Call Tracking Numbers: Harming Your Local Search Results?

Many businesses use call tracking numbers to monitor the source of phone leads. They issue a variety of different telephone numbers, and use one on their website, one for each online directory,¬†and possibly different numbers for paid search or offline campaigns. This solution is often sold as an absolute panacea for your tracking problems – every single phone call is accurately tracked, and it’s conveniently reported in an online dashboard.

It is convenient – but it’s also hurting your rankings in local search.

The Problem

Google and the other search engines scan the Internet looking for information about your company. If the information is available in lots of places, and is consistent across those places, that helps confirm that they have the right data regarding your business (more about getting your business data listed). Other factors equal, if Google is confident your data is correct, it will be more likely to rank your business higher in its local search results.

When phone call tracking numbers are thrown into the mix, your data starts to look confused. Google picks up a variety of phone numbers for your business – and may lower your ranking as a result. The search engines may even think you are operating multiple companies, listing your business more than once – which often results in an even more substantial decline in rankings.

In addition to this main issue, there are two smaller problems with tracking numbers:

  • Google has explicitly stated that call tracking numbers are not to be used in Google Places listings.
  • Businesses experience problems when they end call tracking or switch providers – an old number can linger for months in many online business information sources.

An additional note: Many of the (offline) yellow pages provide free call tracking numbers. This information could, in theory, find it’s way into the online sources used by Google – but that’s not something I’ve seen happening frequently.

The Solutions

With all the marketing channels available online, it’s important to track the source of phone calls. So how can we do this given the problems with tracking numbers?

Ask

One option is simply to ask callers where they found your number. This requires some training for your staff, and will not be 100% accurate – a substantial number of callers will fail to provide any more detail than “the Internet.” Your company will need either a CRM system or simple spreadsheet to keep track of phone call sources.

Coupon Codes

Many sites, including Google Places, give business owners the option of adding a coupon code. This is an easy way to encourage customers to tell you where they got your information. To get the highest response rate, simply use the source name (ie, Yellowbook, Yelp, etc.) as the coupon code. This option forces you to offer some form of discount – but such a tactic can be a great way to persuade customers to call you anyway. Again, you’ll need a way to track these responses.

Hidden Tracking Numbers

There are several ways to hide tracking numbers from the search engines. They will only work on your website, as most third-party sites will display your number in plain text. This option may be most useful for companies running substantial paid search campaigns, as these require particularly good tracking – and many of the existing solutions dynamically insert numbers via javascript already. If this sounds like a solution for you, discuss it with your web developer or call tracking provider.

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About Chris Piepho

Chris is the founder of Small Business Shift. You can learn more about him here. If you would like to work with Chris, please get in touch.

11 Responses to “Call Tracking Numbers: Harming Your Local Search Results?”

  1. OnSIP August 3, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    Interesting blog! The final solution is a good one. My thought is on the business’ website, you can de-index the particular marketing page (robots.txt). Or, on a third party ad, place no index, no follow on the links to the business website that are paired with phone numbers.

    • Chris August 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, de-indexing a page is a good solution for companies with the web-savvy to implement it. There could be some leakage in tracking if people go to a different page before making the call, but many landing pages generate the vast majority of responses directly from that page.

  2. Nicholas Holliday September 16, 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    I’m a bit skeptical. I think the benefits of call tracking likely outweigh the costs (if any) to your Google Places ranking. Your best bet would be to use the tracking numbers and put extra effort into getting reviews.

    I actually created a WordPress plugin to help small business owners economically track their calls. http://phonecalltrackingsoftware.com

    Also, here’s an interesting thread about the question of Google Places vs. call tracking: http://www.offlinegoldforum.com/showthread.php/906-Google-Places-Vs.-Tracking

    • Chris September 16, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Nicholas.

      Seeing that you appear to work at a call-tracking company, your position isn’t too surprising – but I’ll readily admit that this is a real debate and not something that has a “right” answer.

  3. Mr Marketology January 28, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

    Very good point on the tracking numbers not being consistent across the web thus reducing relevancy. I wonder it the same apply if you use a Google Voice number for your company number. When it comes to some small businesses that operate out their home or from their cell, they may not want a physical land line number.

    • Chris March 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

      If you always list the Google Voice number as your business line, it should be fine. The issue arises when multiple numbers are associated with a single business.

  4. Mongoose Metrics June 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    Chris, you’re article is absolutely correct. As a call tracking solution, we’ve run into this issue before. As a matter of fact, in this blog post our CEO, Brad Reynolds, offered some suggestions he’d like to see Google consider to help marketers capitalize on the benefits of call tracking – http://www.mongoosemetrics.com/blog/2010/12/20/call-tracking-for-local-seo-suggested-solutions/. However, it’s important to remember that a consistent phone number is just one of number of ranking factors that go into how high your business ranks. For local search rankings, the most important things you can do to improve your position is claim and maintain a Places page, be physically located near the searcher, associate yourself with a proper category, and generate a number of positive customer reviews. For more information on local search ranking factors, check out David Mihm’s list here – http://www.davidmihm.com/local-search-ranking-factors.shtml

    • Chris June 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

      Kathleen – Thanks for the comment. The post you mention is a good one, I think everyone working in local search would love to have Google implement a better solution for call tracking numbers.

      And you’re right that there are a lot of pieces to the ranking algorithm other than phone numbers – but there are few that have as many chances to screw up Google’s understanding of your company. It’s the #1 negative factor cited in the list you linked to.

  5. Winnipeg Mobile Marketing November 3, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    There is a simple solution to this problem. Use both your regular business phone number and a tracking number.

    Make your main phone number in small text hardly visible to a reader (search engines will still pick it up)

    Now, place your tracking number in a graphic file (picture) in prominent visible spots throughout your site. Add a strong call to action and your problem is solved.

    Search engines will verify your main business number while visitors will use tracking numbers to make a call.

    Sometimes low tech solution is all you need. :)

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