There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and that search engine optimisation will change.
As a local business, SEO can be one of your most important sources of clients or customers.
Whether you’re a brick and mortar shop, or a service business, people are searching Google for what you sell.
Your responsibility is simple: You need to make sure that they can find you.
You see, if you’re not optimising your business for local search, I can absolutely guarantee that your competitors are.
In this Local SEO guide, I’ll go over the basics of what you can do to optimise your business website. The end goal is that you maximise your chances of getting a first-page ranking in Google for the right local keywords.
Let’s get started.
What might seem like some kind of digital marketing voodoo is nothing more than a series of logical steps you can follow to improve your local SEO rankings.
Even if you’re the only company in town that does what you do, it’s still important to make sure you’re visible in a relevant Google search.
If not, then you’re simply allowing potential customers to slip through your fingers at best, and at worst you’re making your competitor’s job far easier.
Local involves a slightly different set of tactics, strategies, and priorities than national or international SEO.
With national SEO campaigns your focus should be on broad keywords, or keywords that include your business or brand name.
Local SEO focuses on keywords related to your products or services, and the areas your business serves e.g.
“Pet grooming Essex”
National or international search optimisation requires in-depth content marketing and backlink acquisition strategies.
Local SEO relies more on getting your technical and on-page elements right, and then getting relevant local citations.
There are other aspects of local SEO which are completely different to other types of search engine optimisation, such as whether or not your business has one location serving multiple areas, or several physical locations serving a wider customer base.
Then you have to look at optimising your site in a way that caters for the Google “3-pack” effect on Google Maps, as well as actively getting and monitoring reviews and testimonials for your business.
Optimising your site for local search is a straightforward process, but it’s only easy when you know how to do it properly.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of local SEO, I wanted to make it clear that Google makes a lot of changes to their algorithm over time. This means you can never take search engine optimisation as something that’s written in stone.
Search optimisation is subject to sudden and unpredictable changes that not even the most experienced SEOs see coming.
And when the algorithm does change it can make a huge difference to what works in local search engine marketing.
You see, Google loves shaking things up, doing their best to optimise the performance of their search engine.
Google Pigeon, released in 2013, is a perfect example of this because it made drastic changes to not only how local search results were presented but how they were calculated in the first place.
Some of the other changes they’ve made in recent years include introducing a brand new search display format in 2015, and changing options for your Google My Business page in 2016.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
With that said, these changes are usually incremental, and world-shaking major algorithm updates aren’t an everyday occurrence.
Google My Business is your starting point with any local SEO campaign, so make absolutely certain that you claim your listing.
Before you do anything else, you need to make sure it’s optimised correctly. The quickest way to do that is to take a look at their guidelines.
Back in 2016, Google decided to detach Google+ pages from local search results, making Google+ a purely social experience for users.
However, that doesn’t mean that your ‘Google My Business’ (GMB) page isn’t still important.
You need to make sure you’ve done the following simple but super-important things:
Fill out your Google My Business page completely
This includes not providing any deliberately misleading information.
Although it might sound complicated, the submission form only takes a few minutes to complete properly.
If, however, you find yourself struggling with it, then just take a read through the comprehensive guide to GMB on Search Engine Journal.
Make sure your ‘NAP’ information is correct
NAP is an SEO industry abbreviation that simply stands for “Name, Address, Phone number.” It’s absolutely critical that your NAP data is consistent across your website and all social media platforms.
The reason for this is that Google hates providing web searchers with incorrect information i.e. anything that negatively impacts user experience might have a negative impact on your ability to rank in Google for your keywords.
Choose your business category
Choosing some random category because you “can’t be bothered” might seem like a quick fix, but it can have an adverse effect on your ability to rank in local search.
Just choose whichever category you feel most accurately represents your business.
List your hours of operation
Again, you need to make sure these are your actual business hours, and not something you came up with.
Just a quick note: if your hours are seasonal, you’ll need to change them periodically to stay aligned with Google’s requirements.
No duplicate pages
Make sure you don’t have duplicate ‘Google My Business’ pages. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as using multiple web developers or low quality SEO agencies, but if it does you need to contact Google to have one of the pages removed.
Verify your page
Your GMB page is of no real use to you unless it’s fully verified. If you’re already verified you’ll see a checkmark with a “Verified” stamp next to it.
If you don’t see this, you need to get verified.
You can verify your listing via an automated phone call, or Google can send you a card via “snail mail”.
The latter can take a couple of weeks, so I prefer the phone call method.
Use a domain-based email address
What this means is you’re usually better off avoiding a free email address as part of your ‘Google My Business’ listing. Instead use a email@example.com style address.
You basically want your GMB page associated with “firstname.lastname@example.org,” not “email@example.com.”
The jury is still out on how much this matters, but it does look more professional on your listing.
Write a unique introduction
Your introduction can be anywhere from 150 – 300 words, and it should be as good as you can possibly make it i.e. give customers a reason to contact you.
Please also avoid stuffing keywords into your description because this just makes it look spammy.
Once you’ve taken care of all these steps, you should see your profile marked as 100% complete.
I decided not to cover the process of creating a website in this guide, although we do offer that service at Finetune. And I’ve certainly worked with businesses that didn’t have a website when they first started looking at local SEO.
So here, I’m going to talk about a scenario where you already have a website.
Along with improving your ‘Google My Business’ page, a site audit is the next logical step in your local search engine optimisation strategy.
This is where you look closely at your on-page and off-page SEO structure, to pinpoint technical, and other, errors you weren’t aware of.
The neat thing is that resolving these types of technical issues can improve your rankings. Maybe not by a huge amount, but it can definitely have an impact.
An audit is also important because it forces you to take a “big picture” look at your overall on-page and off-page SEO strategy.
Here’s what a typical audit covers:
- Keyword targeting
- Your website and landing pages
- What kind of links you already have
- What kind of reviews you have
- Your social media pages
- Your NAP data and schema markup
This is just a quick overview – a truly comprehensive site audit digs far deeper than just the items listed above.
You could write thousands of words about local SEO site audits alone.
In fact, Moz actually did – check out their article, “How to Perform the Ultimate Local SEO Audit,” if you want a complete in-depth look at the entire process.
On-page signals are one of the biggest factors in local SEO, and not something you can afford to ignore.
Let’s cover exactly what this means in more detail.
Although it’s often overlooked, an optimised site structure can have a major impact on your ability to rank in Google.
Whether you already have a pretty good website in place, or you need a new one developed from scratch, there are a couple of key things you’re going to want to think about.
- The number of locations your business has. Are you in more than one town or region? Do you have multiple storefronts? Are you a regional chain?
- Do you have a separate page for each different service your business offers? For example, if you’re a plumber, you should have a page for toilet repair, a page for bathroom renovations, etc.
- Are you inadvertently targeting cities where you don’t have an actual presence?
If you have more than one location, you will need to create and optimise location-specific landing pages.
For example, you might have a page whose URL is “www.mybusiness.com/london,” and another page whose URL is “www.mybusiness.com/brighton.”
You must also ensure that your NAP (name, address, and phone number) are correct and consistent across your website and its individual pages.
Now, we’re going to talk about the on-page SEO components needed on every page of your site.
An optimised title tag
Your landing and service pages should contain your town or city, your region or province, and your target keyword in their title tag.
Make sure it reads naturally though, and don’t try to cram it full of keywords.
Creating a clickable title tag can improve your click-through rate, which in turn can improve your Google ranking.
A compelling meta description
This is the tiny snippet of text Google displays under your links in their search results pages.
The meta description tag hasn’t been a key ranking factor for a long time, but it’s still important because you can use it to convince web searchers to click on your listing.
Writing a great meta description is part professional copywriting and part SEO science.
Google recently increased the number of characters allowed in this tag from 165 to almost 300, so you should make the most of this “advertising” opportunity.
The team responsible for the awesome Yoast plugin put together a great guide on writing meta description tags.
The end goal is always the same, however: get the person to click through to your site.
Optimised Header tags
The header tag (H1 – H6) is one of the few survivors of the earliest days of SEO. Back before sites were formatted with CSS (cascading style sheets), and long before WordPress was even a twinkle in the eye of Matt Mullenweg, ‘Header’ tags were used to format the titles and subheadings on a webpage.
The best way to approach header tags is to keep things simple. Only ever use one H1 tag, and then use H2, H3 or H4 tags for different levels of subheadings, including natural variations of your keyword where appropriate.
Why bother with this?
Because Google still pays attention to header tags as a ranking factor.
Again, be natural, not spammy.
Write Great Content
This part can be a little tricky, especially if you take SEO advice from the wrong people i.e. black hat SEO agencies.
While it’s important to have your keyword in your content a couple of times, the very last thing you should do is try to stuff into places it doesn’t make any sense. Not only does this provide a poor user experience (which Google hates), but Google actively filters keyword-stuffed pages to the back of their search index.
One mistake we see small businesses making with their SEO is copying content verbatim from product manufacturers or suppliers. This isn’t a major “sin”, but it won’t do you any favours.
You might also consider adding a blog to your site because it allows you to get more free organic traffic from Google and Bing, and you might just rank for lots of “accidental” keywords along the way.
And that includes keywords not found in any keyword research tool.
What you’re aiming for is to have great copywriting that makes people want to buy something from you – content that creates an emotional response in the reader.
Not sure how to do that?
Then consider hiring a freelance copywriter that does this for a living.
Look for someone who can demonstrate results they’ve provided for previous clients, or alternatively somebody with a solid portfolio of work you can refer to.
Always look at the content on your website as a business asset, and then hire somebody who understands that principle as well.
Show Your Hours In A Prominent Place
Each landing page should have your business hours listed in a place where people can easily see them. This is more of a user experience thing than something explicitly related to SEO. The key is to make sure that your business hours are both listed and completely accurate.
Include Customer Testimonials
People love reading testimonials from previous customers because it provides them with something called “social proof”. This basically means you’ve proven you’re worth doing business with, and this is an important psychological tactic when it comes to attracting new customers.
Businesses often treat testimonials and reviews as being the same thing, but they’re not. In fact, Google and other companies have rules about using these reviews on your site.
But those rules don’t apply to any direct testimonials you received from customers, so put them front and centre in your content marketing efforts.
Optimise Your Images
Search engines can’t “see” what a picture looks like, at least not just yet. What they do know is that you have an image on your page, but you have to use a special HTML code to let them know what the image is about.
This is called adding “alt text” to the image – you’ll see this if you hover your mouse over an image on a webpage.
WordPress and other popular content management systems make this very easy to add, even if you’re not quite sure what you’re doing.
Does this matter when it comes to local SEO? Yes, it absolutely does.
Make Your Site Mobile Friendly
In the wake of “Mobilegeddon”, being mobile-friendly is an absolute must if you want to rank in Google. There are online tools, including one from Google, that can help you figure out whether your site works as well on smartphones and tablets as it does on a laptop.
Check Your Site Speed
Site speed is now more important than ever, from Google’s point of view.
Regardless of the above, if your website takes forever to load, people won’t stick around to wait for it.
You can use tools like GTMetrix to check your load time, which should ideally be less than three seconds.
If you want to make your business stand out from the crowded search results, then using “structured data markup” is a good way to do that.
It’s basically a way of giving a search engine far more information about not only where your business is located, but also what type of business you run.
Implementing schema markup on your site is relatively straightforward, and the other bonus is that only around 30% of your competitors are using it.
This is a quick win in any local SEO campaign.
Once you’ve optimised your on-page factors, and created great content for your site, it’s time to start looking at citation building – these are a key part of search optimisation for small businesses.
Getting citations might sound confusing, but it simply means getting your business listed in a variety of relevant directories, getting a link to your business in the process.
There are three types of citations you need:
- National directories
- Industry directories
- Local directories
Pretty simple, right?
Now, if you’re somewhat familiar with SEO, you may have seen things about directory links being outdated.
This is true in some ways, but very inaccurate in others.
In the old days (roughly 10 years ago), there were thousands of spammy directories that existed only to “sell” backlinks – they had no real value for people searching the web.
Google put a stop to that pretty quickly, but there are still tons of legitimate directories where you actually want a presence.
Here are a few examples, so you can get a better idea of the kind of websites I’m talking about.
- Bing Places
- Yahoo! Local
- Central Index
- Thomas Local
There are also directories that are specific to certain cities and towns. For example, if you’re a wedding photographer in London, there may be a local directory that lists services related to weddings, helping couples find things like caterers, photographers, and wedding planners.
That’s a place where you definitely want a listing.
There are also directories out there that are specific to a particular industry, which is also something you should consider.
Please be wary of businesses that offer “automated citation building”- this might sound tempting, but an ethical SEO agency will build these manually. Sure, it might cost a little more, but at least you’re not spamming Google.
Online reviews are a factor in Google’s algorithm. Plus, they’re a form of social proof that you need to have anyway.
You want reviews that are not only positive, but also high quality.
Because your average consumer puts a lot of faith in the reviews any business receives. In fact, 87% of people want a business to have several 5-star reviews before they’ll consider using them.
So, make sure you have at least five positive reviews to start out.
How do you get them?
Well, there are quite a few things you can do to encourage customers to give them to you.
You can send thank you emails, just ask them in person, or use other strategies to get reviews on Yelp, Google+, Trip Advisor, and other platforms.
At this point, we have most of the essentials in place. There’s more to link building than citations, of course, but building manual citations is the best place to start.
At this point, we’re going to turn to something else entirely: your competition.
Now, it’s possible you’re the only person in town that offers a particular product or service.
Maybe you’re the only curry place in a small village, or maybe you’re a speciality shop selling dog scarves.
But in most cases, you have competitors. And just like you, your competitors are vying for those first-page spots on Google.
To start crafting the rest of your long-term strategy, you need an idea of what your competition is doing.
Here’s what you can do to get this information.
Pinpoint your top ten competitors
You can do this by searching for variations of your own target keywords, and seeing what businesses come up in the search results.
Add your top 10 competitors to a spreadsheet document. You’ll want to refer to this information again in the future, usually when you’re analysing their backlinks and citations.
This spreadsheet can give you an overview of how quickly you might be able to bump your competitor out of their spot with some clever, yet ethical, local SEO.
Check out your competitors’ backlinks
As you probably know already, backlinks are links to a website from other websites, and they’re the most important aspect of Google’s ranking algorithm.
At Finetune Digital, we use SEMRush to do backlink analysis, but there are quite a few other paid tools that perform the same function.
Some backlink checkers have a free trial that you can take advantage of, such as Ahrefs.
You can also find free tools online, although they may not be as accurate as professional SEO backlink analysis tools.
Look at your competitors citations
There are citation tracker tools available that you can use to do this, or you can do some creative Googling to find them.
Look at your competitors reviews
Look at what kind of reviews your competitors have, and also how many of them. Are their reviews pretty solid, or are there some complaints here and there?
Reading your competitor’s negative reviews is the best way for you to avoid the costly mistakes they made.
You don’t have to be in business for very long before your business or brand name starts getting mentioned online. This can happen even more quickly if you’ve been active in your SEO efforts.
What I mean by “monitoring alerts” is that you have a solution in place that notifies you when your business is mentioned on another site, or on a social media platform.
Keeping abreast of these serves two functions:
- It allows you to be proactive in your public relations efforts, especially with negative reviews
- You can ask the website or social media page owner for a link to your website
Setting up alerts like this can be done in a few ways, but Google offers a free tool called ‘Google Alerts’.
- Go to https://www.google.com/alerts
- Type in your business name, or other keywords, into the ‘Create an alert about..’ field
- Choose how often you’d like to be kept updated about it, and then click ‘Create alert’
The process I’ve outlined above is what sets the stage for a successful local SEO campaign.
Optimising your website for the major search engines is a long-term process, so you won’t see changes in your rankings overnight.
It takes a lot of time and effort, but that time and effort will pay off handsomely.
You should find yourself continuously refining your strategy, even beyond the scope of this local SEO guide, bringing even more of the rewards that search engine optimisation can offer local businesses just like yours.