Phone Call Tracking Companies: Your Product Is Poison!

by Chris Silver Smith

It was obvious to me as I covered the BIA/Kelsey DMS 2010 Conference this September that phone call tracking is getting even more buzz now than it was getting four years ago. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, it’s simple: for ads that appear in different places (such as in phone books, online directories and even search engines, companies will use different phone numbers in order to understand which ads resulted in phone calls in order to assess how effective their advertising campaigns are. To differentiate, your phone number used in your yellow pages book has to be different from what appears in Citysearch or Superpages or wherever. It sounds great, but what most call tracking companies don’t┬árealize is that those of us who are more versed in online marketing will nearly vehemenently recommend against the practice!

In search engine optimization terms, using multiple different phone numbers around the net is much like using all different URLs for the same webpage, without having the URLs redirect properly. This results in a higher likelihood of diluting your ranking factors instead of focusing them, and could make one’s webpage rank poorly in search results. (For more details, see David Mihm’s writeup, “Be Wary Of Call Tracking Numbers In Local Search“.)

Today, Mike Blumenthal┬áproposes another possible solution to the phone call tracking number dilemma in a post about using a new hCard protocol to clearly alert bots about the type of phone number. As Mike mentions, I’d also proposed a similar possibility which I’d called a “Canonical Phone Number Tag” which also was based on hCard Microformat.

Canonical Phone Tag for SEO and Phone Call Tracking Numbers

There are quite a few companies which do call tracking. They include: Marchex, Mongoose Metrics, TeleCapture, CallSource, AT&T Interactive, AdLocality, and probably quite a few more I’m missing.

Let me be clear — all of us local search marketers like improved analytics such as what call tracking provides! However, there’s a very big disconnect between the analytics and the SEO involved. If I have to choose between improving a business’s performance versus getting more detailed analytics of ads, I’m going to choose performance first.

All of us would like to see this clearly resolved in some way. One option would be to generate some new semantic protocol such as via Microformats. Another might be if each and every call-tracking company published mappings of primary business numbers matched to their tracking numbers, and allowed most bots to harvest this info.


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7 Responses to “Phone Call Tracking Companies: Your Product Is Poison!”

  1. Tim Biden says:

    You should probably add ServiceMagic to the list of offenders. They’re morons who can’t get information straight between different franchises of a company and they love the phone call tracking “service” because it essentially locks a client in to using their service because if you cancel your account, you lose the number that has already been published for you.

  2. […] Smith and David Mihm in particular have railed against for many months. In a recent post Chris repeats his critique of call tracking online, calling it “poison”: In search engine optimization terms, […]

  3. Menachem says:

    ServiceMagic is much more insidious than that. The phone numbers they publish lead to their own call center, which presents itself as an answering service – and then they resell the “lead” back to the company you thought you were calling to begin with – at 150% the cost of their regular leads!

  4. This debate will be interesting as time goes on and I am decidedly on the other side of the argument as I believe that you cannot prove you are increasing performance if you can’t track the conversions. Yes you need positioning to get clicks and clicks to get conversions, calls or otherwise, bit what does it matter if you can’t track the results. At the same time I understand the other side fo the argument… I think the responsibility factor here is to be more transparent. Radical statements suchs as “vehemently advise against it” are irresponsible when unqualified. In many cases this is certainly appropriate but in other cases not so much. SEO is not the same as PPC yet the average reader does not know what it is. In PPC call tracking is very important and can be controlled with robots.txt commands. When it comes to Google Places it is a very risky play. SEO optimization on a web site is largely content bases as well so implying that the tracking numbers have such a drastic effect is also incomplete. I think a healthy debate is essential but I would be more inclined to engage in one with someone who is not militant about wholesale statement that are so radical.

  5. David, if you’ve truly read what I wrote above, and have followed what I’ve written in the past about phone call tracking, I don’t see how you can say that my stance is either “unqualified” nor “militant.”

    You mention that you “cannot prove you are increasing performance if you can’t track the conversions”, but we’re talking here about increasing the rankings of a business’s listings — which would still benefit clicks to the website which can be tracked, even if you cannot track the phone calls. So, yes, we can prove we’re increasing performance in this case, and there is still some tracking available. (In fact, there’s still other, more “old-fashioned” types of tracking available even if one opts not to use tracking numbers, such as training employees to ask new customers where they found your listing, and using special offer language or codes in order to figure out where referrals originated.)

    Yet, the bigger strategic point is that you’ve stated “what does it matter if you can’t track the results…” — well, it matters because the client has a much better chance of getting results in this case if their ranking has not been impaired by using a different phone number. Here’s what matters from the client point of view in most cases, I believe: results. And, you’re going to reduce your chances of getting better results with the use of the tracking number.

    I think you’re coming at the issue from a POV of doing what’s in the best interest of the agency, rather than the client — it’s better for you if you can track what’s been done with call tracking, than it is for the client. I will agree that if this didn’t sometimes impair performance, it would indeed be ideal to track calls in addition to click sources, but that’s not the paradigm we’ve been handed.

    You can’t really say that I’m “militant” when I’ve provided the industry with a potential solution which would help mitigate the problem introduced with the call tracking, and pointed out others’ solutions as well — so, I’m not opposed to the possibility of using tracking in the future. The industry itself has chosen to not directly address this issue as of yet, and until they do, I don’t believe we can recommend using tracking phone numbers in good conscience. Further, my statements are indeed qualified by broad knowledge of how the search technology and listing matching algorithms generally operate, and by research/observation in the field, and by discussing the issue with a number of other qualified colleagues in the field.

  6. […] written about the call-tracking issue before, using pretty heavy language (“Phone Call Tracking Companies: Your Product Is Poison!“) in an effort to highlight and emphasize the seriousness of the […]

  7. Aubrey says:

    @Chris – Excellent point(s)! That’s my real concern – is that it seems as though it comes down to the question of whose interest we’re putting first. Also, it seems a bit unfair and possibly unethical to have the client tied to us by way of a call tracking number, should they ever switch to another local marketing agency/provider at any point in the future, or should the call tracking service ever belly-up.

    This, coupled with major pain in the #$% issue of data consistency across hundreds of review/directory sites…seems like a no-brainer with regard to the question: to use or not to use call tracking numbers. I’m sure for marketers who have enjoyed the powerful analytics call tracking offers, the thought giving them up is extremely unsavory.

    But like you point out…is it really about us in the end or about the business owners and their LONG TERM viability and ranking in local search?