Local Search, Big Data, and Big Wins with Dan Leibson

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Dan Leibson is the Vice President of Search for Local SEO Guide, an agency that works with clients like Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes, Walmart.com, and more. They work with both small, local clients, and enterprise-level clients.

Local SEO Guide is an extremely data-driven organization. Today Dan sat down with Garrett to discuss SEO metrics, using big data to develop a strategy for clients, and a whole lot more. Don’t miss this one!

The highlights:

  • [1:50] Are rankings as important as everyone thinks?
  • [3:30] Handling clients who want to rank for certain keywords.
  • [4:21] Demonstrating the value of SEO without rankings.
  • [5:51] Shaping campaigns for clients.
  • [7:21] Using big data to develop strategies.
  • [10:25] People and resources needed to help clients with big data information.
  • [12:23] Using Lighthouse to aggregate and automate performance reporting.
  • [14:57] Search trends.
  • [16:52] How customers use local search.
  • [19:51] What’s next for the local organic landscape?
  • [22:04] Dan’s Causes

The insights:

On rankings

Garrett asked Dan’s perspective on search engine rankings and how they have evolved over the past five or ten years. Dan’s answer was surprising.

“I would consider myself someone who’s not particularly interested in rankings.”

Dan isn’t interested in rankings because he sees them as a “directional metric.”

“Rankings,” he says, “are what you look at to see how you’re getting clicks or how you’re getting traffic. They’re only valuable as they’re sending you traffic. At Local SEO Guide, rankings are primarily an internal tool. We can report on them to clients sometimes, we don’t push rank tracking or anything.”

He says unless clients pay for rank tracking they stick to Google Search Console rankings to help them determine whether the client’s account is moving in the right direction.

Handling clients who want to rank for certain keywords

“For some people,” Dan says, “we’re very upfront with clients and say if you want to rank for that, you should probably do a ton of link building. Focus on things that are going to move the needle in the rankings but don’t necessarily expect there’s going to be a huge business win for you there unless you have a more sophisticated method to be able to tie buckets of keywords to business wins.”

In general, he says, clients who go after certain keywords end up spending a lot of money without ever getting the return that they want – no matter how good their SEO professionals are! 

Demonstrating the value of SEO without rankings

Garrett pointed out that we do know that ranking higher on the page gets a higher click-thru rate. 

“If that’s not the goal, how do you show the value of SEO to your clients in the work that you’re doing?”

Dan answers that you have to go really granular. 

“It’s not just about ranking higher gets you more clicks. It’s about the value of those clicks and how you’re able to surface the value of a particular market. Whether it’s a query market or a local market. All those things have the potential to impact the business.”

He gives the example of men’s sneakers. “Men’s sneakers for hiking” or “best men’s sneakers for tall men” are the keywords where you can get a lot more revenue for a single win, so he encourages agencies to focus more attention to those super-long tail keywords vs. worrying about where a client ranks when someone types in the words “men’s sneakers.”

Shaping campaigns for larger clients

Dan says Local SEO Guide looks at getting wins from a product perspective.
“You have a set of offerings on the site. Whether they’re informational offerings, product offerings, etc. So [we ask] what are the most relevant queries to be able to get the right users into those things so they convert?”
He says it’s not about doing CRO on the page.
“It’s backing into an analysis of what type of search intent we need to hit and what type of user we want to land on that page in order to get a business win. So sometimes you have to create the content, other times you have the content that [already] exists for you.”

Working with big data

Dan again dropped the caveat that search data, even things like keyword volume and not just rankings, are “directionally accurate at best.” He says a lot of third-party tools that estimate these things offer a lot of false negatives.
“There’s stuff that’s getting clicks and getting conversions that the tools will show no search volume for, less search volume than you’re actually winning in traffic right now. So there’s a big disconnect between what is real and what tools provide.”
Local SEO Guide does use the SERPs data offered by Traject Data for their SEO work. “We basically pull all the data intelligence dashboarding.” They have used it to track changes in Google’s algorithm, to generate business wins, to position queries for the types of content that is on a page.
“A good example is people use things like SEMrush or Ahrefs for competitive intelligence, but you can use rank tracking tools to get a full SERP of real-time data that’s localized. Most rank tracking APIs [in contrast to Traject Data] are fractions of a percent of a query so you can build out a real-time competitive intelligence report using a rank tracking tool for a client for like $100.”

People and resources needed to help clients with big data

Local SEO Guide has an SEO who learned to code but who doesn’t have an engineering background. “Then we have a Junior Engineer that was a Java Script engineer that we hired in and converted to a back-end engineer.”

He says you don’t necessarily have to go and hire a “data scientist.”

“A lot of this stuff is really easy to do if you have development expertise and you understand how to manage a product. To your point, we take the JSON blogs from the API. We data warehouse it. We create relationships with clients. We roll that up into Google Data Studio, and then we just create whatever charting we want in that data studio report.”

He mentions that things that you used to need a user interface tool are now widely available in many BI tools at the click of a button.

“It’s surprisingly easy.”

Using Lighthouse to aggregate and automate performance reporting

Lighthouse is awesome. A lot of tools, like Screaming Frog, etc., have the ability to hit URLs in the crawl and pull back web vitals or Google Page Feed insights metrics, but that’s at the URL level. 

On websites that have tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions of pages, they’re still likely only ten templates, fifteen templates? So being able to understand resource usage, not at the page level but at the template level, is really critical for understanding.”

lighthouse

“It requires the ability to manually tag URLs with a category as you get the Lighthouse data, and then roll them up and have a drill-down at the category level to be able to build off it at a BI tool. So we built it. We use it all the time.

We have a deliverable we do when we intake clients. When we start doing audits for them, we’ll hit this thing with their templates. And we’ll hit their competitors with it. And we’ll go through what their problems are and illustrate the competitive landscape.”

He says enterprise-level clients often have poor web performance, but their competitors often have poor web performance too. 

“It’s always good to highlight what might be a competitive win vs. other kinds of large sites.”

What are some big search trends on your radar?

“I think the big trend no one ever talks about is the constant localization of search. Not changes within local search. It’s that Google is treating more and more searches as local, whether it’s returning an acronym or returning local organic results in the traditional 10 blue links.”

He says a brand’s search ecosystem can become fragmented as a result.

“They have to figure out how to compete for local queries that they may not have a slot for.”

He says that there are opportunities here too, especially for local businesses.

“Some were traditionally blocked from particular query types, like particular editorial content.”

Dan thinks this trend doesn’t get a lot of discussion in the Local SEO world because it’s more on the traditional organic end, “but I think that’s one of the biggest wins in local SEO these days.” 

How customers use local search beyond the local pack

Garrett asked if users really look past the local pack to find what they’re looking for. Dan says:
“It depends on whether there’s an ability to transact online or not. If there’s an ability to transact on the site, then getting into the site is great, because even if they were going to go to the business and engage in commerce you can get them to engage in the transaction on the site. That’s an opportunity for a potential win. Being able to book revenue like that is a big win in general for businesses.”
He says for marketers the organic results are huge.
“It lets them book results. We have a lot of clients who get a ton of eCommerce revenue from GMB. People click through on the website button on a desktop and transact online. So GMB can book eCommerce revenue. All the time. It’s a valuable thing to track.”
local search eCommerce example
In the context of the pandemic, having something like curbside pickup or local delivery can help make these wins even bigger.
“If you do your own delivery service being able to outrank Jordache or any aggregator is a 20% win on your marketing, right?”
He says that for a long time it was hard for local businesses to win because of Google’s ecosystem. This allows them to claw back revenue from people who are trying to act as lead generation middlemen.

What's next for the local organic landscape?

“I think the product stuff they’re doing on the GMB profiles is going to be a huge thing. We don’t get tons of traffic that we can track from those, but the traffic we do get from them converts at some clients like ten times more.”
He says Google’s got to be seeing stuff like that and wanting to surface it more in the search results in general.
“I imagine we’ll see more of that local transactional commercial intent stuff getting surfaced.”
shopping pack

Does this mean Google is trying to become Amazon’s competitor? Did they really “concede” eCommerce to Amazon, as certain current antitrust suits suggest? 

Dan doesn’t think so.

“I think it’s more like an avenue for them. Google wants to develop an ad unit that is more products and organic, more localized eCommerce in search results. It gives them the opportunity to monetize it once businesses see a higher return on it. I think that’s the question for them. How can they do better at merchandising search results?”

What's your right now cause?

Dan’s been pretty vocal about supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and has even put together a GoFundMe campaign for SEOs looking to resist police brutality. 

Yet when asked about his causes he went in a slightly different direction while staying in the same lane.
“I think it’s important that marketers or people in the SEO space make sure they’re opening up their interview processes to include more BIPOC people in general.”
He mentioned gender was a big thing in SEO for a while,
“and it shows the space can do a decent job at working to include more of those choices in the hiring process.”
He says it’s important for people who have the power to hire to ask themselves how they’re working to hire a more representative organization, and to identify what’s stopping them from accomplishing that and addressing it. He says his own organization had to ask themselves whether they were hiring proactively or reactively.
“I wanna make sure we’re hiring more proactively so we can have time to make hires that we can train a role vs. quickly filling a role, allowing us to look at a more diverse group of candidates.”

Connect with Dan Leibson

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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