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Titan of search Duane Forrester shares his inside SEO knowledge on brand and local optimization

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 with Google, Bing, Foursquare, and Facebook?
  • What is the impact of reviews and can reviews below four 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?

GUESTS & RESOURCES:

Episode Transcript

Ben:                             Welcome to Non-Google Search Month on the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host Benjamin Shapiro and this month we’re going to turn the spotlight onto how you can optimize your SEO efforts on some of the most important search engines that don’t start with the letter G. Joining us 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 experiences across the digital universe of maps, apps, search engines, voice assistance, and other services. Prior to his role at Yext, Duane has held a variety of high profile SEO roles, including leading the Webmaster program at Microsoft’s Bing search engine. And today Duane is going to talk to us about the placements that you need to optimize for local search and some of the different things you need to consider to make sure your brand puts its best foot forward.

Ben:                               But 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 and 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. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic. Okay, on with the show. Here’s my conversation with Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext.

Ben:                               Duane, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.

Duane:                         It is a pleasure to be here, Benjamin. Thank you very much.

Ben:                               Excited to have you here and it’s exciting to connect with one of the titans of the search industry, specifically one that is not related to Google. You ran the program at Bing for a little while and now you’re working in local search at Yext.

Duane:                        Yeah. I have a lot of great relationships with Google. Lots of respect for friends and folks I know who work there. But my path was running SEO for MSN for a number of years and that led me to Bing and Webmaster Tools. Which then led me inside the search engine as an SEO, and let me tell you, that was fun.

Ben:                               So you’ve had a tremendous amount of experience working in not only building and optimizing non-Google search engines and that’s really our topic for the month. And today I want to focus our conversation about how to optimize for driving local traffic. Let’s start off, just give us a little bit more context about who you are and your role at Yext and what the company does.

Duane:                         Certainly. Obviously my name is Duane Forrester. My title is Vice President of Industry Insights and my role is one of supporting businesses. So my job is literally do webinars like the ones we put on or third party webinars, hop on podcasts like yours, talk directly to audiences. I travel extensively, speak at conferences and so on. And my job is to help the business be more successful. To learn where to put their time, why they’re putting their time there, and what to expect as a set of results from that. So I’m kind of a roving consultant troubleshooter for businesses, basically. A lot of that gets funneled obviously directly toward my company, Yext, and our clients.

Duane:                         So I spend a lot of time on client calls, helping them answer questions. And a lot of these clients are enterprise level. They’re large, large entities, household brand names. So it’s an opportunity to help their program invest in the right direction. And so you can imagine at any large company, if they’re putting money into an SEO program, it could be upwards of $1 million a year to fund that program. They have to be very careful with the decisions they’re making. So obviously they want good advice on that. That’s where I come in, is to kind of help them understand, invest here, don’t invest there. A large part of what I do is keeping up to speed on generational change, consumer behavior, the latest technologies and how these things come together.

Duane:                         An example might be how is Gen Z changing the marketplace through the technology they use to interact with brands? And then I take that to your average business and remind that business that it’s very important that you’re answering your reviews and that you’re engaging with those people. It’s extremely important that you have a presence on social media. It’s very important that you’re creating video content for your business. And help them understand that that’s how you connect with today’s consumer and tomorrow’s consumer. If you don’t do those things, obviously there’s a disconnect and you’re missing the opportunity. That’s generally what I do.

Ben:                              So you’ve got a great view of the entire search industry landscape, Google and outside, and my understanding of sort of the core value proposition for Yext, not to make this a sales pitch, but Yext is essentially an aggregator and way to optimize your listing and your profiles across the myriad of local search spots. Right?

Duane:                         I’m going to flip that around for you Benjamin. We are in fact not an aggregator in the traditional how people would think of an aggregator. We are a data management platform. So you log into one location, you organize all of the data about your business and then we publish that out across our network of 170-plus locations. Google My Business, Bing, Facebook, Foursquare, and so on. And that also includes things like if you’re a local business and somebody asks for information about your local business through an Amazon Alexa device, we are what power those answers. So we are that data management layer. And that includes managing things like if you want to deploy structured data to your website, a very technical element, but if you want to deploy that, we have a system that allows that to happen. And then, again, through your one login, your one location that you go to, you just fill in the blanks. There is no technical coding, there’s none of that. We take care of that side of it. You just fill in the blanks, you select the items you want. We do that heavy lifting.

Ben:                               Naturally you’re better at describing your business than I am. Really the way that you described it makes sense. It’s not necessarily an aggregator but the single location that you can manage your company’s profile across a myriad of services.

Duane:                         Right. And to further refine, that because we actually offer APIs, you don’t even have to come and log in with us. You can simply come in, set everything up, take the API and put it into whatever dashboard you happen to want to work in and the data and the controls exist there. In fact, we have an assistant that’s available on the phone to clients, where you can actually send text messages to the assistant and it will update your business information. So, I don’t know, let’s say a snow storm rolls in and you have to close your business early. You want to update your hours of operation on the website so consumers aren’t showing up there during the snowstorm, finding you closed, getting upset, leaving bad reviews. You can simply send a text message to the system and it will go ahead and update that information on the fly for you.

Ben:                               So, Duane, I guess one of the first questions that I have for you is, let’s just talk about the placements that you need to optimize for when you’re thinking about local search. Off the top of my head I can think of Google Maps. Yelp is obviously a primary place that people are looking for local businesses. I’m sure there are a handful of other maps, Apple maps maybe. What are some of the other placements that you need to think about when you’re trying to make sure that you’re getting your brand out there?

Duane:                       So you want to be thinking of the obvious big ticket locations. So we’re thinking about Google, Bing, Foursquare, Facebook. We’re thinking about everything you’ve mentioned, as well as there is now an importance based on consumer usage of voice assistance. You now have to be concerned with your placement on Alexa and Google Home and in the digital assistant areas. So this is a new way of thinking about managing your data. And what’s really, really important about this is it’s really easy to think about, the only thing I need is Google My Business and if I just manage that I’ve got everything I need. The problem with that thinking is that Google doesn’t only look at its own view of you. So the data that it holds, it’s looking for the data that others hold about your business. And that might be a third party aggregator website, a small directory somewhere on the Internet that actually has your name, address, phone number, hours of operation and so on.

Duane:                       If that data all matches, Google feels good about what they have from you. If that data is not matched, if it is incorrect, Google is then holding back and saying why the discrepancy? I know what you gave me, but Google also is very clearly … they know that people make mistakes on their own website all the time. I was just looking this morning, I’m speaking in a conference next week, and I was looking at my agenda, figuring out when I was speaking. Apparently I’m speaking for 12 hours and 40 minutes according to the official agenda from the conference, because they had me marked from 11:10 AM until 11:50 PM.

Ben:                              You should bring some water.

Duane:                         Right. It’s clearly a typo. The point is people make mistakes on their websites, even their own business websites, and therefore Google doesn’t have blind trust in what the business shows them. So the net from that is Google is looking across everything it can find on the Internet related to your business. And there are, I will be honest with you, hundreds of small directories that scrape and pull together data for their own reasons and their own purposes that are publicly available, completely crawlable by Google, that may have information that’s inaccurate about you. And you may never know who they are, but it has an effect on Google deciding whether its data is totally accurate.

Ben:                              So talk to me about the management. It sounds like the long tail websites can really impact some of the head term local search engines. I’m assuming that this is one of the services that Yext is for, is to help make sure that all of those listings across the web are managed. What do you do if you have the budget to have a service like Yext and what do you do if you don’t?

Duane:                        So let’s tackle the “if you don’t” first. If you do not have the budget, you have to start with the big ones and work your way out. And the big ones are fairly obvious. The difficult part of this is there are two types of budgets that you’re going to run into with this. There is the, “I don’t have the money, I can’t afford this,” which means you will have to put your time into managing this. And this could be a couple of hours every week that you have to dedicate to tracking all of this and making sure that it’s accurate. And this includes, you’re going to have to have accounts set up, you’re going to have to have log-ins set up, you’re going to have to go log in, check all the data and make certain that it’s accurate. And then the important step, you have to go look at it on a mobile device or on your desktop to see it in real life the way consumers see that.

Duane:                        And if you do have a budget that you want to put towards something like this, a service like ours comes in because you make the change once and we push out and overwrite everything that’s out there. So when Yext hands its data to Google or to Bing, it actually overwrites what they currently have because they trust us as an accurate source of information. And we do a lot of verifying of data ourselves before we hand that information over.

Ben:                              So just to give some context, we don’t want to put Duane on the spot to talk about Yext pricing, but from my research, what I can tell is the trade-off you’re making is between a couple hours a week to manage your local service and listings. And depending on the size and scale of your business, you’re looking like somewhere between $500 to $5,000 a year to do your local listing management. And obviously there’s some other services that are provided. Duane, let’s talk a little bit more about some of the things that people that have local businesses can do to optimize their listings and their reputation.

Duane:                        There’s a lot wrapped up in that. I’m going to take us down a couple of different pathways here and we can kind of jump back and forth. The three most important elements from the search engine’s point of view is relevance, distance and prominence. Those are the three biggest aspects that a business needs to focus on and pay attention to. This is in addition to some of the tactical things which we can explore in a moment.

Duane:                         So relevance is how relevant is your business to what that local searcher has asked for? Obviously, if you’re a coffee shop and I’m looking for a cobbler, not the same thing. So relevance is a clear and easy test. Distance. The closer you are, the better to me. In most instances that’s what I want. But then we have prominence. And prominence as a bit of a mixed bag because prominence is where your reputation management comes in, the reviews, the star ratings you have, the commentary people are leaving. This is what shows your prominence, your authority as a business. That’s where you get to flex your muscles in the world of SEO and building your content and having things you rank well outside of local search. And that has an impact on your local search ranking.

Duane:                       Now, if we look at these things, I’m going to call it reviews specifically, because reviews are very powerful. Reviews are one of those things that can truly make or break everything else. And so you might be very close by to the searcher and you may be completely relevant, so you are a coffee shop, you’re around the corner. Your prominence, however, you don’t have a lot of content, there’s no real authority for your brand in any sense, and you’ve got a series of low reviews and the comments that are left back up the stars that the search engines are seeing. That will be enough for the search engine to not show you in a set of results.

Duane:                         In fact, if a consumer searches for anything with the modifier best or greatest or one of these things that delineates the top of a category, if you’re not four stars or higher, you’re starting to be filtered out of results that consumers see on their mobile devices. That is huge. So you think you’re doing well, you’ve got 3.7 3.9 stars, you’d like to see it higher, of course. You’re not even showing up in any search when somebody says, “Best coffee shop near me.” You don’t even show up because you’re below that cut line. And that’s inevitably going to become more important over time because consumers don’t want middle of the road experiences, they want always the best experience. Now, in some cases you can get away with a lower score and being below a four doesn’t cut you off. If everyone in your industry scores 3.5 and that is the average, then you scoring 3.5 means that you are right there with the best of them. Obviously everyone in that industry needs to improve. However, the reality is that you are graded against your peers, not against the nominal five star that happens to exist.

Duane:                        And there will be instances where you may be the only provider of a service in your community and therefore you will have to show up based on relevance and distance, and prominence has to take a backseat in that equation for the algorithm when it makes this decision. I’m thinking of hobby stores and model shops, things like that, that there tend not to be a lot of them in any geographical region. There’s a lot to that, but if I’m going to talk to a local business, I’m going to tell them, “Look, you need to respond to reviews. You need to respond to somewhere between 60% and 80% of all of the reviews that are published. You have to respond to that amount. That is a lot of responses and you have to get in there and do it. The good, the bad, the ugly.” And there is a very clear way of responding to the ugly that can turn it around from bad to good. So there’s a lot of science in all of this.

Ben:                              Okay. I think that’s a great place for us to stop and that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Duane Forrester, the VP of Industry Insights at Yext. We’d love to continue this conversation with you, so if you’re interested in contacting Duane, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile on our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter, where his handle is @DuaneForrester. Or you can visit his company’s website, which is Yext. Yext.com. If you have general marketing questions or if you want to talk about this podcast, you can 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 searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our Digital Strategies Team.

Ben:                             And 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 tomorrow morning to continue our conversation with Duane Forrester, VP of Industry Insights at Yext. 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. But until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.