Columnist Megan Hannay takes a look at why big brands need to create in-depth local content to boost local reach, even in a world of “instant answers.”
In my last post, I wrote about why local businesses need to focus on digital data sharing to perform better for voice, or “instant” searches. But I don’t think instant answers will cover every query or even most queries, at least not for a really, really long time (singularity, anyone?). Some questions just have too many variables involved, and there will always be local researchers who want to poke around, looking for local flavor.
This post focuses on the big players — the chains, the multi-locations, the brands — and why an “instant answer” world also necessitates in-depth local content for those extra long-tail searches.
In a world of instant answers, some will not be satisfied
In short, the “post-rank” search engine seems to be headed toward two types of searches: the “I want an instant answer” and the “let me grab a coffee first.” The former are searches that will be solved via increasingly complex checkboxes, and the latter are searches that will likely always require individual, human research.
The instant search: If a searcher wants a local vegetarian restaurant for a random night out, she may pick the nearest option at her price point with the best reviews (checkboxes).
The too-long tail: If a searcher is planning a special occasion, she’s more likely to spend time looking at photos, reviewing the menu and researching the overall experience for many local restaurants.
To serve these binary needs, local entities need to align their data for the instant searches, but they also need to dedicate resources toward building out content for the researchers.
The problem is, this content will rarely fit into nice keyword buckets. Instead, brands will need to get better at showing off their personality at the local level, treating their local landing page like a guide to the brand experience and leaving the keyword brainstorming to the searcher.
Local flavor, for unbranded local search
Take a search for local cooking classes, especially at the entries under those conspicuous green arrows. Sur La Table not only leads its national brand competitor, Williams-Sonoma, in the SERP, but its landing page offers a better experience as well.
Williams-Sonoma’s domain authority is about 16 points higher, and its page has a local backlink, whereas Sur La Table’s doesn’t. Plus, the Williams-Sonoma URL is much cleaner — no janky characters or store ID numbers.
And yet! Sur La Table ranks. Coincidentally (or probably not), its page experience lends itself much better to my research — there’s a full calendar of upcoming cooking classes, along with time and price. The Williams-Sonoma page offers no such local information. From a digital perspective, their local offerings are served nationally.
Seeing a “local” page with no local flavor feels akin to an online store opening a brick-and-mortar in your backyard. Oh wait — that’s happening! A recent piece in the Chicago Tribune shows how the online retailer’s store looks to one local shopper:
Amazon Books on Southport Avenue, the fifth physical store from the Seattle online giant and its first in the Midwest, is a deeply, unsettlingly normal place, a soulless, antiseptic 6,000 square feet, a stone’s throw from a J. Crew and a SoulCycle. It has the personality of an airport bookstore and conveys all the charm of its stone floor. Shopping there is as frictionless as a one-click purchase. There are no quirks, no attempts at warmth. There is no store cat. There are no handwritten notes about what the staff loves. The only difference between the children’s section and the rest of the store is that the children’s section has a rug. It is, in businesspeak, a bricks-and-mortar presence, so unimaginative its facade is brick.
This paragraph perfectly encapsulates the way many national brands’ “local” pages feel. No quirks. No handwritten notes or cat. It’s like they’re saying, “Here, we made this page for you with an address and phone number; what else could you want to know?”
But in so many ways, these entities fail the local researcher. They don’t provide any answers for the subjective seeker — the person looking for knowledge for more complicated decision-making.
A handful of forward-thinking brands — including Starbucks and Whole Foods — are now recreating their brick-and-mortar experience to fit the culture of each location. They’re buying local fare; they’re designing spaces to fit how locals gather. To fit into a neighborhood, these brands learned that they need to look and feel like the neighborhood.
Content creation for the too-long tail
Creating content for the too-long tail means finding ways to connect, even at scale, with local marketplaces. Some of these tasks can be divvied among smart developers; others will require trusting local store managers or franchise owners.
- Design your pages to feature local entities. Give locally focused content and photos dominant page real estate. I see many local landing pages where the dominant “photo” is an embedded Google Map with the store address. This is a great first step, but it doesn’t really feel as local as a photo.
- Create custom content depending on research needs. There is no one formula for local content — it depends on the services offered. H&R Block lists each office’s tax professionals and their areas of expertise. REI lists their community events. Consider the research questions your customers will be asking, and create content to answer them.
- Get visual to rank for local images. One easy way to do this, to quote a mantra from usability expert Shari Thurow: “Have a picture of the actual storefront!” Include pictures of products or employees. Create a slideshow akin to the one your customers are looking for on Yelp. For restaurants and cafes, show what the seating looks like, not just the food.
- Display local partner logos (nonprofits you sponsor, vendors you purchase from, associations your employees belong to). Virtually no one mentions the local organizations they sponsor on individual city or store landing pages. This is such a great opportunity to enhance the experience of a local seeker — to show him or her that your brand cares locally.
- Answer local FAQs. Does your city have local parades and festivals coming up? Will you offer specials, or will locals especially need reservations during those times? For clothing stores — what’s the local climate like, and when will seasonal wares be for sale?
The unbranded local researcher query is post-rank, not because entities won’t rank (see “Sur La Table vs. Williams Sonoma” cooking classes). Rather, it’s because as our non-instant searches grow in length and detail, I don’t think it will make sense for brands to plan to optimize for a keyword set.
In a market where most products can be purchased more cheaply and conveniently online, brick-and-mortars need excuses to bring customers into the store. In a generation where everyone’s an Instagram foodie, restaurants need to entice potential customers during research. And in a culture where the “shop local” movement has its own holiday, bigger brands especially need to flaunt their local long tail.
[Article on Search Engine Land.]
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