Most small to medium sized business owners are aware of search engine optimization by now. Lesser known, and arguably more important (I’ll explain why below), is a subfield within general optimization known as local SEO. For businesses with physical locations, brick-and-mortar stores, local SEO is a must.
In this article, I’m going to cover two interrelated topics: what local SEO is, and why it’s important. The way that Google sorts, ranks, and delivers localized results is pretty complicated, so this post should serve as an introductory primer, not an exhaustive treatment.
Local SEO: A Brief Overview
As in national SEO, local SEO practices are intended to optimize both on-site and off-site factors that affect search engine result rankings. There are simple ones, like making sure the pictures on your site have linguistic explanations (Google can’t see like we can), and more complicated ones, like getting people that Google already respects to link to your site’s content.
Everything that applies to national SEO also applies to local optimization, but local takes on a few, distinct elements of its own.
Google’s Local Profiles
Undoubtedly, the most important task for local SEO is claiming a local profile on Google. Google wants to know where you are, so they can send more people through your door! This is a pretty simple process, but there’s something important to take note of: the Google Local listing that you construct is what will show up in organic localized search results, so make it good!
Consistency Is Key: Citations And Directories
The next step in local optimization is identifying and reconciling your citations.
A “citation” is any online reference to your business name, address, and phone number. All three data have to be there to be counted as a citation, and most commonly they’re found on online directories, long categorized lists of links to websites. Your website may already be on a ton of directories, but are your listings consistent?
While Google is pretty smart, it wants our help. Let’s say that it would be “confused” if your business was listed differently on multiple directories. Apparently insignificant differences like using “Ave.” in one address, and “Avenue” in another, can be enough reason for Google to dock you points.
This step is extremely time-consuming; you have to find out where you’re listed, then manually change each one to match a canonical listing.
Multiple studies have been performed proving that your site will rank better if your listings are consistent across directories.
Are You Any Good?
The final step in our local SEO best practice list is reviewing. Google wants to present its users with the best possible results. But how does Google find out that one pizza place is any better than another?
The main way is by taking stock of how many good reviews people have left of your business on its Google Places page. This is one of many social proof metrics that affect the way your site ranks.
But There’s A Wrinkle: Local SEO Crowds The SERPs
Here’s one more puzzle-piece to fit in: in 2012, Google released an update to their algorithm called “Venice.” Venice mainly flew under the SEO community’s radar at the time, but it has a huge impact on what searchers end up seeing on their screens.
To be concise: Venice updates localized organic results on broad search queries. Huh? To be clear: Google analyzes your computer’s IP address to figure out where you are, then it delivers search results tailored to your location, even on “broad” queries, like “SEO,” which don’t seem to be physically located at all.
The takeaway here is that local SEO is no longer separate from national SEO; every search is affected by it, every time.
Which means that even business owners without physical locations would do well to engage in local SEO practices. Why? Because unlocalized pages are being pushed down in Google’s rankings by Venice’s influx of local search results. Better to cover both bases than end up at the bottom of the heap.
Where SEO Fears To Tread: Oddities Of Google Local
The Iniquities Of Centroid Bias
If you’re not in Center City, you might be out of luck. Or you need to hire a stellar SEO firm. Google’s local search listings operate with what’s known in the industry as “centroid bias.” Essentially, businesses closest to the geographic center of an urban area will rank better than those on the outskirts, all else being equal.
Optimizing specifically for mobile search is essential for businesses like gas stations and convenience stores, that rely on customers in transit, customers that are necessarily away from their desktops.
Phew, there’s a lot here to digest. As I mentioned before, we’re only just scratching the surface of local SEO best practices. Stay tuned!