By Peter Prestipino, Editor-In-Chief
While there are many shared practices and processes with that of traditional search engine optimization, there are some subtle differences to the practice of local SEO that warrant greater exploration among enterprises that want to consistently appear on the results pages for relevant local terms.
In this month's Mastering Search column within Website Magazine, let's focus on setting up an optimization strategy for local search and explore how pursuing citations, optimizing the broader digital experience, and managing consumers' online experience in general will yield positive placement on the return lists of popular engines immediately and for years to come.
There is no denying the role of certain SEO factors, including on-site relevance indicators such as keywords and their placement and frequency, but citations (links) are what matter most today and they likely always will (although there appears to be diminishing returns as more and more are acquired).
When Google rolled out Pigeon a few years ago (2014), traditional SEO signals such as links slowly began to increase in importance (moving away from a stronger relevancy requirement). The most challenging part of citation building for local enterprises is, of course, actually taking the steps to get them put in place (active).
There are many ways, fortunately, that today's brands can acquire links. If your enterprise invests any time or resources on the practice of search engine optimization, let it be in the pursuit of citations. Let's explore some of the links available for acquisition by today's enterprises.
Sponsorships are a powerful way to acquire links. From local sports teams, charities or related regional conferences, sponsorship opportunities abound and most organizations are more than willing to provide a citation in exchange for a modest donation. Use custom search commands (e.g., inurl:sponsors "City name", intitle:sponsors "City name", intext:sponsors "City name") to identify receptive sponsorship (and citation) partners. This is a meaningful way to build high-authority links and to do so very quickly.
Link building is not always about acquiring new links, but also about ensuring that competitors don't have an unfair advantage by acquiring links that an enterprise doesn't have. While directories, forum links and comments don't provide the same authority, most every site that competitors have links from can do the same for you - it sometimes takes a little creativity and business savvy to figure out how.
The most valuable links that can be obtained for a local business still come from news and information sites. Traditional public relations tactics are helpful in this regard. Search Google News, build a media and influencer list, and develop a story (be it trend related or otherwise) in order to obtain citations and links.
What remains amazing about the Web is the amount of location information that is shared and the citation potential that exists as a result. Identifying centers of influence (local discussion groups or local-focused weblogs) provide access to an appropriate audience (which can drive traffic on its own). Avoid websites that aren't already indexed in the search engines in order to save time and ensure only the highest quality links are obtained.
Keep in mind that keyword usage, user engagement indicators and page speed still matter in relation to ranking and positioning on the search results, so in the least, local brands should concentrate some of their efforts on developing relevant, in-depth, and useful content for their own prospective audience of users and ensure that it is delivered in a way that matches the expectation of their prospective audience.
Developing content can be costly and cumbersome, of course, so many brands have turned to their audience of consumers to do the virtual leg work in at least some regard. One of the most straightforward ways to help optimize the experience and move up the search results is to take a more active role in fostering the development of user reviews as they are so impactful to users and in such a positive way.
For example, there are numerous studies that reveal that consumers rely on reviews to inform their purchase decisions (91 percent according to SEO firm BrightLocal's new Local Consumer Review Survey 2016) and 70 percent of consumers are willing to leave a review when asked.
The problem, however, is that so few consumers are asked and that results in missing out on a major opportunity to influence consumers and guide them in-store and toward conversion.
Preparing for Voice Search
For those enterprises looking to capitalize on the opportunity for voice search, review Website Magazine's new "Voice Search Optimization Guide" at wsm.co/vsearch17.
While there is no substitute for the value that additional relevant links and an improved user experience offer, enterprises that are short on time and resources should in the least manage their digital presence through Bing Places and Google My Business.
For Google in particular, the presence of a robust Google My Business listing (one with accurate NAP - name, address, phone - data and reviews on Google) is also going to be an important differentiator when the aim is to secure a spot in the local pack.
Optimizing for Google My Business or Bing Places is no easy task, and in fact is considered somewhat of an art (as well as a science) by many whose presence and position on the search results pages is of exceeding importance.
Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance and prominence. These factors are combined to help find the best match for a particular search. For example, Google algorithms might decide that a business farther away from a specific location is more likely to have what a consumer is looking for than a business that is closer and as a result may rank it higher in local results. To take a closer look at how brands can move up the list for local queries, visit wsm.co/local2017.
Local search optimization is not nearly as complicated as many make it out to be. Enterprises looking to appear more often and for a greater variety of terms and phrases, focusing on getting more links (citations), improving the experience for users and actively managing their digital profiles on key destinations remains the most effective way to do so. With so much interest in local, now is the time to start optimizing.