Special Notes for SABs Amid Decreased Local Search Visibility

Posted by MiriamEllis

One of the most common complaints I hear from service area business owners, like plumbers, locksmiths, and housekeepers, is that Google has always treated them as an afterthought. If you’re in charge of the digital marketing for these business models, it’s vital to understand just how accurate this complaint is so that you can both empathize with SAB brand owners and create a strategy that honors limitations while also identifying opportunities.

In marketing SABs, you’ve got to learn to make the best of a special situation. In this post, I want to address two of the realities these companies are facing right now that call for careful planning: the unique big picture of SAB local listing management, and the rise of Google’s Home Service Ads.

Let’s talk listings, Moz Local, and SABs

I was fascinated by my appliance repairman — an older German ex-pat with a serious demeanor — the first time he looked at my wall heater and pronounced,

“This puppy is no good.”

Our family went on to form a lasting relationship with this expert who has warned me about everything from lint fires in dryers to mis-branded appliances slapped together in dubious factories. I’m an admiring fan of genuinely knowledgeable service people who come to my doorstep, crawl under my house where possums dwell, ascend to my eerie attic despite spiders, and are professionally dedicated to keeping my old house livable. I work on a computer, surrounded by comforts; these folks know what real elbow grease is all about:

It’s because of my regard for these incredibly hard-working SAB owners and staffers that I’ve always taken issue with the fact that the local Internet tends to treat them in an offhand manner. They do some of the toughest jobs, and I’d like their marketing opportunities to be boundless. But the reality is, the road has been rocky and the limits are real.

Google goofed first

When Google invested heavily in developing their mapped version of the local commercial scene, there was reportedly internal disagreement as to whether a service area business is actually a “place” and deserved of inclusion in Google’s local index. You couldn’t add service area businesses to the now-defunct MapMaker but you could create local listings for them (clear as mud, right?). At a 2008 SMX event, faced with the question as to how SABs could be accurately represented in the local results, a Google rep really goofed in first suggesting that they all get PO boxes, only to have this specific practice subsequently outlawed by Google’s guidelines.

Confusion and spam flowed in

For the record,

  • Both SABs and brick-and-mortar businesses are currently eligible for Google My Business listings if they serve customers face-to-face.
  • SABs must have some form of legitimate street address, even if it’s a home address, to be included
  • Only brick-and-mortar businesses are supposed to have visible addresses on their listings, but Google’s shifting messaging and inconsistent guideline enforcement have created confusion.

Google has shown little zeal for suspending listings that violate the hide-address guidelines, with one notable exception recently mentioned to me by Joy Hawkins of Sterling Sky: SABs who click the Google My Business dashboard box stating that they serve clients at the business’ location in order to get themselves out of no man’s land at the bottom of the Google Home Service ad unit are being completely removed from the map by Google if caught.

Meanwhile, concern has been engendered by past debate over whether hiding the address of a business lowered its local pack rankings. The 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors survey is still finding this to be the #18 negative local pack ranking factor, which might be worthy of further discussion.

All of these factors have created an environment in which legitimate SABs have accidentally incorrectly listed themselves on Google and in which spammers have thrived, intentionally creating multiple listings at non-physical addresses and frequently getting away with it to the detriment of search results uniformity and quality. In this unsatisfactory environment, the advent of Google’s Home Service Ads program may have been inevitable, and we’ll take a look at that in a minute.

Limits made clear in listing options for SABs

Whether the risk of suspension or impact on rankings is great or small, hiding your address on SAB Google My Business listings is the only Google-approved practice. If you want to play it totally safe, you’ll play by the rules, but this doesn’t automatically overcome every challenge.

Google is one of the few high-level local business index requiring hidden SAB addresses. And it’s in this stance that SABs encounter some problems taking advantage of the efficiencies provided by automated location data management tools like Moz Local. There are three main things that have confused our own customers:

  1. Because our SAB customers are required by Google to hide their address, Moz Local can’t then verify the address because… well, it’s hidden. This means that customers need to have a Facebook listing with a visible address on it to get started using Moz Local. Facebook doesn’t require SAB addresses to be hidden.
  2. Once the customer gets started, their ultimate consistency score will generally be lower than what a brick-and-mortar business achieves, again because their hidden GMB listing address can’t be matched to all of the other complete listings Moz Local builds for them. It reads like an inconsistency, and while this in no way impacts their real-world performance, it’s a little sad not to be able to aim for a nifty 100% dashboard metric within Moz Local. Important to mention here that a 100% score isn’t achievable for multi-location business models, either, given that Facebook’s guidelines require adding a modifier to the business name of each branch, rendering it inconsistent. This is in contrast to Google’s policy, which defines the needless addition of keywords or geo-modifiers to the business name as spam! When Google and Facebook fundamentally disagree on a guideline, a small measure of inconsistency is part and parcel of the scenario, and not something worth worrying about.
  3. Finally, for SABs who don’t want their address published anywhere on the Internet, automated citation management simply may not be a good match. Some partners in our network won’t accept address-less distribution from us, viewing it as incomplete data. If an SAB isn’t looking for complete NAP distribution because they want their address to be kept private, automation just isn’t ideal.

So how can SABs use something like Moz Local?

The Moz Local team sides with SABs — we’re not totally satisfied with the above state of affairs and are actively exploring better support options for the future. Given our admiration for these especially hard-working businesses, we feel SABs really deserve to have needless burdens lifted from their shoulders, which is exactly what Moz Local is designed to do. The task of manual local business listing publication and ongoing monitoring is a hefty one — too hefty in so many cases. Automation does the heavy lifting for you. We’re examining better solutions, but right now, what options for automation are open to the SAB?

Option #1: If your business is okay with your address being visible in multiple places, then simply be sure your Facebook listing shows your address and you can sign up for Moz Local today, no problem! We’ll push your complete NAP to the major aggregators and other partners, but know that your Moz Local dashboard consistency score won’t be 100%. This is because we won’t be able to “see” your Google My Business listing with its hidden address, and because choosing service-related categories will also hide your address on Citysearch, Localeze, and sometimes, Bing. Also note that one of our partners, Factual, doesn’t support locksmiths, bail bondsmen or towing companies. So, in using an automated solution like Moz Local, be prepared for a lower score in the dashboard, because it’s “baked into” the scenario in which some platforms show your full street address while others hide it. And, of course, be aware that many of your direct local competitors are in the same boat, facing the same limitations, thus leveling the playing field.

Option #2: If your business can budget for it, consider transitioning from an SAB to a brick-and-mortar business model, and get a real-world office that’s staffed during stated business hours. As Mike Blumenthal and Mary Bowling discuss is in this excellent video chat, smaller SABs need to be sure they can still make a profit after renting an office space, and that may largely be based on rental costs in their part of the country. Very successful virtual brands are exploring traditional retail options and traditional brick-and-mortar business models are setting up virtual showrooms; change is afoot. Having some customers come to the physical location of a typical SAB may require some re-thinking of service. A locksmith could grind keys on-site, a landscaper could virtually showcase projects in the comfort of their office, but what could a plumber do? Any ideas? If you can come up with a viable answer, and can still see profits factoring in the cost of office space, transitioning to brick-and-mortar effectively removes any barriers to how you represent yourself on Google and how fully you can use software like Moz Local.

If neither option works for you, and you need to remain an SAB with a hidden address, you’ll either need to a) build citations manually on sites that support your requirements, like these ones listed out by Phil Rozek, while having a plan for regularly monitoring your listings for emerging inconsistencies, duplicates and incoming reviews or b) hire a company to do the manual development and monitoring for you on the platforms that support hiding your address.

I wish the digital marketing sky could be the limit for SABs, but we’ve got to do the most we can working within parameters defined by Google and other location data platforms.

Now comes HSA: Google’s next SAB move

As service area business owner or marketer, you can’t be faulted for feeling that Google hasn’t handled your commercial scenario terribly well over the years. As we’ve discussed, Google has wobbled on policy and enforcement. Not yet mentioned is that they’ve never offered an adequate solution to the reality that a plumber located in City A equally services Cities B, C, and D, but is almost never allowed to rank in the local packs for these service cities. Google’s historic bias toward physical location doesn’t meet the reality of business models that go to clients to serve. And it’s this apparent lack of interest in SAB needs that may be adding a bit of sting to Google’s latest move: the Home Service Ads (HSA) program.

You’re not alone if you don’t feel totally comfortable with Google becoming a lead gen agent between customers and, to date:

  • Plumbers
  • House cleaners
  • Locksmiths
  • Handymen
  • Contractors
  • Electricians
  • Painters
  • Garage door services
  • HVAC companies
  • Roadside assistance services
  • Auto glass services

in a rapidly increasing number of cities.

Suddenly, SABs have moved to the core of Google’s consciousness, and an unprecedented challenge for these business models is that, while you can choose whether or not to opt into the program, there’s no way to opt out of the impacts it is having on all affected local results.

An upheaval in SAB visibility

If HSA has come to your geo-industry, and you don’t buy into the program, you will find yourself relegated to the bottom of the new HSA ad unit which appears above the traditional 3-pack in the SERPs:

hsa.jpg

Additionally, even if you were #1 in the 3-pack prior to HSA coming to town, if you lack a visible address, your claimed listing appears to have vanished from the pack and finder views.

hsa2.jpg

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