Local Marketing Insights from allLocal’s Sara Garrison

Welcome to the latest installment of Catalyst’s Digital Tech Innovation Series, in which we interview the technology movers and shakers in the digital marketing industry. Today’s interview is with Sara Garrison, Director Local Enterprise at Position Technologies, Inc., producers of the allLocal marketing platform.

Sara serves a dual role of overseeing direct client and agency business at Position Tech, and of managing search engine/publisher relationships for the allLocal platform. She has developed close ties with Google and the other engines, often providing feedback on new functionality beta tests, proposing policy changes, and collaborating on new initiatives.

Read our interview of Sara below, and uncover insights into the future of local marketing. Enjoy!


Please tell our readers about allLocal and how your offerings differ from the competition.

SARA: allLocal is a Position Tech product, offering a centralized platform from which we manage enterprise-sized brands’ local listings across the local search ecosystem. We apply best-of-breed technology, up-to-date knowledge of local search, and keen insight to local listings management, working with Fortune 500 brands to deliver a comprehensive local search strategy. allLocal distributes business listing information to search engines, social media platforms, local sites, directories, map services, GPS platforms and all the major data aggregators, covering nearly 100% of the local search ecosystem. In addition, allLocal performs Listing Monitoring for accuracy across the web and Review Monitoring for reputation management.

Unlike other local listings syndication providers, allLocal addresses local listings at the data level within the broader local ecosystem; listings persist long-term. Focus is placed on improving the overall data running through the entire ecosystem, which often has an impact across the broader web and yields better long term results. We work with enterprise-sized brands with a minimum of 100 locations, and have strong, proprietary feed technology that has been honed over the years.

Sara Garrison

What have been the biggest changes in Local Search in 2014? How have you seen Google’s “Pigeon” update impact local results?

SARA: Pigeon was certainly big news in 2014, particularly because Google provided very little insight into the algorithm update except to state that it was supposed to tie local rankings closer to traditional organic search ranking signals. Marketers are still trying to come to terms with and understand the effects of the update. Some changes are clear, while others remain uncertain. For instance, we know the update was not penalty-based, but rather a fundamental change to the local search algorithm. Other key changes we observed:

  1. Greater importance placed on the brand’s domain authority
  2. Decrease in the number of local 7 packs (groupings of 7 local results in search results)
  3. Increase in 3 packs and single pinned result
  4. Reduction in the search radius for most local queries (tied to #2,3)
  5. Decrease in “duplicate” listings; businesses are not as likely to rank in both organic results and a local pack on the same SERP
  6. Directory sites like Yelp and Tripadvisor have benefitted from Pigeon, likely because of their domain authority

We continue to study the Pigeon algo update on a daily basis and still see ranking and traffic volatility as the algorithm adjusts. Eventually we’ll see Google’s new local algo level out, and at that time we’ll get a handle on exactly what has changed, and formulate any necessary steps to ensure that listings are aligned with Pigeon.

There have been quite a number of updates and modifications to Google’s local offerings. What’s your POV on the current state of Google and Local?

SARA: Understanding the current state of local search is critical to any local listings management strategy and is a top priority of allLocal. The search engines’ local offerings have evolved through numerous changes, re-brandings, and upgrades, in addition to algorithm changes and new initiatives.

For example, Google has evolved from the Google Local Business Center in 2005, to Google Places for Business in 2010, to Google Plus Local in 2012, to Google My Business in 2014 (and many iterations in between). Bing’s local offering has evolved from a third party platform to an in-house solution. Google’s local offering as well as the local space on the whole is constantly evolving. Ignoring these changes and announcements is done at a company’s peril. But on the other side of the coin, it is easy to feel a sense of information overload, which makes it challenging to see the big picture. This is where allLocal excels. We distill updates in the local search ecosystem into a set of defined next steps to keep in line with the ever changing landscape.

Google’s current local offering, Google My Business (GMB), is essentially the merging of two platforms: Google Places for Business and Google+. GMB is a simpler interface that gives businesses a single platform from which to experience all of Google’s local products. Companies can post to their local pages, view local “Insights” (analytics), respond to reviews, see reviews from around the web, click over quickly to Google Analytics, etc. It integrates Google’s myriad products into one portal, and at its heart, it’s really a UI update, albeit a big one. And really, hats off to Google for continuing to improve their local offering and providing excellent feedback on issues. Marketers, including myself, still remember when Google Places was a black box of uncertainty with very little support provided to business owners.

Connected to Google My Business is Google My Business Locations (informally known as the bulk upload platform), which is where enterprise-sized businesses with 10 or more locations manage their business listing data in bulk. In the current iteration of GMB, enterprise-sized businesses have access to the integrated Google+ functionality, but cannot yet perform certain functions in bulk, such as uploading cover and profile photos, or posting to all pages, though I’d expect this functionality to be rolled out in future.

Bing, Foursquare, and Facebook all have similar bulk upload platforms as well. Bing will accept a feed in Google’s feed format, though we would recommend using Bing’s feed specification. Bing’s feed spec is a bit more complete than Google’s, and allows businesses to provide more detail per listing. Foursquare is especially helpful with feed updates and will often turn around with updates in as little as 24-48 hours.


What will be the most impactful changes in Local Search in the coming year?

SARA: One can only guess. But if I had to speculate, I would say that Google in particular is headed in a decidedly “mobile” direction. Especially apparent with this latest Pigeon algorithm update, Google continues to refine their desktop search algorithm so that it better aligns with their mobile search algorithm. Google is getting better at determining a searcher’s location on desktop, which is more difficult, say, than determining a searcher’s location on mobile. This is evident in Google’s reduction of search radius with Pigeon.

I’d also expect Google to continue to expand upon the new GMB platform; they’ll most likely be adding new functionality as well as new Insights that incorporate mobile metrics such as Click to Call. Mobile signals will also become more prominent for local rankings, like Click to Call and Driving Directions. And while purely conjecture at this point, it seems possible that Google is attempting to bring local rankings into the fold with organic rankings and for one true algorithm to control both.

Another potentially impactful change in the local search ecosystem surrounds Infogroup’s new Data Axle platform, which allows near real-time processing of listing submissions, as opposed to the approximate 1-2 month refresh cycle of old. Several of Infogroup’s key data partners are either already synced with this faster refresh cycle, or will be in the near future, which means that listings submitted to Infogroup will propagate through the local ecosystem in near real-time.

We have confidence that Apple is taking steps towards addressing the quality of their mapping data after an initial rocky launch. And the evolution of beacons (whether Apple’s or others) will certainly change the landscape going forward. Brands use beacons today to pinpoint a user’s location within a store; one application of this is that beacons can allow a smartphone to show notifications, such as items that might be on sale nearby. Today the space is a bit noisy and under development. But now is the time to learn and engage in those areas. Businesses should develop a strategy for evolving their local marketing campaigns as the platforms evolve.

Lastly, Nokia is a sleeping giant in the space, but has made moves with a recent deal with Samsung, giving Samsung Galaxy smartphone users access to a Google Maps alternative with Nokia’s HERE Maps.

What are the most common mistakes that you see companies with many brick & mortar addresses making in the management of their online local listings?

SARA: Local remains a confusing and murky space, which is why this list could get long, but I’ll stick to a few mistakes I’ve seen frequently. Many businesses use geo-terms (e.g. The Pizza Guys San Diego) in the business name field when the geo term is not truly a part of the business name. This practice is disruptive to citation matching and is also a negative local search ranking factor and can harm listing performance. It diminishes the authority of the submitted listings with search engines and aggregators.

Some businesses limit distribution to a single engine or aggregator rather than forming a comprehensive distribution strategy. A comprehensive strategy is important in order to cover the local ecosystem and improve performance through citation building and matching.

Some clients assume that local listings management is a “set it and forget it” project. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Listing freshness is a signal to search engines that the listing data in your account is up to date and fresh, and should trump other data sources from around the web, which are likely stale. We update and push our clients’ feeds frequently, or refresh the entire feed even if no changes have been made to some of the listings.

Too many businesses “pay for placement” in smaller local directories when attempting to build citations, yet this is a temporary solution that doesn’t address the true data layer in the ecosystem. Once you stop paying, the bad data appears again. Businesses need to take a long term view on local and address the data running through the local ecosystem at the source.

Lastly, many businesses use call tracking numbers on listings, which can cause ongoing problems and a great deal of damage to local listing performance on Google especially. To briefly explain, Google assembles data for a given listing from a multitude of sources including other local sites, IYPs, government sites, Google Mapmaker edits, data aggregators, Street View, as well as from Google My Business (business owner). Google then clusters the data in order to present one cohesive listing. If Google can’t make the match between these various data sources (the phone number is considered to be the thumbprint of the listing), then a business listing is not credited with those citations. Furthermore, if Google can’t make the match due to call tracking numbers being used on various sites, then Google may even create a new cluster for the data, and duplicate listings may arise as a result. The end result is that a listing ranks and performs poorly on Google.

Reportedly, 20% of all Google web searches are with local intent, compared to more than double that on mobile. How do you see this evolving moving forward?

SARA: I’ve seen statistics that indicate local searches account for as much as 50% of all mobile searches, which equates to over 7.5 billion monthly searches with local intent in the US (May 2013 Comscore numbers). And another study estimates that 94% of smartphone users look for local information on their phone, while 84% of them take action as a result, such as making a purchase or contacting the business. Furthermore, 38% of those mobile local searchers make a purchase online or in-store. In other words, one in three local mobile searchers converts. That makes it critical for brands to make listing visibility and accuracy a priority to ensure that customers can connect with the business.

As for the future evolution, I’d expect mobile local searches to surpass desktop local searches in the not-too-distant future. One study predicts that mobile local searches will eclipse desktop by 2016, though it might be sooner than that. With partnerships in place with all major mobile maps providers, allLocal is ideally situated to help businesses prepare for when mobile becomes even more prominent in local search.

How important is Yelp in contrast to Google on the local front, and how do you recommend companies get the most out of Yelp?

SARA: In terms of strength, scale, and the relative size of their audiences, Yelp is certainly not the giant that Google is; it is almost unfair to compare the two. That’s mainly because Yelp is not a true general search engine. Yelp is certainly stronger in the younger age brackets (under 45), as well as in the west and northeast regions of the US (especially in major metropolitan cities), but they are not a Google competitor in the broad sense.

To further differentiate the two, Yelp has all but stopped ingesting business data from the data aggregators. They rely solely on business owner and user listing submissions. The result of this is that Yelp’s listing data is often inaccurate and enterprise-sized businesses are left with very few options to correct the data in bulk.

Google is really the 800 pound gorilla in the local space, while other sites, including Yelp, pale in comparison. That said, Yelp is an important review portal for many verticals in local search, especially in the markets mentioned above. The depth of Yelp’s content and overall user experience is excellent. Positive reviews are a factor in conversions, and Yelp does rank well in Google SERPs. Therefore, a review monitoring and management component is critical for many local search campaigns, depending on the vertical.

With regards to reputation management for local businesses, what are the most critical things that a business should be doing?

SARA: Every company should have a review management strategy in place, especially in certain verticals where reviews are more common and prominent, such as hospitality and restaurants. First, a couple of key review stats:

  • 70% of people trust online reviews
  • 79% of people who trust reviews trust them as much as personal recommendations

Reviews also help rankings at Google, and secondary sites like Yelp, Tripadvisor, etc. A brand should target review sites that are important in their industry. Reviews can help businesses rank, and are an important factor in conversions.

At an enterprise level, well-known national brands are already receiving reviews. Therefore, attempting to obtain reviews is not as critical or relevant at scale. However, monitoring reviews becomes an important, yet challenging undertaking. The allLocal Review Monitoring strategy makes monitoring reviews a simple process. Businesses should respond to negative and even glowing positive reviews to show that they care about and are engaged with their customers. Businesses can also flag reviews that clearly violate the site’s review policies, such as when a review uses hate speech, personal information, advertising, spam, etc.

Are there any effective local marketing platforms that you feel are often overlooked?

SARA: Managing local listings and your business’s location data is foundational, yet many companies overlook it. They simply don’t know how inaccurate their listing data is or how much better they could be performing. I know it sounds redundant, but it’s shocking how many brands spend millions of ad dollars on mobile, display or print media, yet don’t actively manage their local data. This includes not just their addresses and phone numbers, but store hours, photos, detailed descriptions of services, etc.

As for overlooked or forward thinking marketing platforms, Facebook is quickly becoming a very competitive player in the local review space. Brands shouldn’t overlook Facebook from a local perspective. It’s still developing, but there’s no denying the direction is local.

Can you share any aspects of your upcoming product roadmap for allLocal?

SARA: Creating and distributing the highest quality local data is a top priority for allLocal and will continue to be so. This benefits the brands we support, but also helps create very strong relationships with the sites in our distribution network. We are still investing in ways to improve location data, especially as it relates to geocodes. There’s a lot of bad data out there. Our next version of products will take listing accuracy to another level. No longer will only knowing the center of store be acceptable.  Consumers will want to know the optimal routing, nearest parking and best entrance to use. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once you look at search or navigation inside a business location, that landscape is uncharted and still up for grabs.

We also continue to develop our direct distribution channels, the latest of which is a partnership with Mapquest that allows us to distribute listing data to the mapping engine directly. We are also working towards closer integration with social networks like Facebook for listing distribution and review monitoring and foursquare for performance statistics.

At allLocal, we’re vigilant in identifying new opportunities and excited to bring new solutions to the local search space.