Convenience is local, and increasingly, so is digital search. When it comes to customers searching for “coffee near me” or “ATM near me” on Google or ia a “Hey Siri” voice search with location services activated, the resulting options are likely driven by search engine algorithms that assess relevance and prominence rather than on physical proximity to a brick-and-mortar store or a digital storefront. A convenience store may not have “handcrafted coffee” or “flatbread pizza” in its name, but increasingly, those offers are on the menu—and when it comes to digital search, those offers need to be on the map, too.
C-STORES DON’T SHOW UP
Whether it’s a made-to-order foodservice program, cold cases stocked with locally sourced craft beers, CBD health and wellness products, bitcoin ATMs, on-site package lockers or electric vehicle charging, convenience stores pack in a deep selection of what consumers seek, and all in an easily shoppable footprint that makes for a quick trip. Ninety percent of consumers surveyed by Accenture said they use search at every stage of their purchase journey. “Your digital presence is as foundational as your business’s signage,” Christian J. Ward, executive vice president and chief data officer at AI search firm Yext, said during a 2021 NACS Show education session about winning the convenience shopper via search. “You need a better way to ensure that anyone anywhere will find you, he advised.”
Convenience store shoppers count among those digital savvy consumers. The NACS Convenience Voices Annual Shopper Study 2021 indicates that 21% of convenience store shoppers use digital product search, while 3 in 4 shoppers use their smartphone to find the product or service they seek (see page 64). Voice search is becoming more important to consumers, too, with 58% of consumers surveyed indicating they use it, according to PwC.
Lori Stillman, NACS vice president of research, did some field research on voice search ahead of the 2021 NACS Show. Stillman visited a 7-Eleven Evolution Store in Manassas, Virginia, and with phone in hand, asked Google, “Where is the nearest ATM?” Not one of the results served up included the ATM she was leaning against in the c-store, which is among the newest in 7-Eleven’s lineup. Stillman tried the same test inside a Sheetz location with a substantial coffee program asking, “Where can I get a cup of coffee?” This result, along with more than a dozen other tests Stillman conducted during the field trip, returned results that did not include a single convenience retail offering.
The point of the experiment was to strawman a new NACS initiative to help convenience stores stand out by defining their offer in the digital space. Through Project Search, NACS seeks to build an industry-wide local search solution with store-specific attributes to enable convenience retailers to improve the accuracy, relevancy and prominence of their listings at every touchpoint along the digital path to purchase. The project is in the fact-finding stage, and Stillman hopes that early efforts will raise awareness about the importance of winning digital search and how to keep up with the evolving landscape.
“As an industry, we’ve done an amazing job of evolving our store offer but not necessarily making sure that customers know what’s available in our stores,” Stillman said. “We are great destinations for bean-to-cup coffee, to buy stamps, to refill propane tanks, and we want the industry to show up in search results more often when and where consumers are looking.” Helping consumers find great convenience stores via search is the cornerstone. Next is standardizing data. “We want to make sure the industry is smarter about how they are organizing their data to make sure people can find our stores.”
Google My Business (GMB) is a starting point. Businesses can create free GMB profiles with key information, images, logos and describers for products and services. Merchants can also take advantage of free listings on Google’s Shopping tab. (Rio SEO, a local marketing platform for enterprise agencies, brands and retailers, has a useful infographic with tips for optimizing your GMB listing at bit.ly/3zxWljc.)
Stillman stresses that accurate and up-to-date information is crucial. “If you have inaccurate data, for instance, if your website says you are open 24/7 and a customer goes to your store and it’s closed, that’s a turnoff. It’s not just about entering your information once and then letting it sit. Keep your listing information current. Locations, hours, restrooms, car wash, EV charging, foodservice—be specific.”
That includes consistency in how you present your business name, address and phone number across your business listings and website. Make sure your address is on every page footer and contact page to optimize it for “near me” searches.
In Rio SEO’s 2021 Local Search Consumer Behavior Study, 84% of respondents said they expect the information on a brand’s website and GMB listing to be up to date and accurate. And nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed that reviews influence their purchasing decisions. “People make local purchasing decisions quickly and base their decisions in large part on the accuracy of a brand’s online presence,” Mick Wilson, vice president of customer success, Rio SEO, said in announcing the survey results in September 2021. “Brands must become better attuned to ever-evolving behavior shifts and optimize their marketing strategies accordingly to make it easier to do business with them.”
People make local purchasing decisions quickly and base their decision in large part on the accuracy of a brand’s online presence.
MAVERIK’S SEO JOURNEY
The COVID-19 pandemic awakened many businesses to the importance of having a digital marketing strategy that includes showing up in local search listings and digging into search data to better understand and market to customers who find c-stores through those listings. Maverik Inc., based in Salt Lake City, Utah, counts among the convenience retailers that are paying attention.
Maverik has about 380 locations and growing across 12 Western states, making it the largest independent fuel marketer in the Intermountain West. Andrew Pawlik is digital marketing manager at Maverik. “We’ve been passively managing our listings for the past few years, and we’ve always known that there was even greater potential there,” he said. “COVID-19 turned our attention to really drilling down on our digital strategy, as we realized that this is a huge area of opportunity.”
Maverik started with updating its search listings about once a quarter with information on new stores, hours and the like. “Now we spend a little more time inputting localized information such as what landmarks our stores are next to. That could include, ‘Where’s the nearest gas station to the National Park on I-19?’ and mentioning the names of not just our brands but also some of the vendors we work with,” Pawlik explained. “We are really trying to provide as many entry terms as possible.”
Making sure Maverik’s listings are accurate and relevant is the linchpin of its digital search strategy, and it’s paying off. “Because we’ve done the work, we’re getting prominent placement in voice searches,” Pawlik said. “When someone asks, ‘Hey, Siri, where’s the closest gas station?’ they are going to find us because we’ve gone through our listings and provide local, relevant information.”
Patrick Kelly, senior manager of digital marketing for Pilot Company, reiterates the importance of showing up when and where customers are searching. The Knoxville, Tennessee based retailer operates Pilot Flying J, with more than 750 locations in 44 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces.
“It’s important to have location listings that are discoverable and accurate, especially given the long list of apps and websites consumers are using to determine their next stop,” Kelly said. “When drivers are looking for food, fuel or places to rest nearby, we want them to be able to easily find a Pilot or Flying J Travel Center.”
Delivering what customers are seeking goes hand in hand with finding their way to your location. “It’s also imperative to know your consumer and what they will be searching for to improve search results,” Kelly said.
As an industry, we’ve done an amazing job of evolving our store offer but not necessarily making sure customers know what’s available in our stores.
Timothy Carter, CFO of DEV.co and SEO.co, writes in Forbes that local search is going to become hyper-specific and hyper-personalized, so companies need to differentiate their content to appeal to specific audiences. “Gone will be the days of Google sending you to a generic Wikipedia page for whatever topic closely relates to your query,” Carter writes. “Instead, you’ll get super-specific recommendations, like detailed, niche pieces of content, products you can purchase or opportunities to interact with brands and websites directly.”
For 2022, one of the things that Pawlik of Maverick plans to tackle is incorporating into its SEO strategy more search terms that people don’t typically associate with convenience stores. “We are expanding search terms outside the norm and testing terms that would appeal to all consumers’ buying behaviors,” Pawlik said. “We are looking for crossover between some fast-feeders and ourselves. Maverik has lots of food items—like tacos, for instance—that people might not normally associate with a convenience store.”
So, if someone wants to find the best food in Elko, Nevada, chances are good that a digital search will be involved. “You do what most of us do when you don’t know where to go,” Pawlik said. “Google it. Then I see that Maverik has great food, and I have a loyalty card there, and they are right down the street, and they have everything I need, right? You want to narrow search right down to your store has this specific product.” And that opens the door to give your customers “a surprise and delight type of experience,” he said.
Keeping up with the pace of change in digital search is challenging, especially as Google makes algorithm updates that can affect how a business ranks in search results pages. In November 2021, Google updated how it generates local search results, with an emphasis on three key factors: relevance, distance and prominence. In Google’s standard help document, the search giant says, “There’s no way to request or pay for a better local ranking on Google. We do our best to keep the search algorithm details confidential, to make the ranking system as fair as possible for everyone.” That means staying on top of best practices, including search engine optimization, having detailed business information and responding to customer reviews and ratings.
“One thing Google puts a lot of weight in is your listings across other platforms,” Pawlik points out. Those include Facebook, Yahoo! and Bing, among others. Listings need to be consistent across all of these platforms to improve page rank. Think of these as “thousands and thousands of little internet billboards,” Pawlik said. “Our job as a marketer is to make sure all of those billboards have the correct information, but Google is evaluating all of those billboards to make sure those listings have good information, too, and that’s driving how we rate across the internet.”
Sounds like a huge time commitment that requires an army of SEO experts. Not necessarily. “SEO-dedicated resources can come in many forms, and as this need has grown at Maverik, more and more resources are being dedicated to digital strategies across the board,” Pawlik said. “Taking the time to be intentional about digital strategy is crucial,” he stressed.
One of the goals behind NACS’ Project Search is removing barriers for retailers, no matter their size, Stillman said. A potential outcome is partnering with a digital solutions platform provider like Rio SEO, SoCi or Yext that can help drive online visibility, optimize SEO and manage local search listings for multistore locations. “Retailers can use these two-way platforms to interact with consumers, manage reviews, understand what people are searching for and if their business showed up in the search results and then the next step, see if the consumer took action,” Stillman of NACS said.
Click-streamed actions and geofenced searches give retailers the ability to measure and track their performance. “The benefit is finding out how many people searched and if your store was served up and if the consumer took action,” Stillman said. The cost, she says, isn’t a big investment. “Generating one extra dollar a day would pay for the service.”
Pilot uses a third-party service to help with listings. “We’ve learned it’s really challenging to individually update hundreds of location listings across a variety of systems and tools,” Kelly shared. “By consolidating our information and processes, we are able to more efficiently manage our location data, ratings and reviews all in one place.” That in turn provides customers with a more consistent brand experience, Kelly says.
Maverik partners with several digital solution providers to increase its SEO engagement, streamlining and centralizing everything from listing updates to creating individual web pages for each store to reporting out search metrics. One of the things Maverik watches closely is Google impressions.
“We have more than 380 stores, and if you consider everyone who is using Google Maps and searching in your area footprint it really adds up,” Pawlik said. “We also measure metrics like how many customers are clicking through to get directions, and how many users are clicking through to our website and how many users are clicking ‘tap to call.’”
Seeing those numbers helps understand return on investment. “We want to continue to reach the customer where they are and offer valuable search optimization to meet their needs and drive traffic to the stores, making even more Maverik fanatics,” Pawlik said. “In the convenience space, there’s no better use case for optimizing digital listings and local search.”
Free Resources to Help With Your Search
Google alone directs searchers to more than 100 million different websites each day, the technology giant shared in its blog, The Keyword. Every month, Google says its “connects people with more than 120 million businesses that don’t have websites, by enabling phone calls, driving directions and local foot traffic.”
Google Trends data on what people are searching for indicate an explosion of searches for “near me” since 2019, with a marked increase in 2021. In January 2019, “near me” searches in the U.S. had a search interest value of 42 relative to 100 but grew to 72 by year’s end. (There was a notable dip to 41 between March 29 and April 4, 2020, as the U.S. went into lockdown over COVID-19.) In December 2020, the value was 85, it breached the 90 mark in June 2021 and then hit 100 in late December 2021.
Christian J. Ward, executive vice president and chief data officer at AI search firm Yext says natural language search is fast overtaking keyword search. Think more “I need to find a gluten-free cake for my daughter’s 6th birthday” then searching “cake” and “bakery” and “gluten-free.” It’s conversational vs. transactional. “Google is getting very good at understanding natural language search,” Ward said.
It’s also using AI to constantly refine its algorithms to fine-tune search capabilities, plus enable multimodal ways for users to search information more intuitively. That includes voice search and visual search.
A new speakable schema for U.S. users of Google Home is in beta testing. By adding speakable structured data, website developers can submit their content to Google to show up in text-to-speech (TTS) queries for audio playback. Structured data is a standardized format that helps Google’s crawlers understand the content of webpages. Right now, the speakable schema focus is on news articles. The schema allows search engines to find content to read aloud on Google Assistant-enabled devices using TTS, Google says. In turn, publishers can distribute content to a wider user group. Users get the key information points and the full article URL via the Google Assistant app.
For visual searches, Google is looking to introduce Multitask Unified Model (MUM) functionality to enable new ways to search and discover a broader range of websites and video content. On their smartphones using Google’s point-and-ask mode of searching, users can tap on the lens icon and search images for related content. For instance, with their camera, users can snap a photo of a bicycle derailleur, and then in the app type a query to search for parts and fix-it tutorials. Or they can search for clothing in patterns similar to ones they snap with their phone or find in Google images.
“By combining images and text into a single query, we’re making it easier to search visually and express your questions in more natural ways,” Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google senior vice president, writes in a September 2021 post in The Keyword blog.
Google Maps recently introduced a new feature that lets restaurant consumers share information about menu prices, curbside pickup, delivery and more when they leave reviews. All of these details show up in the main listing for the restaurant. Area Busyness is another just rolled-out feature lets users find out how busy an area is at different times of day and days of the week if they’re looking to avoid crowds. And Google has partnered with Kroger grocery stores on a pickup with Google Maps service. Once customers place an online grocery order for pickup, they can track their order status, share their ETA with the store and alert store staff to their arrival using Google Maps.