Hyperlocal Blogging: Q&A with Matt McGee

One of the sessions at Searchfest 2009 that really piqued my interest was the Hyperlocal Blogging presentation from Matt McGee. He was kind enough to answer a few follow-up questions. In addition to publishing four hyperlocal blogs with his wife Cari, Matt is an experienced SEO, hyperlocal blogger, and Assignment Editor to Search Engine Land. With that, let’s move on to the questions:

Matt, so what the heck is hyperlocal blogging, anyway?

Hyperlocal blogging is writing about the streets where you live. It’s blogging about local news, local events, local businesses — anything that’s happening in your hometown, city, street, or neighborhood. Hyperlocal blogs often talk about things that traditional media ignores, the stuff that’s too small or not important enough to a wide range of people.

It was apparent from the analytics you provided that hyperlocal blogging has increased your traffic. Has that translated to increased business?

We think it has, but we’ve been very cautious about using the local blogs as marketing tools, so it’s hard to say for certain. We’re taking a very long-term approach. Our primary goal has been to create four blogs that both users and search engines trust, so we’ve not done much selling of real estate services. Only in the last couple months have we added a content box on every blog post that says, “If you’re looking for real estate help, contact Cari….”

ROI seems to be the toughest thing to measure when it comes to blogging. Have you had success in identifying metrics (increased emails, phone calls, links, media mentions, etc.) that have improved since you started hyperlocal blogging?

Cari has had a steady stream of contacts since the blogs launched last year, with only the normal holiday break in November-December. So, while a lot of real estate agents have seen slowdowns, we’ve been blessed so far to avoid that. But getting precise data about which blog is producing leads has been tough. When Cari asks how someone found her, the most common answer is “You’re all over the Internet!” If they say they found her blog, she’ll ask which one … but most folks don’t seem to remember, and they don’t realize that we have different blogs.

When I go “off topic” in my blog posts, the bounce rate skyrockets. How does your bounce rate compare to a more focused discussion of, say, a real estate agent blogging about real estate information. And if it is higher, do you care or does the increase in traffic more than make up for it?

I don’t pay any attention to bounce rate because, really, we never go off-topic on the local blogs. Anything and everything happening in the community is on-topic, so as long as we don’t start writing about a Pasco event on our Richland blog, we’re fine. The focus (still) is to build a readership, to introduce people to the idea that local blogs exist, to get them in the habit of visiting, and so forth.

But I’ll add this: Our most popular blog post ever was a very recent one about Kanye West appearing on BET-TV wearing a letterman jacket from one of our local high schools. No one has a clue how he got the jacket, why he wore it, etc. That post has had 2-3 weeks of record-setting visits and more comments than any post we’ve written, but we know that most of it is from high school students. So that may seem like a loss. On the other hand, that post is giving Google all kinds of positive click-through data about our blog, it was mentioned in the local newspaper, and even got a link from the paper’s web site — and our paper is very stingy about linking out. So there are other benefits at play here.

It seems like hyperlocal blogging would best benefit businesses that serve a pretty broad spectrum of local consumer needs. Real estate definitely qualifies. Restaurants seem like another industry that could benefit. Are there business profiles/industries particularly well suited for hyperlocal blogging?

I think it’s more about the individual and the approach than the industry you’re in. We all care about where we live, and if you remember that you’re writing a local blog — as opposed to a real estate blog, a restaurant blog, a plumbing blog, etc. — you can make it work. There’s no reason a plumber couldn’t write about (and take photos of) the things s/he sees while out and about every day — new businesses being built, school and community events, road closures, and stuff like that. And then you mix in the occasional plumbing content and you’re doing well.

In closing, what do you see as the main benefits of hyperlocal blogging?

I can only answer this based on our soft-sell, low-marketing approach.

1) It allows you to capture a lot of long-tail, local search traffic … which
2) Increases your visibility/branding in the community … and
3) Can lead to new sales/leads/clients.
4) It’s good — or great, if done right — for SEO.
5) It gives you valuable community knowledge while giving back a valuable community resource.

Matt, thank you very much for your time!

Search Rankings are Dead!

Two interviews caught my attention recently regarding the future of search. Here’s a quick summary of them for you. I believe what they discuss will have a pretty significant impact on SEO in the future.

So what’s all the buzz about, anyway?

It came from two interviews by Mike McDonald of WebPro News at Pubcon with Matt Cutts (of Google) and SEO Pioneer Bruce Clay. Here are the interviews in their entirety and my summary.

The death of search engine rankings (Bruce Clay)
The personalization of search (Matt Cutts of Google)

What, search rankings are dead? Well no, they aren’t dead. They’re just evolving-dramatically. Bruce Clay talked with Mike McDonald of WebPro News about Google’s efforts to personalize search results. Here are a few of his main points/opinions:

1) Google will personalize your searches in the near future. That is, your past searches (whether logged in to Google or not) will effectively bias your search results based on your search history. He used an example of a search for “java.” Your past search history could determine whether your search yielded results about coffee, programming, or travel. Chris Crum wrote a good recap of Bruce’s personalization comments here.

2) Intent based search is here. Search engines will determine intent and bias results towards that perceived intent. For example, reviews or general information queries will likely lead to global search results while a shopping or perceived local search (even without the local qualifier) will lead to geo-local search results.

3) Ranking is dead. According the Bruce, “The day of how high do I rank as a measure of doing SEO right is gone. You’re going to have to look at analytics… You’re going to have to measure traffic… You’re going to have to measure bounce rates… You’re going to have to measure action… Did I get the conversion I was after? Did I really deliver on the promise of SEO?”

4) Universal Search will be HUGE in 2009. Universal (also called Blended Search) was launched in early 2008. I have seen a massive increase in organic search traffic for my clients based on optimizing for Universal/Organic search. Bruce believes that web sites without video, images, and other variables of Universal search will be essentially left in the dust.

I love the point/counterpoint of Matt Cutts (from Google) being interviewed right after a top SEO like Bruce. I can’t help but say “Jane, you ignorant slut!” However, in this case, they more or less agree with each other, which lends even more weight to their comments. Here’s my summary from the Matt Cutts interview regarding Google’s future:

1) Is ranking really dead? Matt addressed this directly by saying,“Well, I’m not sure whether I’d say that ranking is dead. But it’s not as important as it used to be. But the fact is, the smart SEO’s are not necessarily just looking at the rankings. They’re looking at their conversions… and server logs. They are saying, sure, it’s great if I rank for a phrase, but unless that leads to sales it doesn’t help very much.”

2) If rankings are less important, what’s an SEO to do? Again, he addressed the the changing landscape directly by saying: “SEOs are starting to embrace the fact that they are marketers. It’s a broader spectrum. You have to think about how you build buzz, how do you get loyal customers, how do you optimize your ROI. All those different things and that can include how do I make good videos, do I have a book, things like that.”

3) But what about personalization? This is where it will be pretty interesting moving forward. His localization example makes perfect sense. But the personalization aspect seems a bit vague. “As you see more personalization… as you see more localization.. it changes. For example, If you do a search for the word “bank” in the United States, you’ll get Bank of America and other American banks. If you do that search in England, you’ll get Thomas Cook and different banks entirely. The challenge is not to pay so much attention to rankings and to pay attention to your traffic,… pay attention to your conversions,… keep building good content,… and then not worry so much about can I show people that I rank #1 for my trophy phrase.

4) Universal Search is really useful to users. Without telling us that we need to have videos, blogs, and other Universal Search content on our web sites to stay relevant and rank well, he certainly talked about how users are embracing video and blogs as well as how important creating quality content is to Google.
Read: Videos and blogs are mas importante! Get on this train if you haven’t already.

My next post will delve a bit deeper into these topics and include some real world examples of how Universal Search strategies have helped my clients. It will also include my thoughts of how businesses can work to capitalize on the personalization of search in the future.