Instead of writing for the blog, I’ve found myself working on a number of crucial local SEO issues from the last few years. Not the least of which have surrounded store and business locators. I’ve since worked on vacation rentals, real estate and business aggregators, all leveraging components of localized search but for the purposes here I’ll focus on company owned stores/franchises.
For a bit of background, I’ve worked on three sides of this process in at least two variations. The in-house/corporate stakeholder role, the intermediary agency role and finally working for one of the major platforms. In-house and at the platform we primary used an “end-to-end” solution. As an agency partner, I prefer to piece the systems together although mostly because we serve as the glue. We maintain “ownership” (read: responsibility) of the information, and ultimately we design and build the stores pages. Since this space has been commoditized, I’ll explain the parts so the “buyer” understands what they’re getting when they see the platforms price tags.
So I’ll start from the beginning since it’s been a while. We first put this into practice when I was at Macy’s on our l.macys.com pages. All the figures and optimizations have been gleaned from public data which is one of the beauties of SEO and competitive research. I’d inherited managing a program in-flight and had a project strong leader in place, but with all vendors we took the time to look at the fundamental systems necessary to maximize SEO performance. This post focuses on the theoretical since the site is online and has moved much further down the roadmap than I was involved in.
At Macy’s the SEO team took over the store locator from the SEM team. It was a clear, organic opportunity to improve the system and frankly the whole experience was previously lacking. The paid team wasn’t incentivized to grow organic traffic and we were looking at all our digital assets for growth. Driving foot traffic to stores was a win for everyone; Macy’s strives to be an Omnichannel leader which meant improving the experience by leveraging the rich data on localized purchasing habits.
- Aggregate, clean, and store data
- Store hours across the web needed to remain correct as much as feasible, especially around the holidays
- Grow organic traffic (improve relevance)
- Ensure the pages contain non-duplicate, robust, and useful content
Aggregate, Clean, and Store Data
Having since worked for a major stores aggregator, the biggest limitation to performance is your data. Don’t overlook this step as a lead! Basic store/location information (address, hours, maybe a photo) isn’t going to cut it if you’re in a competitive industry. Think creatively and challenge your store/franchise managers in how to get you good, consistent local SEO relevant information. Create internal worksheets or forms and quantify completeness. Build this in to your reporting and feedback loop. Don’t be afraid of sharing top products in a given location, the relevance and potential to grab search traffic far outweighs any competitive risks.
This is a fundamental strength and weakness of companies like Macy’s. On one side the depth of information about each and every store is incredible, however, decades of legacy systems make those data points disparately stored. Because of the investment required to build and store our own data and it having to be stored separately to generate the stores page, also hosted by a third party, we utilized their data store. This isn’t necessarily an optimal setup, but sometimes building your own tools isn’t feasible, especially if you want to move quickly.
This meant we immediately put our systems team to work. By living under the Omnichannel umbrella it was easy to get buy in although the work was challenging. Store managers at huge companies work on entirely different systems and it’s unlikely, unless a modern customer service tool, SalesForce database, or other tool is used that they’re effectively pushing everything to your web and digital marketing team. Plan this as an iterative process; set goals, push new features to this data store and make sure they find their way to the pages.
Keeping Store Hours Correct – Syndication
This is one of the more commoditized sides of the business. At the time, Moz Local was just getting off the ground or at least fairly new so we chose to stick with our vendor Yext. Each promoted their strengths and weaknesses, and most recently we had our own system that wasn’t worth retiring. If I went into this today, I’d just worry about getting my system connected to Moz Local and calling it a day. Fundamentally, you need to set up a process for getting ownership of all your Google My Business listings across your company. In 2018, it is an integral piece of your business foundation; you’ll need to lay down a process as Google will validate locations and you’ll need to get ownership so you can view your stores data and be able to update your information.
Note: You CAN do all your own syndication, but that involves risk. Unless you have the scale or are a platform, utilize a third party and put good SLAs (service level agreements) in place. There are a lot of limitations with aggregators and they tend to change things (in Apple’s case sometimes without warning). Unless you have a development team that can drop everything today, use a service, connect to their APIs to send and receive their data.
This is your property and what you control the most. Make sure your pages are responsive as you’ll quickly learn most of this traffic comes from mobile users searching for stores on their iPhone/Android device. Only a percentage of your total Google traffic will ever come to your site, but if they do that means they’re looking for something important. Give the user a map, some personalized information and give them conversion points they want. All else equal, the more unique data you can populate to this page, the more organic traffic you’ll drive.
Define “conversions” and optimize for them! Add the ability to email, add a link to get directions. If you’re in ecommerce, add some product links and track those engagements. Don’t shortcut this step; put pages up and assume that answered the question. Expect that your conversion metrics will be fairly “bad” compared to site wide metrics. This is often because users are coming to get one thing and ideally finding it. A good product management process will ensure you’re answering those questions and optimizing where you can.
This is it’s own world and work and there are many avenues you can travel down that is specific to you and your business needs. Pick a system that can generate your landing pages from your central database. Ideally, you want to manage the data at that level and push it up to your pages. You can build on with a content service, but ultimately it’s best to use a store ID to merge everything together and not put everything solely within WordPress or another CMS where it can become disjointed.
The ends to the means lies in reporting. Measure what matters, report what matters, but most importantly, store as much as you can get your hands on! You don’t know if/when you’ll need it in the future. Consider gathering data from the following sources:
- Google My Business – Visibility, Searches, and Actions. This data shows you how often you’re seen, under what pretenses (direct searches vs broad queries), and what they do when they get there (click to call, click for directions, click your website). If you’re only looking at Google Analytics you’re missing what is likely most of your traffic. Most users are looking for directions.
- By the same token, ingest any other data you have available to you.
- Google Analytics – Referral entries, total entries, organic traffic, goals and conversions. I hope this is fairly obvious as it doesn’t differ from any other site.
- Google Search Console – If you’re reading this I hope you value SEO. Reviewing what’s driving traffic to your site will help you optimize and add content. The variation across store pages will drive different keywords while things like directions and hours will be largely the same. What you’re looking for is what’s under performing and what’s slipping through so you can target it for additional optimizations.
What’s missing from this list is a verification system. This is baked into many of the solutions and part of why I recommend you use Moz Local for number 2. The more sophisticated you are, the more store owners and stakeholders you have, the better this process needs to be. Aggregators will send you back data; store it, check it, but most of all validate it. Validate it against your database, validate it against your reporting from Google My Business, from whichever syndication tool you use. Hell, go and scrape your placements if possible and validate that when your store/location hours change, that they change across the web within the timeframes established in your SLAs.
This is the step that Moz really pushed in the beginning and a step I’d particularly be attentive to. If you’re managing an influx of store managers, that will quickly become your most time consuming job. Store Managers need information to be correct EVERYWHERE. They are the ones who get the complaints and they have every right to pass them on to you. Make sure they understand their responsibilities regarding changes and how long it may take to make said change. Once that’s done it’s up to you and your providers to habitually review this.
So to review, there are three main parts of a locator and the critical reporting step. I can’t over emphasize how often reporting is overlooked. Even a basic understanding of performance can be used to optimized whatever system you may be working with:
- Central data store – aggregates dispariate data, centralized quality control, drives all downstream components
- Syndication – Pushes data to the aggregators (Google, Apple Maps, Acxiom, Factual, Neustar, etc.)
- Stores Pages – Your owned property, on your domain, where the source of truth lives. This is where you’re driving SEO optimizations, this is where website clicks come to, this is what’s most in your control
- Reporting – Aggregation of Google My Business, Google Analytics, Google Webmasters Tools, and other aggregator data
- Validation! – This is a process onto itself and should be done at the central data
So how did the efforts pay off? Based on BrightEdge DataCube, the local pages search visibility hit some impressive heights. DataCube is an imperfect measure and this appears to be from multiple iterations which only supports validating, resizing, and adding content.
The scale of this gain is of course a function of being a massive department store but the impact and trend is still 1000-2000% more traffic.
Drop us a line if you have any questions or better yet, let us lead your process and manage your pages. We’ve been able to optimize and grow stores pages through continuous improvements and find them critical to a strong SEO program.