How local advertising is changing (and where to focus now)
Local advertising has been in a constant state of flux since the pandemic took hold across the United States. The resulting impact on advertisers and the brands they serve has been massive, as years of historical business data became irrelevant. Rapid-cycling changes in consumer behavior made it clear that real-time insights are the only way forward.
We’ve helped multi-location brands make sense of the upheaval with monthly (and now quarterly) analyses of Google Business Profile insights over the past few years. These aggregate performance metrics across eight diverse categories give brands performance benchmarks and provide important context to why they may be seeing shifts in their own local search views and conversions across their locations.
There’s a bigger picture here, too, in that local advertising has been forever changed by the pandemic, evolving consumer behavior, and technological advancements.
In this post, we’ll explore the various ways local advertising is changing on five important fronts:
- How Google Search is changing
- The opportunities and impacts of generative AI
- Combating consumer distrust
- The increasingly visual search landscape
- Increasingly fragmented customer experiences
1. The evolving Google Search ecosystem
Staying on top of Google’s local and organic algorithm updates could be a full-time job (and then some). Many of the thousands of changes in these algorithms each year go unnoticed, however Google is becoming better at proactively sharing information about updates that will have a noticeable effect on businesses.
One of the more impactful series of updates is related to Google’s Helpful Content System, which aims to prioritize original, informative, and valuable content written by people for people in search results. It emphasizes creating content that addresses searchers’ needs rather than focusing solely on ranking higher in search results and winning clicks. The Helpful Content System encourages content creators to demonstrate expertise, have a clear purpose, and leave readers satisfied.
The most recent update in this series is designed to uncover more “hidden gems” in search results by surfacing more content that exemplifies deep knowledge, personal experience, and an expert point of view.
Other issues Google continues to target with core and algorithm updates include:
- Improving user experience
- Keeping potentially harmful content out of search results
- Combating link spam
- Displaying more experience, expertise, authoritativeness, or trustworthiness (E-E-A-T) in top-ranking search results
- Meeting people where they are in increasingly fragmented customer experiences
See Navigating the top Google algorithm updates: Unlocking the secrets of search to learn more.
2. The opportunities and impacts of generative AI
OpenAI’s language model, ChatGPT, gained over 100 million users in just two months. It is used for various purposes such as content generation, keyword research, simplifying complex research publications, and more. However, there are limitations and precautions to consider before integrating ChatGPT into SEO strategies.
Google has expressed concerns about AI-generated content. ChatGPT can produce false information, amplify biases from the training data, and provide outdated information. Perhaps most importantly, it lacks the unique human experiences, expertise, and local knowledge consumers expect to see in quality local content.
Initially, Google viewed content creation using machine learning as violating its Webmaster Guidelines. However, Google has since clarified that it aims to combat spammy, auto-generated content that lacks originality and value, serving only to manipulate search rankings. Google emphasizes that automation, including AI, can generate helpful and creative content that adds value to users.
Content creators should prioritize high-quality, user-centric content that aligns with Google’s E-E-A-T guidelines (expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness). While AI can streamline research and writing processes, it has limitations, including a lack of creativity and potential bias.
There are useful ways to use ChatGPT for local SEO – in writing and debugging code, sorting (not researching) keyword lists, generating SEO titles and meta descriptions, creating FAQs, conducting competitor analysis, and understanding user intent, for example. Best practices include conducting independent keyword research, ensuring content accuracy and quality, providing clear guidance to local managers, and being aware of the limitations of the AI tools you’re using.
And of course, ChatGPT is not the only generative AI application available. Google’s experimental conversational AI, Bard (powered by LaMDA), is designed to assist users by answering questions using information from the web. It differs from ChatGPT as it has access to current web information, while the free version of ChatGPT is not connected to the internet and has limited knowledge beyond 2021. Content marketers can use Bard for brainstorming, topic exploration, and generating drafts, but it does not replace human intelligence and editorial processes.
3. Combating consumer distrust
Alongside the benefits of AI, society is coming to terms with widespread misinformation and even deep fakes, where lies and untruths are made incredibly convincing with AI-created images, video, and text. Google is giving businesses more tools to help in overcoming trust barriers to convert more consumers from online search to offline foot traffic and purchases.
Google Local Services Ads (LSAs) are one such tool. LSAs are a pay-per-lead advertising format that allows service-based businesses to appear at the top of Google search results. Unlike traditional Google Ads, businesses only pay when customers contact them directly through the ad.
These ads are displayed prominently and provide essential information about the business, such as hours, reviews, and location. Businesses can set a maximum budget and adjust it based on their needs. The ads have high purchase intent, and the Google Guarantee Badge adds trust and credibility, as the badge means Google has screened the business and holds it to a certain standard. Eligible industries include appliance repair, legal services, lawn care, real estate, pest control, and more.
Local reviews are another essential trust signal for local consumers, and the average person reads six of them before deciding to visit a business, according to our research. Brand reputation is particularly impactful in high-touch industries such as service businesses, and where a negative experience could have serious consequences, such as in healthcare or finance.
In every industry, from hospitality and business services to restaurants and retail stores, customers seek out the shared experiences of others before they’ll give a brand their business.
Even before customers read and compare reviews as part of their decision-making process, they’re heavily weighted in Google’s local ranking algorithm and can impact a location’s visibility in Search and Maps results. The volume, average star rating, and recency of Google reviews all factor into local search rankings. Google Business Profile (GBP) has released several reviews updates in recent years to help consumers understand which reviews are most trustworthy and relevant. Google continues to emphasize the importance of reviews in its ‘How to improve your local ranking’ help resources, as well.
Brands can further maximize the value of local reviews by:
- Displaying them prominently on local pages
- Using Genius® Text Analytics to capture, analyze, and activate real-time customer experience feedback
- Taking a local experience (LX) approach to reputation management to close the gaps between customer experience and local marketing
How you communicate information to search engines helps combat distrust, as well. Google, Bing, and other search engines constantly compare information from various sources to ensure the content they show in search results is accurate. This is particularly important in local search results, where customers are often looking to take immediate action.
Properly applying schema markup to local pages, proactive local listings management to ensure business information accuracy, and regularly distributing updated business data to major platforms such as Google, Apple, Yelp, Bing, Facebook –– as well as directories and local data aggregators – are key in maintaining search engine and consumer trust.
4. The increasingly visual search landscape
Making a strong first impression is crucial, and that first impression often happens when potential customers come across your brand’s listings in local search. Studies have shown that 59% of people consider photos extremely helpful or essential in local search results, underscoring the importance of paying attention to the quality and content of the photos on your GBP.
Not only do high-quality, professional photos enhance the overall impression of your brand, but they also have a direct impact on conversions. According to Google research, businesses with photos in their Business Profiles experience a significant increase in engagement, with 42% more requests for directions on Google Maps and a 35% increase in clicks to their websites. Investing time and effort into optimizing your GBP photos can yield tangible benefits for your business.
There are several things to consider when optimizing images for your brand’s GBP listings. First, ensure images are properly sized and adhere to Google’s content policies. Avoiding excessive text overlays that may look spammy and render poorly on smaller screens is important. Ensure you prevent essential content from being cropped out by positioning it at the top of the photo.
It’s also a good idea to avoid stock images, as they provide a poor user experience and may violate GBP guidelines. If you do use stock initially while you work on sourcing professional photos of each location, replace them as soon as possible. Cover photos should be carefully chosen to meet Google’s standards and showcase the building’s exterior. From there, regularly monitor and update images to reflect the current state of your business in each location.
5. Increasingly fragmented customer experiences
The modern-day customer experience is borderless, taking place across multiple channels, devices, and platforms. Customers expect these interactions with your brand to be a seamless experience, too. How can you meet people where they are with personalized, relevant experiences that win their business?
Google provides an increasing array of tools to help brands engage and convert searchers directly from GBP listings, including Google Messaging, appointment booking links, online ordering, and autoresponder FAQs.
And although Google takes the lion’s share of the U.S. search market, it’s not the only place local consumers search for businesses nearby. Review platforms such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook are important points of discovery and engagement for local brands, as well. Business-specific review sites –– such as ZocDoc or Vitals for healthcare, or OpenTable for restaurants –– are key places for your listings to appear, as well. Having the technology and people in place to monitor for interactions and engage customers in real time across these multiple touchpoints is imperative.
Apple has made great strides in helping businesses engage local customers with the launch of its Business Connect program, and this is an opportunity brands won’t want to miss. Apple Maps is the default map application on Apple devices, the brand of choice for 60% of mobile users in the U.S.
And in our most recent Local Search Consumer Behavior Study, we found that 84% of U.S. consumers use Apple Maps to search for information about nearby businesses (49% saying they do so ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ frequently). Once you’ve claimed and verified all Business Connect listings for your brand, you can explore features and functions such as Apple Showcases to share rich content and engage local consumers there, as well.
Where to focus now
The evolution of local advertising is challenging multi-location brands to break down any remaining silos and take a holistic, 360° approach to the local customer’s experience. Using paid advertising to complement organic campaigns and strategy helps augment each location’s online visibility while ensuring local marketing budget isn’t wasted on ads in areas where organic results are already doing the job.
Local advertising must fit into the customer journey, driving consumers to their next most logical step, rather than being an interrupter or stopping point.
You don’t have to be everywhere at once.
If your team and marketing efforts feel fragmented, disconnected, and reactive, we can help. It starts with a local presence audit, to see your brand’s listings, local pages, reviews, and citations as your customers do in every market. Request your free audit today to see where you stand.
Interested in our solutions? Get in touch, and we can bring you up to speed.