One of the most common complaints I hear from service area business owners, like plumbers, locksmiths, and housekeepers, is that Google has always treated them as an afterthought. If you’re in charge of the digital marketing for these business models, it’s vital to understand just how accurate this complaint is so that you can both empathize with SAB brand owners and create a strategy that honors limitations while also identifying opportunities.
In marketing SABs, you’ve got to learn to make the best of a special situation. In this post, I want to address two of the realities these companies are facing right now that call for careful planning: the unique big picture of SAB local listing management, and the rise of Google’s Home Service Ads.
Let’s talk listings, Moz Local, and SABs
I was fascinated by my appliance repairman — an older German ex-pat with a serious demeanor — the first time he looked at my wall heater and pronounced,
“This puppy is no good.”
Our family went on to form a lasting relationship with this expert who has warned me about everything from lint fires in dryers to mis-branded appliances slapped together in dubious factories. I’m an admiring fan of genuinely knowledgeable service people who come to my doorstep, crawl under my house where possums dwell, ascend to my eerie attic despite spiders, and are professionally dedicated to keeping my old house livable. I work on a computer, surrounded by comforts; these folks know what real elbow grease is all about:
It’s because of my regard for these incredibly hard-working SAB owners and staffers that I’ve always taken issue with the fact that the local Internet tends to treat them in an offhand manner. They do some of the toughest jobs, and I’d like their marketing opportunities to be boundless. But the reality is, the road has been rocky and the limits are real.
Google goofed first
When Google invested heavily in developing their mapped version of the local commercial scene, there was reportedly internal disagreement as to whether a service area business is actually a “place” and deserved of inclusion in Google’s local index. You couldn’t add service area businesses to the now-defunct MapMaker but you could create local listings for them (clear as mud, right?). At a 2008 SMX event, faced with the question as to how SABs could be accurately represented in the local results, a Google rep really goofed in first suggesting that they all get PO boxes, only to have this specific practice subsequently outlawed by Google’s guidelines.
Confusion and spam flowed in
For the record,
Both SABs and brick-and-mortar businesses are currently eligible for Google My Business listings if they serve customers face-to-face.
SABs must have some form of legitimate street address, even if it’s a home address, to be included
Only brick-and-mortar businesses are supposed to have visible addresses on their listings, but Google’s shifting messaging and inconsistent guideline enforcement have created confusion.
Google has shown little zeal for suspending listings that violate the hide-address guidelines, with one notable exception recently mentioned to me by Joy Hawkins of Sterling Sky: SABs who click the Google My Business dashboard box stating that they serve clients at the business’ location in order to get themselves out of no man’s land at the bottom of the Google Home Service ad unit are being completely removed from the map by Google if caught.
Meanwhile, concern has been engendered by past debate over whether hiding the address of a business lowered its local pack rankings. The 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors survey is still finding this to be the #18 negative local pack ranking factor, which might be worthy of further discussion.
All of these factors have created an environment in which legitimate SABs have accidentally incorrectly listed themselves on Google and in which spammers have thrived, intentionally creating multiple listings at non-physical addresses and frequently getting away with it to the detriment of search results uniformity and quality. In this unsatisfactory environment, the advent of Google’s Home Service Ads program may have been inevitable, and we’ll take a look at that in a minute.
Limits made clear in listing options for SABs
Whether the risk of suspension or impact on rankings is great or small, hiding your address on SAB Google My Business listings is the only Google-approved practice. If you want to play it totally safe, you’ll play by the rules, but this doesn’t automatically overcome every challenge.
Google is one of the few high-level local business index requiring hidden SAB addresses. And it’s in this stance that SABs encounter some problems taking advantage of the efficiencies provided by automated location data management tools like Moz Local. There are three main things that have confused our own customers:
Because our SAB customers are required by Google to hide their address, Moz Local can’t then verify the address because… well, it’s hidden. This means that customers need to have a Facebook listing with a visible address on it to get started using Moz Local. Facebook doesn’t require SAB addresses to be hidden.
Once the customer gets started, their ultimate consistency score will generally be lower than what a brick-and-mortar business achieves, again because their hidden GMB listing address can’t be matched to all of the other complete listings Moz Local builds for them. It reads like an inconsistency, and while this in no way impacts their real-world performance, it’s a little sad not to be able to aim for a nifty 100% dashboard metric within Moz Local. Important to mention here that a 100% score isn’t achievable for multi-location business models, either, given that Facebook’s guidelines require adding a modifier to the business name of each branch, rendering it inconsistent. This is in contrast to Google’s policy, which defines the needless addition of keywords or geo-modifiers to the business name as spam! When Google and Facebook fundamentally disagree on a guideline, a small measure of inconsistency is part and parcel of the scenario, and not something worth worrying about.
Finally, for SABs who don’t want their address published anywhere on the Internet, automated citation management simply may not be a good match. Some partners in our network won’t accept address-less distribution from us, viewing it as incomplete data. If an SAB isn’t looking for complete NAP distribution because they want their address to be kept private, automation just isn’t ideal.
So how can SABs use something like Moz Local?
The Moz Local team sides with SABs — we’re not totally satisfied with the above state of affairs and are actively exploring better support options for the future. Given our admiration for these especially hard-working businesses, we feel SABs really deserve to have needless burdens lifted from their shoulders, which is exactly what Moz Local is designed to do. The task of manual local business listing publication and ongoing monitoring is a hefty one — too hefty in so many cases. Automation does the heavy lifting for you. We’re examining better solutions, but right now, what options for automation are open to the SAB?
Option #1: If your business is okay with your address being visible in multiple places, then simply be sure your Facebook listing shows your address and you can sign up for Moz Local today, no problem! We’ll push your complete NAP to the major aggregators and other partners, but know that your Moz Local dashboard consistency score won’t be 100%. This is because we won’t be able to “see” your Google My Business listing with its hidden address, and because choosing service-related categories will also hide your address on Citysearch, Localeze, and sometimes, Bing. Also note that one of our partners, Factual, doesn’t support locksmiths, bail bondsmen or towing companies. So, in using an automated solution like Moz Local, be prepared for a lower score in the dashboard, because it’s “baked into” the scenario in which some platforms show your full street address while others hide it. And, of course, be aware that many of your direct local competitors are in the same boat, facing the same limitations, thus leveling the playing field.
Option #2: If your business can budget for it, consider transitioning from an SAB to a brick-and-mortar business model, and get a real-world office that’s staffed during stated business hours. As Mike Blumenthal and Mary Bowling discuss is in this excellent video chat, smaller SABs need to be sure they can still make a profit after renting an office space, and that may largely be based on rental costs in their part of the country. Very successful virtual brands are exploring traditional retail options and traditional brick-and-mortar business models are setting up virtual showrooms; change is afoot. Having some customers come to the physical location of a typical SAB may require some re-thinking of service. A locksmith could grind keys on-site, a landscaper could virtually showcase projects in the comfort of their office, but what could a plumber do? Any ideas? If you can come up with a viable answer, and can still see profits factoring in the cost of office space, transitioning to brick-and-mortar effectively removes any barriers to how you represent yourself on Google and how fully you can use software like Moz Local.
If neither option works for you, and you need to remain an SAB with a hidden address, you’ll either need to a) build citations manually on sites that support your requirements, like these ones listed out by Phil Rozek, while having a plan for regularly monitoring your listings for emerging inconsistencies, duplicates and incoming reviews or b) hire a company to do the manual development and monitoring for you on the platforms that support hiding your address.
I wish the digital marketing sky could be the limit for SABs, but we’ve got to do the most we can working within parameters defined by Google and other location data platforms.
Now comes HSA: Google’s next SAB move
As service area business owner or marketer, you can’t be faulted for feeling that Google hasn’t handled your commercial scenario terribly well over the years. As we’ve discussed, Google has wobbled on policy and enforcement. Not yet mentioned is that they’ve never offered an adequate solution to the reality that a plumber located in City A equally services Cities B, C, and D, but is almost never allowed to rank in the local packs for these service cities. Google’s historic bias toward physical location doesn’t meet the reality of business models that go to clients to serve. And it’s this apparent lack of interest in SAB needs that may be adding a bit of sting to Google’s latest move: the Home Service Ads (HSA) program.
You’re not alone if you don’t feel totally comfortable with Google becoming a lead gen agent between customers and, to date:
Suddenly, SABs have moved to the core of Google’s consciousness, and an unprecedented challenge for these business models is that, while you can choose whether or not to opt into the program, there’s no way to opt out of the impacts it is having on all affected local results.
An upheaval in SAB visibility
If HSA has come to your geo-industry, and you don’t buy into the program, you will find yourself relegated to the bottom of the new HSA ad unit which appears above the traditional 3-pack in the SERPs:
Additionally, even if you were #1 in the 3-pack prior to HSA coming to town, if you lack a visible address, your claimed listing appears to have vanished from the pack and finder views.
*I must tip my hat again to Joy Hawkins for helping me understand why that last example hasn’t vanished from the packs — it’s unclaimed. Honestly, this blip tempts me to unclaim an SAB listing and “manage” it via community edits instead of the GMB dashboard to see if I could maintain its local finder visibility… but this might be an overreaction!
If you’re marketing an SAB, have been relegated to the bottom of the HSA ad unit, and have vanished from the local pack/finder view, please share with our community how this has impacted your traffic and conversions. My guess would be that things are not so good.
So, what can SABs do in this new landscape?
I don’t have all of the answers to this question, but I do have these suggestions:
Obviously, if you can budget for it, opt into HSA.
But, bizarrely, understand that in some ways, Google has just made your GMB listing less important. If you have to hide your address and won’t be shown in HSA-impacted local packs and finder views because of this guideline compliance, your GMB listing is likely to become a less important source of visibility for your business.
Be sure, then, that all of your other local business listings are in apple-pie order. If you’re okay with your address being published, you can automate this necessary work with software like Moz Local. If you need to keep your address private, put in the time to manually get listed everywhere you can. A converted lead from CitySearch or Foursquare may even feel like more of a victory than one from Google.
Because diversification has just become a great deal more important, alternatives like those offered by visibility on Facebook are now more appealing than ever. And ramp up your word-of-mouth marketing and review management strategies like never before. If I were marketing an SAB, I’d be taking a serious new look at companies like ZipSprout, which helps establish real-world local relationships via sponsorships, and GetFiveStars, which helps with multiple aspects of managing reviews.
Know that organic visibility is now more of a prize than previously. If you’re not in the packs, you’ve got to show up below them. This means clearly defining local SEO and traditional SEO as inextricably linked, and doing the customary work of keyword research, content development, and link management that have fueled organic SEO from the beginning. I’m personally committing to becoming more intimately familiar with Moz Pro so that I can better integrate into my skill set what software like this can do for local businesses, especially SABs.
Expect change. HSA is still a test, and Google continues to experiment with how it’s displaying its paying customers in relationship to the traditional free packs and organic results. Who knows what’s next? If you’re marketing SABs, an empathetic and realistic approach to both historic and emerging limitations will help you create a strategy designed to ensure brand survival, independent of Google’s developments.
Why is Google doing this?
I need to get some window blinds replaced in my home this fall. When I turned to Google’s (non-HSA) results and began calling local window treatment shops, imagine my annoyance in discovering that fully ½ of the listings in the local finder were for companies not located anywhere near my town. These brands had set up spam listings for a ton of different cities to which they apparently can send a representative, but where they definitely don’t have physical locations. I wasted a great deal of time calling each of them, and only felt better after reporting the listings to Google and seeing them subsequently removed.
I’m sharing this daily-life anecdote because it encapsulates the very best reason for Google rolling out Home Service Ads. Google’s program is meant to ensure that when I use their platform to access service companies, I’m finding vetted, legitimate enterprises with accurate location data and money-back satisfaction guarantees, instead of finding the mess of spam listings Google’s shifting policies and inadequate moderation have created. The HSA ad units can improve results quality while also protecting consumers from spurious providers.
The other evident purpose of HSA is the less civic-minded but no less brilliant one: there’s money to be made and Google’s profit motives are no different than those of any other enterprise. For the same reason that Amazon has gotten into the SAB lead gen business, Google wants a piece of this action. So, okay, no surprise there, and if the Google leads wind up growing the revenue of my wonderful German handyman, more power to them both.
But I hope my plumber, and yours, and your clients in the service markets, will take a step back from the Monopoly board and see this as a moment to reevaluate a game in which Google and Amazon are setting up big red hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. I do advocate getting qualified for HSA, but I don’t advise a stance of unquestioning loyalty to or dependence on Google, particularly if you haven’t felt especially well-served by their SAB policies over the years. If Google can drive lucrative leads your way, take them, but remember you have one advantage Google, Amazon and other lead generation agencies lack: you are still the one who meets the customer face-to-face.
Opportunity is knocking in having a giant of visibility like Google selling you customers, because those customers, if amazed by your service, have grandmothers, and brothers and co-workers who can be directly referred to your company, completely outside the lead-gen loop. In fact, you might even come up with an incentivization program of your own to be sure that every customer you shake hands with is convinced of your appreciation for every referral they may send your way.
Don’t leave it all up to Google to make your local SAB brand a household word. Strategize for maximum independence via the real-world relationships you build, in the home of every neighbor where the door of welcome is opened in anticipation of the very best service you know how to give.
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