The Zip episode 19
Welcome to another episode of The Zip, the podcast on all things local. It’s Wednesday, November 30, 2016.
Mary Bowling fits her name, and I mean that in the best way possible. She’s down to earth. She’s fun. And she’s not afraid to knock down pins to get stuff done. Another staple of the local SEO industry, Mary is known for her particular affection for the little guys, be they small businesses or online retailers.
Entering the SEO field as a second career, after she found retirement ‘too boring’ Mary quickly became a prominent voice in the industry. In this episode, we’ll talk about why the ‘little guys’ can often get things done faster than industry giants, even with fewer resources, and why a mention the New York Times may not be as stellar as a local news writeup.
Also, warning for winter sport lovers, there will be talk of skiing and “powder days.” Hopefully this won’t make you too stir crazy, listening to a podcast from a snuggly, yet sterile, building on a Wednesday.
Megan: How are you this morning?
Mary: I’m very well thanks, how are you?
Megan: I’m doing pretty well. I feel like here in North Carolina it’s starting to feel like fall and I’m just enjoying that today.
Mary: Fall is just the time in Colorado when we wait for the snow so that we can play in it.
Megan: Do you ski and do winter sports and things?
Mary: I do yes.
Megan: Awesome. I’ve skied 5 times in my life and every time I love it. But then also every time I do it again I am bad because it’s multiple years since my skiing so I have to relearn it every time, but I always really like it.
Mary: Yes. It’s a fun sport and when you do it out here in the west it’s a lot more fun than it is on the East coast.
Megan: Yes. I did it once in Colorado and it was amazing. On the east coast the snow isn’t as great, especially in North Carolina the snow isn’t as great.
Mary: Where did you ski in Colorado?
Megan: Breckenridge. Yes, it was really cool and apparently it was a powder day and I didn’t really know what that is, but everyone else was really excited about it. For me it just seemed like there was a ton of snow, but everyone else thought it was great…
Mary: Well, that’s good. A lot of snow is kind of hard to deal with when you’re learning but once you get good it makes the entire experience kind of 3 Dimensional almost like you’re surfing in the water but you’re surfing on the snow, especially when you’re on a snowboard.
Megan: I haven’t even tried snowboarding yet but it looks like so much fun. I’ll do skiing first and once I can check that off then maybe I’ll try snowboarding, but that also sounds pretty awesome. So yeah, thank you so much for being on the Zip today and for allowing me to ask you some questions.
Mary: Well, thank you.
Megan: So basically I’ll just get started and run through some questions and that’s pretty much it. It’s pretty casual.
Megan: So, Mary how did you get started on local marketing and SCO? According to your bio you’ve been doing this for about ten years now, so what pulled you in?
Mary: I had sold a business and more or less retired and found it too boring, so I went to work at the local ski and bike shop, fixing bikes and tuning ski’s and stuff. And after about 3 years I was really good at it and I was starting to get a bit bored and the guy that I was working with was working for an internet marketing company and he was looking for help, and I told him I have no idea what you do or had to do. He said, “I can teach you”. The first day I went in there I fell in love with the whole idea of search engine optimisation and I’ve just been enthralled with it ever since. That articular agency happened to specialise, at the time, in Bed and Breakfast’s and then we moved into vacation rentals and hotels and that sort of thing. So I was always concerned with trying to get businesses to rank for a local type search, before we even had a word for local search.
Megan: That’s the thing… Back in 2006, that was so early. Was one of your first clients the ski store that you worked for?
Mary: No, in fact I’ve rarely done very much for people around where I am physically located. Most of my work has been for people that are outside of this area. I started with promoting little Bed and Breakfast’s and moved up from there. When I left that agency I worked for an agency that was a little more well rounded, got a taste of e-commerce and information architecture and kind of expanded my insight quite a bit, but I’ve always been fascinated by local search, mostly because I’ve had small businesses myself over the years and I know how hard it is for the little guys to do everything themselves. For a long time they were really getting the short end of the stick there as far as internet marketing was concerned because there were so many spammers and scammers out there, and that’s why we started Local U that you attended a couple weeks ago.
Megan: You said that you had retired before you started, so what did you retire from, what did you do previously?
Mary: Immediately before I sold the business and retired, my husband and I had an auto repair shop here in town, for about 15 years.
Megan: So you are experienced with running local small businesses, which is probably great for working with your clients, because you’re coming to them from an “I’ve been there” perspective.
Mary: I like to think so. I always do like to think about, “If this was my business what would I do to attract more customers?”. I really do like to keep that in the front of my mind whenever I am doing work.
Megan: So how did you start building up, I’m guessing you worked for an agency, I feel like now you’ve got enough clout that the clients will come to you, but in the early days how did you find clients, especially back in 2006 where many local business owners didn’t know local SEO was seeing as though it didn’t really exist yet, so how did you do that back then?
Mary: I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve done a lot of networking in the business and I’ve managed to get a lot of referrals over the years, and that’s pretty much been my bread and butter. I’ve not had to advertise really very much. I promote my knowledge by speaking at industry conferences, in the early days I did a lot of blogging on Local Search before it became the interesting thing. Because of that, by concentrating in one area but still having an overall knowledge of the space, I’ve been able to build up my reputation in Local Search and that’s resulted in a lot of referrals, which is always the best kind of lead to get, because they’re coming to you and they’re already convinced that you’re probably going to do a good job for them.
Megan: Yes, it’s true. Working with referrals versus a cold lead as an agency is usually a lot more of a smooth process, because it’s like meeting someone you already feel really good about. So, you worked as a local SEO consultant for businesses in tons of different verticals according to your website, real estate, painting services, I saw a business that rents out toys which is kind of a cool idea. So is each vertical a new challenge or are there basics that every local business needs to cover and that you start with?
Mary: You know, there are basics that every local business needs to cover in Local Search and that’s going to be your onsite content, reviews and reputation management, Link-tations, which is a word that Mike Ramsay invented, that kind of talks about links and citations as being a rolled up ball of stuff in Local Search, that we’re not quite as concerned about no-follows on links or even whether we get a link or not if we get a mention that Google can associate with our business in an important, trusted place like the local media. Then you want to worry about content, link-tations, reviews and social enters into local a bit, but I’ve found that businesses either have a talent for doing that or they don’t, and I try not force them into being social if they don’t feel like they’re going to be comfortable with that.
Megan: Yes, I like that. Sometimes if you see a business and it’s very generic posts on social media, you know it doesn’t have a lot of personality. In some ways it’s almost better if they either didn’t do it or found some sort of outlet that did work for them. So, what you were saying about local businesses not necessarily needing to care about no follow links, or ever links at all, to people who might be listening to this podcast who don’t know what that is, a no-follow link is something anytime you do link on a website you can add a special parameter which basically is telling any search engine, don’t counts this as me linking even though I am, which is kind of a weird concept, the way I’m explaining it makes it sounds really weird. So Mary, why would you say for local businesses that they should’ve care if it’s a not counts or no-follow link?
Mary: So, for local businesses what we want is for the people around us to be aware of us and to have the potential to become our customers. So, it doesn’t do me any good to have a link in the New York Times perhaps if I am in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. How many of my potential customers are actually going to see that? Whereas if I got a little write up in my local newspaper, or even the newspaper in a town over, that can actually bring me some new customers or some phone calls that I wouldn’t have gotten… some brand awareness. It’s kind of ironic because in the early days of SEO it was just a game where we could actually do things to make a page rank in three or four days. I know, it was absolutely ridiculous. It was because Google’s algorithm was so unsophisticated at the time that it was easy to game it, but their algorithm has gotten so much better that we really need to think more about promoting ourselves to the people that have the potential to become our customers. That means that if I am on the local Chamber of Commerce Directory website, that really shows me as a local person and the people who are around me are probably the ones who are going to see that link and gain some brand awareness. We’re kind of coming full circle with internet marketing and getting back to real life marketing, doing things that you would do to promote your business if the internet did not exist. Our job as local marketers right now is marrying those two things together and when you doing that you’re satisfying you’re searchers and you’re also satisfying Google’s new, more sophisticated algorithm.
Megan: Yes, that’s interesting and it is complicated to do that because obviously with links with earlier versions of Google it would very much benefit you to just have load of do file links in the local area, but I can see how it’s getting so sophisticated that, having other tactics definitely helps.
Yes, and I’m not sure how much attention Google pays to whether there’s a follow or a no follow tag on a link at all anymore. Even for non-local businesses I think Google’s become much more sophisticated at looking at the source of the link, telling whether it’s a trusted source, knowing if it’s relevant to your business, and being able to judge it that way rather than whether it’s just followed or no-followed.
Megan: Yes, the idea, like I said when I was explaining out loud, I was like it’s like I can see why it exists but it’s just kind of funny because, this is a link, but it’s not really.
Mary: It happened because we abused it.
Mary: You know how we are with SEO, anything that works, we work it to death until Google has to take it away.
Megan: Yes, like the toy… You don’t get to have the toy anymore, you broke the toy. Put you in timeout now. So Mary, during your presentation at Local U, which you mentioned, you talked about ways that Enterprise businesses, national businesses, aren’t performing well when it comes to optimising their local pages, and I thought it was really interesting and you presented this as a way that local businesses can actually get a leg up. First of all, can you explain some of these issues that you talked about that brands with local pages all over the US aren’t, that these pages aren’t actually that great.
Mary: So, brands out of necessity have to try and scale their efforts and unfortunately the things that they used to do which were cheap and easy, are things that Google now has devalued in the algorithm. A lot of them are still clinging to this idea that they should be doing cheap and easy things and that’s just not working anymore. They need to kind of marry that offline marketing with the online marketing at a local level and most of them cannot do a very good job at it. The one’s that seem to be doing the best job are the ones who, the brand takes over the biggest part of the marketing as far as the technical aspects, the paid advertising, making sure that the data is kept clean and then having the local people at the local level do the local part of it, show their personality, show their expertise, show why they’re different from other businesses like theirs in the area. There are a couple companies that seem to be heading in the right direction there, but an awful lot of them seem to want to revert to this cheap and easy, scalability thing and until they get over that they’re not really going to make much progress.
Megan: Yes, and I guess, and maybe you answered it with the term “cheap and easy”, but why do you think that enterprise organisations are slow to adopt what seems to be now necessary for local SEO practice?
Mary: It’s really hard for me to tell, but I know that whenever I deal with a brand there are too many thinkers in the pie, too many decision makers, too many meetings and not enough action, and sometimes there’s even competing goals within a brand. For example, if you had big brand that, let’s just say for Sears for example, they have local stores but they also have a huge e-commerce presence. When something like that happens the people that are in charge of the e-commerce might be completely different from the people who are in control of the local search and search engine optimisation and the e-commerce people are being rewarded for online sales but the other people are only being rewarded for sales at the locations, and sometimes that conflicts on the website as to who’s getting what they need out of it.
Megan: That’s so interesting though, because yes, if everyone has their own individual goals then they are not really inspired to help out other people’s goals, and there might be no one at the top that is thinking about the bigger picture goals and what would really work for the big picture of the company. I also thought it was so interesting, that in that presentation you were talking about, like hey, if you are a local business this is really good to know about because this may be a great way for you to get an advantage because it’s so much easier, generally, for local business to create local content.
Mary: Yes, and I kind of encourage the little guys to embrace their localness and show their localness, instead of trying to make your website look like a big brand’s website. There are a lot of people who would prefer to do business locally and with small businesses and family owned businesses nearby them. So, why not try to appeal to those people rather than the people who are attracted by the sameness of a brand? You know, that has it’s attractions as well, but it’s not good for everyone.
Megan: Right. So, on that note I feel like there are a lot of local marketers I’ve met have a certain affection for their own hometowns and local businesses there too, so, as a local in Glenwood Springs Colorado, what would you say makes that community special?
Mary: We are… Aspen is at one end of our valley and we’re at the lower end of the valley and we are more or less the real town in the Western Colorado mountains. We’re the town that has the Walmart and the Target and the grocery stores that everybody wants to come to. What we pride ourselves on is being a vacation spot for the middle class rather than the rich people who go to Aspen. We get a families from Denver and the front range, school groups, church groups, that sort of thing, coming to town. We’re known for being really open and friendly to people, whereas, some ski towns have a different type of demeanour.
Megan: Yes, well I guess if you’re spending a whole lot you’re almost expecting that snootier atmosphere, whereas, I like the way you described it as “we’re the regular town here in the mountains”. I like that, I like that. So, if you were to start a new business in Glenwood Springs, another one I guess, and you wanted to do a website and optimise that website, what would be your very first thing after the website is live, how would you start to get your local search rank off right?
Mary: First of all, I would concentrate on my mobile website first. These days in just about anything, any kind of niche that I was going into, I would be concerned with making sure that my mobile presence was really 100%, that I was doing a really good job there and not worry quite so much about what’s happening on desktop, because of the mobile first change we’re getting ready to go into. Then I would actually start, after I get my Google, my business, and my Bing Maps listings setup, I would definitely distribute my data via the big data providers and then I would start going out and talking to people and to first Friday’s and business mixers at the chamber and start getting the word out among my local community, contact the local newspapers and the local cable TV stations and take some videos and put them up on Facebook and just basically start plastering Things around town and on the internet at the same time, hoping that they’d build brand awareness immediately.
Megan: Yes, so it’s like combining really old fashioned marketing with the internet marketing to really achieve… Which is kind of what you’ve been talking about this whole time.
Mary: Yes, and I think that’s what a lot of people are missing, especially big brands with local marketing these days is that, you know, Google’s proxy’s for prominence that they used to reward us for were kind of BS, you know how many reviews did you have? Whereas now Google is looking at not how many reviews you had but where are these reviews? Do they seem to be from real people? What are they saying about this business? Are they generally negative or generally positive? That’s a huge jump from number of review to, who’s reviewing and what are they saying? That people have not made that jump with Google as far as all of these proxy’s for local prominence are concerned.
Megan: Well it’s so interesting how that’s like a whole different area, but semantic analysis and just how advanced it’s getting. I don’t know if it’s quite there yet sometimes, but I think it’s getting to the point where a computer can look at a paragraph and tell what the feeling of the person that wrote that paragraph was.
Mary: It is amazing, isn’t it?
Megan: Even if they’re not saying specifically that “I am angry” it’s just getting the bigger picture from that all sorts of different words put together. So, you and Mike Bloementhal, who was on the podcast a couple weeks ago, and a few others who I’ve spoken to like such as Mike Ramsay and Joy Hawkins, all of you gather about twice a year in various cities across the US for local university advanced sessions. I went to the session in New Orleans a couple weeks ago and I learned a ton, so thank you, and I’m curious since I’ve only been to one so far, how much does the landscape in local SEO change every 6 months? Do you find that every time you guys are meeting and putting together your presentations that some of the ideas from the previous one are already outdated? Or do you think it’s just something that builds on itself over time, or maybe both?
Mary: I think we’ve found that it just builds over time, that the basic tenants of SEO and local search haven’t really changed. What’s changed is Google’s ability to make the algorithm better at modelling the real world. For example, we’re hoping to have another advanced Local U in late winter of 2017 and some of the things that we’re talking about having as topics is Amp. How does Amp work for local businesses? What are the opportunities there? Another one we want to have someone present on is progressive web apps. How do you do that? What is it, how do you do it and how can you get into it? We kind of pride ourselves on not repeating anything, just building on these basic premises that we’ve always known were important for local search. Reviews have always been important, but now they’re important in different ways that they used to be. Same thing with links, same thing with your onsite content. So we just keep trying to grow our expertise and knowledge as Google grows it’s algorithm.
Megan: Cool, so really it’s like a series. Every 6 months you can just go and add to your knowledge base.
Mary: Yes, you probably met some people who had been to three or four Advanced U…
Megan: Yes, I think I did.
Mary: So I would say that that is kind of an indication of the value that they feel like they’re getting out of it as they keep coming back for more.
Megan: What are really did like about it was that there were a lot of tactics, there was strategy and tactics. I feel like if you go to conferences there’s a lot of words that you know what they mean, but you’re like “what do I do with this knowledge?”. Whenever someone is teaching me actual tactics I’m happy. So what do you like about local in general? What’s going to keep you here and what, when people who aren’t in the industry ask what you do, what makes you excited to talk about it?
Mary: I love the idea of helping small businesses market themselves. I know how hard that is, and I know that they’re kind of behind the 8 ball in trying to figure out who to listen to, what to do and what is really going to matter. That really keep me going, and also, the people that I am involved with in the local search community. We aren’t just colleagues, some of us have become really good friends with each other as well as business partners with each other in some cases. I learn from them, and hopefully they learn something from me once in a while, but I think it a real open and sharing community that we have in local search and we try to be welcoming to everyone one and try to share our knowledge.
Megan: Awesome, yes, I can definitely see that about the community. Well Mary, thank you so much for being on the podcast today.
Mary: Well thank you Megan. It was great meeting you in person.
Megan: It was! It was great, it was a good precursor to this. Thank you. Thank you.