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BACK TO BASICS: The Three-Pronged Approach to Local SEO

by Virginia Nussey, September 17, 2010

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Searches that include a location stand at 20 percent of all Google searches. And the proportion of Google results pages that display a map was at 1 in 13 at the beginning of the year. The U.S. Small Business Administration says that in 2008 there were 29.6 million small businesses across the country, and just 4 million business listings on Google have been claimed by business owners. It's clear that local SEO represents both an opportunity and an imperative at this point. Smart businesses are poised to overtake any lagging competition, however local SEO doesn't simply give an edge to brick-and-mortar businesses today - it's a requirement. Today, if you can't be found online, there's a good chance you won't be found on the street.

With many small business owners busy running day-to-day operations, there's a need for streamlined instruction on the straight-forward tasks that can improve the chances of being discovered by consumers online. So here we approach local SEO as an achievable three-pronged strategy: on-site SEO for local search and discovery, off-page SEO to aid local search rankings, and optimized business listings across the Web.

Local Search Background and Methodology

Local search here refers to the local-focused search verticals of the search engines, Google Places and Bing Local Listings. Other platforms of note referred to throughout this guide to local SEO includes local directories, like Yellow Pages and eLocal, and local destination sites devoted to aggregating information on local businesses, including reviews, check-in services, product and service details, photos and contact information. This category includes Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch and Insider Pages.

When optimizing a Web presence for local search and discovery channels, consider that there are two types of local search: recovery and discovery. With respect to recovery searches, or those searches performed to locate a business a searcher is already familiar with, concentrate on the business name, address and phone number, which make up the businesses fingerprint online. Meanwhile, for discovery search, or research performed to find a business not known specifically but which will serve the searcher's needs, focus on details searchers use to locate the business and the stated category in local search and listing sites.

Local Search Requirements and Ranking Factors

The search engines' algorithms for local search results are technically unknown, however, a number of ranking factors have been inferred based on testing and performance. Google applies three distinct algorithms used to serve results: the organic algorithm, the maps algorithm and the 7- or 10-pack algorithm. The maps and local-pack algorithm overlap, though are considered separate, according to a presentation during December 2009's SES Chicago session on local search ranking factors.

Results in the local and maps algorithm are gleaned from several sources:

  • Database supplied business information
  • Submitted business information
  • Detailed Web references, also known as citations
  • Trusted data feeds
  • User generated content

Landing Page Optimization for Local Search

If a business has a site, it can be optimized for local search. An optimized site improves its chances of showing up in organic search results, may deliver strong signals to search engines and gives searchers a detailed resource to learn about the business' products, services and mission. To optimize a site and its landing pages for local search, clearly include the business name and location in the page Title tag; include the address, name and phone number in plain text; make privacy policy and contact info available on the site; and implement engaging content such as video and images on site when appropriate. The latter may provide additional search engine ranking opportunities and visitor engagement alike.

Managing Your Business Listing

A business must proactively claim its listing and manage its profile in directories, social sites and local search sites across the Web, including the major search engines:

Editor's note: This list is up to date as of July 2018.

When submitting your local business listing to search engines, online directories and other local-oriented platforms, keep in mind the use of keywords a searcher might be looking for; make your profile as complete as possible, including photos, business hours, and payment options among other details; categorize your business accurately while casting a wide net that will catch as much interest as possible; keep the listing fresh so that viewers aren't misled by outdated info; and maintain accuracy and consistency across the many listing and directory services so that the business's online fingerprint isn't fragmented.

Attaining Relevant Citations

The off-page optimization aspect of local SEO includes attainment of citations, or online mentions of a business, with or without a link. Citations are an important search engine ranking factor as they verify a business listing's accuracy and activity within a community. This off-page optimization tactic overlaps third-party site optimization, as a Yelp listing of a business, for instance, is considered a citation. These third-party mentions of a business are ever more important if a business has no site of its own developed because a search engine will turn to citations when a business doesn't have adequate information submitted to the local listing service. Unlike general organic SEO, success in local search doesn't require a business to have a website of its own, but rather a healthy reputation across the Web and accurate and consistent info provided to local search and listing services.

Spreading the Word

Considering the importance of local SEO and business profile optimization for businesses today, evangelism will play an important role in raising awareness. One simple way to get the point across to clients or local businesses you're friendly with is sharing a one-page comic created by Bruce Clay, Inc. resident artist (and client liaison) Dærick Gröss. The easy-to-share PDF explains the strategies and best practices that comprise local-focused search engine optimization. Just print it out or send it to small business owners and managers who might benefit from local SEO, and watch that business transform its online presence.


For permission to reprint or reuse any materials, please contact us. To learn more about our authors, please visit the Bruce Clay Authors page.