The Simplified Guide to Local Search

The Simplified Guide to Local Search

If you’re just getting started with local SEO, or figuring out how to get more visibility for your local business, welcome!

Our simplified guide to Google local search is jargon-free, explains everything in plain English and is packed with easy-to-action tips.

We’ll touch on the essential local SEO tools you’ll need to make your life easier and provide you with a complete overview of which areas you need to focus on to make your business more visible to local customers. So, let’s get started!

The Basics: Why local search?

If you’re new to Google local search, you may well be wondering where it’s come from and why it’s now so important to local businesses everywhere. The answer to this question lies with a piece of tech that you likely have in your pocket, in your hands or on your desk right now – your smartphone.

Around 96% of Americans own a cell phone in 2019, with 81% owning smartphones, according to the latest data from Pew Research Institute. A staggering 96% of Americans aged 18-29 own a smartphone, which means more than 9 in 10 of them have instant access to the internet wherever they are as they go about their day.

This widespread availability of mobile technology has seriously changed how we behave as consumers. We can now hop online at any time, from any location, and search for something we need or want. That means anything from the nearest pizza place to the pet grooming parlor (plus any product or service you can think of in-between) is just a few taps on your smartphone screen away.

Constant connectivity equals convenience, so more and more, everyday shoppers are heading to Google on their phone when they need to find something. According to our Local Consumer Review Survey, 27% of consumers go online to find a local business every day, 59% search for a local business weekly and 69% look online for local businesses monthly.

It’s easy to see how appearing prominently on Google when local people search for your kind of service can be lucrative!

It’s not just physically searching by text either. More and more, voice search is gaining traction. Think about it – have you ever asked Siri, Alexa, or your Google Assistant what the weather is like or what’s showing at the cinema? If you have, you’ve used voice search.

The results that are returned through voice search for these kinds of queries are local results, which means many people conduct a local search without even realizing that’s what they’re doing. Google predicts this is going to be a big growth area in 2019 so this is also an area of local search to watch as time goes on.

What is a ‘local search’? How does it differ from a normal search?

A local search is perhaps best described with an example:

You’re driving in town and get a flat tire; you pull out your smartphone, head to your web browser and type in ‘mechanic’.

Whether or not you add ‘near me’, you’re still performing a local search as you’re looking for a specific service in your local area.

Thanks to modern technology, Google is able to accurately pinpoint your location. It can use your Wi-Fi connection or GPS, for example, to get an idea of where you are, and then return results for products, services and merchants that are in close proximity (the distance) to your location.

Without being too technical, distance is one of the three key pillars of local search (along with relevance and prominence) for businesses looking to get their web presences seen by the right people at the right time.

Google will calculate how far the distance is from the search user to a local business when deciding how to rank search results. It knows that, more often than not, search users need a solution that is close to them – especially when searching on a mobile device.

Breaking down your search

You may think there’s nothing much to decode when you type a few words into Google to hunt down a vital product or service. That’s actually not the case, though.

During the 2018 Secrets of Local Search conference, which was held at Google’s HQ in California, Google’s own figures revealed that 46% of searches now have a local intent. That’s almost, but not quite, one out of every two searches. That alone gives Google a pretty good idea of whether you’re looking for a local business or not.

Of course, the words and phrases you type in before hitting ‘search’ are a pretty good indicator of whether you need something local or, whether a solution from further afield would do the trick.

“Near me” searches

Let’s go back to that city drive and your flat tire.

Now, chances are, you don’t just type in mechanic, although that is possible. In your eagerness to get back on the road with a fully inflated tire as soon as possible, you might tell Google you’re looking for a “mechanic near me”. Right away, ‘near me’ triggers a local search as you clearly need assistance close to your physical location.

Near Me search

The same is true of searches that your customers make. Whether they’re looking for a pool cleaner or a cable guy, ‘near me’ flags up that only someone close to their current location will suffice.

This means that Google knows to present that user with service providers from their immediate area. If you’re a mechanic in that city, you’ll want to ensure that you have your local search visibility taken care of to be visible to that customer and in with a chance of winning that job.

Geo-targeted searches

In some cases, rather than type in near me, you may simply add your location to the end of the search to be assured that you’ll be served relevant results. For example, ‘mechanic San Francisco’.

It’s pretty clear to Google that this is a local search and so to be useful, it needs to show you listings for mechanics in San Francisco.

geo-targeted SERP

Location-enabled searches

If you have your location enabled on your phone, you can perform a local search without even realizing it. In most cases, if you simply type in ‘mechanic’ you’ll get local results simply because you have location services enabled on your phone.

This can vary for the type of business searched for, though. Typing popular business types like hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, are like to trigger a location-enabled search. However, searching for incredibly rarely-searched business types can still result in definitions from sources like Wikipedia (though Google is getting increasingly clever in this sense).

What is a local search result?

As we’ve seen, there are several types of local searches. Fittingly, there are multiple types of local search results, too.

Depending on the device used for the search and the type of search performed, a different type of local search result may be shown. The good news for businesses is that the tactics that improve your visibility in one type of search result almost always improve it in the others, too.

Here, we just want to share a few terms with you which pop up most often to describe local search results, so you feel comfortable with each one when you progress to carrying out local search or speaking to a local SEO agency.

Local Pack

The local pack (also known as the 3-pack) is a section of Google’s search results that shows the top local businesses related to your query. Whenever your query has local intent, Google will show three local businesses that might answer your query.

You’ll see the local pack appear if you go to Google and type in your search query in the search bar. It will often have an image of a map above and then three suggested local businesses below, sometimes with snippets of reviews, opening times and pictures.

For local businesses, this is the ultimate goal in local SEO, as these three spots are generally consistent across mobile, desktop and even voice search.

local 3-pack

Google Maps

If you use Google Maps to perform a search, or you click on the map icon in the local pack, you’ll get local map results. This will show the location of businesses matching your search query on a map with options for filtering according to criteria such as ‘top rated’ or ‘open now’.

Google Maps result

Local Finder

If you click a listing in the local pack, or on the LIST option to the right of Google Maps on mobile, you’ll find get local finder results. The local finder is the source of truth for all local listings on Google. Wherever you see listings for a particular search term in a particular location, the local finder results are what’s being pulled. BrightLocal tracks these positions in our Local Search Rank Checker.

Local Finder

Localized organic results

Localized organic results are a slightly different version of local search. These results show in the main search area, they are always strictly business related (so they likely won’t include specific local businesses, unless they’re performing very well in local SEO for the search term you’ve used) but they do have a strong local connection via their content.

If the searcher is clearly looking for something local, these results will often be comprised of directory listings or ‘listicle’ style articles, such as Top 10 Best X in Y) and articles from local bloggers and newspapers.

localized organic


What is local search marketing?

As you’ve probably gathered by this point, local search marketing is focused on getting a particular business or page to appear for a certain keyword or keywords in a certain area.

Local search has become much more of a focus for smaller businesses and businesses with a number of physical locations in recent years, for two core reasons. The first is that it has become harder and harder for smaller organizations to break into the main search results on Google as larger brands like Amazon and Walmart often dominate the top three or four spots.

Another reason, as we touched on before, is the predominance of smartphones and the shift to using them to search for anything and everything at exactly the moment we need it.

According to HubSpot marketing statistics, this is really lucrative for small businesses – with 72% of shoppers who perform a local search going on to visit a store within five miles of their location. 88% of those who perform a search on a mobile device call or visit a local business within one day.

By 2021, around $1.4 trillion of sales per year is expected to be influenced by a mobile device. All of this only serves to illustrate exactly how profitable it can be to focus your efforts on obtaining a prominent local search position.

So, exactly how do you go about that? As promised, now that you know exactly what local search marketing is and how it works, we’re going to leave you with some actionable takeaways. These are the activities that you (or your agency partner) will need to focus on to get your business ranking for its products and services in the local area…

Local search marketing checklist

There are lots of factors that go into obtaining a top local search result – you can find a full breakdown here – but in this starter guide, we’ll focus on the most important.

Link Building

In the world of SEO, links are currency. If you can get another site to link back to you, it’s akin to a vote of confidence in your site. If the site linking to you operates within a similar field, is well-regarded in its own right, and located in the same area as you, you’re well on your way to having a great link.]

If that link uses one of your keywords in the link text, better yet. Links aren’t just a signal of trust or a vote of confidence. They also act as pathways into your site for local consumers.

Building links is an ongoing process and one that you must take a long-term view on. Approaching sources such as your local newspaper or Chamber of Commerce, and giving them a good reason to link back to you is a great way to get your link building kicked off. You may also want to approach local bloggers with collaboration ideas to generate links. Just be sure to target good quality sites that are in the same or a similar field.

Citation building

Citations are extremely influential in local search. A citation is simply an online mention of your business name, address and phone number, along with any other useful information such as web address, opening times and email address. You can build citations in lots of different ways, from filling out a social media profile fully, to being mentioned in a local newspaper or completing a directory listing. You can find more about how to go about this in our guide to citation building here.

Review generation

If you’re a regular BrightLocal visitor, you’ll need no introduction to the importance of reviews. If not, check out our Local Consumer Review Survey here or try our 5 tips for generating more local business reviews here. In short, the vast majority of consumers trust online reviews as much as they do a personal recommendation from someone they know, which makes good reviews a powerful sales tool.

Google, too, loves reviews. How many reviews you have, how many are good, how many are bad, how many feature pictures and how quickly you respond to reviews can all influence your local search positions.

Because consumers often only look at the most recent reviews when making up their mind about a business, you’ll need to generate new reviews on a consistent basis. Google also looks for a regular, steady stream of reviews when determining local search position.

Google My Business Optimization

Have you claimed your Google My Business listing yet? If not, this is something you should do now, as Google My Business signals are an important local search ranking factor.

Filling out your Google My Business profile information in full is an easy first step. Make sure you add as much detail as you can, upload relevant images, and choose a relevant Google My Business category.

Adding posts, offers and events from your Google My Business dashboard regularly is also important for local search success and can help you become more visible in the local pack.

On-page work

The content on your website is another key to performing local SEO successfully. Check that you have your full address, including zip code present on your site. The name, address and phone number (NAP) on your web page should be consistent with the NAP you use elsewhere online.

Regularly updating your website with useful content and including local keywords is also important, as is ensuring site speed and technical SEO is optimal.


Now that you know the differences and commonalities between local search types and local search results, you can dive further into learning what affects these things.

Whatever you do: always be testing and learning. There’s no such thing as set-it-and-forget-it in SEO, and local search is no different. Even citations have to be updated sometimes!

Jamie Pitman
About the author
Jamie Pitman
Jamie heads up BrightLocal's content team, ensuring we produce insightful articles, research and resources that enable businesses and SEOs to get even better results in local search.

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