Matt McGee – Local Search Interview

In this interview we’ll be speaking with Matt McGee, who can be found
on various SEO blogs and forums under the nickname “pleeker”.

So Matt for my readers who may not know you why don’t you take a few minutes and tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure thing, Michael. Let me first say ‘thanks’ for sharing some questions with me about local search. My background involves a lot of local search because I worked for more than 8 years with small businesses — many of whom had a target market that’s strictly local. I started doing web sites as a hobby back in 1995 when I was still doing the 6pm and 11pm sports for the local CBS station.

In 1997, I left TV and started working for our local ISP, which also had a web development and hosting shop. That job involved a little bit of everything, from
graphic design to low-level database programming to CSS to client management. Around 2000 I started investigating how to get our clients better visibility in Excite, Alta Vista, and that new one called Google. SEO pretty quickly became a passion, but it was only about 25% of my work. So, when the chance to do SEO full-time for
Marchex came up last year, I couldn’t say no.

Let’s talk about you personally for a minute what types of local searches do you find yourself doing the most?

Most of my local searches involve cities I’m traveling to, not the area where I live. I just went to Minneapolis and ended up using Google Maps and Yahoo Maps to figure out the locations of each meeting we had, to find a hotel to stay in near the airport, to see what restaurants were nearby, and stuff like that. I think the reason I don’t do many local searches for the community where I live is that I spent so long doing web dev here, I feel like I already know who’s online and who’s not.

I actually think my scenario is more common than many people realize — local search being a tool used by visitors to an area as much as it’s used by natives. That’s why, when we talk about optimizing for local search, we say it’s important to use not only your address, but also to use local landmarks when describing your location. I didn’t just search for “minneapolis hotels,” I searched for “minneapolis airport hotel.” In Seattle, you might want a restaurant near the Space Needle — landmarks and neighborhoods are real important when optimizing for local search.

Looking at your blog SBS or Small Business SEM I can see you spend a lot of time thinking about local search. In fact you’ve got a whole category about local search . Why don’t you tell us why you think local search is important for small businesses?

Audience and cost. I don’t have a percentage to give you, but I’d venture to guess that more than 75% of small businesses specifically target their local town or a regional market, as opposed to having a national/international target market. It makes no sense for the hair salon downtown, the pet store, the dentist, the general contractor, etc., to target anything other than local keywords. Since their audience is local, their search marketing focus needs to be local.

Second, it’s not a budget breaker. If you’re doing PPC, local targeting lets you go specifically after your market and get some visibility and clicks without having to spend like the big boys do. Now, a lot of small businesses shy away from PPC because the uncertain costs are a turn-off. They’re used to exact costs. Well, Yahoo! has an ad program they call “Featured Listings” which lets you advertise in Yahoo! Local with a fixed monthly cost that’s as low as $15/month. On the SEO side, targeting local keywords automatically reduces the pool of competitors. And since many small businesses aren’t even familiar with SEO, getting natural search traffic on local searches is sometimes pretty easy. That means your SEO program doesn’t need to cost what the big boys pay to go after bigger lists of more general keywords.

For local businesses who are just coming on the web or have been on the web for a while but aren’t getting much out of it what are some tips that can really make a difference, improve rankings and drive traffic and ultimately customers?

First, at this point, local search is not a huge traffic driver. You’ll get a lot more traffic from “regular” Google and regular Yahoo! than you will from their local search sites. So, you have to apply the regular SEO tactics: keyword research, good content, and links.

Keyword research: You have to know how people search. I mentioned this a bit earlier. Local keywords aren’t just about city and town names. You have to use the names of landmarks and neighborhoods; sometimes even street names or intersections. And you also have to be aware of alternate keywords people might use for your industry. For example, not everyone will search for “manhattan restaurants” — they might search for “places to eat in manhattan.” You have to get your keyword research right to cover all the ways people search.

As far as content is concerned, it’s like traditional content, only on steroids. Search engines need help figuring out your location and the area you’re targeting. There are lots of cities named “Columbus,” for example. There are several places in the U.S. that use the term “bay area.” So your content has to be ultra-specific. You can’t just put your 800 number on your web site; you need the local number, because that area code helps the search engine know where you are. You can’t just put up a GIF/JPG map and call that your “Directions” page; you need to write out the most specific directions you can, including the neighborhoods and local landmarks. That’s good for humans and search engines! If you don’t mind me dropping in a link, a post I did on SBSlast September might be helpful at this point: “>8 Simple Steps to Make a Page More Local. That’s about stuff you should do beyond the basic “put your address in the footer of every page on your site” advice.

As far as links go, you can often rank on non-competitive local terms without a great link profile. But when seeking links, you can go after local links to help the search engine associate you with those locations. I’m talking about links from the local Chamber of Commerce, the local business directory, and even local sections of the big directories. And don’t forget to get your location in the anchor text; a couple quality text links that say “topeka dry cleaner” might be all you need.

What are some mistakes that local businesses make in regards to local
search strategies?

Well, probably the biggest mistake is plain ignorance. And I don’t mean that as an insult, because small business owners are typically working about 60 hours per week, so they’re excused for not being completely up to speed on the various local search opportunities out there. But the fact is that Google and Yahoo! are both desperate to get small businesses to use their services. They both have free listing services, and both have been awfully aggressive in the last year in encouraging business owners to sign up. I’m sure that will continue in 2007 and beyond.

Then there are the yellow pages sites, plus all the local directory/guide-type sites, like CitySearch, InsiderPages, TrueLocal,, Yelp, etc. They all offer free listings, too. And this can be helpful in more competitive industries, like hotels and restaurants. If a site like CitySearch already ranks well for your competitive keywords, you’re probably not going to outrank them; but you can piggyback on their good ranking by making sure your business is listed in their directory.
Looking into the future what do you see for local search, and what are some growing trends to watch for?

It’s been interesting to watch Google, in particular, integrate local search quite heavily into the regular SERPs. There’s the basic “Onebox” that shows up to three local listings on certain queries. There’s the Onebox that shows the large map with your listing when the query is exact enough to match it to your business. And I think you, Michael, were the first to notice that little plus sign showing up under some listings on certain queries. I expect this trend will continue in the future, particularly with Google. Yahoo has been less enthusiastic about merging local data into the regular SERPs like this, but I suspect they’ll figure out some creative ways to do it soon.

Another thing I’m watching for, and I don’t know if this is something I think will happen as much as something I hope will happen, is some consolidation. That list I gave above of secondary local sites is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s impossible for small businesses to monitor all the sites where their business is listed, where people are posting reviews, etc. I’d love to see some mergers or acquisitions here.

And the last thing to watch is the impact of the iPhone. Might not happen this year, but if it becomes as commonplace as the iPod, then local search takes off because mobile web browsing will no longer be the equivalent of root canal. The iPhone could be great for Google, as long as they have that maps contract.

Thanks for taking the time to talk us today Matt, if you’d like to read more from Matt, head on over and subscribe to his Small Business SEM blog and join his community on MyBlogLog .


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