Do you understand local SEO? Don’t worry, lots of people don’t, but with our ultimate guide to local SEO you’ll learn how it works, and more importantly, how to leverage it to get your business to the top of local search results.
What is Local SEO?
Local Search Engine Optimisation, or Local SEO for short, is a way of marketing your business online using location-based Search Engine Optimisation methods. If used correctly, it can be extremely effective.
Local SEO has many similarities to traditional local marketing, but when implemented well, it can produce far greater results. Traditional localised marketing involves getting your advert in front of people in a specific area (maybe a local newspaper ad, or posting flyers through letterboxes). Whilst some of these people you are paying to reach are interested in what you are providing, many are not, and they will simply ignore your efforts. It’s wasteful and inefficient.
Where local SEO surpasses this is the focus on getting your advert in front of people who are actually interested in what you are providing. Local SEO gets your products and services featured on search engines and other digital marketing platforms, so they are in front of your customers when and where they want them. You’re not wasting time and money putting your ads in front of people who don’t care. Instead, you are specifically targeting people who want what you are providing.
There are several tactics you can take to maximise your local SEO: from the basic, such as listing your business on directories like Yelp and Google My Business, to the advanced, such as creating specifically localised content on your site. In this blog post, we’re going to look at these various local SEO tactics you can employ, breaking down how to utilise them to improve your local SEO ranking.
Who Needs Local SEO?
You might be asking yourself at this point: “who needs local SEO”? The answer to that, in my opinion, is everyone who interacts with their customers at some point. From the largest national corporations to the smallest local company, every business can benefit from optimising their local SEO. The only exception would be businesses that are entirely online only. If there is any part of your customer journey that requires a customer to come to you, or you to go to them, you need local SEO.
For local businesses, the benefits are obvious. They serve a local area, so people searching for the services/products they provide in that area need to be able to find them. But what about national businesses? How do they benefit from local SEO?
Let’s take a fictional gardening company that services the entire UK as an example. You will have a head office, and may even have several satellite offices, but your area of service isn’t just limited to the area(s) around the office(s). Let’s say your head office is located in Somerset, but you want to appear for customers looking for a gardener in Manchester. Organically, you simply aren’t going to rank for these searches; a gardener in Somerset is no use to a customer in Manchester. You could open up a new office in the area you want to rank in, but that’s a little extreme, not to mention expensive, to appear in search results for an area you already cover.
By using local SEO, you can make it clear to search engines and users that you provide your services in Manchester, as well as your hometown of Somerset, getting your website in front of users looking for your services in areas you cover.
What’s the ROI?
So, what’s the benefit of optimising your local SEO? You may have heard the term “local three pack” before. This is the group of three local businesses displayed at the top of a search results page. Here’s what it looks like:
Appearing in the local three pack is a shortcut to the top of Google’s results. Getting your listing in those results massively increases the number of people seeing it.
The local three pack doesn’t appear for every search (you’ve probably noticed this yourself when using the web), but it will appear for any search that Google deems to have “local intent”. Google doesn’t provide a definitive list of what it considers local intent, but it generally includes:
- Search phrases containing a location such as a city name or postcode (“gardeners in Manchester”, Hairdressers in NG10”, etc.)
- Search terms that contain “near me” or similar phrases (“bakery near me”, “local butchers”, etc.)
- Searches for services that are typically filled by local businesses, (“restaurant”, “gym”, etc.)
Ultimately, what local SEO provides — when implemented well — is getting your website in front of more people who are interested in your services, in the locations you provide them. This means more users on your site, more conversions and more sales for your business.
What Affects Local SEO
Before you start trying to improve your local SEO, you need to understand what factors influence your rankings.
The number one factor to influence your local SEO rankings is location. If I do a simple search for hairdressers, this is what we see:
All results are within roughly a quarter of a mile of my location. Are there other hairdressers in my local area? Absolutely. Bigger and better hairdressers than the ones listed, but they aren’t as close to me as these are. The top result is even closed today, which makes it no use to me if I wanted to get a haircut. But because it’s 326 ft from my door, they’ve bagged the top spot in the local searches.
At this point, you might be thinking: “if it’s all about location, why bother optimising for local SEO”? Location may be the number one ranking factor, but it’s not the only ranking factor There are others, and as long as you optimise your tactics for these, you can start to outrank similar businesses that may be closer to your customers than you are. If we change our search and look for “vegan restaurants”, this is what we see:
Do you notice anything about the results?
The top entry is over three-and-a-half miles away, and the number three spot is eight-and-a-half miles away. You may be thinking that perhaps there simply aren’t many local vegan restaurants near me, which is why my local results are showing listings from further afield. But if we view the “More Places”, we can see several much closer to me that didn’t make it into the top three:
So, how did these distant restaurants manage to beat out some of the more local competition in my results?
This is where the other ranking factors come into play: relevance and prominence.
Take a look at the review scores of each of the restaurants and what do you see? The two restaurants furthest away from me have the highest review scores. They’ve pushed their way into the top three positions because they are well thought of by their customers. Google wants to deliver a good experience to people using its search engine, so it pushes highly thought of businesses up the search results.
Whilst you’ve been reviewing the results in the images above, you may have noticed an anomaly. Bennetts Restaurant managed to appear in second place, whereas Cafe Delight was pushed down into the “More Places” section. But Cafe Delight is closer to me and has better reviews, so it should be outranking Bennetts, right? This is where relevance is influencing the rankings. Cafe Delight only has an online presence as a Facebook page and in a few local directories (both viable local SEO tactics as part of a larger strategy), whereas Bennetts has a Facebook page, exists in local directories and has its own website.
The information provided to search bots by platforms such as Facebook and directories is limited, it allows search engines to gain a preliminary understanding of what your site is about. But a bespoke website to crawl provides the search bots with much more information about your business, meaning they have a greater degree of certainty about the products/services you provide. As such, they will rank you higher for relevant searches.
So, now you understand what local SEO is, what benefits it provides and the factors it uses to determine rankings. But how do you start to get your business into the local three pack?
Basic Local SEO Tactics
1. Get a GMB (Google My Business) Listing
There’s a good chance your business is already listed on Google My Business. If this is the case, you need to claim that listing and make sure as much information on it as possible is filled out and accurate. If the listing doesn’t exist, you will need to create it and fill it out yourself.
You’ll have to go through a verification process, where Google sends you a postcard with a pin number to the business address used (so make sure you’ve got access to mail received at the address). This is to make sure the business is legitimate and you are the owner.
Once claimed or created, you should fill out every relevant field available as fully as possible, adding business hours, your company logo, photos of your business, categories, a description of your business, types of payment accepted, etc. Only skip a section if it is absolutely not applicable to your business; you really cannot provide too much information at this point.
GMB is technically considered a directory, but it’s a big one. This is where Google finds the information it provides in the business knowledge pane (and the local three pack in search results):
Even if you are an online only business or travel to your customers and have no physical premises, you should create or claim a listing. Once you have, you can hide your physical address and set your service area to make it clear the area that you serve. Once you’ve done that, you will start appearing in results for people searching for your services or products in that area.
Google has recently added a “frequently asked questions” section to GMB listings. This is fine to fill out yourself, as long as the questions are valuable to a user.
Think: “Do you do tree surgery?” – “Yes we do, details can be found here [insert page URL here]”
Not: “How amazing are you?” – “We’re awesome, you should hire us now”.
Use this section as an FAQ area for your site, answering questions you receive regularly that will help the user decide if you are the right site for what they are looking for.
You should also claim your Bing Places for Business listing as well. Bing Places is Microsoft’s answer to GMB and functions in a very similar way, providing the same information on the Bing search platform.
2. Online Reviews Matter
Google wants to provide the best experience it can for its users, and it does this by pushing businesses that are well thought of higher in the search results. But how does Google know if your business is well thought of? Through online reviews.
Getting great reviews on your GMB (Google My Business) listing provides a strong indication to Google that your business is well thought of. Engage with your customers and encourage them to leave you a review. It’s important to remember, though, that Google will penalise your site if it believes that you have been BUYING reviews, so you can’t offer any incentives for reviews here. Also, if you’re considering boosting your numbers by getting staff (or even yourself under new user accounts) to give your site good reviews, DON’T. Google will penalise this just as harshly — and depending on where you are based, you may fall foul of advertising laws.
But it is fine to ask your customers to leave a review (and if you don’t, ask you don’t get). Many users will be happy to leave you a great review, but just don’t think about it once the service is done. A great tactic to use here is an email following the service, asking a few questions like: “how did we do?” “is there anything you would like us to do differently?”, and finish it with “we’d be really grateful if you could leave us a review”, then link to your GMB listing.
Bonus tip: Your GMB review link can end up being a bit long, so to make it easier for the customers, I’d recommend using a link shortening programme like the one here. This one is free to use and will take the user straight to the “add a review” screen on your GMB listing, making their life easier.
One or two 5-star reviews is good, but it isn’t going to get you far. You need to build up a strong average review rating from lots of reviews. You might have a 5-star average, but if it’s only from 10 reviews, you’re going to get beaten by a 4.8 from 500 reviews, because Google can be more certain about the review score. It’s important to get as many reviews as you can, whilst keeping the average high.
What Do You Do If You Receive A Bad Review?
So, you’re busy building up your great reviews and then a bad one drops on your listing. What do you do? It might be tempting to respond and tell the reviewer they don’t know what they’re talking about or accuse it of being a fake review by a competitor. DO NOT DO THIS. Here’s how to go about dealing with negative reviews:
If You Believe The Review Is Fake
There are several reasons you may think the review is fake: the review was posted from the profile of a competitor (yes hard to believe anyone would but it does happen), it’s spammy (several businesses have all had the same review posted), or you’ve never had a customer with that name. Report the review to Google and, if you have evidence, provide it. Google will investigate the review and remove it if they agree with you.
Whilst Google is investigating, respond to the review. DON’T respond with “fake review” or anything similar, no matter how sure you are. Tell them you are sorry you feel that way and offer to put things right if they get in touch with you. If it is a fake review, they won’t contact you. If it isn’t, you’ll want to try and put it right anyway.
If It’s Just A Bad Review
It happens. Even the best companies get them. Try as we might, no-one can maintain 100% customer satisfaction — and as your company grows, it’s going to happen more and more often.
If a customer has had a bad experience and feels the need to share this in a review, respond to the review and offer to help. Apologise for the problem and ask them to contact you to resolve the issue. If you can resolve the issue, they may go back and amend their review. Even if they don’t Google and other users can see that you are active in responding to customer concerns, which will help negate some of the negative effects of the bad review.
3. Online Directories and Citations
Whilst GMB is technically a directory, it isn’t the only one. There are hundreds if not thousands of online directories available, and with four out of five people using search engines to conduct local searches, you can’t afford not to be listed in them.
Whilst ensuring you are listing your business on the larger (inter)national directories, such as Yelp, Citysearch, Central Index, Scoot, Thomson Local and others, you should also consider smaller local and trade-specific directories. In fact, local directories will help with your local ranking. These can be harder to find, but just doing a simple Google search for “[your city] directory” or “[your business category] directory” can find plenty. Also, consider looking at any local newspaper or media websites, as they will often have local business directories attached.
Whilst doing all this, it is absolutely vital that you ensure you enter your business details in the same way each time. Irregularities like using abbreviations in some listings, missing a suite number, or misspellings can confuse Google as to what data to use, which in extreme cases can result in them not using any at all.
Generally, free directory sites should be sufficient. Many may ask for a fee or a reciprocal link (a link back to them from your site) in order to add your listing. Unless you believe these to be of a particularly high value to your specific business, you can ignore these. There are plenty — if not more — just as good free directories out there.
Most directories will allow you to make an account to claim the listing. Even if you don’t have to add your listing, it is still worth making the account. For the vast majority of directories, having an account means you own the listing and it can’t be edited without your approval, so no competitor can change the phone number on it for example (a rare occurrence, but it does happen). Just make sure you record the login details somewhere and keep it safe. You don’t want to lose them.
Advanced Local SEO Tactics
1. Make The Area(s) You Serve Clear
This only applies to businesses that travel to their customers, or provide a service to the customer at their location. Own a physical shop, restaurant, hairdressers, or any establishment where the customer comes to you? You can skip this section.
If you serve a specific geographic area, an “Areas We Serve” page hidden somewhere deep on your site isn’t going to cut it. Yes, this tells users and Googlebots about the areas you serve, but they have to really work to find it. Make it clear over your entire site the areas you cover; the area should be mentioned naturally throughout the site’s copy. Naturally is the word to focus on here. Don’t stuff the location keywords in; the text should flow. If you’re saying “Gardening Services” on your homepage, amend that to “Manchester Gardening Services”.
The “Areas We Serve” page is still fine to keep, and if you don’t have one, create one. Just make it specific. If you cover Manchester, what areas of Manchester do you cover? Is it North Manchester, South, City or Greater? Make it clear. If you cover multiple areas, having a page for each will help you rank for searches in each area. Don’t just copy the content verbatim and update the location names, though; otherwise, you’ll be penalised for duplicate content. Write fresh content for each location. If you’re struggling for ideas for content, you can talk about the different towns in the area you cover, specialist services offered in that area, most common problems, etc. As long as it’s useful to the user and unique, it’s worth adding.
2. Craft Locally-Focused Titles and Meta Descriptions
Every page should have a well-crafted meta title and description — the information that is displayed alongside your link in search results:
The image above shows good examples of optimised metadata for “Gardening Services in Manchester”. All of the meta titles clearly show what the sites are offering and where. You should be taking the same approach and crafting meta titles that clearly show the service being offered and the area it’s being offered in. BUT, make sure it’s relevant and fits the page it is for. Don’t have a meta title of “Manchester Garden Weeding Services | Awesome Gardeners” for your page on tree surgery; it’s just going to confuse the Googlebots as to what the page is actually about, and if a user does click on it, they will be expecting a page on weeding, not tree surgery.
The same applies to the meta description. You have a little more space to work with here, but this needs to be a short blurb on what you are offering, where, why it’s awesome, etc. Think of it as a short advert for your page/service/product.
You do have some limitations with metadata, specifically in the amount of space that you have to display it in. Go over the space allocation and Google will truncate your meta, cutting off words so the user can’t see it all. Make sure you stay within the allowed space to avoid this happening. For meta titles, you have 580 pixels (roughly 60 characters), and for descriptions, you have 1840 pixels (roughly 310 characters). To stay within the limit, you can either count characters, which is a bit of a gamble and widths can vary significantly depending on what you write (i’s take up much less space than w’s for example), or use a pixel width counter which will calculate the exact width of the text.
3. Use Local Structured Data Markup
Often called “schema”, “schema.org”, or “schema markup” this is a piece of code positioned on your website that provides information to spiders or bots that search engines use to crawl your website. This code provides the spiders with more information about your website, such as the types of products you sell, your address, reviews, etc.
Creating and adding code to your site can be intimidating, but don’t worry. Google offers a simple tool to help you create your structured data (your business will need to be set up in Google’s Search Console to use this). All you have to do is highlight the piece of data on your site with your mouse and select which category it fits. Once that’s done, the tool will give you the code and you simply add it to your page.
They also offer a handy tool for checking that the code is working properly once you’ve implemented it. Just open the tool, enter your website URL and press the button.
As only 31.3% of websites are using structured data markup, this immediately puts you above most of your competition.
4.Keyword Optimise Your Pages for Local Areas
This is where it starts to get technical — and very difficult unless you have a suite of SEO software available to you. But don’t lose hope. It’s still possible to do without these tools; just not quite to the same level of detail.
The first thing you need to do is some keyword research (the technical part), to find locally targeted keywords. This is something I won’t get into here, but you can read about it in our blog about finding profitable niche keywords.
Once that’s complete, you’ll be armed with the strongest keywords for your services in the area(s) you’re targeting. With these keywords, you need to start adding them in to copy on relevant pages on your site. BUT, just like the “Areas We Serve” point, make sure these appear naturally within the copy. Don’t just start throwing as many as you can into each page as many times as you can; all that’s going to achieve is making the page difficult to read for your users and appear like keyword stuffing to Google.
Add your top target keyword for the page to a header, ensure it’s in your meta title, then appears a few times within the copy. It’s fine to use slight variations of the keyword here; in fact, I encourage it. For example, if your target keyword was “Manchester lawn mowing service”, as variations you could use “lawn mowing service in Manchester”, “if you’re in Manchester and need your lawn mowed”, “professional lawn mowing service throughout the Manchester area”, etc. The important part is to keep it natural and relevant. Google’s clever enough to understand they all mean essentially the same thing.
Whilst local SEO is very competitive, not many people fully understand it or how to influence it. They rely solely on proximity and hope the rest will come naturally. Armed with this knowledge, you can start making the most of your local SEO and make it work for your business. So, what are you waiting for? Get those checklists and get started. The longer you wait, the more your competitors are getting ahead.