A Crash Course Through Local Search Marketing

by Ryan Miller
on August 26, 2015

TL;DR

How do you get your business to rank on map and/or local search results? Step 1: Obtain citations (mentions of your business name and contact info on other websites). Step 2: Repeat step 1 ad infinitum.

Local search marketing. Local search optimization. Local SEO. Local this, local that… it’s the marketing strategy with 1,000 faces and names, each of which refers to the same thing: getting your business to show up on searches near your location.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not. Behind every #1 rank on Google and/or Bing Maps is a dedicated marketing team that thoroughly understands what local search marketing is, how it works, and how to get a competitive edge in it.

So, without further adieu, let’s dive headfirst into this beautiful monster that we call local search and explain what it’s all about — and how TM34 Marketing plans on putting your business on the map (get it?)!

A Brief History of Local Search

To define what local search is, we have to first explain what it once was. There was a time when local searches merely comprised keywords with locations appended or prepended to them. Your run of the mill search query might be “web design company,” but a local query might have been “delray beach web design company.”

Life seemed pretty good back then because there was no discernible difference between SEO and local search. Employing the same on-page practices (e.g. keywords, titles, meta tags), SEOs could theoretically rank for any location, such as New York, even if they were really located in Kansas!

Well, feisty as they are, the engineers at Google changed all that when they rolled out their algorithm update (codenamed “Venice”) in early 2012. What Venice did was essentially take the basic idea of local searches and make it so users didn’t have to type in their location whenever they searched a keyword.

The mechanism behind all this was the Google Search location setting. Many of you have undoubtedly experienced this on mobile search. It’s the little notification that says something like “Safari would like to use your current location.” On desktops, it’s automatically set to the IP address or Wi-Fi you’re using, but those settings can be changed under “Search Tools,” like so:

Google location search tool

Now, SEOs couldn’t just rely on the same dime-a-dozen on-page techniques (though damned if some didn’t get the memo and are still trying to do it this way). Since then, local search marketing has evolved into its own distinguished practice — one has much in common with “regular” SEO, but also adds many more considerations for strategy and setting priorities.

How Local Search Works

Local search marketing, now widely recognized as a distinct approach to internet marketing in its own right, can be considered the third form of search engine marketing. For location-based search engine queries, you will likely notice these 3 different types of results:

PPC vs. SEO vs. Local Search Marketing

On the side there are the paid advertisements, which are the focus of pay-per-click marketing (PPC). PPC largely revolves around paying Google and other search engines to sponsor your advertisements and comprises bidding strategies, extensive keyword research, and landing page optimization.

At the bottom there are the “organic” results, which are the focus of search engine optimization (SEO). SEO largely revolves around getting search engines to rank your content on their own and comprises content writing, link building and on-page optimization of headings, meta tags, etc.

Then, at the top, there are the local search results, the focus of local search marketing. Like SEO, a local search strategy will involve getting Google to rank your website “organically” (that is, without directly paying Google to do so). Local search marketing does indeed comprise many of the same techniques as SEO, such as high quality link portfolios and valuable content. However, it also adds an array of distinct “signals” or ranking factors to the mix.

Citations & NAP(W)

Citation NAP InfoWithout a doubt, the most important signals here are citations. Citations are mentions of your business on other websites — in particular, websites that function to give users local business information. Examples of such sites include a yellowpages or similar directory, a Chamber of Commerce website, or a social medium such as Facebook.

Citations can be thought of as the local equivalent of what links are to traditional SEO. Every link from one domain that points back to your domain counts as a “vote” that says “I think this website should rank highly.”

Likewise, every local business citation counts as a statement that says “this business provides [product/service] in [location]. Users searching for that product/service in that location should be able to find them.”

As the previous statement implies, a citation will include some basic business and contact information. This is referred to as NAP (name, address and phone), which has now been expanded to NAPW (with the addition of website). One of the main goals of local search marketing is ensuring that all your citations have NAPW information that is not only correct, but also consistent.

Understanding the importance of citations should seem fairly straightforward. Let’s say you are a plumber in Lake Worth, Florida. You want to show up when people in Lake Worth search for a plumber. But, you recently changed locations and you still have some citations that list your business address in Palm Beach Gardens.

The situation at hand here exemplifies the two problems that occupy a huge portion of local search marketing campaigns: cleaning up inconsistent and/or duplicate citations. Having more than one citation on the same website, or different citations with different NAPW information, search engines will encounter the same problem: they can’t trust the accuracy of your NAPW, so they probably won’t confer much value on your local listing.

Search engines, being computers, are programmed to behave like the most methodical of Vulcans. To the extent that you are listed in both Lake Worth and Palm Beach Gardens, you might as well exist in neither city. From the search engine’s perspective, how do they know what the correct data is? They can’t read your mind, so they move on to the businesses that do have consistent and correct NAPW citations.

Data Distribution

Because of the way citations are distributed and indexed by search engines, one wrong address has the potential to snowball into a headache of messy citations. There are literally thousands of sites to place a citation on, but the time and money this incurs is obviously unfathomable. To streamline the process, location data is distributed in a highly organized fashion that Moz calls the “local search ecosystem”:

Local Search Ecosystem

As the graphic, courtesy of the Moz Local Learning Center, shows, the local search ecosystem is extremely complex. So, don’t expect to master it overnight (or ever, if you’re really being honest with yourself).

Basically, all you need to know for now is where the data originates from. In addition to social media powerhouses such as Facebook and Google+, there are 4 major “data aggregators” that “feed” citations to the rest of the ecosystem. These are:

  • Acxiom
  • Factual
  • Infogroup
  • Localeze

Everything from Yelp and Foursquare to Groupon and Apple’s Siri application gets its data from at least one of these distributors. The information is fed to sites and directories, who feed citations to other sites, who feed citations to other sites and back to the initial distributors. And on and on it goes in this perpetual, migraine-inducing loop.

Citation Tactics & Priorities

It can be hard to tell where the local search marketing landscape begins and where it ends. So, if you don’t know where to start, you’re in the same boat as just about everyone else. Nevertheless, a few points of reference can provide some guidance on where and how to set your priorities.

First off, the aforementioned major aggregators are an obvious choice. Although other high-traffic websites such as SuperPages and Foursquare provide them with fresh data through the local search feedback loop, these sites are nevertheless the primary sources of NAPW info for any given player in the ecosystem.

The four major providers, as well as many of their recipients, are also highly ranked websites. Their authority and the magnitude of their link profiles means that Google is constantly indexing and re-indexing them. So, if you want the search engines to retrieve your citation ASAP, place it on a site that gets crawled multiple times every day.

This also brings up the topic of social media. Not only are social media highly-ranked, index-worthy and corporate websites, but some are actually owned by the very search engines you’re trying to rank on! A case in point is the Google+ “My Business” feature, which allows you to create your own business page and edit your NAPW info.

Truth be told, Google+ should always be the starting point of a local search marketing campaign. If you’ve read this far and haven’t created a business Google+ profile, stop what you’re doing. Head on over to Google+ and verify your account.

Categories

Have you added your listing to Google yet? Okay, then. Good. We can proceed to the next topic, which is categories. If citations are to local search what backlinks are to SEO, then categories can be thought of as the local search marketing equivalent of keywords.

You may have noticed that Google asks you to categorize your business when you create your Google+ profile. And, if you’re lucky, you can appropriately categorize your business with minimal hassle.

Unfortunately, many business owners are not so lucky. Google (and other data providers) are far from perfect, and their are an infinite amount of products and services that any given business can provide. The key to categorizing your business is knowing which one to use and where to use it.

To take just one example, Google provides a category called “marketing agency,” but the equivalent on Neustar Localeze is “advertising agency.” On Thomson Local, it’s “marketing consultant and services,” while the closest match you’ll get on Foursquare is simply “office.” And trust us…it gets much more convoluted than that.

If you can’t find a single category for your business, that may be alright because it’s always a best practice to leverage as many categories as are allowed. Think about it this way: you want to capture as many keyword searches as possible, as long as they pertain to your business.

So, is TM34 Marketing a “website designer,” an “advertising agency,” a “marketing agency,” or an “internet marketing service?” Answer: all of the above, vis-a-vis the category options on Google+.

Categorized Citations

For many businesses, categories are also integral to how and where you get your citations. Obviously, none of us can step into the mind of the Google search algorithm, but there are extremely well-analyzed correlations between citations from certain websites and the local rankings of niche industries.

Some of these citation sources will seem like no-brainers. campusexplorer.com is obviously more important for colleges than, say, dentists. However, what are extremely important to dentists and others in the medical profession are citations from websites like healthgrades.com.

In fact, the citation authority of some websites is likely to be different in any given industry. Years of research has actually shown that Wikipedia of all sites is a top citation source for college universities. If that seems random and non-sensical, welcome to the club. The world may never know why this is the case, but it is the case.

So how do you know where to get industry-specific citations from? Half the time, you won’t. So it really comes down to thorough research, analysis and experience, and this is just one of the many reasons businesses are outsourcing their local search marketing to agencies with such capabilities.

Going Above & Beyond Local Search Marketing

Citations and categories form the gist of local search marketing. In and of themselves, these two factors seem pretty simple to handle. In actuality, they aren’t because many of the data providers previously mentioned are user-edited (meaning almost anyone can edit your NAPW!).

So, at minimum, the process takes a large amount of vigilance. Add to this the fact that so many businesses are changing their names due to mergers/re-branding, or they’re constantly switching locations, and you’ve got yourself a full-time local SEO to-do list.

Be that as it may, the fact is that these techniques are the lowest common denominator. Just like the same tried-and-true SEO methods, they are what everyone is doing. So, let’s say that, hypothetically, every single business in your industry had immaculate citations and categorization. How would Google then decide which one got the #1 spot on the local search results?

Reviews

Happy Customers = More Powerful Local Search RankingsThis is where reviews, among other things, come into play. In and of themselves, reviews are a primary ranking factor for local searches. Yet, they are nowhere near as significant as getting the proper citations from the proper websites.

All other things being equal, though, reviews are probably going to be the difference between a #1 and a #2 local search ranking. And even if they don’t directly affect your rankings, they’re still an incredibly powerful tool for driving traffic and converting that traffic into sales.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that both the quality and quantity of user reviews has a powerful effect on the end user. Comparing any two companies, which one are you going to click on: the one with three reviews and a 2.5/5 star rating, or the one with 40+ reviews and a 4.8/5 star rating?

Incentivizing reviews and managing them appropriately is an art and a science in its own right. It’s definitely a conversation for another day, but in the meantime, you should ask yourself at least one question: where can you get the ball rolling?

Social Media

Social media is a great place to start. As far as marketing is concerned, social media is a platform specifically designed for customer engagement and interaction. So it makes good sense that a large amount of feedback should be given here in the form of reviews.

But wait — there’s more! Social media is also unique in that it offers brand building and advertising opportunities in a distinctly location-specific context. Facebook, for example, allows you to boost posts and target ads to people in your service area. Other media, such as LinkedIn and Google+, also allow you to cultivate a local following through groups and circles.

These opportunities are significant for a number of reasons, the foremost of which pertains to strategically marketing your content to local resources. These resources, in turn, share your content. They give you another citation. And, we must not forget, they do often link back to your website.

Remember that local search marketing does not require you to abandon your focus on link building and content writing. As stated before (and I cannot stress this enough), these practices are not mutually exclusive. Building high quality links remains just as much of a priority as building high quality citations. And by leveraging social media, you can accumulate a healthy portion of both.

Schema.org Markup

Forget about obtaining reviews for the moment and consider what you actually do with them once you have them. Do they just sit on Yelp, Facebook or MerchantCircle? It you migrate them to your website, are they going to be hidden on some inner Testimonials page that will never be found?

With just a little HTML, you can actually give potential customers a dose of your online reputation before they even land on your site. It’s called structured data, a set of markup vocabularies standardized by the Schema.org initiative. And the markup capabilities found in these schemas go far beyond ratings and reviews. Your operating hours, NAPW information, and virtually any piece of content found on your website can be structured and styled for a richer user experience.

So what exactly does this have to do with local search marketing? Well, the possibilities are endless. I’m not going to go into how Schema.org vocabularies work, or even how to implement them. I promise I’ll touch on that another time. For now, here are a few schemas that are guaranteed to take your local search marketing efforts to the next level:

  • http://schema.org/Review
    Right, the review schema is how this whole tangent started. Well, by marking up reviews/ratings/testimonials on your site, you get to display them in the search engine results. I’m sure you’ve seen this before, and if you haven’t…take a look!
    review schema for local web design company
  • http://schema.org/LocalBusiness
    This, it isn’t hard to see, is a schema tailor-made for the needs of local businesses. It comprises various other schemas such as company name, address, phone number, and website (yessir — that crucial NAPW information!), which also get displayed in the search engine results, thus lending your business local credibility. You can also do neat things like state that your local business is part of a nationwide franchise, as well.
  • itemprop=”sameAs”
    Schemas are divided into item types and properties of those types. This property, the “sameAs” property, allows you to indicate that content A (a review, citation, etc.) originates from Website B (Yelp, your Google+ profile, etc.). Why is this important? Because, despite their mathematical precision and lightspeed velocity, search engines may take a moment to realize that your review is the same as that one, that this NAP is for the company on that citation. By using the sameAs property, it happens as soon as they crawl either site.
  • itemprop=”geo” & itemprop=”hasMap”
    Finally, there are the geography schemas, which obviously have certain implications for marking up local business websites. As I’d said earlier, one of the most daunting tasks in local search optimization is streamlining the NAPW of a business that has changed locations. But like the sameAs property, geographical properties such as “geo” and “hasMap” give search engines direct and straightforward information about your location. Plus, having a map on your website (which itemprop=”hasMap” requires) is great for user experience and letting customers know where and how to find you.

Who Local Search Marketing is Not For

Well, even though there is still plenty more to go over, I do believe that covers the gist of this little thing called local search marketing. Sounds pretty neat, right? Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound as sexy as I’d like it to. But, given the fact that 4 billion searches per month in the US are locally-oriented, its value shouldn’t be too hard to deduce.

With that said, I’d be remiss to omit just a few closing remarks about who shouldn’t jump headfirst into the world of local search. First and foremost: any company that is not in any sense local. This especially includes, but is certainly not limited to, e-commerce websites. With no brick and mortar location, you simply do not exist in the local search ecosystem.

And even if you do have a physical headquarters that can be found on a map, local search marketing may not be the strategy for you. Addiction treatment centers, medical suppliers and subscription-based services are all national (if not international) in scope. So, restricting these industries to a select few zip codes doesn’t exactly scream “ROI!”

And that’s okay. There are no cookie-cutter solutions here at TM34, and we’re certainly able to apply our expertise to any number of marketing strategies that are better suited toward you. SEO, PPC, retargeting, display advertising, email, social media, and thousands of others — the possibilities are as boundless as your geographic market!

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