Since Google’s launch of Place Search—a special new display for business listings appearing when users submit search queries related to local businesses—I’ve seen a discernible spike in interest on various websites and forums in how to appear higher on the results pages. A number of small business owners particularly seem to have awakened to realize a need for local search engine optimization (“local SEO”). You can see some evidence of the spike via Google Insights for searches on “Place Search” terms:
This a brief overview of how to do Local SEO for your businesses/websites. However, you should also be warned that search engine optimization has varying degrees of complexity, depending upon your type of business and city. If you have few competitors or if your competitors are relatively unsophisticated at their online promotion work, it may be easy to perform a few tweaks using straightforward strategies and get ranking advantage. However, if you’re in a highly competitive market area and/or you’re in a hotly-contested business category (such as hotels, florists or locksmiths), then you have to perform progressively more difficult and often, subtle, optimizations to pull ahead of the pack.
If you’re seeking a quick and easy fix, you should know that this doesn’t exist. Local marketing optimization requires an investment in resources and should be considered to be a serious promotional channel which must be developed consistently over time in order to be effective. As you can see from this brief primer, the stuff involved is not rocket science. However, you’re going to be expending some resources to accomplish it whether you’re a do-it-yourselfer or if you decide to hire an experienced local search optimization professional.
Google’s Place Search is still a new and emerging paradigm which we are still studying, but we can be fairly sure that many of the already-established local ranking factors are still likely in effect and influencing rankings in Place Search, even if we may find that the degrees of influence may have been adjusted up or down.
Classic Search Engine Optimization
“Classic” search engine optimization primarily involves constructing your website so that search engine bots can more easily crawl through the site and interpret it for relevancy and ranking purposes. Some of the classic elements involve effectively formulating titles, meta tags, H1s, ALT text in images, URLs and links, as well as generally gearing each page’s text to target particular keyword phrases.
Within the scope of this local SEO primer, there’s not room to comprehensively cover all the basics of general “classic” SEO. However, there are a number of guides which you may review in order to better understand the basic techniques and concepts. Some guides I’d recommend include: Google’s own SEO Starter Guide; SEOmoz’s SEO: The Free Beginner’s Guide; Lee Odden’s Search Engine Optimization Basics; and Stoney deGeyter’s SEO 101: Everything You Need to Know About SEO (But Were Afraid to Ask).
Keyword research is just one part of classic search engine optimization, but it’s so important that I feel the need to emphasize it, particularly since few small businesses and local businesses have really thought to do it. Many small business proprietors think they know the best keywords and phrases that people use when trying to find their kind of business, but this is one area where making assumptions can eliminate two-thirds of your potential customers in one fell swoop. Alternatively, conducting a little upfront keyword research can expand your business and virtually turn lead into gold for you. And it’s just not all that hard to do.
When doing keyword research, consider the different keyword combinations that are consumers are likely to use when seeking your business. These fall into a few different kinds of searches. A customer who knows you may do a search by your business name, such as “Smith’s Widgets.” A customer who hasn’t heard of you may search by your business category, such as “widget manufacturer.” They’ll often include local qualifiers such as the city name where you’re located, like “Walla Walla widget manufacturer” (although Google is now increasingly assuming consumers may want some types of searches to deliver up local results, and this may reduce consumers’ practice of adding their town names in queries).
The goal of keyword research is to find the various terms by which people may be searching for your business, and especially emphasize the most-popular terms in the way your site is constructed and in the text in links pointing to your site. Further, you should research whether there is a different form of your keywords which may more closely match what the majority of people are searching for. For instance, is there a synonym for your business type? Are people more commonly searching for your product names than your business category? Are people using some nickname or abbreviation for your city name more commonly than the formal spelling? For instance, people living in New York City often search with the acronym, “NYC”, and people in Fort Worth often spell the city name as “Ft Worth.”
For large metro areas, you may desire to get customers from all the cities bordering on your city of address—in which case it may be ideal to mention the names of each of your desired target cities on your website or you may need to build pages targeting your business type plus city name combinations.
There are a number of tools out there for conducting keyword research. For an overview, check out my article on keyword research for local SEO.
The text used within your webpage title tags is a classic SEO signal, but it’s also so influential within local search rankings that I’m emphasizing it further here as well. Of all webpage elements, title tags may be one of the most influential for SEO overall.
Your homepage title tag is probably the most important title tag on your site. The title for the homepage is where you’d want to use your main keyword phrase. Usually the main keyword phrase is listed first within that title, and you should include your main locality name and business name as well. I recommend appending the business brand name at the end of each and every page title as an element of quality and consistency. For instance, a flower shop named “Dr. Bud’s” located in San Francisco might have a title tag formed like this: “San Francisco Florist: Dr. Bud’s.”
Each page on your site should have distinct title text and should accurately convey what the page is about. Titles should be kept brief as opposed to being crammed full of multiple phrases.
For more details, read my Title Tag Tips To Get To The Top.
Standardize Your Name, Address and Phone Number
Google and other local search engines attempt to combine information from many sources in order to provide robust data about each business. To do that they need to be able to detect that information from multiple sites should be associated with the same business, and they base the association primarily upon the business’s name, address, and phone number (aka “NAP”). To help insure that the automated association activity goes without a hitch, your information needs to be displayed as consistently as possible everywhere you’re listed.
On your website, in your local yellow pages books, in your chamber-of-commerce, and in online directories, try to make sure your NAP is written identically. Avoid using call tracking phone numbers, since that requires using a different phone number in your various listings. Use regular text on your webpages for your phone number, and write it in the telecommunication E.164 standard format or else write it formatted in one of the two top options with parenthesis and a dash or just with dashes: (123) 456-7890 or 123-456-7890.
For your website, you can further format your contact information to be machine-friendly by coding it in hCard microformat.
Optimize Your Business Profiles In Top Directories
Google and other local search engines may pay attention to “citations” or “references” from authoritative directories in determining rankings and in confirming the reliability of businesses’ NAP information. In the classic SEO world, rankings and PageRank were all built via Links. In the Local SEO world, rankings are built in part from citations. While a citation can be a link, it’s also possible that it’s a mention of a business’s name along with the address and phone number. (See how citation may be the new link.)
Google appears to give more weight to citations from well-established internet yellow pages and other industry-specific (or “vertical”) online directories. As such, you must claim your listings in many of the top ones, and also optimize each one as much as possible, too. In many cases, just the free update option may be sufficient when you enhance your listing/profile at these directories, although some have said that they’ve gotten additional juice with various paid ad programs.
Not sure which directories to optimize first? Check out Ash Nallawalla’s recent ranking of the directories which are doing SEO themselves.
Business profile optimization is nearly a specialty unto itself. For ideas on how to optimize yours, see my article, “Anatomy & Optimization of a Local Business Profile.”
Claim Your Listing In Google Places
Similar to optimizing your citations in major online directories, you should do the same thing for your listing in Yahoo! Local, Bing Maps, and Google Places. Claiming your business in Google gives them higher confidence in the content and lets them know that the business is active. Enhancing your Places page with more info and content about you increases your opportunities to persuade potential customers to come to your store. Best of all, merely claiming your Google Places page may be a ranking factor.
Obtain Links/Citations From Local Authority Sites
Beyond local search engines and online directories, there are a variety of other websites which may be considered by Google to be authoritative about local information. Simply doing a search for your city name may reveal some of these. Local authority sites can include: chambers of commerce, newspapers, local blogs, local charities, fraternal organizations, local schools (including universities and community colleges), local radio stations and local TV stations. Each different type of local site may require different strategies for persuading them to link to your site and list your business. Read up on other ways to find local links including this dead simple tactic for finding local link sources.
Encourage Customers To Rate & Review Your Business
Quite a few people I’ve heard asking about how to rank in the new Google Place Search have stated that they knew reviews were part of the ranking criteria. However, I’ve seen a rising tide of small businesses which also think they can game the reviews by secretly posting their own.
Not only are fake reviews against the law, but many small business owners are using naively transparent methods when posting them. Google, Yelp, and other review sites are able to detect a great many of the hoax reviews posted, so if reviews are influential, fake ones will at very least be discounted, and might even count against you in the rankings.
For a variety of reasons it is good to have ratings and reviews available for your business, though. Your best approach is to merely encourage customers to post reviews about you.
Use some best practices for encouraging helpful reviews and avoid posting fake reviews. For some types of businesses, there are also companies which can help you out by providing services which help encourage customers to provide reviews and ratings, such as DemandForce.com and CustomerLobby.com.
Provide Images, Videos & Coupons
Increasing engagement with your business listing in Google Places often translates into increased conversions. It may be that the more time a consumer invests in looking at your business’s collateral materials, the more likely they are to be persuaded to shop at your store.
Including images, videos and coupons with your listing is mostly not a ranking criteria. However, in some Place Search result pages, virtually all the listings shown on page one have thumbnail icons accompanying them. In those types of business searches and locations, having images included with your Google Place page may be part of the determination of whether your listing appears or not—and you certainly don’t want to be the less-appealing listing with insufficient bling compared with your competitors.
One thing seems certain to me—images and videos associated with your listing provide additional opportunities to associate more keyword-relevant content with your business, so this aspect alone could provide additional chances for your company to appear in search results.
During the past couple of years of economic recession, coupons have also risen to the top as things which can grab consumers’ attention, if not search share.
Become Familiar With Local Search Ranking Factors
You may find it worthwhile to become more familiar with the myriad various factors which may influence local search rankings and Google Place search. In this primer I have covered many basics, but there can be a great many more elements involved, depending upon your particular business and situation.
David Mihm’s annual survey of local search ranking factors is well worth a read. See also Matt McGee’s 10 Likely Elements of Google Maps Algorithm and Dev Basu’s How To Create Effective Local Business Landing Pages.
Additional & Advanced Local Optimizations
For some advanced local SEO tactics, read up on: choosing a local domain name; specialized local search ranking factors; how to add a Google Map to your webpage; add geocodes to your address; create a KML map including your business; increase your social media presence locally with Twitter and bump up your Facebook “likes” and incorporate Open Graph code; optimize your dealer locator pages; mark up your local events with hCalendar, hReview and hProduct; and incorporating hyperlocal blogging.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.