August 23, 2016 | Sarah Danks
Local Search Marketing in 2016
This is the third installment in a 4-part blog post series wherein we talk about four pillars that make up the basic online marketing strategy for our independent insurance agency clients:
In this edition I’ll be talking about local search marketing, including what it is, the factors involved, and how to go about optimizing your website for it.
Introduction to Local
So, what is “local search,” anyway? I can tell you this: It’s kind of like bounce rate — everyone has a slightly different definition of it.
Technically speaking, a local search is any search performed wherein geography plays a key role. Here are some examples:
- “Minneapolis divorce lawyers”
- “Restaurants in St. Paul”
- “Horse boarding stables near the Twin Cities”
- “Public pools near me”
- “Pete’s Dragon show times”
Per Google, local search is even extending so far as to include searches done for services/products on a mobile phone — e.g., “buy dress shoes,” “find dog friendly patios,” etc:
“…you’ll probably see local results if you search for “Italian restaurant” from your mobile device. Google will try to show you the kind of nearby restaurant that you’d like to visit.”
You can imagine, with the sheer number of people performing these types of searches every day, how important it is to at least be aware of local SEO, if not actively doing it.
Plus, studies have shown that people performing local searches are more inclined to purchase/act than their counterparts:
But, you’ve got to know how to go about optimizing for local searches — namely, what’s important?
In regards to local search, the search engines need to return results that best match the user’s query. In order to decipher that information, Google (and the other search engines) decides which listings are shown based on three main criteria:
Let’s delve into these three very briefly, and then I’ll go over how the search engines go about determining each factor.
As with any SEO, search engines look at how relevant a page is to the user’s query — is the content written about the keywords used in the search?
We’re not talking the 6 degrees of separation here, we’re literally talking geographical distance. It’s a local search, after all. If I’m physically located in St. Paul and want to find insurance agencies, I’m not looking for one in Duluth; I want to find the closest one to where I live.
How do search engines decide how prominent a business is? This is where it can get a bit tricky — I like to replace “prominence” with “credibility” to make it easier to digest. Basically the search engines are looking for external factors (other than where you’re located or the keywords you’re using in your web copy) to determine this one.
Here are the factors that search engines take into effect to figure out the aforementioned information.
What factors affect Local Search?
According to the people over at Moz, there are several signals that search engines use to determine the prominence of websites in local search queries, including reviews, links, Google My Business, and other on-page factors:
(screenshot stolen from Moz’s Local Search Ranking Factors)
Showing up for local searches isn’t as easy as including the area(s) you service in your content. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that…
…that said, fortunately here’s the list of what’s important and the breakdown of what it all means:
- Consistent NAP
- Local links
- Mobile-friendly website
- Local keywords
- Schema markup
Here’s a brief breakdown of each element listed above.
NAP = Name, Address, Phone Number
As a local business, you need people to be able to physically find you. Hence the need for a consistent business name, address and phone number (NAP) on the web. This is part of the “distance” factor.
If your company is sitting at a brick-and-mortar location, the first step you need to take — after having a stellar website, naturally — is setting up Google My Business (GMB). Essentially it’s a “listing” that shows your address, phone number, hours of operation, etc.
No worries, it’s free.
You’ll want to be sure to choose the proper category for your business, as well as succinctly describe the services you offer. If you’ve moved locations or even had more than one person working on the GMB profile, it’s essential to ensure your NAP info is current and correct.
Oftentimes, in a search for a business name, or even geo-specific keywords related to your services, the first results people will see will be the Google My Business listing.
Reviews and star-ratings are oh-so-important in the world of local. They highlight your customers’ opinions of you, for one, and also factor into the local search algorithm. Plus they factor into the prominence of your listing.
While you don’t technically have control over the types of reviews your business receives, you can certainly influence them. How?
By offering great customer service, having a wonderful product, and by responding in a timely fashion to negative reviews. Yes, even negative reviews can be helpful — they’re an opportunity to show you care about your customers and want to make right anything that’s wrong.
But, negative reviews can also hurt a listing — obviously — because no one wants to hire a company with mostly negative feedback:
Which business of the three listed above would you be most willing to call on to fix your dishwasher?
Businesses aren’t technically “allowed” to solicit reviews, but of course it doesn’t hurt to ask! Recently I was telling my auto mechanics how much I love their service — the owner said, “Thank you — we love that feedback. But it’d mean even more if you put it online!”
I literally facepalmed — duh! Of course they want to hear it; they prefer it in an online review so others can see it, too!
While studies have shown that consumers rely on reviews when making purchasing decisions, they also show many people won’t give reviews unless asked for them:
“…only 14% of consumers would write an organic review, while 29% would if a company asked for the review.”
You might think that you want to solicit only 5-star reviews for your business, but beware the temptation! Only having 5-star reviews can actually hurt your business and credibility, instead of help. Sounds weird, right?
Turns out, people are far less likely to trust a company with only 5-star ratings, versus those companies that don’t have perfect reviews — less-than-perfect ratings show you’re a real business, with real reviews.
Oftentimes naughty companies will purchase fake 5-star reviews to bolster their local search rankings — but you can pretty easily spot the fakes! Example: Renters Warehouse. They have A LOT of 5-star reviews, many of which come from “reviewers” with a) no picture, b) similar verbiage across reviews, and c) only 1 review.
So, yes, there is such a thing as “black hat local search,” and businesses can still game the system with fake reviews — but people are pretty savvy about figuring that out (even if Google yet isn’t).
Any SEO worth their salt knows links are an integral part of SEO, helping search engines determine credibility for a website…
…and for local-based searches, it’s the same as with any search optimization, except LOCAL links are valued more than just “any” ol’ links.
What’s that mean?
Well, think of links as a vote of credibility for your website — and in a local search, a “link” from a relevant nearby source will tell search engines (and users, of course!) that you’re a credible LOCAL resource. I like how this Search Engine Journal writer describes local links:
“…local SEO is about citation building — getting your name and address mentioned by local sites with authority…
…citations are the local SEO equivalent of links, pointing to your brick-and-mortar location instead of your website.”
This is another indicator for the prominence factor. As mentioned in the SEJ journal article above, Google pulls information from various resources to determine a site’s relevance to local search. By acquiring relevant links/citations, you’ll help your business show up (higher) in local searches.
If you need more information on acquiring local links, check out this helpful post on Moz.
It should be a no-brainer that nowadays every website needs to be easily accessible via mobile devices (as well as desktops and laptops, obviously). The easiest way to ensure your insurance website is mobile-friendly? Build it with responsive web design, of course.
But what does being mobile-friendly have to do with local search?
Well, back in April of 2015 Google began using mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. Mobile searches are on the uprise (I wonder if we’ll even have “normal” desktops in 20 years???), and since Google’s all about their users, they want to ensure it’s easy to access ANY website in their SERPs — regardless of device.
According to Google (May 2015):
“…consumers are increasingly picking up their smartphones for answers. In fact, more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US…”
If it’s important to Google, it needs to be important to any business with a website.
That holds true(r?) today, as Google fully implemented mobile-friendliness as a factor in the algorithm this past May. Again, mobile searches have taken over desktop, and only continue to become more prominent as the entire world moves to smartphone usage.
Will these voracious mobile searchers be able to find — and USE — your website?
Of course, a core part of any SEO strategy is the use of keywords. Again, in local searches the entire premise revolves around geography — as in, people are searching for businesses/services/products nearby.
Enter: the “near me” searches:
- restaurants near me
- dog parks near me
- Chinese take-out near me
- U-Haul near me
- insurance agents near me
In the past 5 years, the use of “near me” in searches has grown quite rapidly:
Now, as an 11-year veteran of SEO, even I got a little confused with the on set of the “near me” searches…
…how do you optimize for that, anyway???
Well, obviously you don’t actually optimize for the phrase “near me;” you need to include local keywords on your website such that when people are using their mobile phones, and they type or SAY “find x near me” you’ll be found because of relevancy + distance from phone, not because you have placed “near me” into your content.
But, that said — gone are the days of making laundry lists of all the cities, towns, townships and counties that your business represents. After the Google Pigeon local algorithm update, you can no longer get away with keyword-stuffing your content with local keywords, geographical terms, etc.
You certainly have to tell visitors (and search engines, of course) where your business is located, and the areas you service…
…but you shouldn’t be doing it like this:
Our Minneapolis insurance agency insures clients in Minneapolis/St. Paul and the surrounding Twin Cities, as well as throughout Minnesota. If you’re looking for Minneapolis homeowners insurance, Minneapolis personal insurance, Minneapolis auto insurance, or Minneapolis life insurance, look no further! Our Minneapolis independent insurance agency is here to help with all of your Minneapolis insurance needs.
I like the way this Search Engine Land article lays it out:
“If you read your content out loud and it doesn’t sound like something you’d say to a customer over the phone or in person, then it’s wrong. Period.”
So, include local keywords in your website content, but keep it natural, and don’t include “near me” or over-use geographical terms. Google and the other search engines will know where you’re located without you spamming the content to tell them so.
After all, search engines are all about catering to their users, so any local SEO efforts need to have them in mind first and foremost.
One last factor to mention that we like to use to help with local search is the use of schema markup:
“Adding Schema markup to your HTML improves the way your page displays in SERPs by enhancing the rich snippets that are displayed beneath the page title. “
Schema markup — much like meta descriptions — helps with click-through rate by enriching search snippets, but it’s not thought to have any (direct) affect on rankings.
That said, it can help search engines know at a glance that you’re a local business (where you’re located, hours of operation, NAP, etc.). Just insert the necessary code:
…and voilà! Schema markup:
Easy as pie, right? You don’t even need to be a coder!
Any advantage you can use to alert search engines to your location, the better.
In a nutshell, local search marketing is optimizing your online marketing efforts for the specific geographic area you serve. Mainly this helps brick-and-mortar locations bring in actual visitors via searches they found while searching locally (e.g. someone looking for an insurance agency in their hometown).
High points to hit when optimizing for local SEO are:
- Make sure you’ve got consistent NAP across all online locations
- Get listed on Google My Business
- Use geographic terminology within your website copy to tell people where you are and the areas you service
- Take advantage of schema markup
- Get reviews
- Be mobile-friendly
Of course, this blog post — and the series in general — isn’t meant to be a thorough how-to on optimizing for local search; rather it’s a quick-and-dirty introduction or summary of the highlights.
As with any search engine optimization, you can’t pigeonhole the process — it’s online marketing, after all! And, naturally, it’s an ever-evolving landscape. Local search changes all the time, so you’ll need to keep up on updates (or hire someone who does 🙂 ).
To all of our current — and future — independent insurance agency clients: know that we work for you to build your entire online presence, but we also focus on local search — including updates and changes — in order to get people through your doors.