Local SEO is an often-overlooked but critical factor for businesses with physical locations. In the era of mobile search, local SEO promises brand visibility to both the on-the-go and local consumer. In this post, we review some basics about local search and examine some of the recent changes Google has made, which are impacting local search engine optimization success in 2017.
A quick primer on local SEO.
Local SEO refers to the factors Google (or most search engines for that matter) bear in mind when it chooses whether to display your business in its local search engine results. (This article, by way of full disclosure, is only concerned with Google.) Unlike organic results, local results pair the appearance of a business’ information to a local map and, typically, results appear below AdWords paid advertisements but before organic results. By default, local results appear when the searcher’s location is detected by Google or the searcher defines the search with a geographical keyword. For example, a searcher in Chicago looking for an Asian restaurant for an upcoming trip to San Francisco will see local results from their Chicago device, if they type in something like ‘Asian Restaurants in San Francisco.’
Any business which has a physical location and sells either services or products can benefit from increased local search engine visibility and, for some, it can be a huge driver of everything marketers hope to achieve from their work: increased walk-in customers, increased brand awareness and increased digital traffic.
What are the factors influencing local search engine visibility in 2016?
To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. — Winston Churchill
Seemingly, Google couldn’t agree more with the Winston Churchill quote above. In their neverending quest for search excellence, Google has changed both the selection criteria it uses to display local search results, as well as the actual appearance of the results themselves.
In an effort to bring readers up to speed, I’ve ranked the factors most SEOs agree are influencing local SEO results in 2016. (These results are pulled from multiple sources; see my references at the end of this post.)
- It all starts with Google My Business. If your business doesn’t yet have a verified Google My Business page, the rest of this article might not be for you. Local SEO begins with the assumption that your business has one; if yours doesn’t, I suggest you head on over to My Business and claim/write your listing. Come back to this post at a later time.
- Location, location, location. Another ‘given’ about success in local is the recognition that the search results are location based. If your business is not near the searcher’s location (or the searcher has not localized their search with a geographical keyword) you can forget about showing up in local results. Beyond this fundamental, though, one new trend for 2016 is the hyper-localization of search. Rather than thinking about an entire city, many experts suggest using neighborhoods within cities. Google now identifies a searcher’s location with a much smaller radius. Adding keyword content on websites and landing pages which specify neighborhood, rather than just the larger city, is a sound strategy in 2016.
- Links and other organic criteria are much more important. One thing every SEO seems to agree on in 2016 is that local SEO rankings are increasingly influenced by the same factors as organic SEO. For instance, historically, local SEO relied heavily on the number of citations (references to the name and address of the business) and their accuracy. Citations these days are seemingly less important than they were a few years ago. Instead, Google is relying on factors such as inbound links to your website and other on-page elements on the business’ website. Organic ranking factors are so important, in fact, that one guide notes that, “Basically, if you rank 1-10 in organic search results you are much more likely to rank 1-10 in Google My Business results as well. These typical organic indicators seem to play a larger role than they formerly did.
- Speaking of ‘organic criteria,’ can anyone say “Keywords & Copywriting?” The creation of location-specific landing pages on your business’ site has been a bow in the SEO’s quiver for years now. The idea, simply, is that creating individual pages for each of your business’ location sends strong ranking signals for local SEO success. These pages become even stronger if unique, keyword-rich content is written for each of these pages. It’s an old trick but, according to many, it has found renewed value in 2016.
- Reviews and more reviews. Frequently, local listings feature a review summary, pulled from a variety of social review sites, including Google’s own reviews from Google My Business. For 2016, the number and quality of those reviews play a role and strongly correlate with better exposure in local search. As Casey Meraz notes, “Reviews, in my opinion, can have a positive impact on rankings due to the resulting increase in click-through rates. Reviews will also help you build trust in your business and earn more business.” Consider the two-fold impact reviews can have on search: not only is their presence and quality a likely ranking factor but, additionally, more reviews lead to a higher number of clicks and more visits to your website.
- Citations are still important but… I mentioned earlier that a reliance on building a huge reserve of citations in local directories is not the strong ranking signal it once was. Citations, however, are still of value for many reasons. Obviously, they’re still credible affirmation that your business exists at a given location. And they still represent inbound links to your website, which is a traditional ranking factor. For 2016, the same principle for building links applies to building citations: focus on relevant, high authority digital properties and forget about the lower value ones. To that end, whitespark publishes a list of authoritative citations, listed by industry. You can find it here.
Wrapping things up
Clients of SEO agencies are often mystified by the forever changing landscape of search. Many a client has shaken their heads at the speed with which things like algorithm changes seemingly revolutionize the field. A review of the factors affecting local in 2016, however, suggests a slightly more nuanced conclusion. Factors affecting local SEO haven’t really changed radically but, rather, a few factors – which have historically had influence – have become more influential, while others have become less so. Often these changes really are based on just an improvement to Google’s core technology. For instance, the decreased importance of citations quite possibly means that Google has found better methods to confirm a business’ location. In this way, the changes seen in local SEO are the sorts of incremental shifts which are bound to happen in a field leveraged off of constantly evolving technology.
Dave Hitt is the founder of Splat, Inc., a digital marketing agency in Philadelphia. Splat provides a range of digital services including website development, PPC and SEO. If you have any questions about any of the points raised here, feel free to email Dave.