Estimated Read Time: 20 Minutes
- Process Overview
- Process Constraints
- Process Timing
- Critical Success Factors
- Process Steps
- Step 1: Set a Baseline and Goals
- Step 2: Claim Your Local Listings
- Start With Google
- Use Moz Local
- The Role of Data Aggregators
- Step 3: Localize Website Content
- Consistent NAP
- Title Tags
- Schema Tags and Sitemaps
- Step 4: Build Links and Citations
- Step 5: Obtain Reviews
- Step 6: Checkpoint Health & Progress
- Step 7: Get Rid of Duplicates
- The Bottom Line
The best way to learn how to do local SEO for small business is to do it yourself. This post (last updated 01/12/16) tells you what to do and how to do it.
Local SEO (search engine optimization) is a process, a collection of predefined activities that when executed, produce a predictable outcome. The predictable outcome we’re aiming for is to rank well in local search results.
Before I get too far into the process, I recommend this glossary of local search terms and definitions from moz.com. Reference it as you make your way through this document.
I also often get asked how to rank well in a city where your business isn’t located. It could be, for example, your business has a wide service area or you work one place and your home office is in another. The answer is complicated, but it can be done.
Andrew Shotland, a recognized local SEO expert, offers how-to suggestions in this 5 Ways To Rank Outside Of Your Physical Location In Google Places article that appeared in Search Engine Land on May 13, 2013.
The short answer is you can’t. At least not on map results. If you want to rank for more than one location you’re going to have to use local SEO to rank for your primary location, and organic SEO to rank for others.
This local SEO process tells you what you need to do and offers tips and suggestions on how to do it.
The process is specifically geared for small businesses. It assumes you have a limited budget and want to get things done quickly.
The process seven major steps:
- Step 1 – Set a Baseline and Goals
- Step 2 – Claim Your Local Listings
- Step 3 – Localize Website Content
- Step 4 – Build Citations
- Step 5 – Obtain Reviews
- Step 6 – Checkpoint Health & Progress
- Step 7 – Remove Duplicates
Before you start, know that successful execution of this process will not guarantee you a top ranking in local search results. No one can guarantee top rankings because there are so many moving parts and much of it outside our control. That said, the process employs industry and Google sanctioned best practices. You have a far better chance of being successful using it than you would if you were to “wing it” on your own.
What’s out of your control?
Google’s ranking algorithm is the most important item outside of your control.
- It’s top-secret. Some local SEO experts specialize in deciphering the algorithm. They research patent applications, do statistical analyses, and test theories publishing their findings on the Internet. Bottom line though, only Google knows how the ranking algorithm works.
- The rules change constantly. Matt Cutts, Google’s official spokesperson on the subject, states “… we tend to make a change to our core search algorithms at least once a day… 350 to 400 times a year”. So even when SEO’s succeed (with good probability) at figuring out what might be in the ranking algorithms, it’s still only a researched best guess and the discovery might already be out-dated.
The competition is the second big thing outside your control. Your competition might have an address closer to the city center than you. They might have more and better reviews and citations than you.
Citations are like votes on the Internet. The more you have, the higher you rank. Positive reviews increase social validity and click-through rates.
The first time through this exercise, start to finish, usually takes 4-6 months with the long-pole being the length of time it takes for:
- your data to be proliferated throughout the local search ecosystem; and
- you (and/or your designate) to gather online citations and reviews.
Obviously, if your goal is to acquire 5 reviews for your business that’s going to take far less time than it would to gather 50. The same goes for citations. The 4-6 month time estimate assumes your first iteration through the process will be to gather a baseline of 5 reviews and stake claim to all your most important business listings and citations.
There are some timing dependencies across steps so read through the entire process at least once to make sure you have a good overall understanding before you start. All of the blue steps will need to be completed once. The green steps have to be repeated multiple times.
- You can never have too many citations or reviews.
- You should never rest on your laurels.
Critical Success Factors
The key to local SEO success is making sure you are consistent and accurate in the way you specify your business name, address and phone number (NAP) any time you are asked to submit that information about your small business to a local search engine, data aggregator, or third-party site.
Don’t, for example, list your ZIP code as 19103 on one submission and 10005 on another. Mistake or not, they’re both valid ZIPs and Google will assume they represent different businesses. Google can figure out small discrepancies, but if you want full credit for your efforts, you need to make sure your data is consistent and accurate across the board.
Why is consistency important? Two reasons:
- Inconsistency confuses potential visitors and deters them from clicking on the link to your website.
- Citations act like votes on the Internet. The more you have, the higher you rank.
Data inconsistencies lower rankings and click-through rates.
We’re going to step through the process once using a local pizza shop in center city Philadelphia.
It’s a real business. It’s name is Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizzeria. Pietro’s currently (February 2014) ranks #2 on Google local search results when I search for “Philadelphia Pizza”.
Step 1: Set a Baseline and Goals
It’s important to be able to measure progress. To do that, you need a starting point – a baseline for where you’re at right now and goals you want to achieve within a fixed time frame and budget.
The first step in the local SEO process is to decide on your goals. Where would you reasonably like your business listing to rank in local search engine results 4-6 months down the road?
Bear in mind your proximity to related local businesses when setting goals. If many of the local businesses like your own are all clustered together in one location, Google will interpret that as the industry center for your city. A good example of that is car dealerships. They’re often clustered together outside the city center. The closer your business is to the “industry center”, the higher you’ll rank.
Mike Blumenthal explains this concept best in Bright Local’s free “State of Local Search” recorded webinar (from 2013). Start listening at time stamp 25:30.
To be able to measure progress toward completion of your goals, establish key performance indicators (KPIs) next. KPIs are objective measures used to assess the health of your business as it relates to local search. Try to keep it simple and measureable. For example:
- note where you’re ranking in local search results today; or
- count the number of citations and reviews you have accumulated to date.
Jot those down with today’s date for future reference.
Step 2: Claim Your Local Listings
Step 2 is to claim your most important local business listings. A claim:
- certifies your ownership of the business listing;
- allows you to control what is and is not published;
- boosts the listing’s validity with search engines; and
- prevents your competition from falsely manipulating your data.
Start With Google
Your most important listing is the one on Google Maps. Why? Because Google commands 65-85% of all searches, depending on who you ask and what they measure. Statistica, a leading Internet statistics company, says Google commands 89% of the global search market (January 2016).
Start there. On the right you can see Pietro’s Google local listing.
If you already have a claimed Google local business listing, you can skip this step. If you have not, go to the Google Places for Business Center and claim it. You will need to verify ownership of your business via text or postcard. That’s a good thing. It prevents unauthorized businesses from controlling your local data.
Google Local will ask you to specify your service area and location settings. If you have a home-based business, be sure to select the “I deliver goods and services to my customers at their location” button as illustrated on the right. This protects your privacy and prevents your address from being displayed in search results.
Be sure to include your preferred search category and city in your business description. This helps increase your relevance, rankings and click thru rates.
Moz Local, a SEO industry leader, says “Categories are one of the most important ranking factors in local search on Google and other search engines.” Use their local categories tool to find the most appropriate one to use on Google Maps.
Include pictures and videos, if you have them. They help increase phone calls and click-through rates.
Use Moz Local
Once you’re done with Google, the next group of important local business listings can be claimed using the Moz Local citation building service and toolset. Moz Local will allow you to check the status of your existing listings and to fix any gaps or errors with the local data aggregators and Foursquare much faster and cheaper than doing it manually.
The data aggregators (Infogroup, Acxiom, Localeze, and Factual) feed search engines and hundreds of local directories. Get listed here, and your data will proliferate throughout the local search ecosystem consistently and accurately. That’s critically important when it comes to capturing the “votes” needed to boost your rankings. Your business name, address and phone number has to be the same in every listing or they won’t count.
You must have a claimed Google or Facebook listing in order to kick-start the process. That’s one reason I suggested you start with Google first.
The Moz Local dashboard has helpful information to get you started. There’s a simple 3-step process flow, a high-level explanation of how the process works, a learning center that provides a local search glossary, identifies Google’s local ranking factors and shares helpful information about how to acquire local reviews and ratings. The Moz Local dashboard also has a link to a service that lets you check your local listings so you can know how many you currently have and whether they are complete and accurate.
The Role of Data Aggregators
There are hundreds of national and local search directories in the local search ecosystem. Data aggregators compile data about local businesses from hundreds of online and offline sources including the tax department, phone companies, business registrars, chambers of commerce, and many others. They gather, cleanse and rationalize the data so it’s complete, consistent and accurate. They provide the data to requesting companies (like search engines) for a fee.
Paying recipients benefit from knowing they are getting clean, accurate and up-to-date data.
When you use Moz Local to submit your data to local data aggregators, you gain control over your data. The hundreds of downstream local directories that receive your data will now consistently list your business in the category of your choosing, using a title and description of your choosing. From a SEO perspective it’s gold because categories, titles and descriptions heavily influence where you rank in local search results.
Three of the four data aggregators allow you to update your business information for free. BUT, they only accept a very limited information – no hours of operation, pictures, payment methods, and no link back to your website. A huge plus when it comes to ranking organically.
The fourth charges less than $100 per location per year (January 2016), but it’s still cheaper to use Moz.
Step 3: Localize Website Content
Now that we’re done with the aggregators, you need to focus on updating your website.
Although it’s possible to rank in local search results without a website, a big local search ranking factor is having one that complements and reinforces what you have already told search engines and directories.
This step tunes your website so it does that.
As mentioned earlier, having a consistent name, address and phone (NAP) on your business listings is the key to local search success. It’s critical that the NAP on your website be exactly the same as that which you submitted to Google and Moz Local.
Business name, address and phone number should appear on your website.If you serve neighboring communities, it’s a good idea to list those on a page of your website as well. They should not appear on every page though. It confuses search engines.
Some website owners with one physical location like to have separate pages dedicated to each of the different locales they serve (so they can rank organically). It’s a good way to increase your exposure. If you decide to go that route, make sure the content on each of the location pages is different. Consider using photos, references to landmarks, or driving directions to differentiate content on these pages. Don’t just publish the same content over and over again with the only difference being the city or town name. You might get away with it for a while, but you will eventually get caught and penalized.
Need more help? Phil Rozek from Local Visibility System has published 25 principles for building effective city pages for local SEO. Check it out.
Title tags are those blue underlined links you see when looking at an organic (not local, not paid) search result. Title tags can be programmed onto every page of your website.
You should update the title tag on the page you’re linking to on your local listings page so it contains your business category and city. You can’t always do this (you have to ensure the tag is friendly to those browsing search results). If you can though, do it. It’ll help your local rankings.
Schema Tags and Sitemaps
Schema tags are behind-the-scene tags or lines of code used by search engines to help them better understand the nature and location of your business. The page you submit to search engines and data aggregators should have these tags populated. Again, it’s a good idea to use your business category and location keywords in these tags when possible.
GEO sitemaps and KML (Keyhold Markup Language) files tell search engines, in their own language, where your business is located. Create these and upload them to two places:
- the root directory on your website; and
- Google Webmaster Tools.
Google is the only US search engine that currently supports GEO sitemaps and KML files. Bing says they’re working on it.
This free, easy-to-use GEO Sitemap Generator tool will create KML and GEO sitemap files for you to upload to Google Webmaster Tools. It will also give you the schema markup you can add to every page of your website. All these files tell Google what it needs to know in order to display your business accurately on Google Maps and Google Earth. This tool will create both files for you, and tell you what you need to do with them after that.
If your website is WordPress, there is an excellent local SEO plugin that will create schema data for you. It’s from Yoast, the maker of the widely popular WordPress SEO Plugin and costs $69 (one-time fee).
Step 4: Build Links and Citations
Proliferation of your local listing data throughout the local search ecosystem (US, Canada) typically takes three to four months. You do not have to wait for this to complete before you can begin building citations. The citations are directed at your website, not your listings.
You might ask why you even need to build links and citations given you’ve just gone through the process of using data aggregators to acquire hundreds of local listings. The answer is “citations are like votes; you can never have too many”.
Whether you’ll actually need more than those acquired through the process followed thus far really depends on the competition. If you’re a pizza shop in the center of a large city like Philadelphia, the competition is going to be tough and you’ll need lots of citations. But even if you already have more citations that your competition, keep trying to get more. Always try to stay one-step ahead of everyone else.
There are several excellent local SEO bloggers that have inventoried the best sites on which to obtain local citations (online mentions of your business name and address or business name and phone number). My personal favorite is this list of Definitive Local Search Citations because the author, Phil Rozek, lists citation sources for more than just the US. He includes the most popular and influential citation sources for Canada, the UK, Australia, specific industries, and events as well.
Citations can come from anywhere although ones from a similar category and/or location, or ones from highly popular and authoritative sites help your visibility and rankings most. One of the best ways to find new citation sources is to look at who’s mentioning your competitors. Whitespark, a local search company in Edmonton Alberta, offers a subscription tool which can be used to research your competitors’ citations for $200 – $300 a year (Spring 2014 prices). It’s called the Local Citation Finder. Whitespark also offers a highly recommended paid service where they will manually procure citations on your behalf.
Manually build citations are best because it gets you more consistent and accurate mentions.
Several free tools help you ballpark the number of inbound links to your competitors, Alexa and MajesticSEO. Neither of these provide citation (versus link) information though.
Bright Local is another manual citation building service provider. They’re not as affordable as Whitespark though, when you’re a small business.
Step 5: Obtain Reviews
Reviews help boost your local rankings. Even negative reviews are helpful. What’s more, people trust online reviews. According to this year’s Local Consumer Review Survey (2012), approximately 72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Fifty-two percent said positive online reviews make them more likely to use a local business.
Set a goal to get 5 or more reviews in your first year. More is better and at least 10 is best. Why? The same Bizbible study referenced earlier found that “having five or more Google reviews was associated with a 1.85 [position] improvement in rank.” That’s a big difference. If you have 10 or more reviews, your average rating will also display in local search results. When that happens, click-thru rates rise. You’ll have more visibility AND more visitors to your website.
The absolute best way to obtain reviews of your business is to ask for them. Phil Rozek has 20 other suggestions you can peruse when you have time. If you decide to ask for reviews, the search engines have strict guidelines they want you to follow when. Andrew Shotland of Local SEO Guide has an article you should read before you start. It’s called don’t do anything that will cause you to be penalized.
I personally find the best way to get reviews is to build it into your everyday process. If someone compliments you for your products and/or services, be ready to ask them, then and there, for a review.
- Hand them a business or postcard with a review site URL right on the card.
- Shoot them a quick text or email.
- Set up your billing system so you can prompt them for a review after you’ve received a thank-you with payment.
Take the discomfort and awkwardness right out of it.
Lastly, it’s important that reviews be perceived as natural by the search engines and listings companies. Don’t offer gifts, payment or free services in exchange for a positive review. Technology has evolved to the point where it is easy to systematically detect manipulated reviews. Rightly or wrongly, listing and review providers are in control and can penalize you at any time. Penalties can be severe and irreversible. If you’re uncertain, err on the side of caution. It’s never worth the risk.
Step 6: Checkpoint Health & Progress
At some point, you’re going to want to checkpoint your progress. Use the previously agreed-upon key performance indicator metrics you established in step 1. Compare results to baseline.
If you do not see progress and you’ve done all that has been recommended above, it’s likely:
- you need to give it more time;
- you need more citations and/or reviews;
- Google may have made changes to its local ranking algorithm; and/or
- your competition has done something you’re not yet aware of.
If you’re not seeing progress, adjust your plans and/or goals as necessary.
If you’re curious if there has been a significant change to the ranking algorithms, you can check for major updates on the SEOMoz site. As stated earlier, changes are occurring daily. The Moz site lists only the major changes Google has decided to tell the public about.
Step 7: Get Rid of Duplicates
Lastly, it is not uncommon to find you have duplicate business listings on the major local search engines. Moz Local will help you identify them.
You need to get rid of duplicate listings because they confuse search engines and visitors.
Nyagoslav Zhekov of NGS Marketing offers tips on how to deal with duplicate listings on his searchenginepeople.com website in these two articles:
- Fix Duplicate Listings On Google Places; and
- How To Remove Duplicate Listings From Different Business Directories.
Andrew Shotland, founder of the Local SEO Guide, recently (July 2014) wrote and published The Definitive Guide to Duplicate Listings.
Moz has an excellent case study that walks through how to deal with duplicate listings.
Any time you’re dealing with the search engines, it pays to exercise patience and caution. They do things at their own pace, and they don’t always do what you ask. Don’t be surprised if it takes a while, even months, to see results.
The Bottom Line
Local SEO is a process that resembles a race. You always have to stay one step ahead of the competition. You should periodically checkpoint the health and progress of your rankings and review efforts to determine whether you need to take additional action. Ideally you’ll always be looking for new opportunities to build strong citations and reviews so the gap between you and your competitors continues to widen.
What do you think? Do you have additional advice for how to do local SEO that you can share the comment below? Questions?
If you found this article helpful, please bookmark and share. It’ll help me gain additional exposure and boost my rankings. It might help someone who has a need similar to your own.
If you’re looking for additional local SEO resources, check out the local SEO tab on the DIY Tips and Tools page or our Pinterest Local SEO page. Alternatively, I have a whole board of useful Local SEO publications on my Pinterest site.
Thanks for your time, patience and attention!