iMedia Connection

How to optimize your business for local search

Jason Kreidman

As you know, the search engine results pages (SERPs) have been changing rapidly as Google strives to improve local relevance for its users. Local businesses and marketers are competing for scarce real estate on page one due to the continued increase in the influence of social and personalized signals in Google's organic results. At the Search Marketing Expo in San Jose, a top SEO predicted that "in two years, 70 to 80 percent of users will see local results on the SERPs." There's no time like the present to optimize for local search, yet many businesses overlook this opportunity.

While local search usage continues to grow on laptops and desktops, local mobile search is growing twice as fast. Google estimates that 20 percent of all searches have a local intent. However, this number jumps to 40 percent when it comes to mobile search. Google's Marissa Mayer revealed at TechCrunch Disrupt, NYC that mobile maps surpassed 200 million active users and that mobile makes up 40 percent of all Google Maps usage. Google expects mobile will exceed 51 percent share soon, surpassing desktop maps usage. For this article, we will focus on traditional optimization for local search.

The growth and importance of local search is undeniable -- and optimizing your individual or multi-location businesses for their respective local markets will pay big dividends. Take a look at a search query for "gift shops San Diego," which shows results for Google Places above the routine 10-pack of web page results (an evolution from a phase when several local results would take up 30 to 40 percent of the 10-pack). Because of the convenience, many searchers click here first. This means that no matter how well organically optimized you are, and even if you're sitting on the top organic search spot, you might receive fewer and fewer visits from searchers who seem to favor local results. That's why it's important for local businesses to be optimized for both local and organic search results.

Optimizing your single-location business for local search
Optimizing for local listings is fairly easy, but the devil is in the details. It is very important to pay close attention every step of the way, going beyond the bare minimum. Below are local search optimization tips for the big three -- Google, Yahoo, and Bing.

Google Places free listing
A Google Places listing is a must since Google gets the lion's share of U.S. search results. While Google's lead dwindled a little recently, it still has 65 percent market share. Take the following steps to establish your Google Places listing:

  1. Set up a Gmail account for your business.
  2. Go to Google Places, and sign in with your business Gmail account.
  3. Enter your business phone number to see if you already have a listing. If you are listed, continue to verify and add more details.
  4. If you are not listed, create a listing by entering basic information (name, address, phone number, website, hours, payment options, categories, description, etc.) Note: Every listing must have a physical address.
  5. Select a verification option. By phone is fastest; Google will call you with a verification code to input. Soon after, your listing will be live.
  6. Read Google Places Quality Guidelines to ensure your listing will be approved.

Local enhanced listings
Google's "local enhanced listings" is a paid service at $25 a month that allows a business to stand out with an enhanced presence in the Google SERPs. Local businesses can highlight important elements such as those listed below and make unlimited changes at no additional charge:

Logo image
Adding a free company logo, photos of your establishment, products, and even photos of your team are all very helpful for searchers. The more your local listing gives them to understand and trust your business, the more likely they will be comfortable choosing it offline.

Business owners can create a coupon in Google Places with all the necessary information: headline, details, "good until" date, etc. This is a great way to create a call-to-action and to provide customers and prospects with an incentive to visit your establishment.

Google Places ads (paid)
While your Google Places listing is free, Google also offers locally targeted advertising through its AdWords program. Just sign in to your account, and then you can create your ads and choose your keywords. Once your ad goes live, when users searching on Google enter one of your keywords, your ad might appear next to the search results. You'll be advertising to an audience that is interested in your offerings as Google uses contextual targeting technology to automatically match your ads to web pages in its display network that are most relevant to your business. People can click your ad and make a purchase or learn more about your company. Google provides placement performance reports that show you where all your ads appear. You can review your ads' performance on a site-by-site basis to see impressions, clicks, cost, and conversion data, subsequently using this data to identify the best performing sites for more aggressive targeting and the lower-performing sites for exclusion.

Changes to Google's local listings
Google implemented some serious changes to Google Places listings. For one, the layout is now cleaner and has more usability. It's easier to upload photos, submit reviews, and share experiences with other users. Google has removed some specific listing details from public view (due to spamming); however, it hasn't done away with the valuable information businesses provide. Google still uses that information to understand more about particular businesses and how relevant your listing may be for specific search queries.

Another change in Google Places listings was the removal of review snippets from third-party sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and CitySearch. Google removed these snippets (as well as citations) to avoid complications associated with third-party website reviews. Google had showcased these third-party reviews for some time, but while Google was able to benefit, the other sites lost out. These websites were providing Google with a ton of reviews but weren't receiving any form of compensation or website traffic.

In order to get more reviews, Google now has its own section for reviews and is focusing attention on getting users to write reviews. The new place page displays several bold and prominent "write a review" buttons in various locations.

Yahoo's free local listings
Yahoo used to own the local search market a few years ago, but its market share has been going down since the partnership with Bing, as Bing has effectively taken over Yahoo's search engine business. Since the partnership, almost all of Yahoo's users worldwide are continuing to use the familiar interface, but with actual results powered by Bing's search engine. Take the following steps to establish your Yahoo local listing:

  1. Create a Yahoo account for your company.
  2. Go to Yahoo Search Marketing, and click "sign up" to list your business.
  3. Input all business details: name, address, phone number, website, hours, products and services, payment options, details, etc. 
  4. After reviewing all of your business information for completeness and accuracy, the preview page will show two options: edit and submit. Click "submit" if all the information is correct, or "edit" if you need to make changes.

Yahoo's enhanced local listing
For $9.95 per month, businesses can sign up for Yahoo's enhanced local listings. The basic listing includes phone number, address, website, store hours, products, and services. The enhanced listing includes everything from the basic listing with the addition of a company logo and tagline, up to 10 photographs, coupons for customers, and more space for a detailed description. This would be the perfect place to utilize more keywords to increase the visibility of your listing. This page lists the difference between basic and enhanced listings.

Yahoo's local business ads (paid)
Pricing varies by industry and by geographic location. You can get detailed information from Yahoo Advertising Solutions.

Bing Business Portal (beta) free local listing
Bing-powered search (combined market share of Yahoo and Bing) reached 30 percent in March, and more people are searching on Bing to find businesses and services in their local area. You'll want to get a business listing on Bing local to increase your visibility and get more traffic to your site. Take the following steps to establish your Bing local listing:

  1. Go to the Bing Business Portal and click "get started now."
  2. When prompted, enter your business information to see if Bing already has your listing.
  3. Fill in all necessary fields of information for your business, in the same manner as for Google and Yahoo.
  4. Verify your account.

A Bing local listing is a page showing your business details. Local listings are found on the "local" tab of the Bing search results from a computer browser, or at on a mobile phone. Bing allows businesses to add photos and deals (Bing's term for coupons) for free.

Optimizing for local search and directory sites
It is very likely that Google, Bing, and Yahoo will dominate local search over the next year or two, and they will push local more than before. Not that the big three are the only game in town -- the other local search and directory sites will continue to drive traffic. But wide acceptance of Google, Bing, and Yahoo as major providers of local search results will continue, as they contain local and third-party integrated reviews, images, directions, and product offering descriptions, contributing to their success. The other local search and directory sites that you need to be listed in include the following with links to where you can sign up:

These local listing options offer basic, free listings, as well as advertising opportunities including more extensive paid services. The more listings you have, the better. It's important to keep the information for each listing consistent. The business title must remain consistent (i.e., don't use Tony's Pizza for Yelp and Tony's Pizza and Beer for Citysearch) as well as all other important information -- consistency is key.

Local search optimization recap
Simply having a listing on the three major search engines is a good start, but it's important to optimize in order to gain visibility in the SERPs. Keep the tips below in mind:

Note: When optimizing multi-location businesses with more than 10 locations, you might consider using SEO store locator software for affordability and more efficiency. Top Local Search provides such a system with its automated local SEO solution for large, multi-location businesses.

The advantage of local search listings
Multiple studies and a number of statistics show that local search continues to increase in importance. For instance, 43 percent of users research local companies when considering a product purchase (comScore). Kelsey Group found that 74 percent of internet users perform local searches. For every dollar spent online, $5 to $6 are spent offline that were influenced by prior online research (MIT Technology Review). Sixty-one percent of local searches result in a purchase (comScore). When it comes to comparison shopping, 97 percent of internet searchers go online to compare prices, and 51 percent of that group define their shopping style as "shop online, purchase offline" (NPD Group). Based on this research sampling, it remains clear local search will continue to grow.

Local search growth is also indicated by the increased usage of mobile phones, as well as by the statistics showing the number of searches with local intent. It is predicted that, in two years, 70 to 80 percent of users will see local results on the SERPs. If that is true, the businesses that don't bother to list themselves in local search engines will be left behind. Local search optimization should be treated like traditional SEO and must be a necessary part of any internet marketing campaign.

Jason Kreidman is the VP of business development at BestRank.

On Twitter? Follow Jason at @Kreidman.

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