How To Create Your Local SEO Roadmap Through Research, Benchmarking & Tracking

During the regular online training sessions which I deliver to our customers, I inevitably get asked the same question. Actually this question comes in a few guises.

  • What should I focus on more – citations or links?
  • Are reviews an important factor for local ranking?
  • How many citations should I build for my client?
  • How do I know the best categories for my client to be listed in?

But, they are all asking the same basic question: What do I need to focus on to improve my client’s rankings?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a silver-bullet answer because there isn’t one. Every client, every location, every industry and every competitor set is different. And because of this, the right solution is also different.

What I do say to them is that all successful and efficient SEO campaigns start with detailed Research and Benchmarking.

Research and benchmarking gives you a clear understanding of each client’s SEO situation and how they compare to their competitors. Once you have this data, it becomes clear what areas you need to prioritize and how much work is needed.

If you skip over this research/benchmark phase and don’t establish a starting point to track changes against, then you’re working in the dark.

Building Your Local SEO Roadmap

SEO is a journey. And all good journeys need planning. Planning creates a roadmap for you to follow which tells you where you are and keeps you on the right path to success.

If you tackle the research and benchmarking phase correctly, then you should be able to answer the following 3 questions:

  1. Where is my client now and how does their SEO compare to their competitors?
  2. What SEO tasks do I need to focus on as a priority, and what can I put aside for now?
  3. How much work is needed to get my client into top x search results for their key terms?

local seo roadmap This is your SEO roadmap. It tells you where you’re starting from, where you’re heading to and what’s the best route to get you there. If you know these three things, then your chances of success are massively improved, and you will run your campaigns with much greater efficiency and productivity.

So, What Research Do You Need To Do?

This is a ‘Local’ column, so I’m going to focus on a typical Local SEO campaign here.

1.  Identify The Most Lucrative Search Terms For Your Clients

You need to identify which search terms will provide the most benefit to your client. This benefit comes in the form of more traffic, customers and revenue. So, you need to work out which search terms will deliver most traffic and which are easiest to rank for.

Because your keywords/phrases will be local in nature, the search volumes for them will be pretty low in comparison to more generic terms. This limits the effectiveness of many enterprise keyword research tools because they just don’t have enough data to give you accurate insight on the search volumes for long tail, local terms.

So I would suggest that you use a combination of the following tools for your keyword research:

  1. Local Marketing Source-keyword tool – a very useful, free tool for generating extensive list of local search terms
  2. Google’s PPC keyword tool – another free tool which provides an estimate of monthly searches for long tail local terms with geo-modifiers in them (e.g. Lawyer Boston or Dentist San Diego)
  3. Google Trends – (also free) this tool is useful for search volumes for geo-modified terms vs. non geo-modified terms (e.g., Lawyer Boston vs. Lawyer)

Outcome from this step: you should have a list of target search terms ordered by their monthly search volumes so you can identify the best search terms to target and track for your client.

2.  Identify The Top Ranked Businesses For These Terms Or Industry/Location

Search competitors are often different from real-world competitors. So, you need to work out who ranks consistently high in results for both local search and organic search engines. Create a shortlist of competitors (5-10) which you can use to benchmark your client against.

Useful tools to help with identifying top local competitors:

  1. Google itself – you can manually identify these competitors
  2. Google+ Local Wizard (from BrightLocal) targeted tool which analyzes Google+ results and optimization
  3. Placesscout – suite of tools geared to tracking and monitoring local SEO performance
  4. GPScraper – powerful tool for finding local prospects and comparing Google+ performance

Outcome from this step: a list of 5-10 businesses that rank the best for your target search terms.

3.  Benchmark Your Client Vs. Competitors

Now that you know your competitors, you can turn your attention to benchmarking. Focusing on the key local ranking factors, you need to establish how well your client is doing and how they compare to their top competitors.

You should examine the factors which you as an SEO can directly influence, e.g., Google+ optimization, links, citations etc.

There are other factors, such as business location, which you can influence through non-orthodox measures (e.g., establish a virtual location for your client), but these aren’t easy to do and are not the first things you should focus on.

Drawing from the 2012 Local Search Ranking Factors study, the highest priority factors you can influence are:

  • Google+ Listing Optimization – listing verification, category selection, local address and number etc.
  • Website optimization – authority (aka Page Rank) of client’s website, inclusion of local signals on the site, backlinks to the site
  • Citations – both quantity and quality of citations for the business
  • Reviews – quantity of reviews on Google+ and 3rd-party sources
  • Review ‘Score’ – rating received on Google+ listing

You need to gather data on these factors for both your client and their competitors and put them into a table which makes it easy for you to compare your client vs. competitors.

Below is a screen shot of what this table should display to make benchmarking easy.



Some of the same tools mentioned above can also help with competitor benchmarking:

  1. Google+ Local Wizard
  2. Placesscout
  3. GPScraper

Outcome from this step: a table of data which clearly shows if your customer is doing better or worse than its top 5-10 local competitors for these key local ranking factors.

If you completed these steps correctly, you will have all the information you need to be able to answer those three questions we asked earlier:

  1. Where is my client now and how does their SEO compare to their competitors?
  2. What SEO tasks do I need to focus on as a priority and what can I put aside for now?
  3. How much work is needed to get my client into top x search results for their key terms?

Benchmarking Helps You Pick The Right Battles

By seeing how your client compares to their competitors, you can now prioritize the activities you need to undertake. Benchmarking makes it clear which factors you should focus on and which ones you should park for now. This will save you a heap of time and stops you from chasing red herrings down a blind alley (is that a muddled metaphor or just mixed thinking?).

Prioritization is all about picking the right battles, and those battles will be different for each client. Most campaigns will require you to ‘battle’ on 2, 3, 4, etc. things at once — it’s rare that improving one SEO factor makes all the difference.

Here are two simplified examples which highlight the fact that each client’s case is different and will require a slightly different approach to improve their ranking.

Example 1: Google+ Listing Optimization Is A Quick Win

Your client has only got 60 citations and 120 backlinks. That’s low and must be the reason they’re not ranking well. So, you must go out and build lots more links and citations.

But on closer inspection, you see that the top ranked businesses actually have fewer or less citations and links, but they still out rank your client.

So actually, citations and links are not the problem, but what is? Well, your client hasn’t bothered to verify its Google+ listing and to select the best categories for it’s services.

Great, that’s pretty easy to fix, and you should find that with some smart optimization work on their Google+ listing so that they jump up the rankings. That’s a quick win for you and makes you look great!

It also means that you haven’t charged off and spent three weeks building links and citations for an unverified and unoptimized Google+ listing.

Example 2: Building Citations And Links Are The Key

Your client has claimed its Google+ listing, and it’s nicely optimized with the right categories, local NAP, description and photos. They have 150 citations and 350 links, which is pretty good for a local site. But, they don’t have any reviews yet and no Google ‘score.’

So, you spend six weeks putting together a clever strategy for generating reviews from their most satisfied customers, and get their staff whipped up into a frenzy about the importance of reviews and how this will make all the difference.

But, two months pass, and there is still no improvement in their rankings. Hmm…

Then, you decide to do some benchmarking, and you find that this client has fewer citations and links than competitors, and that most competitors only have 1-2 reviews themselves. So, you actually need to focus on citations and links rather than reviews. Having those reviews isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t have been the first thing you focus on and wasn’t an effective use of your time and effort.

Now, you need to change your strategy and find a smart way of explaining this to your client without making you look incompetent!

Secondary Research Gives You The Ammunition You Need

Now that you know what factors to focus on, you can kick off the next phase of research. This secondary research gets under the hood of the main issues and provides the detailed data which you’ll need to carry out your tasks.

Website Audit

Whatever the outcome of your benchmarking, it’s always advisable to audit a client’s site. Nine  times out of ten, there will be improvements which can be made which will aid your wider activities. As search engines blend their local and main search algorithms, the influence of organic ranking factors on local search rankings will continue to grow.

In your site audit, you should look out for usual, on-site issues such as error pages, missing meta content, lack of keyword focused content and poor internal linking.

But also look out for local signals such as having the business name, address and phone number on every page, use of proper mark-up, location and category words in the pages titles and meta content, Google map or map link on the contact us page.

Useful website auditing tools:

There are a slew of excellent site auditing tools out there, so I’m going to cherry pick a few and invite readers to mention their favorites in the comments section below.

  1. WebCEO (doesn’t include local signals)
  2. SEOmoz (doesn’tcurrently include local signals)
  3. Woorank (doesn’t include local signals)
  4. Local SEO Check Up (does include local signals)

Citation Finding

If citations is an area you need to focus on, then you need to build up a prioritized list of directories and sites to target. But before you do this, you should identify which sites your client already has listings on so that you can review the accuracy of these listings and then track citation growth over time.

The easiest and most productive way to build your target list of citation sites is to spy on your competitors and copy them! If you know which sites they are listed on, and which of those sites are the most powerful, then you can quickly create a priority list of sites to add your client to.

Useful citation tracking and citation finding tools:

  1. Citation Tracker (by BrightLocal)
  2. Whitespark
  3. Placescout
  4. SweetIQ

Link Building

If your client has a low number of links and a poor link profile, then you obviously need to tackle this — links are an undeniably important factor in good SEO performance.

Link building is a huge subject and one that it is hard to summarize in a short paragraph. It’s also extensively covered in other articles on SEL — so I thought I would point you to three of the best articles which focus on local link building.

  1.  How To Rank Nationally With Local Links
  2. 5 Local Linkbuilding Ideas For The Post-Penguin/Panda Era
  3. 10 Unorthodox Ideas For Local Citations & Links

Beyond Research: Tracking Against Your Starting Point

Once you start your SEO activity, you need to track your client’s performance and compare it back to your starting point. This tells you if the actions you’re taking are proving successful and if you should carry on or if you should change tack.

Some actions can have a very quick impact — such as verifying and optimizing your client’s Google+ listing — while others will take longer to kick in, e.g., citation building. So it’s worth being aware of the typical time frames so you know when you should start to see improvements in performance.

You also want to keep track of competitor performance and continue to benchmark your clients. You can be sure that the top ranked businesses will be working hard on their SEO, so those initial targets you set will need to be revised.

What Metrics You Should Track

It’s useful to track a number of metrics because they each provide a different piece of the jigsaw:

  1. Citations and Links: it’s very useful to keep track of the citations and links you build. While many clients may not appreciate the significance of these numbers, it provides evidence of the work you’re doing ,which is useful in the early days before rankings and traffic pick up. It also allows you to benchmark your performance against competitors
  2. Search Rankings: there’s a definite anti-rankings vibe in the SEO world right now, but tracking you search rankings still has its merits. Rankings can act like an early warning signal for successes or failings with a campaign. If your client’s rankings start below page one, then you might see ranking improvements well before actual site traffic increases, so this alerts you earlier to the impact your work is having.
  3. Site Traffic: knowing how many extra visitors you drive to a client’s site is critical. This is the proof that your actions are generating leads for you client to convert into customers.
  4.  Online Contact: track how many site visitors engage with your client online by tracking actions on the site such as completion of contact us forms, clicks on email links (trackable in analytics) and coupon downloads.
  5. Phone Call Tracking: many local searches result in an offline interaction. It’s hard to track shop visits back to specific online activity, but you can track phone calls. Local businesses love to hear their phone ring, and tracking calls gives you proof that you’re delivering tangible results for your client.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | How To | How To: SEO | Intermediate | Local Search Column


About The Author: is Founder & CEO of BrightLocal provides local SEO tools for local businesses; see their research section for the latest findings about the local search market.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter


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  • Linda Buquet

    Awesome points. Very detailed and informative as always Myles. Off to share this…

  • Mandy McEwen

    Such an informative article..thanks so much for sharing. These are some great tips for local SEO. I am going to try out a few of the tools you mentioned. Thanks again!

  • Eric Rohrback

    Myles could you clear up what you mean by “phone call tracking”? How would you recommend tracking phone calls for local, since it would be unwise to use a tracking number (for local at least). Is there a better work-around to find out how many phone calls you have directly contributed through local? The best advice I’ve heard is to survey customers when they call, and ask how they heard about you. The downside is that many people don’t differentiate between Google Organic, Google+Local, or really any search engine too well… they just end up saying “I found you on Google.”

    Phone calls/lead tracking has always proven to be a bit of a problem, and I’d appreciate any insight you have on this topic.

  • Matt Roney

    I love articles like this–actionable advice, and a full utility belt
    of excellent tools. Thank you! My local clients thank you, too.

  • Vince Aquino

    Nice post Myles! Thanks for sharing! I will definitely use these steps on my Local SEO work.

  • Purna Chandra Dey

    Wonderful post… thank you!

  • Heather Pienaar

    Very informative!

  • Shannon Henrici

    You have set up a more formalized approach to an entire research project in one post. Amazing! I know how many of us struggle with what tools to use, how to present it in a simple actionable format. You laid it out in one post! Thank you! A lot of this work and analysis goes on in our minds, but to lay it out is difficult.

  • Daniel C Berman

    Any ideas about what to do when geo-locators reduce search volumes below what Google wants to report for every single keyword term you have?

  • yasir usman

    Search Engine Optimization |SEO| Tools – Softwares – Services – Guides – Tutorial & Ebooks


  • Deloatch

    excellent post.can you please suggest me good sites for citations.One more thing is that i cant understand the concept of anti-rankings vibe in the SEO.There is any SEO Tool?


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