Three Tips to Improve Digital Search

As a virtual front door, digital listings are a key part of the customer experience.

May 28, 2020

By Frank Beard

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The way we shop is changing. During the past few months, we’ve witnessed a digital transformation as convenience retailers went beyond the physical point of sale and embraced curbside pickup, delivery, mobile payments and more. Even as traffic rebounds, many would agree that these are likely to be lasting changes.

It’s a good time for retailers to take a close look at their local search strategy, since consumers have turned to digital listings as a virtual front door amid the pandemic. They’ve used apps like Google Maps and others to source phone numbers, company websites, hours of operation and inform their decisions about how and where to shop.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Think beyond navigation.

A common misconception is that digital listings platforms are only used for navigation. In some cases, yes; but they’re also a guide to much more.

As Uberall discovered in its recent report on local search trends, these platforms have been used for consumer research during the pandemic. Requests for directions are down, but calls and website visits are up.

“In some places, everything got shut down,” said Greg Sterling, vice president of market insights at Uberall. “You have to rely on the internet and phone calls, to some degree, to get the correct information. Is the store even open, and what are the protocols?”

Although it’s important to maintain accurate listings, this is a blind spot for many retailers. Uberall’s 2019 analysis of more than 73,000 businesses on 37 listings platforms found that almost 50% had incorrect or missing opening hours. Nearly 20% had incorrect or missing street information. This will be an even larger concern as various platforms make adjustments and allow consumers to see who’s open for delivery, takeout and more.

Fortunately, some retailers were quick to leverage this trend.

“‘Clicks to call’ and ‘clicks to website’ are two of the main things we look at,” said Mike Templeton, director of marketing at Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores. “That’s the closest thing to starting a pizza order. Historically, one of the primary ways people would order pizza is by calling our stores. If they can’t find a phone number, then they go somewhere else.”

2. Focus on visibility online and offline.

Convenience retailers know the importance of a good location, but many consumers are looking at search results rather than a nearby intersection.

“Search is the new front door of the store,” said Templeton. “If you don’t show up, you’re not an option. Getting things right like where you’re located and how to contact you is as important as having a clean, well-lit store that you feel safe visiting.”

It’s important to remember that most searches are category-specific. Although some consumers will look for a certain brand, the challenge is to show up in queries like “gas stations near me.”

It helps to have accurate listings. For example, inconsistencies between listings on Google My Business (GMB) and other platforms—such as Facebook, Yelp and Apple Maps—can result in GMB’s algorithm flagging a retailer as untrustworthy and deprioritizing their stores. This harms their ability to drive traffic.

Similar issues play out on other platforms. On GasBuddy, search results give priority to stations with recent fuel price updates. Since only 5% of GasBuddy users ever scroll to the bottom of a list screen, this means stations without recent price updates are unlikely to stand out.

3. Customer feedback is a gift.

As an added benefit, many listings platforms serve as a venue for ratings and reviews. This immediate feedback is a valuable source of information.

“Gulf has been focused on educating our distributors and dealers on the importance of listening to consumer feedback and monitoring their competitors,” said Nikki Fales, director of marketing at Massachusetts-based Gulf Oil. “Because our sites are operated by distributors, communication is one of our strongest tools. We are able to ensure our branded partners are upholding an exceptional experience through real-time access to online reviews.”

I’ve written previously about the importance of monitoring this timely feedback, but COVID-19 has brought about significant changes in consumer sentiment. In a recent GasBuddy report, we identified significant polarization occurring in March and April. Consumers are either delighted and grateful that retailers are taking cleanliness and safety seriously, or they’re downright angry at the ones who are not. 

By monitoring this information, retailers are able to quickly identify high- and low-performing outliers across their brand. They also can get a sense of whether or not their perception about the customer experience is accurate.

As Fales pointed out, sometimes customer feedback will surprise you in unexpected ways.

“We had a scenario in which a site operator unknowingly opened for business before the technician had fully finalized the point-of-sale brand conversion. A consumer tried, and failed, to use our mobile payment app. Fortunately, we were alerted by an online review and were able to quickly correct the issue before any other consumers had a negative experience.”

No Time Like the Present

Digital listings have become an important part of the customer experience. The time to have a local search strategy was yesterday, but it’s not too late to get started or make improvements. Retailers can help consumers navigate the pandemic and keep the front door open long after it’s over.

Frank Beard is an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy, a NACS Magazine contributor, and a speaker and industry advocate. You can follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankBeard.