Mike has been involved with offering web services since 1995. Prior to specializing in web design and search consulting in 2001, Mike was a principal in a family-owned & operated retail business for over 30 years. That business was very successful until it wasn’t and was crushed by the new reality of retail.
Like all small business owners attempting to market to a fragmented clientele, he was continually frustrated by the barriers & costs imposed by the advertising options available. Shortly after Google Maps was released in 2004 he threw out his 9 Yellow Page books and started focusing on Local Search.
Mike helped co-found LocalU in 2009 (acquired by SterlingSky in 2019) and co-founded GatherUp.com in 2012 (acquired by ByTraject in 2019). During the week, you can find him at LocalU.org where he does a weekly podcast, and at Near Media where he writes about local search and its impact on the business community.
Near Media– https://www.nearmedia.co/
Mike’s Posts at Near Media – https://www.nearmedia.co/author/mike/
Local U – https://localu.org/
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/mblumenthal/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/mblumenthal
Blumenthals – https://blumenthals.com/blog/
Questions I ask Mike
- Could you talk about how you first started in the local industry 20 years ago, and what drove your passion to help businesses compete in their local markets?
- Can you talk about some of the challenges you had with your agency and with Google’s local environment changing?
- Can you tell us some of the aha moments and breakthroughs you have had as you researched local search?
- Can you talk about co-founding Local U, and helping business owners understand the local landscape?
- Can you explain what GatherUp is, and how you helped start it?
- Could you explain how NearMedia can help businesses?
- If you had the ability to change something in the local ecosystem, what would it be?
- What is on the horizon in 2023 for NearMedia and Blumenthals?
Transcript of Episode # 9
[00:01] Announcer: This is a call to all current and aspiring entrepreneurs. How you market your business can be the difference between whether or not you succeed online. But don't worry, we're here to help with current strategies, tips, and tricks that you can apply to your online business or business idea. This is The EMJ podcast with your host, Matt Hepburn.
[00:29] Matt Hepburn: This is episode nine of The EMJ Podcast, and I'm your host, Matt Hepburn. Today on The EMJ Podcast, we're joined by Mike Blumenthal, the Godfather of Local SEO and Local Search. Mike is going to talk to us about his 20-year plus career in Local Search, and I highly suggest that you buckle up. There's going to be tons of insights here. This is going to be great.
Hey, Mike, welcome to the show.
[00:55] Mike Blumenthal: Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure.
[00:57] Matt Hepburn: Absolutely. So, I'll just get right to it with the questions because I know your time is valuable. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about when you started in Local about 20 years ago, what got you started in Local and your passion about that.
[01:17] Mike Blumenthal: In some ways I've been in Local my whole life. I grew up in a retail business, local retail business, from my family. We decided to close that in 2001. After 50 some years of being open, I got into building websites and it became clear to us as 2000, 2001, it became clear that without that, these websites that I was building for local agencies and local businesses would have no visibility. If I didn't get into SEO and Local SEO, I’ve optimizing them for the local market. And so, I learned SEO in 2000 and 2001. And when Google Maps came out in 2005, I was astounded because over the years of being in retail business, I built up a tremendous resentment against the yellow pages company and their use of fud. For those of you who don't remember what fud is, fear, uncertainty, and doubt as a selling technique as opposed to consultative selling. And so, when Google Maps came out, I threw away all my phone books, did all my prospecting with Google Maps, with Google Local wasn't an integrated with Maps, and I couldn't figure out why nobody was writing about it. So, it integrated Google Local with Google Maps in 2006 and I started writing about it. I didn't get any business in local still doing web development, but I became friends with all the people who were looking at local. Bill Slovsky, Matt McGee, David Mimh, Will Scott, Mary Bowling, and those people largely defined, helped define the rest of my life so far.
[02:57] Matt Hepburn: That's wonderful. So, did you have what type of challenges did you have when you were first kind of transitioning over to local with the agency? And it was Google Places back then, right?
[03:10] Mike Blumenthal: It was before Google Places. It was called google local business center.
[03:14] Matt Hepburn: I hadn't even ever heard of that one.
[03:16] Mike Blumenthal: Yeah, it preceded places. Well, it really was never an issue for me. I had no income from my Google Local writing or my research or my relationships for almost five years after I started in a local. But I was doing it as a side gig because I really loved the technology. I loved exploring how it worked, and I was making enough money building websites and integrating my knowledge into these websites that it didn't matter that I wasn't making any money. So, I spent five years basically studying before I got my first job. So, I don't know if that's a problem. I guess it might be if you're trying to put food on the table. Fortunately, I had another way of putting food on the table, and so I was able to spend even though probably 30 or 40% of my time researching local, I was able to cover that with my other work. So, income was the initial issue. Ultimately, I became sort of recognized broadly, and clients came to me. I never had a lead form. I never did any active marketing of myself, but clients sort of self-selected came to me and found me so became very much an inbound.
[04:33] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that talks to your expertise and publishing wildly on that. I know we've had a bunch of local people talk about that recently, about becoming an expert and why that's important in the niche.
[04:49] Mike Blumenthal: The problems resulted at that point was that I didn't like doing the nitty gritty, day in and day out drudgery of local. And I was only one person, so there's only so many hours in the week, and I was spending them on mundane tasks instead of doing the things I love to do, which was research and learn.
[05:10] Matt Hepburn: Right.
[05:11] Mike Blumenthal: So, the problems cropped up once I started selling my consulting services, and I didn't have an effective agency model. The idea of a retainer was a lot of retainers, you get paid monthly, and a lot of agencies don't do anything for that. So that was a bit of an enanthema to me. So, we're in it this problem where I was tapped out in terms of both energy and time.
[05:41] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, you can't clone yourself. How do you build the agency up and teach other people that? You go with processes.
[05:49] Mike Blumenthal: And I didn't want to run an agency. I'd run a big business, 50 employees that we closed in 2001. And I found being a boss was unpleasant, and I didn't enjoy that either, so I didn't want to run an agency.
[06:07] Matt Hepburn: What were your AHA moments or your breakthroughs with local through the 20 years? What would you say were your biggest, whether it was the changing landscape or ranking factors, or what would you say was the biggest that you figured out?
[06:25] Mike Blumenthal: One big AHA moment was learning how to read the Google patents and working with Bill Slowski to better understand them and realize that this was how local worked. And still works this way, I can show your writings from 2006 2007 and conversations with Bill where we were exploring what the patents meant and how that related to local, and you see much the same algorithm at playday. So that was one big moment. The other big moment was when I realized that partnering with other people smarter than me was the best way to both free me to do the things I like to do, to have more fun and to not worry somehow in a family business, it was full of stress. My partners who were my relatives treated money differently than I did. It often ended up in their pocket, and that was stressful. And I found that if you find really good partners, so this is a bigger odd than any ranking, any ranking learnings if you find really good partners with whom to create a business work in a business, you don't have to work as hard. You can work a lot smarter, and you can sleep at night because you know that the people you've chosen have as much integrity as you do, or hopefully they do. And and so it works better. So finding great partners was really key.
[08:04] Matt Hepburn: That's really great knowledge. I think that actually you started going over to making programs like local you and more educational for the public. Does that tie into giving you more time instead of doing agency work but teaching without?
[08:26] Mike Blumenthal: We started Mary Bowling and David Mhm and I were invited to speak at SMX, New York in 2000, late 2009, and we all agreed that the knowledge was being sort of kept in New York City at these expensive conferences. Wasn't being made available to small businesses. Having been a small business, being a small business, we all you know, I recognized and lauded David MIM and Mary for being interested in taking local U out to the mid major towns, Grand Rapids, Birmingham, Alabama, those kinds of places. But it was a side gig to my now two jobs, which was building websites and local consulting and wasn't profitable for the first three or four or five years. It was very difficult to come into a marketplace where none of us had the name recognition that we had nationally and put on a seminar series at the low price. We charged $99 and be profitable. It took us a long time to figure out that model and figure out a way to make it profitable. So, for the first three or four years, it was a labor of love, not a labor of it didn't free up time as a side gig. It took a lot of time, but it was fun. We would use it as an opportunity. David MIM and I and Mary and Will Scott and Matt McGee and Aaron Wiki and Mike Ramsey and others would use it as an opportunity to get together, eat good food, and drink good drink, right? And so, we had a lot of pleasure out of it. And it allowed us to establish this protocol where we paid all the speakers. One of the things about the speaking world that was very real was we were asked to, as a speaker, fly to New York City, get an expensive hotel room, take time off work, and create great content for the benefit of whoever is putting on the training. And we weren't being paid for that. And one of the things we wanted to do with local you was to be sure that we prioritize paying the speakers for the time and effort. Not that you could ever really cover their time and effort, but what we said to speakers was, it's got to be original content, it's got to be new. Can have been presented before. We know it's going to take you a long time, but we will pay you. We'll pay your transportation, your hotel, your food, and an honorarium for that work. And it was a good learning because it basically forced us to prioritize that in our budgeting and everything else, we did. So, it often meant that we stayed in cheap hotels or we had less than the best food and we didn't have big parties, but it meant that we got great content and we created great friendships.
[11:30] Matt Hepburn: And the attendees had to love that, right?
[11:34] Mike Blumenthal: Yes, they did. And the way we made this successful was two ways. One, we partnered with local chambers of commerce, the Better Business Bureau in Dallas, for example, or the Score in Austin. These groups helped us build credibility, and then we often backsided them with agency training so where we would charge much more for the day. And between the two events at the time, in 2011, 2012, we were able to break even because Google sponsored the project for the small businesses. And then when we did the second event for agencies, we were able to actually start making some money. But it took some years to figure out. So, we continue to do the small business ones at not very high profit margins. But between the Google sponsorship kept us alive, and then by adding the agency training in, we were able to actually start making some money. 2013 2014.
[12:33] Matt Hepburn: Sounds like a course.
[12:35] Mike Blumenthal: It might be. I'm more interested in helping businesses. No, I know, but training in that.
[12:41] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, I know, but I mean, just sounds like a lot of learnings that you guys had to take in how to make something profitable, right?
[12:52] Mike Blumenthal: And again, profit wasn't ever one of the things I learned in closing a business was that profit isn't the reason that you get up in the morning. It isn't the reason that you put on the hat and open the door. It's kind of like air. You need it to stay alive, but it's not why you wake up. You you hopefully have love in your life. You have companionship, you have other relationships in your life. And business is much the same way. We never ran Local You with an eye towards making a lot of money. We made enough money that we could keep going and not feel and feel like we could pay speakers, all that sort of thing. But it was never the primary goal. And I think that's the other learning that I took away from both failing a business majorly and when it closed, the family business and businesses along the way, is that it isn't enough reason to run a business. It is not fulfilling enough if you're running it just for the money.
[13:51] Matt Hepburn: Right.
[13:52] Mike Blumenthal: You need a hollow.
[13:53] Matt Hepburn: Yeah. You need a passion. Absolutely. Yeah. That's beautiful. Did you want to talk a little bit about Joy transitioning?
[14:05] Mike Blumenthal: A local YouTube? Before that, let me talk about Gather Up through a local you. I made friends with Don Campbell, and Don was at one of my events, where I spoke about a consulting relationship, I had with a client who needed reputation improvement and how we built a survey tool that helped them. Understand whether customer is happy or not happy and then help them ask the happy ones for reviews and funnel the unhappy ones into a customer service customer support, and then funnel them back into the review process. And Don, I tried to build that product in 2011 and failed, or 2012, I guess, and failed. And Don started building that product, that idea, that consulting idea, into a product. So out of Local U and out of this training came this relationship with Don Campbell, who is like David and Mary and all the other people at Logo, super high integrity human being and with whom I started Gather Up. So out of the good things that were Local U came a better thing, which is this reputation system called at the time, Get Five Stars, which is now known as Gather Up.
[15:23] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that's what I do.
[15:24] Mike Blumenthal: And that also just reinforced the idea that great partners that could do things that I couldn't do, ie. Managed the software building process, which I didn't have any skills in, and help manage the designers for the software, those sorts of partnerships. And from that, then, as GatherUp grew, as Get Five Stars grew, we hired or I encouraged Don to hire Aaron Wiki, who was at that time a local use speaker. And it was clear to me that he had a great number of talents, and he really brought a whole level of capability to Get Five Stars. We rebranded together up under his guidance, and he helped really build up all of our teams and our processes and really set us up for success and ultimately sale. So, joy became clear. During all this, I started winding down my consulting. I kept it always as a side project but working more on GatherUp and left Local U as somewhat of a side project, even though I was the CEO or whatever, of its managing director or something. Throughout all that, it became clear in 2015, 2016, as Gather Up was taking off, that Joy had become very knowledgeable and local and she was one of the best sort of tacticians in local that I had identified. So, we encouraged her to share articles with Local You and to speak at Local You and sort of become part of what we were doing at Local You, which was a lot of fun as we sort of engaged with agencies more. It became these three times a year where you get to see all the people that you really wanted to see and interact with, and these people became friends and lifelong sources of information and sharing. So anyways, in 2019, as Joy was sort of striking out on her own, mary and I had a conversation with her, I think it was at a Local You advanced in Santa Monica where we expressed an interest. Mary was thinking of retiring at the time. I'm going to retire one day after I die.
[18:04] Matt Hepburn: I know what I'm feeling.
[18:05] Mike Blumenthal: She expressed some interest in buying it and I felt like if anybody in the industry could bring a level of excellence to the topic and level of integrity to the topic of local and not chill it the way it was. Joy and so the conversations proceeded and before the end of 2019, just before the pandemic, we closed on both Local U and simultaneously sold Gather Up in the same time frame to Alpine Software Group, which was P firm that was rolling up some local productivity apps.
[18:55] Matt Hepburn: Yeah, that's awesome. Actually, Joy is going to be on the show tomorrow.
[19:00] Mike Blumenthal: Good.
[19:02] Matt Hepburn: So, I'll talk to her a little bit more. Could you talk about how near media came into being and how they help businesses?
[19:13] Mike Blumenthal: So, I was winding I maintained a relationship with Gather Up for several years after we closed and certainly have maintained my relationship with Local You, but I was looking for new avenues to explore and it struck me as I was winding down with Gather Up, that the information gap in local was large. That what used to be some organizations that did a good job of covering sort of the strategic side of local. Right. And I think locally does a great job of covering the tactical side. But there was this gap in sort of looking at the strategic aspects of local and I reached out to Greg Sterling and David MIM and both expressed an interest in exploring the idea. So, for the first year of that, we started a newsletter three times a week that I think is one of the best sort of combinations of strategy, tactics, looking at commerce, social and search through the lens of local. I think it's one of the best newsletters going. Greg writes that and we've been slowly developing products that we can scale and make more widely available TBA we're in the midst of sort of working through those, and we hope to have something that people can actually see or touch in the next three or four months. So, it's taken a while to get to that point, but we're very close. So right now, we're primarily just analyzing local from every which way, and you'll see some very original and unusual content in our newsletter as well as on our website.
[21:19] Matt Hepburn: It's fantastic. If you could go back and change something, or change something now in the local ecosystem, what might that be?
[21:32] Mike Blumenthal: I don't know. I'm not very good at or. I don't very much dwell on things past. I don't see the past as anything other than informing the present. That's right. And so, for me the question is what can I do going forward? Not what would I have changed in the past? There's so many inflection points, but they are what they are, and the present is the present. So, I'm much more about let's look at what we can change going forward, or what can we do better today than I am about what would I have changed ten years ago. I mean, I've had a great life. I wouldn't have changed anything in my life in the sense that I've enjoyed every minute of it. I may have gone broke a couple of times, I may have been in a ball on my bed, immobilized in depression because of that. But in the end, I learned that when you run a business, usually nobody dies. If it fails and you can wake up the next day and you put 1ft in front of the other, you can move on.
[22:42] Matt Hepburn: Right?
[22:42] Mike Blumenthal: I'm not sure I would change anything as painful as some of those things were.
[22:46] Matt Hepburn: Good life lessons. So hard, but good life lessons. So what do you see in 2023? What's on the horizon for Near Media and Blumenthals.
[22:58] Mike Blumenthal: So I've wind down my writing at Blumenthals and write primarily at Near Media just because I want to give Near Media my voice, as it were. I'm doing a lot of research in both Apple and Google because I think at this point in time they are the only two players in local. Apple being lesser of one, but one with potential. Everybody else has been pretty much neutered by the Google juggernaut. So, my writing from Blumenthals has moved over. I'm still doing some small business consulting with lawyers and other small businesses in various topics. I do business consulting with a number of legal groups and just help small businesses out. I spend a lot of my time volunteering in the Google forums where I find it fascinating because it's and I report on this at Your Media. It's a view into the bugs and the world that Google has created through its AI first approach to local and their unwillingness to support their decisions with real support. So, I report on that and analyze that at Intermedia and hopefully with New Media like I said, we will be moving forward with some very advanced tools and abilities for businesses to better understand either their specific place in local for multilocation chains, as well as understanding the greater ecosystem. But for now, right now, I'm putting my focus on those Google and Apple and trying to help others understand how Google functions, which, despite me, I've often seen myself as sitting in a triangle with Google on one side, small businesses on the other. Point to the triangle and me sort of between them, trying to explain each to the other because Google doesn't get small business. Small business doesn't get Google. And I see myself as a translator in that sort of project.
[25:05] Matt Hepburn: Well, I love that description. So, I think that's an amazing journey that you've been on, hopefully with a.
[25:18] Mike Blumenthal: Few more days left.
[25:19] Matt Hepburn: Yes, absolutely. And we look forward to hearing more from what's in in new media and looking at these tools. And so, I look forward to seeing what we got in 2023.
[25:31] Mike Blumenthal: All right, well, I will share with you in 2024 if you'll have me back.
[25:36] Matt Hepburn: Absolutely, anytime. All right. All right, have a great day.
[25:40] Mike Blumenthal: Thanks.
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