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David Mihm: Hey everyone. I’m David Mihm, local business owner and VP of product strategy at ThriveHive. And today on FoundBytes, we’re going to talk to my good friend Mike Blumenthal about his marketing mnemonic, Google as your new homepage.
Mike is the co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform for local businesses, as well as LocalU a seminar series and forum that provides small business training in sustainable local search marketing. Mike does a twice a week podcast of his own about local marketing at LocalU and also has his own blog at Blumenthals.com. He’s affectionately known in the local search industry as Professor Maps and or the Godfather of Local Search. And without any further ado, here’s my conversation with Mike on Google as your new homepage.
David Mihm: So we mentioned you are one of the principles involved in GatherUp, and you’re a co-founder of LocalU with me. Your professional bio, I think folks hopefully have a good sense of at this point. I would find it again—like I said it with Joy—I would find it hard to believe that people don’t necessarily know who you are at this point. But they may not know the backstory in terms of how you got interested in helping small businesses and, in particular, helping them with Google. So maybe you could just give folks a little bit of context there.
Mike Blumenthal: Sure. So I ran a family business with my father and my brother, $5 million, 50 employee business that went totally down the tubes in 2001. Part of that business had been systems integration for publishing using Apple computers, Mackintosh Pagemaker, that sort of thing. And prior to closing, I had gotten interested in the web and we developed an early wiki-based CMS open source product that when we closed the business, I focused full time on helping regional businesses gain a web presence.
And through that, it became obvious that some amount of search engine optimization was necessary if they were ever going have any visitors to the website. At that point, we were talking 2000, 2001 in a rural area. And in 2005 when Google Maps came out, I was blown away because I needed nine yellow page books to be able to market into my rural area to get 250,000 people within 50-60 miles on me.
When all of a sudden I was able to see all that in one spot with one quick query, it was a breakthrough. And I kept my eye on the space and a few people writing about it a little bit, Matt Magee, Greg Sterling, but nobody was focusing on the technical side of it.
And so in 2006, I wrote my September, 2006, I wrote my first blog post was very tactically focused, sort of what questions I had about Google and local search. And from that point on, you know, I’d volunteered at the Google My Business forums, which at that point were a terrible hornet’s nest of action, mayhem and resentment because Google’s local algorithm was so screwed up.
I helped a lot of businesses there, and ultimately that led to—I don’t think I got my first local consulting job until—even though we had been speaking and I’d been speaking nationally with you and we’d set up LocalU, I don’t think I got my first local consulting job till 2011. But by the end of 2011, begin 2012, my business had totally shifted. It had been mostly web design, web development and I would then within a year, 80% would be local search. So from 2012 on, I was very active with an international client base and what have you.
David Mihm: And now you’re “all local, all the time” as you like to say. Isn’t that right?
Mike Blumenthal: Well, I’ve always been “all local, all the time.” Whether I had a bricks-and-mortar business. I mean, you know, I came to this from a bricks-and-mortar retail, hard goods business, which, you know, it’s brutal these days and it was brutal then, but we were one of the early ones to sort of fall on our sword and I just had both tremendous resentment of how the Yellow Pages work in that context as well as tremendous empathy for anybody trying to do that.
So it was one of my focuses when I got into it. So it’s always been that way. I mean, I think I’ve been, you know, I just, I love local. I was very involved in the attempt to renovate the downtown and that sort of stuff. So I’ve been doing it one way or another for many, many, many, many years. I never got an allowance. I had to go in and sweep the floor.
David Mihm: Well, you have at least one grateful blog reader: Myself. Obviously, I’ve learned a lot from your blog and from you personally over the years. And I think without it, you know, we may never have met. It’s one of those, one of those friendships that started online first and turned into something in the real world. So as I hope you know, I’m one of your biggest fans.
Mike Blumenthal: Well, I appreciate it. And you know, for me it was the internet was life-changing in that way that my blog, your blog and a couple of others became sort of a focal point for very collegial community where the standard of sharing and openness that I had hoped would be different than the traditional SEO community, where there seems to be a lot of—
David Mihm: Speaking of a hornet’s nest!
Mike Blumenthal: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, I’ve had, I think you and I both, have been able to inculcate that attitude of sharing and openness and I appreciate that about you and about the industry we’re in.
David Mihm: Absolutely. Well in that spirit, let’s try to share with our audience a little bit more about—well it’s certainly our shared thinking, but I don’t want to claim any ownership of the concept that you really, really piloted a few years ago. Which is that you’re starting to think or you’re encouraging small businesses to start to think about Google as their new homepage. Can you give us a little bit more background about what that means to you and how you’d encourage business owners to start thinking about it?
Mike Blumenthal: So back maybe it was 2015 when Joel Haley was still working at Google and he was talking in terms of immersive search, I was seeing in certain local categories where it was like “hotels” and “travel,” where Google was making every effort to create another click for users to move into their site rather than off their site. And it became clear over that year—2015/2016—when Google Local finally freed itself from Google+ that they were intent on delivering as much information as they could through the knowledge graph for the Knowledge Panel and what is now called the Business Profile.
And in that changing the dynamic of the searcher’s relationship to the business changes the dynamic of Google dramatically from sending people over to websites to trying to answer their questions directly. And this was particularly true in local and since I sort of came upon the idea, did some research and it just struck me that Google had become for many businesses the most important page in their digital arsenal.
Not that it replaces a website, but that it needed to be thought about like you think about a website that you can influence it, control it, have impact to reflect your marketing and your brand. And that I thought that was a critical thing that if more people are going to see this page and any other information about your business, then you need to be there doing everything you can to influence it. Not Throwing your hands up here and saying, “Oh, it’s Google, I can’t do it.” So I came up with this mnemonic to sort of drive that point home.
David Mihm: And let’s talk a little bit more about—you’d mentioned you’d done some research and I know you’ve got a really a long, longterm ongoing case study, in terms of one of your clients and friends, Barbara Oliver Jewelry. Tell our audience who may not be familiar with either Barbara or with some of the research that you’ve done with her. Tell us a little bit about that case study and that has sort of triggered this mnemonic.
Mike Blumenthal: So Barbara came to me via my sister. My sister lives in Buffalo, and Barbara’s a jeweler in the suburbs of Buffalo. And she had an office, not a storefront. In the third story of an office building. She had no storefront presence, no street presence, no signage. And my sister loved going to her and she said to me, you really need to help this woman.
This was 2009, at which point I built Barbara new website. I convinced her to at least start dabbling with reviews. Very painful struggle moving her out of the classic “Gee, I don’t want—I’m afraid of what people are gonna say” mode into, you know, embracing the idea of reviews. That was a three- or four-year process. I used to send—back when Google Analytics could send reminders and monthly reports and I put a nag in there. So every month I’d nag her to say, “Did you get any email addresses this month to start your review campaigns?” And finally, she came around.
Then over the years, she’s expanded. She was originally dealing mostly with older women that needed rich baubles and she wanted to get into the engagement ring market and realized that the millennials that would be buying engagement rings would mostly be on Google.
So once she got comfortable with review space and she changed her thinking about how she was going to market and use the internet primarily to appeal to that age group and that product group. And I convinced her, I think it was in late 2015 or maybe it was 2016 I can’t remember exactly, to help do an in-store survey to fully understand where her clients were coming from and understand how they find—the ones that she was closing.
While she was doing that, I was doing a simultaneous sort of attribution study of her digital information. And I knew intuitively from looking at analytics that 90% of digital stuff was coming from Google in most local situations. But I hadn’t ever really figured out what that meant. So we, you know, took it the next step.
So we had this good data set that showed that at least in retail, where the goal is to get somebody in the door, the vast percentage—I think when we compared it to word of mouth, word of mouth was maybe 35% of her total incoming conversions and 55% was “The Reviews on the Internet.”
And when she would try to get them to explain what that meant, everybody would say, “You know, I just read the reviews on the Internet!” And they couldn’t say where they’d read the reviews. Right, whereas our analytics was showing quite clearly that at least at the end of the funnel, they were on Google reading those reviews.
We don’t know, maybe that came from Facebook, maybe they went to Facebook where they came from Yelp, went to Yelp. But none of those people from Yelp or Facebook are a very small percentage, three, four or 5% converted. Everybody converted from Google.
David Mihm: Yup. And I think it’s interesting even with that, what’d you say? 35% word of mouth. I mean, the reality is pretty much everybody, even if they’ve sort of already tentatively committed to doing business with you, everybody’s going to look you up on Google, right? They need to, especially in Barbara’s case with no signage, you know, street-front presence, they need to know how to get there and that sort of thing.
Mike Blumenthal: Well beyond that, she would talk to her millennials and they’d say, “You know, I was referred to word of mouth, but I still checked out your reviews.” So they were looking for not just—you know, if I ask a friend for a recommendation and I trust that friend, I trust the recommendation. These folks needed additional confirmation and reviews were the way they did that.
David Mihm: Yup. And so to segue into or segueing back to this original concept of Google as your homepage. Obviously, anyone who’s listening can do a search for themselves and see what shows up on Google. But could you hit the high notes and, in terms of the kinds of things you think business owners should be paying special attention to? Obviously, we’ve talked about reviews. But what are some of the other things that a business should really know that consumers are keying in on?
Mike Blumenthal: Sure. Firstly, you need a standard target from which to assess what you’re doing. And so I use the brand search has that target. In other words, company name and the city or company name. And when you do that, Google delivers everything that they know about that company.
Mike Blumenthal: [Google has] obviously, over the last three or four years, put special emphasis on reviews, not just reviews a Google but reviews at the businesses website and third party websites. So when you look at that page, reviews become really obvious, but it’s not just reviews at Google.
And as you know from that patent analysis that I’ve done, Google looks everywhere for review content. They don’t care where it comes from. So when the user gets to see your business, they need to see those confirming stories.
So reviews are one way to get—if you can create a consistently positive experience that can be reflected across multiple sites, not just Google, but your own site and Yelp and Facebook and the Knot and the Wedding Wire, the other related vertical sites—that’s a very powerful story that tells a quality story.
So reviews are important, but I think people need to expand their idea beyond just Google reviews. Google doesn’t care where the review content comes from. They’re going to scrape it and understand it and use it. So two views everywhere.
And the other most critical thing in my mind when you look at that page is images. Google is adding a lot of images in the mobile search results. You do have control over that. I have control over the reviews too.
So you can influence that, but you also have more control over photography and imagery. And that to me is a sort of single most important image on the web, is the one that they show with your knowledge panel, with your business profile. That image gets seen by more people, more times, and is the single most—I think probably the single most important visual distinction between you and your competitors.
Most businesses just don’t spend enough time on their photography and it’s cheap enough to hire a professional. I mean, you can get a year’s worth or two years worth of photographs, great quality photographs for $300-400.
And with cell phones these days, you know, with the better Samsungs and Apple phones, learn how to take good pictures seems to me important skillset for business these days. And yet when we do LocalUs and I analyze these listings, it’ll make you gag.
We spoke to the propane conference last month and who wants to see a picture of a snowy propane tank truck out in the middle of no place, you know? And it just was incredible to me that they had given so little thought to their imagery.
So reviews, imagery, and then obviously the more traditional stuff like title tags and your more traditional onsite SEO so that every, every piece of that page is positively influenced. Then as you move around the page, things like Google Posts, things like scheduling links, Google Q & A; these are all things that people can have an influence on. But the top two in my book would be photographs and reviews.
David Mihm: Exactly. And I think, we are certainly in alignment. I actually appreciate you reinforcing a theme that Joy Hawkins and I talked about on our last episode here of Found Bytes, which was the photos is definitely an area that I think is—I don’t know if I have to say neglected but under-appreciated by business owners. It’s great to hear you highlight their importance here as well.
And we would certainly say that, while we’re big believers in Google My Business and the importance of taking control and influencing that information as much as you can, you’re absolutely right that your still matters and third party websites definitely still matter. So Google My Business is kind of the starting point and maybe the easiest thing to wrap your arms around but you can’t ignore how you look across the rest of the Internet as well.
Mike Blumenthal: No, I mean Google is a vacuum cleaner. We’ve always known this about them and with an edit of the knowledge graph, they’re aggregating more and more data about your place of business and they are looking everywhere for it. So your website is a primary source for that as well as Yelp and Facebook and vertical sites are all primary sites for that. But all of that then is reflected back through your brand search on Google.
This is the point you made and we’ve talked about it in some of our other writing is that Google’s short-form representation of things like reviews, summarizing reviews from five or six sites and stars and giving a great image or one image. They think it’s great. Consumers seem to love that and they love the brevity of it. And oftentimes, even though all this other information from these other resources is feeding it, they’ll stop right there and that’s the end of the digital part of the consumer journey. And they’ll get in their car and they’ll drive to visit you or they’ll pick up the click-to-call and call you.
David Mihm: Right? And I think that’s actually a great segue into a sort of mini topic I wanted to go over and I think one of the data points that informs my opinion about brevity beating long-form content, at least when it comes to local—you know, Yelp has for years touted the sort of length and depth of its reviews. And I think that’s a false guiding star on their part.
One of the reasons I think that is that if you think about the typical use case for a consumer doing a local search, invariably it’s happening on their mobile device more and more. I wouldn’t say—I shouldn’t say invariably, but it’s happening on mobile devices more and more.
I certainly, if I’m on my phone, a small screen, you know, the sun’s out, I can barely read what’s on the screen in the first place. I’m looking for something that helps me make a very quick, in-the-moment decision. And I think Google has held mobile at the top of its thinking since, gosh, what do you think? 2010 probably, if not before that.
Mike Blumenthal: Although interestingly not with Google Plus, right?
David Mihm: Not Google Plus, exactly. Well, that was,
Mike Blumenthal: Which diverted their attention for a number of years.
David Mihm: Yes, diverted is putting it mildly. But I think a strong sort of theme that is still is also under-appreciated by business owners is just how prevalent mobile consumer behavior really is.
Mike Blumenthal: Which is another behavior that they have control over that I often see them not engaging in, which is if businesses fall into camps as you and I’ve talked about: either it’s the type of business where somebody can make a decision right at Google or the need information and they’re going to come to your website.
And when they do come to your website, shockingly to me, that click-to-call, driving directions, and hours aren’t big bold, easy-to-click icons at the top of every homepage for that reason, right? I mean, and this has been true for a couple of years now, but again, I look at every site I look at, I wouldn’t—10% of them or 15% of them have good calls, those direct calls to action that retailers need.
David Mihm: Yup. And I think certainly Google has done the research in terms of what potential consumers care about and how they want to engage. So couldn’t agree more that your website should leverage Google’s research and feature the calls to action that Google knows consumers are attracted to. For sure.
We’ve got just a few minutes left. I wanted to get a little bit more into this discussion. We’ll have to have you back for a fuller discussion around this specific topic, but let’s talk a little bit more about the nuanced position of websites in this ecosystem.
David Mihm: I think you and I are both, um, we’ve been misrepresented on occasion of saying or being in the camp that websites are dead and websites don’t matter. Let’s dive into and maybe recap our conversation from a few weeks ago around exactly what you were just talking about, the types of businesses where consumers may make an instant decision directly from Google and those where, you know, they need to do a little bit more research and have a little bit more comfort with the business first.
Mike Blumenthal: Yeah. So let’s look at it at the highest level, right? A website that’s been verified through webmasters or Search Console and Analytics and Google My Business is a really trusted resource by Google. And it is used by Google as a primary source for data, they’ll look at your website before they look at information from any of the list builders or other sites, they’ll look at your website first.
So it is, it’s paramount importance to Google as a place to provide Google with the information about who you are, your brand name, what you’re doing, where you’d do it. And equally important is the idea of internal links, particularly from your homepage telling Google what the things are that you do.
Using links. Links is a technology that Google has always understood. You can’t go wrong linking from your homepage to an internal page using the keyword. And that informs not just the consumer but it informs Google, you know, as opposed to “click here.” Which again, is one of these basic mistakes a lot of businesses make. They have some lame link phrase that we know that Google really loves links, understands them and it influences their understanding of your business.
And everything they dig out of that then comes back and reinforces the business profile terms of the reach of it that you show on how you show the information they show, et cetera. Yep.
David Mihm: I think that’s an apt description. I see websites as a reinforcing and expanding where your business profile can and does show up. And in certain categories, you know, it’s going to be the primary conversion point. You know, categories where you need to do more research or where there’s very long tail sort of product or service nuances that you just aren’t going to come across in one screen, a Google My Business profile.
So you definitely want to make sure that people don’t walk away or don’t see something that others have sort of summarized a presentation that we’ve given that the website doesn’t matter. It’s a critical element of your overall presence.
Mike Blumenthal: Exactly. But in Barbara’s case, 75% were occurring on the knowledge graph and 25, 22 percentage of they were occurring on our website. I mean, it’s conceivable that some businesses switched 75 the other way on the website in 22 on Google. But it still is likely that the two most important touch points or Google profile and the home page.
And even if the conversion is occurring and you manage to get them to your website, that’s where the primary conversions occurring, the importance of your Google presence and the image that you project there is critically important in terms of conversion optimization to convince that searcher to make it to your website. If your pictures and reviews and all the information Google summarizes about you tell a consistently strong message that reinforces your branding and your marketing and put you in a good position, visa vi your competitors, they’re not going to click through. So even if the conversions are occurring on your website, this homepage, like Google becomes critical.
David Mihm: Yep, and that’s a great segue into our last topic I’d love to cover. You got into a couple of very specific, tactical points in terms of search engine optimization on your website. You know, making sure that you are not just linking to specific pages about product or service offerings, but linking to those pages keywords about what they’re selling. That’s a really key, overlooked SEO tactic.
Let’s back up a little bit though and talk more strategically about how you think small businesses should think about SEO. I think you and I both agree that too often there’s sort of this rush to, “oh well I need to fix my title tags” or “I need to build links” without really understanding the strategy behind it. And we both think that there’s a little bit higher level thought that needs to go into it. Do you want to talk about that?
Mike Blumenthal: Sure. So there’s this history of being able to manipulate Google that was very rampant from 2000 on and still exists to some extent where some trick, some angle allows you to jump to the top of the Google search result and make $1 million.
But fooling Google though is not a long-term marketing or branding strategy. And Google is getting better at understanding both negative and positive signals. They’re also bringing information in and keeping people closer to their center rather than sending you off.
So I think going forward, people need to understand that what happens online with digital marketing to be longterm sustainable effort needs to reinforce your sure-to-haul need for conversions, but also reinforce your marketing message and your longterm brand. And when you find consistency between what you’re doing to help Google understand your business and consistency with what you’re doing in your other marketing, and when you’re bringing your offline marketing online with that same goal of, you know, telling that story, I think you’ll find that that’s what Google is starting to get better at understanding about your business.
This doesn’t mean that links aren’t important. It means that you will earn them as a function of providing really solid content and being an upstanding member of your community. We’ve talked about this a LocalU for years, that easiest link to get to the one you’re already “paying” for, which is the not-for-profits you’re supporting.
Well, you’re already in the community and if you leverage that, that work you’re doing in the community for your own good and for the communities good and you leverage it online. That’s the kind of marketing that I think people need to start wrapping their heads around, how to systematically go about that offline and online and have a consistent story that Google can understand. So that sort of goes beyond the narrow nature of technical SEO.
David Mihm: Couldn’t agree more. And I think that for businesses that are doing these things, that are more focused on traditional community-based brand building, I think SEO just becomes so much easier, right? When you already have these relationships, when you’re already thought of in a positive manner by your customers and your peers and your colleagues, you know, the SEO side of things, if there is one, comes, comes much more easily. And it will show much stronger results than somebody who just jumps right into the tactics
Mike Blumenthal: Right, where the link becomes the link you earned as a result of being a good brand and a good member of your community versus the link you’ve got somehow by manipulating website to give you. And the same with reviews. When you get reviews, you’ve earned them because you’re a good business and because you’re constantly striving to improve, people are willing to give you reviews as opposed to the review that you somehow manipulated a customer into giving you or bought.
David Mihm: Absolutely. All right, so we’re almost out of time. I want to go to our three-question lightning round. I’ll start two sentences for you that I’m hoping you’ll finish with the first two questions. So first one:
“It’s 2019 and Google still hasn’t…
Mike Blumenthal: …cleaned up the spam in their local ecosystem and fixed the review problem.”
David Mihm: Yeah, it’s pretty sad. I tried to get Joy Hawkins to talk in a little bit more detail about that, and I think it might need to be its own episode in the future. Couldn’t agree more. All right. With respect to Google—
Mike Blumenthal: Hang on! Quick, quick, quick note here. They’ve been training their algorithm. They keep saying, “oh, we’re training the new AI algorithm.” And they’d been doing that—this is the same thing they said to me in 2008, like training the algorithm. Right. So either it’s a really stupid algorithm or it takes a lot of training and it’s still ain’t done.
David Mihm: Needs a few more years of college, I guess. Yeah. All right, next sentence that I’d like you to finish:
“With respect to Google, it’s 2019 and most small businesses still don’t…
Mike Blumenthal: …take very good photographs or ask for reviews or gather email addresses.”
David Mihm: Yeah. That’s a big one. Gather email addresses for sure. And I think that’s, you know—
Mike Blumenthal: the answer to my next question you’re going to ask.
David Mihm: Which is what is the non-search area you’d encourage the average small business to start thinking about?
Mike Blumenthal: So back to the future, I think email as you often do is the single most powerful way to stay in touch with your customer. Where you’re not having to rent them back from Google or Facebook, where they’re giving you permission to show up in their inbox for whatever reason that they’ve given you that permission: for giving a review, reading your updates and news.
To me, email marketing done right is the best way to protect yourself against the vagaries of Facebook and Google.
David Mihm: Couldn’t have said it any better. So Mike, thanks so much for joining us for one of our very first Found Bytes episodes. It’s been typically great to talk with you. Where can people find you if they want to learn more and hear more from you after the episode?
Mike Blumenthal: So I’m @MBlumenthal on Twitter and if they would like to email me, email@example.com. if they want to follow my weekly podcast that’s at LocalU.org. They can either sign up for our weekly newsletter or podcast, and I’m blogging at GatherUp, LocalU and Blumenthals still.
David Mihm: That’s awesome. And we will definitely have—
Mike Blumenthal: Oh and Street Fight, Street Fight.
David Mihm: Well you and I will see each other on Sreet Fight. Absolutely. And we’ll make sure—as you know, we’re going to be inviting most of your colleagues from both GatherUp and LocalU to future episodes of Found Bytes imminently.
Mike Blumenthal: And if they want to see me in person, LocalU Advanced in Denver, September 19th, 2019.
David Mihm: And we will both be there! So thanks again for joining us Mike, and I will see you on the Internet.
Mike Blumenthal: Sounds good.
David Mihm: Thanks everyone for listening to this episode of Found Bytes. Hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please share it with a colleague or a friend or leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform. I hope you’ll join us for more conversations like this one as we talked to many more guests, including Dana DiTomaso, Greg Gifford and Cindy Crump.
If you can think of someone who should join me for a future conversation, please tweet at me @davidmihm or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again for listening and for sharing feedback about the show and we’ll catch you on the next Found Bytes.