The Small Business Guide To Local SEO
by Mike Khorev
Why Small Businesses Need Local SEO?
To answer this question, first we will need to define the term “SEO” and “local SEO” respectively, understanding their similarities, differences, and different benefits.
First, SEO—or Search Engine Optimization—, in a nutshell, is optimizing your site to rank higher on Google’s (and other search engines’) result page for specific keywords. For example, if your business is a pizza restaurant, if you can rank for the “best pizza” New York, it will bring several key benefits including but not limited to:
- You can attract those who are searching for the “best pizza” query
- Since this is a positive keyword associated with credibility, this audience will perceive your business as trustworthy and credible
- If the “best pizza” keyword has a high number of search volume (which is, the number of searches in a given month), you can get a lot of traffic to your site, which can then translate to more people visiting your business and purchasing from you
How can we implement SEO? While SEO (link) is a very, very broad and complex subject, it will boil down to mainly three things:
- Creating and publishing high-quality, relevant content pieces that include the target keyword(s). The keywords should be included naturally with optimal density.The main focus here is to develop content pieces that are valuable for your ideal readers.
- Optimizing your site so that it can be easily indexed by Google. This aspect will include things like ensuring your site is mobile responsive, ensuring fast load speed, and so on.
- Getting other sites, especially high-quality ones to link your site (and your content). These links are known as backlinks, and simply put, the more high-quality backlinks you have, the better Google will perceive your business as relevant (and so you will climb up the rankings).
SEO efforts are mainly centered in these three factors. So, what about local SEO? Local SEO is, in essence, attempting SEO to target the local audience: ensuring your business’s local presence to the audience within your geographic proximity, or the audience located within your service area.
In the past, this is mainly achieved by targeting “local keywords”, which are mainly keywords that include location names (i.e., “restaurants in LA”,”bookstores in NY”, and so on). While the same practice is still effective nowadays, today Google uses Google Maps’ results for location-related keywords and “near me queries”.
Try typing for “restaurants near me” on Google, and you will get a result page with the top 3 of Google Maps results just below the paid advertising (if someone places an ad for your area and for this specific keyword).
So, with this phenomenon, for local SEO we should aim for two different things:
- Ranking on organic search results page for location-focused keywords, as we have discussed above. This is mainly done through the same efforts we have discussed for organic SEO above.
- Ranking on Google Maps. Google Maps only display three of the top results before you have to click “more places”. So, ranking on this top-3, or the 3-pack is the ultimate goal.
Now, ranking organically for the local-focused keywords will produce the same benefits as organic SEO—which we have discussed above—-, but what about ranking on Google Maps? Here are some important takes:
- Google Maps result is interactive, where you can call the business directly with just a single click or get a Google Maps’ directions to the said business. Meaning, you have many opportunities to ensure conversions
- Fewer people will click on the “more places” button to check on results below the top-3. On the other hand, a lot of us simply don’t trust paid search ads although it’s placed above the Google Maps results. Simply put, by ranking in the 3-pack, you are generally perceived as the most credible business among your local competitors.
As we can see, there are a lot of benefits tied to local SEO, both by ranking on the organic search results page and by ranking on the top-3 results of Google Maps. Especially if your small business is targeting local audience, you will miss out on a lot of opportunities if you don’t implement local SEO.
So, How Can I Implement Local SEO?
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits and importance of local SEO, the common question here is: a) What should I do to implement local SEO?, and b) Do I need to get help from a professional or a marketing agency? In this section, we will mainly try to answer these two questions.
First, above we have mentioned that there are two main goals of local SEO:
- Ranking for local-focused and location-related keywords on Google’s organic search
- Ranking on Google Maps’ results
Both of these will require different technical approaches, so we will discuss them separately. First, let us learn the key steps of ranking on Google Maps.
Ranking On Google Maps’ 3-Pack
Before we can optimize our Google Maps (or Google My Business—more on this later—), we must first learn about the key factors that can affect Google Maps ranking.
Although there’s always the debate surrounding Google Maps’ (and Google’s) ranking signals, generally experts agreed that there are three main factors affecting the ranking of your Google Maps listing:
- How complete, comprehensive, and optimized is the information on your Google My Business account (again, more on this later)
- The number of positive reviews on your Google Maps listing, as well as on third-party sites (Yelp, Facebook Places, TripAdvisor, other local business directories)
- The number of citations you have, which is, the mentions of your Name, Business, and Phone Number (NAP) on the internet. Citations have a similar effect to backlinks in regular SEO: the more sites (especially high-quality ones) that mention your NAP, the more credible Google will perceive your business.
- Last but not least, the searcher’s location. If another business with similar optimizations and authority is closer to the searcher than yours, it will rank higher.
Based on those three factors, here are the key steps in improving your Google Maps ranking:
1. Register and Verify Your Google My Business Listing
To have your business listed on Google Maps, you will need to register for a Google My Business account, which is totally free.
The registration process itself is fairly simple, and you can click the link here to get started right away. However, here are some key considerations when registering your Google My Business (GMB ) account:
- Your Name, Address, and Phone Number (NAP) are the most important pieces of information in your GMB listing. Make sure they are accurate and up-to-date, and if you have previously listed your business on other online platforms, make sure the information is consistent.
- If you deliver your products/services to your customers, check the corresponding box under the location tab. There’s also the option to hide your address (i.e, if you are operating your business from home). However, your address information is a very important ranking factor, so it is not advisable to hide it from public unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Choose your business category carefully. Remember that it is about what your business is, and not what you sell/provide. You can choose several categories (which will translate to attracting different types of customers), so think very carefully about how your business will fit in within categories, and optimize this aspect.
The next step is to verify your Google My Business account. There are several features that are locked from you unless your listing is verified (i.e., Google Posts), and obviously getting verified will affect your ranking.
To verify your account, you can simply click on the verify now button after you sign in to your Google My Business account. Generally, Google will send a postcard to your business’s physical address containing a verification PIN. Verification via phone and email are also available for certain business types.
2. Optimizing Your Google My Business Listing
Now that your GMB listing is verified (or at least, in the process of verification), it’s time to optimize your listing.
The main principle here is to add as many accurate information as you can about the business. The thing is, people (yes, even random people that hates your business) can “suggest an edit” to your listing. Sometimes, Google will approve these changes without notifying you.
So, it’s important to make your listing as complete and accurate as you can to discourage people from suggesting an edit. Also, regularly check your GMB dashboard and monitor if there’s any change.
Here are some key areas where you can optimize your GMB listing:
Remember that Google Maps ranking is based on searcher’s location. So it is important to accurately provide accurate information about your service area. You can check Google’s guidelines on this topic here, but here are the key areas to focus on:
- If you are a brick-a-mortar business serving your customers at your place, check the box “I serve customers at my business address”. This will show your complete address on Google Maps
- Similarly, check the box stating that you deliver goods and services to your customers if you do so.
- Make sure to put in accurate business hours. You can also include customized hours for holidays and weekends if necessary.
Similar to regular SEO, Including the target keywords to our listing is an important ranking signal. The first step to do this is obviously a proper keyword research (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zxrb0Eca_d_Ji4tygXoVGum2ULXPvsGEEhhhPFPDLHU/edit?usp=drivesdk): we should find relevant keywords according to our locations, with enough search volume, yet manageable competition.
The main principle here to find the optimal keyword density. Don’t worry too much about the density percentage, but instead focus on including the keywords naturally so the content is comprehensive for human readers.
Including Photos and Videos
According to Google’s reports, businesses that feature photos will get significantly more clicks, requests for driving directions, and phone calls. Remember that Google Maps is essentially a visual platform, and we should make full use of the fact that searchers can directly ask for directions to your business, call your number, and visit your website from the Google Maps search result.
Your photos should be at least 720px by 720px in size, and make sure your photos are properly taken, well-lit, and not altered too much (filtered, photoshopped, etc.). Google might review your photos for quality from time to time, and Google does prefer photos that represent the reality of your business.
You can also add videos that are 30 seconds or shorter. Use this opportunity to highlight unique values of your business (interesting interior, product showcase, etc.).
To further optimize your images and videos, you can use metadata to ensure easier indexing.
3. Encouraging positive reviews and managing negative ones
As mentioned, the quantity of positive reviews is a very important ranking signal. If your Google Maps (and GMB) listing has a lot of positive reviews, Google will perceive your business as credible and relevant.
Obviously, there’s another significant benefit of having a lot of positive reviews. A lot of us will check for reviews nowadays, before making any purchase decision. A good number of positive reviews will encourage higher conversions.
However, it’s not always about having more positive reviews, as how you respond to bad ones is also important. Recently, Google confirmed that they do prefer businesses that respond to reviews, which might directly affect ranking.
Responding to reviews will also encourage more people to leave a review. They will feel that their voices are being heard, and that the company will respond when they have issues.
When responding to reviews, here are the key considerations:
- Respond quickly and politely, avoid giving promises you can’t deliver. If you don’t have an answer for a specific issue, just say something like, “we are investigating the issue and will get back to you as soon as possible “.
- There are always cases of bad reviews made with malicious intents (from those who never bought your product/service, non-existent issues, etc). If you have sufficient proofs, you can ask Google (or other review platforms) to remove this review. If it’s a serious case, you might want to pursue legal actions.
- For valid negative reviews, remember that there’s usually an underlying issue(s). If you don’t tackle this issue, you’ll keep getting the same bad reviews.
Another way to encourage more positive reviews is to offer incentives. For example, you can offer discounts and even freebies for those who have left positive reviews on your Google Maps listing or posted about your business in social media.
What about reviews on third-party sites like Yelp or Facebook Places? Google strongly suggested that they will indeed affect ranking. Besides, the more positive reviews you have, the more people that will purchase from you, so you might as well encourage positive reviews on as many platforms possible.
4. Building Local Citations
Local citations, as mentioned, are any mention of your business’ NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) in the internet.
In local SEO and especially improving your Google Maps ranking, citations have a similar value to backlinks in regular SEO: the more citations you have, the more relevant and credible Google will perceive your business, and so the higher you will rank.
There are generally two main approaches in building your local citations: getting relevant sites, bloggers, social media personalities, and others. The second approach is to list your business on online local directories according to your niche.
To start, list your business on major platforms according to your industry. If you are a restaurant, for example, you can list your business on Yelp and TripAdvisor among other platforms. You might want to check out this list by HubSpot listing these major online directories.
Besides these platforms, a quick Google search will help you find local online directories according to your niche and location.
The main principle in building local citations here is to maintain information consistency, especially your NAP. Your NAP should be consistent across all of your citations. Information inconsistency won’t only lead to confusion for your customers, but can also hurt your Google Maps ranking in the long run.
Ranking on Organic Search for Local-Focused Keywords
Now, we shift our focus to organic local SEO, and as we have mentioned, there are three main factors affecting organic ranking:
- The technical aspect of your site, which affects how easily Google can index your site.
- Your content and how it includes your focus keywords. Google will crawl this content and determine whether your site is relevant for the said keyword
- The quantity and quality of backlinks. The more quality sites that link to your site, the more credible Google will perceive your site.
So, as before, here we will focus on how to optimize our site according to these three factors, starting with the first one.
1. Website Optimization
Website optimization for SEO is by itself, a pretty deep subject. You might want to consult this technical SEO checklist to plan your site optimization according to its current state.
However, especially for local SEO, here are a few key areas to focus on:
It’s no secret that quite recently Google implemented a new update to prefer mobile-friendly sites for ranking purposes.
If your site is not yet mobile-friendly, Google might opt not to include it in the SERP. To start, you can use Google’s mobile-friendly test tool to check your site’s current state.
If your site doesn’t pass the test, here are a few areas you can optimize:
- Make sure your content, images, and other site elements are properly displayed on mobile devices
- If you include forms, don’t use too many fields and make sure users can easily fill in on their mobile devices
- Pay extra attention of your NAP information. Make sure it’s displayed properly even on mobile devices’ smaller screens
- If you include reviews on your site, make sure it’s easily readable
Remember that besides for SEO purposes, not having a mobile-responsive site can significantly affect bounce rate and conversions.
3. Load speed
Similar to mobile-responsiveness, load speed can also affect bounce rate. Make sure your site has a fast enough load speed, and you might want to check out this guide on improving your site’s loading speed.
4. Optimizing Keywords
You should include your target keywords at least in these areas on your site:
- Site URL
- Title Tags
- Meta description
- Your site’s content
Google nowadays is being quite sensitive about heavy-optimizations, and so there are two main concerns here:
- Use semantically-related words instead of exact-match keywords. For example, instead of always using “best restaurant in Toronto”, you can use similar phrases like “restaurants to visit if you are in Toronto” and other similar phrases.
- Focus on providing a comprehensive content for human readers. Include your keywords naturally and don’t overstuff your content.
5. Location pages
Since this is especially about local SEO, including location pages, especially if you include a Google Maps snippet can significantly improve your ranking.
If your business has more than one location, create specific pages for each of these locations. Again, make sure to include accurate NAP information for each pages, and avoid using duplicate content pieces across multiple pages.
6. Local-focused content
Google’s algorithm is now much more advanced compared to the early days of SEO. In the past, we can get away with shallow content with a high keyword density. Nowadays, your content should bring value to your human readers, and Google can recognize this.
Your main goal here is to build credibility as the local expert or thought leader according to your niche, so you should focus on relevant local keywords to attract your ideal audience.
For example, if you are a home remodelling company, you can go beyond the usual keywords like “home remodelling tips” and similar ones. You can help newcomers get well-acquainted with your city, like providing a content covering important local service providers. These types of content can help attract new audience.
While local SEO might seem like a complicated concept at first, it is actually quite simple once you’ve got the hang of it.
However, since one of the main elements of local SEO efforts is citation building where quantity and consistency is the keys, the process can be long and tedious.
Getting the help of a local SEO agency can tremendously help especially in maintaining consistency across all your different listings.
February 17, 2020