Why Call Tracking Numbers in Local SEO Make Me Angry

May 13th, 2013 by Will Scott


Don’t make me angry.

At a recent event I found myself ranting – yes, really, ranting and I understand there’s video – about what I think is a very big deal for SMBs and those who market for them. The topic at hand was call tracking and local search.

Over the course of my interaction with a few of our attendees I discovered that at least a couple of them were using call tracking to demonstrate ROI for their customers in a potentially harmful way. Call tracking in local SEO, if done poorly, is one of the most irresponsible things an online marketing company can do.

What’s Coming – It’s Kinda Long:

  • The NAP (+W)
  • The History of Call Tracking
  • Why doing it wrong really hurts SMBs
  • When is it OK?
  • How you can do it with less risk

Your NAP +W and Why It’s So Important Not to Mess It Up

The first time I heard the NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) referenced was in a presentation by my friend Gib Olander who at that time worked for Localeze, one of the 3 main data providers for online and offline directories. Gib and I were presenting on a panel at SMX Local & Mobile in July 2008. My presentation was on a concept I called “Barnacle SEO” and Gib’s was all about the NAP. Mike Blumenthal has sinced added the +W (web site).

NAP +W is:

  • Business Name – you should have one and only one name. It should be the same on your web site, yellow pages listings, Secretary of State web site and everywhere else.

  • Address – the location of your business in the real world. This should be identical, or very close, to the version of your  address in the USPS database.

  • Phone Number – your main business phone number. In the best case this phone will be answered by someone who says “Thanks for calling [Business Name], may I help you”?

  • + Web Address – your home on the web. All about your business, hopefully including your Name, Address and phone number.

In relational databases there’s a concept of a Primary Key, which is the piece of data which ties together data in different tables. So, in databases, the primary key helps you identify a unique record. In the world of Local Search, the NAP is like that. In other words, your NAP defines your business. It’s like your fingerprint on the web.

Hopefully it’s self-evident that when you mess with your NAP you run the risk of confusing Google and other local search engines, which is never a good idea. If you screw up your NAP you may find yourself invisible in maps and locally focused searches.

If you get many customers who came to you from search, this can be devastating for your business.

History of Call Tracking

The WorldA lot of folks in online marketing are relatively new to call tracking. To those of us who grew up in and around the Yellow Pages business, they’re nothing new. In the Yellow Pages universe, they refer to them a number of ways. “Metered lines,” “RCF (remote call forwarding) lines,” and other names all describe what we now know as call tracking.

The Yellow Pages providers and their industry analysts were trying to do the same thing we’re trying to do now. They were trying to show either directly, or by inference from category data, that the ads they were selling had value by demonstrating a direct ROI (Return on Investment). There is little doubt that if your primary goal is to prove the value of your marketing efforts, you can’t beat call-tracking for service and local businesses.

Over the years, some of those same companies who were providing call-tracking for Yellow Pages have morphed into our current crop of call-tracking providers for local SEO and online marketing.

Why Doing It Wrong Hurts SMBs

Small business advertisers typically have a limited budget for marketing and are therefore attracted to “performance based” solutions, in other words, those that feel like they come with a guarantee. Call-tracking is a great way to track leads and demonstrate the performance of these programs.

Small businesses are also often fickle and impatient. And they’re not professional marketers, so we can’t expect them to think like we do about their investment.

And they don’t usually understand exactly what it is we as marketers are doing for them. In the case of Call Tracking, they likely have NO idea of the risks of their local and maps rankings if their NAP gets screwed up.

According to an acquaintance of mine who works for Google in Local Support and Operations, Google’s systems don’t support replacing your local number with an 800 number if they’re still able to verify your local number. Yes, you can have multiple numbers, but Google is going to treat the one they are able to find and confirm through their own data as authoritative. Google is looking for the greatest number of signals — some of them human generated, like phone verification — to assure their data is correct, so if they find a call tracking number in all the places they look for authoritative data it can be incredibly problematic long term.

There are 3 major data providers in the US, Axciom, Localeze, and InfoGroup. One of those 3 is the origin for 90+ percent of the data you see online. But, like Google, they too get some of those data from crawling the web. So you can see how it becomes a vicious cycle – publish bad NAP, bad NAP get’s crawled and goes back into the ecosystem, bad NAP lives on long after the campaign has ended.

At Search Influence we have a pretty deep expertise in NAP clean up — that’s right, NAP clean up — and a staff trained in how to manage listings. Most locally focused SMBs, plumbers, roofers, even doctors and lawyers don’t have the expertise to do it themselves. And, this should be obvious, they’ve got businesses to run.

Putting a bad NAP into the ecosystem can hang around for YEARS. We all know that guy who keeps getting calls for the pizza place which used to have his number, right? Imagine your frustration if you were the pizza place. Think of all the sales you’d be missing.

Beyond the NAP issues, for local search call tracking can be a crutch for weak metrics. It’s a heck of a lot easier to tell a customer they got 20 calls than to pick up the phone and ask about their business.

When is It OK to Use Call Tracking for Local SEO


Ok, maybe not never.

I think it’s OK to use call tracking with PPC and other online ads as long as one takes precautions against those numbers being seen with other referral sources. And, for national accounts (preferably with ads) I don’t feel as strongly given the lower, perhaps negligible impact of maps. But I realize that’s not Local SEO.

For local / maps SEO, I want to state clearly that tracking numbers in local search should be avoided at all costs.

My friend Thomas Ballantyne says he’d be OK with lead gen services in local as long as the business name wasn’t a match for his. In other words, if you want him to buy leads that use local search you’d better not muck up his NAP. From a home-service provider we hear it clearly, think about using a slightly different business name in the same way some providers use a slightly different URL. That way you don’t have to worry about your lead-gen stuff winding up in the cluster.

If, however, a client is adamant that they need to see the calls generated or they need to record calls that come from search it can be done, but the proper precautions have to be in place.

How You Can Do It with Less Risk

SMB NAPThe safest way to track phone leads is by dynamically switching the number using Javascript.

Search engine robots are increasingly capable of “seeing” dynamic content so this is an imperfect method by itself.

It does, however, reduce the likelihood your tracking numbers will be identified and muck up your NAP+W.

A little more technological implementation can reduce the likelihood of NAP confusion even further:

  • First, determine the User Agent of the visitors to your site – the identifier of the browser – and ensure that it’s not a robot, such as GoogleBot or BingBot. If you determine the visitor is a robot, you must show your proper NAP.

  • If at all possible, ONLY show a call-tracking number when there is a utm_source, or other tracking code on the URL string. Doing this will explicitly assure your tracking numbers are only present for visitors from a specific source, or ad campaign.

Finally, if you want to be absolutely certain your numbers won’t get spidered you can render them in images. By replacing the image which contains the phone number you assure it won’t be misread. This is not the preferred method given it’s not mobile friendly and clickable.

End of Rant…Phew!

I hope it’s clearer now why call-tracking is such a dangerous tool. Yes, it’s a tool we use, but much like using a chainsaw, we take every precaution available.

Our local business clients don’t know what they don’t know and often don’t know to ask “what are the risks.” So we, as their shepherds, need to be sure that we do no harm.

I’d love to hear some other opinions. Do we have an ethical responsibility to our clients to educate them in the risks, or does the end justify the means?