Tracking Offline Conversions for Local SEO

Mar 28th

We have certainly seen a trend over the last one to two years where Google is focusing on more personalized search and an increasing focus on providing local results. As you know, a searcher does not even have to be burdened with entering a local modifier anymore.

Google will gladly figure out, for you, whether or not your search has local intent. :)

Google's Investment into Local

Late last year Google moved one of their prized executives over to local services, Marissa Mayer. Moving Mayer, fresh off Google Instant and a variety of other high profile areas of Google's search development, to head up local is a real strong reinforcement of how much attention Google is putting on local and local result quality (or perceived quality).

If you are a business owner who operates locally, say a real estate agent or insurance agent or really any other consumer-based service, then this presents a huge opportunity for you if you can harness the targeting and tracking ability available online.

Merging Offline Marketing with Online Marketing

A lot of small businesses or larger businesses that operate locally still rely quite a bit on offline advertising. It use to be that business owners had to rely on staff nailing down exactly how a lead came to them (newspaper ad? radio ad? special discount ad? and so on).

While it is still good practice to do that, relying solely on that to help gauge the ROI of your advertising campaign introduces a good amount of slippage and is not all that accurate (especially if you sell something online).

As local businesses start to see the light with SEO and PPC campaigns versus dropping 5 figures on phonebook advertising, a big selling point as a service provider or an in-house marketing staff member will be to sell the targeting of online campaigns as well as the tracking of those results.

If your a business owner, it's equally important that you understand what's available to you as an online marketer.

Types of Offline Advertising to Track

Locally, you are essentially looking at a few different types of advertising options to work into your new found zest for tracking results:

  • Radio
  • Television
  • Print
  • Billboards

Print is probably the most wide-ranging in terms of branches of advertising collateral because you can get into newspapers, magazines, flyers, brochures, banners, yellow pages, and so on.

While your approach may be different to each marketing type, the core tracking options are basically the same. You can track in your analytics program via:

  • Separate Domains
  • Custom URL's
  • Custom Phone Numbers

The beauty of web analytics, specifically a free service like Google Analytics, is that it puts the power of tracking into the hands of a business owner at no cost outside of perhaps a custom set up and implementation by a competent webmaster. All of these tracking methods can be tracked in Google Analytics as well as other robust analytic packages (Clicky.Com as an example, is a reasonably priced product which can do this as well, save for maybe the phone tracking).

Structuring Your Campaigns

With the amount of offline advertising many businesses do, it is easy to get carried away with separate domains, custom URL's, custom phone numbers, and the like.

What I usually like to do is use a good old fashioned spreadsheet to track the specific advertisements that are running, the dates they are running, and the advertising medium they are using. I also include a column or three for the tracking method(s) used (custom URL, separate domain, special phone number).

In addition to this, Google Analytics offers annotations which you can use to note those advertising dates in your traffic graph area to help get an even better idea of the net traffic effect of a particular ad campaign.

How to Track It

Armed with your spreadsheet of ads to track and notes on how you are going to track them, you're ready to set up the technical side of things.

The tracking is designed to track the hits on your site via the methods mentioned, once they get there you'll want to get that traffic assigned to a campaign or a conversion funnel to determine how many of the people actually convert (if you are able to sell or convert the visitor online).

Custom URL's

A custom URL is going to be something like:

yoursite.com/save20 for an advert you might be offering 20% savings on
yoursite.com/summer for an advert you could offer a summer special on

You may or may not want to use redirection. You can use a redirect method if you are using something like a static site versus a CMS like Wordpress. With Wordpress, you could create those url's as specific pages and just no-index them and ensure they are not linked to internally so you keep them out of the search engine and the normal flow of navigation. This way you know any visit to that page is clearly related to that offline campaign.

A redirect would be helpful where the above is not possible and you need to use Google's URL builder to help track the campaign and not lose referral parameters on the 301.

So you could use the URL builder to get the following parameters if you were promoting a custom URL like yoursite.com/save20:

http://www.yoursite.com/savings.php?utm_source=save20&utm_medium=mail&utm_campaign=bigsave

Then you can head into your .htaccess file (Apache) and insert this code:

(should be contained on 1 line in your .htaccess file)

RewriteRule ^save20$ /savings.php?utm_source=save20&utm_medium=mail&utm_campaign=bigsave [L,R=301]

When you test, you should see those URL builder parameters on the landing page and then you know you are good to go :)

If you are worried about multiple duplicate pages getting indexed in the search results (with slightly different tracking codes) you can also leverage the rel=canonical tag on your landing page

<link rel="canonical" href="http://site.com/folder/page/"/>

Separate Domains

Some companies use separate domains to track different campaigns. The idea is the same as is the basic code implementation with exception that you apply any redirect to the domain rather than a sub-page or directory off the domain as we did in the prior example.

So you sell snapping turtles (snappingturtles.com) and maybe you sell turtle insurance so you buy turtleinsurance.com and you want to use that as a part of a large campaign to promote this new and innovative product. You could get this from the url builder:

http://www.snappingturtles.com/?utm_source=national&utm_medium=all&utm_campaign=turtleinsurance

The .htaccess on turtleinsurance.com would look like:

(should be contained on 1 line in your .htaccess file)

RewriteRule .* http://www.snappingturtles.com/?utm_source=national&utm_medium=all&utm_campaign=turtleinsurance [L,R=301]

This would redirect you to the home page of your main site and you can update your .htaccess with a sub-page if you had such a page catering to that specific market.

Custom Phone Numbers

There are quite a few ways to get cheap virtual numbers these days and Phone.com is reliable service where you can get a number for roughly $4.88 per month.

I know companies that implemented custom numbers for a bunch of print ads and it was pretty eye-opening in terms of which as performed better than others and how much money is wasted on untargeted print campaigns.

There certainly is a somewhat intangible brand equity building component to offline ads but it is still interesting to see ads which carry their weight with traffic and response rates, as well as being really helpful when it comes time to reshape the budget.

Here are a couple handfuls of providers which offer phone tracking inside of Google Analytics. Most of these providers will require the purchase of a number from them to tie into a specific URL on your site or just right into the domain + help track those calls alongside the pageviews generated.

Some campaigns are wide-ranging enough to where you may want to target them with a custom number or two and a custom URL or domain. Using a spreadsheet to track these measures along with using Google Analytics annotations to gauge traffic spikes and drops offers business owners deep view into the use of their marketing dollars.

Custom Coupon Codes

If you run a coupon code through Groupon you of course know where it came from. But other channels are also becoming easier to track. Microsoft Office makes it easy to create & track custom coupon codes. There are even technologies to allow you to insert tracking details directly into coupon codes on your own website (similar to online tracking phone numbers via services like IfByPhone or Google's call tracking). Some online coupons offer sophisticated tracking options, and Google wants to get into mobile payments to offer another layer of customer tracking (including coupons).

Finding a Reputable Provider

If you are a business owner who thinks "wow this is awesome, how the heck do I do it?", well here is some advice. If the field of web analytics is mostly foreign to you I would suggest finding a certified Google Analytics provider or ask if your current web company can do this for you. Certainly there are plenty of competent people and companies that are not part of the Google Analytics partner program.

If you are interested in a Google Analytics partner you can search for them here. There is also quite a bit of information in the self-education section of Google Analytics.

I would recommend learning how to do this over a period of time so you can make minor or major changes yourself at some point. Also, it helps to establish a business relationship with someone competent and trustworthy for future tasks that may come up, which you cannot do on your own.

If you are a service provider, start implementing this for some of your local clients and you'll likely be well on your way to establishing yourself as a sought-after marketer in your area.

Published: March 28, 2011

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Comments

March 29, 2011 - 4:54pm

Great article and good points! Tracking offline conversions or even clicks and calls, is a big challenge for many small businesses.

Since Google is putting so much emphasis on Google Places these days , especially since for many keywords the Google Places listing is merged with the organic listing, when most people think local - they think Google Places.

Therefore learning how to track Google Places calls/clicks/leads/sales is important to many business owners. Since in many industries a Place page generates a call more often than a click, I wanted to add a couple points.

1) IMPORTANT - never use a tracking number or an 800# on your Google Places page. Best practice is to always use your MAIN local phone number. If you change it, it can cause a loss of rankings and/or cause Google to create duplicate listings for your business. Same goes for yellow page and local business directory listings. Always use you main phone #. Some paid directory listings will try to use a tracking # and this can negatively impact your Google Places rankings.

2) Tracking web traffic from Google Places is a little tricky and the stats that come with Places are often totally broken and/or not very reliable. SeoMoz had a good detailed article about how to do it.
Tracking Traffic from Google Places in Google Analytics

Linda Buquet

March 30, 2011 - 6:02pm

Good article. I'm both a business operator and the SEO. Our businesses have been tracking leads and sources for years, from the old pre web days through to today. Its invaluable. It guides you to where your advertising/marketing dollars work best.

Now, having said that, I both agree with Linda above, and suggest significant caution as to creating information with phone numbers or information other than your most coherent basic Name/Address/Phone Number are concerned--as it applies to Google Places//(formerly Google Maps).

Chris Silver Smith recently addressed this same issue from a different perspective: Worthwhile read: http://searchengineland.com/for-local-seo-lack-of-call-tracking-solution...

Having tracked leads forever/ putting huge value into it....let me say that there is something far more important: Its the bottom line and sales. I'd rather have the sales than an incredible depth of knowledge about every lead.

As Linda said above the problem with all that vis a vis Google Places...is that Google's local index scrapes unbelievable volumes of data off the web...then runs it into its basically immature and underdeveloped Places Algo....and as a result it often spawns and recreates terrible Places information: Misinformation/Wrong phone numbers/wrong address//worst of all Merged listings...ie your business name and address and a competitors phone number!!!!!

The Places index creates horrendous problems. Its difficult to correct. Its time consuming. Its tricky and few know how to work through the issues. I've done it. Linda, above has done it. The deeply respected Mike Blumenthal http://blumenthals.com/blog has done it. Its a PITA. When local records go awry its an enormous loss of current leads. In my view its not worth the risk for tracking purposes as the cost of problems is very severe.

Yes: I'd be very careful with implementing various alternative tracking phone numbers that could screw up a Google Places Record. Google is aware of the issue. They haven't successfully addressed it yet. I can't wait for that day.

March 30, 2011 - 10:03pm

Unfortunately many users will simply type your brand name into the Google search bar regardless of where the lead was generated. The address bar is dead.

It's difficult to track/measure print advertising when you have this type of navigational search performed. We have found that custom url's and domains don't work with print however coupons or discount codes are more successful.

March 31, 2011 - 12:24am

When given the incentive to memorize something :)

Which goes to show how coupons can create extra incremental volume. If few people remember tracking URLs but most people remember coupons then coupons must also help people get over the hump in terms of maybe ordering to a yes.

And thanks for the great comments Linda & Earlpearl!

March 31, 2011 - 12:35am

Eric

Not to be too picky, but you left out one of the main channels for local advertising. Many local businesses use and have used direct mail as much or more than print, radio or even the phone book. I haven't been involved in it for five years or so, but postcard mailing is still one of the biggest channels for many small businesses.

April 5, 2011 - 6:53pm

I can only speak to areas where I've worked and lived but a majority of small, local businesses I've used for services and those I've provided services for use the combo of print/web/radio alot more and more frequently than direct mail (excluding direct mail from print in this instance).

Direct mail is really pricey for a local business that services a smaller community, the ROI can be quite upside down depending on the industry. I know it is still used quite a bit but the only real constant direct mail I get from local advertisers is around election time, when politicians are advertising :)

Again, I'm sure it works in some cases but I don't see it as a cornerstone of ongoing advertising for established businesses in local communities. New advertisers or new businesses in the area, sure, but again I still don't see a lot of it from an ongoing perspective.

March 31, 2011 - 3:53pm

Thanks for reviewing the comments, Aaron. I've been doing local seo for years now, have commented a lot, and am in contact with a lot of the "locals" who are well known in the SEO world. My difference is that I'm an operator. I do the SEO and I do operations. LOL. I like to follow those dollars down into the last hamburger at the last Wendy's. My perspective is a little different.

I love tracking...but I love the end result better. One of our businesses is sort of a flagship of a group of small businesses. Great SERPS (but could be better). long term excellent market visibility. Very strong rep built over many years of hard work, good staff, excellent customer service With consistent profits and cash flow we can afford to experiment a lot with it for picking out what works.

I don't worry about ROI in the context that the web marketing world advertises and markets about it to SMB's. I look at some hard numbers....but I ultimately measure advertising spend against revenues. Its an enviable position. I'm not in that position with every one of the other businesses.

We are farming out some PPC work to an outsourcer. I sort of have to laugh at their claims. One of them has been telling me how great the PPC campaign has been for businesses in the industry. Alternatively I've seen SEO/SEM groups crow about how their improved sites have increased traffic to competitors .....and they show comparative analytics numbers to back it up.

We had a huge boost in revenues. Forget enhancements on promos/ forget enhancements on SEO/serps and rankings. We know virtually all of our competitors had mediocre to crummy results due to market conditions. We know that was true across the nation.

WE. SOLD. BETTER. That is the part that the marketing side can't touch.

ON THE OTHER HAND

All the marketing info and insights, led us to change the way we have been selling. We had earlier experience and insights into some of this. We experimented and tracked. Then we changed our selling methods...which related to the leads and the tracking. That changed things exponentially. IMHO that is where the deep value comes from.

My partners complain to me that I analyse too much. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong on that. Even with that I don't go crazy. It took me years of looking at G Analytics till I just realized something this month. Missed it. What can I say!!!

I think the SMB's out there would get the most bang for their buck if they partner with qualified SEM's that can help them all the way to the bottom line....not just on the marketing side, the analytics side, etc. There aren't a lot of those folks around. It should cost the SMB's more, but the value should be better.

Last couple of things. Yeah....post cards still work. IMHO and recent experience, somewhat less well than before the web...but still have ROI effectiveness. Email campaigns are great alternatives. Cost is negligible compared to print and its incredibly easier. Email tracking systems give good enough statistics and information to build off of it.

The suggestions in the article are great. As much as the SEM's embrace this, its the responsibility of the SMB's to be on top of this stuff and take analytics into improving sales.

April 1, 2011 - 12:04am

I agree with the idea of local businesses partnering with web folks to really take things to the next level, but some small businesses are risk adverse & it can be hard to forge those sorts of relationships. So many people who are ignorant of internet marketing think it should be a free throw in because

  • their designer told them the site was SEO-friendly for free
  • their registrar sells a $29 search engine submission package
  • they saw an ad on Google AdWords for some cheap SEO service (and if Google is recommending it then it must be trustworthy right?)

Ultimately it comes down to this: they don't know/realize the value of what they lack.

I agree with you that sales insights can take time to appear & that they can sometimes come out of the blue years later. One example I always use is when I used to sell baseball cards...I used to sorta show the best ones, but people did not always want the best ones (by value). In fact, they were far more likely to buy the cheap ones out of convenience so long as they were organized. So I had stacks of cards by player name & charged a flat rate of $1 each (if they were valued anywhere from 25 cents to $3). Sure some people would just try to cheese the most expensive ones out of the bunch at that flat rate, but on average it was still amazingly profitable. That is sorta what helped me understand information architecture and keyword baskets when I got online. ;)

I don't consider myself to be the strongest salesman, but we have always made up for that by trying to give more away & trying to cover almost everything we find interesting, hoping that others will too. :)

March 31, 2011 - 5:23pm

Gotta add one more thing. Couple of weeks ago I was at a local SEO meetup wherein one of the speakers was really strong with link building. Now this person has a killer money making site with strong strong serps. He has shown me how he did one thing to quintuple traffic over a period of time, all the while retaining those high serps on competitive phrases....and then filled out the killer site w/ more high serps.

Previously he had mentioned a link building topic. Then I showed him an example of that topic. I caught it in late 2008 off of a crazy quirk showing up in Google Maps/Places. Then I started using it. I've never used it with the depth and insights in which the speaker has used it. But when I put my thinking cap on and really worked it....its a winner.

He checked what I showed him....and acknowledged what strength it provided to the site(s) I showed him which were producing a quirk in G Maps.

So abt 2 weeks ago he was speaking to the group on link building and touched on a topic. I questioned it. He referenced that he had similarly questioned it within your group....and you agreed with his presentation 2 weeks ago. Another known heavyweight chimed in in acknowledgement. My limited experience and observations had tended to confirm this...even as it seems to go against the grain of common knowledge.

So now I'm sold. I'm deemphasizing one thing I've focused on for years. I frankly never caught the power I thought it would give us....at least I haven't recently seen the push, power, and stronger serps I thought it would give us. Just as well. I've been doing this for years. Its sort of a PITA, time consuming....and I at least got some strong confirmation from better people than I that its not the be all and end all of link building.

So thanks for the (indirect) help. Much appreciated!!! :D

April 1, 2011 - 12:09am

My limited experience and observations had tended to confirm this...even as it seems to go against the grain of common knowledge.

When it is "common sense" that something doesn't work or isn't worth doing, when indeed it does & is.

The truth is that there are thousands of people writing about the SEO topic and of the thousands writing there are maybe a few dozen who are routinely testing (outside of just looking at how their SEO blog performs).

Sometimes it can be worth it to have holder projects that are sorta half-done as both a back up to your main site & as a way to test what the engineers are busy doing. The person with the most data usually can compete with someone who has far more capital, but doesn't test. :)

April 4, 2011 - 1:05am

Hi Aaron, First time I've heard of this one... "Sometimes it can be worth it to have holder projects that are sorta half-done as both a back up to your main site & as a way to test what the engineers are busy doing". Can you give an example of this? Thanks.

April 4, 2011 - 3:24am

If I were to highlight the sites specifically then I give away the market it is in, highlight it as something that is half-done and should be potentially whacked, and destroy the scientific validity of the test.

In short, that move would be 0-for-3 ... a strikeout!

If you asked that same question in the member forums there might be a smidgen of economic incentive for me to share a bit on that front, but right now you are basically offering me to publicly lever up on risk with no personal benefit at all.

Other than something like ego, what incentive would there be for me to do that?

But more generally (not highlighting & destroying specific examples) get a few links into a site & have a few pages of content...the project doesn't need to be done in order to start aging & such.

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