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What you need to know about local search

  macslocum's Photo
Posted Mar 16 2010 04:58 AM

Online attention doesn't mean much if you can't convert it into something else: advertising revenue, event attendance, product purchases -- whatever is most important to your specific business. This is particularly true with local search, where the combination of targeted queries, fast results and geographic proximity give merchants a great shot at serving customers.

Search expert Vanessa Fox has been following and shaping the search landscape for years, so I asked her recently for a handful of local search best practices. She'll be expanding on many of these same points in her upcoming presentation at the Where 2.0 Conference. Here's what she had to say:

Q: How does local search differ from traditional search?

Vanessa FoxVanessa Fox -- There are a number of different kinds of search categorized under "local search." When we do a search on Google for pizza, Google returns results for local pizza restaurants. That's because behind the scenes, Google has determined that the query has local intent, even though we didn't explicitly indicate that intent in our query. As searchers, we may go a step further and search for pizza seattle on Google to signify that intent. We also might do a search directly on a local maps product, such as Google Local or Bing Local. Or, we might do a search on a location-aware application on our mobile device.

At some level, an even wider variety of searches has local intent. If you want to buy a book, you probably want to order if from the country that you're searching from.

So, in many ways, local search is the same as traditional search. Each search has a different set of intents and needs, and search engines use various signals to try to match the best results for that intent. Location is just one of hundreds of signals used in this matching.

But there are some particular things about local search that are relevant for local businesses:

  • 10 million fewer people were reading printed newspapers in April 2009 than in April 2008. This means that local businesses trying to reach audiences through newspapers have experienced a decline in awareness. Online usage, such as searching, has gone up during this period, so shifting some resources from print to an organic search strategy can help recapture some of this lost awareness potential.
  • 82 percent of online Americans have used the Internet to look for a local business; 80 percent have researched a product online before buying it locally. 65 percent use printed yellow pages, but only 44 percent of local businesses have websites. (More info here.)

Q: What do companies need to consider when they're dealing with local search engine optimization (SEO)?

O'Reilly Where 2010 ConferenceVanessa Fox -- Certainly, any local business should claim their listings in the major search engines' local directories. They should also make sure that the third-party information those directories use have accurate information.

If you target visitors regionally, make sure you serve up different content on different URLs. Many sites dynamically change the content based on a visitor's geographic location, but they keep the URL static. This makes it impossible for search engines to fully index the site.

Websites targeting a region should definitely include the company's full physical address. I've seen sites that include the city in the address but not the state because the owners think the state should be obvious from context. Perhaps that's clear when someone is starting at the site's home page, but it's not clear to search engines or searchers who are entering the site from an inner page.

There are also considerations around the local "one box" that search engines sometimes show in web search results. [Ed - here's an example of a local search one box.] Does your site show up? If not, does your site rank well in web search results, but your result is now below the fold because of the one box? The local one box is one of the many factors that have made rankings reports generally useless.

Q: Do user reviews and ratings influence local search results?

Vanessa Fox -- Absolutely these make a difference, particularly in the major engines' local directories and subsequently in the local one boxes. It's helpful for a local business to have positive reviews and ratings on other sites, such as a restaurant being reviewed on Yelp. It's also helpful for a business to have user-generated content, such as reviews, on their own site. This provides additional content, more text for long-tail search acquisition, and it keeps the site fresh and interesting.

Q: What is the biggest mistake companies make with local search?

Vanessa Fox -- The biggest mistakes with local search are similar to the biggest mistakes with any kind of search. Here's a few:

  • From a technical perspective, not understanding the online search environment and building a site that blocks search engines.
  • Creating content that does not engage an audience.
  • Creating content that might rank well in search engines, but it doesn't convert.

Q: How can businesses improve local search conversions?

Vanessa Fox -- It depends on the audience. The biggest thing is to evaluate what page ranks well and ensure that it readily engages visitors, answers their queries, and provides a compelling call to action that meets the business need.

Q: Is local SEO something businesses can handle in-house?

Vanessa Fox -- As with other kinds of SEO, it depends. I think SEO should be built into every aspect of an organization, but learning how to do that can be tricky. I equate it to painting your house: you can learn how to paint well or you can hire professionals. Both can lead to good results.

Q: Beyond Google, what other companies and services are getting into the local search space?

Vanessa Fox -- It's important to diversify and not rely just on Google. Depending on the business, it may be important to focus on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urbanspoon, or any one of a number of local-based companies.

1 Reply

  allogarage's Photo
Posted Apr 30 2012 09:43 AM

Interesting interview. It appears that Google is playing up its service even though many thematic websites have emerged. I think a generalist competitor on the local will never competed with Google because the research is done mainly through their search engine (especially here in France).