Tuesday 30 Oct 2012
I was truly gratified by the industry recognition of my recent article, The Zen of Local SEO and what I’m writing today is a follow-up post. In The Zen of Local, I discussed the futility of trying to write a static tactical guide for implementation of a Local Search campaign, because of the constant changes of policies, options and tools. Because of this, I focused on a philosophical approach to Local. There is more we can discuss, however, and this does take us into more technical waters while still dealing with factors that have remained relatively stable for the past half decade.
I felt this would be a good post to write, because I spend part of each day answering Local SEO questions in fora like SEOmoz Q&A, and CatalysteMarketing’s Local Search Forum, and I see how vital it is for every local business owner and every new Local SEO practitioner to approach Local with an understanding of a few basic facts that will be ruling every aspect of what they do. Much of what follows is drawn from my experience with Local FAQs, or simply teaching my own local business clients. It’s my hope that a read through this post will get you started on the right foot in promoting a local business, and serve you well in every choice you make.
Read The Google Places Guidelines
Here they are and do not fail to read them and check back on a regular basis for updates. Google changes their guidelines at least a few times every year, and businesses can rise or fall based on even tiny changes to the language which may indicate a huge change in policy. Google is the biggest player you will be dealing with as a local business or Local SEO and their guidelines are the key indicator of what they allow and forbid.
Violating Guidelines Is A Very Bad Idea
From seeing a listing drop to the bottom of the rankings, to seeing reviews disappear or having a profile utterly banned, the punishment of accidental or intentional violation of the guidelines can be severe, and sometimes, irreversible. So, if you’ve skipped my first rule, and have never read the Google Places Quality Guidelines, go back to square one. And this doesn’t just apply to Google. You should always read the guidelines of any entity where you are listing your business. Failure to do so can have drastic consequences, and sadly, I’ve interacted with marketers selling Local SEO services who have clearly never read the guidelines, so be careful whom you hire, too!
Determine If Your Business Qualifies For Local Inclusion
To qualify for inclusion in Google’s local products, your business must meet all 3 of the following criteria:
1. You must have a unique physical address. It must not be a shared address, a P.O. Box or virtual office.
2. You must have a unique local area code phone number – not an 800 number, not a call tracking number and not a phone number shared with any other business.
3. You must have in-person transactions with your customers, either at your place of business (like a restaurant) or their locales (like a plumber).
If you can’t say yes to all 3 points, then you do not qualify for inclusion in the eyes of Google and should not try to bend the rules or pretend that you do qualify.
All Local Hangs On NAP
NAP stands for the 3 factors on which all of Local Search is based: name, address, phone number. You must consistently present the same 3 details identically across the web. So:
1. Use your real business name at all times. Do not add service keywords, product keywords or geographic keywords to your business name anywhere – not on your website, not on your Google+ profile, nor anywhere else on the web. Do business as the real *you*.
2. Do not falsely represent your address, anywhere on the web. Don’t pretend to be located someplace you aren’t. Google will eventually catch on and punishment will be swift and unyielding. And, be sure you are writing your complete address, every time you write it. This means, if you’ve got a suite number, always include it. 123 Main Street and 123 Main Street Suite A are two different addresses in the eyes of Google. List your complete address, without major variations, every time. Do not be overly concerned about minor variations such as Suite vs. Ste. or Avenue vs. Ave. Google is apparently able to recognize these variants as equivalent, but differences in the actual numbers of your address or spelling of your street name matter very much.
Your Website Is Your #1 Local Search Ranking Factor
More than anything else written about your business around the web, your website is the authoritative source for information about your business.
Broadly speaking, this means you must:
1. Build an optimized website.
2. Build a website that employs high standards of human usability.
3. Understand that by launching a website, you have just become a publisher and must be prepared to publish very high quality materials.
Locally speaking, this means that you must:
1. Highlight both your service/product AND geographic keywords in your tags and text.
2. Highlight your complete NAP – typically in the website footer and on the contact page.
There are lots of nuances involved in designing a superlative local business website, but what I’ve stated above are the basics. The investment you make in developing a first class website and planning an on-going publishing strategy are your first and most most important Internet-related tasks as a local business owner. Nothing supplants this.
Consistency Is King
Citations of your business are a key local ranking factor. Citations are web-based mentions of your business that include your complete or partial NAP. If there are citations anywhere on the web that incorrectly state any part of your NAP, this will confuse the search engines and harm your ability to rank. For example, if your listing on an Internet Yellow Pages website lists your business name as Joe’s Plumbing and Water Damage Restoration, when your actual business name is just Joe’s Plumbing, Google will not view the 2 business titles as equivalent. As a second example, if your business moves, Google will become confused by references to Joe’s Plumbing existing at both 123 Main Street and 123 Center Street. A discrepancy in phone numbers will have the same effect. So, it is critical that all references to your business consistently contain identical business NAP.
This means that you need to look up your business in Google and identify any inconsistencies and try to get them corrected. Citation correction can be a long, time-consuming process and is especially lengthy when a business changes its name or moves. Be prepared to spend the time to do this, or to pay a qualified practitioner to do it for you, or you risk having your identity in the eyes of Google become clouded, untrustworthy and unworthy of high rankings.
Google Considers Your Business As Most Relevant To Its City Of Location
If you are located in San Francisco, Google will consider you as most relevant to queries that contain the words ‘San Francisco’ or are being searched for from a San Francisco-based device. This topic is one that comes up frequently for go-to-client business models; for example, a plumber who is located in San Francisco, but also serves clients in San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland. Many businesses in this situation would like to rank well in the pinned/lettered local results for all of the cities they serve, but at least at this point in the game, such results are unlikely.
If you do an excellent job with your on-site Local SEO and off-site Local Search Marketing, chances are, you will be able to achieve a high local ranking in the pinned and lettered local pack of results in your city of location but only rarely outside of it.
So What About City Landing Pages?
If you’ve read the Google Places Quality Guidelines, you know you can’t create a listing for each of the cities you serve – only for your city of location. So, most go-to-client local businesses then turn to the concept of creating city landing pages (a unique page for each service city) on their websites to bring attention to the fact that they serve in a variety of locales. These are my guidelines for this.
1. Only create city landing pages if you are prepared to write excellent, unique copy for each city, or hire a copywriter to do so. Do not simply cut and paste the same copy from one page to the next, changing out one city name for another as you go. If you can’t find something really unique and valuable to write about your services in each city, do not create city landing pages.
2. The goal of these pages is typically going to be achieving some secondary organic rankings – not rankings in the blended/local (pinned/lettered) pack of results. It is uncommon for you to be able to outrank competitors who are physically located in your service radius cities – not impossible, but uncommon, because as I’ve said, Google thinks of you as being most relevant to your city of location and they view your competitors this way, too.
3. If you choose not to invest time or money in high quality city landing pages, it is not a good idea to simply substitute a large block of text listing all of the cities or zip codes you serve. In fact, Google recently updated their Webmaster guidelines to specifically discourage this spammy practice.
Do Not Fool Around With Reviews
For all existent review sites, this means:
1. Do not write fake positive reviews for your business.
2. Do not write fake negative reviews for your competitors.
3. Do not upload reviews others have written to your own listing. Each customer must upload his own review from his own account.
4. Do not pay anyone for reviews.
5. Be wary of any activity that can lead to a slew of reviews coming in at the same time. They will likely be filtered out. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently, but based on personal experience, I believe filters have been in place relating to review velocity for years.
Beyond those 5 points, the different review entities begin to part company. For example, Google appears to endorse the usage of incentives (like freebies, coupons, etc.) for reviews so long as you don’t stipulate that the reviews received must be positive reviews, whereas review giant Yelp does not want you to request reviews in any form, ever. So, while my 5 points on reviews will serve you well up to a certain point, you must learn the differences in the policies of the different review entities to avoid violating guidelines, and possibly, being publicly humiliated by having your infractions made public.
Lie Down With Local Dogs, Get Up With Local Fleas
Some local business owners will have the time to invest in getting an education about Local SEO and the knowledge they earn will truly empower them to promote their business in an informed, hands-on fashion. I definitely support this approach. However, many other local business owners will not have adequate time to devote to an initial session of Local 101, plus daily time to spend keeping up with the constant changes that are inherent to Local SEO. Because of this, they will find themselves searching for a professional to help them, and this is where a lack of education can really harm the local business in question.
If you hire the wrong person to do your Local SEO and you don’t know how to judge whether what they are doing is good or bad, you may wind up being penalized in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, as the field of Local SEO has grown, the number of dubious practitioners has grown along with it. So how do you know whom to trust?
I would advise you to check out the trusted provider list at GetListed.org. GetListed is the entity associated with the Local Search University conference circuit, and the Local SEOs on their list are worthy of being contacted. I find it so unacceptable that a business owner can invest all he has in building up his brick-and-mortar company, only to have his on-line reputation ruined by an unskilled Local SEO services provider.
When it comes to choosing a Local SEO for consultation or implementation, your business will be judged by the company it chooses to keep. If you pick someone because you simply stumbled across them, got cold called by them or because they were really cheap, you may very well get up with fleas and worse! Avoid this ruinous scenario and choose a Local SEO with a solid reputation in the Local SEO industry. The proof of their standing is out there on the web, and GetListed.org’s list is a great place to start looking for the right professional for your business.
Google Makes Mistakes
Sometimes, a loss of rankings can be easily traced to a mistake on the part of the local business owner, but it is also quite common for Google to make mistakes. Places/+ has been affected by one bug after another, year after year, often because of Google’s policy of rolling out new products and product changes in beta mode. Google has always done things this way and this means that there is always some chance that a negative experience you are having is the result of a bug.
So, how can you figure out if you’re dealing with a bug? A good place to begin is the Google And Your Business Forum which used to be known as the Google Places Help Forum. Search for your issue and see if there are multiple recent reports of the same problem. If so, you may start to identify a pattern and you may find helpful replies from Google reps or Top Contributors to other people’s threads. You can also start your own thread, being as thorough and clear as you can about your issue.
In addition to the official forum, there are two blogs worth checking for descriptions of new bugs. These blogs belong to Top Contributors, Mike Blumenthal and Linda Buquet. There is also Linda Buquet’s new Local Search Forum, where I’m honored to be a moderator and where there is always a good chance of a good discussion going on about recent bugs.
If you are adversely affected by a bug, the best you can do is to report your issue and then follow the news to see if/when a fix is put in place by Google.
All Top Rankings Are Not Created Equal
One of the most common questions I receive as a Local SEO is, “How do I get high rankings?” If ‘it depends’ were ever an appropriate answer, this is when. Read this carefully:
The effort and investment you will need to make to achieve high rankings for your local business is completely dependent on the competitiveness of your industry and local geography.
In other words, a personal injury attorney in Dallas, Texas is going to have to make way more effort than a baker in Boonville, California (population: 1,035).
It’s all about the competition. How many competitors you have locally and how much effort they are each making is what dictates the lengths to which you must go to surpass them, if possible.
There is a pretty long list of things your local business can do to establish and promote your visibility on the Internet. What you should do all comes down to how competitive your niche is. David Mihm’s annual Local Search Ranking Factors report is the Local SEO industry’s key survey highlighting the components of high local rankings. Some Local SEOs postulate that there are 200+ factors that go into determining the rankings you receive. Here is a short list of the most basic ones:
- Age and authority of your domain
- Local optimization of your website
- Lack of violations on your local business profiles
- Consistency of data about your business across the web
- Proximity to city centroid
- Number and authority of your citations
- Number and velocity of your reviews
- Social factors
- Number and authority of links
You cannot control factors like the age of your domain or the reviews you receive, but you do have control over other factors like the optimization of your website and the correctness of your local business profiles. Whether you need to make major investments in areas like Social Media and linkbuilding all boils down to how competitive your niche is. Every business is different. Educating yourself or hiring a pro is what will help you discern the amount of effort you need to make to achieve the highest possible visibility.
Have Realistic Expectations
This ties in with my last point in a very real way. I frequently speak to local business owners who, due to lack of understanding of their competition or lack of understanding about how search engines work, expect to dominate their field on the web in an unrealistic amount of time or with an unrealistic expenditure of effort or funding.
Again, the bakery in Boonville can enter the game with very different expectations than the attorney in LA.
Every local business owner should go to Google and start searching for their key phrases (cupcakes, car accident lawyers) and their location and take a realistic look at what the competition looks like so they can understand what they are getting into. It can be next-to-impossible to break into the toughest markets, whereas many businesses will fall into areas of low-to-medium competition where wise efforts will begin paying off in a reasonable amount of time. Being realistic about the competitiveness of your niche will save you from disappointments and also, hopefully, prevent you from wasting money buying into the promises of unethical marketers who are selling you a bill of goods.
No ethical Local SEO is going to promise you #1 rankings, and if you find a good person to work with, they will provide their own realistic assessment of the competition so that you are prepared for the journey ahead.
My original post, The Zen of Local SEO, was all about developing a winning psychological mindset. I hope this follow-up piece will help you to develop a realistic and actionable stance to approaching some of the more technical realities of Local SEO.
Have I left anything out that you feel belongs on the above list? I’d love to hear about it!