Local SEO—as the name suggests—, is SEO activities targeted to a local audience.
With a website and “traditional” SEO, we can technically target the entire internet all around the globe. However, this practice to mass-target the audience blindly can be counterproductive for certain businesses, especially when you are a local business where the main audience of your business is located near or in the location of your business office or shop.
In this case, you’ll need to practice local SEO from optimizing your website for city or region name, optimize your NAP, and any other optimizations to let people know your precise location and can find your business both online and offline.
Local SEO, however, has evolved dramatically, especially in the past few years due to the changes in Google SERP (Search Engine Results Page) and SERP features. So, here we will try to discuss all you need to know about local SEO from its definition, how it had changed, and how you can implement it in 2020 and onwards.
So, What Is Local SEO?
Local SEO is sometimes referred to as local search engine marketing, and above we have defined it as SEO activities targeted to a local audience.
So, first, we have to define two things: what actually is SEO and what’s the purpose? And second, how would the concept translate to a local audience?
It’s a fairly common misconception that SEO is only about ranking higher on Google (and other search engines).
While there’s some (a lot of) truth to that statement, ranking is not the end goal of SEO.
After all, we can quite easily rank #1 on unpopular keywords with low search volume, but it won’t generate any value if you don’t attract anyone with it.
Thus, the goal of SEO is organic traffic. It’s better, for example, to rank #3 but we get a lot of organic traffic than ranking on the very top but you don’t get a lot of clicks—or you get a high bounce rate—.
A similar principle should be applied when we want to target a local audience. Our goal is to get traffic, but this time, we also want this audience to visit our physical store (offline traffic).
The Revolution of Local SEO: Google Maps Ranking
Local SEO as a practice has been around for more than three decades—as old as the internet itself—.
In the past, local SEO is mainly achieved in a similar way to “traditional” SEO, that mainly involved:
- Develop and publish content while targeting local keywords. The most important of these keywords is the niche/industry of the business followed by city name (i.e., “bookstore in New Jersey”)
- Implementing technical on-page optimizations so Google can properly index your site.
- Get local backlinks, especially from authoritative local websites and local influencers. This will also include local citations on online directories (more on this later), and reviews mentioning the business’s NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number).
So, back then, the goal of local SEO is to get your website ranked on the SERP for these local keywords.
However, now Google has changed it’s SERP, so the results for these local keywords will feature results from Google Maps.
In fact, let’s try searching for the keyword we’ve used as an example above “bookstore in new jersey”. We’ll get a result like this:
(Depending on your current location, there might be paid search ads on the top of the results).
As you can see, the Google Maps results—to be exact, the top 3 results—, are placed above the organic results and just below the paid ads.
This will mean that ranking on Google Maps is now very important for local businesses, due to these important reasons:
- Briefly mentioned above, but Google Maps results are placed above the organic ranking, which will translate as more potential traffic
- Google Maps results are interactive where you can get directions to the local business, call the business, and check for reviews with just a few clicks. Meaning, a higher chance of conversions.
- More and more people are using “near me” search queries on their mobile devices (i.e. “restaurants near me), or search directly from Google Maps app. This has become one of the most prominent ways to learn about local businesses.
With these points being said, ranking on Google Maps is now the priority of local SEO.
Also, keep in mind that Google only features the top 3 results before users would need to click “more places”. Businesses on these top 3 spots—or known as the local 3-pack—, will get significantly more exposure (and conversions).
The Two Different Aspects of Local SEO
Now that we’ve understood the importance of Google Maps ranking, we can properly understand that there are now two different aspects—or types— of local SEO, both with very different approaches:
- Ranking on Google Maps’ Local 3-Pack–sometimes we call this “Google Maps SEO”
- Ranking organically on local keywords–or “organic local SEO”
For the latter, we have briefly discussed the main steps further above, which are mainly similar to that of traditional SEO.
Ranking on Google Maps, however, requires a very different approach than SEO, and this is why so many SEO practitioners and ‘experts’ often misunderstood it, and the overall concept of local SEO in general.
So, how should we approach Google Maps SEO? We will discuss it below.
Google Maps Ranking Factors
First things first, unlike organic or traditional SEO, Google Maps doesn’t rank websites, but rather, business listings or more specifically Google My Business listings.
So, we must first add or claim our business listing on Google My Business (GMB) before we can rank on Google Maps. Fairly obvious.
Now, according to Google themselves, three ranking factors will affect Google My Business listings:
- Relevance: How relevant your business (listing) is to the user’s search intent. The more complete and detailed the information you list on Google My Business, the better Google can understand your business and ‘match’ your business with a potential audience.
- Prominence: This one is essentially about how well-known—or prominent— is your business. This is quite similar to how backlinks act as ‘votes’ in traditional SEO (and local SEO as well). The more people mention your business online, the more prominent your business is, and if you are an established, older business, you’ll always rank higher than a brand new listing. Below, we will further discuss what specific elements will affect your local prominence.
- Distance: This is what makes local SEO, local. How far your listing is from the specific location term used in the search queries, or to the user’s known position/location. For example, if you have similar prominence and relevance to another business located closer to the searcher’s location (for a near me query), this business will rank higher.
Google Maps SEO In Practice
Based on the Local SEO ranking factors, how should we optimize Google My Business listing to rank higher?
Here are some essential steps:
I. Optimizing Your GMB Listing’s Relevance
Details of Your NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number)
Putting aside local SEO for a moment, you are a local business and you want local customers to visit your business physically.
So, your business name, address, and phone number (NAP) information should be a very important focus in building your online; presence, and in relations to local SEO, here are a few things to consider:
- Always make sure your NAP information is correct and up-to-date. That is, if you change your business address or phone number, you’ll need to update all of your NAPs throughout the internet. Google takes disinformation very seriously, and incorrect NAP information (even if it’s only one among hundreds) can hurt your ranking—or worse—, get you penalized.
- Make sure your NAP listed on Google My Business listing is exactly the same as your website’s NAP. On the other hand, make sure to list a proper URL of your business’s website in your GMB listing. This is the only effective way to ensure Google can properly recognize the correlation between the two.
- Add structured data markup (schema markup) to your NAP information whenever possible, as well as other elements of your site. This will allow Google an easier time to recognize every information included in your website, and will also allow your site to be eligible for rich snippets.
GMB Listing Optimizations
While there are many different elements to optimize in a GMB listing, here are some important areas to consider here:
- The main principle is to provide complete and accurate information in every possible element. Focus on providing as clear information as possible for the human audience.
- Don’t forget to verify your Google My Business listing. You can follow the steps here, but in general, Google will send a postcard containing a verification PIN to your physical address. So, use a valid business address unless it’s absolutely impossible (in that case Google will provide options to verify your listing via email or phone call).
- Make sure to select the correct category, as people often search using business types or categories rather than a business name. Your category is what your business is about, and not essentially what you are selling (i.e. restaurant or pizzeria instead of “selling pizza”)
- Add your service area details correctly. This is especially for businesses that serve customers within a specific area. For example, a restaurant that also delivers food.
- Make sure your business operating hours are accurate, and it’s also important to update them whenever there’s any change. Google provides the feature to add custom hours for special events and holidays.
- Add (well-taken) photos. According to Google, businesses with photos receive 42% more requests for directions. Remember that Google Maps is a visual platform by nature.
- Use attributes to define your unique value propositions. For example, if your business is children-friendly or has an outdoor area, state it in attributes.
What about keywords? In general, you can use target keywords sparingly and naturally, but based on our experience, it won’t affect much. Focus on providing complete and accurate information for human readers.
II. Improving Your Business’s Prominence
While there’s no shortcut in improving your business’s prominence besides actually offering excellent products and/or services over time, there are at least two main optimizations we can attempt to improve our local business’s online presence and prominence. They are:
Building Local Citations
Local citations to Google Maps ranking is what backlinks are to traditional SEO: the more citations you have, the more prominent Google will perceive your business.
A citation is any mention of your business’s NAP information in a correct (mainly textual) format.
When, for example, an influencer reviews your business while mentioning your full NAP information, you get a citation.
So, how can we get more citations? There are two main things you should do:
- Build relationships, and ask your business partners, influencers, press, and anyone relevant to mention your business’s NAP.
- List your business in various local online directories according to your location and niche. A quick Google search will allow you to find these directories, and you might want to check this guide by Moz to learn further about this.
Again, the key here is maintaining the consistency of NAP information. All citations must be consistent and must include the latest up-to-date NAP information.
This will also mean that when you, for example, move to a new address, you’ll need to manually update all these listings.
Get More (Positive) Reviews
Reviews are not only important in improving your listing’s prominence for local SEO purposes. Today, reviews as social proofs are extremely important in encouraging conversions.
Most of us nowadays will check for online reviews before purchasing anything, and 57% of consumers will only buy from businesses with at least 4-star rating.
You should, at least initially, focus on getting more reviews on your Google My Business/Google Maps listing, but Google will also take account of reviews on third-party sites.
So, after Google Maps, consider encouraging positive reviews on major sites like TripAdvisor or Facebook Places—depending on your niche—, and also on online directories as well as other sites.
How can we get more positive reviews? Again, there’s no shortcut besides actually providing good products and/or services, but there are some tactics we can use:
- Offering incentives—like discounts or freebies— in exchange for positive reviews, is still a popular and effective tactic.
- Sometimes, asking at the right time is all it takes. Timing, however, is everything. For example, you can ask for a review when a consumer just made a repeat purchase—indicating they are happy of your business—.
- Respond to existing reviews, including and especially the negative ones. People are more likely to leave reviews on businesses that respond to previous reviews. Also, Google prioritizes businesses that frequently respond and engage with existing reviews in their ranking algorithm.
III. Optimize Location Accuracy
There’s nothing much we can do to optimize the third and final ranking factor for Google Maps ranking: distance.
However, our main approach here is to make sure Google can properly and accurately recognize your location, and here are some key optimizations we can attempt:
The simplest (and important) localization process you must do is to add your full address—and ideally your full NAP information— on each page of your site.
This is commonly done in the site’s footer, but a common mistake is to add this NAP information in image format. While Google’s algorithm today can parse the information in images, it’s generally better to use textual format to ensure easier indexing.
Another important thing to note is that if your business has more than one physical location, for example, if you are a restaurant with several outlets in different cities.
In such cases, we can create separate location pages for each location. Each of these landing pages should include full NAP information, especially the full and accurate address information.
Also, consider embedding Google Maps for each of these location pages. While it’s no longer a direct ranking signal (it used to be in 2013 or so), it’s still a good practice with two benefits:
- To ensure Google can accurately understand your business’s location based on its own Google Maps
- Better user experience for your site visitors
Similarly, use complete NAP information in your social media profiles (and make sure to include them in your GMB listing).
End Words: Consistency is Key
As we can see from what we’ve discussed above, local SEO isn’t exactly rocket science, and anyone can certainly attempt it even with minimal technical knowledge.
The key to success, however, is consistency both in quality and quantity.
Quality, as in maintaining the quality of your content, consistency in NAP information, and proper handling of (negative) reviews.
On the other hand, consistency in quantity like continuously building local citations and encouraging positive reviews is also very important.
Maintain this consistency in 6 to 12 months, and you’ll see both your website and Google Maps listing slowly climb the ranking and generate valuable traffic.