It’s a question SEOs get asked again and again: ‘How can I rank locally in an area outside my city?‘ There are plenty of reasons why you’d want to rank in cities where you don’t have an address, but getting into local rankings outside your area can be challenging.
On April 18th, 2018, BrightLocal CEO Myles Anderson was joined by DealerOn’s Greg Gifford and Phil Rozek from Local Visibility System to discuss the pros and cons of ranking outside your area, explain actions to take to widen your reach, and provide a ton of ideas for identifying and engaging audiences beyond your zip code.
Video: Best Marketing Tactics to Win Customers From Outside Your Local Area
‘Best Marketing Tactics to Win Customers From Outside Your Local Area’ InsideLocal Webinar Recap
Phil Rozek, Local Visibility System: I think this is where it’s helpful to divide local search into two, and think of it in terms of local map on the one hand and the localized organic results on the other. You’re right that in terms of expanding your reach on the local map AKA the three pack AKA the Google My Business results, you’re options are pretty limited. If you do everything right, you can expand your footprint on the map somewhat.
And certainly if you add more Google My Business pages, you can expand your footprint a little more, but there is still that location factor, so you can only do so much with that. On the other hand, though, there’s a lot you can do on the localized organic side of things to expand your footprint. For me, probably the best summary of my approach, just strictly in terms of local SEO is: try to expand your net on the Google Map a little bit and try to expand your net on the localized organic results a lot, rather than trying to cover the map with spammy Google My Business pages or anything like that. So I think if you emphasize the organic organic visibility, you’ll live to fight another day.
Greg Gifford, DealerOn: With Possum, a year and a half ago, Google really turned up that proximity factor and there’s also the fact that it’s a pretty big signal that there’s a physical address in that city, especially for showing up in the map pack searches.
So if you’re out in the suburbs and you’re wanting to show up in main searches for the metro, it’s really difficult because you don’t have that physical address in that city. And unfortunately it’s something that used to be pretty easy to do, if you knew your stuff. Phil, you’ve been in the game long enough; we used to be able to do this all the time. I had a guy that was 45 miles outside of Dallas, ranking number one in the map pack for anything related to automotive five or six years ago.
And you just can’t do that anymore. And it’s the same situation where you always have, where those of us that are in local search all the time really understand all the game-changing rules and everything that happens, but the general public doesn’t really understand how drastically things change and they’re looking at the fact that, even two years ago, they had better visibility and now they don’t. And it’s really frustrating.
So I think it’s just the fact that the rules have changed and there’s kind of a lack of knowledge out there about that rule change and people just assume, “I used to be able to do it. I should be able to do it now.”
It’s like I always told car dealers, and any business really, when I’m speaking at conferences, people get really frustrated. And even even search marketers that are a little bit newer to the game get really frustrated about Google making these updates. And they’re like, “Google’s out to screw us”, but Google has a really vested interest in making sure that these search results are as amazing as possible because Google makes all this money off of it.
So Google’s going to make sure that the things that show up in the organic search results are the best results they can be so that people will continue to use Google and continue to click on AdWords and make Google trillions of dollars a day. Something else that people don’t really consider outside of our little uber-nerd niche is that Google is getting trillions of search queries that it owns all the data on and sees exactly what you do. So it knows when people search for certain types of businesses, these are the types of results they want.
I always use the example of pizza delivery. When you type ‘pizza delivery’ with no geo modifier, you get results right next to you because Google knows you need a pizza delivered from nearby. So when it’s looking at these proximity factors and address factors, it’s saying ‘okay, look for all of the searches that occur around these keyword phrases and these general ideas, even though business owners want to show up outside of that, the general public really want something right next to them.
I think the explosion of mobile search has contributed to that because people are searching on their phone and they’re now just inherently expecting that whatever they’re searching for on their own is going to be a nearby result. So I think the changes with the proximity factor and the address factor, just backing up user behavior and what most people actually want, unfortunately it’s not really what business owners want.
Phil Rozek: For me, at least, this is where it gets interesting and a little infuriating. Google’s bias toward closeness matters differently to different businesses. If you’re a bricks and mortar and you rely on customers coming to you then it’s probably not as important to you to reach people within a 50-mile radius around your place of business.
If you are an HVAC company or roofer or a plumber, it becomes a little bit more important. Also, if you’re in the middle of nowhere, you can cast a much wider net because there are fewer local competitors to you. As the density of competitors goes up, as the market is more saturated, the smaller geographical footprint you can realistically hope to have, even if you do everything right in terms of your local SEO.
If you’re an HVAC business in a big city market like New York City, even if you do everything right, you’ll be lucky to be visible in one of the boroughs, not in all five boroughs, not in the whole tri-state area, certainly not within a 50-mile radius around your place of business in New York City. So not only does the industry matter, but also how many local competitors you have matters. All of that stuff affects your ability to cast as wide a net as you want to.
Greg Gifford: A lot of people don’t understand how things have changed and how it’s different. And even the ones that aren’t looking at how things were five years ago, just looking at it now and they’re saying, “I should show up, I’m a better option. Sure, I live in the suburbs and I’m 25 minutes outside of downtown, but I should show up in searches in this town because I service this whole town. People will drive 20 minutes to me and it’s really hard”.
I feel like as SEO professionals that really specialize in local, within the last couple of years we’ve had to have much more focus on educating clients than we used to. Because things have become so much more difficult, we have to really make sure that people have the right expectations. And so I know that for us and just for me speaking at conferences in general, there’s always a factor of ‘local is really complicated’ and we need to make sure that people understand how it works because otherwise you’re going to be working with clients that have misaligned expectations with what can actually happen in reality, and that has nothing to do with them being stupid or uneducated, and nothing to do with you not having the ability as an SEO agency to deliver. It just has to do with the fact that we think about Google all the time and we tend to forget that the general public doesn’t really understand how it works or even thinks about how it works.
One of the things I’ll be talking about next week, on the agency side, is how to sell local SEO and how to explain how it works. So I feel like there’s been a big shift, at least for us, of, it’s not just about being really kickass at what you deliver, but being really good at explaining why it works the way it works so that people have the right expectations.
Phil Rozek: That’s been my experience too. With my clients, I’m kind of known for tough love and just saying ‘Look, here’s how Google operates, how your competitors operate, what do you want to do?’ And a lot of times I find that the standard operating procedure, especially with clients with whom I haven’t worked for months or years yet, is: don’t necessarily do anything better than competitors do, just do more of it. So on the Google My Business side, it’s ‘Oh, my competitor’s spamming, he’s belching out 10 Google My Business pages using employees’ addresses. Well, I’m going to make 20 Google My Business pages’.
Or with city pages on the organic side, maybe if you don’t have a bunch of bogus Google My Business pages, you say, ‘Well I can just make 100 pages. I offer 10 services, I operate in 10 cities. I’m going to make 100 pages, each geared toward that city in that service’. So it just gets out of hand. And there’s this kind of bloated approach of ‘spray-and-pray’ marketing. I’m not going to use too many metaphors here, but I prefer the kind of ‘dig the well before you’re thirsty’ approach, which is: it’s going to take you months, if not years, to figure out exactly what works for you and your business in the local results.
So you’re trying to expand your service area and try to get visible within a 50-mile radius around your place of business, it’s going to take some time. It’s not like, ‘well, let’s see what we can do in two to three months’. To Greg’s point, I’ve found that, in recent years especially, it’s never gotten easier to take a bigger bite out of your service area. But on the other hand it’s gotten so much harder to get visible in that service area that I think, in a strange way, it’s easier for clients to buy into the fact that, ‘Oh, this is going to take some work and it’s going to take some time. Probably more time and more work than we would like.’
Greg Gifford: We always say to customers that come in and immediately jump on the train of ‘I want to show up in all these other cities’, we say ‘you have to own your own backyard’. You’ve got to really do well in your own city before you try to expand and go elsewhere. We get car dealers all the time who want to do all the tactics they hear me talk about at conferences and target all these other cities, and then we go look and they had zero visibility in their own city and you can’t expect to do well if you’re trying to expand that net if you’re not dominating your own specific local area first.
You’ve got to get those parts right and have the right foundation before you try to expand and build more on your house. So an important thing to realize, too, is that it’s not quick and easy, but it is possible to expand that reach, but you’ve got to have that foundation in place first and you can’t just skip the local part and jump to the expansion part.
Phil Rozek: If you’re pretty unavoidable in your core service area closer to home, that takes a little bit of pressure off, and you may not have as many customers as you’d like, but you’ll keep the lights on and you’ll be able to pay your hosting bills. You’ll live to fight another day and you’ll live to be able to try to expand that service area and at least you won’t be desperate. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not visible anywhere; I’ve got to get visible across the whole service area or else I’m gonna go out of business’.
The order of things matters. You can’t cast a wide net and then narrow it down. You have to start with a narrow net and try to add nets onto that closer to home. If you do it in that order it’ll go well. If you do the same thing backwards, not so well.
Greg Gifford: We do have a lot of people that come in that have basically no visibility in their own local area and they’re already thinking, ‘I want to show up way over here’ when they’re not showing up there. But I do also have a ton of people that come in that are switching their strategies from their own in-house or from a different agency and saying, ‘Look, we’re doing pretty well in our city. We have good visibility, we’re happy, we feel like we show up about as well as we can. Where do we go from here? How can we expand that?’
You’ve got to have that good visibility. But once you have that, there is the opportunity to expand and I think a lot of people understand that and that’s when they start seeking out people like me or Phil or Joy or people that really specialize in local and have the expertise and experience to be able to go and do that long-term play of ‘Okay, let’s put some work in here and know that a month down the road we’re going to be able to have those additional nets and bring in more traffic’.
Phil Rozek: My experience is similar to Greg’s in that I pretty much always want to cast a wider net. But every situation is different because some business owners say, ‘I don’t want to get visible in the whole service, but there are these few towns where there’s a lot of cash and maybe bigger jobs to be had’. And so some business owners kind of want to cherry-pick and get visible in certain parts of the service area.
So that’s usually where I’d start the conversation. When somebody says they want to cast a wide net, I try to define what the net is, what’s under the net a little bit more, like ‘ Do you care about all the cities and towns equally or are can you apply the 80/20 rule and say, ‘Well, five or 10 of them really matter and the rest are kind of icing on the cake’?.
Greg Gifford: On the driving directions heatmap in Google Insights, working exclusively with car dealerships, you really have two reasons people are coming to your site or to visit you at the brick and mortar locations. They’re going to buy a car or they’re going to come get serviced. So if someone is not right nearby, they’re probably going to need to look up directions.
And so if you have that heatmap and you can see where people are coming from and see that it’s different than AdWords data or Google Analytics data says their location is, this is actual people clicking from this spot to get directions from where they are to where I am. People aren’t going to do that unless they’re planning on coming to see. So that’s a pretty good metric to get a good feel for. These are really the areas that people are trying to figure out how to find me from.
Phil Rozek: I would agree with Greg on that. I generally take a pretty grim view of GMB Insights because they seem to just kind of suck. They’re usually inaccurate or there’s no data in there to glean much from them, especially for businesses that aren’t super visible yet and don’t have too many signs of life in the GMB dashboard.
So my default, what I want to look at is ‘where within my client service area has the most interest?’. I tend to go to AdWords and run a quick and dirty AdWords campaign, not to convert leads necessarily, but basically to buy the good data because that’s the only good data Google will ever give you. Essentially you have to pay for it.
That’s where that really comes into play for me because you can go into the dimensions tab in AdWords and look at not only the specific zip codes or locations of searchers who clicked on you, but even people who just saw your ad but maybe didn’t click. So you do see the impressions. You can see that and you can also see how the distance of the searcher affects click-through rate.
You can determine, for instance, whether if the searcher is 10 miles away from you, nobody clicks on your ad. Whereas if they’re five miles away, you have a 26% click-through rate. So for me at least all the good data is an AdWords, but I do think it’s worth kind of triangulating at least with maybe what you see in Google Analytics and maybe what you see in GMB Insights.
Greg Gifford: I feel like when I talk at conferences, the one question that I am 100% guaranteed to get is ‘My competitors are doing fake GMB listings by using the addresses of their employees’. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away.
If you can report it, you can get it shut down really quickly, but a lot of business owners don’t know enough to know they can just go get this reported and taken down. And they just get frustrated because it’s like it’s fantastic and everybody does it. And I think, like you said, I kind of feel like it’s happening a little bit more because people are more desperate to try to show up in those areas where they really don’t have a brick and mortar location.
Phil Rozek: My take is similar to Greg’s in that I don’t think it’ll ever go away. And with this spammy GMB listing, it’s kind of a game of whack-a-mole and the spammers are never really sent back to the dog house with their tails between their legs. Google doesn’t really do enough about it and it never really gets better.
I would say that it’s kind of the tactics. They work just well enough that some spammers keep doing it. But the fact that they have to keep cranking out crappy city pages and bogus GMB listings means that there’s some desperation there. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, well we made five city pages (that kind of cookie-cutter, generic city pages, spammy approach) and then we did two GMB listings and we had all the customers we needed from that kind of low-level spamming.
It’s kind of an ‘all-or-nothing’ phenomenon. So I think it doesn’t work as well as it might look. A lot of times I have to tell clients ‘Okay, you have a competitor who’s spamming the map and maybe spamming the organic results. He might rank okay for now, but how do you know he gets any customers out of the bogus GMB listings or the cookie-cutter city pages?’
And sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. I work with clients who say, ‘Phil, help me out. I’ve been making these GMB listings. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I needed the phone to ring and I have all these city pages. Yeah, yeah. I know I’m not supposed to have them, but I thought that they would rank’. When I look at the analytics and their KPIs on those GMB pages that they shouldn’t have or the city pages that they just kind of belched out without much thought, they never seem to say, ‘I got a ton of customers from this GMB page or this city page’. It’s usually like, ‘I’m not sure if they’re even working for me,’ so that’s my general take, that the spammy tactics work just enough to give people faith in them, but they don’t really work in my experience.
Greg Gifford: Those are what I would call spammy tactics and not black hat tactics. Black hat tactics are things that we all know are against what Google says you should do and could potentially get you penalized. But, hey, this stuff really works and if you really want to push the envelope, you could do this.
And, sure, there could be a penalty or some sort of algorithmic update that wipes you out soon, but this is like a loophole in the algorithm, whereas the spammy stuff is, like, you’re always on the hamster wheel and it’s not really a tactic that works because, like you said, that train is always running and it’s not something you can do and it works.
You’re always churning out fake listing after listing and guess what? 10 of them get knocked out, so you put 10 more up. I wouldn’t really consider that a black hat tactic because, like you said, it doesn’t really work. It’s just something that people continue to do because it’s the vanity metric of, ‘Ooh, I’ve got 15 listings and so I’m probably going to get more visibility and more traffic’.
When faced with spam listings, I just contact Joy (Hawkins, of Sterling Sky). She’s the one that everyone goes to for spam destruction because that’s all she does, but she’s really built herself up to be the premier expert of identifying and fighting that BS spam that’s out there.
Phil Rozek: Similar situation with me. I do a little bit of spam fighting on behalf of my clients and sometimes, just as a good Samaritan, if I see some spam in my backyard I’ll do something about that and so I’ve been able to, on behalf of my clients, stack a few bodies in the anti-spam effort, but it’s never enough and if we take care of one competitor and fix his wagon, there’s always another one who’s spamming.
So this is where it gets pretty frustrating because the powers that be at Google Maps tie your hands so badly that there’s only so much you can do. I think that’s where it really behooves you to, especially for the business owner who’s trying to expand the service area, not fixate on Google Maps so much. That’s one reason I say, ‘Yeah, put some of your effort into expanding the Google Maps footprint a little bit, but put the bulk of your work into expanding your visibility in the organic results,’ because that’s a lot more insulated in my experience against spam.
Question from webinar attendee: What is the search area radius for SABs (Service Area Businesses)? Is there any rule of thumb or best practice for how big that radius should be for an SAB?
Phil Rozek: Not at all. The way I explain to clients is: it’s like if you’re a kid and it’s Christmas time and you’re putting 50 gifts on your wishlist for Christmas, you’ll be lucky to get two of them. The other 48 will have to wait until another year and that’s kind of how it is with the service area settings in Google My Business.
If you put down a hundred-mile service area, you are not going to rank even in a piece of that. I guess it’s for optics purposes, because the service area settings do show up in the knowledge panel. So when somebody searches for your business by name, they’ll see it and they’re on the right hand side, thinking ‘Oh, they serve a service area this big. It looks like I’m in that circle. This business looks like a good fit’, but it has absolutely no bearing on the ranking.
I don’t think it hurts your rankings, at least in my experience, to have an almost ridiculously big service area in Google My Business, but I have not noticed that it matters one pinch for your rankings.
Phil Rozek: I would say 50% of expanding beyond that is ‘work on the stuff you would probably work on anyway for any local SEO campaign, regardless of business type and radius.’ So half of it is work on the daunting, grinding, high-payoff stuff that matters, like rustling up links, rustling up reviews. If you do that, you’ll be okay and, in one way or another, cast a wider net in the local results. So that’s 50% of it right there.
I would say the other 50% is doing some city pages, quality over quantity, but don’t belch out 100; do five or even three, and get them really, really good. It can’t just be the cookie-cutter content of, you know, we’re an HVAC company and we serve such-and-such customers in such-and-such a city, give us a call’. You have to do a little bit more than that.
So my approach, generally, is: do three to five pages on cities where you’ve got customers and you want more, as opposed to cities where you don’t have any, where you haven’t had a single job, and where you just kind of want to dip your toe into the water. So the more on those pages you can kind of talk about your portfolio and the jobs you’ve done rather than the jobs you want, that’s good on Google and people like those crunchy bits of detail.
Any time you can show reviews or testimonials or photos or videos or even just describe some jobs you’ve done, then you have at least the core of the city page that could rank well and actually bring you customers out of the deal. So definitely start with a very narrow net and then if that works expand it a little bit, so do not start off with 50 city pages, start off with three to five, and my other main bit of advice would be don’t just limit yourself to city pages.
There are other types of viable pages on your site that, with a little bit of work, probably have a better chance of ranking than your city pages. First and foremost, for the home page, the myth has been thatl you can only optimize the homepage for one city or one location. That’s not true. I mean, yeah, I guess it’s true in the sense that you can’t have a title tag that’s 400 characters long, but there’s a lot you can do on that page.
So one bit of advice I have for a lot of my clients is: you need a big bad home page that describes your services and all the cities in excruciating detail. And that doesn’t have above-the-fold content. You can do it lower down on the page where only Google and a few sort of geeky readers will actually see that content. What I’ve found is that the homepage is usually more likely to rank farther away from your service area city pages.
My theory is that the home page tends to have all or most of the link juice and it’s usually just missing content that’s relevant to the service area. So if you can add that relevant content about your service area and about jobs you’ve done, if you can have some reviews, that’s all good stuff to put on your home page. And it’s been my experience that that is usually a more viable page than city pages.
Greg Gifford: For us, we do local content silos, because everybody out there is going to create city pages. Most people that are forward thinking enough to understand how local works, they may not throw out the good quality stuff that guys like Phil and I do, but you’re still going to have competitors that are putting up a bunch of crappy pages, to target these cities and it’s all that crappy content like Phil was talking about.
But everybody’s doing that, so you have to be better. And it’s not about creating a page that says we serve customers in this area. We create the whole silo. So think of it like a microsite within your site. You’ve got your primary service or product pages that you’re rewriting, unique content that’s tied into that local area, talking about that local area throughout those pages, and then you’ve got that location page, the contact page for that area.
Then you’re writing blog content about that local area and you have a really strong internal link structure within that silo. So you’ve got your main site, but then you’ve got the silo over here for that other city that you’ve got a couple of links into the silo. But once you’re in the silo, you don’t have that many links coming back out and it’s a really strong internal link structure, using those location geo keywords in terms for that silo.
And then you’re also expanding your link building efforts and trying to get local links from businesses in those cities. But instead of pointing them to your main site, you’re pointing them to that content silo. And then when you’re getting reviews from customers, as you start to expand your reach and you get reviews from customers in those areas, you’re putting those reviews in that silo as well.
So now you’re backing up that stuff. You can mark up those reviews, the schema, and you start to build out this really robust, geographically relevant footprint without having a physical location in that city. And again, it’s a long term play like Phil said. We’re doing this for our clients, we’re telling them ‘look, plan on 10 to 12 months before you’re going to see anything out of this because you can’t just throw up a city page and hope that it’s going to show up’.
Like Phil said, you never have to go to your home page. So now you’re adding a separate website without adding a separate website. You’re doubling your efforts or tripling your efforts or just shaving off a little bit of time out of that bucket of time that you have for the month and spending it on a siloed off micro area of the ,and that’s been extremely effective for us. Even after the updates over the last few years, it’s still something that worked really well for us.
Phil Rozek: I know it sounds like Stone Age SEO advice, but internal linking really matters for not only getting people on the site to see your city pages, but also for harnessing whatever link juice you have, usually on the home page because that’s usually the URL. It’s so hard to get links to city pages or state pages or portfolio pages or location pages or what have you. You’ve got to economize what you’ve got. So the more you can spread around the link juice and actually get a trail of breadcrumbs to those city pages or those location pages, that seems to make a big difference in my experience.
The other thing I would add is, as Greg says, it takes longer than anybody would like it to, to succeed and expand the service area. So eight to 10 to 12 months is actually a pretty good ETA. I would say that if the business owner is impatient, it’s time to battle test. Put up a couple of city pages for areas that you want to reach and then battle test them in AdWords.
If you’re comfortable with pointing paid traffic and potentially paying like 15 bucks a click to send people to a page, you’re probably going to take the time to do it right, and to say your piece, to showcase reviews, showcase the work you’ve done. And in making a city page, it’s sort of ready for prime time, you know, good enough to potentially convert AdWords traffic. You’ve probably done what it will take for the city page to rank well in the organic results.
The other upshot of that, of course, is it might actually be good enough to get you some good leads or customers if somebody sees the damn thing, which is also where I think AdWords and local SEO can potentially play nicely together.
Greg Gifford: Coming back to content silos, on any auto dealer website your primary menu buttons are going to ‘new car’, ‘used car’, ‘financing’, ‘parts’, and ‘service’, and so within a silo we’re going to have a new car page and used car page, a service page, and probably a finance page so that we can target that phrase and that idea and that concept within that city.
So we’re going to have those four or five primary pages that are completely rewritten, because it’s more about the local areas understanding what’s going on there. And then as we push out blog posts, when we’re doing blog posts for our dealers, we have the blog posts that have jack squat to do with the business stuff. Instead, they’re about the local area and news about the local area and what’s going on with the local area.
And so we just start to add in blog posts and information and useful tidbits about that targeted city for that silo. So then within that content silo, we’ve also got a sidebar or a link to related blog posts around that area, which again strengthens that internal linking because you’ve got that geo-targeted keyword in those links to those blog posts that talk about that local area.
A lot of times with car dealers, it’s a lot easier for us to do local link building than a lot of other businesses because car dealers are really philanthropic and they’re really involved in local community with charity events and things like that. So it’s really easy to expand and say, ‘look, you’re spending several hundred thousand dollars a year on these specific charity events or sponsorships, but add a little bit for this city that you want to show up in’.
Once you start doing those sponsorship events or charity events or volunteer events in those cities, it’s really easy to get links from those types of activities. And instead of pointing them back to the main site, you’re pointing it back to the pages within that silo to strengthen that geographic footprint.
The content silo isn’t something that is incredibly easy to get to, but it’s not at the same time hidden and just there for Google. It’s there for users and it’s not a doorway page where it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re throwing up city page, basically a doorway page. We want to show up in that city and funnel traffic to the rest of the site’. This is stuff that we fully expect if and when it starts showing up in searches for other geographic locations, people will land on these pages and be able to navigate within that silo and never have to really break out and go to those other pages because, again, you want that reinforcement.
Let’s just say you’re in the suburbs and so you’re in a town that’s 15 minutes outside of the main metro. So in Texas terms, I’m out in Plano or Richardson and Dallas is 15, 20 miles away. If you create that city landing page for Dallas and someone in Dallas gets there and they start clicking through your content and the rest of the site is optimized and created around Plano area content, now that person in Dallas, as they’re reading through your service pages or their product pages on which you’ve written really good, geographically centered content, then they’re going to be seeing all this other city content in there and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not close to me’.
So now if they’re clicking into your site off of stuff that’s being surfaced to them in searches and you’ve got enough content and enough pages there that they can see everything they need to see to decide if they want to do business or call you, but they’re staying within that silo, everything is optimized and written around that city instead of the actual city you’re located in.
So it’s great for showing up in search. It’s also great for that reinforcement of that geographic relevance because once somebody gets in there, they’re seeing the city that they’re in instead of seeing pages that are talking all about some other nearby town.
Phil Rozek: I don’t tend to think of it in terms of silos, but I think of it in terms of, ‘Do my city page or my client’s city pages have an umbrella page that ties them all together?’ Either it’s a main locations page or it’s a service areas page or communities we serve; something like that. I’ve found that those pages themselves can rank well, especially if you actually describe your service area on them and you go into those kinds of crunchy bits of detail that Google and people seem to like. Those pages themselves are viable.
My whole approach to casting a wider net, especially in the organic results, is increase the number of viable pages on your site that could rank for in different cities so you’re not putting all your eggs into the city page or the other city page.
So if the home page is viable for certain cities, and if your service areas or location pages are also viable for ranking, then you’ve kind of had it. You have a little bit of good redundancy. I like to think of it in terms of kind of ‘belt and suspenders’. So I think if you could just not bank on one city page ranking for that city, but potentially try to get a really good main service areas, page or main locations page, that can be very valuable.
And by the way, those pages are really good to optimize for ‘near you’ or ‘near me’ search terms because it’s semantically just a better fit on those pages. So there’s a lot of upside. But Greg would call the silo approach what I would call having umbrella pages that kind of connect all the city pages together.
Greg Gifford: If I’m working with a Ford dealership that’s the only Ford dealership within a 250-mile radius then clearly it’s going to show up really well for Ford. And if he’s in a really small town in Iowa or Wyoming, and there’s two or three car dealerships total in his town and in a hundred-mile radius there’s only seven or eight dealerships, everybody’s going to be on page one, no matter what.
But that’s where you can come in and really start to dominate and do a couple of these silo pages without a whole lot of effort and maybe even not even do the whole silo and just do a city page and you start showing up. Even in the map pack in cities that are 50, 60, 75 miles away because there’s literally only one or two other competitors in that city, so if there’s three plots in the map pack, you’d get one of them.
That’s a lot easier than someone that’s in a market like Dallas or Houston or LA or Chicago where between all the new car dealers and the used car dealers and the ‘buy here, pay here’ guys, you’ve got 400 people fighting for, page one visibility on phrases like ‘used cars’. So in a situation like that you’ve got to put a heck of a lot more work into that silo because you’ve got to create relevancy signals that are better than people that actually do have physical locations there and there might be 100 people in that city that have a physical location that you don’t and you’re trying to out-optimize those guys. It’s going to take a lot more time and effort and expertise.
We have a framework of buckets of time. So X amount of time spent on content, X amount of time spent on link building, X amount of time on reputation, X amount of time spent on social, X amount of time spent on citations. That’s a guideline so it’s going to be fluid and it’s going to change based on the needs of that dealership and the location of that dealership. So for a guy in Wyoming, we probably don’t have to spend as much time on citations because that dealership’s been in the same spot for 50 years and there’s nothing bad to go clean up and nothing really new to go get. Or maybe you’ve got a guy that’s in a big city and they moved their dealerships five times in the last 10 years and you’ve got a massive citation mess and they’re just not showing up at all because there’s so much confusion on a baseline signal like that.
So it’s really going to be kind of fluid. And typically for us, we’re a little bit more heavy on the content side at the beginning of the process because we’re trying to shore up all of the shortcomings of the site. Dealerships want to show up for all these service centers, but they have a single service page that has an i-frame for service scheduling and no content whatsoever, so you’ve got to create all the service content, but two or three or four months down the road, once you’ve really shored up the content and you’ve got it all where you need it to be or if you’re working on those silos and you’ve got all that content there, you shift and you’re spending a little bit more time on the link building than you are on the content creation.
Phil Rozek: For me, it’s a case by case question. Some clients are doing okay on the links, but the content on their site and the structure of their site is just a hot mess. A lot of times it’s the other way around or a lot of times both of those things are issues and it’s a question of, as SEOs we’re kind of like firemen. We’re trying to rescue five dogs from a burning building at once. Which dog do you take out first? Which dog do you take out second? Which is the poor dog you take out last?
So sometimes it’s a matter of just picking something and starting working on it and then moving on to the others as quickly as you can. In less competitive markets I like to start out with some work on city pages and get those up there first because the bar is so low in terms of competition that those pages conceivably could rank without much work to earn links.
In more competitive markets. I would tend to take the tack of ‘let’s just try to rustle up a few good links first, work on some pages, the ‘local content’, then go back to the links, go back to the pages’. So it’s kind of a dance back and forth. And it really just depends on the business. But you’ll reach a point, of course, when you have content on basically all your service areas, but none of it really ranks well. So I would say in that case, that’s where links and reviews really are the ongoing task for local SEO.
The work on the site and the work on the listings goes into the hamper of one-time work and the links and reviews are more ongoing. You never want to stop working on links and you want to start as early as possible, so that any pages you create actually do have somewhat better chances of ranking. But the point is it’s a back and forth process and I don’t think there’s one place you should always start. It really just depends on the situation.
I say three to five pages because it’s kind of a proof of concept. If you’ve put a lot of time and blood and sweat and tears into those three to five pages and they don’t rank well, then you have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what else is going on on the site and its technical issues. Do I not have any links? Why am I not ranking and why am I not getting calls from those three as a result of those three to five really good pages. If they don’t work out well, you have to go back to the drawing board. If they do work out well, then it’s like, ‘I think I can do three to five more good ones. Yes, they took me longer than I would like, they took more effort than I would like, it took longer than I would like to have them rank, but they did rank and they do seem to pull their weight and they do seem worth the trouble of creating them’.
I would say if the proof of concept that the three to five pages tells you that there is some promise, then you can scale up and do more. Partly because I take a really squeaky clean, unique content approach, I’ve never had a penalty for clients where we have double-digit numbers of city pages because we take the time to do each of them. And of course it takes a long time to get 20, 30, 40 different pages that actually target these different cities and don’t just pay lip service and that actually might convert well
So it takes a long time to get a corpus of city pages or other pages like that, but assuming you put in the time, and again, they’re not just these like boilerplate, cookie-cutter pages where everything is the same from page to page except you just swap out the name of the city; if you put a little bit of time into them, you will never run into the doorway penalty or anything like that. That’s why I say start small and, if it works well, then and only then expand.
AdWords, PPC & Display Network
Greg Gifford: My go-to- tactic is definitely AdWords because you can really specifically target AdWords, but we’ve been huge fans of Facebook ads. It really isn’t an ‘apples to apples’ comparison and may not convert as well as AdWords, but you can get a lot more conversions for your money and especially with the local awareness ads where you can exactly target a physical location and go as narrow as a one-mile radius so that those ads are going to show up on mobile devices.
There’s so many opportunities for really specific down-to-neighborhood level, local targeting that you can run really cheap Facebook ads for and really pull in business, and we’ve had a lot of car dealers that have been really successful at running local awareness ads and they target their competitors’ locations and other cities that are nearby because, you know, what are people doing while they’re sitting there waiting for their oil change? They’re playing around on Facebook on their phone, so you can run ads and do serious conquest business off of competitors by running Facebook ads that are going to show up on mobile at those locations and the car dealers are, like I said, really involved in the community so if you’re sponsoring a 5k, drop the map pin on the 5k and run your ad for your business at that location, or you’re doing an event in another city or you know what’s happening in a city that you’re not even sponsoring, drop map pin there.
We’ve got a car dealer that quit running ads in all the area football programs for all the high school football games and instead dropped map pins on each of the high school football stadiums and ran an ad for four hours every Friday night. It was really cheap and they got tons of business out of it. We were talking to a Ferrari dealership in Seattle and said, hey, you guys should advertise at Seahawks games. They were like, ‘that’s ridiculously expensive’. And we said, ‘Not really, because if the game is at noon on Sunday, you can drop a map pin on the stadium and run it from noon to four because what’s everybody doing between quarters and during half time? What are the bored wives and the bored kids doing? You’re going to go look at Facebook.’
So you can get thousands and thousands and thousands of eyeballs on your ad and lots of clicks and conversions for really cheap with these local awareness ads. So I think that’s a really quick way to kind of give a bit of a boost and it’s going to work all day long as long as you’re getting conversions and getting business out of it.
Phil Rozek: I never see a business in the paid three pack where the business just wouldn’t rank otherwise, so it’s always pretty close to home. Those results are very location-sensitive in that respect. But who knows? I mean, Google has never met an ad that it doesn’t like, so I wouldn’t be surprised if by doing AdWords with location extensions enabled you might expand your GMB footprint a little bit. I guess the jury’s out on that. But, you know, stranger things have happened.
Greg Gifford: We need some sort of study on that because I’ve seen lots of situations where people can buy those local packs and, if you really look, they tend to be outliers that aren’t really within that radius and maybe it’s not super far outside the radius, but I think it does get you a little bit of an expanded visibility.
Like we mentioned before, everybody wants something close by and just because you buy into that and you’re getting visibility, it’s like Phil said, it’s really the vanity metric of, ‘Hey, you’re there and you’re happy’, or ‘Oh my God, my competitors, they’re killing me’, but is it really bringing conversions? Is it really bringing in business? If everybody’s looking for something nearby and you’re 10 miles further away, then the furthest result of the three, are people really going to drive out to you and just because your ad that puts you in that top spot? Maybe, maybe not, but why spend the money if it’s not working, just to say that you’re there?
Unless you offer something that’s so ridiculously unique that nobody else has and nobody else offers yet, you’re hindered by that visibility and you want to buy into that because that gives you that extra visibility that when people see you, they’re going to be, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this restaurant has ninjas that drop down from the ceiling and they’re bringing your food. Nobody else has that. I never knew about it. Now I’m going to go’, but if you’re like, ‘Oh, whoop de doo, it’s another restaurant’, who cares?
If you’re an underwater zero-gravity chiropractor and you’re in a market like Dallas, where there’s 500 chiropractors and someone searches ‘Dallas chiropractors’ you’re not going to show up, but if you’re looking for a ‘zero-gravity underwater chiropractor in Dallas’, now, because it’s more long tail and specific, even though there’s a million chiropractors you’re competing against, there’s only three in town that do that specific service. If somebody’s searching that way, you’re still gonna show up in the map pack because you’re the only thing that’s really relevant to that query.
Phil Rozek: Google loves a specialist. This is probably my most frustrating piece of local SEO advice, but maybe one of the best: if you can figure out if you can define your niche before you start chasing local rankings. I mean, if you can become a specialist, everything is going to be easier from AdWords to word-of-mouth referrals to getting visible on the map to getting visible in the local organic results and everything in between.
So the more you can own it – this is kind of a corollary of what Greg said about owning your backyard – if you can own a niche, you can own that niche in your backyard and even farther than your backyard. For instance, for most businesses, most plumbers, it’s not realistic to expect to show up on the local map. I’m 100 miles away for plumbing queries. But if you’re a taxidermist or you make x-ray imaging machines, for example, you could show up in the local map hundreds of miles away because you have a very well-defined niche and there’s a low density of competition.
Suffice it to say Google loves specialists and I think that the search results over the years have gotten more granular, not only in terms of location, but the results are more specialized. So Google’s not going to show a general practice attorney, but it can show an attorney who specializes in a very specific type of case. So, before you get your hands too dirty on local SEO, if you can really pare down your niche, it’s not going to be nearly as tough, at least in my experience.
Greg Gifford: Sometimes the silo pages work pretty for PPC, but typically we’re going to really create specific landing pages for PPC campaigns because we know we’re targeting a very specific phrase for a very specific neighborhood and we want that landing page to be 100% ultra-optimized to convert for people that have clicked through on that.
The Facebook stuff is really killer and it’s a lot more cost-effective, but the Google stuff is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere. And so the pay-per-click stuff is always going to convert really well and that’s something that we always see. If you know what you’re doing with AdWords and you’re targeting correctly and you’ve got a good landing page, if you’ve got it right all the way from soup to nuts, it’s going to convert well and it’s going to get you leads. It’s going to work every time. I very rarely see a situation where you have somebody that knows what they’re doing both within local and within AdWords and you have a client that says, ‘Well that was just a complete waste of my money and I got nothing out of it’, especially in AdWords, so it’s data-centric and you’re able to really dial in and target it well and make sure it converts.
Greg Gifford: Pulling up a list of your past customers and loading that into Facebook and targeting them is incredibly successful. Especially if you’re pulling customers from a specific area. You segregate that list and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to pull in this segment of customers that live in this town that I’m targeting and I’m going to run ads just at them’. You could do that and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and then you’re running ads to people that have already done business with you, so you’re not just trying to throw ads out there and target the right keywords, you’re targeting people that already know about you and already have experience dealing with the business.
I still think, for us, the most successful stuff is not necessarily the super time-sensitive, but it’s just thinking about those areas where you know there’s going to be a congregation of a lot of people that will have some dead time and they will be checking their phones. So local sports games, local events, concerts, art festivals, you know, parades, anything like that that you can think of that you can target these things down to a specific two-mile diameter.
So you’ve got a map in a mile radius, if you want to go that narrow, and you could target it down to a one-hour window of time and that really specific area. If you’ve got the right kind of messaging and you know you’re going to get visibility, it’s going to work and you’re going to get people to see you.
It’s really cool for us because it’s not like an e-commerce situation or a small business or a plumber kind of thing. When you’re buying a car, it’s a big purchase and they typically send out a lot of information on these people. So persona-wise, you can segment your email list of your past customers and say I want to target all the people that bought Jeep specifically and then you can take that list and then segment just the Jeep buyers in the one town and then go and create a lookalike audience off of that.
So say you’re in Dallas but you’re targeting Fort Worth, which is 30 minutes away, but you want to look at all the people that came from the Fort Worth area to buy a Jeep from your dealership within the last year or two that you can go load that list into Facebook and then have Facebook create a lookalike audience that now you can run Facebook ads at people that are similar to the people that actually bought from you.
Custom creative really matters and I think a lot of people that don’t do AdWords or paid stuff very often just push the landing page, the home page or an inventory list. I think it’s really important, especially when you get really granular on your targeting and you’re creating this lookalike audience where there’s one specific geo area. You’ve got to have a landing page that matches that targeting where people land. Like earlier when I was talking about the content silo stuff, if you’re targeting Dallas but you’re not in Dallas, maybe they land on the Dallas page, but they want to click it and click around and see a little bit more and now all the pages are optimized to another city. That’s a bad user experience. It’s not going to convert well, so it’s the same thing if you’re creating this highly targeted geo ad and somebody clicks on it and it’s the optimization and content is around a different area, that’s not a good user experience and it’s not going to convert, so you’ve got to have a really optimized landing page experience.
Our Expert Panelists
Greg is the VP of search at automotive digital marketing agency DealerOn. He has has over 16 years of online marketing and web design experience, and he speaks internationally at both automotive and SEO conferences, teaching thousands of small business owners and marketers how to get their sites to show up higher in local search rankings.
Phil loves helping clients navigate the local-search hedge maze, and getting to know them, via his work at Local Visibility System. He’s a profilic blogger on local search and firmly believes in honesty and trust when it comes to client relationships.
Myles is Founder and CEO of BrightLocal. He has worked in the local search industry since 2009 and has been a major contributor to the Local Search Ranking Factors Study. Myles also writes a regular column for Search Engine Land and talks at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).