Problem: Local businesses want to be found easily on the internet so they can drive additional sales.
Solution: Search engines and directories provide virtual yellow page listings which display small snippets of contact information for a business to simplify access to people browsing for service.
Second Problem: Local businesses want to track phone calls and web form leads generated from this internet marketing channel to understand how much new business is being generated from these listings.
Second Solution: Local businesses can implement call tracking which allows them to replace their business phone number with a special call tracking number, logging call information and then forwarding the call to their existing business line; however, there have been numerous references on the web and twitter related to issues with using call tracking technology in local SEO campaigns.
The basic problem is that search engines get confused regarding which phone number for the local business is the correct main phone number and might therefore rank the company lower in its local browsing subsections because it does not have the appropriate references to correctly weight the main number. If a business requires being ranked highly in local places as part of their marketing strategy, implementing call tracking without understanding the consequences could have a very negative impact on their business. Luckily there are some existing solutions as well as a proposed long term fix.
For Madison plumbing, being ranked #1 in Google Places for the search term “Cleveland Plumbing” likely has a very positive effect on plumbing related sales. Their phone number is listed as 216-226-5009. This phone number could be a tracking number as the page is a lander designed by AT&T, but Madison / AT&T would have to be careful to ensure that this is represented as the main contact number for Madison elsewhere on the internet.
While Google does not reveal the details behind their search processing algorithms, conventional wisdom says that one of the components for local site rank is the prevalence of the main phone number on the internet (think of it as treating phone listings similar to your site getting links, the more of them pointing to the same destination, the more “juice” that destination/phone number has in terms of where it will rank).
Google’s Two Part Solution: Google understands that this is a problem. Their offered solution is to use Canonical Link References to inform the Google Crawler that “version X” of the page specified at the URL is the one which should be understood as default, where other versions which might have different content are essentially less informative variations. Additionally, Google suggests a local business claim the “Place Page” so that they can specify the correct local phone number. The issues with these solutions is that they require some complexity on the side of the local business.
Issues with Canonical Links
- Only useful where you can influence the link location (i.e. pay-per-click traffic but not organic)
- Requires multiple versions of the same page (i.e. index.php?ver=reference vs index.php?ver=tracking) which may be beyond the scope of the local business or the intermediary.
Issues with Place Pages
- Requires businesses to understand and interact with Google places. While this should be relatively straightforward, many businesses like Madison Plumbing use an intermediary such as AT&T to help them list on the internet, so they may not have any direct interaction with Google.
Another Possible Solution
Another possible way to allow local businesses to track calls being generated to their site without negatively impacting their local ranking is to encapsulate a tracking phone number with a special tag indicating that it should not be referenced in terms of phone numbers for search listings.
Possible solutions would be to specifically indicate that a phone number is a tracking number or explicitly indicate that a phone number is the canonical number for the site. The issue with this solution is that it would require modification of how search engines parse web sites and may, depending on implementation, require amendments to higher level standards like HTML.
At Mongoose, we think that businesses should be able to track phone calls without being punished in their search rankings. We look forward to participating in a conversation which helps businesses rank well locally and account for their marketing. Our solution is not the only one nor is it necessarily the best, but we believe something beyond what Google proposes needs to be discussed and implemented as the number of companies desiring phone call accountability grows.
-Brad Reynolds, chief executive officer, Mongoose Metrics