Local Search guru David Mihm provides an extraordinary service to all of us by annually compiling the most important Local Search Ranking Factors as assessed by a group of leading consultants and thinkers in the local field. Since no one really knows what the search engine algorithms are, and they’re changing constantly, one of the most reliable sources of information is a statistically vetted survey of experts. If there’s consensus amongst those living and breathing Local SEO every day, that’s probably as close to reality as you're going to get.
With virtually all of the Home Performance and Energy Efficiency contracting sector squarely in the category of "local business," there is much here to guide us. Here’s our summary of the most important takeaways for our industry:
1) Your Business’ Website
That your business website is important is a pretty simple idea, we know. Though some have argued that the advent of Google Places has diminished the importance of individual sites, this year's Ranking Factors survey says otherwise. In fact, the experts judged the authority of the local business's website to have grown in importance from the prior year. Remember the fundamentals of an effective website and get a copy of our White Paper--Putting Your Website to Work.2) Your Google Places Page
At every one of my workshops you've heard me talk about how critical your Google Places page is. Keeping your Google Places page fresh is also increasingly important, so be sure to devote time to keeping your Places content fresh and generating buzz. Ask your happy customers for reviews, use the response feature to thank them, and keep feeding it with photos and videos.3) Citations, Citations, Citations
Think of the local search ecosystem as massive data triangulation. One of the ways that Google establishes your company, brand and site as legitimate and authoritative is by looking for mentions of it in various online databases. The Ranking Factor report continues to support this as a critical tactic. Get your business listed on as many of these sites as you can--Hotfrog, Manta, Better Business Bureau, etc. You can never have too many mentions on other sites and directories.4) Physical Address and Phone Number on Your Site
You know the mantra: it should be easy for people on your website to contact you in multiple ways--phone, email, twitter. But it’s no longer just about the people; Google is looking too and matches this data with citations to confirm your existence. Your address and phone number should be prominently displayed, consistent, and crawlable (identifiable by search engines).5) Physical Address in City of Search
One of the key findings in the survey is that Google favors businesses whose physical address matches the location of the original search. So, for example, a company located in Ann Arbor will tend to do better than one in an outlying town if the search term is "energy audit ann arbor." But what if your business operates in a service area with multiple cities and towns? This isn't addressed directly in the survey, and remains a big challenge for service area-based businesses such as those in the energy efficiency sector--something worth considering given that this factor ranked so highly in the survey. (Sales pitch: the Energy Circle PRO system has been built taking into account this challenge, and we provide coaching to our customers on how to work around the physical location bias.)6) Reviews
The number of reviews on your Google Places page continues to be a key ranking driver. But the do’s and don’ts may not be what you expect. According to the experts, the number of positive reviews (vs. negative) is not terribly important. Instead, encourage your customers to deliver more, consistent, and higher quality responses and try to keep a consistent flow of them over time. Yelp, Angie's List and others all get aggregated by Google Places, and your customers can use the Google Reviews tool as well.7) Consistency of NAP
Sleep is important, yes, but we’re not talking about a siesta here. As alluded to above, consistency among (N)ame, (A)ddress and (P)hone number data is critical and cannot be overstated. That means paying excruciating attention to seemingly little things--the use of parentheses, dashes, etc. Absolute consistency of how you display each of these is critical.8) Quality Inbound Links
This isn't new to anyone with even a little knowledge of search engine optimization, but the fact that it remains in the Ranking Factors Top 10 things to focus on, should remain a kick in the butt for all of us. Remember that inbound links also drive traffic to your website, in addition to the fact that they are the "votes" that the search engines count to determine the authority of your site. One source of links is to engage with others in the home performance industry, but you should also work on developing relationships with local businesses, encourage subcontractors and other partners to link to your site, and make sure you’re listed with government offices and trade organizations. Remember, the quality and authority of links is often more important than the absolute quantity.9) Blended is the New Thing
If you've done any searching for local businesses recently, I'm sure you've noticed Google's constant experimentation with Places (formerly Maps) intermixed with regular organic search results. This is what is known as "blended" and is probably the most significant change to the local search landscape over the last year. Takeaway? It’s now essential to have a strong site and a strong Places page--they feed off of each other and serve to strengthen your position in search results.
If this post hasn't veered too far into the realms of search engine geekery for you, I'd strongly suggest taking a few minutes to scan David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors. He's a great information designer, so it's an easy and interesting scan. And there's much more to learn than what I've summarized here.
When you hear the term “quality management systems” (QMS) applied to your business, your first thought might be, “Oh no! More paperwork to push, eating more of my time (and reducing my profits)!” Fear not the paper dragon. The fact is that many contractors already have informal QMS systems built into their business based on the expectations and beliefs of the owner. So, if formalizing some of these systems would improve top and bottom line performance, why wouldn’t a contractor implement them? QMS systems can improve the performance of your business by increasing sales, increasing customer retention and ultimately the bottom line. It makes sense to formalize these processes, even when the paperwork isn’t required by government energy efficiency incentive programs, as is often the case.
Corrective Action Request (CAR)
Most QMS systems for multiple industries use CARs to identify a problem found in the field or during an on-sight inspection. Documentation of the problem is then formally submitted to the contractor or designated party for corrective action follow-up that must be responded to in writing. Click here to view an example of a Contractor Corrective Action Report.
Major or Minor Finding: Each program may have a slightly different definition of how they define major or minor findings for items like safety, workmanship, installation of wrong measures, etc. If a contractor wants to use this same system for improving their business they might define a major finding as anything that impacts Sales, Profits or Customer Retention.
Root Cause: What was the problem?
Interim/Short Term Corrective Action: What can I do to fix the problem at least short term? If a customer complaint, perhaps it’s just a formal phone call or meeting with the customer, combined with itemized repair of the work completed.
Preventative/Long Term Corrective Action: How do I make sure this problem does not happen again to this customer or any other customer? Formalizing this step helps eliminate the same type of problem from occurring in the future and negatively impacting customers. Example: A new crew was put on a job and did not properly follow test-out procedure, which would have detected the problem. The crew will be re-trained on proper test out procedures before being assigned to the next job.
Objective Evidence: Programs usually want proof that the preventive corrective action was completed (e.g., training the crew on test out procedures and having the crew sign a document indicating the training was completed). Internally, as business owners we want to make sure the follow up gets done and the supervisor completes it so the same problems don’t happen to future customers. The construction and home performance market will continue to implement more rigorous quality assurance systems that many industries, including automotive, consumer products, medical, information technology and others have had in place for decades. With the home still being the largest single asset of many families it only makes sense that the construction industry will follow.
We all know the high costs of attracting new customers. The importance of repeat business cannot be over emphasized. Why not formalize a system to make sure our existing customers get quality service, and avoid future problems? With Entela, my testing and engineering firm, many industries required us to develop corrective action responses based on audits, accreditation requirements and the like. We used some of these systems not just to meet the lowest bar required by the audits, but to improve our customer satisfaction and retention rates. After implementing an internal corrective action system for customer complaints, our post-complaint customer retention rate jumped from 60 percent to over 97 percent - this means our customers continued to do business with us even after their complaint! All employees were required to document any type of customer complaint, no matter how small. This became the internal culture and expectation of our company; there were only negative consequences if the company found that an employee did not document and process a corrective action. Employees took pride in knowing that we were committed to resolving any customer issue, and overall customer complaints decreased.
Law will create jobs and help homeowners with their utility bills
In June the New York State legislature passed historic legislation that will make New York the first state in the nation to implement on-bill financing for energy efficiency retrofits statewide. The Power NY Act of 2011 will dramatically expand the state’s energy efficiency retrofitting program, Green Jobs/Green NY. The new law will provide moderate-income property owners access to loans for retrofits, using the resulting energy savings to repay the loan via their utility bills.
The legislation is expected to significantly increase consumer demand for energy retrofits, creating thousands of new jobs in the state’s contracting and manufacturing sectors. It will also allow NYSERDA, New York State's energy authority, to raise an estimated $5 billion in private investment in the state's energy economy. Utility bills’ low default rates and strong collections leverage provide security for green capital investing in building retrofits.
"This is a big win for working families. On-bill financing makes it so easy for people to finance energy retrofits that will save them money on their utility bills, and make their homes safer and more comfortable. And it’s a win for New York’s home performance contractors, who will see a major surge in demand for energy efficiency upgrades,” says Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute, Inc.
On-bill financing makes energy-saving retrofits accessible to moderate-income homeowners even if they don't qualify for conventional bank loans. Default rates are low because homeowners pay off their loan as a line item on their utility bills over time, using the savings generated from the retrofits.
When Green Jobs/Green NY passed into law in 2009 it was considered the nation's most far reaching energy efficiency program, with a goal of retrofitting one million New York homes and businesses for energy efficiency, and paying for it with energy savings from homeowners' utility bills. But the program lacked an important factor: a way for homeowners to obtain simple, low hassle financing that offers a secure investment to lenders. The Power NY Act provides that financing by creating a capital fund to jump start the program. Utility customers can then pay for the cost of making their homes and businesses more energy efficient by making regular payments on their monthly electric bills.
By targeting middle-income homeowners, Green Jobs/Green NY serves homeowners who earn too much to qualify for Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) assistance funding but don’t earn enough to pay for the up front costs of energy saving retrofits. In Upstate New York, where the median income is lower, the cut-off for WAP is so low that most people can’t qualify. These disenfranchised New Yorkers will be able to qualify for Green Jobs/Green NY, and on-bill financing will provide them better access to financing programs and rates by attracting the broadest possible variety of financing and private sector involvement.
Partial material provided by the New York State Senate..
Congratulations to Joel Zook (pictured, right), a Home Energy Planner with Winneshiek Energy District in Winneshiek County, Iowa! Joel was the first person to provide the correct answer to last month’s stumper. As loyal readers will recall, last month’s problem was about a ranch house with brick veneer siding that had a rear screen porch converted to a heated all-seasons room. The first winter after the conversion, the house experienced major ice dam problems for the first time in years. Joel explained that if the cavity behind the brick veneer siding was open to the attic, heat from the newly converted room would transfer heat to the cavity which would vent to the attic, creating the ice dams that had not previously been a problem.
Kudos also to Lloyd Hamilton of Verdae, LLC in Rhinebeck, New York and Daniel Dempsey of Mo. Home Energy Audits LLC in St. Louis, Missouri for their thoughts on solving the problem by air sealing the cavity behind the brick veneer.
The Winneshiek Energy District is a non-profit organization in Winneshiek County, Iowa, focusing on energy efficiency and conservation. Joel Zook runs the Winneshiek Energy District’s Home Energy Planning program, which implements comprehensive audits and technical assistance to help homeowners follow through with plans and focus on projects with the best ROI.
Below is this month’s puzzler, a test of your home performance know how. Figure out what is going wrong with this house, write it up along with your prescribed solution, and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org . If you’re the first person to get the right answer, we’ll feature you, your company and your answer in the next issue of Performance Matters!
Thanks to Macon Parker in Charlotte, NC for sending us this month’s stumper! A homeowner –we’ll call him Hank-- had recently bought a foreclosed 3,500 sq. ft. home, built in 2005, near Charlotte, North Carolina. The previous owner had gutted most of the light fixtures and appliances. During the home interview Hank mentioned that in the summer time an unusual smell sometimes came from a mechanical closet with a louvered door that contained a litter box and an atmospherically vented water heater adjacent to a laundry room and kitchen. The home had three Heating and AC units, one for each floor, with a central return design for each unit. The bathrooms were equipped with fans that discharged to the exterior of the home as did the kitchen.
A comprehensive assessment was conducted and diagnostic testing was able to determine the source of the unusual smell.
What caused this to happen?
Think you know the answer to the problem? Send it to us at email@example.com.