This detailed guide is designed for business owners who are interested in the basic understanding of local SEO and possibly handle their own SEO or supervise it.
In order to pull through this new normal where search presence is increasingly becoming an existential necessity, SEO should be an inevitable part of any marketing strategy if you want to do business through online channels. You may also use this guide to monitor your progress if you have outsourced or planning to outsource your SEO.
If you don't have the time to follow the entire guide, I'd suggest you to just go through steps 1 and 2 which will give you enough to sustain if you're not in a highly competitive business/location.
Before we get started, here are 4 key things that separate local SEO from the organic SEO that many business owners are already familiar with.
- For local results 33% of the clicks go to the local “snack pack” results and 40% to the regular organic results (source)
- Local SEO rankings depend a lot on the proximity of the business from the place of search
- Reviews impact your rankings greatly and searchers tend to click more on results with more reviews
- Spam is more common than one would expect- it comes in many forms
With that in mind let's now dive into the content for this post.
Some Background And Stats
In 2017 Google published a trend- it stated that local searches over the last two years (that is 2015-17), searches for local places without the qualifier "near me" have grown 150% faster than comparable searches that do not include "near me."
Why is this important? because it implies that the expectations of local results for local intent is settling in among searchers.
And to establish that trend, Google has done several things the most important of which is introduction of Map packs or 3-packs.
One might think that local searches would go down in 2020 because of restrictions on movements and people's preference to stay away from crowded places. But the demand for local SEO has grown heavily because of 2 reasons-
- As people are relying more on online services, many restaurants/local businesses are now offering home service and delivery and they can market these services mostly through online search as most of them don't have huge social media presence
- Existing players who have so far dominated the online space feel threatened by the surge of offline businesses who are now looking for a pie of the online search traffic.
When you search for a local business in Google search engine, you usually find 3 types of results.
- Map packs (or 3-packs)
- Organic results
All these 3 types can be exploited by businesses to maximize the leads which can result in phone calls, getting appointments through websites or foot traffic in their physical locations. But in this post I'll only talk about organic results and Map packs which don't cost you heavily like ads and can thus lead to unlimited traffic over years if done correctly. Of course it will require regular maintenance over time to not lose out your rankings to competitors.
Among map packs and organic results, search results in the maps attract a vast majority of clicks when it comes to searches for local businesses because they are based on proximity, reviews, ratings, contact information, hours of service and other important information which is great for a purchase decision.
Below is a step by step process on how you can rank your business in Google by following a well laid out process that's been used to rank hundreds of business to the top positions of Google.
Step #1 - Know Your Keywords
Step # 1 to any SEO initiative is understanding the keywords. Keyword research is the process of identifying the right search terms using which your potential customers will find your business. This is very specific to an industry and even a region.
It's considered the most important aspect of your SEO because if you're doing everything else right and got your keywords wrong you'll end up getting a lot of traffic who are not interested in buying anything from you. I've learnt it the hard way in the early days of my career when I put months of effort on contents that illustrated an analytics tool with the examples from sports and Google ended up sending me a ton of sports related traffic instead of analytics tool traffic.
We often think that we are targeting the right keywords but in reality we don't. Keyword targeting is a craft where you have to balance between making the keywords noticeable in your headings, titles and content without making it too prominent. Sounds a bit puzzling? that's because it is.
I've dedicated an entire post to keyword research where I've talked in-depth about keyword types, LSI keywords, long tail keywords, local keywords, keyword intent and lots of other topics. But in a nutshell, here's what you need to keep in mind while researching the keywords for your local business.
First and foremost you should maintain a spreadsheet with at least 7 columns- keyword, type, cluster, intent, value, presence and status. Status basically tracks where all a keyword should be present and whether it it present everywhere it should be. The sheet will look something like this:
This sheet will serve as your blueprint to SEO success. Over the next few months you'll have to constantly come back to this sheet, review it, update it and take steps on outstanding items. Now, let's see how we can fill out this sheet.
Here are the 4 types of keywords that you'll have to deal with in this order of priority.
- Broad keywords- these are high volume keywords which are very difficult to rank for
- Specialty keywords- these are searched for by people with a specific requirements and you can target them if it matches any of your services
- Keywords with local emphasis- keywords with a location name or a clear intent for local services like plumbing, electrician, pest control etc.
- Service categories- keyword with an intent for a specific type of service
Cluster, intent and value will depend on your judgement based on your industry knowledge. Here's how those fields will be entered into the spreadsheet.
It's important to explore all possible keywords that can be relevant to your business and then shortlist and exploit as many keywords with low competition in your niche. In order to do that you must start with the broadest keyword. For example, if you're an electrician in Phoenix, AZ, you can start your research by looking into the broad keyword "electrician phoenix az" and the related keywords that people are searching for this term.
A thorough keyword research is very important as missing out on a keyword opportunity can cost you a good amount of traffic in the long run. You may refer to a free keyword tool like influrocket that gives you a lot of ideas specific to your niche under its free plan. Even those ideas are enough to get you started.
Here are some examples on how a slightly different intent can result in completely different results for a business. Here are some pest control related search terms:
- pest control services
- pest control traps
- pest control companies
You'll notice that someone looking for "pest control traps" is probably not your best audience if you are just providing pest control services. But "pest control companies" can still be a good option for you. This is a simple example of intent. You need to dig further down from here to target keywords where people are looking for specific types of pest control like:
- outdoor pest control
- pest control for mice
- lawn pest control
All these terms may not be specific to a local pest control service. You can carefully study your competition and target the terms that match your expertise, have good demand and have not been grabbed by your competitors. Although hitting that sweet spot is rare in keyword research but the idea is to shoot for keywords that are in demand and easy to rank for. It may take some trial and error before you hit that spot. Here's an example of how these terms were targeted by businesses appearing at the top.
Now let's get back to our sheet which will look something like this based on our initial keyword research.
From here, we will have to constantly pick these keywords and understand whether they are present at the right places- our constant endeavor is to put the keyword at all strategic places that it deserves to be.
Step #2 - Google My Business (GMB)
What is a GMB listing? Google My Business, commonly known as GMB and formerly known as Google local and Google places is a business listing on google. It's not unlike other business listings on online directories like Yelp except for the fact that it's from Google and it features at the top of search results along with a map location.
How to check if your business is already listed? It's easy to check if you are already listed. In Google maps, if you zoom in to the location (town, district etc.) your business is in and type your business name, it will show you the business listing if it's already present. You can also check it in the autosuggest if it has a misspelled version present in Google.
How to set up a GMB listing- most people would just claim their Google My Business profile and forget about it. However, there are ton of other questions that people might have about your business. As I demonstrated previously with keyword research, people provide elaborate descriptions of their business functions to appear on top of search results. But doing just that is not enough.
You must answer as many questions as you can and an easy checklist for questions will be to refer back to the keyword list you prepared (explained under keyword section). Make sure all important things that people are searching about your topic are already covered.
Tracking GMB profile- let's first understand why it's important to track your GMB profile. It's because anyone can suggest a change to the information related to your profile and that includes your competitors and their representatives. It may be a dissatisfied customer. When someone suggests an edit to your profile it may go live without you being notified. So in order to stay ahead of the game, it's important to fill out as much information in the GMB profile as possible and keep track of it at least once or twice a week.
How to navigate the GMB dashboard- if you log in to your Google my business, this is where you land.
9 most important elements in your GMB listing: Here are the 9 most important elements in GMB and how to nail them.
- Business name
- Category and sub-categories
- Adding business description
- Address with exact location
- Phone number, website
- GMB website and posts
- Questions and answers
Business name- this is a tricky one. Most people would suggest you not to put keywords and rather put your exact business name. And that's the right way to do it. But what if your business name itself can be matched to a very specific type of service you provide. This can create a huge advantage. Maybe a suggestion for new businesses or those who are planning to open a branch.
Here's an example of a business beating Home Depot for a very specific search term (outdoor pest control) in spite of the fact that Home Depot is nearest to the place of search and has 1000+ reviews compared to 0 reviews for the said business. It's clearly because this business has the exact search term in its name. Remember, this will only work for a very niche area of service when it does.
Adding more categories to your listing: if you login to your GMB and go to categories, it will show you lots of options to select from as below.
Now it will give you the opportunity to add more services as below:
Pro Tip: Having the right category is sometimes the most critical factor that'll decide your ranking. I've seen clients who got a massive boost in rankings just by fixing a wrong category. So I'd advise you to be super careful regarding categories and sub-categories.
Adding a business description: Here's a format that I use for many of my clients to add description. Of course there are ways to be more creative about it but this simple description ticks most of the boxes.
ABC is a professional in XYZ. We also offer sub-category1, sub-category2 and sub-category3. We service XYZ area and can work on both domestic and commercial jobs. Drop us a call today and one of our friendly team members will be happy to help.
Adding photos: You have to go to your GMB dashboard and select add photos and you can also select the video option here. The more photos you add for your business the better it is. The trick is to upload them using the right keywords. The images should be relevant to your business. Ideally, you should cover photos from both outdoors and indoors.
Pro tip: If you have a distinct feature, service, menu etc. this is the place to highlight it as words don't always describe what differentiates your business. You should also add videos in this section if possible, highlighting a special occasion, service demo etc.
Create a GMB website: Google provides you this website for free. However, you should focus on this as a secondary goal once you have already built your main website. This is just going an extra mile ahead of your competitors as many small businesses don't create a GMB website.
Add posts to share business updates: with GMB posts you can release updates about your business as well as push messages to your client base at no extra cost.
Questions and answers: These are frequently asked questions that your customers might have about your business.
How to optimize your GMB listing: this involves adding extra information to your listing and see if it helps improve your results. This should be relevant and specific. Adding too much stuff might not work so well. Some of the things that you can add are opening hours, holidays, relevant services you offer, additional phone numbers and attributes/amenities (like free wi-fi) etc.
Managing multiple locations in GMB: if you manage multiple listings or franchises, you can use Google's API v4.1 to more easily add GMB descriptions and offer posts. And if you’re really techie, you can even add “customer media endpoints” that allow users to retrieve photos and videos uploaded by customers at their business (normally GMB users aren’t notified of photo and video uploads).
Step #3 - Other listings
What are some other map listings? It doesn't hurt to get your business listed in as many directories and listings as possible but the other few immediate places that I'd recommend in addition to GMB are
- Bing Places
- Apple Maps Listings
- Yelp (or any local directory that's popular in your country)
Apple is coming out with its own search and it can potentially grab a good market share because of its existing ecosystem. So it makes sense to jump into this bandwagon early and take some early bird advantage before it gets too crowded.
Bing already has an established search network and I've seen too many businesses doing much better with Bing than Google. The reason could be lesser competition or just a fitness of your audience type who may just prefer Bing over Google.
Step #4 - Website Content
2+1 types of content you must have: in terms of SEO contents can be divided into 3 major types. Informational, product/services and long-form/sky-scrappers. The reason I mentioned two plus one is because if you are not competing in a highly competitive space you can rank by just having 2 types of content: Informational and Product/services.
The mistake most businesses make here is that they focus only on their products or services. They have very elaborate content on their products and services like reviews, comparisons, round-ups etc. but they don't answer informational keywords. Now you as a content writer might think why is informational content even necessary for a business website?
That's primarily because content doesn't thrive in isolation. If you just write about a service like "install flooring", people are less likely to search about that exact service. But there are thousands of searches for the broader term flooring and if you are answering a lot of questions on general flooring and installation guides, do's and don'ts that helps you establish authority on the topic and gives you an edge over your competition who is talking just about the product/service.
Service and location based content
Review your competitors' content: if you just go to Google and search for companies providing the same service as you (just type the business name+ location) you'll see the list of websites that are ranking for your specific service. You will get a pretty good idea on what type of contents are ranking for a business keyword that you are interested in. This will give you a ton of interesting ideas which you can also cover based on what fits your specific service. It's okay to go a little tangent as long as you are addressing the broad market.
Subscribe to industry blogs- by subscribing to journals and blogs that are relevant to your industry, you stay updated on the latest developments in your industry. That gives you an opportunity to update the existing content on your website, if not create new content on those new topics to gain authority.
Although it sounds overwhelming, it's manageable once you get used to it. Within a few weeks you'll be able to filter what's relevant and what's not. And by going through the best tips and content, and incorporating them in your own content you can stay ahead of the crowd.
This is also an area where most local SEO consultants fail. Unless the consultant serve a dedicated industry like law firms, or have dedicated professionals, they can't stay up to date on latest trends from many industries and consequently, a firm managing it's content with in-house content writers gain advantage over others with generic content writers. Most often you can tell the difference by just going through a few lines of the content.
Examples of bad content
Things to avoid while building your content
How to ensure your audience trusts you
Need to refresh content- this is critical part of maintaining your ranking. Although it sounds counterintuitive, there is ample research to suggest that purging irrelevant content boosts your SEO performance. It's important that you delete older content that don't generate traffic. Older content should be reviewed on a periodic basis and you should try to promote them as much as possible. But if they don't get pageviews even after promotion and title change, that's a strong signal that you should purge that content. These type of contents only pull your SEO down.
Step #5 - Citations
What is A Citation- citation is a mention of your business name, address, phone number etc. that appears on a local business directory, other websites, apps or social platforms.
Types of citations: Most businesses will gain from having a mix of structured and unstructured citations. But it's important to maintain quality over quantity. There is a ton of citation opportunity available in thousands of smaller sites but gathering too many of those will be a drain on your resources without getting much value out of it. Here's how you should approach citations:
- Get listed with top data aggregators: Express Update, Neustar localeze, Factual
- Submit to other core sites
- Submit to industry specific sites: here's a list of important citation sources from 70 categories compiled by Moz
- Submit to location specific sites: these are local business directories
- Unstructured citations: these are press mentions, reviews and blog posts relevant to your business
Components of citation- citations may include one or more of the following: business categories, hours of operation, driving direction, business description, images, videos, geo coordinates, email, fax, reviews, owner responses, taglines, social links etc.
Benefits of citation: the most important benefit is that citations are considered as a key ranking factor by Google. That's because citations increases the degree of certainty the search engines have about your business. But apart from ranking higher they help create a buzz around your business online and help you get traffic from sources other than Google (like various blogs, social media etc.) without any additional cost.
Citation Audit: The objective of citation audit is to make sure that your address and contact information is consistent across different citation sources. The audit can be done by using a manual search with Google or using a tool called bright local. The process is simple but a tool helps you save time in going through this repetitive and time consuming process.
Finding citation opportunities for your business- there are many softwares to find citation opportunities. But when you start using them it's easy to get overwhelmed and lose motivation. That's the reason it's best to start with your local business directories, local online magazines, business data platforms and industry specific platforms.
Reverse engineer competitor's citation: For this you'll need a tool like SEMrush or Ahrefs. You can search for your service in google and pick all the top pages appearing there. Then you can copy their websites and in SEMrush backlinks tab, enter the website link. It will show you all the backlinks that this website has along with more details like follow, no-follow etc.
Step #6 - Reviews
When I analyzed around 100k search results on local SEO, reviews came up as the most important factor to rank on top of a map pack other than proximity. I have tons of examples to back this point and yet I've not mentioned reviews at the top of this guide. That's because I don't want you to become over obsessed with reviews.
Reviews are basically social proof that others are spending their time and money at your business and feeling good about it. That gives people (as well as Google) confidence that you are running a credible business.
Although reviews came up as the most important factor to rank on top of Google maps, it's also a risky step if not done properly. I can show you hundreds of examples where businesses with a ton of reviews don't rank anywhere near the top. When I analyzed their reviews thoroughly I found that those reviews were not organic. Which means those reviews were either collected through an incentive (hence not original) or they were fake.
How can I tell? if you observe those reviews carefully, you'll find that even though many customers left 5 star reviews, very few actually left elaborate arguments/pointers under the review. If people are enthusiastically leaving reviews for a business, it will show up in the comments. And Google can find that out very easily by asking others "was this review helpful?".
Don't be over zealous with your reviews and try to build them over a period of time. There is no harm in asking your customers to leave a review if they liked your service. But offering them a discount in exchange of reviews might lead to spammy reviews which will hurt your business. So there's a trade-off between how much you should push people for reviews and how you just focus on certain aspects in your business to impress customers that they'll leave a review on their own.
Personally, I have always left reviews for services that exceeded my expectations. It could be in terms of faster service, service quality, ambience, friendliness, extras and so on.
Owner responses- This is another major aspect of an online review that's often overlooked. For many online businesses you'll notice that there are multiple good/bad reviews but there are no responses from owner. That may imply that either the owner doesn't care about reviews or they are too busy to not respond. Both are equally bad. By being sensitive to your reviews, you send a signal to your would-be customers as well as search engines that you take your reviews seriously and you'll do everything in your power to provide best service so that people don't leave bad reviews.
Step #7 - On-page SEO
On-page SEO (or Onsite SEO as most people call it) success lies in the technical details. I've listed some very important elements of on-page SEO here but if you're interested in a deep dive, feel free to check out this post XXXX.
Some important on-page SEO practices that applied to local SEO are:
- keyword in H1
- Keyword in title tag
- Keyword in URL
- Short and sweet URLs
- Enticing meta descriptions
Here are some additional tips for on-page SEO for local businesses: you can use LSI keywords (keywords with same intent but different words) in your sub-headings to address as many keywords as possible in your page. Also, keep in mind that it's not a good idea to create different pages for same keyword intent and different wordings as that may lead Google to ignore all your pages for ranking.
Maintain proper URL structures for local areas. For example, if you serve multiple cities, here's how you can structure you URL:
If you have a location specific service, having a URL with the city name can also help. Here's how a restaurant having the location name in its domain ranks over Grubhub for a search term specific to the city.
However, make sure you mention city or locations in your URLs when you actually have a presence in thsoe areas. Being too aggressive with such terms may result in a penalty, especially if Google notices that your other listings are not in sync with the location names mentioned in your URLs.
Another important thing to keep in mind is to avoid too many pages for the same term for a same location. For example, if you are providing pest control for lawns and pest control for outdoors for a city, having 2 different pages for these 2 services with the same city name may be a overkill and both pages may end up losing ranks.
In some cases when there are multiple similar services listed under different URLs, google may rank the homepage for a specific keyword instead of any of the search term specific pages. That's bad for business because home page may have lesser conversion for a specific term compared to the specific landing page for that service.
Finally, you should optimize the homepage for the most important location, even if you're offering services in multiple locations. That might sound counter intuitive. When you're serving multiple locations, home page should be optimized for the generic term right? wrong!
For example, in case of the "pest control" example, if the main city we are serving is Jersey City but we also offer services in Bayonne and Hoboken, should we not optimize the homepage for generic term pest control?
Answer is no because the competition for Pest Control is huge and is dominated by large players providing pest control related products or review sites. You can only rank for location specific terms related to a city. Hence it makes sense to target the city specific keyword instead of the generic keyword.
Step #8 - Page Speed and Hosting
Google emphasizes a lot on user experience and it's also making constant changes to its algorithm to rank pages that offer good customer experience. With that in mind it's important to optimize for page speed as it is an important indicator of user experience. You might have experienced this first hand when you visit a webpage that takes a long time to load- you probably got bored and clicked the back button.
Google doesn't want this to happen to its users and that's why all this emphasis on page speed. Hosting plays an important role in page loading speed, especially if you are using a cheap hosting service. You can also reduce the size of the page, size of images etc. to reduce page load speed.
Here's a nice tool that shows you the page load speed of any webpage and it's always a good idea to keep track of the page load speed of your own site and compare it to your closest competitors.