The importance of Google My Business is still broadly misunderstood in our industry so in this post we hope to explain why it is a big deal. We also want to explain how Google My Business fits into a broader marketing strategy for your community.
To begin, we first have to define some key terms, starting with "local SEO."
What is Local SEO?
In the early days of search engines you only had one type of result on the page when you ran a query on a search engine—the blue organic links that the search engine generated based on its ranking algorithm.
Here's an example of what that looks like:
As you can see, this is a very basic search results page. There are no ads, no images, no business listings, no carousel, etc.
This approach to search had its limits.
- First, there was no monetization strategy with the organic links since those are generated by an algorithm that crawls the entire web and there was no payment required to show up in the organic search results. So the search engines needed to find a way to make money from their service. Paid search results took care of this proble, of course.
- Second, suppose someone searches for "Pizza Hut." The top organic search result would, quite naturally, be a link to the Pizza Hut website. But if someone searches for Pizza Hut it is unlikely that they want more information about the company or to simply look at the home page of the corporate site. They are probably looking for directions to Pizza Hut or a phone number for a local Pizza Hut. There are several likely user intents behind that search. Organic search alone is not going to be able to answer all of those different intents.
Search engines needed to find a way of returning localized data for search results that almost certainly have some sort of location-based intent behind them. Enter local SEO.
Local SEO is hard to implement well.
However, this is somewhat complicated. For example, with restaurants a local franchise of a national chain may not have a separate page on the corporate website. So where should the search engine refer users? Further, what if someone actually did want the Pizza Hut homepage rather than a location-based result? Search engines still needed to provide good organic search results; they just needed to give locally based results too.
This is where the business listing enters the picture. On Google these listings have gone by many names over the years:
- Google Places for Business
- Google+ Local
- Google Places
- Google My Business.
Google is able to use information from their business listings to give location-based results to their users. So, for example, if someone searches for "Pizza Hut" in Lincoln on Google, you get this result:
As you can see, this result gives users information about the company, a link to the corporate home page, and local results that show users where in town they can find a Pizza Hut.
The map and the the results directly below it are specifically what we are talking about when we talk about "local SEO." Local SEO refers to optimizing your online presence so that you appear in the location-based search results built around Google's local business database.
What can apartment communities do to rank well in Google's local results?
As with organic results, ranking well in the search results comes down to how easy-to-use and trustworthy your content appears to be to Google which is based largely on how easy-to-use and trustworthy it is for human users.
What can you do to make your local listing seem trustworthy to Google? There are several things:
- Verify the business listing.
- Make sure your business name and phone number are accurate.
- Link the listing to your community website.
The main thing to understand is that Google is trying to establish that your community's local listing is maintained and updated by people who actually are connected to the real-world business location.
So, for example, if Google sees one address listed on your Google My Business apartment listing and a different address when it crawls your listing on an ILS, it might say "Huh, that's weird. This listing doesn't seem to be totally trustworthy. Why is the address different?" The same applies to the community's phone number and name.
The good news is that Google does not seem to be as much of a stickler on citation consistency as it once was. Over the past 18 months to two years, they have started to treat local search more like organic search, so links are becoming more important and citation consistency less important. That said, if you have a lot of inconsistency with your citations, that can still be a problem. So don't ignore citation consistency, but also don't obsess over it too much. Big problems need to be resolved; smaller inconsistencies are not as big a deal.
A further concern with optimizing local listings is with providing additional information to help prospects learn about the business. Once the basic business information is listed and is accurate, you need to make your listing stand out with additional information. This chiefly comes in the form of reviews and photos. Obviously you have more control over photos so you want to make sure that you post quality photos on the page and set your cover and profile photos.
With regard to reviews, while you cannot compensate for reviews on Google, they do allow you to ask for reviews so if you have residents you know to be happy you might ask them to write a review. Publishing a review on Google is very easy.
Why is local SEO important?
There are two parts to answering this question.
- First, local SEO is important because of mobile. Our research suggests that nearly 2/3 of all traffic to apartment community websites comes from mobile devices. Additionally, independent research found that 78% of local-mobile searches resulted in an off-line purchase and that 53% of all mobile searches have a local intent. So in one sense you need to be focused on local search for the simple reason that half the people coming to your website are on mobile devices and, therefore, they are interested in local search.
- Second, local SEO is now even more important. After some recent changes at Google, the placement for local search results has shifted a bit. Prior to the shift, the top result on the page was often an ad or an organic result with the local pack results beneath those. But now the top result on the page is a local result in 93% of searches that feature a local pack in the search results.
Are there other ways you can use your local listing to reach prospects?
There are! Google has now rolled out a new tool called Google Posts. Briefly stated, Posts allows you to create social media-style posts that will go directly to the search result page and to Google Maps. This is how it looks at time of publication on mobile in both Search and Maps (screen caps via Search Engine Land):
This gives you some idea of how powerful the tool could potentially be. It will help communities to highlight specific benefits they offer that are too specific to go in the title tag on the home page or the meta description but that can still be valuable selling propositions with prospective residents.
What should my main priorities be as an apartment marketer with local SEO on Google?
Here's a list:
- Claim/create your community's business listing.
- Update information on the listing.
- Add photos to the listing.
- Use posts to help prospects learn about other benefits your community offers while still on the search result page.
- Encourage happy residents to publish a review—but do not offer any kind of compensation for doing so!
If you do these things, your listing should be fully optimized and should appear near the top of the results when someone searches for your community by name. (Note: If you have to make significant changes to your listing, it may take awhile for Google to note those changes and update the results page accordingly.)
What are some of the common problems with local apartment SEO?
There are several problems that we have observed over the years with how Google handles local SEO data for apartment communities.
Almost all of the problems can be related to a single source: The apartment industry has been very slow to adopt local business listings as a staple of their online marketing strategy. The result is that many online listings have bad data, old data, or random pictures that are not relevant. This has caused a couple problems for Google:
- First, they don't have enough data to treat apartment communities as their own distinct category with their own distinct features and rules.
- Second, they need to aggregate apartment community listings with other categories, most commonly hotel listings.
The result is a lot of different issues with how Google is able to provide local information about apartment communities to their users. In our years of observing Google, we have seen a few significant issues:
- First, sometimes Google has rolled out new features to their hotel listings, such as the option to book a room through the hotel listing, and that has also rolled out on apartment listings by mistake.
- Second, when migrating data, Google has sometimes lost photos or other data on the apartment listing.
- Third, they have been slow to roll out new features to business listings, such as the option to advertise in the listing, to add posting features to the listing, information about how busy a listing is at certain times of day, and a few other smaller features they have tested on other local business listings.
Because of these issues, it is not that unusual for communities to experience occasional glitches with their local listing. If this happens to you, there are a few steps you should take.
- First, check Mike Blumenthal's blog to see if the glitch is showing up across all of Google's local business listings. Search Engine Land is also a site to check.
- Second, if the glitch is not a general thing and is only affecting your account, log in to your account or talk to the person who controls your listing and see if you can figure out what is causing the problem.
- Third, if all else fails, contact Google support yourself. (But don't have high expectations. Our experience is that support for local business listings from Google is extremely hit-or-miss. Sometimes it is spectacular and sometimes it is terrible.)
- Fourth, your saving grace is that in most situations Google is able to resolve the bug themselves.
The only time we have seen a problem not get resolved is when there is some very specific issue with the local business. Some common examples would include an inaccurate address or ambiguity about what business the listing is referring to. We see this sometimes with communities that might have four buildings that they have all identified as separate communities in their marketing—so Paradise Villas I, Paradise Villas II, and so on. This creates doubt and ambiguity about the listing's data and can sometimes cause Google to downgrade the listing so that it doesn't show up in as many search results.
In those situations, you'll want to try and deal with the problem by consolidating your marketing strategy to focus around your community as a single entity—move toward a single mailing address, single community name, and so on.