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Joy Hawkins: What’s New In Local SEO In 2023

In this episode, Joy Hawkins talks about the recent changes in Local Search from test data and an update from the State of Local Search in 2023.

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Today we are joined by Joy Hawkins, a leader in Local SEO. In this interview, Joy talks about the recent changes in Local Search from test data, as well as an update from the State of Local Search in 2023.

Episode 10 Highlights

  • We get some insight as to how AI might affect content creation in 2023 and different ways that business owners can make unique content that AI can’t make or compete with.
  • We receive insight into some new ranking factors in Local search results around Google Business Profile services.
  • We also got great advice on how businesses can take advantage of video for their local pages, which can help the business have more visibility in Local search results.

Listen to the episode so that you can take away these insights to adjust your Local SEO strategy.


Joy is the owner of the Local Search Forum, LocalU, and Sterling Sky, a Local SEO agency in Canada & the USA. She has been working in the industry since 2006, writes for publications such as Search Engine Land, and enjoys speaking regularly at marketing conferences such as MozCon, LocalU, Pubcon, SearchLove, and State of Search. You can find her on Twitter or volunteering as a Product Expert on the Google My Business Forum.



Sterling Sky

LocalU Advanced Dallas TX – April 26, 2023

The State of Local Search 2023

Do Services in Google Business Profiles Impact Ranking?

My Questions For Joy

  1. Could you tell us a little bit about Sterling Sky
  2. Who do your services help?
  3. The advanced local training.
  4. What do you see changing in the local search ecosystem in 2023?
  5. Could you lean into any changes from the recent The State of Local Search 2023?
  6. How can business owners get the right training to market their businesses locally?
  7. Can you talk about the Local U acquisition and what that means moving forward?
  8. What were your aha moments or breakthroughs in local search?
  9. If you had a chance to tell yourself as a younger marketer something, what would that be?
  10. What is on the horizon in 2023 for Sterling Sky and LocalU?

Episode # 10 Transcript

[00:06] Joy Hawkins: One thing I feel like that AI can't really do well is video content. And as we've seen with the growth of TikTok and now YouTube shorts and like, video is definitely one of those things that I would say the average small business is way behind on.

[00:22] Matt Hepburn: Welcome to the EMJ Podcast, the show that is focused on providing you strategies for marketing your small business so that you can become profitable.

Your business has a product or service that you want to get in front of users.

When there is stiff competition in Google, you have seconds for your messaging to connect, with users.

If there is no connection, users will just click on the next result in Google!

Understanding Google’s changes to its algorithms can be a full-time job.

That’s where today’s guest Joy Hawkins comes in. Joy is a Local SEO expert, who has been involved in the Local SEO industry since 2006. Joy currently owns a Local Marketing agency: Sterling Sky.

Joy also own Local U an advanced local SEO training platform, as well as The Local Search Forum.

Small business owners know that they need to work on how they show up locally in Google and in Google Maps.

I asked Joy to tell us what has changed in Local SEO in 2023.

She talks about opportunities in Local search that businesses should be taking advantage of. Joy also talks about how we can set our content apart from AI written content, as well as some new rankings factors for Local.

In the show notes I will include links to resources such as The State of Local Search 2023, that Joy was part of, and The Upcoming Local U Advanced Conference in Dallas Texas on April 26th.

Now here is my conversation with Local SEO Expert Joy Hawkins.

Hi Joy, welcome to the show.

[02:01] Joy Hawkins: Thanks for having me.

[02:02] Matt Hepburn: Absolutely. So I was hoping you could tell the listeners a little bit about Sterling Sky and your experience and the services that you offer and the training that you offer.

[02:14] Joy Hawkins: So I run sterling sky. We're a local SEO agency. We are in both Canada and the US. So about half our team is in Canada, the other half in the US. And we work a lot with small businesses of various types. So like lawyers, realtors home services, some health care related categories as well. And we have a local search forum, which is a free online forum where you can go in a chat about anything related to local search. And then Local U, which does events for people that want to learn. So we get marketers people in the SEO industry and the in house people as well that come to those events. And yeah, we're a team of about 33, 35 can't remember.

[03:00] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that's a pretty big team.

[03:02] Joy Hawkins: It's crazy saying that. I'm like, oh my goodness, yeah, we've been starting through this guy in 2017, so we're coming up on year six. Did not expect it to grow this fast.

[03:12] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that's a lot of growth. So I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about what you see changing in the local search ecosystem in 2023.

[03:24] Joy Hawkins: Yes, I would say AI is all the rage right now, so what everybody's talking about? But personally, I don't actually think it's a big deal for people that work in SEO. I definitely think it might be a change for something. But it kind of makes me think about Voice Search. When Voice Search was first coming out, I remember everyone was getting their Google homes and everyone was kind of freaking out again, thinking like, what does this mean? How do we optimize for this? Yada, yada. I kind of see this whole AI movement as something similar when it comes to SEO. I do think that it's going to possibly have some locations on certain types of jobs and things like that. But I would say one of the things that we probably see with the popularity of AI is likeliness like there'll be a lot of people regurgitating the same type of stuff online. Right. Because it's an easy SEO strategy. You can literally spin out an entire new website for a client or a business and kind of put very minimal effort into it because the AI can actually write something in content that sounds pretty good. I think we're going to see more of that. And I think the way to combat that, if you're a business that's trying to do things a little more legit, is to do more kind of authentic things where you're telling stories of customers or problems that you've solved coming up with that kind of unique front to it. And then also, like, video is a good way to do that. Right. Because that's one thing I feel like that AI can't really do well is video content. And as we've seen with the growth with TikTok and now YouTube, shorts. Video is definitely one of those things that I would say the average small business is way behind on.

[05:03] Matt Hepburn: Right. So would you say that a differentiator might be if they talk to the prospects pain points versus just beating on their chest and saying, hey, we're great in this.

[05:15] Joy Hawkins: Exactly, yeah. For example, I work with quite a few HVAC companies. So if you're talking about things like what to do when your furnace makes this noise or that noise or whatever, like a lot of people have articles on their sites or blogs or things like that, but they don't have a video form of that. So the quickest way to get a list of topics for your videos is to look at your site, look at all the content you've already written, like in written form, and see what's converting, see what's actually driving leads, and they make videos on those topics first.

[05:47] Matt Hepburn: I love it.

[05:48] Joy Hawkins: That's kind of what we've been doing with our own marketing and it's been working really well.

[05:51] Matt Hepburn: That's fantastic. That's just a huge win right there, guys. So I was hoping you could lean a little bit into any changes from the recent state of Local Search 2023 that you guys did on Bright Local.

[06:10] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, so actually this is something that I didn't cover there, but it's more new in the last week. So the local search ranking factor study is a study that comes out from Whitespark every year. And so they're working on producing this year's model. And one of the questions that it asks is, do services inside Google business profile listings, impact where you rank. And we just released this new testing on that two days ago, I believe, and it's kind of funny. We did this test, this case study and test three years ago back in 2020, and we found that there was no impact. Like, filling in your services on Google didn't make any difference, didn't impact where you rank, what you rank for, et cetera. What we've been noticing over the last few years is that Google has been building these out. So you kind of have two options when you go in. You can either fill them in yourself, or there's options that Google has. Like if you're a medical spa, they have this option for vampire facials. Don't ask me what those are, I have no idea. But it's an option in there. It's like if you offer that as a service, you can check that box. And we were like, wow, it's very specific. Like, Google's starting to get really specific with some of these services they're adding. And so we were wondering, since they're putting all this effort into this, there's got to be some impact. Like, if you say you offer this service and then somebody searches for that service, right, it's got to have more of an impact. So we retested it, but just specifically looking at the ones that Google is coming out with, not the ones you fill in. And yeah, it definitely did have an impact on ranking tested on a few different clients, different industries. And then I updated my article on it because our article three years ago was like, yeah, this doesn't matter. And it didn't back then. It was just coming out. When we first tested it, Google was just releasing these predefined services. So, I think that's huge. I think that's something that people often really miss. And up till now, everybody's been saying, oh, it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. And I think it's just like, the bigger learning lesson is like, don't be afraid to test things. What you read online is great. I'm happy when people say they read my stuff and learn from it, which is awesome, but things change, and conclusions that you might read online could also be wrong. So I just think it's just a constant reminder that we've got always be watching what Google is doing and kind of using that as our guidance on how to do SEO instead of just like reading what somebody says.

[08:37] Matt Hepburn: Absolutely, I will make sure to link to that article in the episode. So, question on that. So if somebody was to do a Google business profile post to support that, which post type would you have them use? Would you have them use product or would it be what's new or how would you actually do that?

[09:01] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, Google Post, this case study is I think two years old. But we did a lot of studies on Google Post a couple of years ago. As far as you know, they don't impact ranking at all, but again, if somebody's searching they can help your listing. Sometimes they'll feature like little snippets from the Google Post. So it's a great idea to have them. When we looked at different posts for different clients of ours, we found very consistently that offer posts convert the best to get the most clicks, get the most conversions. So that's always the post type that I would suggest using. The only negative to that is currently there is a technical issue. Offer posts are not showing on desktop, so they show on mobile devices only. But if you do an offer post, it's like invisible basically on computer. So as of right now, my recommendation is to actually do a couple of different post types, like do a regular one and an offer one because offer posts just look so much better on mobile. But the fact that they're invisible right now on desktop is a little annoying.

[10:03] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, absolutely, I would agree with that. So I'm going to go back to something you stated before since we're talking about posts when you're talking about videos, how would you use the video? Would you use the video in your profile or would you put it in specific posts or would you actually just use it on the page and try to for your local Blue links in SERPs?

[10:30] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, I was glad to clarify that. So definitely the videos I'm talking about, I'm talking about putting them on YouTube and then embedding them on your site. We actually did a study on that recently talking about the difference between embedding from Vimeo versus YouTube. It's huge. We actually had a client where I looked at their video traffic on Google and it completely flatlined. And when I looked back in time, like the Way Back Machine, their former SEO company had basically swapped it. They said we're going to switch it to Vimeo. And I asked the guy, I was like, why would they suggest this? And we were thinking maybe I had something to do with site speed. But when they switched from YouTube to Vimeo, their video traffic on Google completely flatlined. Then we just basically switched it back. And then you'll see like the graph goes way back up. Okay, YouTube is the way to go when it comes to getting more traffic to your site. Also they have a lot of traffic there as well. Right. For your Google Business profile, you can put videos there as well. They're very different types. Like, you want really short ones, 30 seconds. Yeah. And you want ones that are almost like eye catching because they auto play on the Google Maps app. So almost like more of like a commercial, if that makes sense. Like something really like pretty and eye catching, maybe featuring an award, which would not work at all for the YouTube strategy that I was talking about.

[11:51] Matt Hepburn: Right. And so, the ones that you're talking about that were for YouTube. Right. You're going to want to be you're summarizing what you have on your local content. So that means that keyword strategy should be in there as well.

[12:04] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it would be like questions, informative things that people are asking. That's the content that I would make it about. Basically whatever your page is about just in video form.

[12:14] Matt Hepburn: Fantastic. That is really helpful. I hope you guys take advantage of that. We're going to pivot a little bit. Having looked at the form and looked at users that are there, I can see a lot of different opinions on different things. Can you tell the listeners how business owners can get the right training to market their businesses locally?

[12:40] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it's really tough because it doesn't take anything to say that, you know of SEO. Right. Like anybody can make that claim. Anybody. It's like the barrier entry for starting an SEO business is very low. Anybody can claim anything. So it is really important to obviously do your diligence and research as a company before you just take their word on anything. See what the reputation is like, see if anybody knows who they are, follows them, that kind of thing. But I would definitely say there are reputable sources out there for information. I think MOZ is still a really reputable source for news and stuff. Search Engine Land, Search Engine Journal. Anything that those sources put out is usually pretty reputable bias here. Obviously, Local You does training, so our training is obviously very reputable, but I'm really big on showing people like, this is what we tested, this is what we saw. And actually, rather than just saying something like, oh, we think this impacts ranking, I'm like, no, I'd rather show you why I think that so that you can see if you agree instead of just giving you this fact without explaining anything.

[13:49] Matt Hepburn: No, that's a very valid point. So having metrics based upon tests is a fantastic way, and that's based upon all these tests that White Spark does. Right. For the yearly local metrics, like, what are the ranking factors for Local so you mentioned Local U. Can you talk a little bit about the Local U acquisition and kind of what that means moving forward?

[14:16] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, we acquired 2019. We acquired Local U. Yeah, it was right before the pandemic. Great timing.

[14:25] Matt Hepburn: Right?

[14:25] Joy Hawkins: And Local U was there was like four or five different people that were former owners of it. So I talked to Mike Blumenthal about, I don't know, just like, combining efforts or whatever. And it kind of led to us acquiring it. It wasn't like the sought out plan thing, but it's been a great addition to Sterling Sky because Local U events are wonderful education for staff. So, we have the luxury of being able to send all of our staff to some of the Local U events, like Donaldson, but some of them and it's also just a great place to network and meet people. Right. Like, connections in this industry go a long way. So if you really want to know, like, what are the newest methods, what are the greatest tools, local you is kind of designed to really niche down on local SEO, because I feel like most SEO conferences kind of neglect local. Like, it's not talked about a whole lot.

[15:22] Matt Hepburn: Absolutely. Absolutely, yes.

[15:24] Joy Hawkins: So, our next event is in Dallas in April. And I've kind of been noticing with the conference world, I'm actually going to be a pub climb next week. And most conferences I've been at post COVID Pandemic, we're not back yet to like, full attendance. Like any conference I've been to, it's kind of like, I don't know, like half, I would say, of what normal attendance was back in 2019. I would encourage people to come. I think that we've lost the purpose a little bit of why you need to actually see people in person and learn in person and the benefits that you get from networking in person versus over zoom or whatever we've been kind of using instead of that. So I'm really hoping this year that conference attendance will really go up.

[16:13] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, I can say the last two that I've been to, which were SMX and Spark Together, 2022, all remote.

[16:23] Joy Hawkins: Yeah.

[16:24] Matt Hepburn: So, yeah, I would like to get some traveling in. That'd be great.

[16:28] Joy Hawkins: Yeah. Same. So, we're excited. We're going to do two events this year. The first one in Dallas. The second will be in Toronto in the fall. We haven't released the date yet for that one, but we're going to have completely different speaker lineups. We always have completely unique content too, so that's something we require for speakers. It's like it can't be a presentation that you've done somewhere else that someone may have heard of, another place quality.

[16:54] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that's great. I love that because you see a lot of conferences, it's just regurgitated. You can find it in different places.

[17:03] Joy Hawkins: Absolutely.

[17:05] Matt Hepburn: All right, so I'm going to pivot one more time. What were your AHA moments or breakthroughs in local search?

[17:14] Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So just to clarify what you mean by that question, are you talking about just, like, SEO strategies that we utilize for clients, or are you talking about more like running the business?

[17:22] Matt Hepburn: It could be it's personal to you, so it could be about your business and how you changed your business, how you marketed it, or it could be strategies that all of a sudden it changed and you saw something and you capitalized on that.

[17:39] Joy Hawkins: Okay, sure. So, this one kind of fits into both, I guess. When I started Shirley Sky, I had no idea what was going to happen. The plan was really initially for myself to work there and just do some consulting. And then I had my colleague, Colin Nielsen. We knew we wanted to work together because we brought together at a former agency and I was like, I'm going to hire you. The first person to hire is going to be you, kind of thing. He is my first full time hire. So that was all I really planned. And I thought initially that we were going to do a lot of training with agencies. I thought we'd be like kind of the consultant that would come in and if they're having issues with client accounts or whatever, we'd be there to fix it. And whatnot we pivoted a lot from that, I want to say about two years in. And basically what I just found was that a lot of agencies, they really want to know how to do it themselves, which of course you kind of need to have that. So, the demand for training wasn't nearly as high as the demand for actual SEO. And initially I was like, oh, consulting is more fun because it's like at the end of the day, if you're a consultant, you have less headaches, right? You have less problems because it's not really on you long term to make a campaign succeed or not, right. It's on the SEO company, whoever is actually implementing everything, right? So it's kind of like I've talked to a lot of people where the consulting angle seems to be more fun and less pressure. But I would argue that what I've learned is if you're not actually in there doing it all the time, you're not as good of a consultant because hands on experience is the most valuable thing, provided that you are actually measuring the impact of what you do. So if anything we've really honed in on in the last couple of years is like everything we do is tracked, meticulously. And if we're spending time and effort on something and we have no idea where it came from, it we don't want to be doing for those things. We want to know that every minute that we are spending on effort for any client of ours is actually doing something like, is it increasing ranking, is it increasing traffic? Does that then turn into more leads? So that's, I think where the real value of SEO is, like knowing that, knowing what things to spend time on and how to prioritize, that's really what we have kind of focused all of our time and attention on versus trying to train other people on how SEO works.

[20:07] Matt Hepburn: Right. I think that's that is in tracking what's actually working. And I think a lot of SEOs don't do that. They track keywords or they track analytics or they track events that happen, but they don't really quantitate like, the actions that I'm taking. How many of these things, the time that I'm spending, what out of this is the most valuable, for sure.

[20:36] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, a lot of best practices just really don't do anything. So it's kind of interesting. You're like, oh, I think this should be this color and this font because it looks nice, but it's like, did that actually improve anything? Is it something that you can measure the impact of taking all that time and effort and spending it? If you improve site speed by 2 seconds, can you show what that did?

[21:00] Matt Hepburn: Right? SEO's have the habit of doing a lot of optimizations at one time, so it's hard to measure what out of those different things had the impact. Right. They're not really doing testing where they're changing one thing across a bunch of different pages and then waiting and seeing what the weight of that change was. Is that what you tend to do? Is you tend to do a change across a bunch of different pages for a bunch of different clients and then see what that has and then you go in and do the next change.

[21:31] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, I'm huge on doing micro changes, and once we do it works, then we stop worrying so much about making sure we do it that way for every single client. But first time that we're trying out things, or if we really want to know what the impact of something is, we'll test micro changes across a few different sites, different industries, and see what the impact is before doing, like you said, along laundry list. And then that thing, whatever it is that we're doing, that step only gets added to our big process if we know it worked. And our big process is like the thing that we're constantly refining, right? Like taking steps out, adding new steps, making sure that all the steps we're taking are actually making an impact.

[22:12] Matt Hepburn: So when you're doing that for your baseline metrics that you're using, are you using things like local search, heat maps for specific keywords? Or what type of metrics would you be using? Is it analytics to see ultimately, is there more traffic or there are more conversions? At the end of the day?

[22:34] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it's kind of nuanced because I guess there's different levels of tracking. So on a low level, I'd say if you see a rank increase, great, but that doesn't mean anything if that ranking increase didn't result in more traffic. So that's the next step. It's like, okay, if you know there's traffic and then the third is it the right traffic? Because I've seen pages literally drive thousands of visits. For a small business, that literally zero conversions, like, whatsoever. So at the end of the day, it's like, really narrowing down on which ones are sending leads, but also realizing that this is, again, some of the nuances. With SEO, you could have a term that maybe only gets like three clicks a year, but it's a really high converting term.

[23:13] Matt Hepburn: Right.

[23:13] Joy Hawkins: So, you may not necessarily see a click or two clicks right away. That the second you optimize for it, but knowing, okay, in the next year, they'll probably get like four leads for this. So it's worthwhile, even though it's super niche, kind of making those calls and those decisions. I think this is where people are all worried about AI. I don't think AI can do some of this kind of stuff that real SEO can do.

[23:36] Matt Hepburn: No, I'm not worried about the AI. I think there will always be for SEOs that actually provide strategy. I don't think there's a problem. I think there will be a complete change for SEOs that are doing the same thing that a whole bunch of different SEOs are doing that cannot actually give a strategy themselves.

[23:58] Joy Hawkins: For sure.

[23:59] Matt Hepburn: Those people, I think, will be out of work.

[24:02] Joy Hawkins: Yeah.

[24:07] Matt Hepburn: To talking about whether somebody be working or not. If you had a chance to actually tell your younger marketing self-something, what would that be?

[24:19] Joy Hawkins: Yeah, it's a good question. I think just in regards to running the managing people and stuff, I think my younger self would have stressed about little things. Like when it comes to people dealing with larger SEO teams, I'd say that was something I wasn't great at. We used to have all these rules at the agency that I worked at. So many rules like, you can't do this, you can't do that. You got to be at work at this exact time. If your kids sick, they didn't have a lot of patience or understanding about things like that. And that's something, I think, with age, I've realized, listen, you got to treat people well, and you have to also prioritize the things that they prioritize if you're going to have a really successful team. And I think one of the things about running an SEO agency that I really strove for is retention is like, my biggest metric. If I care about anything, having employees that are happy to work here make them better employees, which thus makes us better at doing SEO. So it's kind of the core thing, and I think we're pretty flexible on a lot of things, like what hours you work, how much vacation you're allowed, things like that. We're really lenient on a lot of that stuff because we just found that it attracts better people, not lazy people. So I think that's probably something I would not have got in my 20s, working at a traditional agency where there were so many rules and so many things. But I do think that although that's not an SEO metric, it's something that has definitely been a huge point of.

[26:00] Matt Hepburn: Success, especially with the pandemic. As so many of the SEO jobs became remote, I'm finding some of the people that I interview implemented remote for their analysts and their people within their agencies so much earlier than the rest of the didn't come in March of 2020. They were thinking ahead of the curve. So being flexible, making it a great working environment, whether it's remote or not, is just so key to business health. Sure. I love that. I was hoping you could tell us what is on the horizon in 2023 for Sterling Sky and Local You and also how people can get in touch with you.

[26:50] Joy Hawkins: Yeah. So our our big focus this year is we're doing huge video push. So, like I mentioned, videos and stuff on our YouTube channel is something that before the last six months was very neglected, almost nonexistent. So we're trying to do more videos again, just realizing that's a huge way people digest information these days. I've always been a huge writer, so that's kind of new for us. So, our YouTube Channel strings guide YouTube Channel is going to become very active. It's already on its way there. But if you like watching videos, that's how you consume information. We're going to be like basically all those videos are going to be like teaching things and like little short videos on tips that people need to know, whether small business or marketing one. So I would say definitely check out our YouTube channel and then obviously the Local You events. Like, if you want a trip or you're near Toronto or Dallas, those are the two locations we're doing events this year. We change it up so we don't always have the same locations. It's just a matter of like, where people express interest. Right?

[27:49] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, I can probably get to the Toronto one.

[27:52] Joy Hawkins: Yeah. Awesome.

[27:54] Matt Hepburn: Yeah. Can't get to the Texas one.

[27:57] Joy Hawkins: Yeah. All right. It will be October.

[28:01] Matt Hepburn: Yeah. Sounds like a plan. We can definitely do that. All right, so thank you so much for coming on the show, and I hope to talk to you very soon.

[28:14] Joy Hawkins: Awesome. Thank you for having me.

[28:19] Announcer: Are you ready? Ready to break through to accelerate online business growth? Then join our email list at so we can keep you up to date with the latest strategies, tips, and tricks that you'll want to know. Also, please don't forget to subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode. This is The EMJ podcast with Matt Hepburn, and we'll see you next time.

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  • Matt Hepburn

    Matt is the founder of The Focus Visibility Podcast. Matt has over 14 years of experience in search engine optimization. Matt has worked with various enterprise businesses, including formerly (White Source Software), John Hancock USA, SEMrush, Commvault, and iCIMS. Matt has also worked in large and small agency environments, including Martindale Hubble, WebROI, and Search Interactions. Additionally, Matt brings 14 years of consulting on organic traffic issues that affect businesses.

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