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The Importance of Being Earnestly Local with SEO

Rohan Ayyar

Fancy a quick takeout dinner? Bet you googled for a good Chinese / Mexican / Indian / Thai place in your neighborhood at least once. Who among us has not checked the opening hours of our nearest grocery store? How many can claim to never have looked up reviews for a restaurant on Yelp before making a reservation? While these actions may seem second nature to most people, to local business owners, these are make or break decisions that can mean the difference between a conversion and complete invisibility online.

Welcome to the world of local SEO.

The rest of the world may scramble about to create incisive and engaging content to earn backlinks to their websites while local SEO practitioners are engaged in a whole different ball game. That is not to say that local SEO has nothing in common with regular SEO. It most certainly does.

However, local SEO is so much more than simply on page optimization and earning quality backlinks. It’s about leaving behind a calling card for your business at every virtual hangout in town. It’s about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that our target audience can easily track and follow to land at our doorsteps.

With Google’s Pigeon update, local SEO has become more important than ever to any business that has a physical location. This includes local businesses like restaurants, lawyers, car dealers, retail stores, salons, specialty stores and more. Even large brands with a national presence need local SEO to drive traffic to their locations in every town.

Instead of blindly accepting this as a fact, let’s dig a little deeper and understand why local SEO has become such an important game changer in today’s scheme of things online.

Local by the Numbers

As we discussed at the beginning of this piece, there’s nary a person left who knows how to use a smartphone and has not carried out a local search yet. Yes, the smartphone revolution was a definite shot in the arm for the local SEO industry. With 90% of the US population set to own a smartphone by 2016, the time for a renewed focus on local SEO is here.

Even among searches on PCs, tablets or mobiles, a majority of searches have very local intent. According to data from Google, four out of five consumers carry out local searches on their smartphones and PCs. The most common information they look for relate to directions to a store, its hours of business and local store addresses.

In contrast, most small businesses seem woefully unprepared for the fiercely local SEO required to win at local levels. According to a survey of SMBs by ConstantContact, a stunning 70% of businesses claim that they do not have the time to manage their business listings online. While half of the businesses polled said that they had found inconsistencies in their listing data, nearly the same number admitted to never having updated their online local listings!

What makes local SEO even more pressing is the fact that when done correctly, it actually works. Besides, Google’s data shows that local searches are twice as likely to result in a purchase as compared to non-local searches. These two factors alone should be reason enough for you to optimize your site for local SEO.

Findable by Search Engines = Findable by Users

As Google is fond of repeating, it aims at maximizing ROI for every search from the user’s perspective. Its algorithm is designed to think like a human being and present results that would be valuable for the user based on the query typed in. By making your site and its barnacles (directories, review sites, local listing pages, and social media pages) friendly to search engines, you are basically making your digital assets user friendly at a local level.

So what would you include in your local listings, citations and content to maximize the impact of local SEO?

According to the Local Search Association/Burke Inc.’s “Local Media Tracking Study,” users look for a variety of data points beyond the basic NAP when searching for a local business. While address and phone number remained the top two data points users looked up, distance to the business and hours of operation, secured the joint second spot.

Local SEO

Source: Local Search Association & Burke, Inc., “Local Media Tracking Study,” June 2014 Search Engine Land

Surprisingly, reviews, pricing and other such information came much lower in users’ priority lists for local searches. This offers a clear indication of what needs immediate focus from an optimization perspective.

Another solid reason to double up your local SEO efforts SEO is the fact that online searches often result in offline conversions. The Google study referenced earlier shows that 75% of all consumers who find useful information via their search results, are likely to visit a store. In fact, at least half of all consumers who search for local results via mobile end up visiting the store within 24 hours. That is a huge chunk of traffic enjoyed by traditional retail which is originally influenced by local SEO.

Consistency is Key to Rankings and Eventual Conversions

We all know that most search engines use backlinks as a vote in favor of your site and push up your ranking a tad bit higher with each additional vote you get. In the world of local SEO, each listing in an authoritative directory is like a vote in your favor. This includes your Localeze, Infogroup, Axciom, Yahoo Local, the local Small Business Association and any other key listing that you might have created in online directories.

Here’s an example search performed for “bagel shop Chicago.” You can see that besides the 3 pack on top, the top 4 results on the SERP are sourced from industry directories like Yelp and Urbanspoon. These results show up thanks to the citations for these individual shops which include local keywords relevant to “Chicago” as well as the primary target term “bagel.”

Local SEO search

While citations don’t need backlinks to your site for them to show up, using keywords as a part of your citation will not go unnoticed either. Google’s semantic search capabilities will correlate your keyword with the rest of the information about your business and the entire citation can then go towards helping in pushing up your website’s ranking. This can potentially help your website show up higher than random third party directories in a local search about your business or even your industry.

In traditional SEO, backlinks are typically associated with a particular keyword or its semantic ‘cousin’ making sure that all your ‘votes’ add up in a cumulative manner. The same logic applies to directory listings. The minute your business listings start looking like they belong to five different firms, the entire purpose of adding your business to various directories is defeated.

In other words, it’s not enough to sprinkle your business and contact details across every directory on the Internet. For local SEO to be meaningful, it’s more important to be consistent with the information in your listings. Pick a NAP format that suits your business best and copy paste it across the web. Seriously. This is one area where being original is going to weight against you.

Inaccurate information about your business created by others needs cleaning for the same reason. This would include directory listings, citations and duplicate information.

SEO Brownie Points

Regular SEO focuses on driving up your site’s search rankings as a means of driving greater amounts of traffic to your website. With local SEO, things are played out a little differently. A consumer who’s hunting for the nearest pizza place does not really care about how fancy their website is or whether they even have a website or not. A simple Yelp listing with contact information, directions and reviews is usually enough to convert the customer right away, website or no website.

Indeed, per Moz’s Local Search Ranking Factors for 2014, on-page signals directly from a business’ website accounts for just 21% of local ranking attribution. The remaining 79% of a business’ local ranking comes from third party factors or barnacle factors like Google My Business Page signals, citations, user reviews, inbound links, social signals and so on.

Don’t miss the chance to constantly optimize your “local intent” pages, such as Contact Us, branch/city pages and store locator pages, to see if there are any low hanging fruit you aren’t picking. For example, if McDonald’s UK wanted a quick overview of how their important pages with local intent are doing, they needn’t look further than our very own SEMrush. I queried SEMrush’s UK DB with the URL of McDonald’s UK > Restaurants > Restaurant Locator...

I could instantly see that the page was bringing in 15k organic visits worth nearly $4,000 from 188 keywords.

Local SEO

It’s immediately obvious that branded keywords comprise the top organic traffic drivers:

Local SEO in SEMrush

And I get a good idea of who is linking to the page how (anchor), and most importantly, why (click through the links and read them, dummy!):

Local SEO Backlinks in SEMrush

You can just easily get more insights from the top linking domains and anchor text.

I also like using the local SEO feature that RankWatch offers, where you can specify Google Local as the search engine for which you want to track rankings for a particular domain. Since you also get to define the specific location down to the city with this tool, it’s a huge time saver.

RankWatch - SEO Local

Pick a couple of your favorite tools, continuously monitor your Local SEO metrics, and always be on the lookout for quick wins.

Brand Awareness

Imagine getting an ad pop up on your users’ screens without you spending a penny. Sounds awesome, right? Well, that’s what happens when local SEO starts working for you. A local business that has been optimized right will show high up on the rankings – maybe the 7 pack or the carousel – for local organic searches.

As any marketing rookie will tell you, repeated exposures to brand messaging help in building brand awareness, recall and eventually brand preference. With a strong local SEO going for your site, listings and reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google+, and the like help in disseminating your brand name further. Content related to your business educates the user and reinforces your brand name in their minds. Social media results about your business offer the user proof that their peers have tried, tested and approved of your services.

The cumulative effect of a user finding the same result popping up when they search across multiple platforms is similar to a full-fledged paid campaign directed at them on a personal level.

Feeding the Pigeon

Google’s Pigeon update rolled out in the United States in mid-2014, and took a lot of site owners by surprise. A number of websites found themselves with the short end of the stick in spite of really working their citations and local directory listings. What they did not realize was that their local SEO was not in sync with their overall site SEO. This threw their local results out of whack and Google came down hard on them.

With Pigeon, the focus is back on traditional SEO with a local twist. To prevent the possibility of Pigeon clawing your site out of local search results, make sure you strike the right balance in 2015:

  • Work on creating local content and winning backlinks from high quality sites for your local keywords and barnacle sites.
  • Clean up your backlink profile by removing spammy, unnatural links that will only devalue your SEO and potentially attract a Google penalty.
  • Work on your traditional on-page SEO signals and localize them as extensively as you can. This means including your city and state in your title tags, H1 and H2 tags, Alt tags for images, as well as within the content on your local pages.
  • Citations may not be everything anymore, but the ones that you do have must offer as much mileage to your site as possible.
  • Clean up your citations across sites and align them to your onsite NAP data for every single instance.
  • Leverage the focus on mobile usability introduced in the Pigeon update by investing in responsive design for your site and making sure any content you create is responsive as well.

Parting Words

In the good old days, a listing in your local yellow pages was enough for local businesses to be visible in their immediate communities. However, with the explosion of online directories, social media sites, user review sites and the like, it’s become far more complicated to beat local algorithms and rise to the top. A balanced mixture of traditional SEO and local ranking factors is a good bet towards staying at the top of the pack or start of the carousel, as the case may be.

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Rohan is the go-to guy for SEMrush in India. You will probably run into him at marketing meetups and conferences happening anywhere across India.

Rohan is an experienced digital marketer who has worked both agency and in-house, developing data-driven strategies for SEO, PPC, social media and content marketing. He is also an avid business and tech blogger, with insights featured on publications like Fast Company, Business World, Search Engine Journal and Adweek.
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