Search engine optimization (SEO) can sometimes feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole for digital marketers, so it’s no surprise that some tasks fall by the wayside.
Local SEO is on your to-do list, but it keeps getting backburnered for some reason.
So what are some quick (and not so quick) local SEO solutions you can implement to get the ball rolling and boost your local search ranking?
We’ll take a look at everything you need to know, and you can download a free local SEO checklist to track your progress in 2021.
What is local SEO?
Local SEO is how businesses improve their internet visibility to reach a geo-specific target audience. The core tenets of general SEO apply, but marketers and webmasters place a greater emphasis on place-based keywords, ranking factors and customer testimonials.
Why you need local SEO in 2020
92% of all clicks occur on Page 1 of Google. So if your company is going to be seen by potential customers, it’s right here.
And that’s just for the regular organic listings on SERPs, aka positions 1-10.
In 2020, the growing dominance of SERP features – like image carousels, maps, lists, Knowledge Panels, “People also ask” dropdowns and various forms of local business cards – mean that ranking in Google ain’t what it used to be. Your company must also win these featured snippets.
To do just that, you need local SEO.
So where do you start? How do you get in front of online searchers?
Here’s a handy local SEO checklist to get your marketing plan in top shape:
- Know your ranking factors.
- Optimize your domain.
- Optimize Google My Business.
- Get social and get niche.
- Encourage user reviews and ratings.
- Generate backlinks and referral traffic.
- Don’t forget about mobile usability.
Local SEO ranking factors differ slightly from general SEO. So if you’re familiar with the latter, the former will come rather naturally to you.
Below are the eight most important factors to keep in mind:
- Link signals.
- On-page signals.
- Behavioral signals.
- Google My Business signals.
- Citation signals.
- Review signals.
- Social signals.
What stands out most here is that social media – though not traditionally thought of as a direct factor in SEO – plays a prominent role in local SEO. Additionally, brand mentions (citations) are key. Even if your content doesn’t produce backlinks, the mere mention of your company name can have a positive impact on your overall site rankings.
With a strong grasp of what matters most in local SEO, evaluate your site. Run a site crawl to clear up any issues pertaining to:
- Duplicate content.
- Zombie pages.
- Broken links.
- Missing metadata.
You can conduct a local SEO audit using an SEO tool like SEMrush or Screaming Frog.
After correcting explicit errors (getting your domain back to neutral), explore ways to directly enhance it.
- Title tags. Include a geotargeted keyword if possible in your title tag.
- Meta descriptions. Same goes for a meta description, be sure to work in a local keyword if it makes sense for that particular landing page.
- Images. Use appropriate alt text and captions to expand keyword usage.
- Navigation. Simplify navigation structure so users can find relevant information in as few clicks as possible. It’s always a good idea to build out a detailed XML sitemap, especially for larger websites.
- URL strings. Add further local context into URLs, like so:
- Contact information. Names, addresses and phone numbers (NAP data) should be easily accessible on every page.
- Internal links. Including targeted keywords in the anchor text is an SEO best practice and lets site visitors and local customers know what to expect when they click on a link.
- Structured data markup. Use schema – a coding language – to properly mark your site with meta tags called “structured data,” allowing search engines to crawl and index your site for results. Schema markup will help highlight local listing information on your site that Google may want to pull to populate a rich snippet for local search results. Just be sure to follow Google’s structured data guidelines to avoid coming across as spammy.
- Keyword targets. Reframe your high-level keyword objectives to include more location-based targets. This could be as simple as optimizing an existing page to rank for “content marketing agencies in Chicago” instead of a generalized “content marketing agencies.” By ranking for local long-tail keywords, you weed out low-intent visitors and target only those with geo-specific motives. Some of these local keyword changes may be obvious, but it’s always worth running keyword research to make sure you’re targeting the right long-tail and geotargeted search phrases.
These forms of on-page optimization are often simple tweaks that can yield big results for your local search strategy. It’s often a matter of speaking the same language as search engines so they can understand your domain and best serve it to readers.
With sitewide factors addressed, you can move toward off-site elements that are just as important to local SEO.
Google My Business (GMB) is the primary network for feeding search engines contextualized local content and information about your company.
GMB then populates that data across its many integrated applications and features, like Google Maps, Local 3-packs, Google Posts, Knowledge Panels, mobile SERP carousels and more.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, GMB is a top-four ranking signal — and one of the most important to-do items on our local SEO checklist.
A more in-depth GMB optimization post can be found here, but below is a condensed, actionable version to get you started:
- Create a GMB profile. Be sure the address you enter matches the one USPS uses.
- Allow Google to publicly display your company information and business page by checking the box that enables algorithms to legally scrape and pull your NAP data.
- Enter a geographical radius your business serves, electronically and physically.
- Select primary and secondary business categories – or create custom categories – that best identify and encompass what your company does. For instance, Brafton would choose categories like “marketing agency” or “SEO agency.”
- Write a short business description, including relevant keywords if you can. Keep your copy under 750 characters and use bullet points to concisely summarize what your business does.
- Upload visual content like hi-res images, videos and candid employee photography. This allows GMB to serve more than just text in your profile. It also provides a valuable mechanism for making your local listings more eye-catching. Be sure to tag your visual content with geotags and keywords in the alt text and captions.
- Verify you’re the GMB account owner via phone or mail so that others cannot claim your business listing as their own. This could take several days to process, as Google is especially strict with featuring only authentic companies.
- Solicit customer reviews and questions to be featured directly in your GMB profile – and then answer or respond to all of them. Doing so adds social proof and strong behavioral signals for ranking algorithms and other users to vet your business online.
- Create content within Google Posts, which are featured in your Knowledge Panel. These posts are limited to 1,500 characters and should be short updates about your company, like upcoming events, links to longer content, product imagery or changes of address.
Because GMB data is featured at the very top (or on the right sidebar) of Google SERPs, your business gains Page 1 visibility for all search terms that apply to your content. Not only Page 1, though; you achieve “Position 0” status, appearing above all other results.
Your business can also be seen on Google Maps, which is used by 70% of smartphone owners.
GMB isn’t the only platform for publishing and sharing localized content.
Of course there’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn. But there are also more niche, industry-specific forums and local business directories to consider for a local citation.
Likely all of your competitors have some form of a social media presence. But are they properly indexed and visible on sites like Yelp, Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List, Yellow Pages and TripAdvisor?
While you need your content to be specific to a local audience, you also need your reach to be wide enough to appear on networks and channels that are visited and respected by millions. Here is HubSpot’s top 20 local business directory list:
The key to growing your sphere of influence is to do so with accuracy. NAP data populated across your various networks and local directories needs to be identical so you’re not broadcasting conflicting information to potential customers. Each time a prospect encounters a roadblock in their search, they’re likely to remove themselves from any sort of sales funnel you’ve set up: They’ll go elsewhere, where they can seamlessly do business with an organization that has consistent listings.
Niche platforms will be relevant to a smaller subset of readers, but that’s the point. In the content marketing world, we might guest post on Moz or Content Marketing Institute because we know those publications are widely read by our core audience. And we can rightly expect a level of engagement and enthusiasm that can’t be found on, say, Instagram, where follower intent is all over the map.
While you’re claiming your listings on these directories, clean up any fallacies promoted by dissatisfied customers or disguised competitors. Answer questions, respond to complaints and be professional with all communications to the public at large – everything is documented and will live forever, so invest the time and niceties upfront rather than doing damage control later on.
Reputation management is paramount in local SEO. How your customers and site visitors interact with your brand online correlates to ranking potential.
It’s a simple concept.
You promote yourself as a great business and a considerate business owner, serving the needs of customers in a specific region. But you’ve got tons of negative comments and ratings across social media, GMB and other directories. So what is it? Are you a thought leader and industry disruptor like you claim, or do you just produce negative user experiences and leave customers fuming? Google and other search engines will suss out who’s right.
That’s why positive brand mentions, thoughtful customer testimonials and high ratings are so meaningful. They support your claims of superior service, and they empower other online searchers to trust your business and potentially purchase from you.
Here are a few tips to get more reviews and ratings:
- Leave a simple review request on checkout pages.
- Add links to directories on your site.
- Add alt text to images you upload to directories so they appear in SERPs.
- Ask user-experience questions after every transaction or interaction, either on site or via email.
- Embed reviews and ratings systems on your site.
- Put a GMB review request in your email signature.
- Stay on top of brand alerts and commentary across social media.
GMB will only feature reviews and customer quotes if there are enough – five – to show. Also keep in mind that newer reviews will appear at the top. Upvoted reviews can trump newly published ones, however. So it’s not enough to just receive five good reviews; you need to continuously foster positive responses so that the best side of you is featured first.
Circling back to where we began, take traditional SEO practices like content creation and link building and localize them.
Inbound links — or backlinks — are the No. 1 ranking factor for both general and local SEO, and they’re often time-intensive to generate. If you create content around high-value local keywords and then get high-authority local influencers to link to it, your chances of surging in rankings increase mightily.
We often use the analogy of a city-specific restaurant. Let’s call it “Big Eats” and it’s based in Denver.
How could you get as many people to view your restaurant’s website online and then make a reservation? Word of mouth is one way. Backlinks and referral traffic are another.
For example, if TripAdvisor, Yelp and other local websites keep mentioning Big Eats as a Denver hotspot, then both locals and tourists are going to notice. Previous customers speak highly of it, as evidenced by strong ratings. Lots of publications and “best of” lists feature it as a must-try. You’re now producing a flywheel of publicity and traffic – all based around a localized keyword like “best restaurants Denver” or “burgers in Denver.”
Google now prefers mobile pages over desktop pages when indexing content in SERPs. That’s because mobile-friendliness is a top-10 ranking factor and about 60% of all searches are conducted on mobile devices.
Use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test to see how your website appears on mobile screens and whether any changes are required from a presentation and technical SEO standpoint.
46% of people read reviews on their phones, and 40% of shoppers will purchase from your competitors if your mobile experience is poor. There’s so much to lose with terrible UX.
So focus on mobile responsiveness while you’re overhauling your local SEO tactics – they’re adjacent requirements for ROI in 2020.
Did our 2020 local SEO checklist overlook anything? What are some of your go-to local SEO tools? Leave a comment below. Or, better yet, ask us a question on GMB.
Editor’s note: Updated November 2020.