What is Local SEO, and How Does It Work?

Increasingly, the Internet is being used as a tool for finding local resources. You can find not only information or buy online, but you can also find homes for sale in your neighborhood, compare local independent insurance agents, and shop at stores close to you that sell the products you need. 

Thus, it’s increasingly important to keep local search marketing in mind when optimizing for search engines — that is, to target by not only a searcher’s keyword but also by the searcher’s geographic location (sometimes known as geo-targeting). 

Local search is the generic term given to the ability to search for information related to a particular location — a state, a city, or even a zip code.

If you want to reach the largest number of people, you have to consider the local aspect even if you sell nationally. Large online businesses targeting home buyers, for instance, often create local search — targeted pages designed to reach people in thousands of different locales.

This guide is designed to provide local SEO professionals with a better understanding of today’s local search landscape.

What is Local SEO?

Local SEO is a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy that helps your business be more visible in Google’s local search results.

Typical tasks include:

  • Optimizing your Google Business profile
  • Finding local keywords
  • Creating locally relevant content

Any business that has a physical location or serves a geographic area can benefit from local SEO. 

All the major search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and Bing — have local search features, incorporated into their map systems but still accessible from regular search. 

The major search engines classify search terms, in relation to geolocation, in different ways. Some search terms are automatically assumed to be local, even if you don’t include a location name. For example, search for pizza, hardware store, or indian restaurant, and the major search engines assume you’re looking for something locally.

Other terms will be assumed to be local searches only if you include a location name. For example, search for art at Google, and Google provides mostly plain old organic results: a link to the Art page on Wikipedia, a link to art.com, and so on. 

But search for art san francisco or art dallas, and Google regards it as a local term, providing a map and links to art museums and galleries. Other terms are pretty much never assumed to be local. 

Therefore, the process of ranking high with local SEO differs from traditional SEO. A different set of signals is used by Google’s algorithm to determine a business’ popularity, and then decide how to rank it.

Why is Local SEO Important?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen listings for local businesses appearing at the top of search results in Google and Google Maps. Local listings—previously known as Google Place page listings, then rebranded as Google+ pages, now known as Google My Business listings—however they will be titled next, they are a powerful marketing tool for small businesses.

Let’s look at some statistics, the following facts were discovered in several recent studies on the behavior of local customers.

  • 97% of search engine users have searched online to find a local business.
  • 70% of consumers who conducted a local search on their smartphone visited a store within a day.
  • 78% of local mobile searches lead to an in-store purchase.

We now know that local search can be Yoko Ono to your John Lennon if you own a local business, so let’s take a closer look at how local search works.

How Does Local SEO Work?

Unlike traditional organic search results, local search results display a local business instead of a normal web page, and appear at the top of the search results.

Instead of digging around clunky business websites, users can find business contact details, opening hours, and reviews quickly and easily.

Think about it, if a restaurant is extremely popular in a city, links from around the world may not be the best indicator of how valuable the business is to the community.

Instead, customers’ reviews, mentions of the business’s name and phone number on the web, and details on the website that show the business is located in the area being searched are better indicators.

Local listings can be a powerful tool for attracting traffic. It is often the case that local listings lead to more inquiries than regular SEO rankings. But does this mean you should ditch traditional SEO in favor of local SEO? Not at all. By doing both, you can potentially double your traffic.

To find the best local match, Google’s local search algorithm uses three factors in addition to its regular ranking factors:

  • Relevance (how closely a result matches the words in a search query)
  • Distance (how far Google believes a user is from a business)
  • Prominence (how important Google thinks a business is to its competitors)

As a result, Google displays two types of search results for local searches.

Results in the “local pack” (Google Maps and Business Profiles) and organic search results. 

On Google, organic results are blue links you’re used to seeing. 

Local packs (or map packs) are Google features that show local business listings and maps. 

How To Optimize Your Business for Local SEO?

Here are a few tips on how you can optimize for the most important Google local search ranking factors.

Google Business Profile

Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) allows business owners to manage their online presence across the search engine and its growing collection of utilities, including Google Maps.

It allows you to list information about your location, services, products, and photos.

Google will then list it in local search results.

To begin building your Google Business Profile, find out if your business already has one by conducting a Google search.

The Google in-platform search feature can also be used to find your business on GBP.

There’s a good chance your business already has a GBP, if it’s been around for a while (some years or more).

After a successful claim, you will be able to manage the information as if you had started the GBP yourself.

To optimize your profile, you’ll want to:

  • Fill in your business description: The business description allows for up to 750 characters. You can describe some of your most popular products and services, or you can mention the cities and towns where you provide services.
  • Keep your hours updated: You can update your hours at any time, and you can add holiday hours in advance.
  • Choose the right business categories: You can have up to ten business categories. As an example, a pizza restaurant may select “pizza restaurant” as its primary category, “pizza delivery” as a secondary category, and “catering” as a tertiary category. This categorization helps you show up whether someone is searching for “pizza near me” or “pizza delivery near me.” 
  • Select all applicable attributes: You can use attributes in Google Business Profile to identify specific searchable qualities.
  • Verify your location: You must verify a legitimate address with a dedicated mailbox.

Local Directory Listings

Getting listed in these sorts of directories is good because

  • You’ll get links to your site, and search engines love links (or rather, they reward you for links).
  • These directories will come up in local searches now and then, providing another avenue for people to find your site.
  • These directories may have a few loyal users who go there looking for businesses.

A variety of local directory listing services gather information about businesses and then distribute that information to dozens of different websites. Yahoo!’s Localworks/Yext system distributes data to more than 70 such directories.

Here are a few services you might check out:

  • Yahoo! Localworks/Yext
  • Yext
  • Synup
  • TribeLocal
  • Reputation
  • BirdEye
  • BrightLocal
  • MozLoca
  • AdviceLocal

This is big business now, and becoming very competitive. So not only do these businesses submit your data to a large array of directories, they provide various other services, such as monitoring the directories to ensure your data stays and stays correct, monitoring reviews (showing you reviews about your business being posted to these directories), and helping you respond to reviews.

These services often also distribute data to Google, Yahoo!, and Bing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take control of your listings on those particular local directories. You should, in fact, because these services don’t provide the search engines with as much information as the search engines allow you to upload directly. Also, it can take a couple of months for the data to work its way across the distribution network.

Online Reviews 

The number of reviews, or your review star rating, may have some effect on your ranking in the search engines’ local results. It’s clearly not “best reviewed sites get ranked first,” but the ranking algorithm may at least take reviews into consideration to some degree.

When a potential customer has to decide which business’s site to click, which one do you think will get the click? The business with 10 reviews and 1.5 stars, or the 5-star business with 50 reviews?

To dilute any bad reviews you get. Making sure you get good reviews helps “inoculate” your listing. One or two bad reviews mixed in with a bunch of good reviews probably doesn’t do a lot of harm.

Provide links to your business’s Google My Business page on your website, email signatures, flyers, and business cards, encouraging customers to leave reviews. At the end of each sale or transaction, ask customers to leave a review. The best way to increase reviews is to create every opportunity for customers to leave a review.

One more thing: You can never get started creating positive reviews too early! If you have few (or no) reviews, a single bad review can cause huge problems. So it’s a good idea to “inoculate” your business against bad reviews before you get them, by building up good reviews now! 

And one more: Posting fake reviews — for instance, encouraging employees to post fake reviews and to dislike bad reviews of your business — is, in the United States, illegal. Just ask Sunday Riley, the CEO and founder of the Sunday Riley skincare company, who had the Federal Trade Commission chasing her. Even worse is writing fake bad reviews about competitors, which can cost a fortune in legal fees and judgments.

Key Takeaways: Local SEO Ranking Checklist 

While you should look at your local competitors and try to beat them, following this checklist will put you well on your way to ranking well in local search engine results.

  1. Verify your business on Google Business Profile.
  2. Fill out as much information as possible on your Google My Business profile, including description, category associations, images and videos.
  3. Include your business name and location somewhere on your website, this could be your contact page or home page.
  4. Include your full business name, address and phone number somewhere on your site, these should be grouped together so Google will register it as a citation.
  5. Include the appropriate schema.org tags in your website markup, following the specification for local businesses at the following URL.
  6. Encourage customers to review your business.
  7. Submit your website to the major business directories like Yelp, Yellow Pages, CitySearch and so on. You can use tools like Moz Local to submit your business to all of the major directories in one go.
  8. Cross-check your business listings for correct NAP data. These details need to be consistent across your Google My Business listing, website contact page, and external business listings.

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