Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, it should be fairly clear that Google is a ruddy big deal when it comes to fetching and finding info. It’s an even ruddierer & biggerer deal when it comes to searches with a geographic intent i.e. “SEO Marketing Agency in Bristol” or “Gluten Free restaurants near me”, but what's not so clear is how or what you can do to rank for these uber competitive phrases.
By reading this guide and following some simple steps you’ll be able to demystify those illusive ranking factors and dominate the local competition in no time.
N.B. Before you get your local search presence in order, you need to make sure your website is well optimised and firing on all cylinders first. If you haven't done so already, check out the free guide below for 4 easy ways to build SEO into your site.
Google My Business
Google My Business (previously called Google Places & Google+ Local) is essential when It comes to ranking in local searches. GMB is THE platform that powers what we in the biz call the snack pack or 3 pack (the 3 little map results at the top of the SERPs).
Fail to set this up properly or even claim a listing that’s been setup by a “helpful” customer and you’ll struggle to be found for any of your customer’s local queries and quandaries.
A well-optimised Google My Business page should contain the following:
- Consistent SWANPLOP (see section below)
- Verified profile
- Local POTS contact number e.g. 0117 for Bristol (don’t use a mobile # and steer clear of 0800 if you can help it
- Legitimate reviews
- Relevant and decent quality images of your business and logo (360 virtual tours work wonders here)
- A well-chosen primary business category + relevant secondary categories.
If you don’t own your listing or you’ve lost the login details, reclaim it. This process used to be a pain in the backside but it’s gotten a lot easier and faster over the years. The verifcation phone calls are instant and most verification PIN post cards are received within 5 days.
S.W.A.N.P.L.O.P. – Citation Consistency
As if the Search industry didn’t have enough ridiculous acronyms flying around, we’ve decided to create a new one – SWANPLOP. SWANPLOP (not bird poo) is a handy way of remembering the important bits of citation information that search engines review to figure out if your local business is relevant to a customer’s search. It stands for:
Search engines will look for and cross reference this information by rummaging through your own website, Google My Business/Bing local listing, social media bios, directories and even Companies House to determine where your business is physically located. If any of this information is inconsistent then Google isn't going to understand which info is your business' de facto info.
It’s a bit like me arranging to meet some friends for brunch (apologies in advance for the extremely middle-class analogy). One friend says the brunch place opens at 9:00am, the other 8:30am and finally a 3rd friend chimes in saying it opens at 7:30 am. I’m trying to cross-reference these various sources of information but I can’t get a clear answer, so instead of risking turning up an hour and a half before the joint opens, I’ll just pick a different place to get my matcha tea and huevos rancheros.
Similarly, if Google finds mismatch or contradictory citations relating to your business, it’ll probably choose one that is more consistent and trustworthy to sing and dance about in those ever-elusive first results.
How on earth do I find all that mismatched info though?!
The web is a big place and it’s going to be nigh on impossible to track down all your online citations, so that’s where a free tool like Moz Local comes in.
Slap your company or store name into this tool along with your post code (you'll have to do this multiple times if you have lots of branches) and Moz will track down any incomplete, inconsistent or even duplicate citations for you. By default it chooses what it thinks are the most important directories on the web. What it won’t do is identify industry specific directories.
Perform a search for your service and your area (e.g. Accountants in Clifton) and see what directories appear. It’d be a shame if you spent loads of time optimising your Yelp listing and you missed out Thomson Local or the Bristol Post.
N.B. when I’m talking about consistency I really mean be annoyingly pedantic, because search engines are the ultimate pedants. That means your business needs to be listed as Noisy Little Monkey not Noisy Little Monkey LTD, your phone number needs to be 0117 327 0171 not +44 117 3270 171 and street addresses need to be Raleigh Road not Raleigh Rd. Everything needs to be identical.
“Ummmm… Josh… I want to learn about local search results, not mobile SERPs”. Well my dear reader, mobile results and local results are often the same thing. So much so that in the biz local and mobile search are often amalgamated into Lo-Mo (a term I totally didn’t just make up on the spot). Also the Mobile First Index is on it’s merry way and that’s kind of a big deal in it’s own right!
So why is Lo-Mo a thing?
To answer that I need to point you from a ridiculous sounding portmanteau, towards an even more ridiculous sounding acronym; ZMOT. While it might sound like a race of naff 50s B-Movie aliens, the ZMOT or Zero Moment Of Truth is a behavioural model which tries to explain consumer purchase habits and buyer research journeys.
At the risk of boring you even further (admit it, you yawned when you read “behavioural model”) I’ll let you browse through Google’s mass of ZMOT literature at your own leisure.
TL;DR - consumers who are close to making a purchase (The Zero Moment Of Truth) will research information on their mobile devices before they decide to buy goods or services. A lot of those mobile searches (40% in fact) have a local or geographic intent e.g. hairdressers near me or best coffee in Bristol.
If your site performs poorly on mobile devices (Speed, UX etc.) you're less likely to rank well in local search results.
Mobile First Design is a key factor in a sites overall mobile friendliness, as is the server and load speed of your website. Fixing these elements can often be a big task, so before you commit workhours and ultimately money to fixing issues that might not even exist, be sure to run your site through Google’s Mobile Friendly test first. You’ll be given a hitlist of fixes if your site is more mobile fugly than friendly, and all you have to do then is take your findings to your developer of choice (or us) to fix.
Star ratings are all the rage these days, but if you don’t believe me I’d suggest you look at the 2017 Bright Local Consumer survey. If you’re short on time here’s the top 5 headline stats:
- 97% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses in 2017, with 12% looking every day
- 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations
- Positive reviews make 73% of consumers trust a local business more
- 49% of consumers need at least a four-star rating before they choose to use a business
- Consumers read an average of 7 reviews before trusting a business - up from 6 last year
If asking for legitimate reviews from your customers isn’t part of your after-sales strategy, IT NEEDS TO BE. None of the major review sites forbid incentivising or soliciting reviews (apart from Yelp) so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be asking for ratings and feedback.
Anecdotally, 4.5 star reviews tend to be more attractive to potential customers than 5 star ones! This is mainly down to trademark British scepticism and the belief that nothing is perfect in life...
If you’re time poor and what I’d call a "hyper local” business (high level of footfall and the service/good is bought or received on site) just focus on Google My Business. Your GMB review quality and quantity will influence your position in the 3 pack and as an added bonus those star ratings will also improve your CTR (click through rate).
However, if you’re in an uber competitive niche and want to stay one step ahead, make sure you work on improving your reviews for the following platforms:
- TripAdvisor (massively important for B2C / hospitality)
- Opentable, Zomato (restaurants, bars and cafes)
- Trustpilot, reviews.co.uk, feefo etc.
When it comes to your reviews you can’t fake quality! Review platforms like GMB are intelligent enough to notice an influx of reviews that come through in automated flurries, from the same IP address or from dodgy looking profiles.
If you’ve got lots of negative reviews, please please please do not ignore them! Most businesses default to saying nowt, they cut their losses and accept that they’ve lost a customer for life. Thing is, you’re not just losing a single customer, you’re tarnishing your brand by letting those complaints fester and turning away potential buyers.
Answer complaints in an honest and human manner. None of this “Thank you for your valued feedback <insert-customer-name>, your message has been passed to the customer service team. Expect another boilerplate response in 3-5 business days” crap, if the negative review didn’t turn people away from your business, your cold robotic responses to complaints will. Even worse you'll warrant an even fiery response from your already disgruntled and soon to be ex-customer.
Be compassionate. Try to form an emotional connection with the customer and more importantly validate their feelings e.g. “that sounds awful Josh, if I were in your shoes that would have completely ruined my day”
Show contrition. Admit fault and explain how much you/the brand has learned from the issue. It won’t fix their problem entirely but honesty always comes across best.
A timely response and a speedy offer to fix whatever problem they are facing is crucial in trying to salvage customer trust. Bend over backwards, send a free replacement, offer a discount. Do what needs to be done to turn this service #FAIL into a PR #WIN
Internally you need to ensure this blunder doesn’t happen again. You can’t fake good customer service... but you can always improve. Examine the process which led to the poor service in the first place and don’t play the blame game - just make a conscious effort to fix it for the next punter.
Google's mandate is to organise the universe and it’s doing a pretty good job of it. It’s not perfect though (yet… Google will probably go full SKYNET in the next decade or two). While SKYNET Google can understand the relationship between certain strings of text, it doesn’t always understand the context in which its being used. For example, Google knows that “Raleigh Road” is most likely a street address, but it doesn’t understand that it’s the street address belonging to Noisy Little Monkey.
We can help Google and other search engines add context to important text and highlight our useful info using structured data, specifically Schema. Schema is an extensible mark-up language (aka fancy code) that you can use on any HTML page where useful business info lives. You can add schema to literally anything (recipes, reviews, blog posts, job listings, events, movies etc) and I’d definitely recommend you mark any info you can, but for now we’re going to focus on local business schema.
There are multiple languages you can make use of like RDFa or HTML5 Microdata, but if you’re not super savvy when it comes to coding, the language that requires the least amount of on page fiddling is JSON-LD (Google also prefers JSON-LD over the other schema types).
Visit Schema.org to find the list of local business info you can wrap up or you can use and edit my example below. (If you're going to copy and paste my example, please please please paste it as plain text, otherwise you might copy the styling across as well!)
"postalCode": "BS3 1TF",
"streetAddress": "Loft 5, Tobacco Factory, Raleigh Road"
"name": "Noisy Little Monkey",
"telephone": "0117 327 0171",
The important thing to remember when using JSON-LD is to make sure you're only marking up information that is actually on the page. If you're adding elements into your markup which aren't written down anywhere else on your page, search engines will think that you're cloaking content. This is a super shady SEO tactic from way back which is a humongous no-no in Google's eyes.
If you're confident you've formatted your schema properly, your next step is to check your code actually works. To do this there's no better tool than Google's own Structured Data Tester. Simply copy and paste your code into the tool or enter your URL and it'll help point out any pesky syntax errors you've made. It will also tell you what info it thinks is missing! Thanks Google 👍
On Page SEO
If you were trying to rank for a particular phrase or service, one of the first things you need to do is optimise a target page around that phrase. The reason being Google still uses (alongside an ever-growing list of ranking factors) "Keyword Relevance" to determine if your page matches a user's search query. The same goes if you're trying to rank for a service + a geographic location e.g. Digital Marketing Bristol. Google still needs to see the relevant search terms on your site in order to return your pages in SERPs.
When determing keyword relevance Google prioritises some page elements over others, namely:
In order to showcase your relevance in local search it's vital you actually mention your target or service areas in each of these on page sections (you'd be surprised how many local business don't mention their locale anywhere on site!).
If you not sure how to find out what terms you should actually be using, i'd reccomend you take a look at our how to guide on Keyword Research For Content
From there you'll be able to shortlist those silver bullet search terms with which you can optimise your local pages.
Last but by no means least, we need to talk links.
It's 2017, you should know why links are important by now. If you're still in the dark when it comes to linkage, have a quick browse of Jon's guide on linking domains.
The problem is that the word "backlink" is oft spoken in hush tones when it comes to SEO, and for good reason. For years and years nefarious individuals have made oodles of cash selling cheap spammy links to unsuspecting marketers. In turn, most of those marketers see a little bit of a boost in traffic and rankings and then pile more and more eggs into the metaphorical paid link basket. Fast forward 6 months later and said marketer is now in floods of tears, their rankings lying in ruin after the almighty clout of a Google Manual Penalty.
Don't worry though, we're not talking about harmful spammy links. The ones we want are legitimate, relevant links to your business that help pass some much needed trust to your site. While quality of linking domain is extremely important, (like getting a link from the BBC) links from local domains are equally important for local SEO.
Links from local Chambers of Commerce, local industry directories or even bloggers and influencers, while not particularly weighty, help search engines understand how locally relevant your domain is. If you're not sure where to begin, start with the simple stuff like local publications, local Chambers of Commerce and business directories. Then, if you're feeling confident it's well worth researching the local competition and seeing where their links are coming from.
Use a backlink research tool like Majestic and analyse the referring domains for a few of your top local competitors. If you start to see common backlinks from different publications, there's a good chance you could build a relationship with those sites and score some sweet editorially justified backlinks to boot.
PHEW. Did you make it through all the way to the end? **high fives** It's a beast of a blog but trust me, if you can get all this in the bag you'll be laughin'. And if you need any help, just tweet us @NoisyMonkey!