Should Restaurants Care About Local Search?
Last week, I gave a workshop about local search at O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 conference. (I also did a short video on the topic.) One of the things I talked about was how important it is for local businesses to be visible in web search and map search results. After all, over 90% of us online use search engines to find information, and generally, those search engines are the major ones, rather than specific verticals. Microsoft research has found that 86% of searchers start at a major search engine when shopping online.Even when consumers plan to purchase offline, they often go online first. 42% of retail sales in 2009 were online or “web-influenced” ($917 billion in US sales were “web-influenced”). And more specific to local business, 63% of consumers use the internet to find local businesses, but only 44% of local businesses have a web site. That same study also found that 50% of us turn to search engines first for local business information, vs. 24% who turn to the Yellow Pages first.
After the Where 2.0 session, an attendee came up to me and ask me about restaurants. Is search really important, he wondered. Surely social media is where restaurants should concentrate efforts. After all, a new restaurant needs to raise hyperlocal awareness and no one is going to search for the restaurant name they’ve never heard of it. He suggested a Facebook campaign that engages 100 consumers from the local neighborhood might be the best way to promote a new restaurant.
An “And” Strategy, Not an “Or” Strategy
First, I recounted what Avinash Kaushik noted at the SMX keynote panel that he and I were both on a few weeks ago. Social media hasn’t replaced search. The question isn’t search or social media. The question is where are your customers. Certainly for a business such as a restaurant, social media may be a great place to reach new customers, but those same customers are likely searching as well. Overall search volume was up 46% in 2009, so it’s definitely not something that’s going away. (You can see Avinash and I talk more about this.)
Think about who you’re trying to reach. Initially, you want to raise overall awareness. Social media is great for this (as you’ll see in a minute). But what about this scenario?
A woman is reading Twitter and sees that a new restaurant has opened up nearby. Later, when she and her husband are trying to decide (yet again!) what to have for dinner, she remembers the new restaurant. Finally, a new idea! She suggests it. Her husband says great, but what’s on the menu? Will I like it? The woman does a quick search on Google for the name of the restaurant to see if the web site has the menu. Huh. The restaurant doesn’t come up. She goes back to Twitter and starts scrolling back through the tweets, trying to find the right one. In the background, her husband is getting hungry. And after waiting a few minutes, he picks up the phone and orders a pizza.
And as a restaurant owner, you want to be discoverable long term. Your potential customers (locals and visitors) might be searching for [mexican restaurant seattle]. Or even [best mexican restaurants in seattle]. Social media is great for recommendations from friends, but it’s not always searchable and you can’t always get the immediate answers you need when your husband has the phone in hand to order pizza again.
A Holistic Search and Social Media Strategy
You don’t have to choose an “or” strategy, because an “and” strategy is not that much more effort. You have a web site; you are engaging in social media. The only thing left is to make sure you understand how to be found in search, which primarily consists of:
- Understanding what your potential audience is searching for
- Claiming your maps listings on the major search engines
- Ensuring your web site is search-friendly
- Leveraging social media to improve search visibility
The awesome thing is that all of this is free.
A Local Example: West Seattle Heartland Cafe
A couple of months ago, I found out about a new restaurant near me from the local neighborhood blog. This was great use of social media (engaging with local bloggers who already have the attention of the target audience) and a great example of why engaging this way can be important. The restaurant is not only near me, but it’s directly next door to my bank, grocery store, and drugstore. The building is covered with HUGE “Heartland Cafe coming soon” signs. Yet I didn’t notice it until I read about it on the West Seattle blog.
I then learned that it was finally open by reading a tweet from @westseattleblog. The restaurant has a Twitter account! and a web site! These are all great things. But remember the “and” strategy. Can the Heartland Cafe be found in search? Sadly not.
So what should they do? Let’s go through the bullets I listed above.
1. Understand what your potential audience is searching for
You always want to be found for branded searches. In this case, that would be queries such as [heartland cafe] and [heartland cafe west seattle]. This restaurant probably also wants to be found for things like comfort food, breakfast, brunch, and bar. It’s important to know how consumers search, and for restaurant related searches, the Google AdWords Keyword Tool (that you don’t need an AdWords account to use) tells us that searchers look for [breakfast] three times as often as [brunch] and that we often search for [breakfast restaurants].
We look for restaurants more than bars and cafes and we’re often looking for menus and reviews.
There’s lots to be learned from search data, but at a quick glance, it seems like Heartland Cafe should talk up its breakfast and provide an online menu.
2. Claim your maps listing
All of the search engines provide this service, but let’s use Google as an example. It’s important to claim your maps listing for many reasons, but two of the best are that people often search directly on the maps page (particularly on mobile devices) and that if search engines determines that a matching map result would be relevant to a web search, they’ll show it directly in the web search results. Say I’m driving with some friends and decide to check out this new Heartland Cafe but I don’t remember exactly where it is. I open up Google Maps and see… a Toyota dealership.
How can the Heartland Cafe fix this? They just need to go into Google’s Local Business Center and claim their listing. It’s free and easy. It’s important to put the business into the right categories and provide complete information. The major search engines get local business data from third parties, so it’s likely that most businesses already have a listing (the Heartland Cafe doesn’t because it’s so new). If the maps list your business already, you can claim ownership, and then complete the listing so that it’s compelling for your target audience. And as you can see, new businesses should definitely add their listings so they show up right away.
Google now has place pages that pull in a great deal of information from the web (such as images and reviews) and enable business owners to provide substantial detail.
You can see with this Coldwell Banker listing that the owner can provide a description, images, a web site, and more.
Once the Heartland Cafe has created a robust Google Maps listing and has started getting good reviews, they may be able to show up in the local business results for a search such as this one:
3. Ensure your web site is search friendly
Obviously, the first step here is to have a web site, which the Heartland Cafe has. Great! Unfortunately, it’s not showing up in search results, even for searches for the restaurant name and location. Not great. What’s going wrong?
It’s beyond the scope of this post to dive into ensuring that you’re providing compelling information that engages your audience, but key to this is ensuring your meeting the needs of searchers. Remember step 1 when we found that searchers are looking for menus? The Heartland Cafe’s web site doesn’t have one. That will not only limit search visibility, but it won’t answer one of the primary questions visitors to the site have. And if visitors can’t see the menu in advance, they may not decide to stop in and try the food.
However, the Heartland Cafe does have some great information on the site (address, including city and state — key to being seen as relevant for local searches, hours, details on the type of food). So why doesn’t any of it show up? The primary issues appear to be technical ones.
The individual pages don’t have corresponding unique URLs. All content loads on a single URL — www.heartlandcafeseattle.com. This means that search engines can’t index the content as they don’t have URLs to associate with that content. In addition, the content can’t be shared on social media. The site has an events calendar, but if I saw a cool event there and I wanted to post on Facebook about it and invite my friends, I’d have to tell them to go to the home page, then click events in the sidebar, then click… Why is this? Well, the site is entirely in Flash. It absolutely doesn’t need to be in Flash. The site could keep the exact look and feel it currently has and be in HTML. In fact, WordPress would be a quick and easy way to replicate the layout.
Normally when I see Flash sites, I recommend ways to combine Flash and HTML or point to ways of building search-friendly Flash sites, but in this case, the Flash doesn’t appear to be providing any benefits and is only detracting from the usability and searchability of the site.
Even with this problem, however, search engines should index the home page. Even though they won’t be able to extract any content from the pages, they can at least index the information in the title tag and meta description tag. The title tag in this case is “Heartland Cafe Seattle”, which is pretty good actually, although it could include a descriptor such as “classic midwestern comfort food”. But the meta description tag is missing entirely. A good meta description for this page might be “West Seattle’s best midwestern comfort food in the heart of the Admiral district for breakfast, dinner, late nights, and delicious cocktails.”
They can at least let search engines know the site exists by submitting a Sitemap file. This file can be as simple as a text file that lists the URLs of the site. (This step will be more useful once they associate individual URLs with each page on the site.)
There are lots of other technical and content-focused things this business can do, but none of them will make much difference until the pages of the site have their own URLs.
4. Leverage social media to improve search visibility
Not only does social media help you engage with audiences, but it increases your search visibility. In this case, the web site has some real problems it needs to fix before it can be found in search. But in the meantime the business owners can take better advantage of social media. Add the web site address to the Twitter profile. Add a Facebook fan page. As you can see from the earlier screenshot of the search results for a search for a restaurant name, the business is only visible at all because of social media. Address the reviews on Yelp so potential customers know that you care. The Yelp page is, after all, the third result in searches for the restaurant name.
Does being found in search engines really matter for a local business such as a restaurant? We may not need to go farther than the search results themselves for an answer: