The way we search is always changing. Not long ago, search was a game of finding the exact keywords and phrases that would (hopefully) generate the information you were looking for. Thanks to advances in search algorithms, however, search engines are better than ever at understanding our search intentions—which is often related to making purchases.
As we’ve written before, 87 percent of B2C buyers and 90 percent of B2B buyers start their purchasing process online, which means you should be optimizing your web presence for your relevant audience.
And if you’re a local business serving a specific community, that means you should be leveraging local SEO to reach prospects.
Table of Contents
What is local SEO?
Local SEO is a search engine optimization strategy that prioritizes ranking for local audiences. It’s similar to regular SEO when it comes to developing a strategy (conducting keyword research, creating targeted content, and running a link-building campaign), but in the case of local SEO, your link-building efforts will be largely based on your physical location.
Say that you’re a mid-sized paper company in Scranton, PA. You’re part of a large corporation that is fighting to stay relevant in a world dominated by big box stores, and at the same time, you focus your efforts on local clientele.
While your corporate headquarters focuses on being thought leaders in the office supplies business by targeting nationally-relevant search terms, you follow a local SEO strategy that targets the greater Scranton-Wilkes Barre area to best attract relevant prospects.
Why should you care about local SEO?
The simple answer is you should prioritize the community you serve. But the importance of local SEO is a bit more complex than that.
Namely, when done well, a local search strategy will more effectively target people further along in the buyer’s journey.
Research shows that local searches have a stronger purchase intent and boast higher sales conversion rates than general searches. Additionally, they also account for almost 46 percent of all Google searches (which itself is responsible for 88 percent of all search activity on the web). That means targeting local searchers will increase your chances of finding sales-ready prospects.
According to Search Engine Journal, some businesses enjoy upwards of a 300 percent increase in traffic when they focus on high-quality local content. That is not only a significant increase in traffic, it's a significant increase in prospects who are more likely to buy.
The importance of local search has been compounded by the simultaneous explosion of mobile search in recent years, which now accounts for the majority of Google searches. Since 2014, local mobile searches are the highest converting searches, with an 80 percent conversion rate.
The November 2019 update to Google’s search algorithm, which applies neural matching to local search, is perhaps the strongest indicator of the importance of local search. Google first introduced neural matching—an algorithm that connects search terms to intended concepts and more accurately predicts searcher intent—in 2018.
This is part of a larger evolution that has changed the SEO game from one of guessing exact keywords and shoehorning them into content to one where search experts have to guess the users’ intent and create content that solves searchers’ problems. The fact that Google is now applying neural matching to more local searches means that local search’s importance continues to grow.
Translation: When you operate in specific geographical areas, local SEO is key to targeting the right prospects.
What affects your local ranking?
As with general SEO, numerous factors affect your local ranking. According to the online marketing blog Backlinko, there are more than 200 factors, varying in importance, that can impact where you rank.
The factors with the most significance are the same as general SEO: relevant, dynamic content; a robust web presence, including active social media; high-quality inbound links; a secure, mobile-responsive website; and domain authority.
Local SEO takes all of these elements into account, but the three most important factors are relevance to the searcher’s intent, distance from the searcher, and prominence—or how well-known you are in the real world.
The location of your business will always affect if, when, and how you show up in search; depending on how many competitors the aforementioned paper company has and the quality of their local SEO, two Scrantonites only two miles apart will get different search results for “paper supplier near me.”
In order to determine what’s affecting your ranking, conduct a health check.
How can you check the health of your local ranking?
To audit your local search ranking, create either a document or a spreadsheet so you can check and keep track of the following factors:
- NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) information: Is it consistent across all of your webpages and third-party listings?
- Location citations: How many third-party listing sites are you featured on? What kind of information do they include? Is your information accurate and consistent across all of these websites? Take note of what website, phone number, operating hours, and physical address they list. You can use Moz’s listings tool to get a better idea of what your citations look like, and for multi-location businesses, we recommend you sync your Google My Business profile with the listings tool of your choice; it’s much easier to track citations this way. If you’re looking manually, try the following listing websites:
• Yellow Pages
• Your local Chamber of Commerce
• Relevant local publications (e.g. the Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal for the Scranton paper company)
- Local content: Do you have landing pages and blogs targeted at your specific area of business?
- Reviews: Do you have customer reviews? On which websites can you find those reviews? Are they positive or negative? Have you responded to your reviews?
- Backlinks: What websites (local or otherwise) have linked to you? What local websites have linked to your competitors? Use a tool like Ahrefs’s free backlink checker.
Once you have a better idea of where you’re performing well and where you could improve, ask yourself: What do you want to rank for, and what websites currently rank for those terms? What do your competitors rank for? Use these questions to start doing the basic keyword research that will inform the rest of your health check.
There are two ways to do this: you can Google the terms you want to rank for and see who ranks highest, and you can also do an in-depth keyword analysis using a tool like SEMRush’s Keyword Magic tool.
Keep these target keywords in mind as you enter the next phase: optimizing your web presence.
How can you optimize your web presence for local search?
Organic search results are ranked slightly differently than Google’s Local Pack (the three mapped out listings at the top of every local search, also known as the Three Pack or Snack Pack), so our comprehensive optimization process takes that into account.
Integrating local SEO into your content plan
If you plan on using SEO to increase organic traffic to your site, you’ll need a content plan. This is true whether your target audience is hyperlocal or global. Because content planning is such an involved process, you can use our handy, comprehensive template to develop your content plan.
The core components of any content plan (if you follow our template) are as follows:
- Content audit
- Current keyword rankings
- Competitor 1 keyword research
- Competitor 2 keyword research
- Competitor 3 keyword research
- Buyer personas
- Marketing goals
- Mission statement and content toolbox
- Content plan (blogs, ebooks, white papers; the buyer personas they’re targeting; where in the buyer’s journey each piece of content falls, etc.)
- Metas/title tags/H1s
Use this content plan and then integrate location optimization into your planning, especially in the keyword research phase.
It’s important to note that creating an SEO strategy that includes non-local terms (think: broad terms like “high quality paper” and “how to save money on office supplies”) is still worth your time even when you’re focusing on local search. Why? Because not only are you creating authority, which will build trust with prospects, but Google’s ranking system is built so that if you rank well for general SEO, you’ll rank well locally.
That means, if you’re that same paper company, it would be to your benefit if your corporate headquarters focused on general SEO. This would help boost your ranking in and around Scranton as you simultaneously developed a local SEO plan. Similarly, if you’re a local business that is not part of a larger corporate structure, that means targeting both general and local keywords in your overall strategy.
Here’s how to come up with locally relevant keywords:
- When doing your keyword research, ask yourself what relevant topics are people in your area googling?
- When you’re researching relevant search terms (e.g. “paper suppliers”), include location-based terms like “near me” or “[target location].” That would look something like, “paper suppliers in Scranton,” “where to buy office supplies for my business,” (which takes advantage of neural matching because it helps Google determine where searches are being conducted) or even “paper supplier Lehigh Valley” depending on your business radius. Always look at related keywords and phrases to generate more ideas.
- Keep in mind keywords that will earn you the featured snippet on a given search: according to SEMRush, these are “questions, prepositions, and comparisons.”
Optimizing your website
After you’re done developing your content plan, you want to revisit your website and make sure that you have the content, context, and site architecture that will help you rank locally.
There are six main components to optimizing your website:
1. Location-specific landing pages: If you’re a single-location business, this could be as simple as an “About Us” that mentions your location within the community. (Bonus points if you mention how you fit into the community at large.) You could also add contact information to the footer of your website.
If you’re a multi-location business, make sure you create separate pages for each location, along with accurate, location-specific metadata (title tags with the location, etc.). They don’t need separate domains (e.g. scrantonpapercompany.com) but rather, make sure they live centrally on the same domain (e.g. scranton.papercompany.com or papercompany.com/scranton). This will ensure that Google will recognize that your business has multiple locations, and each location should pop up for its relevant local searches in their own business radius. This is also important for NAP optimization.
2. Location-specific blogs: Peppered in among your thought leadership blogs (“what kind of paper is best?”) should be location-specific blogs. This could include blogs announcing upcoming events that your company is sponsoring, case studies about satisfied local clients, etc.
3. NAP (Name, Address, Phone number): As we mentioned in the “health check” section of this guide, you want to make sure that your NAP information is accurate sitewide. This is especially important, as it has an outsized impact on Local Pack rankings. That means wherever this information appears—header, footer, location landing page, customer service page—it must be consistent. (NAP information will come up later in this guide, but for now, just focus on your own website.)
As previously mentioned, for businesses with multiple locations, make sure that each NAP lives on its own location-specific landing page, lest Google gets confused and thinks you’re not legit.
4. Mobile responsiveness: Google is now mobile-first, with just over half of searches now conducted from mobile devices (phones and tablets). And mobile search and local search overlap to such a degree that having a mobile-responsive website is essential to local SEO strategy.
5. Site architecture: Your site architecture should make sense, both for humans and search engines. For the latter, that means relevant keywords in your tagging and URLs and a sitemap that is crawlable. For humans, your site needs to be easy to navigate (from the home page to the most granular blog posts and back again), and you should also have strong internal linking practices. (We recommend using topic clusters to figure out the best SEO-friendly structure for your content.)
6. Structured data markup (aka schema): Schema is microdata that helps search engines determine exactly what lives on each page of your website. While you could technically live without it, schema will absolutely help your SEO, and we highly recommend you add it to all of your webpages. Thankfully, there are a couple of ways to do this: If your website lives on Wordpress, you could use the Yoast Local SEO plugin to do it for you. Or, if you’re on Hubspot, you could follow Morey’s easy-to-understand guide to adding schema to your webpages.
Claiming review pages
Claiming your review pages and subsequently being active on them is extremely important. As of 2018, reviews account for at least 13 percent of your local ranking on Google. Here are some of the bigger review pages you should claim:
- Google My Business
- TripAdvisor (depending on what kind of business you run)
- Bing Places for Business
- Any industry-specific review pages (e.g. Angie’s List for home improvement businesses)
Not only should you claim these pages regardless of whether they get traffic, but you need to respond to reviews, both positive and negative—but especially negative. Responding to reviews—and publically solving customers’ problems in real-time—has an outsized effect on your local search ranking. (Plus it makes you look more trustworthy to prospects, so you’re solving for search and humans.)
Finally, encourage customers to review you, as businesses with more reviews fare better on Google. That said, it’s against Google’s rules for you to offer goods, discounts, or other incentives in exchange for reviews, so make sure you only ask, lest your ranking get dinged for breaking the rules.
Using Google My Business
Now let’s revisit what is arguably the most important part of your local SEO strategy: Google My Business. Search Engine Journal says that optimizing your GMB profile is “the single most important thing you can do to increase your local SEO ranking.” Why? Having a verified GMB listing results in direct action from prospects. And website clicks on GMB listings are growing; between 2017 and 2018, there was a 29 percent increase in GMB website clicks.
To create and/or improve your GMB profile, do the following:
- If you haven’t already done so, claim your listing, fill out your information, and verify it.
• For multi-location businesses, you’ll need to make multiple listings, but you can do this with the same GMB account and even create location groups.
• If you, like the Scranton paper company, are part of a larger corporate structure, but you prefer to optimize your own listing, you can ask whoever runs GMB for your company for access to your listing.
- Download the GMB app, and keep track of metrics like website clicks, phone calls, etc.
- Encourage customer reviews—and respond to them!
- Fill out your entire profile, keeping in mind relevant keywords. Many of the fields are optional, but you should fill them out anyway if they’re applicable to your business. Business hours, website, links to social media profiles, physical address, phone number, etc. will all help your ranking.
• At minimum, fill out your NAP, and make sure it’s consistent with your own website and third-party listings.
• You can hide your physical address if you don’t want customers dropping by (e.g. if you work from home).
- Select your business category based on what you are, not what you have or offer. So the paper company in Scranton would categorize itself as a “paper distributor.”
• If you’re having trouble figuring out what category you fall under, look at what competitors have done.
• Per Google, “Choose the fewest number of categories it takes to describe your overall core business.”
- Add high-quality photos, including a logo. Your cover photo (what pops up first on your listing) should be specific to your business (i.e., not a stock photo), and it should clearly illuminate what you do.
• A 2019 study by BrightLocal shows a strong connection between photos on GMB listings and search performance. That means photos are absolutely necessary.
Leveraging social media
Social media, when used properly, is a boon to the large majority of businesses, and it’s especially useful for boosting your local search ranking.
Consumer behavior is directly impacted by social media: According to HubSpot, 71 percent of consumers are more likely to make purchases based on social referrals. Similarly, Twitter reports that “customers who receive a response from businesses on Twitter are willing to spend up to 20 percent more.”
Here’s how to use social media to your advantage:
Only use platforms relevant to your business. Consider your customers’ demographics and use your buyer personas to figure this out. For example, the Scranton paper company would do well on LinkedIn, which is geared toward professionals, but they might not thrive on TikTok, a popular video platform whose main demographic is 12 to 24-year-olds.
- Facebook: The most popular social media platform with more than 200 million American users; customers can leave reviews; you can also use Facebook Marketplace to sell products to local customers.
- LinkedIn: The professional networking social network; if you’re a B2B business, you need a profile, as you can meet relevant contacts and build thought leadership by posting interesting, high-quality content about your business.
- Twitter: Best for communicating directly with customers and monitoring how people perceive your brand.
- Pinterest: Posts live longest on Pinterest and it’s therefore great for brand building, but you should keep in mind that the most popular topics on this network are art and art supplies, flowers, food and drink, home and gardening, health, and clothing.
- Instagram: The photo-and-video social network, with more than 1 billion active users and 500 million Instagram Stories posted every day; extremely brand friendly, with more than 72 percent of users saying they’ve bought something they first discovered on the platform. Geo-tagged posts means you can target your local community both by tagging your own posts and looking for posts in certain locations.
Always post with your buyer personas in mind. As important as it is to be consistent and active on social, don’t post just to post. Who are you trying to talk to? What would they find interesting and relevant? Post for your buyer personas and for all stages of the buyer’s journey. For example, the paper company shouldn’t post, say, a funny YouTube video on their Facebook; they should instead post a link to their blog, “How You Can Save On Office Supplies,” which was written with buyer persona Law Office Manager Larry in mind.
Post a mix of content you’ve created and content you and your followers find relevant and interesting. When posting content created by others, tag them in your social copy so they know you’re engaging with what they’ve made. This will increase the chances of starting social conversations with like-minded individuals, thereby expanding your network.
Post about your community. Depending on what kind of business you run, this could look any number of ways: Post news about any local nonprofits or community events you’re involved in. If you’re a B2B business, post about any local events that could affect business. For example, the Scranton paper company could post articles from the Northeast Business Journal or even the Scranton Times-Tribune about the regional job market (for example, an announcement that a large multinational corporation is planning on opening an office in the region, bringing with it jobs).
Be active and interactive. That means posting content and interacting with other users.
- On Twitter, find tweets with relevant keywords and phrases and respond to them.
- If someone tweets at you, engage, even and especially if they’re being negative. You want to solve your customers’ problems publicly.
- On Facebook, respond thoughtfully to users’ reviews and comments on your posts.
- Follow and engage with other businesses in the community.
Improving location citations
During your health check, you should have checked all your location citations, either using a citation check tool or doing it manually. Fix the following:
- Missing citations
- Duplicate citations
- Inaccurate citations
If any of your citations have incomplete or inaccurate information, you need to update them to include your website, physical address, and phone number. Make sure you list the same information across listings, or else Google will think your listings are inaccurate or spammy, which will hurt your ranking.
For multi-location businesses, you need to create separate listings for each location. So that could look like “Scranton Paper Company” and “Nashua Paper Company.” For hyperlocal businesses with multiple locations, like local chain restaurants, that could be “Let’s Taco Bout It Mexican Restaurant Hyde Park” and “Let’s Taco Bout It Mexican Restaurant Providence.”
There are two ways to create and update your citations:
- Update and/or create listings manually. For bigger sites like Yellow Pages, you can do this pretty easily. For hyperlocal listings (like regional publications), you might need to reach out to the administrator or editor in charge of the site via the “contact us” page.
- Use a tool like Moz Local, which will automatically deploy your updated information to citation websites.
Ensuring your NAP information is accurate will help your chances of making the Local Pack, which accounts for about 33 percent of clicks on local searches.
Building cache and brand recognition with local sponsorships
That’s right: building your local SEO strategy requires some offline work. Sponsoring local events will get your name into the community both in the real world and digitally. Building your name recognition in the real world will help you build your prominence, one of the three core factors affecting your ranking.
Most sponsorships will allow you to put your branding onto printed collateral that’s either passed around ahead of the event or on display at the event itself; further, any digital marketing will feature your name and, more than likely, links to your website. That means high-quality local backlinks.
One idea: add “community spotlight” content related to your sponsorships to your blogging plan. Additionally, periodically highlight local customers or local traditions your company is involved in. Not only will this strengthen your local blogging skills, it’ll increase the chances of your content being shared in the community, especially if you interview local luminaries.
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