Rae Hoffman – Local Search Interview

For today’s interview were talking with Rae Hoffman.

Rae could you take a few minutes and tell us a little bit more about yourself for my readers who may not know you?

I’m an organic SEO and have been in this game for a little over 8 years. I started out running a non-profit site and fell into affiliate marketing and I’ve expanded from there. I spend most of my time running my own legion of sites, with the time leftover being split between speaking at various conferences, moderating some forums, dealing with a limited number of consulting clients and posting on my blog. I also am an avid gambler, travel an insane amount of time throughout the year for business and personal reasons, have my social networking vices and am on a self proclaimed campaign to call you a different type of whore as many times as possible in the next six months. Did I mention that I’m outspoken and am not afraid to speak my mind too?

Now let’s pretend for a minute you aren’t involved in Internet marketing what type of local searches do find yourself doing.

I use “local search” a lot. I search Yahoo Local for things like stores and services (things like salons, lawn maintenance, spas, painters, picture framing, boat rentals, doctors, dentists). I think they have an easy to use interface, their data is sorted in a way that makes sense and their user reviews have been helpful to me more than once.

I use verticals that contain national information with features to segregate information on a local level too. An example would be that realtor.com is where I found a real estate agent and the house I bought a few months ago. Another example would be that when I lived in Canada, I looked up restaurants on restaurantica.com before I decided whether or not to go. I also use the regular engines when I’m looking for a particular product available locally vs. a store or kind of service. I’ve found the regular engines to be best for this type of search (at least for the things I’ve looked for).

I am an Internet marketer, and I can’t remove that side of myself when looking at the flaws or benefits of a site, but bottom line is that when I’m looking for something on a personal level locally, I’m a consumer first and foremost. And as a consumer, I have a message for Google Local and it’s that I abhor their local search engine. I find it complicated and lacking (the information contained in their “more info” section is useless in 98 percent of my experiences with it). That said I like their mapping feature, so I wish they could get their data and usability portion of things together.

Last year you published a post on your blog Before You Launch that Local Small Business Website which is an excellent guide for local businesses who are new to the web. What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes Mom & Pop type sized businesses make?

That guide was put up for two reasons. The first was that I was asked to speak to some local business owners about it by a friend. The second was that when I moved to Tampa, Florida in the latter half of 2006, I had to seek out a lot of local services and items. I was amazed by the number of sites that were simply not able to be found until I did extremely detailed searches using advanced search operators that the general public wouldn’t know to use. So many small businesses are losing a lot of traffic for non-competitive terms (in the grand scheme of things) due to common mistakes. But, they’re busy running their businesses and don’t have a ton of time to spend on search engine marketing.

In most cases, it came down to simple issues causing them not to be seen in the serps. Using the words “Home Page” and other variations of that phrase as title tags were one of the bigger issues. A lot of sites never mentioned their locales or told people there were on Smith Street with no city or state mentioned. Websites built entirely in flash were another common issue. Additionally, once I was able to locate the sites, many of them didn’t contain the basic information I was looking for. Many of the sites I found had one page sites that were basic flyers about their business. Internet users want information, not to be told where to drive or call to get the information – even if the actual service or purchase requires them to drive or call.

All that babbling boiled down to lack of descriptive and unique title tags, not mentioning their address (or addresses) in full, bad or unhelpful site designs from an SEO point of view and a lack of unique information on their site that gives them the ability to target long tailed searches and a variety of keywords they could expose the engines to just by describing their business and services in natural and conversational language.

Let’s talk about some more advanced topics like keyword research, what do you do differently for local markets?

There’s really not a ton of difference for me. The biggest thing is to research your core keywords like you would regularly and then find ways to optimize for the local aspect. The most obvious would be making sure the city or area you serve directly (or if you’re close to several areas, the one that will bring you the most traffic) is most prominent. Then making sure that you gather a list of the surrounding areas you serve and publish them on your site. The only other difference I can really think of is being sure that you’re speaking and optimizing for the local language. For example: Tampa, Florida is sometimes referred to as Tampa Bay so you’d want to be sure your site was mentioning both phrases. Long Beach Island is commonly referred to as LBI while most people in South Jersey go “down the shore” and not “to the beach”.

You’re also the co-moderator of the link building forum at webmasterworld any quick link building tips for local search?

Most of the ones that I mentioned in my post are still valid. RegisterLocal is a service that allows local businesses to create one “master profile” to get and keep their information correct in all of the more important bigger local search engines and properties, which saves a small business owner time and aggravation.

Link exchanges can be much more natural a lot of times in the local space too. If you’re a pool cleaner, then your clients will likely have yards, so find a landscaper to exchange some traffic with. If you’re a landscaper, find someone who creates fish ponds and exchange some traffic. If you’re a personal trainer, contact your local nutrition supplement stores and give each other some business. I think of links in the local sector as business cards on a counter in a brick and mortar store. The pool supply store exchanges referrals with pool cleaners offline and there’s no reason they shouldn’t do the same thing online. That said even things that are good for you are best done in moderation. Find a few valuable partnerships and then promote each other prominently, not via a links page with one hundred other sites listed.

Also, you can find and list with relevant directories and portals (vertical sites)… if you’re a wedding photographer, find wedding directories (either national and especially those that are ranking well in your locale) and pay for a listing or advertisement. You’ll get traffic and a relevant inbound link. If you belong to any associations or your local chamber, investigate if they offer links to members (many do).

And remember, you wouldn’t hesitate to ask to leave your business cards in your family member or close friend’s brick and mortar business, there’s no reason you shouldn’t ask them for the equivalent online if they have a blog or website.

I’ve seen you using your Blackberry and have been pretty impressed; do you see mobile devices playing a role in local search and in what way?

Ah, yes – my “Crackberry” usage. I definitely see mobile getting bigger, though I think we’re several years away from any type of “mass use”. I can tell you that at the moment I currently utilize mobile myself a lot, but I realize I may be a little more plugged into mobile search because of what I do for a living. I use my Blackberry to access maps, directions, phone numbers, restaurant guides and reviews, movie times and Facebook (that’s right, I admit it).

My wish list would include several items, but I’d love to see a mobile search application or portal that was focused towards frequent airline travelers. Things like airport layouts and maps, airport transportation information (car and shuttle services), reviews of restaurants located within airports, where smoking is available without passing through security (if at all), listings of all major airlines with contact information for each on both a national and “by airport” level (when applicable), lost baggage information for each airline, hotels within five miles of the airport, restaurants within five miles of the airport (with reviews)… I could go on and on.

What the hell did you ask me again? Oh, mobile and local. Yes, I think some people might find mobile useful on a local level, whether it’s to look up phone numbers via local search engines or visit made for mobile portals like the one I described above that apply to locales nationwide.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions today Rae. If you’d like to read more of what Rae has to say head on over to Sugarrae.com and check out her SEO Blog.


Tags: local+search, , rae+hoffman, sugarrae

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