The Current State of Local SEO with Joy Hawkins

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If you’re in the Local SEO sphere at all, then Joy Hawkins probably needs no introduction. She’s the “Queen of Local” and the CEO and Founder of Sterling Sky, one of the most renowned local SEO agencies in the industry. She’s also a Google Product Expert, owns Local U, and owns the Local Search Forum.

local search forum

She’s even hired quite a few other experts such as Colan Nielsen, Carrie Hill, and Mary Bowling, who now work with her to deliver the best possible local SEO experience to their clients. 

In short, if you’ve ever had any question about local SEO she’s the one to ask. Garrett, of course, had plenty of questions to ask on today’s podcast.

The highlights:

  • [1:37] The state of local search.
  • [2:49] Selling local SEO to businesses.
  • [4:58] Choosing which services to offer.
  • [5:54] Link building.
  • [8:13] The state of reputation management.
  • [9:56] Getting reviews removed.
  • [13:16] Getting reviewers to add more text.
  • [14:40] Experimentation in the local SEO sphere.
  • [17:00] Joy’s causes.

The insights:

The State of Local Search

Joy says that local SEO is still a neglected part of the SEO community as a whole.
“One example of that would be at MozCon this year, which I feel like is one of the well-known industry conferences that encompasses all of SEO. I was the only speaker that talked about local search.”
mozcon agenda 2
Mozcon agenda

You can view Joy’s MozCon presentation slideshow here.

She says she felt a lot of pressure thanks to being the only one, but,

“that’s pretty much what we normally experience in local SEO. We’re a small part of the big community.”

Garrett was surprised to hear it because if you’re a local business with a physical presence, local SEO is pretty much the most important part of an SMB’s marketing strategy.

Selling Local SEO to businesses

Most of Sterling Sky’s leads are inbound these days, but Joy certainly remembers the cold call days.  

“The biggest thing I used to do is take people to Google. If I could get them on the phone and say, pull up Google on your phone, computer, whatever, and search blah blah blah like ‘restaurant Chicago,’ whatever your term is, often that alone was kind of enough to get them on the idea of: why am I not here? I should be here. And they’d see their competitors. It’s like getting the visual there.”

restautant-chicago-google-search
She notes one advantage that modern local SEO agencies have that early local SEO agencies didn’t necessarily have. 
“These days you don’t have to tell people why Google is important. Hopefully.”
She also wanted to dispel the myth that you don’t need a website to use local SEO, and that GMB is enough.
“You definitely need a website. There are some industries you can survive without one because none of your competitors have one, and some websites are awful. But if you’re spending money on SEO you need a website. Those two go hand-in-hand.”

How Local SEO agencies can choose which services to offer

There are of course myriad tactical services that can be implemented as part of a solid local SEO strategy. Yet Joy pinpointed a single service that seems to “move the needle” more than any other.
“The thing I see that’s in the highest demand, that you can charge the most for, is link building. I want to clarify I’m not talking about citations. Getting a listing on Yelp is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the links your competitors don’t have.”
Then Joy talked a little about some of the link building strategies, campaigns, and methods she’s seen working.
“When COVID first started a lot of radio stations were listing businesses on their websites. One of my link builders picked up on that. We were like, holy crap, this is amazing. So we went and basically scanned through some advanced search operations in Google, all these different radio stations in various cities our clients were in. We got so many links for clients by doing that. That obviously doesn’t work anymore. It got kind of exhausted. I’m sure these radio stations might not have realized there was such a thing as an SEO community. They’re probably aware now.”
It’s a good point, that often link building strategies come and go quickly because they get exhausted and overrun by members of the SEO community. Of course, some don’t, because they’re harder. Like getting linked in local publications.
“It’s a matter of reach. You’ve gotta develop relationships and not be spammy when you do the outreach and stuff. There’s definitely a skill to it.”
She says you should look for certain qualities when you hire someone to do the job.
“You definitely need somebody that’s good at sales, that likes talking to people, and who is motivated by link building. Because honestly if it bores the person, they’re not going to do very well with it.”

The State of Reputation Management

Joy says COVID is making reputation management even tougher. 

She pointed to a recent GatherUp article about major brands experiencing ratings drops over mask policies.

gatherup mask study
You can read the full article here
“Whenever you have a high-stress world you’re going to get more of those negative people upset about whatever it is you’re trying to do,” says Joy.
She also notes Google is in a tough spot right now. 
“Because they’ve ultimately got to decide whether these reviews are actually okay. For example, where’s the line with racial [reviews]? Some of the stuff with the Black Lives Matter movement. Is that okay to be referenced in reviews? Is that racial? Are you going to remove those? I don’t want to be them.”

Getting Google reviews removed

Sterling Sky constantly flags and reports negative reviews for their clients that violate the review guidelines. So Garrett asked about Sterling Sky’s process, and what they recommend for businesses when they have a review they don’t like, and how Joy responds to business owners when Google says, “No, this doesn’t break the terms and conditions.”

Joy says the only way to get a really good grasp on what Google will act on is “to just do it a ton.”

Want to try to get a review removed?

“If you think there’s even a shot, flag the review. You never know, right?”

She relays a story of telling a client that she didn’t think she could get a certain review removed, only for Google to do it. She notes they’ve had tons of cases like that.

“After you flag it, if it’s not gone in three days, you can contact support. Right now the only way to contact GMB support is via email. There’s a link to a forum you can submit. And if that doesn’t work, you can post on the Google My Business forum if you’re convinced.”

She says sometimes, though, there’s not much that can be done.

“There was one guy I was helping this week who had an onslaught of like 20 negative reviews, all within the last couple of weeks, one after the other, but none of the reviews had text in them. They’re one-star ratings, no text. But it’s blatantly obvious they’re fake. This is not natural, he wasn’t getting these before, and the fact that they’re spread out so perfectly and none of them have any text, but Google refused to remove them.”

She says she feels this is a flaw in Google’s guidelines, failing to act on ratings without text.

“There’s nothing they can use to say it’s against the guidelines, but that’s one case where I escalated it and pushed back.”

Getting Reviewers to Add More Text

Joy says prompting people in an email, asking for reviewers to give feedback on specific things directly, doesn’t work for the team at Sterling Sky. They’ve tested it, and it didn’t appear to work when they did. 
“I think at the end of the day people are just really rushed,” she says. “I saw a comedian actually talk about how much people are asked for feedback on a constant basis. It’s kind of like overload these days. It’s another struggle. People are literally getting bombarded by every company to leave feedback. There’s only so much time in the day.”
She says the method you use and the personalization behind it are going to help your success rate more than just adding in some text. Joy says she spends several hours a month testing different theories like this.
“We wanna find new tactics. Some of them we share and some we don’t. Sometimes we discover something and we’re like, ooh, this is good. And nobody knows. So I really encourage agencies to do that themselves. Know that the people who are writing and publishing aren’t publishing everything. Nobody publishes everything. And there’s a lot of bad information out there, too. It’s always important to do your own experimentation.”

What's your right now cause?

Sterling Sky is connected with an organization called I Live Again Uganda. It’s an African-run organization that helps people who have PTSD from the Ugandan Civil War. 

I live again Uganda
You don’t even have to donate to it directly to support it, at least, not if you’re going to Local U.
“The proceeds from our upcoming Local U event, which is happening online in November, will be donated to that organization.”
Yet she also does encourage listeners to look into the organization to see if it’s something they want to get more involved with themselves as well.

Connect with Joy Hawkins

Want to connect with Joy? Find her on Twitter or the Local Search Forums.

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.

local seo joy hawkins

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