How to Choose a Local SEO Agency or Consultant

How to Choose a Local SEO Agency or Consultant
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Key Takeaways
  • Don't discount SEO agencies or consultants that aren't #1 in search; the best don't need the visibility as they'll be getting business from recommendations from happy clients.
  • Check SEO agency and consultant reviews, but don't completely rely on the rating. Look at how well they respond to negative reviews for an insight into their communication style.
  • Ask to see samples of reports when looking for a Local SEO agency or consultant, and look for real insight alongside the charts.

Whether you’re a thriving mom and pop store looking to branch out, or a nationwide chain with multiple brick-and-mortar locations, local SEO is critical to your success. If you just read that and told yourself your business was too big (or even too small) for local SEO, you’d be wrong.

There are a multitude of reasons why local SEO matters for any and all businesses with a local presence. Understanding these benefits will make your search for a local SEO agency or consultant that much more fruitful—and help you pick the best person for the job.

Making the business case for local search

Back in 2014, Google had already switched on to the power of local search. It commissioned two research studies, from Ipsos MediaCT and Purchased® respectively, to better understand cross-device search behavior. The studies unearthed some compelling habits;

  • The studies discovered that 4 in 5 consumers turned to a search engine to find local information.
  • 50% of consumers conducting a local search on a smartphone visited a store within one day. 34% of shoppers searching on a desktop or tablet did the same.
  • Local searches were found to have a much higher purchase intent than non-local searches, with 18% of local searches from a smartphone leading to a purchase within one day, compared with just 7% of non-local searches.

Two years later, Wordstream reported that 72% of consumers conducting a local search visited a store within five miles of their location. It’s clear that even then, local search results led to action. So, what about now?

The rise of mobile and voice search

In November 2017, Google declared that the smartphone had come of age, a bold statement that it linked to the proliferation of mobile internet use. Its 2017 Consumer Barometer Study found that more than half of the online population in the study’s 63 countries surveyed accessed the internet through a mobile device. Users in 62 of the 63 countries reported that they used their mobile device for internet access more often than their desktop computer.

Along with this increase, the 2017 Mary Meeker Internet Trends report found voice search popularity was increasing—a phenomenon that naturally lends itself to local SEO. In fact, 63% of users turn to voice search when carrying out activities such as driving because they can search hands-free. Invariably they do so to find local businesses.

Search is evolving to make local the norm

Even if you think you don’t need local SEO—or are perhaps reluctant to invest in this ‘lesser cousin’ of traditional optimization—search has evolved to a point where your customers are going local without even spelling it out. Can your small business really afford to miss out on that traffic?

Lisa Gevelber, VP, Marketing for the Americas at Google says local is now embedded in search behavior and growing fast. In a post entitled Micro Moments Now: Why ‘near me’ intent is a ‘near you’ opportunity, she explains;

In September 2015, we shared that “near me” or “nearby” searches on Google had grown 2X in the previous year. Now, just two years later, we see that behavior has continued to change. Make no mistake, people still use ‘near me’ to discover places of interest around them. But we’re now seeing a shift toward dropping location qualifiers (like zip codes, neighborhoods, and ‘near me’ phrasing) in local searches, because people know that the results will automatically be relevant to their location—thanks to their phone… In fact, this year, search volume for local places without the qualifier ‘near me’ has actually outgrown comparable searches that do include ‘near me.’ Over the last two years, comparable searches without ‘near me’ have grown by 150%.

Local search is becoming more competitive

As with the main search results, competition for local search prominence is heated, and it’s only getting hotter. Google has reduced the size of the local pack over time (from 7 to 3 search results), so it’s now harder to gain visibility.

Local search is also heavily linked to reputation management—a trend that few businesses can afford to ignore. In fact, BrightLocal’s latest Local Consumer Review Survey indicated that 97% of consumers read online reviews for a local business in 2017. With 85% of consumers also known to trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation, neglecting your local search presence simply isn’t an option if you want to be in the mix when your target market makes purchase decisions.

How to choose a local SEO agency or consultant

Whether you’re a pet store, a hairdresser, a restaurant chain or a nationwide hardware franchise, choosing a local SEO agency or consultant can be challenging. We’ve already shown that smart business owners should prioritize local SEO. Now, let’s look at exactly how to find a capable, trustworthy local SEO agency or consultant to help you do just that.

Step 1: Know what NOT to look for

We’ve all heard horror stories about less than scrupulous SEO agencies, so right off the bat, it’s worth knowing what not to look for. This will help you avoid costly mistakes and wasted time—time that could be spent improving your local visibility.

Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, says that while turning to Google is a natural first port of call, looking for the number one local SEO consultant listing could prove to be a costly mistake. He notes,

“Most of the very good companies… the ones that do consistently great work and get great referrals… don’t actually need to rank here. They’re overwhelmed with clients… They have a high retention of clients. Lots of people are very satisfied. They’re making plenty of money and they’re incredibly busy, so they don’t spend any work optimizing their own website to get new clients.

“Many of the companies that rank well for ‘best SEO+city name’ or ‘best SEO+region’ or plus a particular specialty, like ‘best ecommerce SEO’, are not the best. They are, in fact, the folks who are simply without any client work and so they’re concentrating all their energy on trying to get new clients. Sometimes, maybe, you can find some good folks in there. It’s just not a great filter.”

Step 2: Set your goals

Over and above achieving Position One (or even Position Zero) status in SERPs, you’ll need to set clear goals before you start reaching out to local SEO consultants. Consider what you want to get from your investment—do you want to reach a specific segment of your target market, for example? Perhaps there is a reputation management element? Do you need to boost sales of a specific product or grow footfall at a particular location?

These are all reasonable goals and ones that you can realistically reach with local SEO activity. They’re specific and measureable, which means that when your local SEO activity gets underway, you’ll have targets to refer back to. You’ll be able to judge progress towards those goals and, more importantly, assess if your investment is paying off.

More general goals, such as increasing traffic or knocking a competitor off the top spot, are less useful. No matter how much or how little you plan to spend on local SEO, you need concrete criteria as the basis of your activity. If your only goal is to increase traffic, how will you calculate ROI?

Step 3: Search for a specialist

As with most things in business, it’s better to search for a specialist than a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to local SEO. While many of the known local SEO ranking factors are similar to those required to rank well in the main search results, a consultant specializing in local SEO should be better versed in the nuances of things like Google My Business and Google Maps—both key components of local search but often just a footnote in traditional SEO.

A local search specialist will also be up to speed with the latest Google My Business features, such as videos, Q&A, and Posts and know how to use these in a way that best suits your business and audience.

A local SEO consultant should be a pro at citation building, local structured data markup and review managementwhich can make or break a local search presence. They should also have a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to building local links.

Step 4: Check their track record

Once you have your agency shortlist, it’s time to start narrowing down the field. Every agency or consultant on your list must either specialize in local search only, your industry only or, at the very least, be able to demonstrate verifiable success in improving performance for local businesses. If you have any national agencies in the running, ask to see examples of their local search success relative to your area.

Step 5: Read their reviews

As we’ve already seen, reviews are an increasingly important part of local search so what better way to refine your shortlist than by turning the tables on your potential agency or consultant?

Check reviews on each candidate from at least a couple of sources—try TrustPilot, Google Reviews, and Facebook. Don’t make the mistake of ruling out an agency or consultant because they have a negative review or two. Instead, look at how they handle those reviews. Have they acknowledged and replied to the complaint publicly? Was the response sent in a timely manner? Use our guide to bouncing back from negative reviews as your yardstick. If the agency or consultant doesn’t live up to this standard, they should be cut from your shortlist.

Step 6: Check their blog

A good local SEO expert should be producing a decent amount of content on the subject each month. Check their blog. What kinds of articles are they sharing? How detailed is the content? Are they rehashing old news or taking time to showcase their expertise?

Away from the agency or consultant’s own blog, you might also want to check how prolific they are in the industry generally. Do they speak at local networking and business events for example? Have they appeared in any industry publications lately, spoken at a conference or seminar or been mentioned by other bloggers, magazines or similar?

Step 7: Ask them what they do

It’s very easy to go into an agency relationship with misconceptions about exactly what’s going to be done. SEO activity is often difficult to pin down into specific actions, which means you can be left unclear as to what you’re actually paying for.

Rand Fishkin recommends you circumnavigate this by asking the consultant or agency one simple question;

What processes will you use to accomplish our goals and why do you use those processes?”

While you shouldn’t expect a full strategy to be laid down at this early stage, it is perfectly reasonable to request a breakdown of typical actions. This is a chance for the agent to show off their local SEO prowess, so beware of generalizations. What does their reputation management process actually entail? When it comes to Google My Business optimizations, what specific activities or areas do they look at?

Step 8: What KPIs do they recommend?

As a small business owner, your days will invariably be spent with one eye on your bottom line. From man hours to stock, everything must be accountable and this extends to your local SEO costs, too.

Asking which KPIs they recommend or focus on will give you a good idea of how accountable the agency or consultant actually is. Remember that rankings mean nothing without traffic so a focus on position alone just won’t cut it.

Make sure they’re focusing on metrics that prove business success (traffic, conversion rates, orders, customers, AOV) rather than metrics that make them look good but don’t necessarily equate to money in the bank, also known as ‘vanity metrics’ (e.g. social media likes and followers).

Step 9: Reporting and communication

No matter how good the track record, you need to be sure that you’re appointing a team or individual that’s on the same wavelength with a similar communication style and willingness to be accountable.

Ask to see a sample of their reports—this will give you a good idea of how tailored their reporting system is and how much extra analysis they are willing to provide. Be wary of samples that consist primarily of charts directly from Google Analytics or another tool—this suggests a lack of insight and also indicates you’ll be paying for something you could see and download yourself for free.

When it comes to communication, clarify what contact hours are included in the cost and how that communication takes place. Speak to them via email and on the phone to get a sense of how you’d work together. You’ll need to know how often you can expect to hear from them and what level of communication is included within the retainer before you start to rack up billable hours for additional calls and messages.

Step 10: Speak to former clients

If you’re satisfied with everything you’ve heard so far, you’re now on the home straight. The last step is to ask for contact details for one or two current or previous clients. There shouldn’t be any unpleasant surprises at this late stage, but it’s useful to get another business owner’s honest take on their experiences with the agency or consultant under consideration.

Providing these calls go well, you should now be ready to appoint a local SEO consultant or agency and begin the task of optimizing your local pack presence.

We’d love to hear your thoughts

How did you find your local SEO consultant? What tips do you have for other business owners searching for a local SEO specialist? Share your recommendations and experiences with us in the comments.

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21 thoughts on “How to Choose a Local SEO Agency or Consultant”

  1. Hi Jamie,
    I read a lot of your articles but don’t comment very much. I notice in this article that you don’t mention, as part of finding an SEO, to check out if they are able to competitively rank their own site. It makes sense to me that if they can not then everything else is smoke and mirrors. I operate an agency with clients in two cities and thus rank for a term in both locations. Did you omit this as a “goes without say” sort of point? Or do you not feel it important in the decision making process?
    Regards,
    Desmond

    1. Hi there, thanks for reading the BrightLocal blog and taking the time to leave a comment!

      I actually covered agency/consultant rankings in the first point, and mentioned that appearing high in rankings isn’t always an indicator of skill, referring to Rand Fishkin’s (ex-Moz) quote below:

      “Most of the very good companies… the ones that do consistently great work and get great referrals… don’t actually need to rank here. They’re overwhelmed with clients… They have a high retention of clients. Lots of people are very satisfied. They’re making plenty of money and they’re incredibly busy, so they don’t spend any work optimizing their own website to get new clients.

      “Many of the companies that rank well for ‘best SEO+city name’ or ‘best SEO+region’ or plus a particular specialty, like ‘best ecommerce SEO’, are not the best. They are, in fact, the folks who are simply without any client work and so they’re concentrating all their energy on trying to get new clients. Sometimes, maybe, you can find some good folks in there. It’s just not a great filter.”

      Personally I feel that it’s obviously important to rank in search but I would advise those looking for an agency to look beyond the first couple of pages of Google results and not consider high rankings a de facto barometer of broader SEO skills.

      Thanks

      Jamie

  2. One thing I would like to add is to make sure the consultant or agency doesn’t GUARANTEE rankings. If they say they will rank you on #1 within 1 month – please leave as fast as you can. As I am a freelance SEO consultant and have been in SEO since 2011, I can say rankings can’t be guaranteed.

  3. Hi Jamie, I think the key takeaways are good and the first one is also true in reverse. I see one or two consultants not that far from me that rank quite well in local organic, profess to be Local SEO experts but haven’t even claimed their own GMB listing! I agree with Brandie about the blog content quantity. I’d love to do more and I enjoy it when I get the odd window (once or twice a year!) in between onboarding new clients, dealing with enquiries, AdWords and Analytics exams etc. etc. Swamped. However, I still manage to rank top for pretty much everything SEO + my locality (town and state)!

    1. Hi Ewan,

      Great to hear you’re doing so well with your local optimization! In that situation, yes, blogging might not be the most effective use of time. I’d say that with that first takeaway, I just wanted to make sure people looked further than they usually would in a Google search, as there are plenty of really qualified agencies and consultants doing great work for clients on pages 2, 3 and beyond, too.

      Thanks

      Jamie

  4. Awesome blog! These are all points I stress to other business owners especially with communication and reporting.

    I see a lot of local businesses get reports from large marketing companies with nothing more than ‘vanity metrics’ and no executive summary or plan for next month.

    This blog actually piqued my interests because I wrote a blog very similar to it (only a little more general than local SEO).

    https://evergrowmarketing.com/how-to-choose-your-marketing-agency/

    1. Hi Jake, thanks for sharing! Yes, it’s key that agencies and consultants can really provide extra insight rather than being just a middleman between the tools they use and their clients.

      Glad you liked the blog!

      Jamie

  5. Are there any SEO agencies you recommend? When I search for them, there are literallly thousands to choose from. I simply don’t have time to wade through all of them.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Although we can’t recommend specific agencies, we have plans for a directory that will help you to refine and select an agency based on your needs. Watch this space!

      Jamie

    2. My best clients all come from referrals. I really enjoy that because then my clients are friends and we have a kind of circular network. Try finding a fellow business owner in your area that you like/trust, and ask them who they use. Though if you don’t know anyone who uses an agency, then this strategy may not be much help.

      1. Hi Michael,

        As with everything these days, there’s nothing quite like a personal recommendation! Thanks for sharing your experience and tip.

        Jamie

  6. Check their blog? Yeah, if they are spouting outdated tactics – red flag. However I take exception to the idea that SEO consultants need to be “producing a decent amount of content.” Some of us are busy working.

    1. Hi Brandie, thanks for your comment. I appreciate that the quantity of content isn’t as important as the fact they’re doing it at all. It’s just good for people to see some examples of the agency showcasing their expertise, even if it’s just in case studies.

      Thanks

      Jamie

    2. I second this.

      I’m a one man show and writing 7-10 blogs a month for clients on top of running SEM and Social campaigns.

      I’d rather focus my extra time on continuing to find optimizations for my clients.

      1. Hi Jake, thanks for your comment.

        I totally agree that time spent on client work is far more valuable than time spent creating content, but wanted to highlight that the best agencies and consultants will be able to showcase their expertise in some way, even if that means testimonials and case studies rather than content.

        Thanks

        Jamie

    1. Hi Justin, thanks for your input. We’re actually working on some resources that make the pricing data from that research available to our agency customers in a format that will enable them to easily benchmark and price based on the wider local SEO industry, so look out for that!

      Jamie

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