A number of years ago, the number one question asked during SEO-related meetings and consultations was, “How long will it take until I’m on the first page of search results?” This question made a lot of sense, since not being on the first page of search results is akin to being non-existent in today’s market. Google would rank sites according to a flat, unified algorithm, and every search term yielded the same set of results – more or less – regardless of the geographical location where the search was conducted. This meant that every SEO campaign was a national one. For example, instead of a local plumber competing with other local plumbers in a specific area, the client would need to surpass thousands of other plumber competitors across the United States to reach one of the coveted top spots.
This unnaturally high level of competition led to some devastating consequences for small businesses, who were forced to spend massively and wait a very long time just to get in the game. Ultimately, even when the SEO efforts proved fruitful, the site would see a dramatic increase in irrelevant traffic due to simple geography.
Below is an actual dashboard of one of our New York based clients who provides localized services. Only half of the traffic to the site originates in New York, while the vast majority of the sales are non-local visitors – meaning that one of every two visitors to the site is irrelevant. This phenomenon hurts the site not only in terms of conversion rate, but also in terms of important metrics, such as the number of pages viewed, bounce rate, and overall visitor dissatisfaction (interestingly, site tracking showed that non-local NY visitors often remained on the site, still trying to order services to no avail).
Nowadays, with the algorithm advancing leaps and bounds and smartphone usage spiking, business owners are realizing that the best way to achieve their online marketing goals is to invest in local SEO. However, this creates an entirely new problem: the vast majority of business owners are not well versed in the various steps necessary to compete online on a local level. This guide will describe the on-page and off-page measures a business needs to take in order to ensure that its site is compatible with local SEO best practices. Even if you end up out-sourcing the process to an SEO agency, this guide will help you understand the logic behind the process – and realize exactly what you’ll be paying for.
Step 1 – Laying the Foundation for Local SEO
Before embarking on this journey, it’s vital to verify several key details – the first being that the business has a physical address. In most cases, a business that does not have a physical address will not be approved or featured by Google. To verify the business’ local address, Google typically mails an envelope to the address provided. This envelope contains a code.
Another key factor to verify:
- NAP consistency: “NAP” is short for name, address and phone. These details should appear across your site, as well as other sites such as local mentions and directories. Keep these details consistent. They should be in the same order and contain the same exact details. Registering the company and its NAP details on different websites is time- consuming, which is why it is vital first to determine how they already appear online before starting the local SEO process. Neglecting to input these NAP details, or inputting them inaccurately, will delay the local process.
- Schema Markup: Schema is a type of markup that signals to search engines the type of content found on a particular website. Similarly to NAP, the schema markup verifies the business’ address, contact details, opening and closing times, and other relevant information. To compile your business schema, you will need to gather all relevant attributes. If you have already prepared a schema, use this handy Schema Scanner to ensure that it is free of errors.
Here is the code that you can adapt to your own website:
<div itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/LocalBusiness”>
<p itemprop=”name”>COMPANY NAME</p>
<p itemprop=”address” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/PostalAddress”>
<p itemprop=”streetAddress”>ADDRESS LINE 1</p>
<p itemprop=”telephone”>PHONE NUMBER</p>
<meta itemprop=”latitude” content=”LATITUDE” />
<meta itemprop=”longitude” content=”LONGITUDE” />
Just enter your company details in the area marked in blue
- Pay attention to Social Media: Facebook is typically home to business pages, but do not neglect Google+, which contains My Business profiles that are used to provide information about companies. This information, in turn, is visible in relevant search result pages. Similarly, setting up your business on Facebook Places will also ensure that your vital information is readily available to Facebook users. While less important than Google+ My Business pages, Facebook Places is an important tool that should be maintained with up-to-date NAP details and other special announcements. This is how to do it:
- Click here and sign in with a relevant e-mail address.
- Make sure you check the checkboxes (assuming you are authorized to manage the account) and click continue.
- In the next screen, you will have multiple options. Choose the one that best suits your needs. For instance, if you have only one location, select the last option “Add a single location”. If you have multiple locations, click on “Download the template,” fill in the details on the template, and then click on “Select File” and import it.
- On the map, search using your business address, business name, or business phone number. If you find your business, great! It means that you already have an account. If you cannot find your business on the list, click on “Add your business”.
- Complete the form and you’re all set.
- After setting up your profile in Google My Business, it’s time to do the same on secondary search sites:
- Apple Maps
- Bing Places
- Yelp for business owners
- Yahoo small business
- Better Business Bureau
- Angie’s List
- Merchant Circle
- Dex Media
- Discover Our Town
- EZ Local
- Advice Local
- Get Fave
- My Huckleberry
- Magic Yellow
- Map Creator
- Judy’s Book
- Home Advisor
Step 2 – Content: Getting your Content in Shape for Local SEO
After you have established your business’ physical location in a number of strategic placements on the web, you need to ensure that this information links back to your business’ website. This connection will be made primarily using content. Google loves content since this is the best way to determine whether or not a site is relevant to a search query. The following steps explain how to ensure that a site’s content is compatible with Google’s content requirements:
- Page titles: Review page titles and verify that local keywords (such as the city name, zone name, neighborhood names) are used, when relevant.
- City/service pages: Open designated pages in your website for the different services you provide and the different locations you service. Make sure the content of each page is unique and answers any and all questions a prospective client may have. Each location page should include that branch’s NAP details, a map, and a list of services provided. In order to make the content unique, you may choose to customize the page with additional or complementary services provided only in the area of the specific location, or with information that is relevant only to customers in that area.
- Crawl-able site menus: Ensure that the menus on your site are not based on Java Script or any other format that cannot be crawled. You can verify this by:
- Checking the cached version of the page. First check the last snapshot date to see if it is up to date. Then, make sure you see your menu links in the “Text only version” of the page. You can also click on “view source” to verify if your menu links are <a href=”> links.
- Local URL: If possible, attempt to include the name of the city or area in the URL or the local page.
- Avoid duplicate content: If your business operates from a number of locations (such as the various offices of a single law firm), it may not be useful to open separate local pages for each location. If the only details that differ are the address and contact information, it may be best to consolidate the location information on one page.
- Use internal links: The use of internal links is no less important when it comes to local SEO. A sound internal link structure helps Google’s bots understand which pages are the most important and relevant on the site. The more links a page receives, the more important it will be considered in the eyes of the search bots, and the relevance will be determined based on the anchor text. This means that you should strive to establish internal links to your most important pages, with anchor texts composed of both the service type and the geographic location.
- Insert keywords among the first 100 words on the page: Google places significant emphasis on the location of the words on the The higher up the keyword, the more relevant it is viewed by the crawl bots. Always strive to place a major keyword (including the geographic location when applicable) among the first 100 words. This, however, does not mean that you should not repeat the keyword further down the text. As always, keep the content natural, flowing, and logical.
- LSI terms: Keywords are the heart of any SEO strategy, but few pay attention to LSI (latent semantic index) terms. These are synonyms and related terms that enrich Keeping track of them can help you ensure that relevant keywords always lead back to you. The use of these words is important since Google identifies patterns in user behavior to improve its algorithm. A part of these patterns is based on LSI terms. For this reason, you should also write synonyms and related keywords when mapping keywords. To do this, you may want to use a thesaurus, Google’s suggested search queries, or even the results at the bottom of Google’s search result page.
Once your keyword Excel file is ready, edit it to ensure that as many words from your list as possible appear on your landing page in a natural way. Use moderation in this regard. Keep in mind that any unnatural content puts your site in danger of receiving a penalty due to Google’s recent efforts to eradicate keyword stuffing and other symptoms of low level content.
- Alt image: Use of images is crucial and requires preemptive thought. In order to optimize your image usage, it is best to change the image file’s name to the image description, including a geographic location. This replaces the generally random number your camera or cellular phone assigns to image files. Likewise, it is recommended to change the image’s Alt Tag to a description that includes a geographic location.
- Meta description: Though not a signal directly related to ranking, a page’s description is highly important in improving click through rate. Try to avoid using more than 165 characters, since otherwise Google will cut the text off at that length. Use your most common search keywords. Include your geographic location and even insert your local telephone number. All of these will help Google draw the connection between your site or page and your location. An additional advantage is that some users will even choose to call you without even visiting your site.
- Multi-device ready: Mobile search volume increases every year. In some niches, it has surpassed desktop search volume. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you lay the foundation correctly by keeping your Google Business and Google Maps profiles up-to-date, you will increase the chances of being found by someone searching on their mobile device. Moreover, the user will also have the opportunity to call you or navigate to your location with a tap of their finger.
Step 3 – Reviews: Why they Matter and How to Get Them
Customers often base their decisions on reviews. If customers find something useful, Google will require you to organize your site with that in mind.
When organizing a designated page on your site for your business reviews, it is important to be aware of the following criteria.
- Ratings: This may sound like a given, but it is important to emphasize nonetheless. Your business reviews should include a star rating which should be as high as possible. Naturally, it is all right if, from time to time, a less than stellar review seeps through – it shows authenticity. However, the quality of your services is examined closely by both Google and customers, and the star rating is the first and most intuitive indication of this
- Volume: Quality matters, but so does quantity. When it comes to reviews, Google (and customers) like to see a good volume and variety – more than 10 if possible. Do not go to extremes, however. A never-ending string of reviews on your site can be distracting and look inauthentic.
- Keyword usage: The customer reviews you include on your website should mention your products or services by name. This is an excellent way to insert relevant keywords into your site’s content for various SEO purposes, both local and general.
- Compare and contrast: Observe the format and wording your competitors are using for reviews posted on their sites, and try to find patterns. Are they repeating certain keywords? Are they including any personal information about the reviewer beyond first name and location? Take note and see how you can improve upon their efforts and give your own site more authenticity and authority.
Once you’ve decided on a place for the reviews and their general format, it is time to actually obtain some. As you know, reviews are incredibly important since they communicate a set of expectations to prospective clients — who may become new clients. This is the purpose of online marketing in general, and local SEO in particular. Listed below are 4 proven tips to increase the number of reviews your business receives:
- Make your request official: Asking a walk-in to write a review is great. However, this may be perceived as a passing, easily dismissed If you send customers a carefully worded e-mail with a quick survey and a place for comments, however, you could receive many more responses with little effort.
- Start with the most recent customers: Memory plays a big role in the reviewing process. This is why you should start by asking your most recent clients to write a review. A highly satisfied customer of 6 months ago may still write a glowing report, but the level of enthusiasm and detail that should come across in a review may be lacking.
- Ask twice: Many satisfied customers have every intention of writing a positive review, but cannot seem to find the time once asked. For this reason, and especially if you have established a business relationship with a client, it is good to send a friendly reminder or two.
- Learn to take ‘no’ for an answer: The last thing you want to do is coerce a customer to write a review. On the one hand, it may be On the other hand, if it is positive, it may sound disingenuous or be lacking in some other way. Finally, applying too much pressure on a client may drive them away from your business altogether; in which case you’ll be left short of a review and revenue.
Step 4 – Citations: 13 Rules of Thumb
Obtaining citations is one of the hardest stages on the journey to having a locally optimized search engine strategy. Remember the importance of consistent NAP citations stressed above? These are necessary to strengthen geographical signals that go into ranking a site locally. Essentially, multiple citations increase your site’s perceived prominence in a certain region from the standpoint of the search engine.
Many business owners confuse citations with links. Citations, however, are simply the NAP details of the business featured in as many places as possible. These serve as a strong geographical relevance signal from Google’s standpoint. Incomplete or inconsistent citations will not be as effective in signaling locality, and the resulting rankings may be inaccurate.
To ensure that your citations are accurate, complete, and consistent, follow these 13 rules of thumb:
- Don’t cheap out: This is true for any task that needs to be done right, but holds especially true for SEO, since getting it wrong can result in penalties and loss of revenue. Posting citations is a long and tedious process. It may be tempting to try and find a freelancer in another country, pay them next to nothing, and have them do the dirty work. However, this is a recipe for disaster, since effective citation building requires experience and a good understanding of SEO. Choose a reputable company to perform the work, or become familiar with the process and do it yourself.
- Make the most of what is already out there: Before starting to spread citations, examine your existing citations and do your best to get them in order. Common mistakes are a mixup of your fax number and your telephone number, an incorrect zip code, the unlisted legal name of your company, (e.g. the “LLC” or “Inc” has been omitted), or an out-of-date address. If any of your existing citations are incomplete or inaccurate, this is a good opportunity to fix them before going on to the next batch.
- Remove duplicates: If your site is (or was) known by several names, or resided at a different address, etc, there may be duplicate or near identical citations of your business. Run a thorough search to find and eliminate them, leaving only the most complete, accurate, and thorough citation. This search can be done using Google’s MapMaker.
- Know where to go: You’ll want to post your citation on several different types of websites, including directories (such as Yelp), data aggregators, industry directories, local/regional directories and “others”. This last category includes any other relevant site willing to list your NAP – a local blog, a local newspaper, a business partner, etc.
- Go beyond Google: Your Google citation should be one of the first ones you set up, especially since Google has special guidelines concerning the format in which your address should be written. Once approved, however, this citation should be carried over to listings on Yahoo Local, Facebook Places, Apple Maps and Bing Places.
- Be consistent – but smart: Your citations should stay as consistent as possible in structure, wording, length, etc. However, each site or directory may have different guidelines which should not be ignored to prevent your listing from being removed.
- Expect natural growth: After posting citations regularly over time, you should see the number of your citations grow spontaneously with no effort from you. This is thanks to the cross-feeding of data between different directories.
- Pay to play (sometimes): Determine a set of conditions for deciding when to pay for a citation, such as whether your competitors are listed, or the site’s relevant potential traffic. Sometimes having a citation on a reputable, authoritative site is worth the price.
- Be prompt about owner verification: Some listings require owner verification. Consequently, if you have chosen to delegate the task of citation building, be aware that you may need to respond to a verification e-mail, phone call, or letter from time to time.
- Claim and re-claim: If, during your scan, you encounter incorrect, inaccurate or incomplete citations attributed to your business, contact the directory to have this information corrected or deleted.
- Don’t rely completely on automated tools: Tools such as Yext or SweetIQ can help immensely in posting citations. However, they can often cause duplicate or inconsistent Moreover, once your subscription to these tools ends, your citations may disappear. For this reason, it is best either to stick with a reputable SEO agency, or to perform the task of citation building in-house.
- Reconsider affiliate telephone marketing: Many businesses pay for ads in which a number other than the regular business phone number is posted. This is used to keep track of the number of calls the business receives during a campaign. While these may be effective in getting leads, in the long run they may seriously harm the consistency of your citations.
- Keep track: Document the citation building process, or request that the person or agency performing it for you keep a record on a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet should include the URL of the citation, the date submitted, payment transferred (if applicable), login details for the site, and the full citation text. This file is extremely important and should be backed up consistently.
Step 5 – Local Link Building Tactics
If you have attempted to execute any SEO strategy, you will be familiar with the practice of link building – the foundation for any long-term, high-ranking goal. If your business is local and has potential local partners and patrons, it is crucial to invest in local link building that will include both the benefits of links (authoritativeness) and of an established locality. The “holy grail” in this regard is finding a website that is relevant to both the business location and the industry or niche.
Local link building is not a strategy in itself. It can be part of a greater link building strategy that takes into account the business’ relevant industry and influencing sites. However, local links are of special importance. For these you should create an effective, focused plan.
The tactics you will use are similar to link building on a national or global scale. They will perhaps be even easier thanks to the locality aspect, which serves as a good ice breaker. Below are four excellent approaches any business can utilize for local link building:
- Community networking: Interacting with potential partners in a community is an age-old marketing strategy, and is just as effective for achieving online marketing goals. This approach will take time and effort, but will pay off in a big way – with high quality, relevant links. Any event can be a networking event if you set your mind to the “networking mode.” However, if you are having difficulty coming up with ideas, consider the following:
- Host or participate in a networking event for businesses in your office building, neighborhood, niche, city, etc.
- Join (or establish) a networking association for business owners or professionals in your field
- Sponsor a local charitable event (bonus points if you get your name and card on the banners and pamphlets)
- If you have a content platform integrated on your site, initiate ways to regularly feature leaders, business figures and influencers from the community who are likely to link back to your site
- Contact local media and pitch an article that mentions your business for any number of (positive) reasons: perhaps your industry is rapidly growing in the city, one of your products is ‘trending’ for whatever reason, or your company has an unusually high number of minority employees. The possibilities for generating local media attention are endless!
- Run an online-only promotion
- Create a directory: if you are struggling to get local links, why not become the gatekeeper or a valuable link resource? By setting up a local directory for businesses, you could request reciprocating links from business owners who use your resource. Doing this will make your site central in the community, bringing in even more potential links.
- Obtain local testimonials: If your business has been established locally, you should cultivate relationships with surrounding business owners who know the importance of a favorable review from a locally recognized figure. This testimonial could be featured on your business site. However, a link from a local business (such as a blog post about their experience with your business) would be even more beneficial.
Verify that you are featured in local directories: An effective and relatively easy way to get highly relevant local links is simply to make sure that your business is featured on authoritative sites with high local relevance. Such sites include the local government website, the local chamber of commerce website, or similar sites. There are also private, commercial directories in most communities (even the smallest ones) that list businesses in every category for the benefit of local residents. Local directories can also be found on major search engines, such as Yahoo Local, Bing Local, Yelp, Angie’s List, Yellowbook and, of course, Google Business (to name a few). Additionally, local newspapers and other media outlets typically include ‘local guides’ that feature businesses. Such an endorsement could do wonders for a local business well beyond the face value of a link.
The steps outlined above are broad descriptions of the main areas you will need to focus on. Hopefully, this guide will help you to better understand the core elements of a good local SEO strategy.
Time is of the essence for nearly all businesses, and fast results are key. However, it is crucial to take the time to understand these processes and, above all, to realize that the results will happen over time. There are truly no shortcuts. Follow best practices consistently, hire able talent, and be patient. The results will be worth it. Good luck!