There are many ways to optimize your website for local SEO so you can be found for multiple locations. Just as there are many ways to optimize, so there are a variety of penalties lurking if you follow bad practices that go against Google’s guidelines.
By keeping a thorough inventory of your local SEO efforts, you will be able to avoid duplication, and ensure high quality implementation of all local SEO for your clients. In addition, by learning the ins and outs of local SEO, you will be able to help yourself by creating your own winning strategy, rather than copying your competition and hoping you don’t get penalized by shady SEO tactics.
Assessing Your Competition & The Market
Performing the proper competitor research on local content and links will help you determine how you will attack a particular niche. First off, let’s examine a niche that is all-too-often overlooked: personal injury lawyers. Say we are putting together a local campaign that will eventually target the top cities in the states. We need to assess the general market and target markets that will fit our budget.
If we have a $1,000,000+ budget, it makes sense to go after the larger markets like Los Angeles, San Diego, etc. But, if our budget is smaller, we will not be able to go after some of the larger markets.
Assessing the market is important before assessing the local competition. You are assessing its ease of ranking, as well as other factors including traffic. Now, while I can’t cover every single type of site in existence, I am going to dive into factors to consider at the start of your local SEO campaign.
Perform Your Research at the Population Versus Dollar Budget Level
Every city is going to have its own population numbers, its own population characteristics, and its own buying cycles. It is important to assess the population and size of the market for two reasons:
- Budget – you do not want to throw money away selling motorcycles to a market largely interested in sweaters.
- Identify Trends – so you can time your campaigns around these increased buying periods.
Assess Your Competition
In any local market, you’re going to have local companies competing with each other who offer the same products and services. When you assess your competition, you are assessing the ease of ranking for a particular market. When you examine your competition, it is important to look at their linking strategy, their content strategy, and their website structure.
When it comes to a local SEO linking strategy, it is important that you embark on a strategy that is highly specific and locally targeted to your city. Ranking in local is very different from ranking in organic search: ranking factors are dependent on how strong the signals on your site are for your business’ specific location.
This is where local directories come in handy: they can help you get links for your locations fairly quickly without much effort.
Other types of local links include links in the local newspaper’s website, links from ANY website in which the URL has your city name in it, and links from your local chamber of commerce. Because of the nature of Penguin penalties, it is critical now more than ever, to assess the quality of the website linking to you before you go after the it to avoid issues down the road?
Your local linking campaign is all for naught unless you get a handle on Google’s quality guidelines to ensure your links are NOT in violation of guidelines. It is essential to go for top quality links if you want your local SEO campaign to show results.
In addition to all of the above, you need to consider how your competition is building links to their website. Using tools like Cemper’s link alerts, you can assess what links your competition is going after on nearly a daily basis. This tool will email you every time a new link appears for the defined domain name within the tool.
Pretty cool huh?
In addition to linking strategy, on-page optimization is crucial. When creating local content, you want to make sure your content is locally focused and highly optimized towards the local areas you are targeting.
For example, if you were targeting “los angeles personal injury lawyers” you would need to ensure your URL, title tags, meta description, meta keywords, H1s, H2s, content, and internal links, are optimized surrounding this keyword phrase. If you want to get hyper local, using a GEO location tag is important as well. This is incredibly important when optimizing for your local on-site signals: do not forget to include the address of the location of your business on-page in text form.
This means: not in a graphic, not in a video, but in text form only. Although Google crawls images, do you want to take the random chance that Google is not going to read that local ranking signal properly because you did not optimize it properly?
And yes, I know you are all rolling your eyes at the “meta keywords” thing, but hear me out: there is a reason why I mention this. Yes, Google and Yahoo have both stated that they do not use Meta keywords for rankings.
Bing’s Duane Forrester stated: “I’ll make this statement: meta keywords is a signal. One of roughly a thousand we analyze. Getting it right is a nice perk for us, but won’t rock your world. Abusing meta keywords can hurt you.” Because of this, and the fact all search engines do things just a little bit differently, it is ok to at least populate some keywords into the Meta keywords tag, but don’t go overboard to the point that you reveal your entire keyword strategy to your competitors. Or, even worse, you end up being flagged as spam by improper use of this tag.
Because the search engines do not use it for ranking, don’t waste a tone of time here. At best, spend a few minutes putting in some keywords. Put in a few well-researched, targeted keyword phrases, but don’t spend a lot of time on the meta keywords tag. Proceed accordingly and with much caution.
What Does a Properly Optimized Local Page Look Like?
Let’s take a look at the structure of a page that has properly been optimized for local on-page SEO:
Properly Optimized Title Tag
This should be optimized to 50 – 60 characters in length, or you can take the newer approach of optimizing your title tag according to its pixel width. Like the Meta description below, the title tag should include the targeted location keyword phrase, the title of the page / article, and branding. Ideally, a properly optimized title tag structure for most sites can look like:
Local keyword phrase in front | Title of Article | Company Name
Properly Optimized Meta Description
This should be optimized to 150–160 characters in length, or you can take the newer approach of optimizing your title tag according to its pixel width. The important thing is to make sure that you include your targeted location keyword phrase in the Meta description. While this will not improve rankings, it is an indirect improvement through having another point of relevance in your document.
In addition, you can also include a local phone number as another local signal (note: local signal, not ranking signal) in addition to including a point of conversion. There are a number of people who will call your page directly from the search results because it is fully convenient to do so from a mobile device.
Properly Optimized Meta Keywords
While it is old school, the Meta keywords tag is still an important point of optimization – just don’t waste so much time on them that you don’t fully optimize other parts of your campaign properly. And don’t stuff 1,000 keyword phrases in there either.
Properly Optimized Schema Markup for Local Optimization or Rich Snippets
Surprise! Schema.org markup is important for better local SEO – but it is not a ranking factor. It will allow you to appear in the rich snippet results of the Google search results for your business location – which is another way of getting your site “up there”.
But, make no mistake – it is NOT a local ranking factor, just another avenue for ensuring that your site appears near the top results on the SERPs.
Good H1 with Targeted Local Keyword Phrase
A high quality H1 header tag with your targeted local keyword phrase is necessary for local on-page optimization. There are no real character lengths for this one – just make sure it is short, catchy (for drawing those pesky things called readers into your article – you do remember those people right?), and includes your targeted local keyword phrase in such a way that it does not appear spammy to those aforementioned humans.
Optimize Actual Article Text for Your Local Keyword Phrase Naturally
Remember the days of 2002 in SEO, when keyword-stuffing was the hot SEO technique of the day? Unreadable articles with keyword phrases stuffed in every other word plagued the web until Google rolled out its Florida update in 2003. While it is important to optimize for specific keyword phrases in general organic SEO, on the flip side, it is also important to optimize for the local keyword phrase for local SEO. When you have multiple pages dedicated to multiple locations, you need to change your focus of those pages to suit those locations.
For example: if you are performing optimization for one location like “Orange County personal injury lawyers,” then you will want to make sure that your page is optimized for Orange County personal injury lawyers. If you are optimizing for Long Beach personal injury lawyers as another location, the page should be optimized for Long Beach personal injury lawyers.
Change Your Local Content to be Substantially Unique From Page to Page
It should go without saying that even though you ARE optimizing for different locations, you should NOT use the same content from page to page in order to optimize for each location properly. Google’s Panda update has put a stop to all of that. You must create quality content for each page that is being optimized for a different location to be successful. I like to refer to it as “The Lazy SEO’s Way of Local SEO”. They don’t want to put in the effort to write quality content, so they simply use the same content from page to page and change the location-specific parts, thinking that they will only get people from those locations on that page.
While, to some extent that IS true, it is not always the case. It is, after all, only fair to take into account other visitors to your site who may visit other pages. Maybe they are planning a trip and want to visit the other locations? What if you were a visitor to a site that took this lazy approach and found the same content but only changed from page to page based on locality rather than the quality of the content? You wouldn’t want to convert or buy from that site now would you? You would be thinking: “Why should I buy from a site who isn’t at least interested in their work enough to change their content for my location?”
It should go without saying: change your content strategy to compensate for quality content per locally-optimized page. This way, you avoid future algorithmic or, worse, manual penalties when Google manually views the site and you have to change all of that content anyway.
Consider Increasing The Quality of Your Local Content by Writing Longer Articles
In addition, you should also consider article length. Longer articles tend to perform better (although this is not ALWAYS the case) because they lead to an overall lesser bounce rate, better reader retention rates, and overall better chances of going viral when they have the proper information written and conveyed to readers. As a general rule, 400 words is considered an acceptable length for most competitive industries.
However, this IS going to be dictated by what your competition is doing in the search results. BUT – and there is ALWAYS a BUT – you should always look at other factors of the site to rule out things like quality links benefitting the organic rankings instead of just the content. While you will never know for sure what’s causing those great rankings (because you will just as likely see a site with a 5,000 word article at #8 and a site with a 2,000 word article at #4), you can get a good idea as to what general range you should target by looking at those competitors in the SERPs.
But, the thing is: a 2,000 word article can trump the success of a 4,000 word article any day, IF it is more valuable and of higher quality than the 4,000-word article. You can improve your chances of content success by making sure that your article is targeted towards readers who care about the topic you are writing about, that you get the article shared with those who can help you spread the word on the article, and the most important part: that targeted people throughout your location also care about the content you are optimizing for.
All of these issues and more are what you should examine as part of your local SEO content strategy. Let’s recap the dos and don’ts:
- Don’t write bad content from page to page and switch up the local SEO information.
- Don’t keyword-stuff your content.
- Don’t skimp on the quality of your content because you want to be lazy.
- Do make sure that your title tag, Meta description, and meta keywords are properly optimized.
- Do make sure that you optimize text content appropriately.
- Do make sure you write good H2s that don’t include the targeted keyword phrase, and that are written to be catchy, punchy, and interesting enough to draw readers into sections of your content.
- Do make sure that you include schema markup if your local SEO plan includes optimization for rich snippets.
Optimizing for Local SEO Off-Site Signals
First of all, it is important to perform a local SEO audit of all existing off-site signals. When you perform this kind of an audit, you can assess whether or not your current local SEO is good enough to move forward from or if it needs a complete overhaul. If it needs a complete overhaul, you will need to spend some time cleaning many things up in order to get your local SEO performing properly and meeting expectations.
The Audit: What Should You be Looking For? And How Should You Strategize?
When you begin a local SEO audit, you are making several assumptions: that the off-site signals are not perfect, and that you will be moving forward with a plan to fix them after the audit. When you first examine your off-site signals, you will need to start with the business’ contact information. This will usually require a meeting with the partners in charge in order to find out what the exact, correct business name and locale information is. See, in a perfect world, we will all want to have a website that is exclusively our own with no one else’s fingers in the pie. All information is correct, and everything is fine and dandy.
However, business life seldom works out that way. You have different people at different times who have their fingers on the website. You have different organizational structures, organizational re-orgs, people get fired, people get laid off, and people leave the company for other reasons. In the shuffle, things can happen that cause off-site signals to get completely messed up and otherwise FUBAR. It’s not always the fault of the person or marketing agency in charge of the websites, but when it comes to the marketing agency who has to clean up all of the issues that plague local SEO on these sites, we need to perform an audit.
Audit the Appearance of Off-Site Local SEO Information Across the Main Money Profiles
These main money profiles include Google Local, Bing Local, and Yahoo local. After this main money priority is completed, then move forward with checking the lesser profiles.
Audit Whether or Not You Have Claimed All Essential Local SEO Profiles
Using a program like Brightlocal or Whitespark, you can audit all of your existing local SEO profiles. It will be important to build spreadsheet data that charts all instances of every single address in every single profile. Why is this important? It is important because variations in data can cause major issues with getting your site ranked in the local results as highly as it can be. It can come down to having a difference between Suite, Ste., and #, a difference between St. and Street, and a difference between Ave. and Avenue. So, an address like:
Some Marketing Agency
9000 West Something Street
Newport Beach, California
Is completely different when written like this when it comes to the eyes of Google Local SEO:
Some Marketing Agency
9000 W. Something St.
Newport Beach, CA
Can you spot the differences? It is so important to make sure that the address on your website matches all instances of addresses in your off-site local profiles. Otherwise, the local SEO signals get very messy and this can interfere with your local rankings in a major way.
Prioritize Your Strategy to Go After the Larger Money Profiles and Claim the Rest of Your Local Profiles
Yext can make a huge difference here for efficiency reasons. You can set up Yext to comb all of your profiles for local information accuracy, as well as submitting your site to many different local profiles quickly and accurately. Then you can go onto the Google SERPs and find those much lesser sites to obtain local SEO links from.
Go to Google and Audit the SERPs for Your Targeted Local Keyword Phrase
After you set up Yext, and have ensured that all local SEO profiles are properly maintained, accurate, and have absolutely ZERO discrepancies, you can now go to Google and audit their SERPs for good links that can help your local SEO rankings.
You can use ScrapeBox in order to make this task easier through automation, but I want to provide the manual process. This way, you can go after all your own links, and then create your own custom solution after you learn everything involved. Here’s how to do it:
- Open up Google, and type out your targeted keyword phrase.
- Now, check out the results. Let’s say you are targeting attorneys: do these results have a ton of directories, or do these results have attorneys appearing in the top 10, AND do these results have local six or seven packs (what we really want).
- If they don’t, then check the results to find variations of the keyword phrase that are acceptable.
- If these results pages DO have the attributes we want, jot down the keyword phrase in your keyword spreadsheet, and move on to the next.
- As you audit your keyword phrases and build your spreadsheet, your local SEO plan should start to jump out at you. Just from the keyword phrases, you will be able to assess your content strategy, and from there, you can assess your linking strategy.
Define Your Content and Linking Strategies Based on Your Keyword Audit
Content and linking strategies can be very different; everyone and their brother promises results. The thing is, you can vary the content and linking strategies a ton and get different results.
But how do you know what works best for your niche? You do this by testing on sites that are different from your main money site.
Now, let’s take an example: we want to define a content and linking strategy for Los Angeles personal injury lawyers as a keyword phrase. Through various research in the Google top 10 search results, we find that just about everyone has a blog, but the top results are publishing 2,500 word pieces of content per day. Examining their link profile in Majestic SEO reveals a varied link profile with many different, valuable links coming into play that are very likely helping get their site into the top spots. So how can we beat this site if we have a lower budget?
We can do this by creating more valuable content. This is how you can get a 1,500 word piece of content to outrank that 2,500 word piece of content: by making it more valuable.
You make it more valuable by writing higher quality content, content that people will care about, and content that will go viral across various social networks. Sometimes, just physically writing the 1,500 word piece of content to be better in quality than the 2,500 word piece of content will result in it ranking better. However, it is rare unless there are plenty of really good quality links behind that specific domain or page (a website like CNN could probably do this because of their website authority alone).
As you define your content and linking strategy, also keep in mind your social media strategy. Target users who care about the topics you are writing about, and make sure you target influencers that will share your content so you have a chance to go viral. Building that social media strategy is slightly beyond the scope of this article, but, you get the idea. And of course, be sure to target local users who will care about and share your local content and get the word out to potential customers of your brand.
Remember, the physicality of actually sharing and amplifying the social reach of content does not help rankings. It helps builds trust to Google indirectly and therefore your rankings will eventually increase in an indirect fashion. Social sharing will not, however, increase your rankings directly.
Correlation is not always causation.
You MUST Have 100% Correct Local Information on All Local SEO Profiles, Not JUST Your Main Money Profiles
If you have performed every possible SEO fix to your website and you are still not getting rankings locally, look at all of your off-site SEO, including local SEO profiles. Auditing both links, on-site optimization location information, and local SEO profiles will help save you a ton of trouble in the long run, and will help prevent you from having to do an audit again (at least not for a long while). In addition: do NOT forget to include the local information on your website in text form.
That being said, it is always a good idea to perform local SEO audits of this type at least every six months, if not every 90 days. This way, you can make sure your local SEO campaign is not heading into the gutter, and that you continue to stay on track until you hit that coveted number one spot in the local results.
A Final Word
Local SEO can be an incredibly complex endeavor. This is especially true when multiple locations are involved. However, by following best practices, keeping in mind Google algorithm updates, sound research, and assessing your strategy accurately, you will be able to obtain high local SEO rankings without causing the next heart attack-inducing penalty to hit your site.
Following safe measures, white hat content and linking strategy, as well as the Google Webmaster Guidelines themselves will help get you there. In addition, doing your due diligence will help put you past the competition into the winner’s bracket.
After all, that’s why we’re all doing local SEO right? We are in it to win it.
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