One of the best ways to acquire a top rank in Google search results is to create and dominate a local niche. Unless you’re a truly online-only business or you’re a multinational corporation with no need of help, it’s a great idea to investigate local keywords and establish a local presence.
The reason for this is the shift in the way users are using the Internet. As of February 2014, mobile Internet browsing surpassed desktop PC browsing. More importantly, the way those users are using the Internet has changed. Many still browse general interest topics, yes, but many more are out and about, actively searching for local businesses to meet their immediate needs. If your business can satisfy those needs, you’re able to access an immediate, interested audience.
Google’s Local Updates
Google has two primary algorithm updates, Hummingbird and Pigeon, which deal with local results. Hummingbird emphasizes semantic search, such as the queries performed through Siri or Google Now. Pigeon is a recent shakeup of the way local search is codified and results displayed.
Pigeon, in particular, is an ongoing shakeup we’re all still watching closely. The dust hasn’t settled yet, and it’s not clear what else might change before it does. Google drastically changed the requirements for ranking high locally, as well as changing the definition of “locally” in regards to search.
Where Local Matters
Local SEO matters in a few ways, both directly and indirectly. It’s not as simple as national web SEO, where your goal is to target a query and sit at the top. Local searches – if you’ve ever performed one, you’d see immediately – look very different from standard web searches. There’s the web results, but there’s also the local pack and the carousel. Additionally, with Pigeon promoting business directories like Yelp over a results page full of individual businesses, there’s the indirect off-site SEO to consider.
Standard Search Results
The standard search results operate just like wide-web SEO; backlinks are beneficial, keywords are important, and all the traditional SEO factors matter. It’s important to note that, right now, the Pigeon update has made it very hard to rank on the first page for many local keywords. This is because Google is promoting business directories – Yelp, UrbanSpoon, TripAdvisor and such – over individual businesses.
Local Pack Results
The local pack is a subset of results at the top of the search with anywhere from one to seven individual businesses listed. Each business gets a title link to their site, their URL, their address and a link to their Google+ page in this section. Additionally, if the business has Google+ reviews, a star rating and link to the reviews will appear. Most packs have a mere three results, making it a fairly exclusive group.
The carousel is available for select queries, particularly among restaurants and hotels. It creates a black-background stripe across the top of the search results with a picture, link and star rating for various potential businesses that fit the query. Where general search results show directories, the pack and carousel show individual businesses. These are the places to be.
You have less control but potentially a lot of visibility through directory pages like Yelp. These pages dominate search results due to their huge influence and years of SEO. Rather than try to out-rank them, it’s best to work with them to establish control over your profile and optimize it to appear in search.
How should you go about optimizing for each of these types of results? You have a lot of work cut out for you.
• Create and Fill Out Search Engine Place Pages
The big three search engines each have their own variation on a places page for local businesses. Register yours for Google, Yahoo and Bing. If you have a Google+ business page, make sure it’s all filled out properly for local results. This is important particularly for the carousel, but also for the local packs. Link to your main website in each. Include local keyword optimization and make sure your address information is correct.
• Pay Special Attention to Google+ Places
Google+ is where the magic happens in a number of ways. In particular, for local search, make sure you’re categorized properly and that your contact information is correct. On a normal website, if two URLs can access the same page, Google can interpret it as two different pages. Addresses work the same way with Google; if your business lists more than one address, Google will think it’s multiple businesses and will split up any SEO power you have.
• Search for Local Directories
Identify your local keywords – generally your industry or product plus your location with varying degrees of specificity – and note down any directory pages that appear. This includes the big names like Yelp. It also includes local directories that may be specific to your city. Once you have this list, work to claim your profiles on each and fill them out the same way you fill out your search engine place pages.
• Optimize Your Website For Local Search
This is more for traditional SEO, to give you a better chance of being one of the few results that appear in the search results outside of the carousel, packs and directory results. Use local keywords, maintain quality content and strive to acquire high quality local backlinks.
• Maintain a Mobile Site And/Or App
Not having a mobile-accessible page is death for local SEO. Again, a huge amount of web traffic is done through apps and mobile browsers today. Provide at the very least a mobile or responsive design for smartphone and tablet users. If possible, create task-oriented apps for added benefit.
• Gather Positive Reviews
On directory pages and on Google+, you want to acquire as many positive reviews as possible. Positive reviews are highly visible and help attract users who see your business listed in the carousel or the search results. Ask your customers to leave positive testimonials. If you receive negative reviews, reach out to those customers to establish a customer service relationship.
• Upload Quality Photos
Web users are visual users, and images can be very compelling. Upload high quality compelling images to your Google+ page, your Yelp page and other directories. This helps assure mobile users that each page is actually your specific business and not a similarly-named competitor. It also helps attract the eye and differentiate your page from pages without pictures, which default to using map locations.
• Earn Local Backlinks
Backlinks were mentioned in passing above, but it’s worth noting that local listings are incredibly valuable. A local newspaper running a top-10 list of best local restaurants may very well appear above Yelp and the other directories in search results. This is a quick way to get your business listed very visibly, if you’re providing a service of a sufficient quality level to be listed.
• Avoid General Contact Info (corporate hq, virtual address, 800 number)
Generalized contact information can be killer for local SEO. If you’re listing a corporate headquarters address rather than a local address, for example, you’ll only show up for local searches in the corporate area. The same goes for using P.O. Boxes and other virtual addresses, which give no real information for local users. Another less frequently noticed issue is the telephone number; having a local area code can help immensely and is a strike against using a “professional” 800 number.
Does all of that seem overwhelming? Keep in mind that this is all in addition to your standard SEO, ad campaigns and other marketing work. The local demographic can be incredibly lucrative, but you definitely need to work at it to succeed.