Are you getting it right in Local Search?

We have come along way since Google first developed their very rudimentary Local Search algorithms. Google has experimented extensively and worked hard to eradicate spam from their search results. The other important change has been led by technology. The question is, have you kept up? <--more-->

Google Changes Fast

Think back to 2004. Think about the phone you carried in your pocket. How smart was it? How often did you whip it out and say “Let me Google that”? Did you refer to a Google map on your phone? Could you ring 112 and have the emergency services geo-locate your phone to get help straight to you? Phones were pretty dumb and tracking location by phone was definitely not a mass-market activity.

Back in 2004, if you wanted to find anything in a specific location, you sat at your desk and typed in a location and the type of service you wanted. For example, if you were planning a trip to Oxford and wanted to find somewhere to stay, you would use a phrase like “hotel in oxford” and the chances are that yell.com supplied the results you needed. Or some other local directory. You didn’t even need a website to get a ranking in Local Search in those days.

Those of us who have developed specialist skills in Local SEO have tracked the evolution of Google Local Search since 2004. The algorithms are infinitely more sophisticated and the short-term spammy tactics which used to work emphatically don’t any longer. A quick way to kill your online business is to cling onto tactics that worked any time before 2013. Since Google’s Pigeon update rolled out in 2013, the Local Search landscape has changed beyond recognition. Even Google+, Google’s own play-thing, which was heralded as a game changer in Local Search, was cast aside in 2015.

What Does Work in Local Search

We have to remember that Google’s goal is “To provide a more useful, relevant and accurate search results”. It’s their show and they get to make the rules. They also get to change them whenever they want (in fact, they made changes almost daily in Q3 of 2015); we have to live with their rules and keep up.

Mobile search and Local Search are closely entwined. There is evidence that 61% of local searches result in a purchase and over 70% of searchers will never return to your site if it isn’t mobile-friendly (assuming they start their search on a mobile device). This matters a lot to Google which is why they commissioned research in 2014, examining what people want when they search from a mobile phone or tablet.

Your site must be readable on a small screen, easy to navigate with normal sized fingers and it must load fast (in under 3 seconds). If your website is built using technology that doesn’t allow it to meet these criteria, your business will struggle. People don’t want to zoom to read or navigate and they have no patience. They will leave your site and never come back. Google “watches” them go and says to itself, “That website didn’t make the searcher happy. It’s obviously not useful or relevant so I won’t give it such a high ranking in future.” That’s the point when your website is doomed. Google is unhappy AND your visitors are unhappy.

searchers choose closest services

Returning to our hypothetical visitor to Oxford, let’s assume they haven’t actually booked their hotel yet. They have just arrived in Oxford and need a hotel for the night, they will almost certainly grab a phone and begin their search. They might use Siri or Google Now and use a voice-activated search; or they might type a search into the browser on their phone. They often use semantic search because we talk to our devices in a human way so their search phrase might be “I need a hotel for tonight”. Importantly, they don’t need to mention their location. Google and Apple will assume that a search from a mobile device has “local intent”. Google also makes the searcher the centroid. What this means is that Google will give you a list of hotels closest to where you are. The result is that someone arriving at Oxford train station will see the hotel nearest to the train station at the top of the results, while a visitor in the city centre will see a different set of listings. This is great news for searchers but creates real challenges for hotels which are further out of town.

How to Get Results in Local Search

Sometimes it is possible to get good Local Search rankings and Google Map rankings for businesses which don’t meet all the Google Local Search criteria. We work on their websites to improve their content, improve their speed and make them mobile-friendly. We optimise the on-page content, we make sure their Name Address and Phone number (known as NAP data) is consistent, we build local backlinks and leveraged Barnacle SEO (a type of Local SEO that reflects genuine offline relationship). We have encouraged customers to leave reviews and we have marked-up those reviews using structured data. We have also used structured data to show opening hours, availability etc. In essence, we fall over ourselves to do all the things right that we can do right and we accept that we will be held back by the criteria we can’t control. When we have achieved great results, we have felt proud but, and it is a very big BUT, we have also known that we could only achieve this because none of their competitors was doing a better job.

All the time Google is showing just 3 results in the Local Pack, getting great results in Local Search will depend on your location closely matching your searcher’s location, as well as your competition.

Every market will vary. Rather than fighting for clicks that are almost impossible to win, you should play to your strengths. Accept that some visitors are not winnable through SEO and look for other ways to target them. SEO and Local Search can still bring in a substantial amount of business to a website that is properly mobile-friendly and supports the technologies that are important to Google.

To choose the products or services to pitch for Local Search, the first step is to review the market. Identify which ones have a Local Pack (not everything does) and find out what geographic area Google Map prescribes for Local Search for this product or service. Check who else is listed is an important step because the quantity and quality of the competition will make a difference. Once you understand this, you can prioritise the things that need to be improved, starting with the website.

screenshot of Google Local Pack

Once the website is ready, we look at offsite factors. These will include your Google My Business listing and Map pin placement; variations in your Name, Address and Phone number (NAP data) and your backlinks. Yelp reviews and reviews in general are important and there are signs that the sentiment of your reviews may have an impact in future.

There is a vast amount of detail to sift through to get you in good shape for Local Search. Moz has developed a list of Local Search Ranking Factors, based on the opinions of people who specialise in Local Search and this is generally a good reflection of what matters.

  1. Google My Business Signals
  2. External Location Signals
  3. On-Page Signals
  4. Link Signals
  5. Review Signals
  6. Social Signals
  7. Behavioural/Mob Signals
  8. Personalisation

There are over 50 factors listed in Localised Organic Factors and Local Pack Factors. In tough markets there is a list of 10 important Negative Ranking Factors that we also watch closely.

Google Search changed more in 2015 than any previous year. 2016 is set to see even greater change. To remain effective in competitive arenas, website owners will have to invest. The great news is that many people will not invest which gives you an excellent opportunity to get ahead.

All the time Google is showing just 3 results in the Local Pack, getting great results in Local Search will depend on your location closely matching your searcher’s location, as well as your competition.

image of smartphone

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