National retailers’ digital divisions often think of their websites as e-commerce sites first and local store sites second. Columnist Andrew Shotland explains why this mindset may be hurting their ability to get the most out of organic search.

When I worked in NBC’s Internet group, I had this idea to aggregate all of their local station websites into a single network. When I pitched it, my boss’ initial reaction was, “Why do you want to bother with the local affiliates? They are a royal PITA.”

It’s been a while since NBC-IN, but even today I still see evidence that national-to-local companies, specifically retailers, pay short shrift to the needs of their locations, particularly when it comes to SEO. And while no doubt the locals are still a royal PITA, under-investing in their SEO ignores the reality of where Google has been heading for quite some time.

In my experience, national retailers’ digital divisions think of their websites as e-commerce sites first, and local store sites a distant second. Sure, the sites usually have store locators (still blown away when they don’t at this late date), and some of the more forward-thinking ones even have the ability to see local inventory. But I’d wager nine times out of ten, if you asked them what their top organic KPIs are, they would respond with standard e-commerce metrics: revenue, orders, visits and so on.

This makes sense because many local search KPIs are notoriously difficult for retailers to tie directly to revenue — clicks to call, direction and hours requests, reading reviews and so forth. And as we have previously established, local affiliates are indeed a royal PITA….

But Google’s got 99 local problems to solve, and your inability to prioritize Local in your organization ain’t one.

Why national retailers need to think local
Let’s look at Exhibit A in E-commerce v. Local, The “Mattresses” SERP:

mattresses SERP
“Mattresses” is a valuable commerce query. You may think you have to go to the nearest mattress store, slap a mattress on the top of the family wagon and drive it on home, but the pack and ship mattress industry is booming.

Too bad Google doesn’t care. In each city I have tested, the first organic results for “mattresses” are almost always three Local Pack results. So if you are a retailer, and you’re not optimizing your locations for “mattresses,” you are likely missing out on a lot of clicks and revenue.

But let’s pretend we are Local Pack-averse (and Ad-averse), so we scroll on to the Organic results section. What do we see?

mattresses organic SERP
Six of the first eight organic results are location pages, either from a directory (e.g., Yelp), a retailer (e.g., SitNSleep), or a brand (e.g., Serta). If you are a retailer interested in selling mattresses to Google searchers and do not have a location page that is optimized for “mattresses,” chances are you are not getting that bonus for hitting your organic KPIs anytime soon. (And on a related note, if you are a local directory and not a “brand,” you are going to find it increasingly hard to compete against these brand and store locators.)

But let’s say you have your act somewhat together. You build a great store locator on your site, you get your Google My Business listings somewhat in order (and don’t forget your Apple Maps listings!), and your locations are now ranking well. Everything’s great, right? Wrong. Because now it’s highly likely that your Google My Business pages are cannibalizing your organic traffic, and your organic KPIs are looking even worse as more local searchers don’t even need to go through your site to find your location near them.

Over the past year or two, we have seen more than one brand freak out because they thought they had “lost” traffic, when it had just migrated to Google My Business. All the more reason why you should be tracking your Google My Business pages, seriously.

To be fair, there has been considerable retailer investment in local listings management services like Yext (disclaimer: a Local SEO Guide client), Brandify, Location3, SweetIQ, SIM Partners and others. And while these companies’ services typically don’t end with just updating phone numbers, we often see cases where buying a listings management service is the brand’s local SEO program. Our Local SEO Ranking Factors study did show that NAP consistency and citation cleanup are indeed foundational items for a local SEO program, but it’s a mistake to think that this is all you have to do.

Local SEO tasks for national brands
Here are a few things you might want to prioritize:

Add location pages to your website’s store locator

According to our research, 20 percent of the top 35 US retailers’ store locators don’t have individual pages for each location. This means they are making it harder for Google to understand the information about each location, and those locations may appear less relevant for many specific local queries than their competitors with robust pages for each location — see REI and Whole Foods for good examples.

Optimize your location pages

Add content to your location pages that provides search engines with a clue as to what they are about. If you want to rank for local queries for mattresses, maybe add the word “mattresses” to your location page? And how about linking between your mattress e-commerce pages and your location pages while you’re at it?

Update your location page content regularly

This works like a charm. We worked with an assisted living facility to get regularly updated events on their location pages, and their rankings and organic leads improved considerably after that. Adam Dorfman of SIM Partners published a great piece last week on what you can do with locators.

Get a Google My Business management program in place

I am not talking about creating a bulk Google My Business (GMB) account. Bulk accounts are great, as they make it easy to add and remove stores from GMB, and if you have a lot of locations, you should probably have one. But I can’t tell you how many times we have seen them go otherwise ignored.

GMB is an algorithmically-driven system, and algorithms have a tendency to overwrite data, like phone numbers, hours, categories and verification whenever they feel like it. And in the case of hundreds or thousands of locations, this can happen all too often. And don’t forget about locations and their agencies — or even worse, spammers — trying to claim control of these profiles. If you are not regularly tending your bulk account, there are high odds that you have a lot of these types of messages in there.

But even worse than these “back end” GMB issues are the “front end” issues where you don’t get any alerts. Our canonical example is when GMB changed an auto dealer client’s main listing photo to a photo of a cat. Recently, we had one changed to a photo of a slice of pizza.

If you don’t have a process in place to mitigate these funky algorithmic enhancements, you are likely losing business at scale.

And if you’re not local?

Finally, for those e-commerce sites that don’t have locations… it may be time to consider some brick-and-mortar M&A!