Read this statistic again and let it sink in: "97 percent of consumers conduct a search for local businesses before shopping," according to Google. It is really staggering, when you think about it. In fact, Google like Xerox has become a verb. One doesn't "Yahoo" the best restaurant closeby or "Bing" a local doctor when feeling ill, at least not yet! While you would think virtually every business is competing for the first page of local results, the shocking reality I see daily, is many are unaware Local Search Optimization even exists. "But I got my website done in 1992!" Well, that's fantastic you got started on your web presence. Just because a business may appear automatically in a directory (pulled from a database or aggregator in days of yore), doesn't mean that a business owner need not to take some concrete steps to ensure enhanced Google Map optimization. Only 15% of businesses have even claimed or verified their listing in Google Places. Because it was referred to as Google Maps for so long, many small businesses still use this terminology, if they are in the know. Google Maps Optimization has evolved into Google Places Optimization but that's really a piece of a broader puzzle — the theory and practice of Local Search Optimization (LSO) that takes into account hundreds of search portals that have cropped up, listing and optimization (verification) opportunities/efforts in them, credible citations to build authority, and so forth. (See the rest of the posts on this blog!) There is a big difference between showing up on a directory listing and claiming and verifying it. It's more than just verification now. Traditional SEO and what we are calling LSO differ as there are a variety of tactics to optimize for local ranking factors, that play into the mix. Search engines are looking to provide the most relevant data locally, so the better you can optimize the accuracy, completeness and prominence of your local search portal presence, the better. The algorithm is changing constantly, so here are some winning steps to take for consistency and results. Here's to your success with LSO in 2012!
Ground Control to Major LinkedIn
I'll start off with LinkedIn. It is worth mentioning as a it's not only a social network for professionals, but it has now become a strong factor for local search optimization, and it's so easy to claim. Not just a citation source, I would even venture to call it a portal as all the internal links, and opportunities for discovery based on the LI page that points back to your home site, create massive opportunity for free promotion of your small biz. You can easily link your business blog via RSS and include your business overview, as well as core competency. It is important your colleagues each link back to your business page in there. First, encourage one team member create a LinkedIn business page as an Administrator, then ensure to add in other admins as need be. On LinkedIn, when you edit your individual profile and fill out your current role, as you start typing slowly in the box, the business page will auto-populate if it already exists, allowing you to select it and link back. It's crucial all these links dovetail together and then link back to your home site. This is an obvious, super high quality citation opportunity you can take immediately. Even jump there now, claim it and come back to this post!
Too much of a good portal, is simply Marvelous!
Another great tactic to rock your local search, is to include your business in as many Local Search Portals (Local Directories), that you can find. Sounds obvious, but this a moving target. What is a local search portal? Well it's deceptively simple. Where are your prospects and customers assembling online? Start listening. Is it Yelp if you're a restaurant or bed and breakfast? Is it on FourSquare, when suddenly you are seeing a ton of check-ins happening, you hear the word on your customer's lips constantly, and even some have mentioned, "Hey, do you offer any specials for FourSquare?" My rule of thumb is: If you have ever heard of that portal, be there and if you haven't, be on the lookout monthly, and don't miss the opportunity to complete a free profile and grab the citation. You can see a huge list from our homepage we provide rife with opportunities to list and garner reviews and citations. Vertical specific directories like FindLaw.com, VerticalSearch.com, IT.com, at the national level are helpful. Also, adding your Name Address and Phone Number (NAP) to the local chamber of commerce or in a local online newspaper classifieds is helpful. Make sure you get your categories correct and provide links back to your homesite or blog, whenever possible. I recommend championing a blog and using it as the hub of the spokes in a local marketing strategy for small business. Search engine's actually have their own local listing directories, and many business owners are not aware of this. Google Places, Bing Local and Yahoo Local each give you a free opportunity to list your business data but sometimes the link is hard to find. The Search Engine Results Pages (SERPS) are constantly changing and now factors like images, videos and social play in so it's key to add pictures, video and any other detail you can think of. To easily find each portal, just type in "Google Places," "Bing Local," and "Yahoo Local" to follow the yellow brick road to where you can list. If your business already appears there, look closely at the page for an opportunity to verify or make the listing more complete. (Sometimes hidden in the upper right, it will read, "Are you the business owner?"
Keyword Research is not Stuffy in the New Earth Library of the Web
Keyword research is an activity you may be less familiar with, as it sounds technical. Really, what you're trying to do here is get yourself into the mind of the searcher — your prospect, who is probably searcing for your right now. Don't miss this opportunity for them to find you, and give you a call. My mantra is always: clicks, calls, foot traffic. Focus on these tangiblexs. Keyword research is the modern equivalent of due diligence, competitive analysis and R & D. If you see a larger corporation ahead of you in the local search or social media game, or maybe a rival business that's got amazing traction on Yelp, it's within range to analyze what they're doing well and take a cue from those tactics. The first way to do this is through super simple keyword research. Instead of utilizing broad match queries or just Tailor Los Angeles, try to drill down into the specifics or "exact match." When utilizing a powerful free keyword research tool like Google Insights for Search type in combinations of keywords that you feel your clientele would search for, for example "real estate Omaha" or even use the city name abbreviation. Experiment with filtering the results to get more granular. Use quotation marks on the search, to search for those exact words. Compare search terms to get an idea for relative volume. Take a look at some specific search queries in Google, Yahoo and Bing from your computer, a friends, logged in and out of gmail, and even call a family member in a different city to search for your brand name, category name plus city and any other combo you can think of. Why? Google search is so highly personalized now, what it shows you often reflect months of historical comparison to the searches performed from your I.P. address. It's important to get a pure view of the results, to identify your competitors and start to build a local search optimization strategy around the ideal keywords. Is it best to pick the most competitive, broad, generic keyword? "Realtor Santa Barbara" is extremely competitive query returning 1.89 million (yes million, you read that right). So that's a resounding "no," unless you are looking to potentially spend thousands on a paid search campaign to compete with the international real estate community. I would advocate truly finding your niche within your business. What makes your real estate practice specific? Do you specialize in property management, a certain style of vacation rental, or is there something specifically about your service that truly sets you apart? If you are a Yoga Studio, perhaps it's a specific style of Bikram Yoga (or Yoga Master) that differentiats your brand. Several mentors have told me over the years, that the greatest form of marketing is to authentically be yourself. Grab that keyword friendly domain, put up a WordPress blog or site and start focusing around being competitive on niche content that has lower search volume monthly. This is a natural outcome or creating hyper original content in your most authentic voice across local, social, and search.
Techy Meta Data SEO is a No-Go
A leftover relic from traditional, old-school SEO circa AltaVista days (which has created many myths and lasting tactics, that no longer factor into the algorithm), is doing many edits to your meta deta, meta keywords or onsite factors. Altering meta data, meta tags, geo meta data, and the like to include specific city location or geographic website location isn't as important as just presenting on your front of site, easily crawlable and indexable and matching up. Make it prominent from each page, to the spiders. Instead, Webmaster Tools is the best area to take care of this. Under Site Configuration, go to settings and then Geographic Target, and then specifiy your location. It's that simple. Consider adding your company's NAP to the footer of every page of your site. That way, search engines can index your site better for local. In a natural sense, adding the city name in the body of the text or title tags can be helpful. Although anchor text pointing back to your site may not be the biggest ranking factor for local, it is helpful to have geographic location in anchor text to optimize.
Without reviews, you're phoning it in
The importance of reviews cannot be understated and they must be authentic. I spoke to a lady that ran a luxury goods store, and was downright adamant about not setting up a Facebook Page because "People can leave comments when I'm on vacation, or that I might not know about." The value of a built out Facebook Fan Page is unquantifiable. It's definitely measured monetarily in tens of thousands in free promotion if done right. The key is to assign someone on your staff to keep an eye on it. Be excellent in what you do, and your social media reputation will reflect that positively. The opportunity is worth it. Would you rather risk one nonplussed reviewer to possibly gain hundreds if not thousands of eyeballs, or sit back in the dark as the online revolution passes you by and your competitors are seeing so much benefit? When surfers land on your Places Page and are logged into their Google account, it is part of their search history. Google looks for reviews and Google Places page visits to verify the veracity of your business presence. If you think about personalization of search, now that the customer has visited your page once and a left a review, it's more likely for you to show up again, as their results are partly influenced by where people have searched prior.
It's not a Popularity Contest anymore, it's an Authority Contest
Build authority with citations. Some think of a citation as a vote or a mention. This can be your Name, Address and Phone Number (NAP) listed just about anywhere on the internet that gets indexed by the big three search engines (Google, Yahoo and Bing). Search engines algorithmically compare data. Does the name address and phone number match up across the web? How many places does it accurately appear? How can this be verified? Case in point, think like Google. You want Google to have confidence that you are you, that a rival business didn't snag your Places page, and that your basic data isn't listed differently everywhere. Some business owners I speak to, might have picked up a bit of SEO along the way, and really look at PageRank as a popularity contest and are excited about keyword stuffing, meta keywords or getting a ton of backlinks on blogs with no follow code that doesn't help them. The search engines are evolving at light speed. I would not trust an idea or strategy from even 2006. This is why when you update or change details about your business, your physical address or phone number, it is key to update the major search engines and as many portals as you can for consistency. Citations are also a ranking factor in the 7 box of balloons which you'll now notice has often moved to a 4 box, after the Venice update. All things being equal, if a business has more citations and is more prominent with those votes (citations), they will appear higher in the local rankings.
A Summary of the Major Points (In case you skipped ahead)
So here's a quick summary of some key Local Search Optimization tactics: Focus on garnering citations that will count positively in local results. You can use a tool like Whitespark's Local Citation Finder and Bright Local's Citation Tracker to pinpoint these opportunities. Enhance your business listings in the sense that you complete them 100 percent by filling out every field, use the right website URL, have the correct hours of operation, accurate keywords and categories, etc. We also strongly recommend you add a YouTube video. Geographic location is very important so rather than listing Los Angeles Salon, make sure to specify Encino European Salon, whenever possible. Proximity to the center of the city is becoming less of a factor (thanks to Google's recent Venice update, giving the little guy a better chance), but it is key to be precise across the board with geographic data. IF you have specials, promotions or incentives for customers in the offline world, include these consistently when securing your digital real estate in local search engine directories and search portals. Reviews and stars on Google Places are key, but reviews in many directories are very positive like Manta.com, Angie's List or YellowPages.com. This has a dynamic impact on mobile search. Think of your own daily behavior? How often do you search for local info on your iPhone, Android or iPad? Customers need to be aware that you are there, so converse with them about their favorite review sites in person to get the ball rolling. Offer them incentives to post on third party sites. Welcome all kinds of reviews, respond to the negative ones and remember to "just get more," as negative reviews will be pushed down in the results. Be responsive and help your customers, as you're enhancing your reputation and improving your rankings. Yelp is becoming a household name. Last night I had a sensational Thai food dinner, that amazingly accommodated my fiancé who eats Vegan and gluten free. I couldn't wait to leave a positive Yelp review, because this kind of cuisine for special diets is so rare. Now if you read the entire article, you could see that building out a blog around "Vegan Thai Food in Santa Barbara," or optimizing a local strategy around those keywords, could be very helpful to give you a competitive advantage. (The generic keyword combo "Thai Food Santa Barbara," in contrast has 423,000 results). You can pay for ads directly from your Google Places account, if you would like to begin experimenting with paid advertising. Google call these Boost Ads. Although you can't control which keywords appear, it's a great affordable first step for a local business owner. If you do have incorrect data on Localeze or InfoGroup from an old location or phone number, these databases may have filtered back out to the overall listing ecosystem and thereby you'll have inaccurate Google Map data. Simply log in to your google account, and correct this as much as you can. Take your time, as accuracy is key to doing well with LSO. There are more advanced strategies that exist like press releasing to prweb.com. You can see that onsite optimization really comes down to listing your complete data, NAP consistency and what you do on the back end through Google Webmaster Tools, rather than getting too caught up in the meta data of your site. Google is searching for your authenticity, as your customers are searching for your business.