Smaller businesses have often accused Google and other search engines of favouring big brands at the expense of local companies. Indeed, there was a time when Google’s ability to interpret location was poor at best, such that a locally-themed search would often be answered with generic national results that neither gave the user the sites they wanted nor local businesses the exposure they needed. Today, however, Google’s approach to local has developed dramatically and presents local businesses with real opportunities to gain visitors from one of the most engaged user categories of all: local searchers.
That’s not to say capitalizing on local search opportunities is easy. Google’s local offering has developed a lot over the years, but it’s by no means simple, particularly for those inexperienced in search marketing. Here we’ll discuss the history and current landscape of local search, along with guidance on how to make local SEO work for you.
Google first took steps into the world of ‘local’ back in 2004, with the initial launch of Google Local. Since then the offering has expanded, mutated, split apart and consolidated more than once, with services such as Google Local Business Center, Google Hotpot, Google Places and so on. Today, Google is well into a consolidation phase, placing Google+ at the heart of its approach to local. But Google would likely be the first to admit that that consolidation process is not yet complete, leaving local marketers needing to understand and utilise several different systems to maximize their exposure to the local market.
Despite the effort involved, the rewards can be huge. Google’s share of the UK search market is around 90%, and while official data is not available to confirm what proportion of locally-themed searches happen on Google, our own data suggests that it is similarly dominant. The opportunity for local businesses becomes obvious when we look at a search results page for a local business:
18 months ago this same search query would likely have still produced a large number of ads (visible here as the top three results and all those down the right-hand side), but the ‘organic’ portion of the page would have been radically different. The seven links you can see here, each with an address and Google+ page link, are the most obvious manifestation of Google’s local strategy, and they’ve effectively pushed traditional search results off the page (I actually had to zoom out in my browser to fit the first traditional organic result, for yell.com, onto this screenshot)
So how can you get your business into these spaces? First, you need to understand where Google gets its data from and how you can affect it. Today your Google+ Local page, (previously known as Google Places), is your business’s key target in influencing how Google presents you online. It is vital that you claim, verify and manage this page – it is both your best means of getting visibility online and your best means of getting those people who see it to contact you. The basics of management here would include ensuring that all business data such as address, opening hours, contact details etc. are accurate, consistent and up to date, that appealing and high quality images are used on the page and ideally that you maintain a flow of fresh and interesting content.
Currently, you need to manage your own business information in Google through the Google Places for Business Dashboard, which adds confusion since Google Places is now defunct, but in due course Google will doubtless centralize and align this dashboard with Google+ so that you can more easily manage your profile from a single, intuitive dashboard.
But, and this is a major frustration for many businesses, though you have some control over your Google+ Local page, this is not the only source of information about your business that Google uses; and if inconsistent or incorrect data about your business exists elsewhere online then this can have a negative impact on Google’s overall view of your business and the visibility that you’ll achieve.
The technical reasoning behind this is Google’s relatively recent Knowledge Graph system. The most obvious manifestation of the Knowledge Graph is the rich results that appear in the right hand rail for certain results (search for a famous historical figure in Google to see for yourself). These results are based on numerous sources, notably Wikipedia and certain review sites. But the technical backend that creates these results represents a fundamental restructuring of the almost limitless data that Google makes it their goal to organise.
From a local business’s point of view, this change means that all of the data that Google can identify from across the web will have an impact on their interpretation of your business. This means that you need to ensure that your details are correct and up to date anywhere your business is mentioned online: think directory sites, industry sites and anywhere else that your business details might exist.
Once you’re clear that all of your basic details across the web are accurate and consistent, your next priority should be review content. Building up a large volume of positive reviews across your own site and major review sites online will not only add to Google’s judgement of the quality and authority of your business, but also to the impression that potential customers get of your business – and that will impact your conversion rate (i.e. the proportion of local searchers who choose you over the alternatives presented to them by Google).
This second phase of activity, outside of Google’s own properties, not only benefits you from the point of view of search rankings, but also represents a solid source of organic traffic and customers in its own right. Think TripAdvisor if you’re a travel business, Yelp if you’re a hospitality business etc. Google may still be your biggest single source of traffic, but these properties can deliver great traffic as well, whilst also contributing to your overall search positioning.
So the SEO landscape for local businesses has changed radically in the past months and years. If you’ve been focusing on traditional organic visibility you may still be reaping the benefits, but with Google+ listings now dominating local search results pages it’s vital that you have a basic understanding of the systems that determine your presence and position in these listings. You should devote the resources, or hire specialists, to ensure your local business information within Google+ and elsewhere is in great shape, in the right places, and showing your business in the best light. Achieve that and not only will your exposure in the local market grow, but also your ability to turn local searchers into new, engaged and repeat customers.
By Alex Campbell, Deputy Managing Director of The Search Agency.
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