As the current phenomenon of Meerkatting amply demonstrates, smartphones have linked our online and offline lives in a state of seemingly ubiquitous and perpetual interconnection. In the world of local commerce, this interconnection creates multiple opportunities for businesses to make themselves available to consumers. Consequently, agencies and consultants specializing in onsite and offsite local SEO are increasingly turning their attention to mobile optimization. Mobile optimization is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, however. Here I’ll focus my attention on the use case of the small local business.
The new mobile-friendly search algorithm that Google plans to roll out on April 21st will likely have a smaller impact on local businesses than on businesses that conduct online-only commerce. This is due to the fact that competition for top rank positions in Google mobile search is generally won by Google results themselves, or by listings from top-ranked general directories like Yelp and specialized directories like Avvo. Given the smaller real estate afforded by the smartphone screen, competition for ranking is even more fierce on mobile than on desktop. Though Google mobile results are displayed in a different manner from desktop search, they follow the same trends in the sense that the small business website is unlikely to show up for many searches. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. Some local businesses do have websites that perform well in search engine results and all businesses should take at least the basic steps to achieve that goal.
For most small businesses, mobile optimization is important for another reason. Rather than competing with the big directories for search ranking, small businesses need to fit themselves within the dominant mobile search paradigm and ensure their profiles on third party sites are optimized for the needs of mobile consumers. Google’s own research shows that mobile consumers are searching for certain kinds of information, such as hours of operation, store address, and directions. Small businesses must ensure this type of information is present and accurate in their Google Maps profiles as well as the equivalent profiles on YP, Yelp, and other prominent local sites likely to be served up in Google’s mobile search results.
Mobile optimization of the small business website should be thought of as an adjunct to listing optimization. The typical Google local search on a smartphone will take the consumer to one of three places: an ad, a Google Maps listing, or a third party directory listing. Paid search aside, the lesson here is that offsite local SEO will make the difference for most businesses between being found and being invisible. Once you’ve got the consumer’s attention, however, you need to cater to the need for relevant and actionable information. The path from online search to offline purchase for many mobile searches will bypass the small business website entirely, but you don’t want to be caught short when consumers are searching for additional information in order to make a purchase decision.
So the small business website enters the mix as a way to differentiate yourself from the competition. In this regard, mobile optimization is key. Consumers will increasingly turn away from websites that are not mobile friendly, whereas sites that present easily digestible information to smartphone users will help consumers along the purchase path.
Of course, consumer mobile activity is not entirely contained within the Google universe. Aside from search engine alternatives like Yahoo and Bing, native search on Apple Maps and Facebook accounts for a significant share of the local-mobile search market. Maps listings and social profiles should be optimized for mobile on the same model as directory listings, and in these cases too, a mobile-friendly small business website will provide some consumers with just the information they need to choose your store over the competition.
In case we need reminding, mobile search represents consumers poised to purchase. According to another study from Google, 94% of smartphone users have searched on their phones for local information, meaning information about local businesses, service providers, events, or places. In fact, 57% search for local information as often as once a week, 25% do so daily, and 65% of the time those searching for local businesses follow up by visiting the stores they find. The right combination of offsite and onsite mobile optimization will help small businesses capture their share of this valuable market.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.