After years of consistent growth of large national and multi-national brick and mortar chains at the expense of small, local businesses, search engines have provided a major leveling of the playing field: local search. Local search allows small businesses to stand next to their local competition with the exact same amount of real estate on the search engine results page (SERP). This means that, as far as search engines are concerned, Bob’s Bicycles and Wal-Mart’s bicycle department get the exact same treatment. It does not matter how physically large your store is or how many links your website has; if you know how to optimize for local search, you can get free exposure to everyone in your area who is searching for your local-intent business terms. This leads us to three questions: First, why do search engines provide this level playing field? Then, how does local search work? And finally, how do you actually optimize for local search?
Why Search Engines Level the Playing Field
It’s actually not because search engines are some great friend of small business. It’s because of relevance. Search engines want to understand the intent of your search and provide you with the most relevant possible results. One of the ways that they can accomplish this is by putting as many results as possible on the page.
Say you want pizza, but not just any pizza. You want to sample a slice from one of the local places, nothing from any of the big chains, so you type in “pizza Morristown” (you would probably substitute Morristown for wherever you are, but that’s where I am, so Morristown it is). Keep in mind, the search engine has no way of knowing from that query that you don’t want pizza from a large chain. Now, when you type that into Google, you are presented with approximately 20 results on the first page (the only page that people typically read). The results include chains like Dominos and Pizza Hut: not relevant to you. But even if 19 out of the 20 results are not what you wanted, as long as one of them is relevant to you, Google has succeeded. So Google, and other search engines as well, serve your needs best (and their own, by extension) by displaying many different options to choose from.
In short, search engines want to provide you with the results that you want, and it’s counterproductive to assume that you want Pizza Hut when there are so many other pizza places that you might have meant when you typed in “pizza.” So, they provide a range of different options – both local businesses and big chains. As long as there is something that you are looking for, Google has succeeded in providing relevant results and you will likely be back.
So I think we’ve understood why search engines do this, so now let’s tackle some of the main aspects of local search.
Local Intent Keywords & the Carousel
Simply put, certain words that you search will trigger a “local search.” Back to our pizza example, if you are Googling “pizza,” chances significantly greater that you are hungry for a slice than that you are writing a history paper about the origins of pizza. So, instead of featuring the Wikipedia article, Google will display local pizzerias most prominently on the search engine results page (in this case the Wikipedia article actually does make the front page, but it’s buried under pizzeria results). How do search engines know that the search is local? In some cases, they assume based on your keyword and your estimated location, but if you include your location in your search, it’s usually going to be considered a local search.
On Google, some keywords will trigger the appearance of the Carousel (pictured above). A list of many of the known keywords that will trigger the appearance of the Carousel can be found here. The Carousel is comprised of an image of the business, the star rating of the business, the total number of reviews, the business name. Other items change from keyword to keyword, but also worth noting is the business category, which plays a large role in Google’s Local Search algorithm.
Google+ Local Pages, Google Places, and Google Map Listings
You are probably wondering where Google gets all this information to display in the Carousel. The answer is through Google+. It used to be much more complicated, with Google Places and Google+ Local existing simultaneously and confusing both search engine optimizers and searchers alike, but Google has finally integrated the two, saving everyone a lot of headaches. The image of your business, the star rating, the reviews, and the business name all come from your Google+ Local Page. Your local page is the same as your Google Places page, which is the same as your Google Maps listing. Don’t think you have a Google+ Local Page? Unless you started your business yesterday, you have a Google+ Local Page, you just have not claimed it.
You NEED to claim your Google+ Local Page, follow the steps to verify your listing, select your business category, add photos, add your hours of operation, and encourage your customers to leave reviews on it (more on this later). All of these items will help not only boost your rankings, but visually stand out from your competition in local search.
As important as Google+ is for local search, it has absolutely no importance outside of Google itself. This is because Bing, Yahoo, and Apple Maps all integrate with Yelp. Yelp is a massive review site for local businesses and Bing, Yahoo and Apple Maps use its review data to enhance their search results and map listings. It also appears prominently in Google search results, but is not integrated into Google+ or Google Maps.
As was true with Google+ Local, just because you did not sign up for Yelp does not mean your business is not on there. Get on there, claim your profile, add business descriptions and photos, and let your customers know you are on there. Be careful though, Yelp is very strict about its reviews and how you ask for them. Rather than try to explain it myself, here is the text straight from their FAQ: “There are ways to let your customers know you’re on Yelp without being overly solicitous. There is an important distinction between “Hey, write a review about me on Yelp,” [BAD] and “Hey, check us out on Yelp!” [GOOD].”
How do I optimize for local search?
Every business is different. Maybe you have a website (highly recommended, but not actually necessary for local search), maybe you don’t. There are, however, some steps that everyone needs to take to optimize for local search.
- Claim your Google+ Local Page and your Yelp listing. As we discussed earlier, these two listings have massive importance for your local search appearance and you want to be able to exercise as much control over them as possible. This does not mean that you will be able to remove reviews at will, but you will be able to define things like your business’ about content, photos, hours of operation, etc. You will also see when people leave reviews, and if they are baseless negative reviews, you can report them and get them into the review process as soon as possible.Google+ Local Page – You will need a Google account to do this. You very likely already have one if you use any other Google services (Gmail, YouTube, Drive, etc.), but you may want to create a separate one to use just for your business. Once you have your account and you are signed in, head over to the Google+ Create page and select “Storefront.”Enter your business name and address into the search bar. Remember, as we’ve often mentioned in other blogs, keeping your name, address and phone number consistent across your web properties is an SEO best practice, so make sure you are being consistent here. Depending on whether or not Google has created a page for your business, you will either (1) select the search result that matches your business, or (2) you will select “I’ve correctly entered the name and address.”
- Another fork in the road. If Google says that someone else has already claimed your location, you can request admin rights, but more likely you will need to give Google a call to try to straighten the matter out. If someone has not claimed the page, you will be able to claim it for yourself.
- After selecting “I’ve correctly entered my business address,” you can begin to fill out your business information.
Once you have reached this point, it’s just a matter of filling out the information in your profile (unless your page has already been claimed). Some key points to not overlook when doing this:
- Verify your business – Depending on how you set up your page, you will be able to verify that you are at the location either by phone or by postcard. Usually, you have to verify by postcard. Google will send a postcard to your location with a code on it and, once you receive the code, you input it and your business is verified. Completing this step is probably the most important because it gives you access to edit other areas of the page that you could not previously edit and it gives your page a much more official feel.
- Choose your business category – This field is considered very important by Google and is a major part of defining what search queries will trigger your page to show in the search results.
- Add your website – Once your website is properly linked (follow this Google guide to do so), your location listing in the search results will link to your actual website. On top of this surface benefit, it also demonstrates to Google that your website is about a physical location in a specific geographic area, so your website itself will become a more relevant search result for queries in that area.
- Complete your profile – As you are adding information to your profile, you will notice that there is a bar that says how complete your profile is. Complete everything you can on the profile to get it to 100%.
- Use your keywords – One of the most important steps in any SEO campaign is performing keyword research to discover your most valuable keywords. Implementing these keywords where appropriate on your Google+ Local page can do nothing but help Google figure out what your page is about and when it is relevant to a searcher.
Yelp listing – Start by finding your business on Yelp. On the search results page, you will be able to see if your business has (1) not yet been claimed, has (2) already been claimed, or is (3) not on Yelp yet.
- Click on the “Claim” button. From here you will have to sign up for your “business owner account.” Complete the sign up. Yelp will now call your official business number, which they should have on record already. Once you have completed this call, you should have access to your Yelp page.
- If your Yelp account has already been claimed, you have two options. You can try to figure out who claimed it on your own. It should not be too hard because they would have had to verify through your phone number. If you can’t figure it out, you will have to get in touch with Yelp’s support department.
- In the unlikely scenario that your business is not on Yelp, you can add your business to Yelp. The link also appears at the bottom finding your business on Yelp search results page. After you fill in all of your business information and submit, you must wait for a Yelp representative to review it and contact you to verify your listing.
Once you have ownership of your Yelp listing, you can get started on optimizing your profile.
- Add all of your relevant business information. Remember to keep your name, address, and phone number consistent here as well, so as to send search engines a clear signal. As with your Google+ page, use your business keywords where appropriate on your profile. It might even be more important to use your keywords with your Yelp profile as Google+ pages are not nearly as likely to rank on search engines other than Google.
- Add quality photos, and, if possible, respond to reviews. Having the appearance of an active, engaging profile with nice pictures will encourage potential customers to take the next step and visit your location.
- Encourage reviews. As I said earlier, especially with Yelp, be careful how strongly you encourage these reviews, but without them, it looks like nobody is going to your business. Reviews are also a major factor in how your business ranks on the Google Carousel. Remind your customers that you are on Google+ and Yelp, and if they had a good experience, hopefully they will take the extra step to give you a nice review.
- Have your name, address, and phone number on your website. This almost goes without saying, but don’t forget it. This information will help search engines interpret your website as having a physical location, and it will also serve as another place where your name, address and phone number are appearing consistently on the web. If you want to go the extra mile here, use Schema.org markup to clearly identify your location information to search engines.
- Do your keyword research. Keyword research should be the first step in any SEO campaign, local or otherwise. Finding the right keywords and using them, both on your website and on your location listings, helps search engines understand that your site and your listings are relevant to people searching for those terms. So, figure out which keywords people are searching for and implement them.
Optimizing your site for local search will increase your visibility to consumers who are interested in your product or service and are already in your immediate area. Failing to take control of your local search appearance can have some unfortunate consequences. If you are an established business with a physical location, you are probably already on local search. It’s time to take control of your local search appearance and optimization. If you would like assistance in optimizing your local search efforts, contact us. We’d be happy to help.