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Local SEO Guide for Small Businesses

By: Volha Belakurskaya
April 9, 2019

Given that nearly everyone is looking for a local business or services near them, today search has become more local than ever.

While the majority of marketers already put a great amount of effort into local SEO, about 17% of enterprises and 20% of small businesses don't implement SEO in their marketing tactics (according to this fresh report). This means a sufficiently large piece of the local search cake is left on the table for someone wise enough to take a bite. So it's high time for you to start or review your local SEO activities to bring your business real customers who are trying to find you right now.

Below, I've gathered basic steps that may help launch a local SEO campaign for your small business from scratch or revise your existing campaign and possibly find some useful tips you might have overlooked.

1. Keyword choice — Think strategically

Whether you're just starting a local SEO campaign or it's been on the go for a certain period of time, keywords are the foundation to build your strategy on.

Search engines are no longer about matching keywords to queries. Google and its most popular rivals have long turned into service businesses that strive to bring more value to their customers and answer their needs as soon as possible. Moreover, based on search queries, Google learns to understand the intent behind them — the reason why people conduct a specific search — and come up with the most appropriate SERP.

However, properly conducted keyword research is still of vast importance. You'll need to apply a bit of new search engines' approach to your own SEO strategy. What does it mean for small businesses? Including local and long tail queries into keyword lists and optimizing content the way it answers the searcher's need. Anyway, there's a couple of basic steps you follow to create your final keyword list: get keyword ideas, find out what queries already bring your traffic, analyze and pick the words based on their efficiency.

Get keyword ideas

You might already have a couple of ideas of queries you want to rank for in Google and other search engines. But you definitely need more variants, so let's get them. There are several ways you can do this, of which the most obvious (as the majority of searchers today turn to Google) is Google Keyword Planner. It allows you to get a list of keyword ideas, based on the queries you input to start the process. But there are some points you need to take into account:

  • Google Keyword Planner was primarily designed for paid advertisers. So the data it provides may be dramatically vague if you have no running ad campaigns (it'll show you search range instead of exact search volume figures), and the impressions forecasts are more about the number of searches in which paid ads may appear, rather than entirely organic data. However, it's a powerful tool to find the most popular words.
  • Taking into account the previous point, you may miss plenty of ideas (like long-tails or location-specific queries, for example) if you limit yourself to exclusively this tool. So try some other options like Google Autocomplete or Google Trends to search for related queries to add to your list.
  • It's quite obvious that the tool won't help you collect data from other search engines.

TIP: You may use the Forecasts section of Google Keyword Planner if you are not running any Google Ads campaigns, but still want to get more accurate data than an extremely wide search range.

See, it gives you an overall idea of the words' popularity, but more exact figures could, obviously, be of more help. And you may dig this data out of the planner, it'll just require a bit more manipulations. The trick is to choose the words for which you want to get more exact search volume information and add them to an ad group.

Then, in the Keywords section, you'll be able to see more accurate data on your chosen keywords, including impressions forecast, that will give you a better idea of the words' popularity.

This task seems intricate and quite time-consuming. And it is, indeed. The good news is, there are tools able to save your time and effort, putting together a variety of sources for your keyword ideas. Here's an example of how you can use Rank Tracker for keyword research.

Create your project and go to the Keyword Research section.

Choose any of the suggested sources (keywords suggestions, autocomplete tools, related searches, etc) below.

Enter a seed keyword (or a couple), choose a search option, and start searching.

Analyze and choose keywords

With a long list of keyword ideas at hand, it's time to shorten it to a set of the most appropriate queries for your local SEO campaign. There are two key points that will define the efficiency of your keywords. They are monthly search volume and keyword difficulty.

Search volume is the average number of searches for a specific query per month. The ratio of search volume to competition (i.e. the number of websites competing for the query in search results) defines your keyword efficiency index. The higher the index is, the more efficient you may consider the keyword to be. The formula is built in Rank Tracker, so sorting your ideas by KEI may already give you the picture of what keywords to put efforts into.

But this picture won't be complete unless you check keyword difficulty. Compared to the competition, this factor stands not just for the quantity of the competing sites, but their quality as well, including the domain strength, backlink profile, etc. The higher difficulty score, the harder it'll be to outrank your competitors. So this factor is more useful in determining which words to choose for your local SEO strategy.

TIP: Sometimes you may come across a situation of having two synonymic queries with comparatively equal popularity (i.e. search volume). For organic search results, it doesn't really matter which of them you choose to optimize your webpage, as Google recognizes the search intent behind users' queries and can understand the entire topic of your page. But it seems to matter for the results shown in the local 3-pack.

As you can see, while the organic results remain more or less stable for both synonymic queries, the Local Finder shows different results for different word synonyms. Thus, it's important to choose the right word to optimize your page with (this is especially true in the case of Google My Business listing) if you want to find yourself in the local 3-pack.

How do you know what's the right keyword to choose?

Here I would rely on the powers of Google Trends. You may compare two queries there to see their search interest and how it differs depending on location (state/city). It gives you a clearer picture of your keyword choice. For example, the query "personal injury lawyer" attracts more search interest throughout the country, however in Tennessee or New Mexico, you better call yourself an attorney to make people find you.

Look for keywords you already rank for

If your website is not totally new (like published yesterday), it might already be ranking for several queries. Now, when you have elaborated a list of keywords, it's time to see if they already bring you traffic. It's also a chance to find a couple of ideas you could have overlooked during the first step of your research.

Start off by looking into Google Search Console to see all the queries that bring traffic to your website and your positions for each. Unfortunately, the tool keeps you blind about who else ranks for these queries, which, frankly, would be of use in your keyword strategy development.

Here you may rely on external tools. The Ranking keywords feature in Rank Tracker may help you in two ways:

  • It shows you the words you already rank for alongside your ranking position. Additionally, it gives you an overview of the websites that occupy the top 100 positions for each of these keywords, including those in the local 3-pack (i.e, your potential competitors).
  • Consequently, knowing the rivals at this very step, you may have a look at the keywords they rank for (as the Ranking keywords feature in Rank Tracker allows you to do that) and pick those you think may be useful to you.

With this data at hand, you may:

  • Expand your keyword list with good relevant keywords you've possibly overlooked.
  • Discover queries you have good ranks and opportunities for and prioritize them over the rest of your list. They might require just a little effort to move you up in SERPs.
  • Identify pages that rank for irrelevant keywords and work on your content to improve the situation.

Structurize your keyword list

Now, having your keyword list complete and analyzed, you need to group your words, depending on what pages you're going to promote. In other words, you need to build a keyword map for your site's optimization.

2. Learn the competition

Let's first clarify the idea of whom to define as competitors. You probably already know what companies you rival within your local business niche. However, in terms of SEO, your competitors are those placed higher than you in SERPs, especially those who occupy the first Google page and the local 3-pack. See the point? In the "local game," you can't go without examining the tactics of the latter group. So your competitor analysis needs to comprise two phases: finding who overrides you in ranking for your target keywords and looking through their SEO activities.

Find local businesses that rank better than you

Localized search results may differ depending on the searchers' location, the device they use (desktop/mobile), even the users' search habits. And for the local 3-packs, that are tremendously location dependent, proximity to the searcher seems to be the key ranking factor. So the more localized competition research you do, the more likely you are to see the picture as seen by local searchers. In this guide you'll find a variety of methods and tools that let you do this.

Keep in mind that for a small local business with a limited service area, even a city-based search is of little use, as it doesn't show the real picture of what a searcher sees. Especially when we talk about local pack results that are extremely location-sensitive and may differ depending on what street the searcher is located at the moment of search. So if you need to track rankings from a specific street address, you may utilize Rank Tracker to set up tracking for several locations in your city (which is also handy if your business covers multiple service areas).

Open your project in Rank Tracker. Go to Preferences, and choose Preferred Search Engines. Click Add Custom next to Google in the right column.

Insert a specific location in the Preferred Location field and name it in the Short Name field to define it later in the list of search engines.

It will automatically appear in the left column. Create as many locations as you require. Don't forget to create custom options for Google Mobile and Google Maps.

Remove any unneeded search engines from the left column (like for example, general Google).

Click Ok, when you're done with the setup, and proceed with identifying your competitors.

Go to Preferences, chose the Competitors option, and click on Suggest to find competitors based on your keywords list.

Insert your keywords and choose the search engine you're tracking results in. In case you track results from several locations, you'll need to repeat the procedure for each of them.

Gather intel on the competitors' tactics

To get an idea of how strong your rivals are, and how likely you are to force them out of their positions, you need to collect some critical information behind their success. Knowing your rivals' strengths, backlink profiles, and on-site tactics may help ameliorate your own strategy. Read this step-by-step guide to learn how to simplify and save loads of time on this task using SEO PowerSuite tools.

TIP: You may often observe a bunch of directories among the websites competing with you in the local search. For certain queries, they may occupy like half of the organic SERPs, which may seem a bit reassuring. How can a small business local site beat giants like Yelp or Yellow Pages, etc.? The hack is, you don't need to beat them (it's almost impossible), but better make friends with them and profit. Submit your business to all possible quality directories, appropriate for your business or service. There are plenty of variants of how to do this: demand submission by email, fill in the submission form or even buy a subscription (and many high-quality directories do require paid submissions), but the time you spend on this task is worth every second.

An important note: by all means keep your NAP (stands for your business Name, your Address, and your contact Phone number) consistent across all the resources it appears (including your own site and Google My Business listing).

Benefits?

  • Using the power of giants, you'll push your business to more visible positions in SERPs.
  • You'll get backlinks from a bunch of quality resources.
  • There's another great thing you'll get: NAP citations — mentions of your NAP — that play the same role for business as links do for a website. The more NAP citations you have, the more reliable your business seems to search engines. To use this opportunity to the fullest extent, you may look for other appropriate directories you may submit your business to.

Create a new project in Link-Assistant and go to Prospects> Choose the Link Prospects tab and click on Look for Prospects.

Choose Directories out of offered types of link prospects. Or scroll down to Custom choice and enter one or several queries you'd like to use. If needed, you can use advanced search operators like "inurl:", "intitle:", etc.

You'll get a list of directories with the contact information. You'll just need to define which of them are quality resources. You may check it in the Prospect Quality tab.

3. Work thoroughly on site optimization

Site optimization is a necessary, but long and in some sort dull process (especially when it comes to a technical part, and you're not at all a technical person). It comprises two equally significant and interrelated parts of work: the one you do for search engines, and the other you do for people (i.e. searchers). The trick here is, that with the constant improvement of search algorithms and the evolving of new technologies, you can't be complacent. There should be an ongoing process of analysis, revision, and re-optimization.

Handle technical issues

This is, in fact, the first thing you should do, before any optimization activities. Technical issues negatively affect site ranking, which results in lower site visibility across SERPs, and overall user experience. Site audit belongs to the field of technical SEO—something, that usually freaks non-technical people out.

However, this job is to be done, so you head off to Google Search Console to let it check your site's pages and give you reports on different technical issues. So you'll just need to fix them.

You may also make use of WebSite Auditor to conduct your technical SEO audit. The tool will report your technical issues page by page, give you the meaning of each issue, and provide you with some explanations on how to fix them.

Ensure you're mobile-ready

I'm not insisting that local businesses should glorify mobile searchers, but given the majority of smartphone users have long proven intent to find a local business or service to — in most cases — make a purchase, it looks pretty sinful not to have a website that is ready for mobile. This journey might seem complicated, but divided into steps, it looks less scary to take.

  • Get in the mobile-first indexing car.
    Mobile-first indexing stands for Google crawlers to look first through and index your mobile version content. In case your site has responsive design, you may relax. In other cases, there's a bit of work to ensure your content is compliant on all site versions.
  • Audit your site for the general mobile friendliness. The above-mentioned WebSite Auditor may crawl your site pages right as the mobile Googlebot does it and report any indexation issues for you to fix.

  • Ensure content consistency across your desktop and mobile site versions.

Work on your content

No doubt, you understand the importance of content for your website. And you definitely need your content to be considered good by both, users and search engines. Thus, you need to reach the balance between your content value for the site visitors and its adjustment to the ranking requirements of Google and friends, i.e. machines. And you achieve it with proper content optimization which (surprise!) may be quite a bewildering process unless you have a detailed plan of actions. Keep in mind, that you've done your great keyword research and grouped you keywords to assign them to your different landing pages as a preamble to this very moment. With your keyword list at hand, there are two general steps to take:

Analyze and improve your metadata. Meta tags are what robots read to understand what your page is about and use to form snippets in search results. (A snippet is a piece of information shown in an organic search result right below the URL). So, you definitely need to use your target keywords to create meta titles for your site pages and short (preferably about 160 symbols long) but informative and appealing meta descriptions (giving users an idea of what they may find on the page). I believe, there's no need to remind that titles and descriptions should be relevant to your pages content.

Analyze and improve your content for people. What's the trick here? First, you need to use your keywords on your pages, but there's no use to stuff all kind of your synonymic target queries into one page (or create different pages for each of your keywords, which I can't even imagine anyone wasting time on), as Google and other search engines understand the major topic of your content. Second, when people search for something, they have some kind of intent — like get information, compare or buy/order something. Your landing pages, ideally, answer this or that user's search intent, so build your content the way it answers a user's request. Here there's a kind of a guide on writing killer people/machine balanced content.

Working on your existing content, page by page, there are some points you need to put your efforts into (you may successfully use WebSite Auditor for this piece of work):

  • Organize your texts logically, using different heading tags (H1, H2, etc.) to help search engines better understand your pages structure.
  • Optimize your images. Though search engines today learn to recognize what an image is about, it's still the best practice to help them better understand it, using images' alternative attributes. Thus, you need to analyze and discover all your images' empty alt-tags and fill them in with appropriate keywords.
  • Ensure your keywords are sufficiently and in a natural way distributed across your page text. Ideally, you need to analyze how often you use a keyword on your page compared to how it is used on the average on webpages like yours. There's a method named TF-IDF that calculates this ratio, and based on it, defines the word's importance for a page.

TIP: Learn and use structured data to improve your chances for SERP visibility and audibility.

There's a great thing that helps you stand out in SERPs — reach results. In fact, they stand for any special google search features — results that appear on SERPs, apart from the standard 10 blue links. You've definitely heard about rich snippets or rich cards, meanwhile, there is a number of search features available, including, reviews, answer boxes, carousels, etc.

What's so beneficial about rich results?

  • For a website obtaining a rich result means ways better visibility, in most cases, they appear in the top of the first SERP. It's especially beneficial in case of mobile search, as rich results may occupy the whole screen of a mobile device (or its greater part).
  • Moreover, it's been observed that Google tends to consider local packs, knowledge panels, recipes, featured snippets, and some other rich results better sources of content for the voice search. Given that about 71% of consumers reported using voice assistants to search for something — and this tendency is going to grow — it'll be great to appear in the voice search results.

The trick is, you can't guaranty your appearance in the rich result. However, that doesn't mean you should give up on this opportunity. Let's say, you may dramatically improve your chances to produce the rich result in SERPs.

You just need to enable search features for your site (and wait for Google to pick you) by applying structured data (schema) markup.

Structured Data markup is a set of codes which, when implemented, structurize your site's content to help search engines understand its meaning. In other words, it makes Google define this certain alphabetic character set as, in fact, your address/working hours/your upcoming event/any kind of useful info a user may ask for. As well, it helps you provide searchers with important information about your business right from the SERP.

To add structured data to your website you'll need Google Search Console and Structured Data Testing Tool.

Depending on what business or service your site is about, you may choose out of plenty of data types. Make sure you utilize appropriate markup on different types of pages (about, contact, product pages etc.). You'll need time to understand all the powers of structured data and a good deal of experiment on applying different markups (like Speakable, for example). However, you could start with some types of markups intended for small and local businesses:

  • LocalBusiness markup for a particular physical business or a branch of an organization;
  • The markup for contact information that highlights different types of your contact info;
  • The markup for detailed product information;
  • Social profile markup to add links to your social networks in the search results;
  • Event markup for highlighting your upcoming events.

Some markups are more likely to produce rich results when properly implemented. Others may not necessarily lead to an immediate result. Anyway, structured data does more good than harm, so implementing it to your website is worth the effort.

4. Take the most out of your Google presence

Doubtless, the majority of searches are made in Google. No matter, whether you have a website or not, it's crucial for a local business to have their Google business account set up and managed properly. This step helps them appear in the local search results and lets potential customers connect them immediately. Google My Business comprises a bunch of extremely useful features that may help businesses communicate with potential customers directly, receive feedback and react to it, show photos and videos, share important information, encourage people to book tables or tickets, and more. Again, Google My Business is the "mustest" must for small businesses targeted at the local reach.

Create your listing in accordance with the guidelines (and bear in mind to skim through them from time to time for changes and updates) and claim it. Best practices here are as follows:

  • Insert correct business name and address of your shop, office, etc. or choose the right service area if you are a service business with no premises. Verify other significant information, including your phone number, working hours, payment methods, etc.
  • Elaborate really great description — an attractive and comprehensive presentation of your business. Ensure you haven't violated the guidelines.
  • Choose the most relevant category or categories for your business.
  • Add nice photos (at least five) and videos (if you have them) showing your premises, product(s), your wonderful staff, yourself (after all, it's your business, let people know about it).
  • Ensure there's just one listing that represents your business on Google. In case you've found some duplicates, you better get rid of them for good.

The info from GMB appears in the Knowledge Panel — a big informational panel that appears in the upper right corner or SERP (and big means really big) when someone searches for your business from a PC, and it's the first thing mobile users see on their smartphone screens. The more thoroughly you work on your GMB listing the more likely Google will show your business in the Knowledge Panel.

TIP: Certain features of your GMB profile are critical for local businesses in terms of both, your SEO and your reputation. They let you speak to your customers directly from Google SERP and improve your rankings. And I can't really tell one from the other in terms of importance.

Reviews are believed to be a strong local ranking factor. It's a great source of content that Google likes, i.e. created by real people for real people. Moreover, people are at most influenced by customers' reviews when forming their opinion about a brand, service, product, etc. In terms of rankings, not only the quantity of reviews matter, but mostly their character (positive or negative), and your replies to reviews. So make sure, you log in at your GMB dashboard regularly and reply to all your reviews.

Q&A is an often overlooked GMB feature, however, it's a powerful instrument of communication for a local business. People like to ask questions and are mad about receiving responses immediately, preferably when they are doing their search. Use Q&A to create the list of frequently asked questions within your listing to provide your potential customers with general or specific information about your business right at the moment they need it.

Bear in mind that you're not the only one who may answer to users. Google lets other users give answers to requests in your Q&A section. If you want to ensure that people receive actual and correct info about your business, manage your Q&A on a daily basis.

Google Posts let you communicate with your customers, sharing your news, making important announcements, offers, etc. They are shown in your GMB profile and, consequently, they appear in the Knowledge panel and on Google Maps. In fact, Google Posts are the fastest way to notify people about the great things you offer or organize (like sales, events, promotions, etc.) right at the moment that do the search.

Just for laughs, have you ever tried to add emojis to your posts? If not, test this thing. At most, to attract searchers who use emojis in their search queries (they exist!).

5. Create a great backlink profile

Links are the top 3 of the most powerful ranking factors. There are different types of backlinks. Some of them are more efficient for SEO than others. While 35% of local marketers have no elaborated link building strategy, the majority of those who do, rely mostly on content development as a link building tactics. In fact, Google (and other search engines) love natural backlinks and good quality backlinks, and the essence in getting them is to work on great content. No matter, what backlink strategy you'll adopt for your site, there are several common steps to take, which include:

Analyzing your backlink profile. Before earning new links, it's critical to make an audit of the backlinks you already have. You can check all your backlinks in your Google Analytics or Google Search Console.

You may as well use SEO SpyGlass to for you backlink audit. This step may give you the general ideas of who is links to your site (and to what pages), assess the quality of your backlinks, and sanitize your profile to get rid of low-quality links.

Create your project in SEO SpyGlass, adding your domain name.

Go to the Backlink Profile section to check various information about all your backlinks, linking domains, see anchor texts, linked pages, etc.

Check out the Penalty Risk feature to find potentially harmful backlinks.

Look at the Penalty Risk column to identify such links (they'll be marked red).

You'll be able to disavow harmful links in one click. Just select the links you'd like to disavow, right-click the selection and choose Disavow backlinks.

Compare it to your competitors' profiles. Once you've discovered who your competitors in local search are, you may take a closer look at their backlink strategy. This may show you where you rivals outpower you and tweak your own strategy. In SEO SpyGlass you may analyze your several competitors' backlinks at once to see where they intersect. If all your rivals have backlinks from the same resource, it's quite likely you need to get a link from the same resource as well. This may be especially useful for starters who haven't yet defined a clear backlink strategy.

Open your SEO SpyGlass project. Go to the Domain Comparison section to add your competitor's domains. Then choose the Link Intersection feature.

Analyze different backlinks prospects to find the most suitable backlink sources for your business sphere. There is plenty of possibilities for you to get a backlink. You may submit your site to a number of local business directories (which is highly recommended for small businesses), there's guest posting (in case it's done in a proper way), get links from reviews, etc. You may look for a wide range of backlink prospects with Link-Assistant, as well as analyze the chosen prospects quality, and reach them for a backlink.

TIP: Strive for quality backlinks that positively affect your rankings. Quality links are backlinks receiver from high-quality resources relevant to your niche. In fact, the majority of quality links are natural links — those you receive when someone refers to your piece of content or your website. For local SEO it's essential to have backlinks from sites in your local area. How can you possibly earn quality local links to your site? Think over a couple of ideas:

  • Get links from local media. It may be unobvious, but local media strive for providing quality content but don't have enough expert workforce to cover all popular topics. All you need is to look through your local media resources and the materials they create and define what topics you could potentially cover for them. Even a simple search will provide you with a list.

  • Get links from local bloggers and niche resources open for guest posting. Guest posting can be a powerful means of getting quality links, providing that you do it for the right resources and you produce great content. If you think you do—go ahead and share it with people. Like local media, local bloggers may also need an expert opinion to share. You may use Link-Assistant to automate your search for resources open for guest posting, pick those in your area, and contact them.

Just open your project in Link-Assistant and go to Prospects. Choose the Link Prospects tab and click on Look for Prospects

In the window that appears, choose Guest Posting and click Next. You'll require to fill in a couple of keywords to let the program find relevant resources.

Please, keep in mind that different websites may have different rules and requirements for guest posts. So take time to read them carefully and comply with when you write for this or that resource.

Conclusion

Promoting your local business is a challenging, but interesting and rewarding task. You can't develop and succeed without a good deal of promotion activities, and local SEO is one of them. Important. Critical. But not the only one.

Local business is often about community. Step-out in the real world and don't neglect offline activities. At least, be awesome and super customer oriented as a business or a service provider. Because your business is not about rankings, after all, but about people, you help and make happy.


By: Volha Belakurskaya