Mihm Counterpoint on Call Tracking

After reading Telmetrics’ response to his Search Engine Land article, which was highly critical of call tracking, David Mihm asked if he could respond to the Telmetrics post. The following is David Mihm’s unedited response (the opinions expressed are his exclusively):

As I said in last month’s Search Engine Land column, the idea of call-tracking in Local Search is terrific.  The fragmentation of the space and the ability to provide easy-to-understand, real metrics for small business owners should make call tracking a natural evolution in Local search marketing.  It’s just not a good idea yet.

In his response, Telmetrics president Bill Dinan strongly defended the use of call tracking, but personal experience with actual small businesses has left me unconvinced of his points. The local search ecosystem simply has not evolved as fast as Telmetrics’ (and other providers’) technology.

Dinan assets that “all of the Local Search feeds have room to accept both the main business number and the tracking number.”

First of all, I’m not sure this is true.  There’s certainly a place for an 800-number in the submission process for Localeze and infoUSA/Acxiom/Universal Business Listing, but I’ve not seen the column in these submission areas for a secondary local tracking number.  Perhaps there are special arrangements for providers as large as Telmetrics but my column was written from my perspective as the owner of a small SEO agency.

Some local listing aggregators may be “working feverishly” as Bill says to accommodate local tracking numbers, but the fact is not everyone is there yet, on either the aggregator or the call tracking provider side.  For instance, infoUSA’s phone verification process may not be compatible with all companies’ offerings, even if it works with Telmetrics.  And Localeze’s Gib Olander has stated at more than one industry conference that “listings are not the place for advertising.”

Secondly, and I think this is a key point, not all information in the Local ecosystem comes via a feed. Jonathan Cohn of Acxiom mentioned in August on a Search Marketing Now webinar (27:00 onwards) that YellowPages ads are “keyed and scanned every year” by Acxiom. He also showed this slide showing even more places from which Acxiom pulls business data.

From personal client experience—if you use a tracking number in the YellowPages, it’s highly likely to get picked up by Acxiom (or another aggregator) and into Google’s index as a unique listing.  And every time Google gets a fresh data feed, I have to help clients who use tracking numbers claim and attempt to consolidate each of those call-tracked listings.  It requires constant attention.

In fact, just this month, a “new” listing popped into Google Maps for a friend whose website I helped with over the summer.  Here is the search for his company in Tualatin, Oregon.  Note that even though both listings contain the word “Creekside” in the business title and use the exact same address, Google Maps has not merged the two.  Which, yes, is somewhat surprising—we’ve seen them merge with much less matching information in the past.

I asked my friend Brent via email earlier this week if he was still including that business name and phone number in any of his ads with AT&T, Verizon, or Dex; here was his response:

“[I] might have listed with all three (above), but no longer advertizing there…we do advertize on Nickel Ads locally …… but I can’t imagine that would reach to cyberspace.”

The ecosystem is amazingly complex, and as Brent’s example proves, you just never know where one number is going to end up, or how long it’s going to stay there. Not only does this situation affect visibility in Google Maps, but it significantly undermines the granularity of analytics data that call tracking is supposed to provide. If a phone book number or an Internet Yellow Pages number is getting picked up by Google, the supposed volume of calls from those destinations is going to be exaggerated.

Thus, consistency of business information throughout the Local ecosystem should still remain a best practice.

As far as which is more important to a small business owner, getting traffic to their business via Google, or knowing “which advertising is producing the highest-value calls,” I find it a stretch to think that any revenue-oriented SMB is going to opt for tracking.  Business owners call me every day asking “how do I rank my business next to the map,” not “can you help me figure out where my calls are coming from?”

Regardless of whether Google has explicitly confirmed that mentions of primary business information help with ranking in Google Maps, according to Google Maps’ patent, local search experts, and a quantitative study of Google Maps they do.

Yes, the algorithm will continue to evolve and take into account richer data signals like link graph data, reviews, and other user-generated content.  But for millions of small businesses without any website, or a poorly-optimized one, the phone number IS their identity.  Phone numbers (and addresses) are as fundamental for Google Maps’ business index as the link graph is to its organic index.  Google wants a direct representation of real-life business information, and a call-tracking number doesn’t satisfy that criterion.

As to the notion of number recycling, I agree with Bill that it might not occur “often.”  It sounds like Telmetrics  tries to act in its clients’ best interests if they end their contract, but that doesn’t prevent less scrupulous companies from switching numbers instantly.

It is a short-sighted strategy to counsel small business owners to “focus on what you can control, and that is paid advertising.”  What happens when prices skyrocket or inventory becomes limited?  Ignoring organic optimization and social media—neither of which you can control—is just as foolhardy as ignoring paid search options in a successful online campaign.

There may indeed be a double-standard with Google’s integration of Voice with Local Listing Ads—especially since I’ve seen a handful of examples of Made-for-Adsense sites getting indexed and counting as citations!  But I fully agree with Mike Blumenthal, who responded this week:

“[While] the goal is worthwhile, until such time as Google, working together with other industry leaders, develops a system not to penalize businesses using call tracking then it should not be used.”

Online-based call tracking is not the only method of tracking leads.  As I pointed out in my original article, traditional offline methods like Excel spreadsheets and post-it notes can work just fine—and they do, for my clients for whom tracking is of central importance.

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25 Responses to “Mihm Counterpoint on Call Tracking”

  1. Mihmorandum | More on the Possible Effects of Call-Tracking in Local Search | Local SEO Says:

    [...] Engine Land column about call-tracking last week.  Greg Sterling was kind enough to let me post a response to Bill’s response on his blog this [...]

  2. Kyle Says:

    Recently I have noticed that my client’s LBL have been getting merged with similar but separate listings. By adding a call tracking number to a listing that has numerous other citations seems to be a highly negative action.

    If you start a companies online presescence with the tracking phone number the other listings outside from the LBL will start indexing your tracking phone number. I have had great success with tracked number in local search but recently I have been receiving numerous complaints about incorrect merged accounts?

    P.S. Google updated page ranks last night ;)

  3. David Mihm Says:

    Kyle, absolutely–the vagaries of Google’s merging algorithm are the main reason I advise against it. I do not think Google is necessarily to blame for this phenomenon; call-tracking numbers are logically hard for a search engine to tie together properly unless an industry-wide solution can be implemented, per Mike’s comment.

  4. Chris Travers Says:

    As it has been noted, tracking numbers have been around for years in print Yellow Pages, and they have been passed along by the aggregators and publishers alike. But the current trend to use them in search marketing has increased the focus – and disdain for them. Our impression is that you are taking a ranking risk by using tracking numbers. The best way to ensure proper visibility is to have the main local number distributed to as many places as possible uniformly. This will help prevent a bad number being picked up from one of these sources and creating confusion and dilution. Of course, this happens to be our argument as to why to use http://www.universalbusinesslisting.org to make sure all those places are reached…search engines, IYPs, 411 directory assistance and mobile/GPS navigation devices.

  5. Kyle Says:

    David, thanks for the reply.

    While we are on the subject of LBL’s I noticed another oddity happening with our client’s local listings.

    We go ahead and optimize a LBL, notice that weeks if not months pass with us a-top the ’7-pak’ then suddenly we disappear. I have traced this back to Google picking up some recent feed and creating a duplicate LBL for the same client. Our optimized listing drops off and neither are displayed. A few days go by and the duplicate listing gets merged with a similar listing.

    This is most common amongst professional’s such as dentists, doctors etc.

    E X A M P L E :
    - Create a listing for a local dentist in the LBC.
    - Listing gets verified, optimized.
    - Listing sits in A-E spot for several months.
    - Listing disappears one day.
    - Notice duplicate listings, 1 with correct information and the other one with correct information and the wrong URL and no user submitted content (feed scanned most likely).
    - Research finds that the doctor’s listing that was duplicated had prior affiliation(s) with the doctor’s listing that was incorrectly merged.

    With more and more companies becoming Google Aggregate Partners brings even another hurdle to local seo. Once one finds the local listing utopia a rogue feed comes in with out-dated information and starts forcing Google algorithm to do something with the information it was given, merging sites that are separate etc.

    Adding local or 800 tracking phone numbers to these ever changing listing poses a great risk. Google attempts to cross check the number you gave them (tracking #) and gets contradicted by all the citations and mentions of the same URL, address, name etc with a different phone number.

    I’ll write a piece on this dilemma I have been facing in the next few days.

  6. Devin Davis Says:

    Our experience has been very similar to what David has said all along.

    Call tracking is fine – but consistency is paramount – even if you’re using a tracking number.

    A case in point would be a client of ours. The company had online presence we were not aware of when we first started working with them. As a result, we saw their local results – specifically maps – drop off the board.

    Once our research verified the problem and we were able to get the clients to move to one number, things changed.

    This is real world experience – within a week – all was right in the world and the local information, which before had dropped off maps altogether, was on top.

    By proving relevance, and verification via citations (name, address and phone number) we were able to see clear, actionable results.

  7. Devin Davis Says:

    Greg:

    Online, absolutely. Offline, of course (as long as it’s not being doubled used by, say, YPs) not necessarily…

  8. Chris Silver Smith Says:

    So long as there are people who run multiple businesses, it’s going to be very hard to collapse multiple alternate listings due to tracking numbers into a single listing. If this were done willy-nilly (as it sometimes is), then you have an additional problem of shoving two businesses into a single, “Frankensteined” listing that is erroneous.

    All the major local info providers would need to work together to accept a standard of primary phone numbers coupled with possible multiple tracking phone numbers, or else some marketing potential becomes degraded. And, as Mihm pointed out, most major data feeds simply don’t anticipate tracking numbers in their format.

    I’m a huge fan of good metrics to base decisions upon, but metrics are a quite secondary detail, trumped by actual effectiveness. If by adding tracking you’re damaging the marketing value, then the tracking is probably not worth the sacrifice.

  9. Blocking And Tackling: 10 Fundamentals Of Local SEO Says:

    [...] number and address information matches up everywhere your business is mentioned—the main reason I advised against call-tracking numbers in last month’s [...]

  10. Dex Landing Pages Dominating Google Local Search Ads Says:

    [...] not optimized for search due to local indexing issues, extensively covered by David Mihm here and here (one of the [...]

  11. Google Maps: Citations, Reviews, & User Content Says:

    [...] you find another way to measure data if possible.   There is an interesting post here about using Tracking Phone Numbers in your Local Search Marketing that would be worth while reading.  I am a metrics fanatic too, but by not having the same [...]

  12. Year In Review: Local Search & Maps Says:

    [...] held by call-tracking numbers, I’ve also advocated for consistency of NAP information on multiple occasions, at least until something akin to a canonical phone tag is adopted by the major players in the [...]

  13. Matthew Hunt Says:

    Business owners call me every day asking “how do I rank my business next to the map,” not “can you help me figure out where my calls are coming from?” – This is sooo true. Not that call tracking wouldn’t be an amazing benefit to SMB’s.

    I agree with MB:
    “[I] might have listed with all three (above), but no longer advertising there…we do advertise on Nickel Ads locally …… but I can’t imagine that would reach to cyberspace.”

    And what’s with the double standard on Local Business Ads & Google Voice…? They may offer this as a paid feature only. Be awesome to be able to have Google create G-map rankings that are not determined by phone #. They need to monetize this space faster, I see this the ONLY way to get better support and algorithms for local search rankings.

  14. roket74 Says:

    Well, it’s quite obvious that carriers charge quite a lot for such services. Fortunately there are quite a few competing search providers out there. Recently I stumbled upon a much cheaper < href=”reverse mobile phone lookup”> service</a> alternative that worked great for me. The thing I liked about them, is that their support staff helped me when I failed to find results for the number I was searching for on the first try. They traced it down from their extra database. So the the service is great and cheaper

  15. Kiwi Says:

    Just to be sure …. If we use a new separate local tracking# for a PPC campaign is this in effect a citation that could confuse my LBL?

  16. Article Title which should be a link to somewhere « Century Interactive Says:

    [...] using call measurement numbers on an advertiser’s website, ultimately suggesting that maybe the advantages aren’t worth the risk of jeopardizing the advertiser’s organic search ran…. This is a valid concern, but a properly-constructed dynamic website tracking number will not have [...]

  17. The Six and a Half Commandments of Displaying a Phone Number on a Website « Century Interactive Says:

    [...] using call measurement numbers on an advertiser’s website, ultimately suggesting that maybe the advantages aren’t worth the risk of jeopardizing the advertiser’s organic search ran…. This is a valid concern, but a properly-constructed dynamic website tracking number will not have [...]

  18. Denver Car Service Says:

    reversed number search could just do the same for you..why would you going for such a thing?

  19. Boulder Limousine Says:

    yeah dynamic website may require adding it up..

  20. Year In Review: Local Search & Maps | Aitir Google Lab Says:

    [...] held by call-tracking numbers, I’ve also advocated for consistency of NAP information on multiple occasions, at least until something akin to a canonical phone tag is adopted by the major players in the [...]

  21. Local Search Marketing Success Equals Consistency! | Successful Internet Tools Says:

    [...] What about those yellow page directories that supply you with a different phone number so you can track which calls are coming from which local directories? It is not a good idea to create variations in your phone number! Some directories give the option for a secondary number or an 800 number.   Search engines want to see real local businesses.  Find other ways to tract your calls. For a longer discussion on phone consistency see David Mihm’s wonderful article, Tracking Phone Numbers in your Local Search. [...]

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  23. Franklyn Galusha Says:

    I’ve got to agree most of my smaller clients who are currently tracking use post its an Excel spreadsheets and seemed to be doing just fine with them. I’m a traditional SEO specializing in everything organic or natural search. So I’m not a real big fan of paper click. However I do encourage my clients to set aside 15% to 20% of their annual budget for paper click campaigns. This has served them well in light of Google latest algorithm changes which dropped them off the first page of the search results. They had enough funds in reserve and a PPC strategy ready to go. Which checked them in business until we can straighten things out for them.

  24. The Power of Google Places « Sponsored by Jordi and Dave Browne, In-House Mortgage Consultants Says:

    [...] you find another way to measure data if possible. There is an interesting post here about using Tracking Phone Numbers in your Local Search Marketing that would be worthwhile reading. I am a metrics fanatic too, but not having the same information [...]

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