the click to call functionality of those ads for smartphone users is a very significant part of mobile PPC. The juicy part even.

But what if you wanted to opt out of directions? It looks like you can’t. Either use location extensions or don’t.

What About Services that Come to You?

Plumbers, painters, air conditioning contractors, carpet cleaners, pool cleaners, taxi cabs, etc… There are all kinds of service based businesses where users have zero need for directions to the business location. Granted it should mean very few ever ask for directions to those kinds of businesses. But clicks will happen and they will be a complete and utter waste of money for those advertisers.

I wonder how this applies to businesses that have defined a service area in their places account AND have chosen to hide their address. Is that what it will take to disable the directions clicks?

Is it Simply a Money Grab for Google Adsense?

How will I be charged for “directions” clicks?

Over the next few weeks, “directions” clicks will be charged the same as a click on your ad’s headline. In general, “direction” clicks are a small proportion of the ad clicks, and we do not anticipate this change will have a significant impact on your account’s total cost.

I think, in my cynical mind, what they really mean to say is : Don’t worry about it. In general, it’ll only cost you a few bucks here and there. But there are millions of you, and that adds up to millions of dollars, here and there, for us.

We’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out. I’ll be paying close attention to my clients PPC accounts to see how many direction clicks they get.

Anyone else have thoughts and opinions on the new direction clicks? Comment form below is for commenting. AND your comments can be longer than 140 characters!!! (that’s a hint you should be contributing to the conversation here and not on twitter.)

Photo via Flickr by Ian Ransley Design & Illustration in San Francisco

The Power of Meta Descriptions

A long held belief amongst SEOs is that meta descriptions, on their own, have no bearing on search rankings. I believe that to be the case. But I also believe that well crafted description tags can have significant impacts on click through rates, regardless of were you actually rank. Compelling text shown in the search result snippet is bound to pull more clicks than something not compelling, not descriptive and plain un-interesting.

I now have data, that I think, proves this point.

My wife launched her little recipe blog side project just before Christmas last year. She loves to cook and wanted to blog her recipes so I set her up with Wordpress, gave her a few pointers and let her fly at it. I tried my best to tell her some basic SEO stuff about her content, page titles, linking, etc… but whenever I try to bring it up she just starts shouting “LA LA LA LA LA” and does not want the hear any of it. “You’re the SEO guy, you take care of the computer stuff and I’ll just write what I want to write”. Ok, fine. Ultimately that is Google’s key recommendation.

She posts one or two recipes per week and the content is growing. Traffic is growing, slowly, but not fast enough for my liking. Checking what key phrases are sending traffic then doing that search to see how things appear in the SERPS pointed out a serious flaw, in my eyes. Google was basically pulling the first line or two of text right out of the content to display as the description snippet. Sometimes it contained a word or two of the key phrase but was largely un-descriptive of the page. So I went about doing something about that.

Since my wife had no intentions of making use of the All in One SEO Pack plugin I installed, which would allow her to write custom description tags, I went about customizing the plugin to do the heavy lifting for her.

Here is an example snippet from her Kid Friendly Meatloaf recipe before meta description customization;

Search snippet before adding meta descriptions

And here is the same result after Google re-indexed things;

Meta description with higher click through rate.

What would you rather click on?

I created a basic template description and dynamically insert the recipe titles into it. The description is relevant via the recipe name, often its primary keywords, and stating that it is a fabulous recipe and easy to make at home makes it more compelling to click on.

And here are the traffic results;

Traffic increases after changing meta descriptions

You see the point, red arrow, where I added an annotation in Analytics on the date I made the change. Over the following couple weeks (weekly data in chart) traffic surged ahead as more and more pages got re-indexed with better description tags.

Now over that time period more posts were added, each of them attracting a bit more long tail queries (long tail is long in recipe land), and the site attracted a couple new links, so maybe there was a slight improvement in rankings as well. But to me the time frame of that big increase points to the better meta descriptions and an increase in click through rates.

Google webmaster tools, though really limited in what it reports and its time frames seems to lend support to my suspicion the meta tags are giving the biggest boost here.

Webmaster tools data

Over the period of March 26 to April 30th it reports a 94% increase in impressions (some new posts and maybe some improved rankings for some posts) and a 250% increase in clicks. The site is new and competes with the likes of food.com, allrecipes.com and other heavyweights. Many of the new posts rank for a little while due to freshness factors then slowly slip back to page 2, 3 or deeper. Some stick on page 1 better than others. Again, I’m very confident the description tags are primary factor.

Some SEO’s are leaning towards user actions as a possible ranking factor. If not in place yet, certainly something that may be coming down the pipe (or maybe it’s riding on the back of a Panda). So get your meta descriptions doing their job of influencing click troughs from the search results. It will get you a larger share of traffic out of your current rankings and maybe, just maybe, the increase in click through’s will indirectly turn meta descriptions into an actual ranking factor.

If this post made you hungry and you’re wondering what to have for dinner tonight- check out some of my favorites;

Speeding up Your Website for SEO

Faster is Better

Faster is Better. My 1980 Honda CB750 with modifications for speed and style.

Google apparently has begun looking at page speed/load times as a ranking factor in the search results. So if you want to stay competitive with your SEO, speeding up your site can help you keep a technical edge over your competition. Especially in the realm of local small businesses who’s websites I often find full of bloated redundant code and hosted on slower shared server environments. Short of paying exorbitant hosting bills to be on the most skookum dedicated server on the market and a complete web design overhaul by a coder with HTML and CSS compliance mastery these are a few things I do to get some serious speed increases.

Improved load times also leads to happier site visitors who tend to stick around longer and view a few more pages of the site, potentially leading to higher conversion rates.

Get Your Current Baseline Speed

Pingdom’s Full Page Test tool tracks how long it takes to upload all parts of a web page. The image files, the HTML files, the CSS and JavaScript files, etc…. It will break them all down and show load sequence and times for each element and report the total byte sizes for each element. Great for spotting a few trouble spots – like an image file that’s a little too big.

Get Google’s Speed Tips for your Site

The new page speed labs tool will do a quick analysis of where you could (not necessarily can) speed things up. Depending on your hosting environment you may not be able to implement all the suggestions.

Minify Your CSS Files

Your styles are on separate stylesheet files, correct? If they are sitting as code in the head of your HTML files, get them off of there and onto their own style sheet. That’s just sloppy lazy coding. When the CSS exists on your pages you are essentially reloading that same code again and again each time a user visits another page of the site. Instead, if it was in a separate CSS file and that file was called from the page head, the web browser loads the file once and applies it again and again to each page as the user peruses through the site. Separate style sheet files alone are a significant speed improvement, but the files themselves can often be minimized quite a bit.

CSS is white space independent, or most of it is. So when you see this;

#content p {
	margin: 5px 0;
	padding: 0;
	font-weight: normal;
	text-align: left;

It can be expressed like this as well;

#content p{margin:5px 0;padding:0;font-weight:normal;text-align:left}

That alone removed 5 carriage returns (line-breaks) and 4 tab spaces, and notice we removed the last semi-colon as it’s redundant when that set of styles is closed with the squiggly bracket. As well we removed the space after each colon separator. We saved 14 bytes of data. Do that across an entire stylesheet and you can save a few hundred bytes.

You can run your stylesheets through this CSS minifying tool and it has lots of options on how far you want to take the minimization’s. From it’s default settings I turn on the “Remove last ;”. If I want to maintain some level of readability I’ll choose the “High (moderate readability, smaller size)” compression level. Or If I don’t care about readability I’ll choose the Highest setting.

Keep an un-touched copy of your CSS files just in case. If you ever need to edit your CSS file, edit your stored untouched copy then later run it through the minify process again and use that to update the file on the web server.

Minify Your JavaScript Files

JavaScript is also white-space independent. You don’t need all those line breaks and indentation. That’s only there to make the code more readable by humans. It can all exist in one line. Stripping out all the white space can save you 15% to 20% on file sizes there. Besides, most JavaScript will never see an edit again once its been put into action on the site. Minify and forget.

I use this tool to clean up my JavaScript files – JavaScript Compressor.

Do keep an un-touched copy of your js files just in case.

Heck, Minify your Google Analytics Code Too

Google dishes out it’s Analytics code with line breaks and spaces. I take the code, paste it to a basic text editor then put my backspace button to work and remove the line breaks and extra spaces, turning the code into one single line. Or pop it through the js minify tool above.

Use Google’s new asynchronous code. It’s a speed improvement in itself. In the past I always placed analytics code at the bottom of pages. With the old Analytics code, if Google’s server were slow to respond, and you had the code high in the page, your site would hang, waiting for Google, before loading your HTML. So placing the code at the bottom ensured you pages would load first and if the GA code had any hiccups or hangups the user was none the wiser. But the new asynchronous code will let your pages continue to load while GA is busy doing its thing, and that new Asynchronous code needs to be up in your document head anyways.

Optimize Images

Images can take up the bulk of the data pushed for your pages. Optimizing (minimizing file size) can go a long way to speeding things up.

Choose the Optimum File Type

Photographs need to be jpeg’s. Graphics (logo’s, buttons, background gradients, etc…), for the most part, can be gif’s or png’s.

Size Images Properly

Re-size and crop your images to the sizes you want them to appear on your website.

For jpeg photographs, if you wanted the image to be 500 pixels wide on your page, re-size the image to 500 pixels then save that to the server. Do not use your large 3000px wide image straight from your digital camera then use HTML sizing (img=”file.jpg” width=”500″ height=”300″) to size it in the browser. You are still pushing a huge image file over the web, eating lots of bandwidth and taking much longer times to load your page. If you still wanted users to be able to view the full sized image, place a shrunken version on the page and have it link separately to the full image, should the user wish to click to view it.

Gif and png graphics should be cropped to their minimum size needed. Don’t keep added white space around them for spacing purposes. Use CSS for that. Repeating background elements can often get sliced to a single pixel in width, making for very tiny files.

Compress Images for the Web

Most your jpeg photographs can be compressed down to a lower image quality without much noticeable loss in quality, to the human eye at least. I use Photoshop for image manipulation. In that software, after I’ve cropped and re-sized the image to what I want, I choose the “Save for Web” option. Select jpeg, then set the image quality to 70%. This effectively blurs the image out a bit, but not so much that the eye can detect it on a computer screen. Some say you can safely go down to 60%, some say 50%. That may depend on the actual image at hand. Photoshop lets you preview the image at the lower quality level before you save it, so play with the percentages if you wish. Do rename your file before you save the optimized version, else you’ll loose your original full quality image.

Control Browser Caching

Web browsers will store copies of HTML files, stylesheets and images onto the visitors computer. You can control this behavior by setting cache expiry dates and which files to cache. In the interest of speed you can tell the browser to cache everything – css, jpeg, js, html, etc… and set the cache expiry times. The Google Page Speed tool recommends caches dates of at least 14 days (2 weeks). For many small business websites, where nothing really changes that often on the site, you can probably bump that up to a month.

On an Apache server you can add these lines to your .htaccess file to activate the headers and expiry modules and set the cache periods you desire;

<IfModule mod_headers.c>
<FilesMatch "\.(ico|gif|jpg|jpeg|png|flv|pdf|swf|mov|mp3|wmv|ppt)$">
	ExpiresDefault A2419200
	Header append Cache-Control "public"

<FilesMatch "\.(html|htm)$">
	Header set Cache-Control "max-age=1209600, must-revalidate"

<FilesMatch "\.(js|css|xml|gz)$">
	Header append Vary Accept-Encoding

<IfModule mod_expires.c>
ExpiresActive On
ExpiresDefault A1209600
ExpiresByType image/gif A2419200
ExpiresByType image/png A2419200
ExpiresByType image/jpeg A2419200
ExpiresByType image/x-icon A2419200
ExpiresByType application/x-javascript A2419200
ExpiresByType text/css A2419200
ExpiresByType text/html A1209600

Note: 2419200 = 28 days & 1209600 = 14 days.

The if statements let Apache only use those mods if they have been installed on the server. You can add them without the if’s, but if those modules are not installed the site may throw an internal server error. Not too many shared hosting environments will have these modules installed though.

PHP to the Rescue

If your server does not have the above modules installed you can get some cache control headers sent via PHP scripting instead. However it will only apply to your HTML and not images, css and js files (there is a way, with output buffering, to get PHP to set headers on your .css and .js files, but it’s too involved for my purposes, so I skip it).

Place this PHP code at the top of your pages. It must be placed above any other output else you’ll get Headers already sent errors.

 Header("Cache-Control: must-revalidate");

 $offset = 60 * 60 * 24 * 28;
 $ExpStr = "Expires: " . gmdate("D, d M Y H:i:s", time() + $offset) . " GMT";

The offset variable is calculating time by seconds, minutes, hours and days where the above example is set to 28 days. If you want a shorter or longer cache period just change the number of days.

For more detail on controling browser Caches check this out. As well Google has some caching best practices here.

Serve Compressed Files through Gzip

Enabling Gzip compression of your files can compress things by up to 80% making for blazing fast load times. Pretty well all modern web browsers will decompress gzipped files. Again many shared hosting services will not have the Gzip modules installed in Apache but if they do you can add this to your .htaccess file to make use of it;

<IfModule mod_gzip.c>
    mod_gzip_on Yes
    mod_gzip_dechunk Yes
    mod_gzip_item_include file \.(html?|txt|css|js|php|pl)$
    mod_gzip_item_include handler ^cgi-script$
    mod_gzip_item_include mime ^text/.*
    mod_gzip_item_include mime ^application/x-javascript.*
    mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^image/.*
    mod_gzip_item_exclude rspheader ^Content-Encoding:.*gzip.*

With the server software doing the compression, if that module is installed on the server, it will zip not just your HTML but also your CSS and JavaScript files. You typically don’t want to compress image files as they already have their own sorts of compression going on. I think I read somewhere you shouldn’t compress PDF files either, but I can’t recall where I might have saw that.

PHP can Save You Again

You can also achieve gzip compression on your HTML files with PHP. At the top of your pages place this line of code;

<?php ob_start("ob_gzhandler"); ?>

That’ll compress your HTML on the fly and serve up your pages in gzip format. It won’t however be compressing your CSS and Javascript files. There is a way with PHP to get it to convert your .css and .js files to PHP, then compress them and serve them again as .css and .js to the browser, but again is too involved for my tastes. Just compressing the HTML alone can cut things by up to 70%.

After installing compression run your page through this tool to test if it is actually sending gziped content.

Be careful with using output buffering (ob_start) though. If other portions of PHP scripts are also using output buffering it can cause conflicts. For example, if you try to add it to a Wordpress theme, at the top of the header.php file, and you are using a plugin like All in One SEO Pack (AiOSEO), you will discover those problems. AiOSEO does not play nice with buffers that start before it does and you will loose your customized page titles.

After hours of trying to flush buffers at different points of the script, of trying to alter the AiOSEO script files themselves, etc… I did eventually find a solution. Instead of placing it at the beginning of the theme files, skip the theme and place it at the beginning of the main index.php file in the root wordpress folder. It works! But beware that the next time you update the WP core files (and that will be what? next week? grrrrrrrr WP updates suck) the index.php file will get overwritten and you will loose your gzip customization. Just remember to put that code back in place again after you update WP.

There is More You Can Do

The above are what I currently do, but there is still more that can be done to juice a bit more speed out of a website. Some of it requires having more control over the web server you are hosted on, and for most small business websites on shared hosting environments, like the local SEO clients I work with, that’s usually not possible.

But if you do have admin control of the server and can add Apache modules and customize settings you might want to check out Google’s mod_pagespeed Apache module. It will minify your .css, .js, and .html files on the fly, allowing you to keep the human readable versions on the server. It’ll also do some additional optimization to .jpeg and .png files and it will extend caching. It’ll also take older Google Analytics code and convert it to the new Asynchronous code. And it’ll even rewrite portions of your HTML to omit unnecessary attributes when they are already set to defaults and rewrite URLs to shortened relative paths where appropriate. Use this mod combined with caching and compression and you’ll have one of the fastest websites on the planet.

For more info on speed, Yahoo has a great write-up on the various things you can do to speed up websites here.

Yes, that is my motorcycle at the top of the page. You can read more about this cafe racer and its modifications here. :)

Do Google Places Listings Really Matter?

I’ve noticed, for many cases, if you have great organic rankings for your local terms having the additional visuals of a map marker, logo image, and address/phone info, plus maybe star ratings, review snippets and review counts, from a Google Places listing, does not matter at all.

I have a certain LONG term client (5 years) and have seen all the various iterations of Google Maps and Places mixed into the search results. From 10-packs to 7-packs and today’s blended local organic listings. This client has enjoyed #1 organic rankings for their primary local terms through most of that time (maybe the odd short term dip to #2). But here’s the kicker – they are located just outside the city limits. This tends to restrict a number of things as far as Google Places listings and rankings go.

Here are the various changes to Google results they’ve witnessed over the past 5 years;

  • Before Google started showing map listings in the SERPS, they were #1 organic.
  • When the 10-pack local listings rolled out they were #1 organic but below the 10-pack and map.
  • For a while (most of 2009 and early part of 2010) we were able to trick Google into thinking they were in the city and they showed #A in the 7-pack and again #1 organic below the map.
  • Later Google caught on to our trick and they got kicked out of 7-pack but still showed at #1 organic below the map.
  • New blended local organic results now has them at #1 above any of the local listings that get the bonus map markers and such.

What do you think we saw for changes in traffic to the website and changes in lead volumes (we track email leads as goal conversions in Analytics) through each of those significant changes?

Answer = none.

By none I mean nothing that could by any means be attributed to places listings vs. no places listings. What we did see was year over year growth in traffic and leads (look at the peaks in the image below – this is a very seasonal business). We attribute that to the growth of the internet and search in general as a source to find local businesses.

Search Traffic (filtered for local city name) and Email Lead Conversions - 2007 to 2011.

Traffic (filtered for local city name) and Email Lead Conversions - 2007 to 2011. Yellow bars are main season for this business. Click to view full size.

You would think that there should have been a noticeable difference between being in the 7 pack noticeably above the organic results and being only in the organic listings below the map. But it simply is not the case.

Now the peak for 2010 was not much different than 2009. Could that peak have been higher if the business was located in the city limits, or we managed to still convince Google it was, and we continued to show up in the local 7-pack? To check against that I checked their primary local term in Google Insights for historical traffic trends. You’ll see 2009 and 2010 at about the same levels there as well.

Total available traffic for primary local search term as shown by Google Insights

Total available traffic for primary local search term as shown by Google Insights

One Small Difference

Primary Service Term with No Location Qualifier

If you search certain broad terms like dentist, pizza, plumber, etc.., Google recognizes it as the type of query that may have local intent and will mix in map results with the broad organic results. Without a true local presence in the city we now miss out on that traffic. But it is small, puny even.

For the year + we had the spoofed (sort of) local presence and high map rankings, the volume of traffic from the singular terms was about 1/10th of those that included that word plus the city name before or after. Plus there is the other iterations that use city names with state or province abbreviations as well as those that use ‘in’ city-name, ‘near’ city name, etc… Combine all the other search terms for their various related services, with a city name in the phrase, and the singular broad terms amount to close to 1/100th of their local traffic.

Another thing about the insignificance of the single word terms, conversion rates (email leads) were a mere fraction as well. Terms that included the city name convert at 8% to 15%. Single word searches on their 2 primary service type variations, converted at 0.39% and 0.64% respectively.

Goodbye single phrase terms with pseudo-local intent – we don’t really miss you.

Hold On, Not So Fast!

I have other clients ranking well organically for areas they don’t get local map listings – they pretty much see the same thing. But for some industries the pull of the map is a little bit more noticeable.

People have slightly different intents when searching certain local businesses. Those industries where need tends to be urgent – “I need it now and I don’t care who it is, just get it done, NOW” – see a slightly different trend.

I’ve worked with a number of plumbers in various cities and they all tell me the same thing. Searchers are looking for phone numbers and simply start “dialing for dollars”. They have a leaky pipe that’s about to ruin their flooring and they want a fix now. First plumber to answer the phone gets the business, not the guy who can’t answer his cell while elbow deep into a toilet. They can’t even be bothered to leave a message on voice mail. Instead they hang up and call the next plumber on the list.

Google Maps/Places listings show phone numbers quite prominently, so in those urgent cases the Places listing in the search results matters more. But that can be overcome with good organic rankings too. Simply include a phone number in your title tags, and/or meta description tags.

Reviews Can Matter, Sometimes

Blended local search results are sometimes displaying snippets of reviews right there on page one. They can have an impact, in extreme cases. By extreme I mean a glaringly negative review showing as the review snippet. Right there, page 1.

From the perspective of what a user see’s in the search results, things like positive review snippets, review counts, rating stars, etc.. have little impact on click through’s to the website and phone calls. It primarily comes down to rankings. But one bad review, for all to see, can have a dramatic impact – but not on traffic to the site. It impacts lead volumes – both phone calls and emails.

A client in New York City had that dilemma with a false negative review being pulled from Yelp. The bad review showed on page one of Google search for close to two months and during that period lead volume dropped by 75% (phone calls saw a bigger impact than email) but no discernible change in total traffic to the website.

The impact from one bad review showing in Google Search results

The impact from one bad review showing in Google Search results

Seems that rankings still pulled the clicks as they usually do but people chose not to contact them. Obviously because of the review they saw in the search results. Based on the content of that review we could tell it was either an intentional fake from a competitor or a mistake on the reviewers part mixing them up with some other business.

We posted a business owner response to that review, similar to what this dentist did, and a couple weeks later Yelp ended up placing the bad one as a filtered review and Google then scrapped a different one to show as a snippet. Lead volumes are shooting back up to normal levels. Needless to say, my client is breathing a sigh of relief.

In general terms, organic rankings trumps all and the extra fluff of review snippets, star ratings, review counts are just that -fluff (unless it’s glaringly negative). I wonder then, at the mass user level, what they actually think of those extras.

  • Is it merely a little side bonus that might, for some users in some cases, maybe, maybe, maybe influence a decision?
  • Is there a lack of trust for user reviews that are easy to fake and have little to no quality control?
  • Do they ultimately put more trust in the ranking algorithm, regardless of stars and reviews?

Yelp Beats Google to Service Area based Rankings

Nearly a year ago Google added the ability to set a service area for local businesses in Google Places. At the time there was speculation as to how it might influence rankings and many local SEO’s quickly realized it had little to no influence at all. Except that if you opted to hide your address, because you were a home based business, it more or less kicked you right out of the rankings all together. That unfortunate side effect of hiding an address has been fixed since the roll out of the new blended oragnic-local results. But there still is no ranking benefits outside of the actual city your address is tied to.

Service Area settings in Yelp

Will Google one day get around to using service areas as a ranking factor for businesses serving say, a larger metropolitan area from one of the outskirt communities (a common occurrence)? Well it appears Yelp has recently done just that.

…business owners in service-based categories who have unlocked their Yelp page will be able to add up to 5 major cities to their areas of service via our Business Owner Tools!

The best part? Once a business updates its areas of service, it becomes searchable in those cities on Yelp.

This feature has been added only for specific categories of businesses, these that tend to be service based businesses that travel to customers locations.

Now that Yelp has upped the ante, how long till Google follows suit?

Yellow Page Ad Buying Tips

It’s YP ad season again. A number of my clients have been asking for advice for their ads. Some are wondering if they should scrap them, some want to re-adjust things and looking to just make them more effective. Some who don’t advertise in the phone book wondering if they should. So after reviewing and discussing things with a few or them, I now have some tips to share.

Be Suspect of their Sales Package Info

One of my Canadian clients forwarded me a little graphic that broke down the local population, percentage that used YP print + online, % that followed up and percentage that bought. The numbers were high, very high. But here is the thing. The fine print disclaimer at the bottom, so small and fuzzy you could barely read it, said this : “(2) Monthly usage numbers based on 2007 Canadian Business Usage Study conducted by Ad Mix Research at the provincial level (British Columbia)“.

Ok, so they do their survey of a few thousand people across the province, or state, and extrapolate that to each city. Fine, I can accept that. But 2007? Almost 4 years old. 4 years is an ice age in internet terms. Yellow pages usage has plummeted in the past 4 years. Plummeted I tell you! Anyone that tells you differently is lying. I won’t even bother hunting down links to articles to support that. There are oodles of them. Google around, you’ll find ‘em.

While YP usage is declining, the costs to be included are going up. It’s time to scrutinize your spending there. Cut where you need to or increase in the right areas to be better focused on the parts that work for your business.

Choose Only Your Most Relevant Category

Your YP sales agent will likely send you monthly stats on search or call volumes for a few related categories. They will also try to sell you on being in the bigger, broader category. Since those categories get more volume, it’s often more expensive to advertise in there. But do not think for a second that it is worthwhile paying the inflated prices of those kinds of categories to maybe introduce your business in a drive by fashion to those searching something else. That’s bound to produce a negative ROI.

For example, a Window Tinting client showed me the sales package their YP sales agent sent them. Besides the Window Tinting & Coating category they showed them stats for the Automotive – Glass category. This got about 4 to 5 times the volume as tinting. Not surprising. But this represents people looking for cracked or chipped windshield repair or replacing broken windows. These are not people looking for window tinting.

Another client, a landscaping contractor was shown the stats for the General Contracting section, which consists of primarily home builders and larger commercial construction companies. As well they were shown the Home Improvement section, a catch all of all kinds of random services. Don’t fall for this.

Use Online Keyword Tools to Determine your Best Category

If faced with multiple related categories for your business, and wanting to focus your ad spend where it matters most, keyword tools may provide a great proxy for how people search in the phone book. How people phrase things in online search often represents the first words that come to their mind, which should translate to where they go first in the phone book.

For example, this security system company in Louisiana was contemplating these two categories: Burglar Alarms and Security Alarms. A quick check with Google Insights reveals that far more people search for Alarm terms. Armed with that info my client then decided to drop their ad in the Burglar section and switch to a larger ad in the Alarm section. They now pay a little less per month, but have a bigger ad in the one category that matters more.

Opt Out of Extra Internet Marketing Packages

Many YP providers are reselling Google Adwords pay per click ads. Frankly, they do a piss poor job of this. Bland ads, lame landing pages, poor (broad) keyword targeting, plus a huge markup on click costs. Even worse, some use your YP listing on their website as the landing page. You end up paying to drive traffic to their website, not yours. If you think pay per click advertising could work for you, do it yourself, or hire a PPC specialist to help you.

If the “package” you choose includes this extra online stuff, opt out, and use that as leverage to maybe get a slightly bigger ad instead, or some other added feature, or simply to reduce your monthly costs a bit more.

Make Sure You Are Listed in their Online Directory

If you are opting out of print ads in the book, or paring down your exposure on their online directories, or whatever, make sure you still get their most basic kind of listing in the online directory. It’s usually free to just have a basic listing. You want that. You need that. Google will see it and use it as a citation source which can assist you in the local search rankings.

Negotiate Your Price

Not every business pays the same for the same sized ads. YP’s analyze each category for search volume and call volume. They price accordingly. Categories with lots of competitors translates directly to larger numbers of people seeking that service. A plumber pays far more for a quarter page ad than does a welder.

And here is a juicy little secret I’ll let you in on, their quoted prices are not set in stone. Ask them to sharpen their pencil! They often will. Recognize that your sales rep is probably paid on commission and can be flexible with pricing in order to make a sale.

Track YP Ad Effectiveness

It’s not that hard to track how many people find you through the yellow pages. You don’t necessarily need fancy call tracking services to accomplish this. Just ask customers that phone you “how did you find us?”. You don’t even need to ask them all. Ask enough to get a decent sample size. If 20% say yellow pages you can then assume that 20% of all new customers are finding you that way too.

A rough idea on YP ad effectiveness, and a rough idea on its ROI is far better than no idea. Frankly too many small local businesses have no idea what yellow page ads are, or are not, doing for them, and that’s sad. Stop being one of those sad statistics and put a basic tracking system in place.

We in the local SEO industry like to criticize the yellow pages, the dinosaurs that they are, but for some businesses it is still an effective place to advertise. It’s just getting harder so you need to be smarter.

If anyone else has more YP advertising tips, drop them in the comments below.