Mike Blumenthal is a well known figure within the SEO community. He's of course the co-founder of GatherUp, a customer experience and online review engine, a regular blogger on all things local SEO related, and co-founder and presenter of LocalU, where you can learn more about SEO from their events and online forum.
Needless to say I was extremely lucky that he was willing to participate in this Q & A session and it's clear he's been very generous in sharing his knowledge throughout the interview. I was keen to get his thoughts on a few areas of local SEO specific to the hotel industry - one which has it's own challenges and which is fairly regularly hit by Google's updates.
Anyway - here's the Q & A session with Mike in full. Enjoy!
#1 - Google quite aggressively targeted the travel sector as a whole during 2018 - providing travel guides from web-based content, a flight booking engine, and more recently a hotel booking engine, and so providing the whole travel experience within their own "walled garden".
Which, if any, industries are next to feel Google's wrath? Or is nobody safe as Google continues to expand into other verticals?
Travel has been an ongoing project for Google for many years. It took them 6 or 7 years of experimenting and testing to get where they are now. That included Google building out their Knowledge Graph as well as buying their flight scheduling engine. In other words, their dominance came about from years of experimentation, buy-outs, tests and persistence.
Google isn’t god. They have failed at a number of local monetization attempts like insurance and car quotes. They are just a very effective company at ferreting out profitable opportunities and cancelling projects that don’t measure up.
And their scale and monopoly position provides them lots of opportunity to enter new markets and to extract profit. But it is important to remember that Google looks at data as gold so not every move Google makes is towards direct monetization. And I think It is a mistake to view everything that Google does through the lense of what will get them more money.
Obviously they are a public company but they have a very long view. They will monetize where they can see significant profit opportunities. But more significantly, in my mind, they will “datatize” even more via transactional opportunities and granular location data.
In some ways Google doesn’t really care if they get the money from every transaction. They care more about delivering the customer the data and experience that the customer wants so that they stick around Google ever longer but get the immediate question they had answered more quickly. And if they do have to send the user off site, they want to get as much data as they can from the user journey.
As case in point is Reserve with Google. Maybe someday they will monetize this themselves but for now they are partnering with a whole range of companies that already offer scheduling and booking services. Google doesn’t profit from this widespread effort. It will be interesting to see how two of their partners in this effort, Trip Advisor & Yelp, will interact with the system.
A similar effort is their integration with inventory systems so that the data is automatically uploaded to Google via POS etc.
Both of these are early plays to leverage the data in the market place to improve the user experience, make the Business Profile more transactional and neither includes monetization by google.
As to additional monetization though I see Google continuing to refine and reframe Adwords variations to better speak to more markets. Local Service Ads were an example of this where Google focused on the home services business and brought out an AdWords that was super simple, easy to self provision and to get value from. I think you will see an expansion of this program into many more verticals that involve businesses going into peoples place of work or homes. Lawyers comes to mind as a potential market for expansion or variation of the Local Service Ads products.
I see Amazon aggressively partnering with local retailers for various logistic and selling opportunities. I don’t think Google will leave Amazon unchallenged in that area either.
#2 - Following on from the above, do you feel that Google's extra-curricular activities have been fair, or could they have an overwhelming hold on the internet which may require some form of external regulation?
Google clearly has a market dominating, monopolistic position in the world of search engines and particularly in the area of local search where they have roughly a 95% market share.
In local, they have done no where near enough to be sure that consumers do not suffer harm. This is particularly true in the form of listing spam and review spam.
Unfortunately, at least in the US and despite happy talk to the contrary, the regulatory regimes are driven by the benefits that other businesses are attempting to extract, or barriers to impose on Google, not real benefits to consumers. So, in a world where consumers should be put first, regulation would be a rational thing. But when the process is largely driven by other large companies and the outcomes look to favor those companies, all we would be doing is trading the devil we know for ones that we don’t know. So I guess I don’t have a straight forward answer to your question.
#3 - 2018 was famously the year Google took the opportunity to "sunset" their failed Google Plus social network, using the chance to announce it at the same time as their own huge data leak.
Do you think Google is really moving away from participating as a viable social network, or are they instead just going to further layer-it into their Google SERPS - such as the way their own "Q and A" feature works within Google My Business?
Google never really much cared about a social network per se, they cared about learning more about individuals so that they could better target them for ads, services and so as to be able to improve their search experience. So while Plus was as a failure as a social network, it did succeed in creating an identify service for Google so that they know where people are going and what they are doing across both Google and the greater internet. That identify service and the ability to track users activities across a range of services and websites is really more valuable to Google than a social network because it also captures off Google behaviors.
Another area of “social failure” is/was in messaging. This is the real social network of the world where folks communicate with their loved ones and close associates (unlike Facebook where you might have thousands of “friends”).This is a product category where they continue to struggle and continue to attempt to create a “social” product that can attract loyal users like iMessage and Facebook Messenger.
This is an area where Google can’t afford to lose and yet they keep doing just that. Whether they have finally figured out the path to success remains to be seen but clearly they are continuing to try to break into it. The certainly have a strong position to foster b to c messaging via the Knowledge Graph and Business Profiles. In other words, they could create a business to consumer messaging environment via the Business profile presented in search. But even there it seems like one step forward and one back.
While all that is happening (or not) I think that they will continue to add social features and social activities wherever and whenever it provides them more data and more understanding of individuals and businesses. As you point out, a good example of this is Google Q & A where an individual asks a question about a location and then Google leverages their 90+ million strong army of Local guides to answer the question. Although an interesting twist on answering Google Q & A for businesses was recently introduced where answers are provided to new questions from existing reviews. It is an incredible example of answering a users question while they are actually asking it. Google has generated massive amounts of data about local businesses with this tool and it typifies how they “roll”.
#4 - For new businesses getting started in 2019 which 3 things do you think are crucial to ensure good local search engine visibility? Or does the answer to that vary too much according to the industry in which they're operating?
From where I sit there are 4 things that every business should have in place for both search engine visibility and for broader digital marketing success in general.
1- First and foremost every business needs a well implemented website
2- Maximize their Google My Business profile
3- A customer email/SMS acquisition strategy
4- A comprehensive review acquisition strategy
1- A website first and foremost helps users understand what you do and to build their trust so that they can reach out to you. It helps Google understand and rank your business. And it is a piece of digital marketing content that you own and can completely control. it is the cornerstone of all your web efforts that convinces users and Google that they can and should be doing business with you.
2- In many local verticals, Google has done such a good job of including all pertinent information that many users make a decision right on the Google search result for your business. I call this phenomenom, Google as the New Home Page. A business should work to fill out every detail, every link and every opportunity that Google presents here. They should make sure that their images are compelling and that reviews, not just from Google but from your own website and around the web tell the same compelling story. Even if you are in a business that requires that searcher go to your website to get their questions answered, the more quality information they see at Google compared to your competitors, the more likely they are to visit your website. It’s where everyone stops first on the web when searching for a local business and you need to “look your best” to increase your conversions.
3- The best, next customer is the one that you already have. Paying Google or Facebook to reacquire existing customers, when with a little work you could hold to the keys to bring old customers back makes no sense. Email marketing has proven to be the most resilient and highest ROI marketing channel, year in and year out. These customers on your email list know you, trust you and are much easier and cheaper to bring back in than a totally new customer. But you need an easy way to get back in touch with them and email really fills that bill.
4- Reviews create trust, they expand what searches Google shows you on and reviews help convert users. The first use of that email list should be to reach out to every customer and ask them for both a 1st (your own) and 3rd party reviews. Don’t limit yourself to just Google reviews. Google is quite agnostic as to how they leverage review content and the more places on the web, including your own website, that you can have reviews tell the story of your business the better off you will be.
#5 - Lots of specialists in organic search have been very vocal of Googles review problem - and the issue of verifying genuine reviews (such as Tim Capper, who I interviewed here, or Joy Hawkins). Are you on their side - and if so, what do you think Google needs to do about it?
I have been writing about review abuses for almost 10 years. Certainly Google needs to do more to guarantee the integrity of reviews. I think that Google needs to dramatically improve moderation. If anyone has the tools and technology and (god forbid) the people, to minimize spam reviews, it is Google. They have 50,000 engineers, so what they need to do is devote some brain and computing power to the problem. And yet they have repeatedly chosen to do the bare minimum beyond whatever they can concoct with their AI/ML routines.
But this is a societal issue that affects TripAdvisor, Yelp and every other site as well as Google. I have also long been an advocate of the government enforcing truth in advertising statues vis a vis reviews and harshly punishing review abusers. I think consumers should demand that our governments hold businesses and review sites to higher standards.
But whether Google improves or not, whether government steps up and plays the regulatory role that it should, I feel like businesses can and should take control of their own review world: Ask for more of their own legitimate reviews from their customer base. These can be at Google, their own website and around the web.
#6 - Do you think voice search is going to be the next big thing for local search - or are we still a bit too early to be honing in on this particular segment of users?
I am not one to predict the future. I am much more concerned with understanding the present as well as we can so that when the future comes, we are prepared for it.
One trend though, that influences almost all future search, including voice, Augmented Reality, and even desktop search, is the move toward Knowledge Graphs and entity search. That is the idea that things, not strings, are what will be most important going forward is very compelling. The basis of optimizing for entities will have a positive influence on desktop search today as well as whatever search technologies come about tomorrow but particularly voice search. In that context Google will want to answer users with the best business for their query and if a business has optimized the information about themselves on the web via Google My Business, their website and reviews, that business will have a good chance of being returned for that voice query.
#7 - 2018 was also the year of Google's mobile-first Armageddon. When (if ever) will voice-first become the next google requirement - like the fanfare Google's Mobile First indexing received?
As voice currently exists, there are a number of barriers to wide spread consumer adoption. Not the least of which is that natural language processing is still in its infancy. If a business is following, understanding and optimizing for entity first search though, regardless of what happens with voice, there doesn’t have to be a mobilegeddon type moment as you will be ready.
#8 - How do you feel about Google's involvement behind such initiatives as the AMP project, and their partnership with WordPress - do you think these good or bad for the future of the web?
I am ambivalent about them. An open web that is ubiquitous, secure and fast is a great thing. In so far as Google is behind those initiatives to foster those positive attributes of the web, it’s a good thing. And for Google to really succeed they need an open web to be able to leverage their technical advantages. The contradictions lie in the fact that Google, in needing to increase their ad sales, also needs and wants users to stay on their site longer and interact more.
Similar to their AMP efforts, which tends to reduce the viability of the open web, is their Google My Business Websites project. Google has created nearly 20 million websites for small businesses in the developing world. And while it is great that these businesses are now online, and no longer just caught behind Facebook’s walled garden, they really are not on the open web. They are on a very Googly vision of the open web where they participate in the creation, serving and ranking of that information. It is unlikely to end well.
#9 - Within some of the digital marketing agencies I've worked with, it's clear that many hotel clients are getting well over half of their organic traffic and bookings through their Google My Business listing. What should hotels and other businesses prioritise when it comes to setting up and managing their GMB listing?
Optimize their website so Google knows what they do, be sure to fill out every detail of the Google My Business dashboard, provide GREAT photos, get more reviews so Google knows better all of the things that you do. And then via email create a long term reason for your customers to return so that you can “hedge” your Google bet by having a direct relationship with your customer.
But as I have detailed in my writing about Google as the New Home Page, a business needs to take a holistic approach to how they appear on Google beyond just their Business profile. It is all about creating a compelling, consistent story about your brand and your reputation at both Google and elsewhere on the web.
#10 - Being a very well experienced and knowledgeable local seo expert - over the years, what's been the hardest element of SEO to explain to your clients?
Strategies vs tactics continue to be the most complicated thing to get clients to understand. In the end, they should want a stronger brand and more customers. Metrics should be established to measure what they really want and to measure improvements on those fronts.
Customers, while focusing on ranking and “getting” more reviews, often create a situation where they focus on the wrong things and miss the strategic forest for the the tactical trees.
#11 - And following on from that - what are the issues that you see businesses having repeatedly? What are the SEO issues that seem to be persistent to the clients you work with,regardless of their sector?
I see many businesses adopting the SEO tactic de jour instead of building out sustainable long term digital marketing plans that help them build better relationships with their customers and build better businesses that deserve their patronage.
#12 - Through GatherUp (formerly Get5Stars) what are the types of industries that use the review service the most? Is it what you'd envisioned when you began the company 6 years ago?
When I started the company all I knew was that almost every local business needed help systematizing their feedback process, they needed to focus more on business improvement and every business had to embrace reviews not run and hide from them. So we focused on building a product that could help every local business be better.
That being said we have done incredibly well in health care, financial services, home services and the restaurant industry. But we have a really strong white-label agency reseller program and those folks have worked in almost every vertical imaginable.
#13 - In terms of local SEO rankings and visibility, do you feel Google gives more value to reviews depending on their industry sector? For example, with hotels, do their reviews bring more weightings to their Google business ranking when compared to another industry, like an online retailer?
I don’t think that Google give more value based on industry sector. I do think that reviews may play a bigger role in some industries and locales, depending on what other signals are available for Google to use to determine prominence and relevance. Some industries and geographies have better or fewer websites, some have more or less links or better or fewer citations. So the impact will change depending on the context.
That being said Google loves reviews as a data and sentiment source. Everyone thinks about reviews as a ranking and prominence signal, which they likely are to some extent. But, they seem to play an even bigger role in helping Google understand what areas a business functions in (relevance) as well as how successful they are in that area.
I think this patent by Google gives a sense of how Google sees reviews to expand the effective reach of a business.
Firstly Google will look at reviews EVERYWHERE not just at Google to better understand the entity that they the reviews refer to.
User reviews may be gathered from one or more of blog or social network postings, emails, articles written for websites or for printed publications such as magazines or newspapers, postings made to a user review section of an online vendor or marketplace, or even user reviews submitted to various existing user review clearinghouses.
Secondly information from reviews becomes not just trusted and scored but is used to broadly expand Google’s understanding of the local business. It functions like a category in that sense and can expand the searches on which a business is shown.
In some implementations, descriptive text association engine 128 may determine a score, strength of association and/or other quantitative measure to be assigned to associations between descriptive segments of text and entities. For example, if a particular descriptive segment of text (e.g., category, entity name/alias, noun and/or adjective) is found frequently across a corpus of user reviews, it may be strongly associated with a particular entity or entities.
#14 - With NAP and listing consistency - similar to the reviews question previously, do you feel Google gives more value to the consistency/range of this information based on the industry? Or is it all a relatively even playing field?
I don’t see this as industry specific.The role and importance of NAP consistency has always existed in a context of how much information Google has about a business from various sources.
Like with reviews, a citation may have more value depending on what information Google has about a business. The relative importance of citations have diminished over the years as Google moved from a web based understanding of businesses to a knowledge graph view of them. It used to be that any inconsistency could lead to disastrous results like Google showing a competitor’s phone numbers in search etc. That is no longer the case.
Certainly it makes sense to have a consistent internet presence so people can find you when and where they want to. Obviously it used to make sense so that Google didn’t confuse your listing. Now it makes sense so that Apple users or Uber or Lyft users can find you.
But it also helps Google understand what you do and where you do it and you should view citations across several websites as an opportunity to expose Google to more categories of your expertise and alternative photos of your business.
#15 - Within an industry like hospitality where there are a number of places to leave a review - whether it's TripAdvisor, Booking.com, or even direct with the hotel, how would you advise upon which channel derives the most benefit? Or is that too dependent on various external factors, so best done on a case-by-case basis?
I view a review strategy and tactics as a long term issue. It isn’t about getting the most reviews the most quickly but having a sustainable long term approach that helps the business improve and helps educate customers to make the best decision. So given that it should have a 5 or even a 10 year horizon, there is time to get some reviews at many review sites.
That being said, I would focus on three (or more) main places and this applies to any business: your own website, Google and the most important vertical site(s) in your field.
Your own are easiest to get and offer a lot of SEO and content value as well as social proof.
Google is obviously a place many folks stop on their way to purchase from you.
The bigger vertical sites certainly provide social proof and some SEO value.
I would occasionally swap out which ones that I ask for reviews on, putting more emphasis on ones that are sending the most traffic. But you should measure this and periodically check in with your customers so that the decision can be made based on data not gut.
#16 - Finally, as this is usually a search Q and A session based around the topic of hotels and travel - what's been your favourite place to visit, and any particular hotels that have left a strong impact on you during your travels?
By far and away my favorite trip was a bicycle tour of Vietnam and Cambodia organized by a company called Grasshopper. As part of that we stayed at some amazing hotels but one that stood out was the Jaya House River Park in Siem Reap. I have never had a more enjoyable active vacation and while we stayed at some incredible hotels the Jaya House was one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed at.