Agency Ahead by Traject

On Episode 80, Carrie Hill of Sterling Sky discusses how she follows the changes of Google for Local SEO. She details her methodology for creating, executing, and analyzing search-related experiments. She also highlights some of the biggest Local SEO disasters she's seen.

Show Notes

Carrie Hill is a Local SEO analyst for Sterling Sky, one of the most renowned agencies in the industry. She's also a community manager and event planner for LocalU, an organization that holds approximately 3 events a year, seeking to provide the most unique content in the local SEO sphere. 

You'll also find her joining Mary Bowling and Mike Blumenthal on the highly informative Last Week in Local Podcast, covering all the latest and greatest news in Local SEO while providing their take and insight on that news and how it applies to the work that Local SEOs do.

Today, Garrett engaged Carrie in a thrilling discussion about some of the experiments that Sterling Sky does, as well as about what makes LocalU different. Tune in to get some awesome insights on how you can make your own Local SEO business better!

The highlights:

  • [3:21] Testing Local SEO.
  • [5:28] Essential tools.
  • [7:08] Typical methodology.
  • [10:23] Recommended experiments.
  • [12:49] Desktop rendering vs. mobile rendering.
  • [18:04] The biggest Local SEO disasters!
  • [20:41] LocalU's upcoming event.
  • [24:13] Carrie's cause.

Testing Local SEO

Carrie says that Joy Hawkins & the team test all sorts of things at Sterling Sky.

"Joy has a great big test coming up. I think she's going to present it at LocalU. About which Google Posts convert, or create a result, vs. which don't create a result. And by creating a result I mean: what creates a lead for a client? Or what gets a justification in a search snippet?"

She also speaks of testing the composition of content on a page.

"Putting an ordered list at the top vs. the bottom. We test whether putting a keyword at the beginning of a page title makes a difference to local search, not just SEO, but to local search, and how that moves you up and down in a map pack or local finder."

And the volume or the quality of your earned media.

"How does that affect your ranking in the map pack in the local finder, in organic?"

She notes that they keep a lot of their testing internal.

"You know when you publish testing in case studies you have to have client permission. A lot of our clients prefer not to be public with what they're doing with their marketing. I would say we publish maybe 20% of what we test. And by publish I mean: present it at a conference, or write a blog post." 

This means you might want to start running similar tests! You might not see 80% of the good stuff! 

Essential Tools

If you're going to start doing your own tests you're going to need some tools. Fortunately, Carrie has some ideas.

"We use a lot of tracking tools. We don't report rankings to our clients, but for tracking the effectiveness of the tests, rankings are important. How things move up and down. We use Places Scout quite a lot, and their map ranking grid tool."

"I'm just starting to use the new BrightLocal local search grid tool."

"They work a little bit differently, so it's not apples to apples, there."

Carrie also says she uses Google Optimize a great deal for on-page tests. 

"Moving content around. Changing calls to action. Contrast colors. UX tests. A lot of times we just make a change, annotate it, and then watch what happens."

Still, Carrie does warn that the perfect piece of software doesn't always exist.

"For things like page title tests, there's not really a tool you can use. Mary [Bowling], who is my mentor and business partner, always likes to say the best tool for SEO is your brain and your eyeballs. So. We use the brain and eyeballs tool quite a lot!"

Typical Methodology

Garrett asks: "How many times do you change an experiment before you're happy with the results? What does the process look like?" 

Carrie said there were a few different things that went into the process.

"If it's something that's going to be determined by volume, I'm going to need a lot of people to look at this thing. Usually, that's UX changes. So I'm going to use the Google tool and let them determine a winner. Sometimes that can happen in a month, or a couple of weeks. Sometimes it's a two-or-three month test. We just have to be realistic about that. 

One nice thing about the tool, as it's iterated over the years, now it gives you a projection of when it will be done based on website traffic, which is helpful when planning the next step."

Carrie warns that testing is never fully done.

"I've never seen a website convert at 100%. It doesn't happen."

She says she doesn't make a solid plan, ever.

"Most of the time when I'm testing something I don't know what the outcome is going to be, and I'm wrong as often as I'm right. Testing is such a humbling process."

What does she mean by a humbling process?

"You're like: Oh, changing this from orange to red is going to make such a huge difference because it's going to contrast more from the website. And then there's no winner. Or you get worse conversions from it. 

So you have to be realistic there. Or when we're talking about things like SEO-type changes, like changing a title tag or moving content around on the page or looking at ranking. We're fairly lucky in local that those small changes tend to make an impact fairly quickly." 

Those quick impacts can also be quickly addressed.

"We can submit that URL for a recrawl via search console, webmaster tools—whatever [Google] is calling it this week—but now we see those kinds of impacts fairly quickly, especially if we're trying to impact a map pack or the local finder more than organic. 

Now, did that impact have an effect on conversions, or you know those engagement metrics that we're looking at? Are people reading to the bottom of the page? Those things might take a little more time for us to determine? But if we're purely going for a better visibility, better ranking kind of impact? Those we see fairly quickly. Usually doesn't take too long."

But experiments have to keep coming either way, because...

"Sometimes the first ten things you try make no impact at all! You just keep trying something else." 

Recommended Experiments

"I'm a big fan of measuring and using engagement goals. Because we've been told over the years to write more content or longer-form content. It can work. But I think this is very category-dependent, whether long-form content works or not. What seems to fall away when we use this long-form content is conversion points."

She gives the example of a 2000 word blog post.

"There's not a Contact Us for More Info anywhere on it. There's not a button. There's not a sidebar with a form that follows you.

So, I like tracking these engagement metrics. And seeing what kind of impact my changes have on how far down the page people are reading.

Are they engaging with my interstitials? Instead of just a wall of words, I'm breaking those walls up with images or maybe a testimonial with a conversion point right next to it.

So we're embedding a GatherUp review, and we're putting a conversion point right next to that happy customer's kudos. Things like that can have a dramatic impact."

Yet if you don't know how far down people are scrolling, or how much content they're reading?

"You don't know where to put that for the most impact."

And here, Carrie reiterates: "Testing is very humbling. I'm wrong a lot." 

Desktop Rendering vs. Mobile Rendering

Mobile rendering has a big impact on Local SEO, so Garrett asked how Carrie approaches these different devices.

Carrie says she mostly looks at the mobile rendering. 

"That's what Google's crawling. If I want my content to be impactful to a ranking in any way, shape, or form, I need to make sure Google's seeing that content on the mobile site in the right order."

She's also looking at the code for the mobile version.

"We've all seen those sites that load things above the content line that are not visible until below the content."

She says there is a lot more that could be happening with mobile in the Local SEO field.

"50% of the mobile websites I look at don't have a phone number above the fold. You load the home page above the fold, and there's no phone number. Or there's a phone number, but it's part of their logo, and you can't click to call it."

She warns not to overcomplicate mobile.

"Even though we think of mobile as this thing that needs to be evolving and sophisticated, let's be real: our clients are plumbers and HVAC guys and lawyers who are out lawyering, and they need someone like us to say, okay, here are the things we need to do to get the mobile version of your website up to snuff. 

That's a click-to-call phone number at the top. Easy conversion points. When are you open? What are your review stats? Those are things that are really huge to consumers. Having that front and center on your home page, on your mobile site, is huge." 

She also warned about putting interstitials on the mobile version of sites, which can frustrate older customers and rural customers. 

The Biggest Local SEO Disasters

Carrie says that "daisywheel" content is one of the biggest problems in Local SEO right now. 

"I mean the exact same words on 50 pages that you change the city name in. Or the state. Or maybe like 10% of the content is different because you've changed the city and state name or whatever. Or even the keywords phrase. 

You're daisy-wheeling in a keyword phrase. That is the biggest waste of time and so many bad SEOs have told people to do it."

She gives the example of a lawyer, a social security disability insurance attorney.

"Some bad SEO in the past told them well, you could put a page up for every city in FL, and all we have to do is change the city name. So they had 50+ pages of garbage content, and I was like: this is doing absolutely no good. I looked at the search console, I looked at analytics. It wasn't getting much traffic."

She directed her client to take all of it down and redirect it all to one really good social security disability page optimized for your actual location.

"If you want statewide clients just tell people on that page you'll take anyone in Florida. “Call me, I can help.” Especially in this day and age when everyone goes to court online now."

Here's what happened.

"I redirected 54 URLs to one URL, and we saw a very tiny dip in traffic. I want to say they went 7 days where they lost maybe 20% of traffic to that page, and then it started trending up. It's still trending up. This was like 6 to 8 months ago we did this. 

It's proof to me that bad content hurts. And that's probably one of the bigger train wrecks we see. It's all because of shitty SEOs and bad advice. If you don't know the answer, just tell them you don't know the answer, and then find it for them. Stop giving people bad advice."

LocalU's Upcoming Event

LocalU is coming up on April 7, and right now you can get your tickets for this virtual event for $99, or apply for a scholarship if you can't afford it. 

Why should you be excited for LocalU?

"We insist on unique content at every event. You will not see a presentation from any other conference you've attended or a past LocalU at this event. You probably won't even see a topic. We require our speakers to provide new stuff. We love case studies and storytelling in our presentations because I think it really resonates with our audiences. Tell us what you did and what the impact was. 

We also pay our speakers. We're one of the only conferences out there in SEO, not just Local SEO; we pay our speakers handsomely, a fair amount, to provide us with that unique content. We want them to create content for us. So we pay for it. And so I think you know we're kind of a bit of a unicorn. I want more conferences to be like this, I don't want to be a unicorn, but we try really hard to be fair."

Who is up at this year's LocalU?
  • Amanda Jordan, with data and tips on how to determine where to open a new office.
  • Lily Ray talking about E-A-T for local.
  • Noah Learner talking about some automation storytelling. 
  • Tom Waddington giving us the details on Enhanced GMB and Local Service Ads (LSAs)
  • Tim Capper is going to talk about how to succeed with GMB when Google limits access/features (a la hotels)
  • Plus more, be sure to check out the full agenda!

"I'm really excited for the new content for our event!"

What's your right now cause?

Carrie wants to draw attention to the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"Not many people know this about me, but I grew up in Northern Minnesota, a stone's throw from the Ojibwa reservation there. And I have always held indigenous women's projects near and dear to my heart. I have friends who are indigenous.

The rate at which mothers, daughters, and grandmothers disappear on reservations across the United States and Canada is alarming. I think if I could ask anything, I don't have a link for you to go donate, but I would love for people to be more educated on the MMIW project.

You can Google it, you can go to Native Women's Wilderness. I feel like the more people know about it the more people are likely to get attention." 

"Really what's happening right now is they're missing or murdered and nobody's doing anything about it. 

There's this battle between tribal authority and federal authority where the tribal authority will take somebody into custody and the federal government will come in and say, well, they're not native, you can't hold them. Or they were working for a government contractor. You can't hold them. And then they get released and nothing ever happens. 

It's just a vicious cycle that I would really love more people to be aware of." 

Connect with Carrie Hill

Want to learn more about Carrie Hill? 

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Want to grow your digital marketing agency? Discover what marketing strategies are working for the leading agencies, marketing experts, and business consultants. Learn how to lead your marketing agency, inspire your employees, and make your clients happy. Join host Garrett Sussman as he talks digital marketing with a variety of marketing experts about how they're navigating an uncertain world, adjusting their services for their clients, and improving their own businesses by better preparing them for the future. Find out how you can offer SEO, Social Media Management, Reputation Management, Customer Experience, Digital Business Consulting, and more to boost your revenue. Please subscribe to the Agency Ahead podcast today!