The world of local search optimization is always changing and the tactics we use today may not work, or have the same impact, in 12 months time. However there are some actions that I believe will stand the test of time and remain relevant & effective while others shine bright and fade into ignominy.
1. Google+ Local Profile Optimization
For anyone familiar with local search optimization this is going to sound very obvious, but it is a critical step so it would be conspicuous by it’s absence if profile optimization wasn’t top of the ‘5 essentials’ list.
I often equate SEO with refurbishing a house. You don’t start painting the walls & picking out curtains until you’re sure the foundations are solid and the electrical wiring isn’t going to burn the house down.
It’s the same for local SEO. Before you leap into creating lots of unique content or building a raft of new citations, you need to ensure that the foundations of your online presence are solid. Your Google+ Local listing is just this – the foundations of which (almost) everything else you do seeks to enhance in order to gain more visibility in search & attract potential customers.
The good news for those new to Google+ Local is that this isn’t all that complicated. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t complications, most of which are related to listings being owned by other people or the presence of duplicate listings.
Here are 5 tips for optimizing your Google Places/+Local listing. If you get these right then you’re well on your way to improving your visibility in local search:
1. Create a new listing or claim an existing one
a) If you find an existing listing for your business – claim it fast.
b) If it’s controlled by someone else & you can’t claim it then contact Google and dispute this – they can help you to wrestle back control.
2. Provide as much information as you can to enrich your profile
Make sure that this info is accurate and doesn’t step outside Google’s guidelines – resist the temptation to stuff your business name, description & services with keywords & location names.
a) Business name – don’t be creative, your name is your name
b) Address – keep it real, keep it local – no P.O. boxes
c) Phone – avoid freephone numbers – local area code is key
d) Description – this is for users, not for Google, so ensure it makes you sound great
e) Photos – a picture speaks a 1,000 words so add as many as you can
f) Services – list your key services & offerings, these can help a little with ranking
g) Working hours – very useful for customers to know (especially if you offer 24hr)
h) Payment details – also handy for customers to know these things
3. Make sure you select the best categories for your business
a) You can choose up to 5 categories so make sure you use as many as possible as this affects what search terms you rank for
b) Check out Mike Blumenthals category selector tool
c) Use our Google+ Local Wizard tool to view the top 5 categories your competitors are using & see if you are/aren’t
4. Handle any duplicate listings
It’s a common problem for many businesses to have more than 1 Google Places/+Local listing. So be sure to check if you have this issue. If you do, then contact Google and request to merge or remove the dupe listings. This can take a few attempts to get done so be patient & persistent.
5. Upgrade to social
Connect your Google Places listing to your Google+ Local listings to enable social features. This happens automatically for newly created listings but for older listings you need to click the Get your Google+ page to upgrade.
2. Write & publish geo-targeted landing pages & blog posts
If you want to rank well in search for multiple locations & for a range of services then it’s important to communicate this to search engines.
A powerful way to do this is to build out a spread of landing pages that cover all the locations & services your business provides. It’s important to make this content as unique as possible on each page and use location terms (i.e. city name, neighborhood name, zipcode, state) in the visible content and in the page title & meta description of each page.
The uniqueness of these pages is important so avoid cookie-cutting or ‘spinning’ the text and simply replacing the odd word here & there. This content is going to be a powerful ranking signal so it’s worth spending extra time to get it right.
However, the content you create shouldn’t be limited to just location & service landing pages.
You want to publish a range of content that Google can hook onto and serve up to searchers who search for specific things. In August 2013 Google released an update to their algorithm called ‘Hummingbird’. This represents a significant change in the way Google serves up content to searchers. The key change is that it looks at the intent of each search and not just the keywords used. It then matches this ‘intent’ against the best content available. So when writing pages to go on a local business website you should focus on the meaning or theme of the content and not simply the keywords dotted throughout.
When thinking about what to write about, a good place to start is with your FAQs. What questions are your customers asking you? What are they anxious to learn about & what are they confused about? You should also look at your competitors and see what FAQ content they’re publishing – then do a better job of answering these questions!
What’s more, you don’t have to confine your answers to your FAQ pages. You can create blog pages on specific questions or topics. If you can publish informative & useful posts that answer these questions in detail then it serves 2 great objectives –
- It gives Google more content to get it’s teeth into so it can serve up your site to searchers
- It showcases your expertise to readers which will help to convert clicks into actual customers
Other content ideas to consider are –
- Industry news – you have your ear to the ground, is there anything happening in the industry that you can comment on or give a local skew/opinion to?
- Company news – are you growing, hiring or making any changes to the business?
- Case Studies – do you have any case studies that you can create which demonstrate how you’ve helped customers with specific needs? If so, you should look to structure your case studies in 3 parts:
Oh and while you’re creating this great, unique content don’t forget these other important optimization tips –
- Geo-tag your images (more on Geo Tagging Your Images)
- Add service & location ALT text to images
- Display physical details on all landing pages & use schema.org mark-up tags
- Pepper your pages with positive client testimonials (use schema.org mark up)
- Add contact details / contact form so users don’t have to look far to find how to contact you
3. Create & Implement a Review Strategy
I am a big believer in the power of reviews and the impact that a high-star reputation has on helping a business attract & win new customers. In fact my love affair with reputation stretches back to 2010 when we published the first set of findings from the Local Consumer Review Survey. We’ve conducted this survey every year since and here are some striking findings from the 2013 survey –
- 85% of consumers read online reviews to determine if a business is a good business
- 73% say positive online reviews makes them trust a local business more
- 65% say that positive online reviews make them more likely to use a business
- 79% say they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
Positive reviews are a powerful tool for local businesses for 2 reasons.
- They are a ranking signal so can boost your visibility in local search
- They help to convert search views & clicks into solid leads
So generating positive reviews is good for business but it’s easier said than done. A business can get reviews in a natural way as happy (or unhappy) customers share their experiences online. But review-pipeline can be managed so that it generates more positive reviews and restricts the impact of any negative reviews. That said, it’s not a frictionless process and there is often resistance that needs to be overcome in order to get these extra reviews.
This is where your Review Strategy becomes so critical. By having a tried & tested strategy that is simple to understand and easy to execute, these points of resistance can be overcome. Read more from the Local Consumer Review Survey 2013.
5 essential aspects of a successful review strategy –
1. Clear Objectives & Targets – know what you want to achieve and what success looks like.
- How many new reviews per month?
- What star rating are you aiming for?
- Which sites do you want reviews on?
- Which branches/locations are most important?
2. A Simple Process – you need to develop a simple process that all employees understand and can follow. The more complex & difficult your strategy the less likely it is to succeed
3. Get employees to ‘buy-in’ – you need to communicate the benefits of having more, positive reviews to all customer-facing employees. You also need to show them that this strategy has worked for other businesses; give them some proof and explain why having positive reviews is good for them personally:
If you can get employees excited by getting reviews, so they are happy & eager to ask customers for a review, then ½ the battle is won! Here are some simple ideas to think about –
- Can you incentivize employees to get reviews?
- Can you create internal competition between employees & branches?
- Can you publicly champion the employee/branch with best reviews each month?
- Can you ask employees/managers to reply directly to all good & bad reviews?
4. Strike while the iron is hot – the perfect time to ask for a review is right after the job has been finished and the customer is smiling. Their satisfaction is highest then & there and they are much more likely to agree to leave a review than anytime after. The ‘glow’ of a job well done diminishes pretty quickly so don’t delay.
- Insight: In a recent webinar we did with Thomas Ballantyne, Director of Marketing for Ballwark Pest Control (a multi-location extermination business in 16 metro areas), he shared some interesting data from his own business that showed a direct correlation between reviews & referrals. The more reviews a location has the higher % of their business comes from direct referrals from happy customers. The psychology is that once a customer has written you a review they feel more bound to your business and will more likely referrer a friend/colleague to you.
- You can watch this webinar here – it’s gold dust for helping you create a review strategy!
5. Optimized & reusable – the first time you use your review strategy it may not work that well. But don’t fret; just analyze the issues that you’re facing and rework your strategy to eliminate them. You’re in the optimization business, so optimize your strategy.
The goal is to create a strategy & process that works over & over again for each client you sign up. You may need to adapt it to allow for differences between service area businesses vs. fixed location businesses, but the core steps should remain the same.
4. Focus on updating & creating high quality citations
In September 2013 we surveyed 16 leading local search experts to get their opinions on Citations and to answer 10 citation FAQs that our customers ask us.
A clear message came out of that survey, which is also evident in the findings 2013 Local Search Ranking Factors Study.
Quality & accuracy of citations is more important than quantity of citations
So ensuring that your listings are accurate & consistent on the top 20-30 citation sites (aka online directories or IYPs) is more important than building hundreds of citations on smaller sites.
Google crawls the data on your citations to verify the data that it has for your business. So as long as it can positively verify against the most powerful citation sites then your citation optimization is in good shape.
So you should focus on cleaning up or creating citations on the top 20-30 sites first. You should also put some effort into adding extra detail to these sites such as full description, list of services, photos, opening hours, payment options, etc…
While quality trumps quantity as a priority, it doesn’t hurt to have lots of citations, as long as they are correct & accurate. In fact in competitive markets where your top competitors are already listed on the most important sites, then these smaller, longer tail citations can still give you an advantage over them.
I really suggest you take a look at the findings of the expert citation survey – it will clear up most nagging questions you have about citations. Expert Citation Survey.
5. Implement a simple social strategy
As Google tightens the noose on even more link building strategies (e.g. paid links, article sites, guest blogging) it’s clear that social signals will replace links as the key indicator of popularity & authority for search engines in the future.
Therefore it’s important to get clients started now so they get comfortable with using different social platforms and build up their network of connections.
We hear from many of our SEO consultant/agency customers that their clients are often reluctant to engage on twitter, facebook et al because they feel they have nothing worth communicating. Many small business owners don’t understand the benefits of having more likes, tweets & shares so they choose to ignore these channels through inertia more than dislike.
Communication & explanation plays a big part in breaking down this resistance, and should be the first plank in your social strategy.
Here are 5 steps to implement an effective social strategy –
1. Communicate benefits – explain how likes, shares, tweets & check-ins can positively help your clients’ business. Explain it in real world terms and show how getting more virtual followers can boost real world customers.
2. Pick 2-3 social sites – there are lots of social platforms which local businesses can use, but too many options can often be confusing and daunting for many business owners. So you should pick the 2-3 social platforms which make sense for each business and concentrate on these:
- Is linkedIn right for a local dry-cleaner?
- Is Pinterest really that relevant for an accountant?
- Is facebook right for a B2B business?
3. Plan topics & content – you need to overcome the issue of what topics & what content a business should write about and share with their customers. This dovetails nicely with the content creation process I wrote above in part 2 above.
Going into a little more depth….you need to hold a content planning session with the client and all relevant employees, and define a list of topics that they’re comfortable writing & sharing:
- You need to be creative and think laterally about topics
- Discuss industry news, research options, advice columns, FAQs etc.
- Also consider local news & events that you can get involved with
Your client doesn’t need to be originator of all the content & ideas they share. They can share interesting & relevant news from their industry. They can provide a local viewpoint on national or international issues. Doing this promotes them as an authority and as a useful business for customers & suppliers to stay in contact with.
We utilize this same content planning approach internally at BrightLocal – we hold quarterly planning sessions. We don’t publish much on local news & events because it’s less relevant to us, but we spend a lot of time keeping on top of industry news, planning our research & consulting our customer forum & support tickets to understand what issues customers are most keen to learn about. I’m always surprised how many fresh ideas we come up with every time we do this.
4. Get more connections – you need to proactively find & groom new connections. A great way to do this is see who on twitter & google+ is connected to your competitors, industry bloggers, industry publications & other local businesses. Once you have created a list of these people you can prioritize them by their influence (how many connections they have and how active they are) and then reach out to them.
You need to give something in order for them to give back. So follow them, tweet their blogs, re-tweet what they tweet, message them etc… Get them to notice you and then they are more likely to reciprocate and follow you back.
Justunfollow is a very handy service for spying on competitors, seeing who they’re connected to and then connecting with their twitter followers. You can try it free, but paid packages start at $9.99/month.
5. Targets & tracking – you need to be clear what success looks like for each client – and it will be different for each client. You need to define specific, numeric targets for each social platform you use and then track performance on a weekly or monthly basis.
Firstly, you need to set some targets for connections – i.e. how many followers, friends and circles you want to get in each network.
Secondly, you also need to set ‘share’ targets for your content. You need goals for how many tweets, likes, G+, pins, check-in’s & shares you want per article.
And you should expect to see these numbers increase as your network of contacts grow. If you create lots of new connections but don’t see an increase in your shares/tweets/likes then you need to question the nature of content you’re producing and the type of contacts you’re creating.
So that’s it; that’s our 5 top recommendations for honing your local search strategy for 2014. It may seem like a lot but really it’s just 5 simple ideas that anyone can implement. Sure you need to be smart about defining & refining your strategies and how you’ll communicate these ideas to your clients so they really understand & embrace them. But that’s where you earn your bacon! Go make it happen.