One of the more desperate requests I get from clients interested in Local Search is wanting to rank well in Google for local queries when they don’t have a physical location in the searched city.

The challenge is that Google appears to not want to show businesses that are not physically located in the searched city if they can avoid it. And, in their guidelines, they are fairly explicit about trying to game the listings, particularly with easily faked addresses like P.O. Boxes:

Do not create a listing or place your pin marker at a location where the business does not physically exist. P.O. Boxes are not considered accurate physical locations.”

For businesses that have service areas, Google throws them a bone by allowing them to designate a service area in the Google+ Local/Places Dashboard:

Businesses that operate in a service area, as opposed to a single location, should not create a listing for every city they service. Businesses that operate in a service area should create one listing for the central office or location and designate service areas.”

But, more often than not, this can be an exercise in futility as setting a service area in a competitive industry doesn’t seem to be much help.

So, what can you do?

1. Punt On Local & Go For Organic

When it comes to SEO, the path of least resistance is often the best.  While Google is always getting better at serving Places Pages in the SERPs, it still often surrounds those results with organic listings that it deems relevant.

National sites like Yelp and other big local directories do quite well with these results.  But, there’s no reason that your little local business can’t go head to head with big guys for these queries.  All you’ve got to do is create a page on your site targeting the query [Local SEO Houston], link to it from other pages on your site, build up the authority of your site with quality external links, and you could quickly find yourself on page one for these queries.

The challenge Yelp and its ilk have is that, while they can rank for millions of local queries, they can’t focus on specific queries like you can.

Local SEO Houston

Darren Shaw, creator of the WhiteSpark Citation Finder, recommends the following:

Don’t try to do 50+ surrounding cities. Just pick the most important cities, no more than fifteen or twenty of them. Don’t try to hide these pages by linking to them in a sitemap or footer link. Put these pages in the main navigation under the “areas we serve” type dropdown. For a good example, see the Areas We Serve dropdown.”

2. Get A Real Address

Sure, it’s a pain in the butt — but if there’s enough business in a city to justify it, you should consider getting a real address for your business in each city you want to rank for.

As long as the lifetime value of a customer is greater than the cost of the office space along with the marketing and coordination needed to make the SEO work, this can be a viable solution, particularly if you are not targeting more than a handful of cities. There is plenty of cheap office space available if you aren’t picky.  And, don’t forget to go for space as close to the city center as possible.

3. Get A Virtual Address

I have seen a lot of cases over the years where businesses in virtual office space have been delisted/suspended, with “virtualness” appearing to be the likely reason. And, there are times when it appears that Google will tank anything that has a P.O. Box or suspect address. Despite this, virtual addresses still can work.

I know of several companies that use virtual addresses and rank well in very competitive markets. It probably doesn’t hurt that they actually use these virtual offices to meet with clients, and they include the hours that they are at the locations in their Places Pages. While I don’t encourage anyone to create fake virtual locations, the real trick to these is basically knowing how to answer the questions when a Google Places rep calls to confirm that you really are using that location.

The challenge Google has is that using virtual office space is a legitimate business practice, and it can be hard to figure out which businesses are using the space for real vs. those that are just gaming the results. That said, these setups can make for messy NAP issues due to there being multiple businesses at the same address. Certainly, if you are using these just to game Google, there’s a good chance you’ll get hit somewhere down the line.

4. Boost The Geo-Signals On & Off Your Site

While creating a page for the target location is a good first step, if you want to take your game to the next level, try adding customer testimonials and case studies indicating the location of the work you did in the target city.

Will Scott, CEO of Search Influence, recommends “adding directions to your business from nearby areas reiterating the products and services you offer.”

Add photos and videos geotagged with the target location to your site and to your relevant citation profiles. Try to get reviews on relevant review sites that mention the location. Often, these off-site geo-signals can help.

5. Think Outside The Service Area Circle

When you set your service area in the Google Places Dashboard, you are given the option of either using (1) the “Distance from one location,” which sets your service area inside a circle with a specified radius from your location (e.g., 20 miles), or (2) submitting a list of areas served. I see businesses using the circle radius to set their location 90% of the time.

But, there may be an advantage to submitting a list of zip codes instead. When you use the circle, you are basically saying everything within the circle is important, which may dilute your ability to rank anywhere in the circle by spreading yourself too thin, particularly as the radius gets bigger.

If instead, you submit a list of zip codes that are targeted at specific polygons within the circle, this might improve your ability to rank for queries in those polygons. The downside of going this route is you may decrease your ability to rank for queries outside of the polygons.

Along with some other SEOs, I am testing this theory and will report back later if we find it to be a theorem. In the meantime, give it a shot — and let me know what kind of results you are seeing.

As my friend Mike Blumenthal likes to say, “The dynamics of the radius that Google uses to show local results frequently changes, so don’t give up and keep looking for a way in.”

Thanks to Will Scott, Michael Borgelt, Darren Shaw, Adam Steele and Mike Blumenthal for their feedback on this little ol’ thang.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Place Pages | Google: SEO | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is the proprietor of Local SEO Guide, a local search engine optimization consulting company specializing in yellow pages seo and local directory search—the blog is pretty fabulous too.

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  • Andrew Shotland

    Mike Blumenthal just posted some more detail on how to use zip codes to influence service area rankings http://blumenthals.com/blog/2013/05/12/google-local-sab-how-to-move-closer-to-the-city/

  • http://twitter.com/JoePistell Joe Pistell

    Andrew, long time fan of your work. Have you any thoughts on this? In a shoppers mind, GEO is relevant to the product. For example, a car shopper uses the major market they’re connected to base their search from (not the suburb where they live, or where the dealer is). In big ticket retail, the distance traveled is great and the “shopper’s GEO anchor” changes. I would think that Google would use the business SIC codes to create business profiles to emulate shopper behavior. Am I nuts?

  • Andrew Shotland

    If you are asking if Google changes the radius of results candidates based on the nature of the query (e.g. auto queries get a bigger radius than restaurant queries), then sure, particularly with mobile results.

    Re the mindset of the searcher, I don’t have any special data on this, so please chime in if you do, but I imagine that while there are a lot of out of market car searches for people looking for a deal, many searchers still start with non-GEO head searches like “cars for sale”, “used cars”, “car dealers”, etc. along with plenty of make and model searches (e.g. 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid). And for these queries, Google is going to show a set of geo results based on the searcher’s location. Although if the user has previously searched out of market, perhaps Google Now might automagically show out-of-market results.

  • Kathy Long

    In addition to #1 for organic, you can get sites to rank #1 in Places even though they’re in a different city by optimizing their listing with important keywords that others have overlooked. For example, where others optimized for “custom cabinets” and chose it as a category, I optimized a client for “custom cabinet maker” and “custom cabinet shop.” They’re #1 for those queries in a few cities 25 miles away, and they’re getting phone calls from there. Because these cabinetmakers go to their customers and service a 60 mile radius, distance is not a problem, and I make sure that is clear on the site.

    Re virtual offices, I hate seeing businesses do this just to expand their reach into areas they’ve never been. I see attorneys doing this quite frequently. I saw one recently with 50 “offices” from San Francisco, to Sacramento, to LA and everything in between, yet they only have one real office. And they go so far as to set up Google Place accounts for each location. What’s odd is I’ve seen them actually rank #1 in Places even though their website only has one page dedicated to that city (confirming #1 above really works). As the really local attorneys get on board with Local SEO though, those virtual listings will drop in rank. They can’t possibly keep up with Local SEO and all its ranking factors in all those cities. So if you’re going to go that route, be prepared to keep working it in those cities cause the competition just keeps getting tougher and tougher.

  • http://twitter.com/SukhSingh84 Sukhjinder Singh

    Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on local 2.0, I am looking to test the virtual address route too. I am mostly in favour of this technique because as you said, people are still ranking using this technique. However there’s the fear of getting slapped by google, and one thing I don’t understand is how to get over the “virtualness” of the PO BOx address. I suppose maybe geo tagging. and getting citations like reviews for those areas would help bolster their credibility?

    I’ll be testing these things with a client too and will share with you all my results, I;ll be keen to see your results too!

    Thanks

  • http://localmarketlaunch.com/ Brian Coryat

    Thanks Andrew for the fantastic explanation of options for Service Area Businesses! Since there are so many service area businesses, I wonder what Google and other search portals have in the works to service those verticals.

    And, what about the hybrids? We recently had to fight with Google to allow a service area business that listed actual locations (about 1000). Each location services a wide area, but the locations were ALSO were visited by actual clients. Would appreciate your thoughts.

  • Andrew Shotland

    By “fight” do you mean they told you needed to hide your address? If clients are visiting your location, that seems to pass the guidelines IMO

  • Ankit khanna

    Hello
    Was wondering if i just type in “local seo” would it still rank in houston..

  • http://twitter.com/MastrAnkit Ankit khanna

    Hello
    Was wondering if i just type in “local seo” would it still rank in houston..

  • http://twitter.com/MastrAnkit Ankit khanna

    ……………………fd

  • Andrew Shotland

    When I search “local seo” incognito with my location set to Houston, TX, my site has 7 results in the top 100 including my home page which ranks #1. I don’t see the Houston targeted page, which I guess is getting clustered out by my older URLs.

  • energycircle

    Andrew–underlying your suggestion about “punting” on local is the assumption, if I’m understanding you right, that there is a tradeoff for ranking well in either local and organic. In other words, a strong local ranking results in a weaker organic listing and vice versa. Am I understanding you correctly on this? Do we have evidence, or has Google said anything directly about this? Thanks much.

  • bobmeetin

    My goal, for my client, is also to get listed for cities peripheral to his business address, with virtual offices not being reasonable, I’d been pondering zip codes and will probably go there. Unfortunately, we have a more pressing need. After 4 months I cannot even get the business, coincidentally located in Mountain View, to even display with the primary category (in fact no local results at all), not to mention custom ones or phrases in other information. The same type of search works in other cities across the country. Suggestions?

  • oscarkool2

    Hmm, I don’t understand why you get to write on this established white hat seo site when your own seo site is using font size 2 sidebar links. Nice dude! Keep up the white hat…

  • http://www.cheadledatarecovery.co.uk/ John Reid

    Do you think that having multiple virtual offices to present coverage through out a region (or country) is the “right” things to do? I expect most customers realise that these are just PO Box addresses or a virtual office with no staff present. Does it matter? In the sector that I work there are plenty of data recovery virtual offices .

 

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