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How online presence and SEO can make or break your local business

Episode Overview

In this episode of the Searchmetrics Voices of Search podcast series, Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext, shares his industry-leading insights on optimizing for local search. An expert on the confluence of generational change, consumer behavior, and the latest technologies, Duane covers what it takes to ensure your brand is putting its best foot forward and generating local business.

Duane and Ben cover:

  • What are all the essential placements and strategies for local search optimization, including Google, Bing, Foursquare, and Facebook?
  • What is the impact of reviews and can reviews below 4 stars harm your business?
  • How are Alexa and Google Home changing the local search landscape and do they require a new way of managing your data?
  • Can the hundreds of small online directories with information about your business actually impact your Google search results?


Episode Transcript


Ben:                             Welcome back to Non-Google Search Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro, and this month we’re turning the spotlight onto how you can optimize your SEO efforts for some of the most important search engines that don’t start with the letter G. Joining us again today is Duane Forrester, who’s the VP of Industry Insights at Yext, which is a digital knowledge management platform that gives companies the ability to control their brand experience across the digital universe of maps, apps, search engines, voice assistants, and other services.

Ben:                             Prior to his role at Yext, Duane held a variety of high-profile SEO roles, including the Webmaster Program at Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Today, we’re going to continue our conversation about how you can optimize your business’s profiles to maximize your business’s organic traffic and visibility across the myriad of local search tools.

Ben:                             Before we hear from Duane, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO an content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data-driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic where a member of our Digital Strategies group will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website, content and SEO strategies can all be optimized.

Ben:                             To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to Okay, on with the show. Here’s the rest of my conversation with Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext. Duane, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.

Duane:                         Awesome. Ben, thank you so much for having me back again today.

Ben:                             It’s great to have you. Yesterday, we talked about not only what are some of the places that you need to optimize your local listings, but we laid out the categorization for the things that you can do to optimize your local listings. Today, we’re going to get into a little bit more detail, and we’re going to go through those one by one. The topics that you talked about were relevance, distance and prominence.

Ben:                             Let’s start off with the first. Let’s start off with talking about relevance. When you’re thinking about creating a listing for a new business or a brand that has a series of locations, one of the ways where you can do what I assume is some of sort of a keyword mining, to understand how to position your brand to be the most relevant. Is there a tool, or a way that you could describe your service, or optimize your relevance?

Duane:                         There are tools. For local businesses, it’s a little bit different. Normally, if I were going to tell you we’re going to optimize content, we want to do some keyword research. But more important today, we would want to understand what questions consumers are asking. That’s what’s more important. If you think about that in terms of a local business, “I want to know who has the best latte near me,” or, “I feel like having a great latte today,” is a statement a consumer might run through their head prior to going and finding that latte.

Duane:                         That statement, that question, would form the basis of their question that they would ask the search engine, which triggers the results to come back. If you think that way, if you think as a consumer, “When I try to solve a problem for myself, what questions do I ask along the way?” You will inevitably touch some common themes. You’d be like hours of operation, are they actually open? Do they make a good latte? Are they known for one particular thing? And so on.

Duane:                         The basis of this can be keyword research, but the problem with keyword research is keyword research, as we have traditionally thought of it, focuses on the Internet. It focuses on things that are globally, or at least a country level, important. When you ask for keyword data, and use a tool like Google Ad Words Planner, and you use that dataset, it’s really hard to get good information at a ZIP code level. They have it, but the numbers are relatively small. As a business, you may be looking at it thinking, “Well, do I really care if 18 more people come to my business this week?”

Ben:                             Yes.

Duane:                         Of course, you do. But, that’s not the make or break. You’re looking for 1800 more people every week, because you know you have a population base of 100,000 people, and if you could just attract more of them from your competitors to your business, you would be more successful. Keyword research isn’t really the best tool in the local sense.

Ben:                             To play out the metaphor you were using earlier of the coffee shop, the example of trying to figure out what people are looking at, at a national level, to evaluate a coffee shop is “Coffee shop near me. Best latte near me. Best cappuccino. Best coffee near me.” But if you’re looking more regionally, let’s say we’re in San Francisco, one of the keywords might be, “Kombucha near me,” something that is a product that is more regionally-specific. “Clam chowder bowl near me.”

Ben:                             So, what’s the way where you can try to find that data, or understand what is more regionally-specific if you can’t use the nationally-focused ad planning tools?

Duane:                          You can use those tools. They are fairly powerful. Of course, now you have to have an Ad Words account, you have to be active with advertising to get access to the tools. So, general keyword research has become more difficult. I believe, however, Bing still offers through Web Master Tools, a keyword research tool that is accessible. That’s something for folks to look into as well.

Ben:                             You either have to be an advertiser, or you have to be close friends with somebody who is an advertiser, and ask to use their account, or have them do the research for you.

Duane:                          Yeah, it’s not straightforward anymore. In fairness, there are a ton of tools out there that will tell you they will you keyword data, and they’re just pulling from those services and then populating on their end. By all means, how you access the data is less important than whether the data is reliable. If the data is coming from a service like Bing or Google, it’s going to be inherently more reliable.

Duane:                         If it’s being collected from a number of services, that makes me a little bit nervous because I don’t know what those services are, and really what I want to know is people using Google, people using Bing. That’s the dataset I want. When I use Bing data, I simply multiply by market share to give me a rough idea of what the totality looks like. So, Bing is 25% market share, I up size that by 75%. That should put me in the ballpark of what Google is seeing on that phrase.

Duane:                          That’s fine for broad term thinking around this.

Ben:                             But, when you’re going for the local level, what’s the way that you get into the really sort of nitty gritty of local marketing?

Duane:                         It’s extremely difficult, because typically what happens is local marketing is going to rely more on your consumer knows what they’re looking for, and you know what you are. When we’re talking about relevance, one of the things that you’re going to want to do is very carefully select the category and sub-category within something like Google My Business to very clearly tell Google what your relevance is.

Duane:                        Now, you do reach a point where a coffee shop is a coffee shop. A coffee shop is not going to be a retail location. That is typically not how they would set themselves up as a secondary category, or even their Tier One category. They would be a coffee shop.

Ben:                             Yeah, I think the nuance is, a coffee shop is a coffee shop, but do you start to describe yourself as a sandwich shop as your secondary listing, or at the secondary classification, if you have pastries that have egg sandwiches or something along those lines that are technically sandwiches, because your local market wants that type of product?

Duane:                          Right.

Ben:                             I think what I’m hearing is you have to use your best judgment to describe your products and services accurately and understand who your customers are locally. So, doing some more qualitative research than quantitative.

Duane:                        Here’s the balance point on this, okay? It feels, and it is unfortunately, a bit of a you-are-your-own recognizance here with effectively telling people what you are relevant for. Your website’s going to give off signals because you will describe the products and services you have there. If you describe yourself as a full service sandwich shop, and you are in fact a coffee shop with pastries, consumers will leave reviews behind explaining how they went there for a sandwich, and you were not a sandwich shop.

Duane:                          The search engine can very easily understand the words, the context and the sentiment in those reviews. They will very clearly understand the low star rating you got from that reviewer. So then, the search engine is looking what you put in as, “Hey, I’m a sandwich shop. I’m a whole service sandwich shop,” and they’re looking at that saying, “Actually, you apparently are not. Consumers are telling us you’re not a sandwich shop. We think you’re a coffee shop because that’s what your website tells us. You selected that you’re a sandwich shop. We are going to override that, and we will show you for coffee shop and not sandwich shop.”

Duane:                          So, be honest and say that you are a coffee shop that has sandwiches.

Ben:                             Okay, so relevance is primarily around accuracy of describing your existing services and understanding some of the questions that your customers are looking for locally, which requires you to do some recognizance and understand who your customers are. In terms of the next variable distance, I think the big question for me here, when you’re optimizing distance do you put the pin on the map that shows your address? Or, if you have a service that has delivery options, do you cast a wide net and show that you can have your services everywhere?

Ben:                             I mean, I think if you’re a physical location, there’s a pretty clear way of handling distance. But, if you have a delivery component to your service, how do you handle that situation?

Duane:                          If you are a coffee shop… In fairness, every coffee shop has delivery available, because you could send an Uber to pick something up for you, or they could be a part of Uber Eats, and deliver those to you. In theory, we’re blurring the lines here, where not only do I have the pin in the map and I’m saying, “This is my physical location. I also have a service area which may be a five mile radius from that location.” But, that’s not really how the system functions, nor is it how the search engines want to see you claiming these things.

Duane:                          Being a part of Uber Eats doesn’t mean you have a service area. A service area would apply to a business where the consumer wouldn’t necessarily go to your location to pick something up. I’m thinking of carpet cleaners, for example. A carpet cleaner would have a service area, because they come to you to provide that service within a geographically-defined area. You don’t go to their location and set up your appointment, meet with them. None of that happens. They simply come to you.

Duane:                          So phone number, they show up at your physical address, and you conduct business right there. You could, if you had a delivery area, claim a service area, but that wouldn’t be a primary way of doing this. If you are a, “This is where my business happens,” you put the pin the map. That’s what you do. Now, you have to be careful with this because a lot of times, not a lot of times, sometimes, we will see that someone will put a map pin in the location, and then Google will move the map pin because Google believes the location is slightly down the road, or across the street, or around the corner.

Duane:                         We’re not exactly sure why. Sometimes that’s just a bug in the system, and they need to actually go in and force the system to leave the pin where the person put it. Sometimes, it’s an accurate statement where the business owner is thinking in terms of, “I have an entrance at this location. This is where I put my business. This is where I put my street address, and it goes in.” But, the entrance to reach them is through a mall entrance, and that’s where consumers would enter.

Duane:                         The pin may get moved to the entrance of the mall, because you have to remember that the goal of the search engine is to get the person to your business, not to accurately represent the street address of the business. For that consumer to reach that business, they would have to enter via another set of doors in the mall. Then, the consumer comes in to find you inside the mall, and there we go.

Ben:                             It sounds like if you are bringing your services to the consumer, then you can set up a service area that is accurate and true. If you are a physical location, you should basically pick where the front entrance of your location is, or basically give directions for how the consumer can get to your business not necessarily with the physical addresses.

Duane:                        I think in the vast majority of cases, physical address is going to work. You think of a common business that has a storefront that’s accessible from the outside, that’s going to be fine. You’re going to put your street address in, the person is going to find you. The search engine will know, because Google has all the mappings, they know that this is Suite A through D, and you’re in Suite C. They understand that, and they’ll put the pin the correct location for that.

Duane:                         There is a certain point where you kind of don’t need to worry about it. If Google puts the pin on top of the building that is Suite A through E, but it doesn’t put it over year suite in Suite C, you don’t need to worry about that because when the consumer approaches that address they will clearly see your business. They’re not going to be confused and go into A, B or D and E. They will go to C, because they came looking for you.

Duane:                          So, there are limited moments when you are physically going to have to wrestle with this.

Ben:                             There’s not a lot of optimization to happen with the distance.

Duane:                         No, there’s not. Yeah, distance is really about how far are away when the consumer makes the request? Full stop.

Ben:                             Let’s talk about prominence. You mentioned before there’s reviews and content, and this is really about managing your reputation. This is probably the bulk of ways that brands can optimize for a local search, is by managing their reputation. Let’s actually start off by talking about the star rating. I interpret star ratings like this:

  1. Shapiro: -5, groundbreaking, incredible experience when you get 75 or 100 reviews. That’s five stars.

Ben:                             -4.5 is excellent, A-.

Ben:                             -4 stars is a good service.

Ben:                             -3.5 is average. And anything that’s 3.5 or below, you’ve got to have some questions about at-scale.

Ben:                             Obviously, you’re going to read the reviews to get a little context, depending on what sort of business you’re looking at. Am I thinking about star ratings the right way?

Duane:                          I think in general, yes you are. I’m going to add some color commentary to this. We’re starting to see some surveys appear that are exploring the notion of is your star rating too high, meaning let’s say you’ve got 100 five star reviews. That is plausible. If you are a well-known author, and you produce a blockbuster book, you could easily get hundreds of five star reviews on Amazon.

Duane:                         It’s not like there’s no precedent for this. Now, contrast that with a local business. Let’s say you are an eatery, or you’re a coffee shop. In order for you to get 100 five star reviews, you have to cater to the tastes of many diverse, different people, and the mood they’re in. You have to hit a home run every time. Not impossible, however that’s slightly less likely.

Duane:                         So, what we’re starting to see is that consumers appear to be looking at these star ratings and thinking, “Look, if you’re 4.7, 4.8, I believe it. If you’re 4.9 or 4.5, I don’t believe you.” So, having this kind of… And, a lot of businesses will be focused on this like, “I want five stars. That’s what I want. I will do anything to get five stars. It has to be five stars.” It does not have to be five stars.

Duane:                          Just to be crystal clear, it does not have to be five stars. Consumers look at this information on their phone. They glance at it. They’re looking for the number of stars, and they’re looking for the number that is next to it. If you have one 4.5 star rating, I really don’t give a crap. That’s meaningless. If you have 1000 4.5 star ratings, that feels pretty solid and I’m going to make that decision then. I’m going to go with that.

Ben:                             You mentioned earlier the context of benchmarking your rating against the industry. I used to work for a laundry and dry cleaning delivery service, and the average MPS score of a dry clear is somewhere around zero. You can see that reflected in what people’s five star ratings are. Nobody goes and writes a five star review of their dry cleaning. They pick their clothes up and they go home, so the only time people are there, they’re likely complaining.

Ben:                             Anything that was above a three, a 3.5 star rating was an excellent dry clean, because nobody writes that type of review. I think it’s important to benchmark against some of the other people in your industry to understand how you’re performing in ratings. Let’s talk a little bit about the reputation and review management. What can you do, what are the ways to handle both positive… Ask for positive reviews, and then manage the negative reviews?

Duane:                         You should be asking your customers obviously to give you reviews. You want to mix those up. Some of those can be first party, so they’re happening on your website. Others can be third party, they might be happening on Yelp, or they may be going to Google Maps and leavings reviews. It’s always good practice to have a balanced diet, basically. Don’t be slavish to one area.

Duane:                         Now, you could be June is Google Map Review Month, where you ask everybody to leave reviews in June on Maps at Google. That could just be ease of maintenance on your end, and that’s fine. But, the reality when it comes to managing reviews… So, let’s take the positive, because that’s going to be easy. You’re just going to stop by and say, “Thank you. We appreciate you.” It doesn’t need to be any more complex than that.

Duane:                         If the positive review is glowing and it’s informative, meaning they’ve actually called out something or a person, then take the time to respond in kind. Show that person that you value that input they left you. Now, we’ll contrast that with a middle-of-the-road. So, somebody gives you a four star rating, but then leaves suggestions for improvement in the actual written portion of the review.

Duane:                          “I love this place. The service was a little off. It took them too long to get my order to me.” Okay, that’s as simple as saying, “Hey, we appreciate that you were here today,” use the person’s name, “We’re sorry to hear that your service experience was slower than you’d normally prefer. We’ll talk with our folks. We’ll find out what happened, and hopefully we can avoid this in the future.”

Ben:                             Address it.

Duane:                        It’s as simple as that. Right, yeah. There’s no grand promise here. You’ve addressed it. A lot of this is not necessarily about changing the reviewer’s mind on anything. You are actually hoping to simply be caught in the act of trying. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re responding to these things, because as other consumers come in and read this discourse, and they see that you responded and you were reasonable, they feel better about you. They feel that attachment.

Duane:                        Now, if it’s a full on negative review.

Ben:                             Yeah, how do you handle the customer firestorm?

Duane:                          Right. They give you a one star. They tear you apart in the review. The process is the same. You are going to address their concern by repeating what they noted. You are going to address them by name so that they feel that they are being addressed directly. This is not a time for excuses or answers, or anything other than an apology that they have had this experience, and a commitment for what you are going to do to ensure that experience never happens again. That’s what you respond with.

Duane:                          If they want to perpetuate the conversation, by all means, feel free to get into it. I usually recommend at the end of that, you invite the customer back to meet with you, so you can ensure that they understand the customer service values, or whatever the failure was, your values around ensuring that doesn’t happen again to them or anyone else. 90% of consumers, they’re not going to say, “Oh yeah, Benjamin, I had a crappy haircut. I’m coming back in, and you’re going to give me a freebie, and you’re going to show me that you really want to take care of me.”

Duane:                         They are simply just going to go about their business. But, every other person that comes in that sees that negative review, and sees the rational response and your commitment to ensuring the failure doesn’t happen again, that takes away that negative moment. Now, what you cannot do is you can’t change the stars. So, you still have a one star review, and that, you can only influence by ensuring that those types of customer service moments can’t happen and realizing there will always be a customer who will want to cause a problem.

Duane:                        There will be a customer who will come in and say, “You got a 4.9 on 900 reviews? I don’t believe it.” And they will come into your business specifically looking to find reasons to tear you down, because that’s who they are.

Ben:                             Some people just want to watch the world burn.

Duane:                        Exactly the phrase that was in my head. You are not the fireman to put that particular blaze out.

  1. Shapiro: I think the key here is, what you don’t want to do is get defensive, right?

Duane:                         Agreed.

Ben:                             You want to address the person’s concern, you want to apologize, you want to state the steps that you can take to remedy the situation and move forward, but you don’t have to get into a public conversation going back and forth even if the person is, and excuse my language, batshit crazy and making stuff up, address it and move on.

Duane:                         Yes. I had a personal example, where I happened to be going to a hair salon when I lived in Washington State. The owner asked me about this, because she got a particularly scathing review from a lady. She said, “What do I do? I’m taking this very personally.” I said, “Well, first of it’s not personal. It wasn’t you. You have no recollection of this, and you’re a busy shop. Second, reach out to the person. Invite them in to have a conversation about this.”

Duane:                         She invited the lady in. When the lady showed up, she looked around and said, “Oh, this isn’t the salon I was thinking of.”

Ben:                             Whoops.

Duane:                         The lady was thinking of a completely different business when she left the review, a shop that was down the street from this salon that I go to, that had subsequently closed because it had such poor reviews. So, the owner of the shop, she said, “Well you know what? That’s fine.” She goes, “Why don’t you come in and have a day at our spa on me. We’ll just give you a great day so that you feel good.”

Duane:                         That lady not only rewrote all of her reviews, but actually went out of her way to get all of her family and friends to that location. The business owner saw a material impact in new clientele because she took the time to simply respond to that lady and engage in a conversation. We’re not talking a huge thing here. We’re talking three or four new clients. But, three or four new clients over a several year period of time is legitimate revenue.

Ben:                             Yeah, I think that at the end of the day when you’re looking at reviews, it is out of your control how people review and evaluate, and what they say publicly about your business. There’s only some things that you can do to address the concerns. At the end of the day… I’ll give an example of our podcast reviews. There’s a review on our show that says that we don’t provide enough data in talking in the podcast about SEO. We appreciate that feedback. There’s nothing that you can do.

Ben:                             Some people leave scathing reviews. You never know they are. It could be competitors. It could be somebody having a bad day. It could just be somebody that’s mistaken. So, just don’t dwell on it. Just go and try to harvest and collect as many positive reviews as you can, and address the bad ones when they come in.

Duane:                         I think to your point of the notion of what can you actually do, it’s really important to recognize that consumers today, they have the voice. They have the power. It’s in their hand. It’s in their purse. It’s in their pocket. It’s their phone. Consumers are using this. Google is a prime example. If you look up a business on a map, Google sees you do that. Then, you go there. They know that you went to the business.

Duane:                          They then prompt you afterwards to leave reviews for the business. So, consumers are being driven to leave this feedback behind, this kind of bread crumb trail if you will of their sentiments and their feelings about a business. As a business owner, you have a direct impact on that. This comes down to how you’re training your staff, your hiring process, the type of people you’re hiring, your own worth ethic and your ethos on how you treat customers. Those things have a lasting and long-term impact on how people actually judge your business.

Duane:                         My hair salon, I learned this after almost three years of being a client. The newest, the newest employee at that hair salon has been there eight years. The average tenure is 18 years for everyone in the salon. This salon, as it turns out, is somewhere people aspire to work because of how the owner treats the clientele, treats the employees, and takes care of everyone. That comes from that individual. That was his ethos when he said, “I’m going to run a business. This is how I treat people.”

Duane:                         It’s paid dividends. They have great reviews, it’s always a challenge getting in to see them. I only have now started to get access because I’ve been there for three years, so I’ve kind of proven myself as a loyal customer, if you will. Still, pretty based on compared to their tenure. But, that type of perspective goes a long way in shaping your customer service experience. That really makes a difference.

Ben:                             Okay, I think that’s a great place to wrap up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext. We’d love to continue the conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contact Duane, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter, where his handle is @DuaneForrester. Or, you could visit his company’s website, which is

Ben:                             If you have general marketing questions, or if you want to talk about this podcast, you can always find my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a Tweet @BenJShap. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic, online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to for your complimentary advisory session with our Digital Strategies team. If you like this podcast, and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed next week.

Ben:                             Lastly, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast and you’re feeling generous, we’d love for you to leave us a review in the Apple iTunes Store, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Okay, that’s it for today. Thanks again to Duane for joining us. Until next time, remember the answers are always in the data.


Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene

Jordan Koene is the CEO of Searchmetrics Inc. a wholly owned subsidiary of Searchmetrics. Previously, Jordan was the Head of SEO and Content Development at eBay. During his time at eBay, Jordan focused on utilizing eBay content to improve user experience and natural search traffic.

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