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11 min read

Breaking down local SEO

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Local SEO has always been important, but it is such a wide field that SEOs are constantly refining the best techniques for local success. However hard it is to get right, local SEO is worth it. If the goal of SEO is to bring more customers to our clients, then there are few businesses that won’t benefit from exposure to more people in their local area.

Before going any further, it is essential to grasp that although some of the principles that apply to more general SEO are still important in local SEO , there are other factors that you need to be aware of, and Google has released specific algorithms and updates designed to deal with local SEO alone.

I’m also not just talking about one form of search results, as you’d get with a non-location specific query. Local search incorporates a number of different aspects, including:

  • The results of a location-specific search, like ‘SEO Nottingham’.
  • Results based on the user’s physical location (often these are mobile searches),
  • Google Maps results, some of which will appear in the main Google SERPs, and others which will only be seen within Google Maps.

The waters are further muddied by old hat practices that are no longer helpful, and myths around what does and doesn’t work.

To make this breakdown as comprehensive as possible, I’ll start by looking at Google’s Pigeon algorithm and the Possum update, both of which directly impacted local search. If we’re going to get anywhere in local SEO, it’s important that we understand (as far as we can) what makes Google tick. After laying the groundwork, I’ll move on to specific areas that businesses need to work on if they’re going to see their local rankings improve.

The Pigeon algorithm

The first algorithm to really shake things up in recent years was Google’s so-called Pigeon algorithm, that went live towards the end of 2014. I don’t have the space for a comprehensive look at the changes Pigeon brought with it, but I’ll point out some of the key elements.

Local ranking signals closer to general signals

One of the most important changes for the way we approach local SEO was that local ranking signals became more aligned with general ranking signals. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t factors that are unique to local, but it means that general practices, such as having a well-built, high-performing site and building a quality backlink profile that features other strong sites became more important for local as well as general.

Intelligent location-specific results

Another change was that Google’s location-specific results became more intelligent. If you searched for coffee shops whilst in one region of London, Google would also display results from neighbouring regions, which had the potential to be geographically closer to your actual location.

Bias towards area-specific keywords

It was also noted that greater weight was given to sites that used more area-specific keywords. For example, a business based in the Beeston area of Nottingham would be rewarded for mentioning Beeston in its content, rather than just being more general and saying that it was based in Nottingham.

As I said, these are just some of Pigeon’s changes that it’s important to be aware of for local SEO. If you want a more complete look, I recommend SearchEngineLand’s assessment of the algorithm.

The Possum update

Pigeon is no longer the only animal that marketers need to be aware of in local SEO. In September 2016, the ‘Possum’ update was rolled out by Google, which shook up local search even more. As with Pigeon, I’ll summarise some of the key points for you, but you can find a full analysis on SearchEngineLand.

In the SERPs, but not the city

The most important changes from Possum affect the physical locations of businesses and searchers. It is now much easier for businesses based just outside of a city’s limits to rank for search terms that include that city. For example, a business based fifteen minutes outside a city’s limits that clearly serves that city can now rank for local searches, whereas before they would be ignored.

Physical location more important

The physical location of the searcher has now taken on more weight than ever before as Google determines the most relevant results to show you. If you search ‘car garage’ on your phone you’re going to get location-specific results even if you didn’t explicitly ask for them.

The other point of note is that SEOs have noticed more fluctuation between slightly different variations of essentially the same query (try searching for both ‘seo nottingham’ and ‘search engine optimisation nottingham’ and you’ll see that the SERPs are different).

Optimising your business for local SEO

There is no simple, easy way to make sure your business ranks for local search results. As with search more broadly, Google uses a wide range of signals to determine how high your site should rank, and a good position in local results will come from a concerted effort across a number of different areas.

Optimise your website

For those familiar with SEO, this first recommendation should come as no surprise. Making sure that your website is well-built, high performing and, crucially, mobile-ready, is essential if you want to rank well for anything, including local searches. Even if you expect all of your business to come from local people, and the local audience is the only one that matters to you, you should look to have the best website possible.

Where local search differs from general search is that you need to make sure that your business’s local address and contact details are visible on the site, on either a clear contact page or in the footer, and that they match with your physical address. This way, Google will be able to clearly see that you should be ranking for search terms centred on your location.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible to rank well for location-specific search terms outside of your area, but it’s tough. Greg Gifford, an expert in local SEO, has said that if you want to try and rank for other locations you need to build silos, which are areas of your site that specifically target the other locations and add real value to searchers from those areas. This isn’t easy to do, however, and you will get the most success from making sure that your site is well optimised for the area that your business is actually in.

Unfortunately, there are still some outdated ideas running around about what ‘well-optimised’ means when it comes to local SEO. In order to quickly bust a couple of myths, I need to say that there is no good reason to use an ‘exact match’ domain, like ‘www.seonottingham…’, and there is no additional value in a location specific top-level domain, like ‘.london’.

You can use a location specific TLD for aesthetic reasons, but I would recommend avoiding exact match domains altogether – just stick with your company’s brand. Pete, one of our SEO account managers, has written a whole article about local SEO myths, so if you want more information on the topic, I recommend giving it a read.

Google My Business

If your details aren’t up to date on Google My Business – Google’s tool for making sure that it’s business information is accurate across its services – then they should be.

Your Google details should match what is found on your site, and if you’ve changed addresses recently then you need to make sure that Google knows that. There’s not much more to say on this subject other than make sure the details are correct! Google My Business is such an important tool because it lets us be prescriptive as to where we are based and the areas that we serve. There are other important details to specify:

  • The radius of places that you serve
  • You can add photos of your business
  • Ensure your map pin location is correct

This is not a magic formula – having an up to date profile will not guarantee visibility everywhere on Google – but it does appear to be beneficial to some extent. Giving Google access to accurate information will also help people find the right details when they search for you specifically, helping people get in touch.

Local citations and NAP consistency

While links from good sites are important no matter what you’re optimising for, when it comes to local SEO it is essential that you have citations in reputable national and local directories.

These citations are so important because they are a signal to Google that your business has a real, physical presence in the location that you say you’re in. If you’re not sure which directories are worth targeting for your area, have a look at local competitors or other local businesses that rank highly for local searches in their field, and see which directories are linking to them.

Although you need to be listed in reputable directories and good local sites, it’s not a good idea to get your business on each and every directory you can find. There are a lot of sites out there that are low quality and could do your rankings more harm than good.

When building local citations you need to bear NAP consistency in mind. NAP stands for ‘name, address, and phone number’, and you need to make sure that every site that mentions your company’s contact details has the same information. NAP consistency is another sign to Google that you are physically present and active in your location, and, on a practical level, if you have the wrong address listed somewhere you run the risk of a potential customer phoning the wrong number or turning up somewhere else when they’re looking for you.

If you’re not sure where to start with all of this, there are some great tools available to help you. Moz Local and Bright Local help to get your location data out to the top aggregators and directories, and enable you to track and manage your local performance to varying degrees. Tools like these might be the best place to start if you’re unsure about how best to tackle local listings.

As well as your local citations and your site’s general link profile, it is important to have local sites linking to you, regardless of their strength. If your site is linked to by a little local church or a community group active in your area, even if their websites are terrible with a DA of 1, that’s still good for your local profile. It’s another signal to Google that you are active in that area and that you matter to local people.

Aside from pure SEO benefits, local links are great for business! Remember, the ultimate goal of SEO is not just to push you higher in the SERPs, but to bring more customers to your site. Local links will help you on your way to that end goal by bringing traffic from people in your area who will be in a position to buy your stuff and support you as a local business.

Local PR

Local PR has similarities to local link building, but includes a more relational aspect. Where local link building involves building good, local links to bring your site traffic and trust, local PR takes it a step further to build good relationships between your business and other local sites and media outlets to make sure that you get consistent exposure before the right audiences.

Doing local PR well means finding the news outlets and other publications in your area, making sure they know about you and cultivating a good relationship with them. If you can start to build up good relationships then you stand a much better chance of getting coverage when something noteworthy happens in your business.

When you’re looking into local PR, don’t ignore other opportunities to get involved in what’s going on in your area. If there are any events that your company can feature at, or perhaps sports teams that you can sponsor, you should consider getting involved. Thinking outside the box and taking opportunities along those lines will raise your profile among local people, and possibly bring you more coverage and local links further down the line.

Whilst local PR should yield links that help your SEO efforts, its scope is broader. Even so, I wanted to mention it in this local SEO breakdown because it is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to growing your business’s local presence.

Bringing it all together

Doing local SEO well is about having a holistic approach, just like you should have for any kind of SEO. If you approach one aspect of it as a ‘quick fix’ that can be finished in a day, you may see a small benefit, but the vast majority of the time you need to be more rounded in your efforts if you want to build sustainable success.

The key to local SEO is showing Google – and, in turn, their searchers – that your site is trustworthy, authoritative, and present in the place that you claim it is. Build your local presence consistently and sustainably, and make sure that you tackle the areas that I have mentioned, and you should start to see improvement.

There is more that you could do for local exposure than I have mentioned. PPC and other ad campaigns that target your area, whilst falling outside the realms of SEO, can be incredibly valuable in making your company known in your area. Our PPC manager, Liam, has written a breakdown of local PPC campaigns if you want to start getting to grips with paid ads.

The reality of Google at the moment is that many local searches will return three or four paid ads at the top, and organic results won’t be immediately visible on many screens. If you’re serious about reaching local people, don’t leave any stone unturned – look at SEO, PPC, paid social media, and PR. The most successful businesses will be those that put effort in across the board.

If you want to boost your local profile but you don’t have the time or the tools to get started, Impression can help. Take a look at our local SEO information page, and give us a call today to talk through how we can help.