How to dominate local SEO: more challenging in an evolving local search environment

Columnist Sherry Bonelli explains how recent changes to the local search landscape point to an ever-changing discipline that requires increasingly complex strategies.


Getting a local business to rank high on Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) used to be as easy as having a website, getting listed on some online business directories/citation sites and claiming your Google My Business page. Once you did those few simple things, you had an incredible shot at ranking high on Google for local keywords like “plumbers in Austin.”

But those days are long gone.

Local SEO is much more competitive

These days local SEO is more and more competitive. Why? Part of the reason is that many local businesses have finally realized the importance of doing the local SEO “basics” and are actually implementing those basic local search strategies. This means more local businesses are vying for a limited number of high-ranking spots.

More importantly, the local search ranking factors have changed significantly over the past few years, making it much more complex (and difficult) to rank for local search keywords. Quick and simple SEO fixes don’t work anymore.

If you work with local businesses, understanding this changing local SEO environment is important. Following are some important factors that influence local search visibility, including some recent changes that have had a huge impact on current best practices:

The Google Local 3-Pack and Maps

It seems like only yesterday when Google showed seven local business listings in the Google Local Pack. Just over a year ago, the local pack was reduced from a 7-pack to a 3-pack (and soon to be a 2-Pack with one paid-for spot), making it even more competitive.

In light of this change, it is even more important for a business to expand their local SEO strategies by using a variety of techniques, like optimizing their Google My Business page, adding localized content to their site, getting listed on online business directories and citation sites and having happy customers leave reviews on Google and other third-party online review sites.

Google Local 3-Pack

Google Local 3-Pack

Google My Business: still important to local search

Over the past year and a half, Google has made a big push to get local businesses to claim their Google My Business page. Google has a separate team devoted exclusively to this initiative (aka Get Your Business Online or GYBO). This Google team has even partnered with local city Chamber of Commerce offices and local city government offices, as well as other business non-profits, like SCORE, to run local workshops showing businesses how to claim their Google My Business (GMB) page.

Google Get Your Business Online Program

Google Get Your Business Online program

One of the things stressed during these training workshops is for local businesses to fill out as much information as they can on their Google My Business page — including uploading their logo, pictures of their business or products, their office/business hours, types of payments accepted, a keyword-rich business description and any other fields available.

By adding all of this information, the business will differentiate itself from those businesses who either haven’t verified their listing at all or have opted for the easy way out by providing only basic information about their business. Making your Google My Business page as robust as possible is a good thing, and it can increase the likelihood of your business showing up in the Local Pack.

Write local content

If you want to compete locally, you need to focus on putting local content on your website. (This is not optional if you’re a local business.) This may mean writing regular blog posts that mention news, local events and activities going on in your city and surrounding cities, promotions or specials you’re having at a particular business location, creating city-specific pages on your site and so on.

Just make sure that you write approximately 1,000 words of useful content on each page and use city-specific keywords throughout. Also, if you have multiple locations, you should set up a unique page for each of your locations.

Set up individual local pages.

More than one location? Set up individual local pages.

Citations/online business directories

Local citations from online business directories — like Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch, MerchantCircle and others — are a great way to get backlinks to a local business’s website. Additionally, since many of these citation sites have credibility with Google, a business’s listing on these sites can often show in top search results.

In some cases, these online business directory sites will dominate the top search results, as shown below in a SERP screen shot for “restaurants in Tulsa”:

Citation Listings Show Up In Search Engine Results Pages

Citation listings can often show up high in local search results.

When it comes to citations, you want to make sure that the NAP (Name, Address and Phone number) information about a business  is correct across as many online business directories and other citation sites as possible. This can be a key factor in getting your business to show up in the Local Pack.

One way to do this efficiently is to use an aggregator service, like InfogroupNeustar, Factual or Axciom. These aggregators have partnerships with a variety of high-quality online business directories. Once they have all of your business information, they will then “push” that information out to citation sites and other key data aggregators. This can help your local rankings tremendously.

Get 5-star reviews

Online reviews are becoming more important than ever. Not only do online reviews correlate with higher local rankings, but positive reviews also help you gain customers’ (and potential customers’) trust. In a recent study by BrightLocal, it was found that positive online reviews increased click-throughs by 22 percent.

Online Reviews Increased Click Throughs By 22% (Source: BrightLocal)

Online reviews increased click-throughs by 22%. (Source: BrightLocal)

So, how do you go about getting online reviews? Businesses should just ask!

When you ask a happy customer to leave an online review, be sure to tell the customer the exact URL of your business’s review site preferences (e.g., It’s good to have a variety of reviews on different review sites (e.g., some on Google, Yelp, Foursquare, TripAdvisor) Spread the love!

Word of caution: Don’t ask for reviews from all of your customers at one time. That will backfire on you because a) it won’t look natural to the review sites OR to potential customers, and b) those reviews could get suppressed because they look suspicious to the review sites. (Yelp in particular is known for suppressing online reviews for a variety of reasons.)

There’s no doubt that having a bunch of positive reviews about your business on Google and other review sites makes your business stand out online.

Google Online Reviews Make a Business Stand Out

Google online reviews make a business stand out.

Google Possum: changing the local search game

In early September, Google rolled out an algorithm update, affectionately named Possum by the SEO community. Possum focused on improving the quality of local search results — particularly in the Local Finder and Google Maps.

Joy Hawkins was one of the first to report on and write a blog post about Possum. If you haven’t read up on the impact that Possum is having on local business rankings, go ahead and read her article, “Everything you need to know about Google’s ‘Possum’ algorithm update,” for more information.


[Article on Search Engine Land.]

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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