Many companies have brick-and-mortar locations spread out across the country or around the world, and most have some type of store locator utility on their websites. Restaurant chains, hotels, retailers, service providers, and more will frequently have a substantial web presence coupled with the desire to make it easy for consumers to find their local outlets. But most of these companies haven’t thought their store locator strategies through very well, treating the site feature as just a necessary item to include like a “contact us” page, or copyright notice—and they haven’t really thought through optimizing that content to easily be found through search engines.
In this article I’ll outline a few reasons why optimized store locators are beneficial, and I’ll provide a few tips on how to optimize the content for local searches and better user-experience overall.
Let’s look at an example of a typical major corporate store locator.
Starbucks, the company that elevated coffee to a religion and enjoys daily visits from devoted worshipers at thousands of locations, has a web site store locator on the link labeled “find a store.” The search form on that page allows one to enter a street address to find all Starbucks outlets within a certain radius of the address. If you don’t enter a street address, and only enter a zip code or only a city + state, the utility will find all outlets within radius of the centroid of the zip code or city area.
Notice that the Starbucks store locator doesn’t have alternate navigation for users (or bots) to find their outlets’ info pages—everything must go through the search form. So, their store locations pages are not getting spidered and indexed by the search engines.
Does this cause Starbucks problems? Probably not any major problems, but this situation results in other sites being able to achieve placement in the search results for their own brand name terms. For instance, performing a search in Google for “Denver Starbucks” returns a number of directories or other sites first in the search results prior to the Google Maps links:
The first link is for the StarbucksEveryWhere.net site—a site operated by a fan of Starbucks which displays photos of lots of Starbucks locations found in a number of major cities. It’s probably unsatisfactory for users seeking coffee shops in their area, though, because it doesn’t show the street addresses or contact info of each of the locations.
The next two pages in the Google SERP are for online directories—ZipHip.com, and Citysearch. These are great since they have addresses, maps and phone numbers for the locations. But these sites are likely not getting their data from Starbucks—ZipHip is getting its data from Local.com which is getting data from Acxiom and other sources, and Citysearch is getting data from infoUSA. While the data aggregators like Acxiom and infoUSA are great, it’s quite possible that the data isn’t up to date, so some of the Starbucks they list could be closed, and they might not have the listings for the newest stores.
While the Google Maps listings do show mapped locations, phone numbers, and links over to Starbucks.com, the very links themselves are not all that ideal because they just dump the users who might click through onto the Starbucks homepage.
Under the Google Maps listings, a page from Metblogs shows up titled “Starbucks, WTF?”—a page that touts a competitor and give passing criticism to Starbucks.
Starbucks might wish to reduce the chances that users go through the “middleman” sites for a few reasons. The info could be stale, users could be leaving negative reviews for locations, and Starbucks could be paying for referrals from some of those sites. Starbucks may want to advertise other stuff to those users who come onto their sites looking for locations. It’s a better user experience for searchers to be able to easily find the official info from Starbucks, and Starbucks can better manage its online reputation by enabling people to find stores directly.
Not to mention, if Starbucks had optimized a page for Denver, they’d likely rank higher than the other sites showing up, and this could help push that negative page on Metroblog down further, reducing the chances that users would pay attention to it.
The search engines, particularly Google, will show preferential rankings to famous name-brand sites for specific searches like this, if they can find relevant content. If these sites were to perform just a little basic SEO with these sections, they could improve their local search rankings and improve their site traffic and user-experience.
Unsurprisingly, one vertical industry which does do locator pages well is the hotels industry, perhaps because their locations are their primary product, and they’re highly conscious about how much research happens online when consumers select accommodations. For instance, take a look at Marriott.com’s “Find & Reserve” page which includes regular links to their hotel’s individual profile pages. They link through to individual hotel pages by cities, states, amenities, airports, local activities and more. So, if a user performs a search like “Minneapolis Marriott” or “Marriott in Los Angeles“, one of Marriott’s own site pages is coming up as highest for the search.
Marriott’s search-engine-friendly design should really be sort of thing that all chain stores aim to achieve. Here are some tips on the best practices for optimizing store locator web content.
Tips to optimize store locators for local search:
- There must be links which search engines can follow into all the store location pages. You’ll need to provide a web page for every city with your stores, and you may have to generate a small hierarchy of pages to link out to pages for all locations, depending upon how many total locations you have. The search engines recommend that you have fewer than a hundred links on a single page, and you may need to display even fewer than that for the sake of good usability. If you have many locations, you might link first to all the states or provinces in your country on your store locator search page. On each state’s or province’s page, provide a list of all the cities where you have locations. Within each city’s page, list all the locations where you have stores. Some companies even provide a helpful image map of the country, allowing users to click on the map to get a list of locations for each area or city—best to provide a separate plain text linked navigation system in addition to an image map, though.
- Ideally, the links down through your navigation structure should be spider-friendly. Shorter is better—only use a few query string parameters if you can, or even better—avoid query strings and use a static-appearing format like “directory/subdirectory/filename.html.”
- It’s preferable to create a stand alone page for each and every location, so that each of those pages will be made to be very specifically relevant to the city, zip code and local area. Consider designing each location’s page as a sort of profile of information about that particular store.
- Make each store’s profile page as unique as possible. List the street address, including the city, state and postal code. List store hours, contact phone numbers, and provide a map for the location. I’ve previously mentioned using the hCard microformat for the address and other information, but that’s just a nice-to-have. Listing the information in html text on the page is the basic, necessary step.
- Look at how users search for your business, since this can help you form the ideal TITLE for the pages. I suggest that you include the brand name, the city name, and the business type in the title. For example, “Widgets-R-Us Hardware Store in Springfield, Missouri.” You may need to adjust for the location to use a neighborhood or regional name as well or instead of the city name. For instance, New Yorkers might be using the abbreviation “NYC” as much as they use “New York city” when they search.
- Mentioning nearby items of related interest on your store profile pages can bring valuable incremental traffic. If a restaurant location is near a major event center or landmark, for instance, list those things on the page.
- Form good META Description tags which are individual to each location. Keep these short, and specific. For instance, “Visit the Widgets-R-Us store in Springfield for all your widget and hardware component needs.” It’s best to include a direct call to action and realize that the description should be engineered to assure the enduser that the page has what they want, and it should help draw them into clicking into the page.
- Include photos of the location, if you’re able. You might ask the managers of all your locations to email in a digital picture of the storefront as one way to easily build the content. Displaying the photo of the location can help make the store more recognizable when consumers are driving to it for the first time.
- If your individual stores have promotional budgets or support the local community through charitable donations, they could request that references to them on other local online sites be linked to the store’s individual profile page. Getting other local sites to link directly to the store profile pages can help build PageRank, and make these official site pages appear more important/relevant than other sites displaying your listing information.
- Use Google’s Business Location Bulk Upload to deliver your store location information directly to Google Maps, and make sure that each of your locations also has its own unique URL in the data. This will improve user-experience by making Google’s local listings for your company link over to the exact page for that listing on your site. Optimizing your store location pages might allow Google Maps to link more directly to the associated pages in your site, but uploading the location information will give you a better guarantee of this working well.
- Depending on your size, many other business directory sites, internet yellow pages, and local search sites may also accept feeds directly from you. Chains with hundreds and thousands of locations may benefit from directly feeding their listings into these sites in order to directly manage their online presence. Contact these sites after you’ve optimized your store locator and see if you can send them periodic updates to insure your data is correct, and to improve chances that consumers can find new stores that you open.
Most large corporate chains have both the data and the development resources necessary to optimize their store location pages, but they lack the focus to see that they could benefit from doing this. The search engine’s continual improvements have also contributed to giving these companies a lack of urgency in optimizing their locators. Yet, optimizing these sections is worthwhile. Having the official location pages exposed through the search engines will bring in more traffic, allowing these companies to market new products to their customers. It’ll also reduce the instances where they’re paying third parties for referral traffic that could be going to them directly, and it will help them control their online reputations better.
Chris “Silver” Smith is Lead Strategist at Netconcepts.
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