09 Feb 2012

Strategies for Local Search Marketing

A famous axiom in Washington, DC, states that “All politics is local.” Well, for the most part, the same can be said for search marketing. Sure, there are exceptions. BMW North America likely cares little about local search, but you can bet each of their dealerships do (or at least, they should!). InterContinental Hotels Group won’t find local search to be all that relevant, although I’d imagine each one of their Holiday Inn Express hotels would care deeply about it.

You see, most business is local. If you own a brick-and-mortar place of business where you sell products or services to the local community, you need to care about local search. Buying a domain name and posting a few pages of photos and a little bit of text about your business just doesn’t cut it anymore. When was the last time successful companies relied solely on business cards for their advertising and promotion? Sure, they’re important, just as is a business website, but there’s more to business success in the online world than a basic website. You have to be aware of social media, search advertising, and, of course, local search.

Local search is important because it helps your potential customers more easily find you. More importantly, search engines, as aggregators of all important data on the web, use the information they find in the many local search venues as a significant contributor to local search results in their universal search engine results pages (SERPs).


What is local search?

Local search is a subfield of Internet search dedicated to finding relevant results located within a limited geographic area. A list of the top X number of local results (the number shown varies by search engine and query) are shown within a SERP, typically near the top. When searchers in Seattle want to find an interesting restaurant, despite how compelling the national reputation is for Napa Valley’s The French Laundry, it’s simply not a relevant result. In local search, the competition for SERP visibility for local businesses is significantly reduced to just that of your competing local businesses. The potential for greater visibility in search is great, especially when the organic rank of your business webpage is not superlative. And with only a little investment of time, you can greatly improve your chances to get that visibility.

Local search starts with the search engines themselves. All of the major search engines, Google, Bing, and Yahoo!, offer a local search tool enabling local businesses and organizations to create a customized online profile. The profile, which often already exists for a company (derived from data collected about them from other local search venues, such as directories), is a key source for information about the company. Once the profile is captured by the verified business owner, its contents are more trusted by the search engines and feed the local search content used in SERPs for relevant queries.

The big challenge for search engines is that the non-verified profiles are often riddled with inaccurate data, and are almost always incomplete. Sometimes search engines inadvertently build duplicate local profiles for companies, especially if they’ve moved within the local area in the past few years. This bad data hurts searchers who want accurate information on finding and contacting a business, and it hurts companies who fail to earn the business of those potential customers who want to work with them. And lastly, while the crawler-generated profile data is a best-guess start, its inherent untrustworthiness means search engines may not invest as much authority in it. Unfortunately, the opportunity to easily stand out from the online crowd by claiming and updating theses profiles is ignored by a great many business owners. You can make a big difference in your placement in local search just by getting in the game.


Why should you care?

If you owned a sushi restaurant, your website will likely not organically rank at the top of the SERP for the query “sushi restaurant”. You could bid on Pay Per Click advertisements, and if you create a great landing page, bid high enough, and develop well-formed ad text using keywords from your well-optimized website, you may get a high enough quality score to show up in the top half of the paid ads – if all of the above conditions are met. Maybe. But you also know that result will go away the instant you stop paying for search ads.

However, by creating an owner-verified business profile in the search engine local search tools, which costs you nothing but your time, you may lift your business’ relevance to local searches for your keywords so that your business might be shown in the local listing at the top of the SERP. Plus, you get a free backlink from your business profile! What a deal!

To further emphasize why local search is important, web search is in the midst of a fundamental sea change in the way it’s accessed. Internet-enabled, smart mobile devices are everywhere these days, and more and more Internet searches are conducted on them. Technologies such as Apple’s speech-recognition tool, Siri, are becoming preferred tools for making search queries. In the case of Siri, it uses local search extensively for its results (not only from Google Places and the other search engines upon request, but most significantly from Yelp). If you want your business to be found, more and more, you need to be where users will find you. Today (and no doubt tomorrow), that’s local search.

And as if I needed more ammunition for this, look at Google Maps. Organizations with verified profiles in Google Places are by default shown on Google Maps, whether it’s on the desktop or on a mobile device. Talk about getting found!


How do I start?

Start with each of the three major search engines. Using a variety of keywords and phrases, search for your business. Try those you optimize your website for and others you might not yet use. Think of broader category terms rather than your specific business branding (although product & service branding terms are perfectly valid). You want to see where your website falls in the pack. Try this test while logged on and logged off of your search engine accounts in the browser. You’ll likely get different local results, as identifying the exact location of logged off users is harder to do, so you’ll want to see how those users fare when searching for your line of business.

If you find your business listed, look for a link that goes to the local search business profile, not the company website (you might try clicking the map pushpin or a link for directions).

Note: If after trying several search terms and you can’t find your business, go directly to the local search tools – Google Places, Bing Business Portal, and Yahoo! Local – and create a profile pronto!

Examine the existing default profile; surely there is something there that you can update, add to, and optimize. Look for a link in the local search profile with the anchor text “Business owner?”, “Claim this business” or something similar to begin the process of capturing the profile so you can edit it. This will make it an owner-verified listing – and that’s a good thing!


Editing the profile

Once you get access to edit the profile, you need to be strategic about editing it. To gain maximum value from this process, you need to plan in advance what you want to say. Remember that not only are your future customers going to see this, so are the search engines. It’s that latter group who are rather particular about what they see.

To satisfy the search engines, you need to be consistent in your profile data. You want to use the same information about your business in every local search business profile (and on your website as well – given the advice I am about to offer, this may well warrant an edit of your website!)

Consistency in your business information is critical for helping search engines trust a given profile is about your business. Once that trust is established, the completed profiles can generate the most value for the website in search.

Tip: Make sure this data on your website is in text form, not buried in images or Flash!

The following profile elements are where data consistency is most important:

  • Company/organization name: Use the exact same spelling of the company every time. Not “XYZ Co.” in one, “XYZ Company” in another, and “The XYZ Corporation” elsewhere.
  • Street address: Use a standardized street address. I suggest going to the ZIP Code lookup page of the US Postal Service and using their standard format (for street names and abbreviations) for your address. You can change the USPS all caps format to mixed case letters, but otherwise use the same letters, numbers, and punctuation.
  • Phone number: No vanity (or text-based mnemonic) phone numbers! Use digits only.
  • Email address: Use a dedicated email address that will always work, not the one used by your summer intern. And one big caveat here: Don’t list any email address if you can’t devote resources to managing the mail you’ll get. You don’t want negative customer reviews that complain, “They never respond to my emails!”
  • Website URL: Use the exact canonical URL for the website’s home page, typically with the “www.” prefix and the trailing slash.
  • Map: Check the map shown with your profile. The pushpin may not be accurately positioned, especially if you are within an office park. Some profiles allow you to click and drag the pushpin to a better place on the map. You may also want to look into geocoding for a more accurate representation of your location. If you can’t fix it yourself, ask the site support team for help.
  • Categories: The profiles typically allow you to categorize your business. Mark as many relevant categories as possible to help people find your business in search.
  • Content: I suggest using the same description text, the same images, and other such content as much as possible. Not all sites accept the same length for descriptions, so you may need to creatively edit a derivative of your standard text. When editing the content for length, keep it in natural language, but use your keywords strategically. Remember to list your products, services, and brands when appropriate. If your business has specialties, specify them as well.

Other profile considerations

Some unlucky businesses will discover they have multiple profiles in the same index/directory. This is common for businesses that have recently relocated within town. Capture and verify ownership of the most current profile, update it, and then ask the site support staff to remove the duplicate profile(s).


Other local search venues

While the search engines are a great starting point, by no means are they the end point. I suggest you follow the same process of searching for your company, claiming (or creating) a profile, and updating it on as many of the following sites as possible. (Yes, this is a big list and it’s still incomplete, but the more you do – using consistent data – the more discoverable you’ll be.)

Search engines and local maps

Business and local search directories

Social media

Only establish account profiles if you’ll use them. Unresponsive, abandoned accounts are never appreciated by potential customers.

Industry or location-specific directories

There are so many of these available, so be creative and find the ones in which your site must be included. Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Look for industry-specific directory sites, like UrbanSpoon, FindLaw, Restaurants, Dentists, Contractors, and the like.
  • Look for other location-specific directories and business listings, such as with local newspapers, local media, local business or trade associations, popular niche bloggers, etc.

Some of the listings above may require site registration fees for a listing, but most offer free business profiles as well. You do not need to pay for profiles to get the search engine benefit of local search. That said, if your potential customers regularly use a paid directory, you might consider the value of additional discoverability versus the cost of inclusion. Also note that there are some “services” out there that will gladly take your money to create business profiles in local search directories that charge no fee. Buyer beware! I recommend working directly with the local search directories, if you have the time.

Lastly, registering for free business listings will definitely generate some contacts – from the directories themselves looking to pitch additional, for-pay services or enhanced listings. Don’t let this be a reason to not claim your free profile or engage with these sites. The benefits of having multiple, consistently presented business profile, even the lesser free listings, is of value to end users, search engines, and thus, to you. You can decide whether or not this is where you want to spend your marketing budget.


2012 the Year of Local Search?

Some pundits are already proclaiming 2012 to be the year of local search. That’s hardly going out on a limb, given how search is evolving already. What local search evolves into going forward is open for debate, but there’s no debate that optimizing for local search should be a core focus of SEO programs for businesses and organizations with a dependency on a local presence. At the least, to claim/create your own business profiles keeps them out of the hands of unscrupulous competitors who might capture them to then indicate your business has closed. (Yeah, it happens.)

Local search is all about being found by potential customers. If you have local customers, invest effort in optimizing in your local search profiles. The goal of claiming and completing those profiles is to engender the search engines’ trust that your profile in a local search or directory venue is actually associated with your business (and your website). That’ll maximize the benefit of the business listing in local search. Now go get found!