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Search Engine Optimization through Yellow Pages

Yellow Pages & SEOThere’s an interesting thread that appeared on Greg Sterling’s blog on Using IYPs as an SEO Strategy [1].

Some of the commentators pointed out that yellow pages ads are pretty costly, compared with those of the search engines. So, is using yellow pages as part of a search marketing campaign worthwhile for traffic and good for ROI? My answer is: Yes, yellow pages can and should be used as a major component of local search optimization. Yellow pages can be used for SEO, and here’s some details on how to approach it.

First of all, why would you use yellow pages for natural search optimization? After all, you’re after that large bulk of referral traffic that can be found in the major search engines, and you should be able to achieve that through just optimizing your website, right?

Well, yellow pages themselves enjoy great placement in the search engines for local business searches. As Greg mentions in the comments regarding where IYPs get their traffic, “There’s a fair amount of organic/SEO driven traffic from the search engines.”

LeeAnn Prescott at Hitwise said [2], “The primary way users navigate to local search sites is through search engines…”, and, “Standard search engines are increasingly the starting point for local searches, underscoring the importance of SEO and inclusion in local search sites for small businesses.”.

Yellow pages sites have higher PageRank and better keyword positions than smaller sites will typically be able to achieve for “business type” searches. For instance, see which sites rank highest for the following searches, after the Google Maps Onebox results:

San Francisco Accountants [3]

Italian Restaurants in Seattle [4]

Garden Supplies, Atlanta [5]

Miami Grocery Stores [6]

Andrew Shotland [7] aptly comments, “It seems like the search engines are in fact becoming the IYPs and the IYPs are becoming middle men between the search engines and the business websites.”

I think Andrew’s entirely right, although yellow pages sites’ traffic doesn’t totally derive from search engine referrals. IYPs supply info to various portal sites, news sites, and having their URLs on the covers of the printed yellow pages books for many areas is great promotion for direct navigation.

But, the point is that in many cases like those example queries I show above, businesses desiring to rank well should look to optimizing their listings in the yellow pages sites. Users will be clicking through to those IYP sites, and if the business listing isn’t there, the business won’t get the referral.

Now, the question of cost:

As various folx in the thread on Sterling’s blog point out, YP advertising can be costly, particularly in the highly-popular categories. Wearing my “natural search optimization hat”, I first have to advise that optimizing through yellow pages sites doesn’t always have to cost money. Many of these sites may allow you to add in extra info about your business, including a URL, at no cost. So, you should do everything you can prior to paying anything.

Just as with the major search engines, placement is pretty key, so you’ll want your listing to appear near the top of the listings page. (You can reasonably expect that yellow pages have a sort of “heat map” of places where users look most and click most, just as with the search engines, and the sweet spot is likely closer to the top of the listings page.) Now, for those directories that list in alphabetical order, you may not have luck in their “natural” listing order — this is why in my Extreme Local SEO tips [8] I half-seriously suggested businesses might want to consider alternate names for themselves in order to rank better.

Many of the online directories are ranking biz listings in order of best-rated, though, and this is an area where you could improve at zero cost. Ask family and friends and others who are positively disposed towards you to rate you in each of these sites. Have some particularly happy/gushing customers? Give them a coupon for a future visit and beg them to go rate you on these sites online.

If you’re in a hotly-contested category, though, with lots of well-rated businesses, or you’re appearing way out on the 10th page of listings due to alphabetical order, you may have to buy advertising to get optimal ranking. This isn’t necessarily as bad as the ticket price shock might lead you to believe — keep in mind that industry research shows that greater numbers of IYP users who click through on your ads are likely to convert, compared with click-throughs from search engine ads. So, your ad click cost may be higher, but if your conversion rate is also higher, the difference in acquisition costs between your IYP ads and search engine ads may not be all that different.

If you do use paid advertising to rank in the yellow pages sites, I suggest limiting to the bare bones of what you need for placement near the top of the listings pages. I suggest that buying a lot of the prestige treatments like flashy colors and graphic doo-dads may not be all that necessary for good performance. Your YP sales rep will undoubtedly tell you differently, but he/she may make more off the deal the more you buy. In many cases, I think that extra graphic treatments tend to be a turn-off to internet users who have become pretty jaded to spammy-looking advertising. Focus more on providing info that would help the customer decide to choose your business above others.

Now, do hyperlinks in yellow pages sites help improve your site’s PageRank? Essentially, this is dependent upon:

(1) if the IYP’s pages which display your biz info are spidered and ranking;

(2) if the link to your site is usable/crawlable (if the link is NOFOLLOWed or wrapped in click-tracking code, it might not be search engine friendly);

(3) if the link is not sold, or if it is sold the fee you pay is just for quality assessment and implementation cost (Google doesn’t want to “count” paid links for ranking purposes unless the fee charged is just for the time/effort it takes to review the site for quality assurance, and implementation of it).

I believe that placement in yellow pages sites is important for SEO for local businesses, and will remain so for quite some years in spite of the fact that traditional yellow pages sites might ultimately be going the way of the dinosaur, as I outlined in another article today, “Yellow Pages Will Be Toast In Four Years [9]

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