Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Call Tracking – when Yellow Pages techniques go bad

One of my recent projects revolves around remote call forwarding numbers. With the implementation of state-or-the-art sales software, we are looking at how we can also improve other services including the tracking of calls to our advertisers.  The most common way of doing so is to use a “call tracking number” - also called a Remote Call Forwarding (RCF) – that’s where a telephone number in the book is different number from the regular business number.  You call the 559-555-1234 printed in the Buy Local Guide, and behind the scenes the number forwards to 559-555-3912 – the front desk or Mr. Advertiser.

When the phone ringing or the door opening was the only way a customer got in touch, this model worked very well.  Though the use of the RCF we show how Yellow Pages advertising outperforms other traditional media, and also produces returns that are an order of magnitude above what digital products can deliver today.  However, the concept of an RCF number introduces problems when the advertiser is heavily invested in digital advertising.

While automation and computerization makes life easier and allows larger and larger amounts of data to be sifted, processed and cataloged, it does introduce flaws in those arenas where a computer does badly, like making intuitive jumps when two telephone numbers don’t match but the name, address, storefront, products, services –even the person smiling as they sell you a widget –are the same.  We can figure out they are the same business.

Computers cannot make such a leap of logic - even the really big ones at Google, Bing and Yahoo.   Search engines are not perfect, they are Frankenstein creations, with generation after generation building upon the successes and presumptions of their predecessors. They have to deal with diverse human languages developed over millennia, with local phrasings and idiosyncrasies, and the messy way we humans label things.

So when a local business has an RCF number printed in the Yellow Pages directory, what happens?  How does this RCF affect their online presence and ability to be found on Google?  Does it matter?

The answer is yes, and the impact can be very negative, particularly the ability of the advertiser to be found in the organic search engine results pages (SERPS).  Google is very clear that the most important common metric for local search is the NAP.  

Phone number.  

Linked together, this string of vital data about your business is a “key” – that is a unique reference that search engines use to put together all the info they have on the business.  The more consistent the information is, the better a business shows up for a relevant search.  In other words it adds to the pages “Page Rank”.  Add different, confusing data such as a different telephone number, particularly in a directory that is generally a “trusted source” due to having tens of thousands of correct numbers listed, and the damage could be considerable.

Even if the RCF number is complete new and not already in the Google database from being assigned to a different advertiser a couple of years ago, that new NAP-combination will create issues. With a few weeks of publication that telephone directory is keyed by data services, such as InfoGroup, Axciom or Localeze and distributed to many places, including Google and other Yellow Pages companies.     

Within weeks it is possible that the new RCF number will manage to confuse and confound one of the biggest corporations on the planet – Google.  To be more precise, it may have created almost-duplicate content in the database and when Mr. Consumer is looking for a widget provider, Google sees two telephone numbers for this business and it is not sure if it is looking at one or two different widget providers.

Google does not like what it perceives as duplicates (a method subject to great abuse in the SEO world) so it lists you lower down on the results page than the widget-provider across town, who never used an RCF number.

What can you do?

If most of your business comes from people walking though the door or from local customers, calling you, or responding to coupons in your local media, then this problem is not going to be that big a deal for you.  If you are based in a brick-and-mortar business, you customers are your neighbors, then I recommend spend your advertising dollars where they work - in a local delivered and distributed product.  Yellow pages are best (I'm biased) but I’d encourage you to support local newspapers and local radio.  If your customers are local, so should your advertising.  The potential loss from Google listing you twice is negligible when compared to knowing exactly which advert content generated the best results for your business.  

If your business is internet based and the majority of your customers are mail and internet-order, then you probably don’t want to use RCF numbers at all.  It’s when you fall between the two, serving a local market but spending a lot of your advertising dollars online, that is when it is going to be harder to use RCF’s effectively and without some negative impact. Here are some ideas.

One technique you may try is to use a slightly different name in your NAP, one that is associated with the call forwarding number but not with the normal business NAP and are less likely to end up in your local cluster. It means trying to juggle two sets of Google local data, and there’s no guarantee that algorithm changes designed to catch people duplicating listings for nefarious purposes won’t penalize these techniques in the future.  

It’s possible to display the correct NAP (original desired combination of Name, Address and Phone number) whenever the browser detects a GoogleBot or a BingBot, and the RCF number only when it’s a browser viewing the data. If you use RCF numbers internally, make sure your web master knows you are using forwarding numbers.

There are no easy solutions to this predicament.  The providers of RCF numbers need to address the issue of how it may impact the advertisers ongoing SEO efforts.  Unless they do so quickly, then the internet-based advertising companies, with no loyalty to the local communities, will dominate the conversation.  Sadly, it is in their interest to undermine the use of RCF on the basis of "it will mess up your internet advertising".  The last thing a company trying to sell you adwords wants you to have is research that shows just how much better the ROI is on local advertising.

The dreams the internet vendors sell are in the clouds, whereas the leads Yellow Pages creates are in your local community.