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Google’s Carousel may seem new to most searchers, but it has actually been rolling out since June. That means enough time has past for marketing and search analysts to really start digging in to see what makes the carousel tick.

If you’ve yet to encounter it, the carousel is a black bar filled with listings that runs along the top of the screen for specific searches, especially those that are location based or for local businesses such as hotels and restaurants. The carousel includes images, the businesses’ addresses, and aggregated review ratings all readily available at the top, in an order that seems less hierarchical than the “10 pack” listings previously used for local searches.

Up until now, we’ve only had been able to guess how these listings were decided based on surface level observations. But, this week Digital Marketing Works (DMW) published a study which finally gives us a peak under the hood and shows how businesses may be able to take some control of their place in the carousel. Amanda DiSilvestro explains the process used for the study:

  • They examined more than 4,500 search results in the category of hotels in 47 US cities and made sure that each SERP featured a carousel result.
  • For each of the top 10 hotels found on each search, they collected the name, rating, quantity of reviews, travel time from the hotel to the searched city, and the rank displayed in the carousel.
  • They used (equally) hotel search terms—hotels in [city]; best hotels in [city]; downtown [city] hotels; cheap hotels in [city].
  • This earned them nearly 42,000 data points on approximately 19,000 unique hotels.
  • They looked at the correlation between a hotel’s rank in a search result based on all of the factors discussed in step 1 to determine which were the most influential.

Their report goes into detail on many of the smaller factors that play a role, but DMW’s biggest findings were on the four big factors which determine which businesses are shown in the carousel and where they are placed.

1. Google Reviews – The factor which correlated the most with the best placement in the carousel were by far Google review ratings. Both quantity and quality of reviews clearly play a big role in Google’s placement of local businesses and marketers should be sure to pay attention to reviews moving forward. However, it is unclear how Google is handling paid or fake reviews, so many might be inspired to try to rig their reviews. For long-term success, I would suggest otherwise.

2. Location, Location, Location – Seeing as how the Google Carousel seems built around local businesses, it shouldn’t be a surprise that location does matter quite a bit. Of the 1,900 hotels in the study, 50 percent were within 2 miles of the search destination, while 75 percent were within 13 minutes of travel. Businesses would benefit from urging customers to search for specific landmarks or areas of cities, as you never know exactly where Google will establish the city “center”.

3. Search Relevancy and Wording – According to the findings, Google seems to change the weight of different ranking factors depending upon the actual search. For example, searching “downtown [city] hotels” will result in listings with an emphasis on location, while “best hotels in [city]” gives results most dependent on review rankings.

4. Primary Markets and Secondary Markets – It seems both small and larger businesses are on a relatively flat playing field when it comes to the carousel. Many small hotels are able to make it into the listings, right next to huge chains. The bigger businesses may have more capabilities to solicit reviews, but no hotel is too small to be considered for the carousel.

Most of the changes we see to Google are relatively minor. The average user might notice that the layout is a little different, or the ads are in a new place, but in general most of the massive changes to Google occur under the hood, in their search ranking and spam fighting algorithms. But, as you’ve probably seen by now, Google Carousel is Google’s latest update, and it is a fairly substantial change to how Google users see results.

The carousel is a row of images across the top of some search engine result pages (SERPs) laid on top of a black background. At the moment, the carousel contains up to 20 results, and it appears mainly on SERPs for travel, hospitality, or restaurant related searches. However, the carousel has also sporadically been appearing on queries for sports, entertainment, and education, suggesting the future directions the carousel may be expanding in.

Instead of getting what was called the 6- or 10-pack, users get these images as well as review ratings, property name, and address. To compliment the new carousel you also see the usual sponsored links you often get for other searches. Interestingly, the variation of terms for which the carousel appears seems to be random. Jim Yu from Search Engine Watch notes that a search for “hotels near disneyland” gets the carousel, while “disneyland hotels” did not.

The first bit of good news for search marketing professionals is that all of the results included in the carousel are essentially all in the first spot. Of course the majority of viewers will likely view the results from left to right, but they are not visually ranked in the same manner they were before.

The other good news is that the Google Carousel opens up numerous opportunities for local businesses to strengthen their brand online. BrightEdge research reported that the carousel currently affects 14 percent of keywords across all industries, with travel and hospitality being the most affected.

Restaurants are also highly impacted by the new layout, while entertainment terms only get the carousel for five percent of searches. Clearly, those most affected are also those with the most to gain: local businesses.
There are a few things you can do to ensure you’re business gets into the carousel for relevant searches in your area, and to be sure to beat the other competition within the listings. Yu suggests:

  • Set up a Google Places for Business and Google+ page. You can visit this post to learn more about the most important aspects of both services, and understand how to merge the two types of pages for a single business.
  • Make sure images for your pages are high resolution, unique, and up to date. Keep them sorted in terms of priority, so that users will see the images you want them to first.
  • Encourage happy customers to review your business on Google. Not only will it help you gain conversions online, research has shown it plays a large role in getting your business in the carousel.

YouTube Graphic

With the popularity and direct user engagement of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, many online marketers forget the potential for YouTube to improve your brand reputation and enforce your SEO efforts in a single move.

YouTube has a surprising amount of opportunity for optimization, especially for efforts focusing on local search. There is a relative lack of videos from small or local businesses aimed at informing the public and promoting themselves, leaving a wonderful widow for many local businesses to make an impact on their audience.

Of course, before you can optimize, you need to make sure you have a quality video that offers something of value to viewers beyond simply promoting yourself. Chris Silver Smith recently wrote about how local businesses can go about creating videos that will be worth their viewers time and make your audience interested in what you do.

There are plenty of options, but chances are you don’t want to just make an ad and throw it up online. A better approach would be a series of short videos exploring your industry, your brand, and what you offer to consumers. How-to videos can reinforce your reputation in regards to your skill, while explanations of your products and services can help viewers understand exactly what sets you apart from your competitors.

Smith also explored the ways you can optimize your videos to make sure they get seen, while also helping your local SEO efforts.

  1. Link to Your Business – At the beginning of your description, always make sure to include a link to your business website. These links are automatically “nofollowed”, so don’t expect it to help your link portfolio, but there is a chance local citation value is being conveyed to Google.
  2. Name, Address, Phone Number – Every video should include thorough contact information in multiple easy-to-find locations. Start by making it visible within the first few frames of your video. Google is able to interpret and “read” text within videos, so not only will your viewers be able to easily find you, Google will retain data contained within the video. Similarly, you may want to actually state your information out loud in the video, as spoken statements are converted into subtitle transcripts by Google’s systems.
  3. Take Advantage of the Descriptions – YouTube has one of the most generous description fields out there. While the initial paragraph users see should clearly state what the video is about, you can also include a statement about your company or a biography so that interested viewers can find it with a simple click.
  4. Tag Your Video – Along with including your business category name and your location names to the tags on videos, you should also include a handful of relevant tags for each video. Tags have a heavy impact on YouTube, so you’ll want to always make sure you include them, or your video will likely disappear into the ether.
  5. Associate the Video with Google Place Listings – Business listing in Google Places allow you to associate videos easily by putting in URLs. Make sure to use the full page URL.
  6. Associate the Video with Google+ Local Page – Adding the video to your local page allows you and any other employees to easily share the video on personal Google+ streams. The number of shares is considered indicative of popularity, so this is a good opportunity to boost your shares.

Keeping up with the local search ranking algorithm can often be at best confusing and at worst a complete mystery. It seems there are just as many, if not more factors involved, yet less coverage of exactly what search signals Google is using for local businesses. That can make it very difficult to know where to put your focus.

There are so many places you could put your energy too. Should you focus on the completeness of your Google Places profile? Or maybe citations and reviews are more important? Is your business hurt just because it isn’t near the center of the city? All of those are considered, and that is just skimming the surface.

While Google probably isn’t going to be delivering definitive answers about their search algorithms any time soon, David Mihm and Moz are working to find the answers with an annual survey focusing on local search ranking factors. They released their report of their findings for the year already, but Doublespark took their concise results and turned them into an infographic.

Local SEO Ranking Factors

Hotel FrontEverybody talks about SEO as if it is a monolithic entity. At most, you might hear conversation about local SEO and every few weeks someone will chime in to remind us about international SEO, but the vast majority of the dialogue just refers to SEO as a whole.

But, ignoring its constantly changing nature, SEO is also a lot harder to pin down. Great optimization bends and molds to match the client and the unique needs of a market. What works for a nearby plumbing company may not translate to a small tech startup or a healthcare provider. The absolute basics are the same, but all of these companies have different online needs that can’t be handled with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

Hotels are one market with especially unique needs, and now that summer is winding down and many people are trying to squeeze in a vacation before the kids return to school, now is as relevant a time to talk about SEO as any. Aleh Barvsevich broke down the topic in detail, covering how search results for hotels are chosen and displayed and what opportunities hotel clients have in PPC and SEO.

Establishing your brand online can lead to higher sales and profits, but the first step is always getting your site high enough in the search engine rankings that potential customers can find you. But, search engine optimization can be intimidating for many business owners to handle on their own.

Hiring an experiences search engine optimization consultant is often the best option for business owners who want to get their business online, but lack the time or technical skills to do so. However, you’ll want to get the most for your dollar. Kim Lachance Shandrow recently shared a list of questions you can ask any prospective SEO consultant to make sure you’re getting the best service possible.

  1. How will you improve my search engine rankings? – Consultants who won’t go into the details about the methods they use are almost always questionable professionals. SEO consultants should be happy to explain exactly how they improve rankings for companies, along with estimates of how long it can take to get the results you are desiring.
  2. Do you follow Google’s Webmaster guidelines? – Any consultant who tries to toe the line of Google’s publicly posted webmaster best practices is almost guaranteed to get you in trouble sooner or later. There are many consultants who will try to use tricks to get high rankings extraordinarily quickly, but Google is quick to punish those trying to abuse loopholes. Bing and Yahoo also have best practice guidelines publicly available that you should also want your consultant to follow.
  3. How will you keep me informed of all changes made to my site? – As a business owner, you should expect to be involved in your SEO strategy from the very beginning, and your consultant should be willing to stay in communication about any changes being made to your site or the SEO strategy as a whole.
  4. Do you have local SEO expertise? – Brick-and-mortar businesses trying to attract people to their local shops need consultants who are experiences with working locally. The strategies for local SEO can often differ from more regional or national level optimization. There are also numerous actions that local SEO requires to get your site showing up for searches in your area that SEOs without local experience may skip over.
  5. How do you measure your SEO success? – Any experienced consultant should be able to tell you in detail how they measure your traffic coming to your website and where it is coming from. The most commonly used tool for tracking rankings and traffic is Google Analytics, and consultant should be willing to share the data with you.

Many small business owners are hesitant to really put an effort into SEO or their online presence because they feel like the web is already conquered by big companies they can’t compete with. It is common to feel like you don’t have the resources, time, or manpower to achieve any sort of success on search result pages, but local businesses actually have a much larger opportunity than they usually think.

Search engines provide a more leveled playing field when it comes to corporations and local businesses. All you have to do for efficient SEO is know where to invest your limited resources to get the most return, and show your value to the search engines. Nick Stamoulis recently discussed three main ways you can achieve SEO success, even with the limited means of a local business.

1) Build links naturally, one quality link at a time

While links have lost some of their influence in SEO, they are still a serious consideration to search engines. Google’s latest updates have many business owners scared of link building, but the truth is it will always be an important part of SEO and you can’t ignore it. The key to link building is to ensure that you are building quality links from various sources, which is best done by focusing on one at a time. This keeps your linking pattern looking natural and stays away from any gray areas.

Some will try to set link building goals or try to take short cuts, but Google has made it clear that if you don’t get penalized for your cheap tricks now, you will eventually. Arbitrary quotas only inspire efforts to get bulk links when your self-imposed deadline approaches, and easy links come with a big target on their backs.

2) Create Content For Your Audience

Content marketing is a buzzword for SEO at the moment, but some have already lost the real reason content has come to have such impact on SEO. Quality content has been favored by search engines because that is what audiences and customers want, and it inspires interaction between businesses and their customers. One of the things lost in the feeding frenzy of tasty blog posts, infographics, and ebooks is that those methods aren’t relevant for many smaller businesses.

Small businesses often offer services that draw customers not looking to spend a lot of time reading or watching videos. Instead, they want to be able to see what businesses have been doing, and what value they are contributing to the community. This can be as easy as semi-frequent announcements or updates on G+ or pictures and status updates on Facebook. Just focus on providing the information customers will want. Answer their questions, direct them to solutions, and provide something of value to those who find you online.

3) Find Your Niche

It is true that if you run a small flower shop you won’t have the same online presence that a national brand like 1-800-Flowers does. However, your smaller local net can catch better fish than a large net a national brand uses. You can establish yourself in your small market by pinpointing a variety of different ways your service can be used. That theoretical florist, for example, can cater wedding parties and high-end hotels, educate gardening enthusiasts, and help decorate local restaurants. Find what small markets aren’t cornered in your local area, and make your place.

Remember, national brands may have more money and people available to use for SEO, but value is what matters to the search engines. Ask yourself why customers keep coming to your local business rather than those corporate giants, and adapt it to the internet. If your site is worth visiting, the search engine results will reflect your worth.

Years ago, all a local business had to do was build a lot of links and their business would show up on the first results page. SERPs have gotten much more competitive in that time, and Google has introduced a strict local algorithm, so now local SEO has become a unique sector that is often more difficult to implement than almost any other online marketing strategy.

You can always hire a company to take care of all of your SEO needs, but if you have a tight budget and are willing to get your hands dirty, there are steps you can take to try to get onto the coveted first page of local results, called the 7 Pack. You’ll recognize the 7 Pack as the listing of businesses directly under the map of the area. Search Engine Journal set out a five step plan to improve your local business rankings.

The first step is checking to see if your target keywords actually trigger the local algorithm. Usually simply including key phrase combinations such as the city and most important keyword should connect with the local search results, but sometimes this doesn’t work. If that is the case, then it would seem your SEO strategy should be less localized as Google doesn’t register your service as part of its local algorithm.

One of this biggest tricks for local businesses is knowing where to establish your company online. Google’s algorithm always gives preference to businesses located within the city limits searched for, often called the “centroid” bias. This means Google will rank businesses located closer to the heart of the city higher than those on the outskirts if all other factors are equal.

For businesses located in suburbs or just outside of city limits this is poses a big question. Most want to capitalize on the bigger market from the closest city than the small market in their local town, but trying to rank in a metropolitan area when you aren’t physically established within that boundary is a incredibly difficult task. You have to decide if you want to fight to get into the rankings for the city, and possibly only achieving the second or third page on the local listings, or you can aim to corner the market in your town and rank first every time for a smaller audience.

Deciding that move usually requires determining how competitive your niche is, and even businesses already well situated in a metropolitan market will be rewarded for investigating. The quickest way to find out how competitive your market is starts ith taking the #1 ranking in the 7 Pack and copying all of their information exactly as it is displayed in the search bar with quotation marks. This gives you an approximate estimate as to how many directories and citations you will need to outrank the top listing in the 7 Pack. You can do the same for the lowest ranking. Your results obviously have to outdo the lowest ranked business in the 7 Pack to overtake it, so exploring will give you an idea just how tall the SEO mountain you have to climb is.

Once you’ve done your research you can actually begin working on your local SEO, but the process will be much easier thanks to informed decisions only possible through understanding your local online market. Search Engine Journals last two steps can get you going on improving your local site’s ranking but nothing happens overnight. Local SEO is competitive and time consuming, but without it you are falling behind the times.

Source: Phil Campbell

Source: Phil Campbell

There is no longer a question in analysts mind as to whether the huge growth in tablet and smartphone usage is changing how consumers behave. Mobile users are impossible to deny, and easy to actually observe. All you have to do is look outside to see the number of people with a smartphone attached to their hand as if they are glued together.

What is in question is just how consumers are using these new devices. Mobile devices change how we find businesses and services, especially locally, but they also affect how we interact socially, how we engage media, and how we organize our lives.

To try to understand how we are using mobile devices, and how they are changing the way we live, BrightLocal conducted a consumer panel survey. They investigated how consumers find local businesses, and what content is the most important to users while they are on the go. Myles Anderson broke down the result on Search Engine Land, but the most notable finding is that while mobile and tablet use is bursting through the roof, less than a third of users are regularly finding local businesses with mobile devices.

Forty percent of consumers claim the have never used their smartphone or tablet to look up local businesses. This should come as a shocker to any SEO analyst who has been keeping up with trends lately. There is a lot of discussion about mobile SEO out there, and plenty of people focus on the local capabilities of smartphones and tablet to find businesses while consumers are already out. They say “shoppers want to be able to find the store they want and buy now” or something like that.

Now, a fair percentage of mobile users are doing just that. Almost twenty percent of users have looked up local businesses at least once a week, and twenty-nine percent do so at least once a month, but the amount of users who have never looked up a local business should still be a very interesting statistic for SEOs.

High Voltage

For companies looking for an SEO, the process can be confusing. There is a lot of jargon that the uninitiated business owner likely doesn’t know, and the field is absolutely full of companies offering what initially look like the same thing. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.

There are certain things the uninformed local business owner can keep an eye out for to help the process. Stoney deGeyter knows these warning signs as well as anyone, as he writes about small business SEO all the time, and has seen more than a few SEOs offering questionable or outdated methods.

Some SEOs will advertise that they can get you ranked on a selection of websites like MSN, Ask.com, or AltaVista. The more search engines they can get you on, the better right? Nope. I personally have seen sites offering to get you on MSN rankings which is an immediate red flag considering MSN isn’t a search engine anymore. It changed to Bing years ago. Ask.com is the fourth most used search engine and it only pulls in around 3-percent of all searches. The point is, if they can’t get you on Google or Bing, they won’t actually be able to help you much.

Another misleading promise is to get your site the number one spot in the rankings, no matter what. If this was possible, SEO would be stunningly easy, but it is not possible and SEO is far too competitive and complex for any guarantee of this kind to be anything but a bluff. SEO companies have no direct control over where search engines rank sites. Our job isn’t to achieve a certain ranking, but to get your page ranking as high as possible over numerous keywords in a competitive market. A good SEO should certainly be able to raise your ratings, but you can’t expect to get the top ranking for “local restaurant” just because a company promised it.

One way to tell if an SEO is out of touch with the current SEO climate is to look to see if they advertise search engine or directory submission services. This went out of vogue in 1998, but there are still companies proclaiming their services as if they are useful. Aside from Pay-Per-Click, and Pay-To-Be-Included type results, the only way to get your site found is to design it to be found. There is a reason Google doesn’t have a submission option. They haven’t been needed in years.

There are tons of other warning signs to watch out for, and deGeyter shares four more in his article. Unfortunately, SEO has just enough bad eggs that uninformed local business owners are often taken advantage of with false promises or downright ineffective methods. Some are actively trying to pull one over on innocent business owners, some are just out of touch with current SEO, but either way they aren’t worth your dollar.