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Joy Hawkins: The Woman Behind Sterling Sky - Groundbreaking Local SEO Insights!

Joy Hawkins
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Joy Hawkins began her journey within the search industry in 2006 selling Google Ads and moved into SEO where she self-tought herself.

Joy soon realised that Local SEO was the area she found most interesting, as most of her clients at the time were local based businesses who needed to target their local areas.

Joy then joined the Google Volunteer Program (Product Experts) in 2012 where she helped moderate the Google Forums dedicated to Google Business Profile (or as it was named back then - Google My Business).

Fast forward to today and Joy is the Owner & Founder of Sterling Sky (foundered in 2017), an SEO agency with thirty three specialists on the team who are all dedicated to the world of Local SEO.

Joy is also the Owner of the Local Search Forum which is your link to all things local search related.

Joy also has a strong passion for educating people on local search and SEO tactics and launched Local University, a learning platform focused on delivering on-demand Local SEO education.

Joy also runs LocalU, virtual and in-person Advanced Local SEO conferences and events and gets the very best Local SEO specialists together to share their tactics with the audience. If your thing is Local SEO, this is THE conference!

The dedication Joy has for educating people about local search doesn't stop there. Joy regually contributes to publications, such as Search Engine Land, and is a regular speaker at top marketing conferences around the world, such as MozCon, Pubcon, SearchLove and State of Search.

When it comes to Local SEO and Local Search, Joy Hawkins certainly has the in-depth advanced knowledge and experience.

The Unscripted SEO Interview Podcast with Joy Hawkins

Watch the interview

Listen to the podcast

(59 minutes long)

The unscripted questions Mark A Preston asked Joy Hawkins

  • Who is Joy Hawkins (the local SEO specialist), and how did you get into the SEO industry?

  • What type of businesses does Sterling Sky work with?

  • How have you seen the local SEO space change over the years?

  • How do you explain the value of local SEO to businesses?

  • When you have set the foundations on your Google Business Profile, what other things can a business owner or an SEO do to help drive local leads through their profile?

  • What is the right blogging strategy for local SEO to ensure you are targeting your local audience?

  • If you are a local business who need to get customers to physically walk through their front door, what kind of local SEO tactics should they be focusing on when it comes to their website?

  • Do you actually need to add the town/city name into the page title and content of all your service based pages in order to get ranked locally?

  • How can you optimize your website to target all the 'near me' search phrases?

  • What are your thoughts on including information specifically about your town within all your service based pages?

  • What strategy can local businesses and SEOs use to target all those towns within a 10, 20 or even 50 miles radius of where the business is physically located?

  • Is signing up to virtual offices beneficial to get ranked locally in all the areas you are not actually physically located in?

  • If your business is actually physically located within a serviced office within a building who also provides virtual office services, how can you protect yourself from your listing possibly getting suspended?

  • What can a business owner do if their Google Business Profile has been suspended when you have not done anything wrong?

  • From a local SEO and Google Business Profile perspective, what should one consider if you are merging two businesses within the same industry together?

  • What should SEOs do if they get a new local SEO client and find that they have multiple Google Business Profiles?

  • What is the most important thing when it comes to local SEO?

  • What minimum review star rating do you need to maintain to ensure potential customers trust your business?

  • Is it good to work on maintaining a 5 star rating on Google Reviews?

  • What is the ultimate trust number when it comes to review star ratings?

  • What can you do to get negative reviews removed if they are genuinely posted with malicious intent by someone who is clearly not a customer or client?

  • In what circumstances can you get negative reviews removed that are posted by genuine customers?

  • How should local business owners be replying to negative context reviews?

  • What can local businesses do to generate positive reviews beyond just asking their customers?

  • Where should you be asking those customers to post reviews who do not have a Google account?

  • Does building reviews on other platforms outside Google Reviews benefit your local SEO?

  • Do your Facebook reviews directly impact your local SEO?

  • What local audience research tools do you use as a local SEO specialist?

  • How are implicit searches (searching without using the town or city name) handled, compared to geographical searches when it comes to local SEO?

  • What can local service based businesses do who work from home who do not want to display their home address anywhere?

  • If you do not display your address on your website, can you still rank locally?

  • How can smaller businesses compete when the large brands with large budgets monopolise the local SEO space?

  • How can you research what your local SEO hidden opportunities are?

  • How important are images within your Google Business Profile?

  • Should local SEO specialists be using Google Vision AI?

  • What can you do about all those random photos that third parties post on your Google Business Profile that do not relate to your business?

  • How can SEOs or business owners determine which photo is used as your main Google Business Profile image?

  • How important is structured data when it comes to local SEO?

  • What are the key differences between local link building as opposed to link building for National businesses?

  • What are the best local link building tactics that generate the biggest impact?

  • How much weight do citation links from directories carry?

  • When it comes to local link building, is the location or industry the third party business/website is in, more important?

  • Once you have sorted out all your citations, should your primary local SEO focus be on generating content or links?

  • Does your organic local exposure directly impact your rankings in maps?

  • What should SEOs focus more on, the website itself or the Google Business Profile?

  • What should you focus on to ensure you rank in the local packs results?

  • Will the future of AI have a positive or negative impact on local SEO?

  • Is being physically located closer to the centre of your town or city a local ranking factor?

  • What is going on with LocalU, your local SEO conference?

  • What are the specific topics of local SEO you cover at LocalU?

  • How have you personally seen the SEO conference space evolve over time?

  • Do you have a specific local SEO focused topic you speak about at marketing conferences?

  • How can large multi-location business streamline their local SEO efforts?

  • Is local SEO all about just Google?

  • What is the thing that excites you the most about local SEO?

  • What can people watching this interview help you with?

  • If you had the power to change something within the local SEO industry overnight, what would that one thing be?

  • How important are videos when it comes to local SEO?

  • What does the future hold for you, Joy?

  • What is your one local SEO golden nugget takeaway?

The unscripted conversation between Mark A Preston and Joy Hawkins

Mark A Preston: Welcome to the unscripted SEO interview. I'm your host, Mark A Preston. And today joining us, we have local SEO specialist Joy Hawkins, who is the owner of Sterling Sky. Hi, Joy. 

Joy Hawkins: Hi, thanks for having me.

Mark A Preston: Well, just for those people watching this who was not aware who you are, can you just give a bit of a background of who you are and how you entered into the industry?

Joy Hawkins: Sure. Actually starting the industry in 2006, actually selling Google ads long time ago and slowly morphed into SEO and kind of self-taught myself and decided that I liked local SEO because all my clients at the time were insurance agents, and they were kind of fascinated on how to get ranked in the local pack results. And we called it Google places at the time. So that's what started my desire to learn more. And I joined Google's volunteer program in 2012. So they call it the product experts, but we're basically a set of volunteers that help moderate the online forums that Google has. So I'm part of the Google business profile community, so I talk a lot about things pertaining to Google business profiles, but also anything to do with local SEO.

Mark A Preston: Okay, great. And what type of businesses do you work with generally?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so it's our biggest we have a lot of lawyers, realtors, home services, so things like plumbers, HVAC on care, stuff like that. And then we also have a few in like the health care space, so things like chiropractors or dieters and stuff like that.

Mark A Preston: Okay, so over the years, have you seen the law collective phase change?

Joy Hawkins: I think it's getting harder, for sure. I think the gap between the different types of local SEO companies is greater than it used to be. So there's the set of people that you can kind of hire off fiber who will say that they can do local SEO, and they generally do things like post fake reviews or do geo tagging of photos, which doesn't really do anything. So there's a large sector of our industry. I feel like that's kind of like used car salesmen, and that's unfortunate. Like, they kind of give us a bad rep. So I think definitely that gap has widened a bit over the last decade or so.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. Some businesses you speak to don't understand the value of local SEO as an entity, they just say, well, why should I pay all this money for local SEO?

Joy Hawkins: I think that's something that a lot of agencies face not something we face, though, mainly because most of our clients, they know who we are. They've heard about us because they've heard me speak somewhere or seen an article that we've written or some type of educational piece that we put out there. So usually they're already sold on why they need it and then they're searching out for a company. But I definitely hear that feedback a lot from other agency owners that are like cold calling, like actually going and pitching their services. I think that there is still a set of businesses out there that don't quite grasp the value yet.

Mark A Preston: Right. So when the foundations are set and the business profile has been filled in, what sort of things do you do on a monthly basis to help the businesses generate more leads?

Joy Hawkins: Very little actually has to do with the profile itself, like you said, other than like Google posts, which obviously are like an ongoing thing, there's very little that's ongoing outside of that. And maybe like review management, like responding to reviews and stuff. Most of what we do is actually on the website. So things like adding content, tweaking existing content, obviously link building, but more traditional SEO stuff, that's really what moves not just organic ranking, but also ranking in the local pack results. So the majority of our time is spent on that.

Mark A Preston: Right. A couple of weeks back, I was looking at a business that local and looking at the stats of the website, and the SEO company that was working with them went down the blogging route. The problem that I founded, only 3.2% was from the target geographical area. When it comes to blogging for local SEO, how can you make sure that those blogs are orientated around the geographical area? So they're driving the right people, that's going to turn into new business.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, that's tough. Blogging, I would say is probably not a strategy you'd want to do then. We work with a lot of multi-location businesses so they want that statewide or national wide coverage. And on a state level, it's really easy to do from a blogging perspective because like for lawyers, for example, there's a lot of different state laws and things like that. So a lot of the search terms we're going after are specific to estate, so like Massachusetts or like Florida or whatever. So that's easy on that part. I think if it's like a local plumber, for example, and they write an article on how to fix your toilet, there really isn't a good way to keep Google from showing that nationwide. We actually tried this recently with the client and localize the entire page, put their city all over it, making it very obvious that it is locally driven. And actually Google did take it out of the search results nationwide for a time period, like a few weeks, and then put it back in and just removed all the city names that we put in the title and stuff. So they don't show up in the search results bolted or anything, but they're still there. So I think it is tricky and blogging probably isn't necessarily the road I would go. If you're the local plumber serving one town.

Mark A Preston: So if you are a local plumber or a local, where the intent is to get people to walk through your front door in your local town, what kind of things should SEOs and people be doing on the website itself?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so, like, to give an example, we have an electrician client that I work on and there's only so many weight, you can't just create a whole bunch of content around the word electrician. Although that is the main thing that people search. There's a lot of other terms that people will type in like that I wouldn't even have thought of things around electrical wiring or data cabling or the other ones like TV wires or installing TVs, installing sound systems, fixing outdoor lights, stuff like that. There's all these different things that electricians would do that do get local searches. Some of them are like near me, like install a chandelier near me, stuff like that. Actually get search volume. So although I wouldn't put it in a blog format, like, adding more detailed service pages I think is a really good way to target some of those types of clients. Along with service area pages usually perform well as well.

Mark A Preston: Right. So for these service area pages, do you need to specifically include like the town or city name or the words near me? Or will Google just understand that? Say like, that electrician, he's located in that area, so that's where we'll rank him.

Joy Hawkins: You absolutely have to put in the city. And we've also found that, like, literally adding the words near me help you rank better for near me queries. So that's another important thing to make sure that you add on there. Those searches get a lot of volume.

Mark A Preston: Right. So do you need to put any sort of what called geographical information in? So information that's not relevant to electricians, but it's things relating to the place itself?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. I see SEO to overdo this, though. So I think listing a road name, like, saying we're on this street, that's cool. Or even driving directions, that's I guess, okay. I haven't really seen any data that shows me adding that onto a page helps performance in any way. But definitely adding, like, things in the  neighbourhood names or zip codes and stuff like that can help. So I think it's good to make sure you have that.

Mark A Preston: I mean, one of the things I've been asked thousands of times over the years is, okay, we are located in this town. We want you to drive traffic from, say, 50 miles radius. So we want to get ramp for all these other towns that we're not located in that's nearby. And, like, what strategy or what conversation would you say to that?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So it's always tricky because organically you can do it through content. Right. You can create targeted content, we call them service area pages for those other towns, depending on how big they are, those usually work, I find usually service area pages are more effective for smaller suburbs. Right? Like, if you're creating a service area page for Chicago, it's probably not going to rank well. But I would say as far as the local pack is concerned, that's where it becomes more of a problem because your physical location matters a lot. Like one of the most important things for ranking in that section. So if you want to rank 50 miles away, you're probably not going to very unlikely unless there's like, nobody in your industry. And so to do that, you would need to actually get more locations. So I've actually had clients do this. Like, I had a handyman client that literally would open offices in towns that he wanted to do jobs in, just so that he could get a listing, start getting business there. But he did open an office there, right? So he kept it all legit.

Mark A Preston: Right. So obviously that's going to one extreme about opening offices in these locations. Now, you're probably aware as well as me that there's a trend of businesses using virtual office addresses and a virtual office phone number in each location. Now, what's your thoughts around that strategy?

Joy Hawkins: So Google can automatically detect those pretty well now. I've seen people get really sneaky with it, and I haven’t seen people using self-storage spaces now, that's like a new trend. But the majority of regis offices or things like that get automatically suspended when you use them because Google automatically detects them. Same with PO boxes. They're against guidelines, so no business is allowed to use that. The only exception would be, like, I know some of these places do actually have staffed office space. So if you rent from regis, you can actually rent a specific room inside or giant suite that would have signage that you would be able to have your staff at. Technically, that would qualify, but you definitely are risking like, you need to have sufficient proof that you actually have an office there to avoid your listing getting removed.

Mark A Preston: So say, for instance, you do actually have a physical office in one of these regis places, virtual office places, but it's a physical office. Then if you create the profile and Google suspends it, then is it just sending proof or photos, or whatever you're physically there?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. I would suggest getting the photos and videos on that listing when you set it up so that there's no issue, you're not scrambling later. We always tell people this because I've seen people scramble their listings, get suspended, and then they're running around trying to take photos and videos. If you want to play really safe, you can also get a Google photographer to come out that gets uploaded to the listing as like a street view. So that's there permanently, which is always a good idea if you're kind of thinking that it's going to be an issue.

Mark A Preston: Right. So I've come across situations where two businesses have merged together. Right? Now, in those circumstances, what do you need to do? So two businesses has merged together and created a new brand, rather than that business has just merged into that brand. So two businesses merged together, created a new brand, and obviously there's two different profiles, but they both going to have the same telephone number and address now.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So that's tricky. It depends on a lot of things. So let's say, for example, like if the one brand is going away, then you'd need to have one profile, right? Like if you've got brand A and B and they merge into this new brand C, and now brand C is the only one that's there, then obviously you can only have one listing. As far as how Google treats it, they will not generally move or merge listings with different names. So if you've got Bob Plumber and you've got Jim Plumber, and you're trying to tell Google these are the same business now, and they've got different names, different websites, usually Google will not merge them together because these are different. So it depends on like, that. I know in some cases, when acquisitions can't happen, the acquiring brand will actually change the old brand to them. It's now under their name. And in that case, absolutely, you just update the listing, you know, on that listing, it's much simpler. Usually Google would say, Mark, a listing is closed, kind of thing. But if you really want to keep the reviews, you have to rebrand that listing is yours, like you have to make it your listing with your company name on it. You can't ask Google to merge it because they won't.

Mark A Preston: Right. So what if, say you're an SEO company, local SEO company, and you've got a new client, and there's been a history of them moving agencies, and each agency has set a new profile up, and you found there's all these different profiles that you can't get access to, you must come across that yourself. What do you do in that circumstance? Because obviously, Google search, you can only add one profile per brand.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so we rent that all the time. Usually like that we need to get access to all of them first. So that's kind of step one. Once you have access to them, it’s tricky when the addresses aren't the same, that's when it becomes kind of a problem. But Google has two different processes for this type of thing. So they can either mark the listings move, or they can actually do a merge. And I think of a move as like a 301 redirect. It's like when you have two domains and you redirect one to another, that's pretty much what a move does. Whereas a merge, they're actually shoving the two things into one unit, and they don't usually do merge unless the address is the same. So depending on which scenario you fall into, getting access to the profile is step one. And then the second step would be you'd have to reach out to Google business profile support and have them either marked one is moved or merged, depending on if the addresses match.

Mark A Preston: Right. What would you say in local SEO is the most important thing?

Joy Hawkins: Toss it between your website and reviews. Reviews are like I mean, you can have the best website in the world, best optimized site in the world, but if your reputation sucks, you're going to have a really hard time converting people. So we've definitely run into businesses in that boat where they just get negative reviews and you can just tell the business hasn't really addressed the problem. Like, people leave reviews because they have a problem with the way you're doing something. And if you don't address that as a business owner, it's going to be tough. I've seen businesses that we've worked with and their average rating is going down over the years. That's concerning because we can do the best SEO job in the world, and their leads might start declining because their reputation is less than it was three years ago. So even if they're getting more traffic, they might get worse conversions. So I say it's a toss-up between those two things. It's hard to say which one is better than the other because they're both needed.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. So going on to the subject of reviews, what obviously five stars is the ultimate, but from census, what sort of the minimum stars where people stop believing and trusting their brand?

Joy Hawkins: I believe they think 4.2 to 4.5 is the ideal. So I think below four is likely where it starts to decline. And there are studies on this, so there's some good data studies out there that show what average rating you want and stuff. But actually, it's interesting to see that five isn't actually the ideal. At five star average, people start to mistrust your reviews because they seem too good to be true. So having a less than perfect average is actually a good thing.

Mark A Preston: So for an electrician, they need to blow something up now and again?

Joy Hawkins: Pretty much, yeah. Maybe not blow stuff up. It's okay. I don't tell people to go out of their way to try and get negative reviews, but the big thing I see is people just freak out and they want every negative review removed. And I'm like, you guys need to get into reality a bit here, because every business, even the best ones, will get some stupid, unrealistic, unreasonable customer that's not happy with whatever it is that you did. People don't agree on things, and expectations aren't always the same. So it's going to happen.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. I mean, when it comes to negative reviews, obviously you can tell the ones that's been done maliciously that are not clients, that's not customers, that's done just to bring your business down. In those circumstances, is it easy to get those reviews removed?

Joy Hawkins: Not usually. Google's guidelines are pretty they leave a lot of room for people to do malicious things. So, for example, if it was just one review and it was just like the person's just blasting you, but they don't really give any details about who they are, you're not likely to get that removed. If you got like 15 or 20 in a row all at the same time that's usually a detectable pattern and then Google would remove them, but there's a lot of non-legitimate reviews that stay live all the time. It's frustrating, but Google doesn't have enough proof to remove them.

Mark A Preston: Right. So the sort of negative context reviews, but they are a genuine customer. How should businesses reply to those kind of reviews? What things should you be saying within the reply of the review?

Joy Hawkins: For the negative ones?

Mark A Preston: Yes.

Joy Hawkins: So Mike Blumenthal wrote an article back in 2010, I think, on this, but I still reference them linked to all the time. And it's like something title of the article, something around the line of like, your reviews are really for your potential new customers and review replies are going to be seen by the pissed off person that left you the review but really where what you should be thinking about is your future customers that are going to see that reply and how you handled yourself. And I've seen some businesses replying reviews that make me just not want to use that business. I'm like, wow, that owner can't own up to anything, like, they can't admit when they were wrong and they're just like being really defensive. So the general rules are like, you got to own the problem. Don't be defensive. Don't try and tell your side of the story. Nobody wants to hear it. It's not the place to do that. So definitely like, even if you didn't do anything wrong, if you sound apologetic and it looks like you actually are trying to figure out how to make that person happy, that will usually be the best possible scenario. Not something like, I'm telling my lawyers about this and they're going to sue you, which I've seen a lot of people do.

Mark A Preston: Yeah, I've seen a lot of that myself. And so, I mean a lot of conversation I have from businesses said, well, we've tried to get people to post a review. We've tried postcard, we've tried asking them, but we just can't get them to post a good review for us. What sort of things can they be doing to? Not entice that's the wrong word, but to get that happy customers to post nasty things about them.

Joy Hawkins: So one strategy I've seen that seems to work well is you're not supposed to incentivize customers I know there's laws against that and it's also against Google's guidelines, but you can incentivize your staff. So I've had people, like, we went to an escape room with Mike's team in Denver, and I remember the staff literally telling me, if you leave this nice review, I get a bonus. And people feel I feel like a lot more empathy for just an employee, just like somebody that's working there I know they're probably like minimum wage or whatever, and they get this bonus because I left a review. Like, oh, that's nice. I feel like I would care a lot more than the owner, like, people don't generally care about the owners of companies. So that strategy seems to work really well. Because I remember I took their card, they gave me a little card and it said if you mentioned my name in the review, I get a bonus. And I almost forgot, but it fell out of my backpack and I went and did it. And I know from looking at clients, we had a client that was doing this, they were incentivizing staff to get reviews. And the moment they stopped doing that, their review volume just flat lined, like, it went to almost none. And I asked them, what did you change? You guys were like this, like, growing and then all of a sudden, boom. And you like, oh, I should probably start incentivizing my staff again. I'm like, yeah, yeah, start that back up. Because the staff are the ones that are talking to the customers day in and day out, not you as the business owner, and they're going to be the best person to get that job done.

Mark A Preston: So what about other review platforms, not just Google? So say, for instance, if a customer saying, well, I don't have a Google account, so where should you be sending them to post a review?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, I mean, you could ask them what they use then, like, if they don't have an Android device, then they likely have an iPhone so then ask them to leave one on Apple Maps. It's not probably as beneficial yet because the traffic there isn't as high, but I mean, it's pretty unlikely you'll find a person without a phone. So if they have an Android, Google, if they have an iPhone and they don't have a Google account, you could say Apple or Facebook or depending on the industry, there are some other sites that are beneficial as well.

Mark A Preston: So you mentioned Facebook there. How important are reviews on Facebook? Is there a direct link between the trust and brand awareness and the local SEO? From reviews, from social?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, Facebook usually makes my list mainly because it usually ranks so it normally ranks for a branded term. I find for most businesses, your Facebook page will be in like the top five results when people search your business name. And that's important because the Facebook pages also get gold stars. They have schema on their site, so they get gold stars in the search results. So if you have like a one star rating on Facebook, somebody does a search for your business name, they will see that up one star, like in yellow in Google search results, not really what you want. So I think it's important to pay attention to Facebook. Yelp is similar. Yelp also shows up usually in the top five, but they have such strict policies on reviews. I don't usually suggest asking for reviews on Yelp because it's actually against Yelp's guidelines to ask for a review, which is ridiculous, in my opinion, but what is it?

Mark A Preston: Right, so in the local SEO space, what tools are there to do research? that in a local space, which I found very difficult?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So it depends on what type of tool there's ranking tools, there's like keyword research tools, like, what were you thinking, Mark?

Mark A Preston: Yeah, like more the research and understanding the audience of that geographical area. How big is the audience in that area?

Joy Hawkins: Okay or just like seeing who ranks in that area. Or you're seeing more like the population.

Mark A Preston: Not local ranking tools, more about the size of the audience within that area for, say, a given keyword.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So keyword research, we usually use the Chrome extension keywords everywhere and keywords everywhere the tool it's not going to give you a local search volume like that's, unfortunately not something that any tool can give you. Like if you type in Chiropractor, for example, it will give you the search volume for Chiropractor anywhere. So you would have to look up like, Chiropractor Toronto or Chiropractor Chicago or whatever to get the specific volume for that keyword. But you can't get the exact number for Chiropractor search from Toronto. The best place that you can get that information usually is Search Console or Google Business Profile Insights. So we normally start by looking there just to see what keywords they're already getting impressions for how well do they rank, which ones are they ranking, like if they're in the local pack results, which ones are fourth or fifth, they're really close to being in the top three, or which ones are in the organic section, like position two to nine. So we call those striking distance. And Google business profile insights will give you a very different keyword list than search console will. So it's imperative that you check both. But that's usually my starting point, unless it's like something they don't even rank for at all. If you're creating new content, that's when I would pull out the Keywords Everywhere tool.

Mark A Preston: Right. So in your experience, do people search for their local florist using a local entity? So do they actually use the word search, using the word town, the town word location? Or is it just the search generically from the area?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it's a mixture of both. So usually, like, if you were to compare locksmith versus locksmith of Chicago, locksmith would get more search volume by far, but you are limited for how far of a radius that you can rank for that term. Like those terms on Google maps, proximity, which is the ranking factor that says how close are you to the person searching? That's way higher for what we call implicit search. So, like, locksmith a search without any specific geographic area specified, but a search that Google says you're looking for somebody local. So your ability to rank in a wide radius for, like, the term locksmith is really small. It's marginal. If you were to look at locksmith Chicago, for example, we call those explicit terms, the search volume is less, but you can rank in a way wider area if the proximity dial is not turned up as high. So we sometimes will see, like, cases where locksmith Chicago is getting that particular business more volume than just locksmith even though technically locksmith is searched more, it's just your ability to rank in a radius. I think this is like the key to the puzzle that we know as local SEO is figuring out what is possible and what you should spend your time and effort on.

Mark A Preston: Right. Now, the next question is a scenario you've probably come across many times where you've got a new client, a new local business, but it's a service based business locally. But they work from home and don't want the home address to be published anywhere. What's the conversation look like and what steps do you take for those businesses?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, we have a lot of those. I mean, like my agency, we don't have an office. We're all remote. So I use my home address and it's hidden on our listings. So Google has done a really good job of making sure, like, your address is hidden. So even if you verify your listing using your home address, you can hide it. It's not going to show to the public, so you're fine there where I think sometimes it can get tricky is like some other sites don't necessarily have that policy, so you kind of have to pick and choose what sites you're willing to be listed on based on that. But there is a long list of sites that allow you to hide your address now, like, a lot of the bigger, more reputable sites, the ones you should really care about, they understand that there's a lot of work from home type businesses, so they have the ability for you to hide your address. There are some that don't. So like Apple Maps, for example, no option. So if you want to get listed on Apple Maps and you're at your home, you have to list your home, otherwise you can't get listed. So kind of stuck in scenarios like that which is why, again, I would say if you get to a certain size and you want to grow, maybe get an office, because then you won't have those limitations.

Mark A Preston: Yes. So if you say you don't, you're not using an address or displaying an address on your website, is it a lot harder to get ramped if you're not displaying an address for?

Joy Hawkins: I don't believe so. You can still list your city name and your zip code and all that stuff, like all in your footer, your titles, your content, all that stuff. So I don't think you're limited there by not having an address. And I haven't seen any data that would say that you rank better. I do know that with local pack rankings, there is a difference between having an address showing and not showing. There's pros and cons to both. So there is a difference most of the time I would say. If I look at all the factors and all the pros and all the cons, if there is more of a pro to showing your address and I'd say the biggest thing, like the biggest reason why you want to show your address is you can't run local ads without that. So if you're doing ads on Google, there's things called location extensions and they can get you ads in the local Pack you may have seen those, you can't get those if you don't have an address showing. So without a Pin, those ads don't work. So that's, I think, a really big limiter to having a service area business, which is, say, more of a reason why you want to have a Pin.

Mark A Preston: Right, moving on to whether it's a brand entity, whatever you want to call it, so how can the smaller businesses compete in their local town city when all the local searches are dominated by the big national brands with a very big profile?

Joy Hawkins: I mean, honestly, I see usually the opposite, like, It's funny. Some of the big brands really don't show up well because they just don't even devote any time or effort to SEO. There's a lot of major big brands that SEO is terrible. They don't even have location pages. They have those little dinky locator pages on their site where you type in your city and it just pins the address on the map. That store doesn't even have a location page. So there's still a lot of big brands that do a really tough job, really horrible job at that. If that's not the case and you're running up against a brand that's got a huge budget, it is tough. So we see this with personal injury lawyers, right? So I wouldn't say they're big brands per se, but there are some big firms that have, like, let's say they employ 100 people, and they've literally got $30 to $40,000 a month they're spending on SEO. If you're a little guy with a one lawyer firm that is trying to compete, you're going to have maybe 20 reviews when they have, like, 2000, and you're going to have, you know, less time and effort to devote to content.


So if that's a scenario, then I would say it's imperative that you find stuff that they're not doing, topics they're not talking about. Don't go for these, you know, they'll try and target the same exact keywords that every single person is targeting, which is often where I see people going wrong. They're like, I want to rank for a car accident lawyer, Chicago, but I will only to spend $1,000 a month, and I've got this small website, and I have 15 reviews. Because it's like, you're just not going to you've got to pick a different target. There's a lot of keywords out there, lots that get volume that none of these big places are targeting. That's what you should be working on. It's not always easy to convince people of that, though.

Mark A Preston: So how can these businesses and SEO work in this local space? How can they go about researching what those local hidden opportunities are?

Joy Hawkins: It's tough. I always start again with search console. Look to see where you're already ranking, look to see where there's opportunities, and then if you don't find any that way, that's when you need to really start diving into competitor sites, like throwing them through, ahrefs, finding neglected pages, pages that they haven't updated in a very long time, that are like shouldn't even be ranking. There's always opportunities there and that's usually the best way to go about it. I would avoid just thinking what should I write about? And coming up with just ideas based on what you think people will search. I have plans to do that and those pages do not perform well. So I think basing it off of A wraps would be my tool of choice probably to dive into other websites. But I think this is where agencies can really add value. Because if it's an industry, for example, that we've worked in a lot, we already know what those opportunities are. We already know what those topics are because we've got six or seven other clients in that same industry, in other geographic areas. We already know that this topic does well and this topic does horribly. So I think that's where it can be really a good advantage anyways to be working with somebody that's got some experience in your industry.

Mark A Preston: Right. So back to the business profile. How important are images?

Joy Hawkins: It varies based on the industry, right? So if you're a restaurant, they're very important, right? They're super, super important. If you're a lawyer. Not as much. Right? Like there's not a lot of things that you can necessarily tell through industry. So I'd say it really depends on what industry you're in. If you're a jeweler and you don't have photos, good luck. You're not going to compete at all without photos as a jeweler. It's one of those things that's not equally weighted across every industry.

Mark A Preston: Right. So with obvious things like Google Vision AI, and they say that the photo has to relate to what you do is what about these random photos posted from external sources that if somebody was to look at it, it wouldn't represent your business anyway to share, perform.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, Mike Blumenthal talks about this topic a lot. He loves images, seems to be like his new favorite thing to talk about. And I think he makes a point that says, you know, you need to have your own quality images so that Google will prefer those over the crappy ones your customers upload, which is 100% true. Like, let's say you are a restaurant and you've got a really awesome high quality photo of a plate that you serve that's likely going to take preference to Google. Google does want quality photos. They can tell if something's blurry or distorted and they will prefer ones that are better. So having those photos to begin with will lessen the odds that crappy customer one will show up high or like in your knowledge panel, when somebody searches for your business, you can't usually get rid of low quality photos. Google will only remove them if they're for the wrong place or include like private information or something like that.

Mark A Preston: So how can somebody determine which photo gets shown as the main image in your profile?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So Google doesn't let you pick? I mean well, they do, but then they don't always pick what you put in there. So, like you could say, I want this as my cover photo and they'll just ignore it. There's a few things that you should avoid, so don't put a lot of text in the photo. That's a good way to get Google to just ignore what you said. They call it a cover photo. So that's one thing. Another thing is Google tends to prefer outside imagery. So for example, if you're a lot firm, they would prefer to see the outside building, like showing where your firm is from Street View over a picture of your staff. So Google, I think, likes images of the actual place because it helps users on Google Maps. Like, oh, there's that business. They're over there because they can easily see where the business is located in the photo. So that's the number one thing that Google looks for.

Mark A Preston: Right, now moving onto structured data. You've got the local business structured data, but what other things should you be including in the structured data rather than just the standard information within the local business?

Joy Hawkins: So we don't even really use local business schema. I have not seen a compelling reason to use it. It doesn't seem to impact ranking. We've done lots of testing on that. Other people have also tested that, and it doesn't change how you show up visually in the search results. So usually when we're adding schema, if it's a schema type that changes how you show up on Google, like it adds gold stars or adds some type of featured thing like an image or a video, then I think it's worth adding. But schema in general doesn't impact ranking of this type of thing that we're talking about and there's a lot of types I don't want to say that uniformly, but it's one of those things that I don't think it's worth spending time on unless it's going to do something visual.

Mark A Preston: Right, that's interesting you say that. It doesn't impact local SEO at all.

Joy Hawkins: We haven't found it. It does. I know Brian Dean did a big study, like a much bigger study. We do case studies. We're like, we'll try it in an isolated environment and see what happens. So I've done a lot of those. But he'll do big data studies and he had a study on local not local, but SEO ranking factors in general. And schema was one of the things that he said he didn't find had any impact, and he analyzed like a million something results. So this was a much larger data set.

Mark A Preston: Now, moving on to a subject that's probably a minefield for most local SEO people onto local base link building, right? Now, what sort of mindset, what sort of things should you be thinking about when you're building links for a local business as opposed to a national brand?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so I think some local directory sites are still important. I see some a very small handful. So usually whatever shows up for like, a branded search, right? When you do a branded search and you scan through the first page of Google, whoever shows up there, like, whatever sites those are, those are important. And you could do that same search for three or four of your competitors and just look like where they listed I'm not, you know, it's pretty simple, but where I think people go overkill is like, oh, you need 50 citations, you need 100 citations, or let me get you listed, like, there's always these numbers that people throw out, and there's sites that do not matter. Like, there are sites that get no traffic that are pretty much abandoned, that I've forgotten even exist, that we heard about in the early days of local SEO, like Hot Frog or Brown Book or sites like that. They're not important, and they're not going to help you achieve your goal of ranking higher on Google. So we spend more time on link building for clients that are getting a lot of organic traffic, because link building has more of an impact on the organic algorithm than it does the local algorithm. So if you're trying to rank higher in the local pack results, link building is not the way to do that. But if you're trying to rank higher organically, getting links is definitely a way to do that, but I can't say it is not a numbers thing. We've seen one link be worth more than 50. It's not like, oh, 50 links is better than one. No, it's like getting a link from an authoritative, relevant site could be worth the same amount as 100 or 50. Really crappy, low quality links.

Mark A Preston: So I've heard in the local SEO space, when it comes to link building, it doesn't matter if the other website, the other business is not in the same industry as long as it's located in the same town. Is that correct?

Joy Hawkins: I honestly don't know. We haven't tested on an isolation. It's really hard to say. I have seen, however, contextually relevant links. They seem to carry more weight. So if it's a similar entity, similar topic, then it's better. I think the domain name is coming from things like that. Again, there's a lot of people that have done tests on this in general, so I think I would defer to some of those published studies. What we've found mainly is like the type of link that you get matters for sure, like guest posts, for example, are pretty much trash at getting you anywhere. Like we've tested, I actually bought a bunch of guest posts from those sellers that sell them for like $150 a link and things like that. And it did nothing to move rankings for this business we were testing it on. So there are certain types of links that I think are just completely useless and not worth paying at all.

Mark A Preston: So when it comes to local SEO, when you've sorted out the citation stuff, should you actually think and focus on link building at all for a local business? Or is the content more valuable than just focusing on links for local SEO?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, again depending on the industry and if they need organic traffic, because links are really more for organic. But the two types that we do quite a bit of here that we've found are still effective is earned media. So like using services like horror and things like that word where journalists are trying to interview people, those are often very relevant. So we've gotten Realtors, for example, links from real estate websites or and really good links, and those are 100% worthwhile. The other category that we get a lot of is memberships and things like that. So like if you're a personal injury lawyer, like getting a link from a bike association league, or like a motorcycle league because they deal with a lot of cases to deal with motorcycle accidents, those are contextually relevant. Or the local little league team or the local YMCA or some like charity that's local that's often another way that you can get likes again, like you need a budget for them because those ones are generally not free. They come with membership fees.

Mark A Preston: Right, so you're doing a lot of work on the website itself. And the website itself is ranking organically very well. Does that directly impact the rankings of the business profile in house?

Joy Hawkins: Link building not as much like very little, it would more impact the organic ranking of that website instead.

Mark A Preston: Right, okay so say a business has limited resources, limited time, would you suggest their focus on the local SEO on the website or the business profile?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, I would. Link building I think is again it's needed in some industry. Like we have a real estate agent and if they're going to show up anywhere competing with and zillows and stuff like that and like a lot of the terms they want to rank for don't even show local pack results. They have to get links. Like there's no option. So there are some industries, for example like electricians where I would say you don't necessarily need like a massive link building budget because most electricians don't have lots of links anyways. Who you're competing with is not people that have tons and tons of links pointing to their site. So in order to compete or even outrank them you need to likely look to be a little better than they are. But I'd love to see listings rank in the local pack results that don't have hardly any links. So those two algorithms work very differently and links do not have much of an impact on the local pop results.

Mark A Preston: So for the local pop results what should businesses and SEOs be focusing on for the local results?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so content is big. Those long tail keywords are killer. Right. There's usually lots of different ways, like I gave for that example, the electrician, lots of different ways people phrase things you need pages for all those different things if there are different topics. So focusing more on content and then keeping your existing pages fresh, like, there's new things that come out, new features that come out at Google. There's always ways that you can improve your content. If it's a service area page, like updating it with recent photos and jobs you've done, data with lawyers talking about examples of cases that you've won, things like that. There's always stuff that you can update your site with, and that's usually where your money is best spent.

Mark A Preston: Right, well, we couldn't not talk about what everyone's talking about, which is AI. And AI are now barred and how will or if will it AI impact the local SEO space?

Joy Hawkins: There are certain spaces I would be worried about AI. I don't think local is one of them. So I think that local SEO is like when people are searching for a business that they want to pay money to and hire, they need to know a lot of information about that business to make a decision. And I don't think the AI is going to give that to them. AI is not going to give them a list of reviews where they can see who reviewed the business and read them. AI is not going to give them a list of photos of that place. Like, there's a lot of really rich things that Google's kind of incorporated into the business profiles that you need as a consumer to make a decision. So I'm not super worried about AI yet. I don't know where it's headed, but I think it's going to take over a lot of instant answers and things like that. Like, what's the weather today? Or how long is this trail near mine, how many miles is it? That type of stuff, which isn't generally the types of queries that convert or send business for local SEO anyways. So it's not something I'm super worried about at this point.

Mark A Preston: Right, now location. Now the actual physical location of the building you're in, if the plotter you are to the centre of the city or town you targeting, is that a ranking factor?

Joy Hawkins: Used to be, it still matters for explicit terms. So like plumber Chicago being closer to the city center of Chicago is definitely helpful for that. It doesn't help you rank for other terms though. So we definitely do see that it still holds some weight when it comes to terms, including that city, though. Just kind of interesting because I feel like it's gone up and down over the years. There was a time where I would have told you it matters border at all, but based on recent stuff I've been analyzing, I think it does still make an impact. And if you're not in the city borders, then you're screwed. You can't rank for city terms if you're not inside that city's border.

Mark A Preston: Right. So if you are not physically located in the space and the area you want to rank for, basically don't try.

Joy Hawkins: Like it's really small. Like I said, big exception here is small towns because small towns don't have much competition and lots of things are possible. But yeah, again, like using a big city as an example. If you're like outside of Chicago and you want to rank in Chicago in the local pack results, you need an office in Chicago.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. Okay. Now, moving on to conferences. I mean, do you run your own local SEO event?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it's a local SEO. We're going to be doing two events this year, both in person. We're kind of excited to get back to in person events. So the first one is going to be in Dallas in April. We haven't announced the second one yet, but I can tease people the location that's going to be in Toronto in the fall. I've been wanting to do one in Toronto, so that's where I'm from for a very long time. And we had one planned and then COVID happened. So that killed the plan for that event. So we're kind of three years later now attempted to have it again. So, yeah, we talk all about local. So it's all specific to local SEO sometimes we have some ad sessions and things like that, but all specific to local businesses.

Mark A Preston: So for the book titles and topics, is local SEO that fast that there's lots of different areas of local SEO?


Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So our Dallas event, I think our agenda is launching today, but we have topics on like content. We have speakers talking about reputation, we have somebody talking about links. We have a whole session on AI and how that's going to play into things. There's always like a pretty vast, wide variety of topics. And we also require all of our speakers to use unique stuff, so it can't be something they presented at like another conference. So it's always going to be new information. I've definitely seen some sneak peeks at some of my colleagues topics that they're talking on, and it's going to be good.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. How do you see the conference space evolving all the time?

Joy Hawkins: I mean, honestly, so my experience for the last two years, it's lower. Like, it's definitely harder to get people to come compared to pre pandemic, so it's not back to normal yet. And I can say that from attending quite a few conferences last year, there's not even a lot that are happening. I remember before I was like, booked up, I was turning down speaking opportunities because I had too many. So there was a lot of conferences happening and we are not back to that point yet, so I'm not sure why that is. But I'm hoping that friend will change because I think there's so much value in meeting people and being able to bounce questions off people in person that you just can't do within virtual events.

Mark A Preston: So you mentioned that you do quite a few speaking gigs. Now what sort of things do the event organizers want you to speak about? Obviously it's local SEO orientated, but is there a key theme around the actual subtopic?

Joy Hawkins: There has been historically I'm trying to change that. So I feel like I talk about Google's business profile stuff a lot, but I'm trying to shift that more towards just talking about the algorithm, how it works, how to rank things like that. The topic that I'll be talking about at Local SEO in Toronto, actually, is link building, and I'm going to be talking about a whole bunch of tests that we did. So some of the stuff I was like kind of alluding to why I think that links don't impact local ranking, show you how I concluded that, go through all of the specifics of what we tried, how we isolated it, what we found, that kind of thing. But I think anything under the local SEO umbrella, I'm usually happy to speak on.

Mark A Preston: Right. Is there anything around streamlining? The reason I'm asking is because myself and my team have to manage all the 300 individual locations and there's just three of us.

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, that's a topic that I probably would talk on. I feel like that's more like No Learner. He's big on automation and how to streamline things. Or Crystal Tang is another one that's really good at talking about how to manage lots of listings at scale because that's what they do at Uber all. So I would say those two are probably more experts on that particular topic than I would be. I'm not the automation queen, but I like to really focus on things like that's what I do, I dig in, I look at screenshots, I pour over search results. I'm the person that loves to look at case studies and things like that. Not necessarily the person that wants to have a high level view of 500 locations. 

Mark A Preston: Okay, now, is it all about Google? What about being local?

Joy Hawkins: I mean, I signed up for the new Bing yesterday, some on the wait list, but like I don't know. Bing has been around for so long, they have not come anywhere close to cracking Google's monopoly. They are a fraction of the traffic. When we look at client sites, like, it's so small, it's not even worth investing time in. So at this point, no. But who knows, maybe that will change with them buying or integrating chat GPT, I have no idea. But they've been trying for a very long time and not succeeding.

Mark A Preston: Yeah. I feel as though we've covered so much over the past hour. Now what's the one thing that excites you personally about local SEO?

Joy Hawkins: I love that it's always changing. Like, I think it's really fun that I am still, you know, however many years I'm in this now, 16, 17, I've lost track, but how many years I've been doing this, I'm still learning stuff. Like I constantly learning more about how to get clients to rank, how to find good opportunities, things that are kind of leveling up our skill set. I get excited to continue to learn so it doesn't get boring. I feel like if I was in a job where it was the same thing every day, all the time and nothing new to kind of figure out, I'd probably get bored because I like solving puzzles and dealing with strategy and things like that. So it's a really good place to work if you like that kind of stuff.

Mark A Preston: Brilliant. Now you've joined us today freely in your own time. Now is there anything that the audience watching this can do to help you.

Joy Hawkins: Come to our local event. That'll be the big thing that I'll plug because it's coming up in April and it's going to be awesome. I really love those events. It is so much fun to meet people that you interact with online on Twitter and stuff like that, and it's going to be a really great event. So I say there if you have questions or you want to hit me up on Twitter, I'm pretty active on Twitter. We also have the local search board as well, if you have just general questions. But local SEO that's it free for, and you can join and post all your questions there.

Mark A Preston: Right and a big question to endorsement. If you had a magic wand and you could change something within local SEO overnight, what would it be?

Joy Hawkins: That's interesting. I would probably say give service area businesses a way to adjust where they rank so it's not based on their physical location, but limit the options. You know what I mean? Don't say like, oh, yeah, based on your service areas, because you could spam that and add a whole bunch. Maybe let them select one that would replace their home location or Pin. I feel like that would just be wonderful. I'm not sure how I do it as an engineer, but it would be great. Just an option.

Mark A Preston: Fantastic. Well, many thanks for joining us today, and I'm sure the audience as well as me have received massive value out of this. And what's the future hold for you?

Joy Hawkins: Yeah, I mean, we are growing as a team, so my company, it's exciting to kind of see the team growing stuff. So we're just trying to continue to be just good at what we do and learn more about SEO and always kind of learn things that people don't know. That's always my goal. Like, what can we learn that is not generally known in the SEO community and just keep plugging away at that? We publish a lot of stuff, so our blog is covered with stuff, and we're also doing videos now, so our YouTube channel has three videos coming out every week currently. So that's another place to watch for us.

Mark A Preston: And the final thing, what would your one golden nugget takeaway be for people?

Joy Hawkins: One thing? Yeah, I would probably pay attention to video more. That's something that it's a trend that I'm kind of noticing that we are pushing really big with clients. I know we didn't really talk about it today, but just trying to add videos to every page on your site that drives leads a video about that topic so that people don't want to read that they can actually digest that information some other way. I think it's a huge opportunity that most small businesses have not even tapped into. So that would be my tip.

Mark A Preston: Fantastic. Well, thank you for joining us today, and I wish you every success in the future.

Joy Hawkins: All right. Thank you, Mark.

Mark A Preston: Thank you.

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