Telmetrics Responds to Call Tracking Debate

Picture 107The following is an unedited Q&A interview I conducted in email with Telmetrics president Bill Dinan about some of the issues raised in a recent article by David Mihm that ran on Search Engine Land (“Be Wary Of Call Tracking Numbers In Local Search“) about some of the potential SEO problems with call tracking. I invited him to respond to Mihm’s concerns and critique . . .

Sterling: David Mihm, among others, has identified a potential problem with the use of call tracking numbers. He points out that call tracking numbers might “pollute” the “NAP” (name address phone) core business data. He cites a potential real-world example:

What happens if you give your business a unique tracking phone number at a directory that Acxiom happens to spider for its own index? That number is now considered authoritative by Acxiom, and gets pushed out to every partner that’s leasing Acxiom’s data.

First, what’s your response? Is this a real issue or concern? How likely is the scenario Mihm describes?

Dinan: The argument that using multiple local business phone numbers could pollute the local search engine distribution ecosystem is not valid. We do agree that the company should retain a main phone line in addition to their call tracking number to help validate the business content. Today, all of the Local Search feeds have room to accept both the main business number (aka Primary ID or PID) and the tracking number.

Local listing aggregators and distribution companies are also accommodating both numbers – or are working feverishly to do so – as they are being offered a rev-share on the retail call price charged by the SEM or agency. The PID allows the distributors/aggregators to validate what disparate listing data belongs to an actual business. These progressive Pay-Per-Call advertising models are driving the distribution chain to adopt call tracking and analytics and are attractive to national advertisers, agencies, and SMBs that want to see the value their local search program is delivering. Being a part of the ecosystem means proving value which requires tracking the leads.

Sterling: Is it true that call-tracking numbers are often “recycled”? So a number used by for one business in January might be used to track calls to another local business in September?

Dinan: No – “often” is an overstatement. Recycling numbers is not a best practice, however, when it is required due to other campaign parameters, there are basic quality control processes call tracking providers, publishers and advertisers should use to ensure the line has not received any calls in a 90-180 day period.

Sterling: How can one use call tracking and avoid “confusing” the search engines (as in Mihm’s example) and third parties who might rely on such data?

Dinan: Retaining a main business line helps the listings distributors and aggregators maintain the local search data integrity as they can validate and unite disparate listing data. As long as the tracking line is tied to the main phone line – or the Primary ID – it will work for the entire distribution ecosystem and there will be no risk of “confusion.”

Sterling: Mihm also suggests that if one is using call tracking that the numbers could be “hidden” from the search engines:

If you decide that the benefits to call-tracking outweigh the possible risks to your rankings, at the very least ask if the marketing company or search portal with whom you’re engaging can hide these numbers when they display them to search engines.

In some cases, this might be done with Javascript or even something as simple as a non-alt-texted image tag. This way there’s at least a chance of picking up an address-only citation from that page; no-indexing the page isn’t really a good solution because then you’re just cutting off any chance for potential ranking benefit.

But I doubt that many companies that are providing call-tracking numbers in local search have considered their implications for ranking, so most are probably hard-coding them at present.

How would you respond to his suggestion in the paragraph above? What do you think of the viability of this approach?

Dinan: Hiding phone numbers or requiring searchers to click a button to see the phone number is not a new concept, however, it delivers a poor customer experience that has a dramatic negative affect on impression-to-call, and/or click-to-call ratios. So even if you are ranking favorably on Google Local … your call ratios just fell through the floor.

Conversely, call tracking using java script technology is getting better and better, and will be deployed more. While Google reads java script, it does not save it in the index. This technology, Dynamic Number Insertion, is used to track calls by distribution source and/or even to the keyword level. It is a technology that will continue to morph and would be a great tool for SEO companies to use. It would address any potential risks to rankings, and enable SEO companies to clearly and objectively demonstrate the value being provided to advertisers in the Local Search arena.

Sterling: In some situations, directory publishers and local search sites may be using call tracking without the knowledge of the business owner (to prove value at renewal time). How common is this practice and what do you think of this “involuntary call tracking”?

Dinan: This is not a common practice. In speaking with thousands of SMBs, hundreds of agencies, and hundreds of national advertisers, they see the value of call tracking lines and advertising performance analytics.

Sterling: What “best practice” recommendations would you make to use call tracking but avoid any negative potential SEO consequences?

Dinan: The article has an issue with the possible (not proven or confirmed by Google) affect on listing ranking (SEO) within Google Local 10 Pack.

What’s more important to an SMB? Finding out which advertising is producing the highest value calls … or ensuring that the best possible local search rankings? Even if you have the best possible ranking today, can you depend on that to have sustainability tomorrow? What happens when Google flips the algorithm again? You may be starting over. SEO rankings are significantly more dependent on keyword content, quality score to ads, and quality link associations than varying phone numbers. Focus on what you can control, and that is paid advertising. Yes, organic rankings and the related leads should be a piece of your marketing efforts that blend/cost-average with your paid search campaigns, but not something that you should do without a tool to prove value.

Sterling: Google acknowledged on its Q3 earnings call that it was using Google Voice numbers to do call tracking for its Local Listings Ads. What do you think about this? Do you think there’s any “double standard” given the SEO issues Mihm identifies?

Dinan: Both Google’s acknowledgement and Mihm’s article strongly agree with the value of ROI proof via Call Measurement. Why … because it answers the questions most important to today’s SMBs, agencies and national advertisers:

  • How many customers did you drive to me?
  • How effective was my media spend in driving quality calls?
  • What was the quality of the calls?
  • Which advertising mediums worked best for me?
  • What were the conversion rates?

17 Responses to “Telmetrics Responds to Call Tracking Debate”

  1. AhmedF Says:

    “While Google reads java script, it does not save it in the index.” – not true, Google giddily eats up JS and anything inside it.

    As for Google using call tracking – of course there is a double standard. Google isn’t indexing that number – there is no SEO value in that listing itself.

  2. Mike Blumenthal Says:

    I would add that what we would like is different than what currently is. No one disagrees that Call Tracking will be a huge benefit to SMB’s.

    However currently Google Maps, via Universal results, is generating the lion’s share of benefit to these SMB’s. Google Map’s business listing is an algo driven record that assembles each listing from across the internet and its Local Business Center.

    One of the drawbacks of this clustering technology, while it is cheap and perhaps more accurate than other methodologies, is that it can and does merge two different business listings together based on the various upstream signals. This is true even if the listings have been claimed via Google’s claiming process. This has been the case and continues to be the case.

    This isn’t an issue of search ranking it is an issue of location integrity. The loss of that integrity can be devastating to a business that relies on that traffic. We have seen reports of 30% or more sales drops when there is a conflation issue with a listing at Google Maps.

    Is it worth compromising 75% of your referral traffic and 30% of your sales for the benefit of call tracking?

    The obvious answer is no.

    Until such time as Google provides a mechanism to override or fix these mergings then call tracking should probably not be implemented in the local ecosystem as the risk far outweigh the gain.

  3. dallasgoogleguru Says:

    As important as it is to track true conversions, I see the additional lines as a business expense and a business needs to allocate a budget for tracking purposes. Get clean numbers, don’t churn your clients, and everything should work out fine. The additional numbers will also help with Google Maps, but it does produce calls that will show conversions when they didn’t take place from a PPC campaign. In my opinion the additional exposure is worth it.

    As always…. Great contribution Greg! Mike is right…. the swing towards Google Maps and away from IYP’s has been taking place. Unfortunately the IYP sites don’t have the brand strength of Google and rely too much upon Google SERPs.

    Cheers all,

    Mike Stewart

  4. predictabuy Says:

    Google (and other local search providers) could easily provide a way to deal with tracking numbers that is consistent with other parts of their algorithms. For them to include tracking numbers as an integral part of their new local advertising product but make it difficult or risky for other advertising products to do the same certainly seems like a double standard to me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it feels evil. I’m surprised that there isn’t more outrage in the local advertising community.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:


    I think these issues are not widely known yet.

  6. Mike Blumenthal Says:

    As dallasgoogleguru points out it makes sense for the business to own their own multiple numbers for this use. That solves the churn & possible merge problems but it still will lead to Google creating multiple listings, the problem that David Mihm was pointing to. Given how Google does this, these multiple listings do decrease the visibility of your record at Google.

    I have two numbers for my office and, every 6 months or so, I have to go into Google and purge the second listing and merge it with my primary number. Until such time as Google supports some standard for this even the sensible solutions like that offered by dallasgoogleseo have problems.

    I would agree with Greg that these issues are not widely known and that may include departments within Google as well. Where the issues are well known, most are taking baby steps to solve them.

    Ultimately, it is an issue that needs to be solved. As the costs of additional phone lines drop and tracking capability increases, every business should have the opportunity to have the information.

  7. dallasgoogleguru Says:

    Mike, I am looking forward to see what Google will be doing with Google Voice. I have a strong hunch that it will help resolve this problem and folks like Matt Cutts on the Google Web Spam team will be looking into microformats as Chris Smith suggested. Seems like a great combination. Google already offers great analytics.. why not offer call tracking as well?

  8. Mike Blumenthal Says:


    I would assume that Google is going to move into the call tracking business. They have all the elements in place to disrupt that market as well.

  9. Greg Sterling Says:

    Agree Mike. Google offered call tracking for its Radio Ads product but that went away with Radio Ads.

    I think Google recognizes the importance of calls to local business, hence the inclusion of it as part of Local Listing Ads. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually became an offering w/in AdWords.

  10. GoogleVoice now allows use of an SMB’s primary phone number, is call tracking far behind? | Understanding Google Maps & Local Search Says:

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  11. dallasgoogleguru Says:

    What this will finally do if they tie Google Voice to AdWords to Webmaster accounts & analytics is get rid of any need for all that darn PROXY based junk the IYP companies are doing. Might even make things more transparent in the process… trust me… WE NEED IT!

    Google has no idea what some of the companies offering search marketing solutions are doing to the Google brand. Bad experience with the companies also means a bad experience with Google.

    Maybe the companies need to recognize that a sales model does not work in the Internet Marketing world.

    Anywho, I am excited about how Google is adapting call tracking and this is going to be great for local SMBs!

    Cheers fellas! You have no idea how appreciative I am for your expertise. Pardon me if I am a bit feisty.

    Mike Stewart

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  16. smallbusinessonlinecoach Says:

    I think in 2010 we’ll see Google roll out with Call Tracking on their listings for Google Maps. Slowly I think we will see it completely integrate with some sort of PPC program. There is no way they are not going to monetize this and I think call tracking can be a good avenue. In the meantime, I encourage my customers to NOT use call tracking on their G-Maps and to follow the NAP formula. We try to do more tracking with use of coupons & normal traffic analytics. Can’t wait until there is a good solution to include call tracking, would be a huge benefit to SMB’s.

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