How to Help Service Area Businesses Succeed in Search
Anyone working on local marketing for businesses that visit customers at their locations will know it can be an uphill struggle to get and retain online visibility throughout the business’ service area. Here Tom Waddington shares his tactics for increasing visibility for service area businesses in 2019.
A service area business (or SAB) is any business that provides services and products at the location of their customers. One question often asked about these types of businesses is how they go about allowing people in their wide service area find them on Google. Well, they simply create a Google My Business listing, specify their service area in the Google My Business dashboard, and they’re good to go, right?
No, not at all. If only it were that simple.
Service Area Businesses and Google My Business in 2019
For the most part, the main benefit of setting your service area in Google My Business was always to generate a visual representation so users could quickly determine if you served their area or not. But with recent changes in the works for service area business in Google My Business, (some of those are confirmed, some are speculation), I wonder if that visual representation of the service area on a listing might eventually go away.
The ability to specify a service area by city as opposed to just setting a radius isn’t new, but not being able to specify by radius is. The reason I wonder if the map representation of a business’ service area will eventually go away is because I see some similarities here with Google Local Services ads.
When setting up a Local Services ad (LSA) profile, a business specifies their service area by entering cities and then drilling down to zip/postal codes. While a visual representation of the service area exists within the LSA dashboard, it does not appear on the actual listing that users see—it simply shows a list of the cities the business specified they serve.
Another reason I wonder about the survival of service area map is because I haven’t forgotten the time that Google temporarily decided to take service area business listings out of local and move them to the free section of the Local Services ads finder (note: back then, Local Services was called Home Services). I don’t necessarily think they’re going to do that again but it’s hard for me to ignore some of the similarities I’m seeing.
Speculating on what Google might do can be fun (and scary), but we need to focus on how local currently operates or service-area businesses. We know that relevance, proximity and prominence are the primary factors Google uses for determining local results, in a lot of cases it seems that distance (proximity) is given too much weight.
For example, someone looking for a roofer, plumber, pest control company, or some other type of SAB that will come to their location is likely to want to find the best company that serves their location, not just one that is right around the corner. Plus, a business that happens to be close by won’t necessarily be able to serve them any faster than one that’s further away.
However, this is by the by. As long as distance continues to be a top ranking factor in the Google Local Finder, businesses are left to find ways to improve their visibility in the search results to reach potential customers in their entire service area.
Can your Service Area Business rank for cities it’s not located in?
In some situations, it is possible for a business to appear in the local pack in cities other than the one they’re located in, particularly in geographical areas where city footprints and populations are small (this also typically paired with less competition in the same city). A business has a much better chance when that is the case.
However, in cities with huge footprints, large populations and a lot of competing businesses, SABs have comparatively little chance of appearing in the local pack for cities other than the one they’re located in. There are, of course, many other factors that come into play here but the point is to understand the situation specific to the business, so that expectations can be set accordingly and that your time and effort can be spent wisely.
Google My Business Tactics for Service Area Businesses
Assuming you have the basics in place and are keeping up with all the ongoing changes and features that have been added to Google My Business and Maps, what else can you do?
Check out the competition
Not just to see what they’re doing, but to see if their GMB listings are even eligible. Spam on Maps is so bad in so many verticals that it’s impossible to ignore.
Some of it is so obvious it’s sad, while others take a little more time and digging to uncover. I have seen so many ineligible listings and fake reviews that I wonder if Google has any idea how bad it is.
Some people (usually spammers) might tell you to ‘mind your own business’, ‘just focus on your client’ and ‘stop worry about what they’re doing’. Well, getting rid of ineligible listings on Maps that shouldn’t exist is focusing on helping your client!
For way too long, I basically ignored spam in Maps. At the time I didn’t know if I could do anything about it and I assumed Google would take the listings down eventually anyway. But I later realized that Google isn’t really doing anything about the problem and so the responsibility falls to me or someone like me to do something about it: report them on the Google My Business forum. You can also reach out to GMB support via Twitter or Facebook.
How bad can it be?
Bad enough that’s it’s one of the first things I do when working with a new client. I recently started working with one and began checking out the local results in their immediate area. For one main keyword, the results included:
- A lead generation listing created by an agency that’s known to spam Maps (how do you like that palindrome?) on a massive scale
- A legitimate business but one that wasn’t actually in the stated location. It was a second listing they created at a house about 20 minutes away from the actual business location. The business name was also stuffed with keywords, which helped them rank well erroneously since it was the keyword I was checking.
- My new client’s listing
- A legitimate business using an ineligible listing (they have 15 GMB listings in the area, with most of them set as service area business listings for the cities they serve)
- A legit business with an eligible listing!
There are several more lead generation and other ineligible listings present, particularly after the first ten results. While it’s depressing that there’s so much spam in their area, it’s not surprising, and reporting the ineligible listings will likely cause some quick wins.
After checking out the city where the business is physically located, expand out and check some of the nearby cities that are also in the service area. You can manually check rankings for several keywords utilizing AdWords Preview Tool and a location-emulating extension to help get a better idea of the landscape.
Next create a spreadsheet and note all of the listings you want to investigate. Asking your client about the various businesses in the area is also helpful. They’ll often know who is real and who isn’t. And they’ll want to know why a business they’ve never heard of (located at a mailbox rental store or some other fake address) is outranking them.
A few GMB reporting Do’s and Don’ts
- Do: read (and try to understand) the Google My Business guidelines
- Do: create a document with questionable listings to look into
- Don’t: try to report listings without doing thorough research on them
- Don’t: assume that a listing that seems like obvious spam to you will be removed by Google at quick glance. When reporting a listing in the GMB forum, provide reasons why the listing is ineligible. Be thorough.
Get Beyond (and Below) the Map with City Pages
Creating website pages for cities within the service area of a business can be an effective tactic to obtain visibility in the search results, particularly when the chances of appearing in the local pack results are often slim due to distance.
This is a tactic that has been utilized by many for a long time, but I find that it’s often not executed well. Duplicated content, an obvious lack of keyword research, poor schema markup implementation, and page neglect are common issues I see.
A few city page Do’s and Don’ts
- Do: determine priorities within the service area of the business. Which areas are most important to the business? Which do they want to work in the most? Make note of the population for the cities in their service area
- Do: keyword research. Try to understand how consumers are searching for services and the products the business provides so you know what exactly you need to target
- Do: create unique content for each page. No, it’s not easy, but it is necessary!
- Do: look at the search results to see how the results for the pages appear in desktop and mobile results
- Don’t: use the same content but with swapped-out city name and just a few other words changed
- Don’t: merely rely on a third-party review system to generate all or most of the content for these pages
- Don’t: create the pages and never look at them again
- Don’t: create pages for every single city and keyword you’re targeting
Help Your Pages Stand Out in Search Results
Utilizing schema review markup to generate a review snippet in the search results is another tactic that has been around a long time, and a lot of businesses are doing it, particularly on city pages. Having the stars and rating appear with your search result is a great way to increase visibility and CTR, but it’s not as effective when nearly every other organic search result has it as well. So you need another differentiator…
Mobile image thumbnails are another way to help your pages stand out more in the search results, although they are trickier and of course are only seen on mobile. These have been appearing in mobile search results for local businesses for quite a while but seem to have grown in prominence and exposure over the past few months.
One benefit they have over review snippets is that they can appear for a homepage result. They can be a little difficult to control, however, and as Mike Blumenthal points out, it’s all about the context.
Since Google is grabbing and cropping images to show here, some interesting and less than ideal results can occur:
In this example, the business has a thumbnail result for their homepage, which is great. The problem is that due to Google cropping their logo, it looks like their name is Dope Plumbing. (I guess whether that is a positive or negative will vary from one person to the next!) For the record, their business name is actually Cooper Plumbing.
Google is cropping these images to generate a square thumbnail, and the crop isn’t always centered, so you may be surprised at what you see if you do get one to appear in the search results. With that in mind, it’s best to start with a square image and place it in the main content area of the page. Ideally you’ll choose something that makes sense for a person viewing the page, but due to these mobile thumbnail results, you will want to be mindful of how your page will appear in the search results.
If the company is well-branded, trying to get their logo in the results can be a good way to go. If it’s a smaller company that doesn’t have much name recognition, an image that highlights a reason to choose them over a well-known competitor may be a better option.
In this example, the thumbnail, while not really a great looking graphic, stands out and may entice a consumer more than their company logo would:
While mobile image thumbnails can appear on any page, city pages can be good candidates for testing them. Keep in mind that these thumbnails are more of a moving target than review snippets. Also, be aware that review snippets and mobile image thumbnails can appear at the same time for the same result (for an extra visual bonus), and the mobile image thumbnail may appear for some search queries but not others. Again, it’s all about the context.
Using Paid Search to Reach Customers in your Service Area
You didn’t think you were going to get the visibility you desire without paying Google, did you?
You might not be able to get the results you’d like through visibility in organic search results alone. If you don’t already have a Google Ads campaign in place, you will likely need to create one in order to reach potential customers throughout your service area. Another benefit is that you can mine data from your Google Ads campaign for beneficial insights that can help shape priorities on the organic side.
Google Local Services Ads
If Google Local Services ads are available in your area for your business type (check this post to find out), you need to give them a shot. Like local results, distance is a significant factor in rankings. Depending on the competition, you may not be able to obtain great visibility in Local Services ads for potential customers that are within the service area but not close to the physical location of the business.
Either way, these ads get prime placement and cost per lead is typically very reasonable, so they can’t be ignored.
If you’re working with a client where LSAs are applicable, read up on them and offer to help them with it. You could use data from this BrightLocal study to show how often they’re clicked, too.
We recently started working with a client in an established LSA market. We asked why they weren’t in the LSAs and if the agency they worked with had talked to them about these ads. They had. They told them it was a waste of time and not to bother with it. What a terrible thing to say! (Perhaps the agency doesn’t know much about LSA or feels threatened by them because the lead costs are better than what they were getting with their Google Ads campaign?)
Regardless, I urge you not to shield clients from products that can be beneficial to them. Be on their side and help them navigate all of the changes Google is throwing their way. Your clients will appreciate it and will value having you around much more if you do so.