Is life about to throw you into the deep end of the local SEO pool? Maybe you’ve just opened your business or have slowly realized that your existing business isn’t showing up very well on the Internet. Maybe you just got a new job at a local business that’s struggling because no one on staff has a background in online marketing and the boss is looking to you. Maybe you’re trying to learn new skills to become a stronger candidate for a digital marketing agency job opening.
Splish splash, hang on! I’ve got water wings for you in this column, answering seven of the most common questions Google receives from folks like you searching the Internet for an introductory understanding of what this thing called “local SEO” means, who needs it, how it works, how to study it to benefit a business you need to market, and more!
Instead of expecting you to tread midstream as though you magically already know all these things, we’ll wade in together gently before we start swimming anywhere near the high water mark.
1. What is local SEO?
Local search engine optimization (local SEO) consists of many actions you can take online and offline to make it easier for people in your community to find and choose a business you’re marketing.
It’s simplest to think of local SEO as a form of customer service. In the real world, you take all kinds of actions to make a business visible, accessible, and appealing. For example, you rent or buy a property at an address near your customers, buy a phone number, organize and display your inventory of goods and services, hang bold signage, seek advertising, and train staff to greet people who walk in, answer their questions, and resolve their complaints. You do all of this to connect with customers.
Local SEO has the same goal of connection. It builds a digital mirror image of what you do offline and enriches it with online-only opportunities, as you become an Internet publisher and promoter of your business’ contact information, offerings, reputation, expertise, and customer service amenities.
When done well, your local SEO efforts convince search engines like Google that your business deserves to be visible in their results when people are searching for what you offer in the place you offer it.
2. How do you know if you need local SEO?
What are the rules, guidelines, and circumstances that determine whether local SEO is the right match for your business?
If your business is physically located near customers who need to find it, then it’s likely you need local SEO to run as profitable a venture as possible. However, needing and qualifying for a complete local SEO campaign are two different things.
If you want to be seen by customers in a specific geographic area (like a neighborhood, city, or county) then you need local SEO to become visible online to these people. However, the number of local SEO actions you are qualified to use in promoting a specific business online is dictated by two things:
The exact model of the business you’re marketing
Google’s interpretation of how businesses of your model can use Google’s products
Take these three steps to determine your eligibility opportunities:
First, answer a simple question:
Does my business serve customers face-to-face? Or, at least, did it do so prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to resume in-person transactions once it is safe for society to do so again?
If your answer is “no”, because you are operating a completely virtual business with no face-to-face interactions with the public, then a complete local SEO campaign is likely not the right match for you and you should read this article: How To Do Local SEO Without Physical Locations in 2021.
If your answer is “yes”, read on.
Second, identify your model
There are more than 10 different local business structures that Google recognizes:
Brick and mortar, like a retail shop or restaurant customers can visit
Service Area Business (SAB), like a plumber or caterer who goes to customers’ locations
Hybrid, like a pizza restaurant which also delivers
Home-based, like a daycare center
Co-located/co-branded business, like a KFC/A&W chain location
Multi-department business, like a hospital or auto dealership
Multi-practitioner business, like a real estate firm or dental practice with multiple staff
Solo practitioner business, like a single attorney operating in two areas of law
Multi-brand business, specific to auto dealerships vending multiple car makes
Mobile business, like a stationary food truck
Kiosk, ATM, and other less common business models
Determine which of the above descriptions most closely matches how your business operates.
Third, read all of Google’s guidelines that apply to your model
Give yourself thirty minutes to read though The Guidelines for Representing Your Business on Google, making a special note of all of the guidelines that specifically call out the model you’ve identified as describing your business.
These all-important guidelines teach you what you can and can’t do to promote a local business via Google’s local platforms. Failure to comply with Google’s guidelines can result in penalties and removal of your information from Google’s system (a disaster!).
If, at this point, you’re wondering why this article is referencing Google so heavily, it’s because Google’s platforms dominate where local businesses list themselves online and where local consumers search for local businesses. In fact, their market share is more than 92%, making them central to your local SEO activity. There is much more to complete local SEO than just Google, but Google tends to set the tone of how we view and promote local businesses.
To sum up, if you need people in your community to be able to find your business online, your business normally transacts with customers in-person, and your model matches one of those recognized by Google, you likely both need and qualify for a local SEO marketing campaign.
3. How does local SEO work?
If you’ve now determined that local SEO is the right lane for you to swim in, you’ll want to know the specifics of how to actually do the work. Now is your chance to learn how local businesses do SEO and what local SEO includes.
How local search engines work
Google is a search engine. It’s an “answer machine” that exists to discover, understand, and organize information on the Internet so that it can present that information in response to people’s searches.
Google gets information about local businesses from a variety of sources including:
The Google My Business listings you create for your business
Your company’s website
Other websites, directories, and platforms that list, mention, or link to your company
Information the public submits to Google about your company, such as reviews, ratings, photos, suggested edits of your Google My Business listings, and other forms of feedback
Unconfirmed relationships with other local business data providers and indexes
Your Google My Business listing is something you get to actively submit to Google, but Google also looks all over the internet for information about your business (this is called crawling), then stores and organizes the information they’ve found (this is called indexing), and finally, provides a ranked display of that information to humans who are searching for it.
Google uses secret, internal calculations (algorithms) to rank the information they’ve indexed. One of your key goals in spending time on local search engine optimization is to persuade Google that your business deserves to be ranked highly when someone searches for something that’s relevant to what you offer. When Google decides a searcher’s query has a local and intent and you’ve convinced Google that your business is a relevant answer, local SEO can help you show up in all of the following displays:
Search engine results are often given the generic name, “SERPs” (search engine results pages) but local SERPs also have these more specific names:
Google local packs
Google business profiles
Google local finders
Google organic results
Additionally you can show up in image, video, and shopping results, if pertinent to your business model. Your overall goal in investing time and money in local SEO will be to convince Google that you’re a good result to show to people searching for what you offer.
How do you do local SEO?
So what is the work that actually goes into a local business doing SEO? There are many, many possible tactics and strategies, but a “starter kit” will almost always consist of these 4 basics to get you into the game:
1. An operational local business
You need a business founded on a product or service that local customers want and that is actively building an offline reputation for excellent customer service.
2. A website
While it’s possible to market your business without a website, you should consider one as an essential business asset.
Your website should:
Present what your business is, does, and offers, centering customers’ needs and customers’ language.
Include your geographic terms (neighborhood, city, etc) in the website’s tags, text, and links.
Provide accurate contact information, hours of operation, and abundant cues about how to connect with the business.
3. Local business listings
You need to actively create online listings for your business, such as your Google My Business listing and a variety of other listings (also called “structured citations”) on local business directories and related platforms. Fill out as many fields and provide as much information as possible when creating these listings. Be sure you update your listings any time your information changes (Moz Local can help with this time-consuming task!).
4. Online reviews from your customers
You need to actively acquire and respond to customers’ reviews on your Google My Business listing, all your local business listings that have a review component, and any review platform profiles you’ve created.
You’ll be off to a strong start with the above four basic local SEO components, but as you become more advanced at marketing your business, you will want to explore these additional promotional avenues:
5. Market research and competitor analysis
You’ll want to actively survey your community to refine your understanding of local needs and supplement this with ongoing keyword and trend research to add to your knowledge of the language people use when searching the Internet for what you offer. Your findings can then be used to grow your inventory, service menu, and the optimization of your website for an expanded set of search phrases.
Meanwhile, you will want to regularly search Google for your business, while you are located at your place of business and at different spots around town, to see how you are showing up in their results. Where competitors are outranking you, you’ll want to audit their websites, listings, reviews, and marketing strategies to develop theories of why they’re ahead of you. Your goal, then, will be to emulate their tactics and eventually surpass them.
6. Unstructured citations + links
Unstructured citations are any online reference by a third party to your company’s complete or partial contact information. You can learn more about them here. Links are the clickable elements that take an Internet user from one place to another, and if you’re ready for a more technical explanation, read The Beginner’s Guide to Link Building.
The more often Google finds your business referenced by other relevant sources, the better your chances of them considering your company a good result to show to searchers. The relationships you build with local colleagues, local media sources, different groups in your community and industry can be reflected online when these entities cite your business and/or link to it.
For example, if your business sponsors a town food drive, the charity may list you as a benefactor. Or, if you host an exciting contest, a local lifestyle blogger may pick up your story and link to your website for further details. If the platforms that cite you and link to you have achieved a strong local or industry standing, this will help build the authority of your website in the eyes of Google, as well as expanding your visibility to customers. Finding opportunities for unstructured citations and links is a key part of an advanced local SEO campaign.
7. Expanded media
Each business will need a custom approach to expanding its reach. A social media presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram might be right for you and your customers. Or it could be email marketing, video media, podcasting, blogging, or publishing articles on respected third-party sites in your industry or geographic region that will solidify connections with your customers and introduce your business to a wider audience. Experimentation is key.
8. Advanced analysis
Learning to track how the public responds to your local marketing strategies is what will set your company apart from less savvy competitors. Using free tools like Google My Business Insights in your GMB listing’s dashboard, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and a variety of free and paid SEO software, you can discover what works and what doesn’t for your customers.
Profitability is your bottom line goal, and you will get there by becoming a continuously-chosen resource in your community. Customers can come to you via many paths, but the ultimate endpoint is a first transaction followed by repeat transactions once you’ve earned loyalty. Analytics tools help you track stages along those paths (like customers clicking on your listing to find driving directions or to phone you) so that you can improve the experience the customer is having at each step, increasing the chances of a transaction.
Whether basic or advanced, all eight of the above components are ones you will be sustaining, improving and expanding on for the life of your business, in addition to other efforts you may explore as your company grows.
How can anyone know how to influence rankings if Google’s algorithms are secret?
The entire concept of SEO is based on decades of business owners and marketers testing activities to see how Google and other search engines react to them and how the business then benefits from this reaction. From this ongoing testing, we arrive at theories about certain actions we can take that tend to cause Google to make a particular business or other entity become more visible to searchers.
For example, let’s imagine you own a pizza place in Sacramento, California with a one-page website that simply lists your menu items. You don’t rank very well for “gluten free pizza” even though it’s on your menu, and you seldom receive orders for this item.
You decide to create a second page on your site to tell the story of how and why you make this type of pizza, and you carefully include keywords like “gluten free pizza crust” and “Sacramento” in the page’s tags and text. A month later, your orders for this item triple, and when you check, you find that Google is now bringing up your new page for local customers seeking “gluten free pizza”. You’ve successfully taken an action that has influenced the search engine to the benefit of your business.
All local SEO and organic SEO basically comes down to this sort of experimentation, however complex a given strategy or tactic may be. Decades of such testing and clues from Google have enabled local SEOs to summarize Google’s local algorithm as having three main components:
Proximity: the distance between a searcher and a business
Relevance: the result that is the best match for the intent of the searcher’s query
Prominence: how well-known and well-cited a business is, based on what Google has learned about it by their crawl of the Internet
In practical terms, if I search for “gluten free pizza” while located in close proximity to the pizza place example, and Google finds the page you’ve created about this menu item with lots of relevant text on it, and Google has also found a lot of other websites referencing your gluten-free pizza (making it a prominent local resource), then your restaurant has a good chance of being shown to me as a result.
So, while the hundreds of factors that make up Google’s several algorithms are secret, you’re standing on established ground by doing all you can to work on the relevance and prominence of your business so that Google returns it as a result to searchers within Google’s concept of appropriate proximity.
4. What are the benefits of local SEO?
Once you dive into local SEO in earnest, you can expect to find treasure.
If the goal of local SEO is to make your business easier for customers to find and choose on the Internet, then the most obvious benefit for your company will be increased profitability. Customers reward businesses that make things easy for them, and a greater number of transactions should ultimately result from your work. But, the total array of benefits is enormous! When done well, local SEO can increase your:
Customer service quality
Knowledge of your customer base
Repeat sales (customer loyalty)
Brand awareness + positive reputation
Power for civic good
And so much more!
The amount of benefit you can expect to enjoy from engaging in local SEO will depend on:
1. Your budget of both time and money
2. How far that budget takes you vs. how far your market competitors’ budgets are taking them
3. The maximum growth potential defined by the size and characteristics of your local consumer base
A very small business in a very small town can make a modest investment in local SEO, easily surpass a few disengaged competitors, and reach pretty much every local customer who is on the Internet, plus new neighbors and travelers. As the competition and the consumer base becomes greater, local companies will have to increase their investment to see optimum return.
5. How local is local SEO?
Google indicates that lots of folks are asking about this, and I’m having to make a best guess that what business owners and marketers are wondering about is how big the radius of their visibility in Google’s results will be if they invest in doing local SEO. For example, if a business is located at 123 Main Street in Somewhereville, will they only show up for searchers who are walking along Main Street, or for people anywhere in the town, or for people beyond the town’s borders, or for several adjacent cities, or even the whole state?
The answer to this common question depends on Google’s idea of the intent of the searcher coupled with the competitive level of the market. For instance, Google might only cast a very small radius of results if someone searches for “coffee downtown Portland”:
But if I change my search to just “coffee portland”, Google expands the radius of the results being returned to a much larger area:
Meanwhile, if I signal to Google that I’m not searching for something quick and nearby like “coffee”, and instead search for something where my intent might cover the whole state, like “wedding venues oregon”, Google again expands the results to show me quite a large region:
In general, queries with a very “nearby” intent or queries happening in a dense city with many competitors located near one another will typically return a tighter radius of results. By contrast, queries that could be reasonably fulfilled by the searcher driving further, or that are seeking a rare good or service, or that take place in a rural area with few businesses tend to receive a larger radius of results.
Please note my use of the phrase “in general”, because there are so many exceptions. Moreover, Google’s own products deliver varied results. For instance, I’ve noticed that Google’s local finder often delivers a tighter radius than Google Maps. Meanwhile, Google’s organic results can behave quite differently than their local ones. And, it’s foundational knowledge for you to know that Google delivers different results to each searcher, based on their physical location at the time they search, the exact search language they use, and their search history.
One of the commonest local SEO forum questions comes from business owners located at a specific place on the map and wanting to expand the radius in which they show up for users’ queries. For a deep dive on this popular topic, read I Want to Rank Beyond My Location: A Guide to How This Works.
6. How do I check my local SEO rankings?
This is an excellent foundational question. First, you must know that local and localized organic rankings are not stable. As mentioned, above, Google orders results for each searcher based on:
- Google’s perception of the searcher’s intent coupled with an algorithmic calculation of which results are most relevant to that intent
- Google’s knowledge of where the searcher’s device is located at the time of search
- The density of competition for the search term
- The searcher’s history of previous searches.
The time of day
Because of this, consider it a myth and a mistake when people talk about being #1 for a search term, because local rankings are so highly customized and can literally change from hour to hour. The best you can aim at is a general sense of your visibility for a particular search phrase for people located at different points on the map at different times of day.
The most bare-bones, manual approach to understanding your visibility is to search for a phrase while standing inside your business and note the local and organic rankings. Then, physically move out from there, searching from a block away, a few blocks away, the other side of town, the city border, and beyond the city border. It can be an educational experience to try this, but it’s not one that’s practical to replicate on a regular basis.
For the sake of convenience, many platforms have developed location emulators and local rank trackers that can approximate the results you might see if searching from different geographic locations. It’s important to note that no tool can claim to be 100% accurate, because of how highly customized results can be for each searcher, but as we’ve covered, you’re looking for a general idea of your visibility rather than set-in-stone numbers. There are many popular emulation and localized rank tracking options. Consider these:
For free, you can use the GS Location Changer Chrome extension and Firefox add-on to set the location of Google search to a specific locale to see local pack rankings that come up in that area.
On the paid side, both Whitespark and BrightLocal have sophisticated local rank tracking dashboards, and LocalFalcon is also lauded for its nifty visual interface. Mobile Moxie has a 7-day free trial of their rank tracker so you can give this type of analysis a test drive.
Moz Pro customers can use the beta of Local Market Analytics to see localized organic rankings mapped out with innovative multi-SERP sampling.
You’ll want to track your rankings on a regular basis, but always remember, it’s “conversions” that deserve the lion’s share of your focus. Learn to think beyond how your business ranks to how that visibility is resulting in clicks on your listings, clicks-to-call, requests for driving requests, reviews, chats, questions, leads, bookings, and sales!
7. How can I learn local SEO?
Having read this article, you’re ready to move out from the shallow end of the pool into more exciting waters. The important thing is for you to find resources for further local SEO learning that are worthy of your time and won’t steer you wrong. I suggest these as your next 4 laps:
1. Read The Essential Local SEO Strategy Guide
This free, eight-chapter guide has been praised by readers as being not just about the “how” of doing local SEO, but the “why”. Studying this guide will get you into a strong mindset for engaging in holistic local search marketing in an authentic way that takes your business and its community into account.
2. Go where the advocates are
Specific organizations, media outlets, and publications are making names for themselves through pro-local business advocacy. Get to know these entities and rid yourself of the feeling of “going it alone” as a local business owner:
The Institute for Local Self Reliance publishes some of the best local business/local community reports on the web with statistics you can work into the narrative of your business’ story.
The American Independent Business Alliance can get your community started with a formal Buy Local program, if one doesn’t yet exist in your city, and they offer events you can attend virtually.
Near Media is an emerging outlet featuring thought leadership from top local SEO industry experts in strong support of independent business owners, with a growing library of articles, podcasts, and video media.
Plan to virtually attend a LocalU seminar for presentations by local SEO experts on the latest tactics for local search marketing success. This popular conference circuit is special for its all-local focus.
Ask local SEO questions for free at Sterling Sky’s Local Search Forum to help you better market your business
3. Make a regular local SEO industry reading schedule
Local search changes continuously, meaning your opportunities for marketing your business consistently alter. Bookmark these publications and make time for a weekly reading session:
Read the Local SEO column here on the Moz blog for in-depth coverage of local search marketing and strategic local business insights.
The Sterling Sky blog offers excellent takeaways from their ongoing tests, discovering what works and what doesn’t in online local business marketing.
Search Engine Roundtable’s blog has some of the fastest reporting of emerging Google features, updates, and bugs of any publication out there.
Streetfight covers both small businesses and enterprises, with a strong focus on developing technologies.
I’m also a longtime fan of the good minds behind the Whitespark blog for the sound advice they give
It may seem obvious, but read your local newspaper to keep tabs on the business scene nearest you
If you get tired from reading so much, many outlets like Moz, Near Media and LocalU offer audio and video media, as well, so you can kick back and listen for a bit. Also, multiple platforms have popular newsletters that round up the latest happenings for you so that you don’t have to seek them out yourself. And to follow local SEO industry experts on your favorite social media platforms; here’s a starter list of Twitter accounts you might like to check out.
4. Hire a local SEO to teach you
In some cases, it’s the right fit for local businesses to outsource all of their local SEO work to agencies. Not every business owner is going to have the time to become an expert in this form of marketing, on top of running their company.
That being said, if you can learn to do some or all of your brand’s local SEO or train your employees to do it, you’ll be acting from a place of ultimate knowledge, power and control. If this sounds appealing, you may want to consider hiring a pro to tutor you for accelerated learning.
My advice would be to find a small local SEO agency with an excellent reputation and inquire if their consulting services can be customized for you into training sessions with one of their talented team members. Ideally, you’d set up virtual meetings in which the tutor can visually walk you through tools and tactics, using your business as the workbook. Expect to pay well for this specialized training, knowing you’ll be using what you learn for years to come.
5. Learn from experience — it’s a good teacher!
Provided that you adhere to the guidelines of the third-party platforms on which you’re marketing, it’s your own experimentation that is likely to teach you the most about local SEO. In fact, many of today’s most-recognized local SEOs started out as business owners who became excited by what they realized they were able to do online for brands.
There are excellent free guides to get you started, amazing software to support your journey, and experts who freely share their advice on blogs and social media. All of these will strengthen you. The most essential takeaways will be ones that match the right technology and outreach to your specific customers. When you’ve mastered applying what you learn, and commit to ongoing experimentation, you’ll be ready to swim with the best of them.
Image credits: David McKenzie, Kenneth Lu, Aguamont, John Haslam, ThinkPanama and Lis í Jákupsstovu