A Small Gift for Local SEOs and a Big Cheer for Original Images

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“Localism” – Miriam Ellis

We know that a picture is worth a thousand words and that Google is betting the house on a visual future, yet I’ve often struggled to find the exact image asset I want to illustrate the story of local businesses and local SEO. So, I decided to create my own asset, and today, I would like to offer the above painting to all of my colleagues in local search. Please, feel free to use it in your speaker decks, client pitches, articles, marketing materials, and any place else you would like to instantly convey the thriving spirit of economic localism which underpins the passion we have in common with our audiences and clients.

This impressionist painting is original, hand-done, by me (no AI) and I offer use of it as my valentine to all of my colleagues and to local business owners with affection and tremendous respect for all of your contributions to many communities. I hope it will add vivid storytelling power to your work! If you would like to credit me, my fine art website is at MiriamEllis.com.

According to 3M research, visual aids improve learning by 400% and humans process visual media 60,000 times faster than text. Meanwhile, Time’sTop 100 photos focus on the mighty power of imagery to make an emotional connection. But we’re at a funny moment in time with image content, because we could be on the verge of inundation. I’d like to look at this phenomenon with you today and consider how the local businesses you market can stand out in an increasingly-illustrated world.

Thinking about imagery at this moment in time

Local places matter to us. Petrus Christus knew it when he painted “A Goldsmith in His Shop” six hundred years ago (local SEOs might call it the Barbara Oliver Jewelry of its day!):

Van Gogh was just one of thousands of painters who have worked to capture the mood of local “cafe society” and – if they had mobile devices – what do you think these people would be writing in their Yelp reviews?

And Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, set in a Greenwich Village diner, has become one of the most-recognized paintings in American art history. Looking at it 80 years after it was painted, it evokes a feeling in me of the value of local businesses keeping the light on in hard times:

Point being: local businesses are so vibrant a component of culture that they inspire fine art. They are an integral part of the history of communities, towns, and cities, and they readily lend themselves to impactful visual representation.

It’s a topic for this moment in time, because we are poised between a past littered with bad stock photos and a future that could be made up of assembly line AI graphics. Some may argue that the availability of images for pennies or the capacity to command robots to produce pictures is democratizing, and I can respect that viewpoint, but I have also noticed that mass-produced art lacking in meaningful human intention can quickly become clutter, overlooked by the very people we are trying to reach.

And that’s a problem, because when we look at art that we find beautiful, blood flow to the brain increases by 10%. According to University College London, this is the same lift we get from seeing the face of a loved one, and I have to wonder, then, what it does to us to be subjected to imagery that we find dull, repetitive, and soulless. Andy Warhol may have seen beauty in Campbell’s soup, but how often do you gaze with joy at can labels in the grocery store, when every single tin on the shelves offers a picture?

What will search be like when every query ends up in a kind of supermarket aisle, full of visuals? In 2016, visual elements made up just 2% of mobile search results, but now they make up 36%. Google reps are very transparent about this, stating,

“We’re transforming the SERP into an endless stream of visual ideas.”

As an artist, I’m automatically intrigued by any visual medium, and am keeping both eyes on multisearch, visual search, and all the permutations of image search. Now is the time to consider how visual media will fare if we become oversaturated with it in the next few years.

Standing out amid visual clutter

The art of differentiation is always going to be a relevant question for SEOs and local SEOs. Right now, we know how much of a competitive advantage high quality visuals can give our clients. Google says that shoppers are 90% more likely to purchase from businesses with images in Maps and search. Large, high quality images can have a demonstrable impact on organic rankings and Google’s own documentation cites their impact on local rank. UGC-uploaded photos even impact Google review order. Early adopters will get early benefits, but diminishing returns can result once a practice that was formerly special becomes commonplace.

Right now, we haven’t yet reached peak images in local SEO. Expert and friend, Darren Shaw, recently offered an excellent Twitter thread on the 7 types of visuals every Google Business Profile needs, including brand identity shots, exterior and interior premise shots, staff photos, product/service photos, UGC, and review screenshots. It’s a list long enough to keep any business busy in 2023, and the truth is that so many local businesses haven’t even created listings yet, but I’d like to encourage you to begin thinking beyond the standards before they become givens.

If your plan is to use AI graphics to keep pace with competitors, you may end up looking just like them, and that’s in direct contrast to one of the core reasons independent local businesses are beloved: because they are different! Predictability may be what made fast food chains a success via the McDonaldization phenomenon, but uniqueness of products, services and experiences is the magic ingredient behind 3 in 4 customers shopping small and local. Doesn’t it stand to reason that your digital visual presentation could take its cues from this existing dynamic and dare to be different?

To that end, here are my five outside-the-box suggestions for visually differentiating the local businesses you market online from less creative competitors:

  1. Hire a local artist to paint your business. Imagine how uncommon your Google Business Profile photo deck would look if it included glowing fine art featuring your store, your grounds, your staff, your inventory, and customers coming in for experiences with you. I guarantee that there is a good fine artist near you with the talent of capturing how your business is a vibrant part of the local community. Give your staff and your customers reasons to feel proud of where they work and shop.

  2. Hire a creative professional photographer to make your business look intriguing. Joel Headley has already documented the lift in traffic, calls and other conversion metrics when stock photos are replaced by original images, and you need basic shots of the assets Darren Shaw mentions, but a talented art photographer could take this a step further by photographing aspects of your business in such a way that the public will want to come experience them personally.

  3. Are you working in a vertical people constantly call “boring?” Would it lend itself to humor that could make your listings stand out? Consider hiring a local cartoonist to make your community laugh with you and remember your brand.

  4. Maximize every opportunity for making your premises a green space. Connectivity with nature is increasingly cited as key to mental health. It’s why Trinity College Dublin has torn up its lawns and replacd them with wildflower patches, full of blooms and butterflies. Photograph the planted areas people can experience when they visit you, and be sure to highlight accessibility and areas for sitting and quiet contemplation as a break from shopping.

  5. Consider the role of art at your place of business, be that paintings, photography, sculpture, community projects, music, and more. A grocery store can have a great soundtrack and a retail shop with wall space can double as a gallery or a social media hotspot. The more inviting your premises are, the more likely that customers are to want to photograph themselves there. Because every person is unique, that thing we call UGC can become a major asset, enabling you and your community to see how your business looks through the gaze of many.

My two-point perspective

On the one hand, convenience sells. Why open a cookbook, turn on a light switch, sweep your own floor, work hard on writing something, or mix your own colors for a hand-done painting when a robot can do it all for you? We’re all so fatigued, so why not take it easy? But the thing is…there is something about this perspective that’s really been bothering me lately, and I think I’ve figured out what it is. It sounds like the little voice in my head that would let me be monumentally lazy instead of struggling to do my best despite living with a chronic disability. That insidious voice that wants me to take it too easy instead of doing as much as I’m able to for myself, and that is reinforced by every marketed offer to take every load off my shoulders.

I suppose that because I’ve pushed back against this temptation for years and pushed myself to stay positive and creative in some very hard times, I am wary of this insidious voice being a driving force in society. I don’t think everything should always be as easy as possible, because I don’t believe humans produce great writing, art, music, movements, or anything of lasting value when shortcuts are prioritized over strenuous effort. Yes, we can increasingly choose to let machines do all the work for us, and even think for us, but my other perspective tells me what we may miss if we never do the hard work ourselves.

I’ve entered a number of juried art events over the years, and there is nothing quite like the thrill of walking into a big, buzzing exhibition grounds, searching the crowded walls for your painting, finding a blue ribbon hanging on it and seeing that little “sold” sticker on the accompanying card. You know exactly what you put into that piece, from ideation, to drafting, to completion, and there is such joy in realizing that someone else saw your work and chose it as the best in the show, or even as something to bring home into their personal space.

This is the sense of accomplishment I want local business owners and their marketers to feel when they are chosen because, instead of giving into low standards, they have brought the highest standards to bear in the creative presentation of their companies. When local businesses go the extra mile, it can be deeply felt in the quality of life enjoyed by their whole community. It’s a very good thing.

I hope you may find a use for my painting in your work, even if it’s only as a spark for your own ideas about being seen amid the clutter of an increasingly-automated visual web. Your inventiveness, intentions, and most of all, your uniqueness matter. Some say that life is an artform, so let’s close with a quote from Cézanne today, who said it so well:

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.”

No matter how artificially “intelligent” we make the bots, the emotions are all on our side, ready to connect us with the people we care for and serve.