Local SEO Tips and Trends for Small Business

By James A. Martin | Posted March 23, 2016

Have you claimed your Google My Business listing? Do you have lots of positive reviews on Yelp as well as on Google? Are you showing up in the Google three-pack?

If you said yes to all those questions, congratulations. You're a local search engine optimization (SEO) rock star. However, if your small business depends on local customers and you answered no, or you don't know, then you have some work ahead of you.

Local, organic SEO is important to many small businesses that serve or sell to the local population.

Why is that? In 2015, more Google searches happened on mobile devices than on computers for the first time, according to Google. And mobile search is often local search. For example: When you're out on the town and you Google "pizza restaurant" on your smartphone, you'll see nearby restaurants in your search results—especially when Google asks permission to use your current location.

To attract new customers, your business—whether it's a restaurant, a boutique, a real estate agency, or a yoga studio—needs to rank well in local search queries, such as "San Francisco real estate agent." To be clear: organic search rankings are those that your site receives based solely on your site's content—not because of any Google AdWords ads that you buy.

small business SEO tips and best practices

Local SEO Tips and Trends for SMBs

The following SEO trends and tips, gathered from a panel discussion at the recent Search Marketing Expo West, will help get you started with local SEO.

Trend: Clickthrough (CTR) rates affect Google rankings

Clickthrough rate reflects the number of people who clicked a link, such as a link in a Google search engine results page (SERP), vs. the total number of people who had the opportunity to click it. "So if a link to your website appears as a listing on a SERP and 20 percent of the people who view that SERP click your link, then your CTR, in that case, is 20 percent," as Search Engine Land explains.

CTR is one of hundreds of signals Google uses when deciding how to rank a Web page for a particular keyword query, according to Chris Silver Smith, founder and CEO of Argent Media, who spoke on the SMX West panel.

The thinking is that Google only wants to show users the best-quality content on the first SERP. Low CTRs can be an indication that a website isn't meeting users' needs or expectations. Therefore, sites with low CTRs may not appear on the first SERP vs. other sites with solid CTRs.

Google has been mostly coy about whether CTR is indeed a ranking factor. But Smith said a Google Webmaster forum representative posted that CTR iss indeed a ranking factor.

The bottom line for small businesses? "The impression you make in search results is important," Smith said, as it can help increase your CTR.

And how do you make a good impression in Google SERPs? One way is to use structured data markup, which enhances the presentation of your search result listing with a thumbnail photo, star ratings (averaged from your reviews), and other elements, Smith said. Online promotions, compelling photos, and strong social media activity can also help drive traffic to your site from Google search results and boost your CTR.

Trend: Google's recent AdWords display change makes it harder to get noticed in organic search results

In February, Google stopped displaying AdWords text ads on the right-hand side of desktop SERPs. Instead, Google displays up to four text ads at the top of desktop SERPs and three text ads at the bottom.

As a result, organic search results appear further down on SERPs, which is another reason (along with the need to increase CTRs) why your organic search rankings "need to stand out more," said Casey Meraz, founder of Ethical SEO Consulting.

Another result: If you're using AdWords ads to get found for chosen keywords, Google's change increases the competition for the smaller number of top-of-the-page ad slots, said Smith. And increased competition translates into higher AdWords costs.

Trend: Google reduced the "local pack" from seven listings to three

Last year, Google revised what SEO experts call its 'local pack,' which is a listing of local search results tied to a map. The pack shrank from seven business listings to three.

Before the change, when you typed in a Google query such as pizza restaurant, you saw a local map with up to seven pizza restaurants displayed on the map, as well as in listings. Now, in a local search, you see only three businesses on the map and in listings. (See Figure 1).

Google made the change to align its desktop and mobile search results, as mobile search results showed the "three pack." The net effect: it's even harder for local businesses to show up in the local pack than before, said Smith. Which means…

Tip: To rank well, take a holistic approach to local SEO

Simply checking off a few items on the local SEO checklist, such as making sure you've claimed your Google My Business listing, is not nearly enough to rank these days. Instead, you need to take a holistic approach that covers the spectrum of SEO best practices.

Some examples:

  • Get good links. Despite Google's many algorithm updates over the past few years, links are still an important ranking factor. Ideally, earned links from trustworthy sites tell Google that your site is also trustworthy, which helps with rankings. "Having good links to your site is incredibly important," said Adam Dorfman, senior vice president of product and technology at SIM Partners. Such links aren't necessarily easy to earn, of course. Smith suggested donating to a local charity, participating in a local event, and getting media coverage (with links to your site or at least citations of your business).

  • Make sure your business' Name, Address, and Phone number, known as "NAP" in the SEO industry, is consistent across your website, Yelp, and Google My Business listings—and any other online assets you control. Consistent NAP is important because Google wants to be as confident as possible that a business listing in its search results accurately represents what the searcher wants.

    "For example, there are hundreds of similarly named 'Florist' businesses, and Google needs to tell them apart," as a Volume Nine blog post explains it. "How can it do this? By comparing each listing's NAP. If you show Google two different NAPs, the search engine may see two different businesses. When that happens, your SEO link juice gets split up and your organic rankings can suffer."

  • Get mobile-friendly. If you haven't already done so, make sure your site is mobile-friendly, meaning it looks good when displayed on a smartphone or tablet screen. Google prefers mobile-friendly sites when displaying search results on a mobile device. So if your site isn't yet optimized for mobile, you're missing out on potential business. And as mentioned earlier, many mobile searches are local in nature—that's even more incentive to be mobile-friendly.

  • Create "sticky" content and a good user experience. If your site offers useful, interesting content that speaks to and engages your customers, it's more likely to attract social media shares and links, said Dorfman. Both can help increase traffic to your site as well as potentially improve your search engine rankings. A good user experience—a website that loads quickly, is easy to navigate, and displays well on mobile screens—is also important, said Greg Gifford, director of search and social at Dealeron.

    A good user experience also helps to improve bounce rates, CTRs, and other signals that Google may use to determine the quality of your site overall. Since the search engine is in the business of pleasing its users, it makes sense that it favors high-quality vs. low-quality sites in its SERPs.

  • Get (positive) reviews on multiple sites. Reviews for your business, at least positive ones, can build your overall online brand and reputation, said Meraz. Positive reviews can also help improve CTRs when your Google My Business or Yelp listing, along with a good star rating, is displayed in local search results, he added. Keep in mind that Apple Maps displays Yelp star reviews, Meraz pointed out. "So it's important to pay attention to Yelp, regardless of your business," he said.

The Sum Effect of Local SEO

"All of these factors matter," said Dorfman. "Google has hundreds of signals in its algorithm. If you focus on just three or four, it won't be enough. You have to spread a wide net."

Added Smith: "With good, solid SEO, you can probably beat out your competitors. So pay attention to the basics," such as adding keywords to HTML title tags and headings; having compelling photos on your site; and adding structured data.

James A. Martin is a marketing consultant specializing in SEO, social media, mobile apps, and business blogging. Follow him on Twitter.

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