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Pixel Insights: Online Marketing Blog

Getting High Rankings in Local Search Results: Part 1 of 3

Local search resultsDoes your business depend on getting clients locally? You need to rank well in local search results. This is our big guide on doing just that.

Follow it step-by-step. If you put in the work, you will see results (no pun intended).

Welcome to Part 1. You will learn:

  • Step 1: Understanding How Search Engines Treat Local Businesses Differently and the Critical Pieces for Ranking Well
  • Step 2: Researching Your Keywords and Describing Your Business
  • Step 3: Optimizing Your Website Content for Local Search

Parts 2 and 3 will cover:

  • Creating a Killer Google Places Listing
  • The Key Local Business Directories to Get List In (including a special list for Canada)
  • Researching What Your Competition is Doing
  • Attracting Natural Links
  • The "Be Everywhere" Strategy To Make You Impossible to Ignore
  • Measuring Your Optimization Results
  • and yes, even more.

Sign-up to Be Notified When the Next Parts are Out!

Now let's get started!

Step 1: Understanding How Search Engines Rank Local Businesses and the Critical Pieces That Affect These Rankings

Search engines want to return the results that are relevant to the person who is doing the search (yes, search engines return different results for different people). A major part of this is tailoring results to the location of the searcher.

Take this Google search for pizza delivery for example (click to enlarge):

Local search results example

What do you notice? The results are almost all local to my city: Waterloo, Ontario. If you were to search for "pizza delivery" ten years ago, you would see whatever pizza chains had the most money to spend on marketing. They wouldn't necessarily be in your country, much less within a 10 block radius!

To accomplish this seemingly telepathic trick, search engines have to understand:

  • What location you are in: this is done by the location of your internet connection, user profile, and other information the search engine knows about you.
  • What businesses are local and relevant to the search query: this is based on hundreds of different pieces of information (signals) that the search engine gathers from your website and those of others. This is what we'll be focusing on.

What are these signals that affect rankings? Moz recently posted the results of their fantastic 2013 Local Search Ranking Factors survey. This is probably the best up-to-date information on what signals matter and the impact that they have. 

Key takeaways from the report:

  • Local search results are influenced by a great deal of factors.
  • Focusing on a few specific areas seems to make the most difference (80-20 rule)
  • Search engine optimization involves way more than just optimizing your website (which accounts for only 18% of the your site's ranking according to Moz).

Throughout this series you will be getting step-by-step instructions on how to get these critical signals working for you. Let's get to it.

Step 2: Researching Keywords

Before you can optimize, you need to research your keywords and assess your competition (the latter will be done in a future part). Our goal here is to find what phrases people are actually typing into search when looking for your services. You can't optimize for everything, so it's important to pick the keywords that actually get traffic.

Assemble an Initial Keyword List

Start by assembling your own inital list of potential keyword ideas, preferably in a spreadsheet for easy copy-paste. This is mostly a brainstorming process, but there are a few tips:

  • Make sure you consider what terminology your customers use when they are referring to your services, rather than what professionals inside your industry use.
  • Consider the different types of services that people may be looking for. For example law firms typically offer a host of common services such as incorporation, legal wills, workplace injury consultation, etc.
  • If you have an existing website look at your traffic statistics and see what keywords your visitors are currently coming into your website from.
  • Solicit ideas from staff members and even customers.

Some types of business will have a much longer list of keywords than others. Put the mental work in, but don't try to invent keywords for the sake of filling out your list. 

Get Keyword Ideas and Traffic Volume from Google Adwords Keyword Planner

Once you have created an initial keyword list you can use the Google Adwords Keyword Planner tool to find additional keyword suggestions and to see search volume within your region.

Note: You do need to setup an Adwords account to use it, however there isn't any minimum amount of money you need to spend to use it.

To input your keywords:

  1. Enter the Keyword Planner Tool in Adwords.
  2. Select "Search for Keyword and Ad Group Ideas"
  3. Enter your current keyword list in the "Your product or service" box.
  4. Find your product category for extra help in determining appropropriate keywords.
  5. For the targeting setting, get rid of the default country targeting and add each city that you serve. This will let you see search volume just in your area, a killer feature!

Run the report. By default it will try to suggest Adgroups. Click the tab for Keywords instead and click the "Avg. monthly searches" to sort by it.

You should now see something like this: Adwords Keyword Planner Example

From the image above we can see that in addition to trying to find dentists in Toronto, many people search for specific dental services. Different types of businesses will yield different types of results for search volumes and types of inquiries.

If the number of searches is too small to display you may need to expand your geographic area (for example if you are based in a small town).

Record Your Keyword Ideas

Using the data that you found in the Keyword Planner, record the keywords that you wish to target in a spreadsheet or word processor document. These should be keywords that are:

  • Highly relevant to your business.
  • Have high traffic volume.
  • Indicative of people looking for your service (eg "dental assistant jobs" has high volume, but it's not a keyword customers would be searching for).

Save this list! You will be using it in most steps.

Step 3: Optimizing Your Website Content for Local Search

Note: the exact ways to accomplish some of these tasks vary depending on the Content Management System in use on your website. Consult your web developer or search around on Google if you can't find the correct setting.

Here are the most significant changes that you can make to your website to optimize your local search rankings:

1) Make Sure That Your Name, Address, Phone Number Are Accurate and Visible

This is critical - make sure that name, address, and phone are all listed on your website. This information is used by search engines to determine if you are local to the geographic area that a user is searching in. It is also cross-referenced with 3rd party directories such as Yelp, Yellow Pages, etc (we discuss exactly what such directories to get listed in another step). A real address and phone number take effort to fake so this also helps search engines verify that your business is real and not a spam listing.

If you have multiple locations it is a good idea to give each one its own contact page with that location's information and optimized for that city (see below).

An added bonus is to embed a Google Map on your contact page, further reinforcing that you are local.

2) Optimize Your Title and Meta Description Tags

Your Title and Meta Description tags are two of the most important pieces of information on your website's pages. However they are easy to miss because they don't actually appear when a human views your website (except the title does show up in the browser's tab). However they are used by search engines and other services like Facebook and LinkedIn, and can dramatically impact your rankings.

For example, here is the Title tag and Meta Description for our contact page, being used in a Google Search result:

Diagram showing the title and meta description parts of a search result.

Even in 2013 many companies are making the fatal mistake of not setting these, or using terrible defaults like their company's name or "Home". Take the time to set these correctly.

Actually changing this information varies by the content management system (CMS) that your website uses. If you are a Tilted Pixel customer, contact your account manager if you need help. If you aren't, consult your help manual or contact your developer, but do not ignore these tags.

Figured out how to change them? Then let's make them awesome. Both of these tags should be set (and different) for every page.

Setting the Title Tag

This is literally the actual title of the page, as displayed to search engines, web browsers, etc. Search engines give this tag a lot of weight when determing what you website is about and will often use it as the text that is displayed for your website page (alongside the meta description described below).

A good website page title...

  • Is different for each page of your website and reflects what that page is about.
  • Includes your location (we also suggest business name).
  • For your home page, focus on your most important keywords (refer to your research above), your business name, and location. 
  • Actually looks like a title and not just random keywords: remember that this text will be used in your search results!

Setting the Meta Description Tag

The text inside your meta description doesn't necessarily affect search engine rankings directly. However this text IS often used below your website link when displaying your site in search engine listings, so it's a powerful piece of information to control. It's your opportunity to impact whether people actually clickthrough to your website.

The meta description is also used when a page on your website is shared on a social media site such as Facebook or LinkedIn. These sites attempt to provide a short preview of the link as part of the post, and will normally use the meta description if available.

A good meta description...

  • Forms a sentence or two and sticks to less than 165 characters.
  • Utilizes your most important keywords.
  • Includes the regions you serve and your phone number.
  • Is relevant to the specific page that you are setting the description for. For example if you have a page all about auditing services that you provide, your meta description should focus on auditing and not tax preparation or the 10 other services you offer.
  • Your home page meta description should list your most important services (using the keywords that get the most searches), along with region and phone number.

Remember: the meta description can greatly affect whether someone actually clicks your search listing. This in turn can impact long-term search performance (search engines measure clickthrough rates). 

3) Optimize Your Website Content

Next up is the rest of your website content. You should go through each page and make sure that it aligns with what you are trying to rank for.

Here's a handy set of things to look for when optimizing your website pages, listed in rough order of importance:

  • Use the keyword research you did earlier to know what keywords to optimize for. These are the terms that your potential customers are searching for!
  • Make sure that your keywords and location are both actually being used in your content. It sounds obvious, but it's very easy to write copy that refers to your services indirectly (using phrases like "it" or "our work") too often.

    Remember that search engines want to show content relevant to your query, so they want content that refers to the person's query. However do not "keyword stuff" by unnaturally and excessively using your keywords.
  • Considering creating pages for each major service you offer. If your customers are searching for specific services (such as the law firm that offers many types of standard legal services) you may wish to create a page for each service and focus that page's keywords on the service.
  • Utilize keywords in image description (alt) tags. When adding an image, most content management systems allow you to set a description or alt tag. This should be a true description of the image, but utilize your keywords. For example a photo of your building could include your business name and address in the image description.
  • Take advantage of the extra weight given to headings and text with emphasis and bolding. This gives the search engine a hint that the text is important.
  • Utilize your keywords in your page addresses. Modern websites should have addresses like www.example.com/pet-sitting-services rather than old style gibberish like www.example.com/index.php?content=3928432984. It helps search engines understand what a page on your website actually is, as well as what it is about.
  • Don't be afraid to link to external websites. You might not necessarily want to link to your competitors (unless you're really gutsy like the folks at Saddleback Leather), but do link to useful resources and information. 

Caution: there is a fine line between optimizing your content to make your message clear, and actively attempting to deceive search engines. The latter will get you blacklisted from search engines or later, something that is very difficult to fix. Things to avoid:

  • Keyword stuffing: adding excessive amounts of keywords to your page solely for the purposes of trying to increase your rankings. If your search engine optimization makes your content difficult or unnatural to read, you have gone too far.
  • Hidden text for SEO purposes: anything that tries to create "hidden" text that only search engines are supposed to see (and not your website visitors). For example using the same text for your foreground and background, using a really small font, or hiding text in weird places in your page layout.
  • Fake formatting: using excessive formatting (such as making everything a heading) to artificially make your keywords stand out more to search engines.

4) Utilize Google Webmaster Tools to Catch Website Errors and Understand How Google Sees Your Website

Google Webmaster tools provides extremely valuable data about how your website is indexed. To sign-up correctly you might need your webmaster's help.

There's a lot to say about Webmaster tools so I made a video:

These are the most critical things to tackle on your website itself, especially if you are optimizing an existing website. If you will be building a new website, watch out for a future blog post on how to strategically structure your website (or you know, just hire us Wink).

Get Notified When Parts 2 and 3 Come Out

Parts 2 and 3 will dive into topics like making a killer Google Places listing, using reviews, getting listed in the right directories, attracting high quality links back to your site, really powerful ways to research your competition, and much more. 

Sign-up in the box below to get notified when the next parts are up. You will receive e-mails about new posts as well as bonus content only for subscribers. No spam, ever.

Now get going and start implementing. If you have questions or your own suggestions, leave a comment below.

May 11, 2014 by: Angus

Great article Matt. I especially like the video clear and concise. Thanks.
Where can I find part 2 and 3? I've had a look but can't locate

Dec 22, 2013 by: judy

Thanks for the helpful info. Looking forward to the article on google places for businesses as I was told I need to claim my google map space for all aspects of our business....what ever that means....I have listed with google plus, but not sure what the rest of it is all about.

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