Although local neighborhood businesses may share a common audience on the surface, they can have wildly different needs when it comes to local marketing, which is why it’s always important to carefully consider business type.
We often talk about local businesses as ‘brick-and-mortar’ businesses, in order to define them as separate to online-only operations (such as e-commerce companies) that can attract customers from all over the nation. However, this is a misnomer.
Sure, there are bricks and mortar involved for every business that provides services in the real world (where would you keep all the equipment otherwise?!), but the common understanding of ‘brick-and-mortar’, as it applies to a place of work, simply doesn’t work for all businesses that operate in a local area.
Here I’m talking about what’s known as ‘service-area businesses’, a term popularised by Google.
What Is a Service-Area Business?
The term ‘service-area business’ (also known as an SAB) sounds like it refers to any business that, well, ‘serves an area’, right? But no, as far as local SEO needs are concerned, a grocery store that pulls in customers from the local ‘area’ does not count as a service-area business.
So, to further refine the definition, we turn to Bing, which prefers to use the term ‘businesses without a physical store’. But hang on… that could mean e-commerce, right?
Confusingly, ‘service-area business’ and ‘business without a physical store’ both refer to the same type of operation. A service area business (SAB) is a business that:
- Provides a service at the customer’s location (they come to you)
- Serves a wide area beyond the service provider’s immediate location
- Has no physical location which customers can visit*
- Needs to ‘hide’ (i.e. not display its address in business listings)
* Having a physical location with ‘office hours’ was actually a requirement for Google My Business profiles, but these examples are why Google had to start to change its guidelines to suit these kinds of businesses.
If your business satisfies the above conditions, then it’s a service-area business, and that means there are plenty of online marketing tools, specifics, and processes that apply to you.
Examples of these kinds of businesses include:
- Garage door contractors
- Window cleaning companies
- Pest control professionals
- Cleaning companies
- House painting businesses
- HVAC providers
N.b. It’s worth noting that the definition is still subject to change, with some using ‘service-area business’ to also include businesses that have a physical location and the ability to deliver a service at your home or office. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be talking about service-area businesses with no physical location, or what Google refers to as ‘pure service-area businesses’.
How Do Local Search Services and Products Differ for Service-Area Businesses?
No Address, No Listings?
The lack of publishable address is the key thing differentiating service-area businesses from other local businesses. In local SEO, we often point out that having accurate and consistent NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) data displayed across multiple relevant business listings is very much ‘table stakes’ for online visibility.
Although there are some key business listing sites (or ‘citation sites’) that don’t allow you to hide your address, the good news is that there are plenty of citation sites out there that are a perfect fit for service-area businesses.
Ranking Outside Your Area
By and large, businesses in the same vertical and location compete for the same audience. Two hotels nearby each other, two Italian restaurants in the same neighborhood, two beauty salons on the same road, they’ll each be targeting the same people, be they visitors to the area or residents.
They’ll also be targeting the same localized keywords in their online marketing: phrases like ‘hotels near me’, ‘Italian restaurant Baltimore’, and, if the search engine knows the searcher’s location, simply ‘beauty salon’.
Things are slightly different for service-area businesses. Their customers don’t have to travel anywhere to provide their custom, and so they’re a lot less likely to base their search requirements on business location. This leads to the proximity of searcher to business being much less critical a factor in local search rankings.
So more weight gets put on the other key pillars of local search rankings: prominence and relevance. While Google has some information on the area the business serves (see below), it’ll be much more inclined to rank service-area businesses with a good reputation and great reviews.
After all, if I’m booking a home visit from a pest control company, I’m far less interested in how far they’ve had to drive to get to my house and much more concerned with how many satisfied customers they’ve served.
There are other tips and tricks to help you rank outside your local area, but starting with fantastic reputation management (and leaving a trail of happy customers in your wake) is a good move.
Define a Service Area in Google My Business
Google My Business is still trying to figure out the best way to let service-area businesses set up their business profiles in a way that allows them to best highlight the accurate area of work.
Until 2019, businesses could define a service radius around their hidden address in Google My Business, enabling Google to better serve local searchers. However, in its updated guidelines on adding or editing your service area (which you can while you’re setting up your GMB listing or afterwards), it states that “you can set your service area based on the cities, postcodes or other areas you serve”.
If you define the service area and you have no physical location, Google encourages you to leave the ‘business location’ field completely blank in your Google My Business profile, and you should not enter an address under the ‘Info’ tab in the Google My Business dashboard. Google’s verification process for these businesses is also slightly different, as they’re unable to send a physical postcard to the address.
Local Services Ads
Because service-area businesses don’t have the capability of showing up with a map pin in Google Maps, they can sometimes lose out to searchers who prefer to browse the local map when looking for a business.
This is one of the reasons that Google launched Local Services Ads, a feature of Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) specific to searches that return service-area businesses as results.
Local Services Ads is a listing type that sits atop SERPs and provides reputation and service information prominently for the searcher. It’s a changing product, with some elements coming with a charge from Google (such as the ‘Google Guaranteed’ badge), but it’s worth reading this guide by service-area businesses specialist Tom Waddington for a good overview of the opportunities presented by Local Services Ads.
If you’re interested in how the presence of Local Services Ads in SERPs affects click-throughs, and what consumers think of the features in this search results type, take a look at our comprehensive Local Services Ads study, which looked at the behaviour of over 5,000 searchers.
While there are a lot of quirks specific to service-area businesses, there are still plenty of local SEO tools every business needs to succeed in their local area and beyond.
I hope this guide has helped you define your business better and allowed you to refine your local search tactics to the ones most suited to your situation.