Are you looking for a plain action plan to optimize your local business for search? In this article I’ll be focusing on the particularities of local search optimization and try to create for you a comprehensive image of what is and how local search needs to be managed for achieving the best results.
When does a search query qualify as “local search”?
For average users, local search usually translates into:
Search query: [restaurants seattle]
Search results: Google Map listings
But in fact, a search query will qualify as local even if it doesn’t include the location name and the results it generates can be both organic, maps or any other type. Several scenarios will generate local search results:
- Local Search – Query Type 1:
[keyword + location]
When the query has a location specified, the searcher’s local intent is explicit and the search engine will narrow all relevant results down to the specified location.
Example: [restaurants seattle]
However, since automatic detection of the searcher’s location is possible, two different situations can be met:
- The location automatically detected by the search engine is the same as the location from the query
Query: [restaurants seattle]
Searcher located in: Seattle
- The location automatically detected by the search engine is different than the location from the query
Query: [restaurants seattle]
Searcher located in: New York
The local results retrieved in each of these cases might vary, as the search engine might understand the searcher’s intent differently and use different signals to rank the results. For example, the physical location might play a bigger role in determining the results for the first type of query than for the second, as the searcher is clearly more interested in proximity rather than authority.
- Local Search – Query Type 2:
For certain queries, such as [hotels], [car rental] or [restaurants] Google has the ability to recognize and understand the local intent of the searcher and will retrieve localized results, adjusted to the location it automatically detected.
Fact: Local searches constitute 24% of Google queries, performed both on mobile and PC. – Study by Chitika, 5 October 2012
Maps vs. Organic results
For a local query, the results displayed by Google can be mixed: organic, Google+ Local listings (Maps), images, news or any other type. That means that, if optimized properly, your website could rank for local searches not just with your Google+ Local page, but also organically.
It would make perfect sense to ask yourself at this point: Does ranking organically in local searches ensures a better exposure for my website than as a map listing?
Well, that is debatable.
While some have noticed a decrease in website traffic when listed as local results, several eye tracking experiments made on Google SERPs show that focus was on local listings.
But the good news is that you don’t necessary need to choose between local or organic rankings. When you setup your Google+ Local business page, you are prompted to assign a page from your website to the Google+ Local page. If you optimize for organic ranking a different page of your website than the one you have setup on your Google+ Local business page, then you might be lucky to have both pages ranking on the same page of results.
Ranking with your Google+ Local business page
The Google Places Quality Guidelines are very specific about who their service is for and the rules for using it. You can put a pin on Google’s Map for your business only if you are indeed running operations at that address.
Ensure uniqueness of your listing
Having multiple Google Maps listings for the same business is a violation of Google’s Places Quality Guidelines. Therefore, before creating a new page for your business, it’s best to make sure that there isn’t one already created.
Although you might find it surprizing, most of the time businesses have their Google+ Local pages created automatically, not by their owners but by Google. That happens because Google, aiming to provide the best map service, will gather any information available online about local businesses and use it to bring relevant results to its users.
Where does Google get this data from?
No different than Bing or Yahoo, Google pulls in business information from a variety of sources, in addition to its own business database. Among these sources, Infogroup , Acxiom , and Localeze are primary while other companies like Yellowpages.com and Superpages.com although secondary, also send “fresh” feeds to search engines every couple of months.
Remove duplicate listings
To discover the existing listings of your business, you simply need to perform a search for your business name. If you wish to double check, you can also make additional searches for your phone number, city and combinations.
If you found multiple listings for your business, you need to claim them all and keep only one, in order to comply with Google’s guidelines. However, before deleting the unneeded pages, make sure that all the information on these pages is either transferred to the page you kept or unnecessary.
What happens if my business has multiple offices in the same city?
You are allowed to create as many Google+ Local pages as offices your business runs in a city, without getting penalized for having duplicate pages. However, you need to make sure that each page is specifically designed to present and promote a certain physical location. You can include photos, directions to the location, special offers and reviews for the specific location.
Fact: On mobile, application-based local search nearly doubled in the past two years, outpacing the SMS and browser markets. More specifically, of the mobile phone searchers who say they use applications to search for local businesses, 35% use Google Maps. – 6th Annual 15miles/Neustar Localeze Local Search Usage Study Conducted by comScore, 28 March 2013
Set up your Google+ Local page
If you couldn’t find any existing listing of your business on Google+, then you first need to create one.
After setting up your Google+ Local page you should make sure that it is properly optimized for search and relevant when found in search results by your potential clients. And here is a quick checklist that will help you cover everything:
According to Google’s guidelines, this should be your business name exactly as it appears in the offline world. To avoid any conflicts with Google, it is advisable to resist the urge of adding any keywords or the location to your business name.
Although the business description won’t appear in the snippet Google displays for local search results, this is your chance to pitch your business to your potential clients, so do not even think about skipping it. Try your best to make it convincing.
Choose up to 5 categories, relevant for your business, in the same order you wish to be further displayed on your page. The suggestions Google gives you are pretty accurate so you can find good inspiration there.
There are two essential things you need to consider here:
- This should be a REAL address. Your business listing can be delisted/suspended by Google if your address proves to be virtual. Although having a virtual address can still work, it is highly unadvisable.
- Make sure to specify your complete address, otherwise it could be useless. No one will ever be able to find your store with just a fraction of your address and your customers would be lost.
More than that, make sure you follow Google’s address entry guidelines to ensure your business is displayed correctly on Google Maps and the verification process runs smoothly.
This isn’t necessary your Index page. You can set any page from your website that is relevant for that location, keeping in mind that, if you are also aiming for organic rankings in local search, the two pages should be different.
Having listed a phone number on your Google+ Local Business Page appears as a trust signal both for Google and humans. However, for humans just any phone number won’t do. For that you need a local number that people would trust and find convenient to use. Charging their telephone bill just to contact you might seem a less than great idea to your potential customers.
Note: It is important that your Name, address, and phone number (NAP) are consistent across your web site and Google+ Places page.
If you run your business in multiple locations and have multiple Google+ Local Business Pages associated, then things change a bit. Although you might be tempted to use a central phone number for all your locations, that would seem unnatural and spammy to Google. If you think of it, each business center would naturally have its own associated phone number with dedicated personnel serving the corresponding area.
Nevertheless if you decide to have a central phone number, then the best solution would be to set phone numbers for each location and have them forwarded to the central one.
Similar to having the phone number listed, business hours are an essential trust signal. Make sure you keep them listed and updated.
Pictures & videos
You are allowed to upload up to 10 pictures for a Google+ Local Business Page. Although not mandatory, you should at least set your profile image with your business logo or headquarters. Either way, it’s important that people would quickly recognize your business from the profile picture.
Your square profile picture should be larger than 250×250 but less than 1024×1024, and under 1MB.
If you upload only one image or less, Google will display a map of your location as cover photo on your Local page.
Since reviews and ratings are directly accessible from the search snippet, their impact over your local search traffic is extremely important. But these are also quite hard to get.
Reviews are not displayed instantly. These are filtered by Google before they appear, based on how the reviewer is rated by Google (depending on the frequency of reviews, their variety, account history etc). If the reviewer is new, his reviews are filtered until he becomes more active.
Also, anonymous reviews are not possible. To leave a review, you need to have a Google+ account (you need to be registered) with full name and picture.
One more thing you should take into consideration is that, you cannot reward your clients for leaving a review on your Google+ Local page. Solicited reviews are also a violation of Google’s Guidelines. Also, review stations or kiosks set up at your place of business are discouraged.
The quantity but most of all, the authority and consistency of citations for your local business are among the top ranking factors in local search. To be sure that you have everything you need to start building up citations for your local business, let me clear a few terms up:
Citation – A mention of a business name in close proximity to its address, phone number, or both (NAP). Used by the search engines to weigh both the accuracy and popularity of businesses in their indexes.
Structured Citation – A mention of a business name and address and/or phone number on an IYP (Internet Yellow Pages) or directory website. Structured citations may or may not be coded in hCard microformat, but typically appear in a kind of pattern that is easy for search engine spiders to read. Differs from an unstructured citation, which may appear as a one-off reference on a blog or other hyperlocal website.
Unstructured Citation – A mention of a business name and address and/or phone number on a website that is not an IYP site or other traditional directory containing standardized listings for many other businesses. Examples would be a newspaper or magazine article, hyperlocal blog, or social media profile.
hCard – A special kind of website code (microformat) which allows search engines to easily distinguish a business’s name, address, and phone number from other content on a webpage.
So, what you need to do is to get listed on as many relevant sites as you can (but no less than the major yellow pages and directories) and focus on consistency.
Ranking organically on local search
For your website to be found relevant by Google for a local query and to be ranked organically, in needs to be relevant for both the keyword and the location searched. In other words, it needs to be optimized for the typical keywords relevant for your industry and to also be able to send strong location signals.
Here are the points you want to touch to be sure that your website sends consistent location signals to the search engines:
Having a country-specific domain extension is a powerful signal that the business is associated with a certain geographic area. For example, it would only seem reasonable that the website www.mecanic.ro would be more relevant for Romanians than www.mecanic.com (as you might have guessed, “mecanic” is the Romanian word for “mechanic”).
However, if your site has neutral domain (.com, .org, .net) you can set a geographic target for your website from your Google Webmaster Tools account, under Settings->Site Settings->Geographic Target. This tells Google that your website has content for users in a specific geographic area and helps determining how your website appears in search results for geographic searches.
However, if your business has multiple locations in different countries, Matt Cutts’s recommendation for handling multiple locations is to create a web page for each store that lists the store’s address, phone number, business hours, etc., with unique URLs for each location and an HTML sitemap to point to these pages with regular HTML links.
On-page optimization for local search
The main principles that apply to regular on-page optimization also apply to geo-targeted optimization. Therefore, pay special attention to Titles and Meta Description and be sure to also integrate your location into the 70/165 characters limits.
Moreover, you need to make sure your business address is visible in plain text on one or more pages of your website. This allows both bots and humans to associate your business with the geographic location. For example, a convenient solution is to add your address to the website footer or to your contact page.
Although not yet a standard, semantic markup is a common practice and refers to formatting the website information so that search engines can quickly identify and understand information such as business name or address.
Primarily, structured data is used by search engines to generate rich snippets. However, by helping Google and all the other search engines understand the content of your website, you don’t just allow them to enhance your website with relevant information in search results (reviews, working hours, events), but you also get a better exposure for local search queries.
The implementation of structured data requires adding a few extra lines to the HTML code of your site, depending on the type of structured data markup you choose to use: microdata, microformats or RFDa.
Off-page optimization for local search
The off page optimization for local search mostly consists of building citations and local links. If you pay attention to the quality of your local listings and make sure to include location anchor texts into your anchor text distribution strategy, you should be on the right track.
Here are two resources that should get you started with building citations and local links:
Although far from covering everything there is to be said about local search optimization, this article will get you started with local optimization and help you improve local rankings. Please, jump in with your thoughts, suggestions and comments on this.
Also, in a future post I’m planning to do a coverage about local social media optimization coverage so, if you have any requests on the topic, do share them too. 😉