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Tempest in a Local Teacup

Okay, so in the ongoing minor brouhaha [1] sparked from my “Extreme Local Search Optimization Tactics [2]“, Dave Naffziger has posted a rebuttal of my recent post [3].

Just to clarify, if there was any doubt, and to steer the unwary newbies of search engine optimization from bad practices, I’m posting another follow-up rebuttal of the rebuttal of the rebuttal. Terribly recursive, I know, but bear with me and you might find this entertaining and informative. No, he didn’t “hit a nerve” with me as his rebuttal’s title indicated — I was more bemused than anything. In fact, it originally seemed that I’d hit more of a nerve with him, because he’d said my tactics had “pissed” him off! I couldn’t fathom anyone having that reaction to what I’d written, and I still can’t. He states the tactics would cause “spamming”, and then he further tries to draw parallels with black-hat SEO practices. I wouldn’t recommend anything that I thought would cause trouble for my own directory, nor for other directories out there. But, I think that his criticisms are downright unsupportable, so I’ll rehash the rhetoric.

Let’s just outline the specifics, and I’ll let my gentle readers judge which of us is the more oddball in this weird contest. So, turn your “BS-meters” onto full power, and let’s go through it and parse out the main points:

Dave stongly disagreed with my suggestion that businesses could consider alphabetical order in their naming conventions. Apparently, if he dislikes a business name, they’ll just rename it against the business’s will, or else they’ll delist the business entirely, making it impossible for users to have the option of using that business.

Now, he cites the unusual case of some business named “A A A A A A A A A A A A A A H Drains For Less“, but I’m not getting precisely why he feels that the name degrades the quality of their site’s user experience. I think that name would give users a bad impression of that business, but not the overall directory use experience. I believe that directories are primarily for the purpose of allowing users to find specific types of businesses, choose one from the crowd, and then contact them. I have a strong suspicion that as long as users are able to effectively do that, they’re going to consider the experience a good one. Having the weird name doesn’t actually keep that from happening. Am I off-base, dear readers?!?

He cites “user experience”, but in the internet realm, “user experience” is mostly about good Usability. Aside from generally unpronounceable/unspellable names (“Xjwytgg”?), the name isn’t going to affect Usability. If comparing with Google, “user experience” they focus on is primarily Usability — how easy is it for users to find information through us? When Google mention’s “quality” of results, they’re talking primarily about “is the content presented to the user the best content for that search, and is it what they’re seeking?”

So, in the online search space, “user experience” is mostly about Usability, and aesthetics is apparently not quite as important to endusers as to the company operating the site. (Craig’s List would be a very good example of this.)

Now, if Dave has a rule that only a business’s legal name may be used in his listings, I’d say that’s a fair rule, if consistently applied. Different directories have differing rules about this, I expect. But, if that stuttering-letter-A-business he cited is already using their legal name, I’d think it odd if he renamed them to suit his aesthetic qualifications, and I’d also think it a bad user experience to delist them if he doesn’t like the way their name looks. Wouldn’t the user experience be better if they have all the local businesses for a particular category to choose from? Which would be the lesser evil, even — allowing the user to despise that business because of their ugly name, or making it impossible for the user to find any contact information for that business?

I agree with his aesthetic judgement of that name — it’s ugly — but I just don’t think it causes that much of a problem to the “user experience”, and I don’t think it would justify de-listing. I think that the business in question has gone way overboard with their particular name, anyway, to the point of actual detriment to themselves — such a bad name is not going to inspire confidence in most consumers, I would think.

Google’s success and well-publicised dedication to usability has been immitated by many, and sometimes the immitators try to see if they can get attention by being even more “Google” than Google if possible, and the result can be an obsessiveness with factors that simply are not a major issue. I think this is a case in point. The business name reflects more about the business behind the listing, and less about the directory where it’s found.

Dave tries to compare this naming suggestion of mine with black-hat SEO work that Google penalizes, saying “…local search sites should deal with this crap much like Google deals with search spam…” and “Google removes websites from their index all the time because they believe those sites degrade the quality of their user’s experience”. The big difference here is that Google doesn’t want irrelevant links showing up for searches — that degrades actual usability when users cannot locate what they’re seeking. Renaming as I suggested doesn’t cause irrelevant search results — users still find the businesses they were there to find — it has no impact on usability. As far as I know, Google doesn’t delist sites or pages just because they think they aren’t pretty. They want all sites in their index which have good content — they just don’t want them showing up for keywords when they oughtn’t.

In the directory space, there is a related issue, which we call “heading jumping” — where a business will try to get themselves listed into categories that are inappropriate for them in order to get more referrals. Imagine a cigar store trying to get listed under “Restaurants – Fine Dining”, just because they figure that people planning to eat at those establishments would be an ideal demographic for their product. The cigar store isn’t a restaurant at all, and if they listed themselves in the Fine Dining category, it would degrade the user experience for users. If lots of businesses were allowed to do that, users wouldn’t be able to find the actual Restaurants within the results set. As such, those heading jumpers should be removed from that category. Now, THAT’s a real-case scenario of irrelevance that’s similar to Google’s delisting of pages/sites that purposefully get indexed on inappropriate keywords! In comparison, my renaming suggestion comes nowhere close to the level of subverting usability like the real problem of heading jumping we have in the directory space. I wouldn’t have made the recommendation if I’d thought it was going to cause any sort of quality degradation. I recognize that there are more things involved in the equation than only the user-centric focus. I prefer to look at the big picture and recommend solutions that work well for all parts of the equation. I posed the suggestion to get businesses thinking about the effect on business caused by the name they choose. I specifically wanted to speak to this because I see the effect from the perspective of how methods of information retrieval may impact their longterm success. I have a theory that businesses with names that begin at the tail-end of the alphabet are likely to lose marketshare over the longterm, merely because of the arbitrary bias imposed on directory lists by alphabetical order. The “Tyranny of Alphabetical Order”, I call it. Why should some businesses get more referrals than others, merely because their name begins with an “A”, versus a “Z”? Most small business owners would never consider this. Plumbers have figured it out, because perhaps they’re in a much more competitive arena, with fewer obvious differentiators between themselves.

The Tyranny of Alphabetical Order may go into a nice decline, though, and may become less of a worry to businesses. Online search has allowed multiple other ordering schemes such as proximity/distance (Google Maps, Yahoo Local), order of ratings (such as may be found on Judy’s List), ordering by price, hours of operation, etc. At best, renaming to optimize is only going to help a few businesses for a few years longer — not long enough that my tactic would ever cause all other categories to have the same alphabetical renaming arms race that happens in Plumbing.

The second big beef that Dave had with my post was on the issue of allowing a business to be listed in each city where they provide service. I don’t at all get why he makes a big, hairy deal out of this one. Quite simply, if a business provides service for a particular city, why shouldn’t it be listed along with all the other providers in that area? As a consumer, if I look for a Roofing Contractor, call a listing showing up for my city, and they perform the work on my house, why would I be unhappy about this?

In fact, I had this very sort of thing happen when I moved into my home two years ago. I looked up “Locksmiths” for the small suburb of Dallas I live in, and found only a few numbers. The one I called had apparently been previously a locksmith in my town, but had either closed down or been purchased by a larger, regional locksmith company. So, they no longer were physically located in my town. The locksmith they sent over drove about ten miles. As a consumer, did I really care? Heck, no! The guy came on schedule, the pricing was competitive, and he did a good job on my locks.

Now, Dave twice cited the three listings of what was apparently a Boston-area plumbing company, and they apparently had obtained listings for a number of suburbs, including Newton, Wellesley, and Belmont. He mentions this as though they’d caught some evil business in a big lie or something — how dare that plumber want to get listed in each of these towns! Oh, the sheer gall of these people! Yet, when I performed distance searches to see how far apart each of these towns were from one another, I found that Belmont and Newton are apparently only 5.8 miles apart. Newton to Wellesley is only 6.5 miles apart. Belmont and Wellesley are the furthest apart at 12.4 miles [4].

So, it seems quite conceivable to me that a plumber might be willing to drive any of those distances for a job. If the plumber was unwilling to provide work in those areas, I can’t imagine why he’d want to be listed in their directories… So: I just fail to understand what Dave’s beef is with a company that wants to be listed in each of the towns where they provide service.

So, it seems quite conceivable to me that a plumber might be willing to drive any of those distances for a job. If the plumber was unwilling to provide work in those areas, I can’t imagine why he’d want to be listed in their directories… So: I just fail to understand what Dave’s beef is with a company that wants to be listed in each of the towns where they provide service.So, now he’s caught the naughty buggers, and they’ll not be listed under all those cities in his uber-pretty directory with all the perfectly named businesses.

Dave calls these listings in various cities “shell listings”, and he relates them to “doorway pages” in SEO terms, mentioning how that sort of thing can get you kicked out of Google’s index. No, no, no! This is *not* anything close to the same as doorway pages! Gentle readers, “doorway pages” are where a nefarious developer generates a page around a particular keyword they desire to rank upon so that the search engine bots will index it and list it when users search for that keyword. Then, when the user attempts to go to that page, the nefarious developer’s application redirects them to the page that they really wish them to land upon in a virtual bait-and-switch.

Doorway pages are considered “black-hat” or unethical by search engines because they seek to trick the bots and human users and they compromise the engines’ ranking methods. Businesses which offer service throughout metro areas aren’t attempting to trick anyone, nor are they trying to subvert ranking methodologies — there’s no attempt to deceive nor cheat, I believe. They actually *do* business in the cities they wish to be listed within! This just isn’t black-hat.

I think that Dave’s perspective must be colored on this issue because their service is intent upon creating user-rating profiles of each business, and if the business is spread out on multiple profiles they cannot create a unified rating for them. But, this logistical problem is likely not caused by any desire to compromise a rating system, and businesses shouldn’t be punished for it.

There are a number of types of local businesses which do not get handled very well by some of the most popular local search algorithms, because they are businesses where the proprietors do not operate out of a storefront or a fixed location. Plumbers are one set of these types of businesses, along with locksmiths, building contractors, house painters, roofing contractors, chimney sweeps, and more. These people provide service throughout large metro areas, yet they do not show up for many proximity-oriented searches because their business mailing address is at their residence, and they’ll even go to great lengths to keep their residential addresses from getting included with their business listings. Many of these hard working people only do business through their cell phones.

Will the things I suggested result in “spamming” of the local directories? (“Spamming” in the colloquial sense of deploying massive amounts of commercially-oriented content in inappropriate and nonrelevant ways, not “Spam” in the dictionary definition of unsolicited emails of a commercial nature mass-mailed out.) No! Aesthetics of how pretty a business name is or isn’t doesn’t come up to the level of “spam”. If followed, my suggestions aren’t going to result in massive amounts of irrelevant listings. Users’ ability to find businesses of the kind they’re seeking will not be damaged.

Dave states that he was concerned that small businesses would listen to me, implying that if they did they could be damaged and/or that consumers would be negatively impacted. Umm… no. The tactics were labelled “extreme” because most of them are difficult to the point of being out of reach of most businesses. If a few businesses whose names begin with letters “X” or “Z” rename themselves and now float to the top of a few directories, or if more businesses become “findable” in the areas where they offer service — well and good, because consumers will benefit from the increased competition in the marketplace.

Yet, dear readers, you must still ask yourselves if Dave’s concern that I’d cause businesses to inch over into BlackHat practices isn’t the least bit hypocritical? He came down pretty harsh on my suggestions, while his post about a real blackhat’s recommendations initially sounded admiring — nearly to the point of being an endorsement [5], mentioning practices that were his “favorite” and such. Since I pointed out this apparent dichotomy, he’s now seen fit to add a nice disclaimer of the practices he highlighted. But, it’s a bit after-the-fact, and perhaps doesn’t quite go far enough.

At this point, we must wonder if Dave really knows what “black hat SEO” is in the first place, since he included unqualified links to that actual blackhat blog in question. The major search engines warn about linking to “bad neighborhoods” [6] – i.e. linking to spammer sites. I just checked Dave’s links and realized he’s using straight links to that black hat blog, which looks pretty risky to me. He’s linking to what could easily be considered a “bad neighborhood”, which could result in his blog getting penalized, along with anyone who’s currently linking directly to him.

I think I may have to go back through these articles I’ve written, and NOFOLLOW [7] my links to Dave’s blog now, so that I won’t get lumped in with the bad neighborhood he’s linked to!

Now, at the end of this little tempest in a local teacup — which of us is really the more dangerous to small businesses, I ask, gentle readers? I’ve sought to help businesses connect with the consumers seeking them, and I haven’t suggested anything that would detract from directory usability nor get the businesses into trouble. 

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