After 17 years in the search engine marketing world I know one thing to be true: If Google thinks it’s important, we should be paying attention. The Google My Business release in June and “Pigeon” update in July indicate local business listings are a hot topic for the search giant. Most multi-location brands understand the benefits of higher ranking for local pages, but have questions about how to build out a solution across hundreds or thousands of locations. My aim is to help clear the air around two common approaches brands can take when optimizing location pages.
The use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms to automate local page creation and optimization has grown exponentially in this space as they offer quick deployment and “turnkey” solutions. However, there are some long-term drawbacks along with these benefits. It’s important for brands to fully explore and understand the pros and cons of using a SaaS platform versus a higher-touch solution to expand their search footprint in the local space.
Why Do Local Pages Matter?
Branded, optimized location pages are critical to increase your findability within local search queries. They provide the opportunity to out-rank the competition and provide a faster path to purchase for local consumers. Optimized pages include hyper-local, non-branded phrases as well as rich content such as pictures, videos, and customer feedback functionality.
These pages also allow search engines to show the closest location page when branded terms are searched. Without these pages, the home page will likely be served up first and the consumer will need to click multiple times within the site to finally find what they are looking for. Inevitably, many of those consumers will fall off the path to purchase while searching for the correct location information.
If your brand does not provide search users with these pages, then other directories and internet Yellow Page sites will certainly provide their own search results, which will rank well on the results page; particularly with the recent Pigeon algorithm changes. You have less control over the accuracy of information on these sites, and more importantly, these directories also list competitor information and those click-throughs will be at risk of users siphoning off to competitors.
Having owned location bases built off your home page is a critical part of a local search strategy but there are two very different options for how you can choose to develop them: a SaaS platform or a more manual subdirectory approach.
The SaaS Subdomain Approach
SaaS platforms create hundreds and thousands of optimized location pages for brands using a subdomain strategy. The URL will look something like this: local.domain.com/Colorado/store123
These pages are usually templates, so they are quickly produced with content describing the local store including the name, address, phone (NAP) data, reviews, and maps. The pages are typically well optimized using meta and structured data strategies. But there’s a catch: SaaS platforms charge a large yearly fee, with very few added benefits or strategic changes year over year.
More importantly, these pages are hosted outside the main site. So when a brand cancels the program, these pages disappear and the content is handed back to the client, albeit typically in a format the brand will not find very useful, such as HTML content only. The issue here is that the URLs, which have been indexed in the search engines and provided all of the SEO value, suddenly disappear. When these are taken down, all of the equity that has been established for the pages within the search engine also dissolves.
Additionally, the HTML content is usually outdated by the time you receive it as an export, and the bulk export file is not something you can easily work with to create a new location pages strategy. This type of strategy can work, as long as the SaaS provider is willing to hand over not only the full content of these pages including HTML and CSS files, but also the corresponding URLs (301 redirected) that are already indexed within the search engines.
The Owned Subdirectory Approach
A long-term strategy where a brand owns its URLs and content from the start is referred to as a subdirectory or subfolder approach. From the root domain, brands or brand partners create local pages with a subdirectory strategy that hosts them at the same root domain. These pages would look something like this: domain.com/Colorado/store123
An optimal subdirectory page has proper meta and structured data, strategic internal links, and is built in an environment where location information can be edited quickly and easily. The benefits include the brand creating these pages one time and making modifications along the way instead of paying the same cost year over year.
The challenge with these pages is creating them efficiently across hundreds of location while still including the social signals and unique content that improve search ranking. Brands really need to invest their efforts in this area once the pages are built to increase findability on Google, and the other search and social channels.
You can’t go entirely wrong with either approach, as long as you have the best practices in place and own the URLs, because having some location pages as a foundation for building upon your local SEO strategies is better than having no pages. But when deciding which strategy to ultimately implement, Rand Fishkin of Moz may put it best in his comment on the topic:
Subdomains SOMETIMES inherit and pass link/trust/quality/ranking metrics between one another. Subfolders ALWAYS inherit and pass link/trust/quality/ranking metrics across the same subdomain.
Brands can’t deny the inherent value of these location pages for SEO value and findability. There are pros and cons to building these pages with SaaS platforms versus a higher-touch solution. Be certain to consider factors such as long-term SEO value, in-house or partner bandwidth, data integration procedures and budget before making a sound business decision.