The 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.
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?