Google is making major changes to their Google Places service and appears to be leveraging their market share to force businesses to create a Google+ account, which is Google’s version of Facebook. The dust has not settled and there is some variation geographically. The biggest takeaway is that if you want to continue to be towards the top of search engine results in Google, you will probably have to create and optimize a Google + account. I know, most of you have no interest in opening and maintaining another social media account and prefer not to be social like Facebook but if you want to be towards the top of Google, you will ultimately need to follow their rules. Uugghh….
As part of this evolution, here is what we see:
- Google will integrate several Google properties underneath the Google+ Local service. This means Maps, Places reviews, and some elements of local search. This will be Google’s competitive answer for Facebook. Right now, Google+ has very little traction (low market share) but since savvy business owners want to be towards to top of Google search results, Google will use the heavy handed stick to force them to open a Google+ account.
- Google will introduce a reviews/recommendations twist from friends/family/colleagues that are connected to you (think LinkedIn 1st, 2nd, 3rd connections). My gut, this is a page they will be borrowing from LinkedIn.
- Google will integrate Zagat reviews, which is a property Google acquired Sept 2011, across the board. This means they will introduce a 30 point rating scale rather than 5 star reviews. I know, what does Zagat reviews mean outside of restaurant reviews and how does that translate to accounting services. My gut, this is a page they will leverage against Yelp, which Google tried to purchase on two separate occasions. The argument is that the 30 point rating scale will provide more differentiation than 5 star reviews and there will be categories of service (food, service, atmosphere). I have no clue how they will categorize accounting services.
- This is the first phase of Google’s transition. Much like the recent algorithm changes (Google Panda, Penguin), there will be more wrinkles to come. Those businesses that are willing to adopt early will gain an advantage, even if you are kicking and screaming.
For updates, here is Google’s blog on this rollout:
Here is our educated guess on steps you should take:
- If you have a Google Places account, you should complete the profile as much as possible. Now!! This means everything from hours of operation to adding 6-10 pictures to forms of payment accepted. The pictures should be optimized with descriptive text. If you have a video, add it now before this feature is closed. Your goal is to elevate your % of completeness to the 90% to 100% range (log into your account, see score on right hand nav). If you business address is incorrect, submit an update. Your address should be the exact same across all mediums (Suite 3, not Ste 3 on Yahoo and # 3 on Bing and Unit 3 on Google).
- If your office has multiple locations, you will want to validate ALL locations. I recommend the postcard method to validate because Google does not like auto-tellers.
- You will want to create a Google+ account for your business and make it visually appealing (like your website) with lots of pictures. After you complete your Google+ page, you will want to connect with business clients and encourage them to review your services. Obtaining reviews will be imperative. Below are three examples that Google provided:
For more information on Google’s transition, below is a article that goes into more depth:
Google has been wreaking havoc with algorithm changes.
Google Panda has been around for just over one year and had two recent refreshes in April 2012. Panda has been targeting websites with poor quality content and dramatically lowering them in the search engine results pages.
Google Penguin rolled out an update just after tax season (April 24th) and is targeting websites that incorporate “black hat” search engine optimization techniques. This particular refresh seems to focus on inbound links that are low quality or too many use the exact same anchor text.
Anyway, BYF did lots of extra work in March after we attended the Search Engine Conference in NY (SES NY). The extra effort has paid off in April even though we had no insight on Google’s plan in April.
With regard to Knowledge Graph, this is more fun stuff. To illustrate, go to Google and type in my name, Hugh Duffy, and hit search. In the results page, you will see the matching profile of how I used to play baseball for the Boston Beaneaters, had a lifetime .324 batting average, Baseball Hall of Fame and attended Harvard. I like the Harvard grad aspect. Yah, don’t read that I’ve been dead since 1954.
Customer reviews posted online are far more important than most accountants realize.
Think about yourself, do you use reviews to determine which movie you’ll watch, what book you’ll buy from Amazon, what restaurant you’ll make reservations for when you are away from home, and what hotel you’ll stay in. Well, people do the same thing when deciding what contractor to work with, what doctor to hire, and which accountant will best meet their needs. In fact, many of us have gotten so comfortable reading reviews that we’ll seldom invest two hours into a movie without knowing what the reviews said about this flick because wasting two hours on a lousy movie is just not worth it.
Online reviews help us make more informed decisions and reduce the likelihood of having a terrible experience. And while the process is not perfect, reviews do reduce the risk of having a bad experience. Reviews matter because:
- Reviews are read by small business owners and can influence their purchasing decision. While one bad review ads is fine, a pattern of negative reviews is a problem.
- Positive reviews create the basis for your reputation locally. Even people who don’t currently work with you like to know who the best accounting firms are in town, so they know who to recommend. This behavior happens with doctors, lawyers, architects and accounting firms. Your local reputation spreads by word of mouth.
Online review websites are all over the place. The major search engines, online yellow page providers, and review services gather reviews already.
- Search Engine Reviews – Google Places, Bing Business Portal, Yahoo Local
- Online Yellow Pages – InsiderPages, City Search, Manta.com, MerchantCircle.com
- Review Services – Yelp, Judy’s Book.com, AngiesList.com, Kudzu.com
To secure reviews, most review websites require your business to register with their website and provide some basic information. Most are free and require you to validate that you are a valid local business. Some will validate by phone and others by mailing out a postcard with a security code. Beyond the validation process, you will want to optimize your listing with each review website so that your reviews will be easy to locate. Yes, this takes some elbow grease but is well worth the time to do it right the first time. Changes to these registries are painful and slow. Save your usernames and passwords for each major review website.
Although asking your clients to review your accounting services is something most accountants fear, it is vital to creating a positive reputation locally. I strongly recommend that you secure 5-10 favorable reviews into the major online review websites. Start first with Google Places before tackling the others. Yelp is the most challenging because they scrutinize each review and often need a few reviews before they’ll post something live because they are trying to screen out fraudulent reviews.
There are tons of techniques that can be used to improve your organic placement within the search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. Each of the major search engines use hundreds of criterion to determine whether you are listed on the first page of the results pages, or page 200. If you would like to improve the placement of your accounting firm website in the search engines, here are the most important considerations if you want to generate higher placement within the search engines.
- Well Constructed Content – A website that is written with a clear understanding of the business owners needs works wonders, just like a John Grisham or E.L. James novel. Lousy content puts the reader to sleep. Persuasive content helps search engines understand what your website is about and motivates prospects to call your accounting firm. Your content needs to be written for both search engines AND prospects.
- Incoming Website Links – Quality links from other accounting websites provides the validation that search engines demand. Volume of links and quality of the links matter. If you provide quality content, other relevant accounting websites will consider linking to your website. These links can come from Intuit’s directory of QuickBook Pro Advisors, Bookkeepinghelp.com, your local accounting association, and accounting firms around the country.
- Page Title Tags – The title tags for each page within your website helps search engines determine what each website page is about. They also help prospective visitors determine if your website is worth visiting. The keywords near the beginning are most important (e.g., Dallas Accounting Firm – Helping Small Businesses Lower Taxes!).
- Heading Tags – When your website is being developed, the flow from one page to another is like the flow within a house that you are considering purchasing. Lousy flows create problems. Heading tags (H1, H2, H3) help the search engines understand what the relative order of importance is on your website and the flow.
- Internal Linking – Within a website, there should be multiple ways for website visitors to get from the page they land on to the page they want to read. Often, this is accomplished with top navigation, left navigation and hyper links within the body copy. Making navigation easy is critical for users to find what they want quickly and it helps search engines index your content.
- Keyword Density – Ensuring that your website uses keywords which describe what you do on each page in conjunction with your local marketing area is critical. The keyword density should be approximately 5% to 10%.
- Domain Name – Inserting keywords into your domain name can help your organic search engine ranking (e.g, nyc-cpa.com, medical-cpafirm.com).
- Blog – A blog that is incorporated into your website can help boost your website placement. The articles should be developed around what prospects are searching online for (e.g., international tax cpa firm, accounting firm for dentists, NYC city taxes). It helps to insert your keywords into your titles and tags. Unique content with a strong voice will elevate your placement.
- Website Development Programs – The search engines hate certain programming languages just like you hate certain foods. To keep these issues down, avoid using Flash, overuse of Ajax, minimize the use of Java, and avoid frames. Also, avoid using template driven website development systems which enable you to develop a website in less than thirty minutes because search engines hate them. For example, these website systems use long URL’s and characters that search engines can not choke down (e.g., &, ?, etc.). Avoid website development programs that promise a website quickly as search engines prefer old fashioned HTML websites which take longer to develop.
- Authority of domain – Older, more established domains get higher placement. It’s like fine wine, age is perceived as being better than youth. A website domain address that is ten years older is better than one year. Recently, search engines have been incorporating social media signals into this to help them sift through who is important and who is irrelevant. A strong presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube gives search engines more confidence to elevate your position. The same goes for having your website listed online in places like Yelp, YellowPages.com, Superpages, Manta, Kudzu and many other online directories (free listings). Yes, it’s like high school popularity all over again. Older kids and more popular kids get more action.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a process of using the best possible website development practices to improve your organic placement in the search engines. There are proper techniques, which are referred to as white hat SEO, and improper techniques which are designed to trick the search engines, referred to as black hat SEO.
If you’d like to improve your placement in the search engines, here are some things worth considering:
- No one can guarantee a #1 ranking . Run away from any website development firm that promises or guarantees a top placement with Google, Bing and Yahoo. They are flat out lying to get your business. No website development or search engine optimization firm has a “special” relationship with Google, Bing or Yahoo. They are trying to sell you a bridge which they do not own. Run.
- Be wary of SEO firms that send you an email out of the blue. Everybody gets solicited by these fly by night firms that run a canned report about how terrible your website is from a search engine optimization perspective. These firms work about as well as companies that sell fat burning diet pills that remove fat while you sleep. Real SEO firms don’t market this way.
- Avoid SEO firms that advocate the following techniques:
- Develop one website and replicate it repeatedly on multiple domains
- Uses invisible text on a page
- Uses doorway pages (aka – cloaking) to trick the search engines
- Links your website to other websites that have nothing to do with the accounting industry using a technique called link farming.
For accountants, we recommend that you select one of the major accounting website development firms rather than some snake oil website development firm. Each year, CPA Practice Advisor reviews all of the established website developers that service the accounting industry. It is not worth your time and energy to associate your accounting practice with some unproven website developer that promises more than they can deliver. In my experience, there are only two accounting firm website developers that are effective at search engine optimization, Build Your Firm and one other provider who will go nameless. Most of the major accounting website developers either ignore this aspect because it takes too much effort or don’t understand it.
Also, you should ask your website development vendor to provide examples of their accounting firm clients that are well optimized within the search engines so you can visually see how easy it is to locate them in Google, Bing and Yahoo. Any decent SEO website developer should be able to show you 5-10 examples of how their clients are consistently towards the top of search engines in markets around the country. While it is fair for them to show you markets other than your own, they should be able to show a wide variety of markets and types of accounting practices which have been optimized.
Does your website create favorable impressions of your accounting firm when people find it on the internet? Does it distinguish your practice from the other boring accounting firms in town? Or does it suck like most accounting firm websites?
As it stands, accountants have a terrible stereotype in the marketplace. Given this, the need to be unique is higher than normal given the prevailing stereotype that accountants are boring.
What is Personality?
Personality is the characteristic that makes us unique and identifiable. Some of us are endearing, some are honorable, some are witty, and others are rough around the edges. Just as personality makes each of us unique, your web site should have a personality that sets you apart from other accounting firms in town.
Marketers use personality as a vehicle to understand branding. In focus groups, marketers will often ask people if this product was a car, what kind of car would it be? And based on those answers, you have a pretty good sense of how the general public was viewing your brand and your TV commercials.
To illustrate the importance of personality, let’s take politics since it’s on television constantly. Whether you like him or hate him, Barack Obama has created his own identity and demonstrated consistently that he is willing to show some personality as the Comedian-in-Chief. Examples include the recent Correspondents dinner with Jimmy Kimmel, trip to University of North Carolina with Jimmy Fallon, tonite show with Jay Leno, and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. And each year in March, Barack goes out on a limb and even picks teams for the NCAA basketball tournament on ESPN regardless of picking sides and offending hoop fans. Now contrast that to Mitt Romney and despite his good looks, stellar business credentials, and a solid job overseeing the Winter Olympics, he has fallen flat on personality.
Personality matters. Personality drives website traffic and encourages them to come back, even if you made a mistake. Yes, we all frequent businesses that are not perfect and occasionally make mistakes (like your favorite dining spot).
Does Your Web Site Look the SAME as Everyone Else?
Given the stereotype that our industry faces, do you really want to have a boring web site that looks just like every other accounting firm out there? And why does your web site show today’s weather forecast? Do you really think people are searching on accounting firm websites for today’s weather forecast? And why is the website loaded with stock photos of calculators and headshots of people that look nothing like the owner?
In our industry, there are a few website development vendors that have 3,000 – 5,000+ clients in the US. So in a large city like Los Angeles or Chicago, the largest website vendor probably has 300-500 accounting firms using very similar websites with the same stock photography, same weather tool and very little personalization. In fact, the page that is dedicated to meeting the firm owner is boiler plate copy that puts you to sleep like elevator music. Come on, show me your picture and why I should hire you rather than sticking your head in the sand and giving me lame computer generated text about your firm values and commitment to quality.
How to Create Personality in Your Website
Building a personality on the internet starts on the home page of your accounting web site. Your home page should have some photos of your local market, maybe your office building, and some prominent locations that locals know is home. The second logical place is on your About Us page, where there should be pictures and well written bio’s on the key members of the firm. Last, a blog is another venue to show your personality.
Show your colors online and paint a picture for your clients and prospects on why they should hire you.