What is Local SEO?

What is Local SEO?

Reading Time: 15 minutes

If your business sells services or products locally, the success of your business hinges on how visible you are on search engines. Google has become pretty smart.

Did you know that when you use ‘local’ words like ‘restaurant near me’ in your Google search, you get served an entirely specialized set of results that are tailored to your local search?

Whether you’re searching on a desktop or a mobile device, using voice search, or you’re in your car, local search engine optimization or Local SEO impacts how your customers can find you.

Pretty much everyone searches locally in 2020.

Research shows that 60 percent of local searches are performed on mobile devices. That number is also expected to grow as local search continues to grow.

If you’re not familiar with the term Local SEO, that might only be because the ‘branding’ of the term is not ubiquitous, despite the fact that every local business participates in some capacity. When I suggested on Twitter that Local SEO was a small niche within SEO, Miriam Ellis of Moz shared her perspective: 

Andrew Shotland of LocalSEOGuide agreed that the number people who actually practice Local SEO is quite massive:

Since review management typically compliments Local SEO so tightly, it felt appropriate to dig a bit deeper into how we define Local SEO, how we can think about Local SEO holistically, and improve our Local SEO.

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What is Local SEO?

To better understand how we define Local SEO, I turned back to #SEOTwitter. There were a ton of great answers from the community and they all had different nuances to their definitions.

Strictly about location and search engines

Some SEOs focused on keeping the definition simple and direct. They defined Local SEO focusing on the local and the SEO. Geography and search engines. There was also a subtext around the intent of the searches.

Helping people and connecting with local communities

This second group of definition found it essential to include a business to customer connection within the definition. They specifically addressed the customer within the context of the Local SEO definition.

Specifically including Google My Business or Google Maps

Another group of experts found it essential to explicitly acknowledge that the definition of Local SEO also needs to include either Google My Business features or Google Maps. I found these definitions interesting because there’s an implication of Google being the primary focus of Local SEO (though Bing, Yahoo, and local service directories/review sites also serve as search engines).

Specifically excluding Google My Business

I wanted to highlight Dan’s response, because he found it important to express that Google My Business SEO and Small Business SEO should not be explicitly a part of the definition. 

Pointing out that most average people don't understand Local SEO

I imagine that Fiona’s point hits home for many Local SEOs working with a client and was worth including. If you’re starting a Local SEO agency, explaining rankings and personalization is a major challenge.

Comically accurate yet not definitive

Presented without comment.

Moz defines local SEO as the practice of…  

“increasing search visibility for businesses that serve their communities face-to-face. These can be brick-and-mortar businesses with physical locations, like a grocery store or dentist’s office, or service-area businesses that operate throughout a certain geographic area, like an electrician or house cleaning company. This includes everything from claiming a business listing to ensuring a franchise location appears in a local search on Google (a process known as location data or citation management). It also extends to managing online ratings and reviews, local-centric social media engagement, and beyond.”

While this definition by Moz is not limited to one sentence, it attempts to include all of the factors that were mentioned by the Local SEO Twitter community. It’s interesting that Moz goes as far to include social media.

So how can we think of Local SEO:

Local search that enables searchers to run a geographically constrained search against a database of local listings. Local SEO is a subset of search engine optimization; it enables local businesses to optimize their business for searches with local intent.

Searches with local intent?

First, we’ll start with the three basic types of searches. Search queries can be broken down into three broad categories.

  • Informational: Broad, open-ended search queries that are focused on a specific topic or idea, e.g., "restaurants," "electrician Chicago." Searchers with informational queries are typically at the start of their search.
  • Navigational: These searches are focused on finding a specific business or website. Examples of local navigational searches could be "pizza hut 76051" or "Subway restaurant Dallas."
  • Transactional: These are precise, laser-focused search queries that convey conversion intent. From a local standpoint, these could be specific searches like "Noodles and Company coupon codes" or "Smile Dentistry directions."

These informational, navigational, and transactional searches approach local search queries at a macro level. Let’s take a look at search queries from a meso point of view.

To do that, we’ll approach this from Google’s point of view. Google focuses on key moments in the buyer’s journey. 

They call them micro-moments.

Google defines a micro-moment as “an intent rich moment when a person turns to a device to act on a need —to know, go, do, or buy.” Research from Think with Google outlines the four key moments in a (local) searcher’s journey that matters most.

  • 1. I-want-to-know moments: Searchers are in research or exploration mode. At this stage, searchers rely on broad, informational search queries (e.g., restaurant, hotel, plumber near me); these search queries are basically informational. They're not looking for something specific because they don't know enough about what they want.
  • 2. I-want-to-go moments: These searchers can be conducting a general or specific search for a local business. People at this stage are more focused on transactional search queries. Again, these can be either general or specific keywords that include specific destinations (i.e., "funzone go karting") or general keywords (i.e., go karting near me) with local modifiers. These people are near the end of the buyer's journey; they're preparing to make a decision.
  • 3. I-want-to-do moments: These queries are similar to the I-want-to-go moment above in the sense that they can be both specific or general. The difference here is the fact that searchers are attempting to complete a task or try something new (i.e., "skydive Chicago"). Like the I-want-to-go searchers, these people are near the end of the buyer's journey. They're using transactional keywords, and they have a pretty good idea of the type of activity they're looking for.
  • 4. I-want-to-buy moments: At this point, searchers are ready to convert; they may need help deciding what to buy or how to buy it. Their research has concluded, and they're searching for a specific answer or solution to their query (i.e., "Naperville Target store address"). They know what they want. They're using navigational keywords as they move rapidly towards a conversion.

See the overlap between keyword types and micro-moments? It’s important to identify these differences and the impact they have on your research and campaign. What about desktop vs. mobile search?

The differences between desktop vs. mobile search

Remember earlier, when I mentioned that an average of 60 percent of local searches were performed on mobile devices? Google pays close attention to the devices that searchers use to formulate their queries.

Why would they do that? 

They do this because 1/3 of all mobile searches on Google are local. It’s no different on Bing; Microsoft says 53 percent of all mobile searches on their search engine have local intent. Does this impact how search engines treat local search queries? 

It makes a huge difference. 

SEMrush looked at 50,000 random keywords. They wanted to see if search results for the same query were different on different platforms. The results of their study were surprising (in a challenging) way. 

Only 13 percent of websites kept the same position across devices.

It gets worse; 31 percent of desktop search results were not visible on mobile SERPs. Only 10 percent of URLs keep the same position on both desktop and mobile.

What’s going on here?

Search engines prioritize search results based on a wide variety of factors — screen space, SERP features, and the higher prevalence of local search intent/queries are a few obvious examples. Let’s take a look at some of these differences to see this prioritization in action.

I used the query “plumbers 22206.

plumber 22206 desktop
plumber 22206 mobile

In previous years, the differences were fairly significant. That’s not always the case today. While some of these differences remain, Google has harmonized a considerable amount of searches. 

First, the differences.

  • Autocomplete provides searchers with options as they're typing, but before search results are displayed.
  • Android users are always logged in, so they always receive personalized results. This isn't always the case with desktop search.
  • Website favicons are displayed prominently in mobile search results. They're not displayed on the desktop.
  • SERP filters vary based on the keyword, location, or results, though they were the same in our example.
  • On mobile, the local packs occasionally display four results, while desktop-only displays three.
  • The "people also search for" box was displayed on mobile more often.
  • A large number of queries do not display ads on desktop (see screenshots below).

Next, the similarities.

  • Google Local Service Ads are displayed for both mobile and desktop search results.
  • Google Ads are sometimes displayed below Local Service Ads.
  • Google Ads are displayed on both the top and bottom of search results on both desktop and mobile.
  • The search results are largely the same for a variety of keywords, showing similar ads, search results, filters, local packs, knowledge panels, review sites, and more.
  • The "related searches" keywords were displayed on both mobile and desktop search results.

This seems inconsistent. 

The search results seem to be the same for the most part. Only they’re not. A few of the brands listed in mobile search results aren’t visible on desktop. It’s subtle, but this seems to validate the results from SEMrush’s study.

Note: Google is always testing new layouts and experimenting with new SERP features. In fact,  not only do search results fluctuate, these subtle nuances change day to day. 

One other important thing to keep in mind is that unless you’re searching in ‘incognito mode’ personalization will impact your search results as well. You might have a different set of results compared to someone sitting right next to you on a different device.

The anatomy of a local search on Google

Google’s local search results have several elements depending on the keyword or query. It typically includes the following details:

  • Google Ads
  • Google Local Service Ads (if applicable)
  • The local pack
  • The local shopping carousel
  • Organic listings including aggregate reviews

These are the core elements for Google search results. Local search results also include:

  • Related searches
  • "People also search for" suggestions
  • The knowledge panel
  • Rich snippets (i.e., aggregate star ratings)

Here are a few screen captures showing the various permutations of local search results pages. 

Screen capture: Electrician near me

These screen captures display Google Ads, Google Local service ads (for select queries), organic search results, the related searches, the “people also ask” box, and rich snippets.

electrician near me desktop
electrician near me mobile

Screen capture: Restaurants near me

These screen captures display the local pack, search by photos (via Google My Business), Browse by filters, the related searches, the “people also ask” box, and organic search results.

restaurants near me mobile

Screen capture: TV near me

These screen captures displays the local carousel ads, Google ads, the local pack, Google ads, organic search results, related searches, and the people also ask box.

Recently, Google has focused a little more on features around local eCommerce. Notice the curbside pick up tags on the images carousels. Keep your eyes peeled for more locally focused eCommerce features.

tv near me desktop
tv near me mobile

Google tailors search results to local specific queries; these local queries can include:

  • City, state, or zip codes
  • Near me
  • Location modifiers (e.g., Los Angeles, Main Street)
  • Branded queries (i.e., Buffalo Wild Wings)
  • Business type (e.g., Photographer, wedding planner, ad agency)
  • Occasions (e.g., Weddings, Christmas, birthday party)
  • Quality modifiers (e.g., best, top, affordable)

They adjust search results based on searcher queries; this means you can use these queries/modifiers to build out your list of keywords.

Local search on other search engines

While local search is available on other search engines, it isn’t as robust or fully featured as Google’s search offerings. You’re probably not surprised, am I right?

Here’s a brief look at local search on other search engines.

Bing

bing restaurants near me

Bing includes many of the same elements we’ve discussed above. For searches like “restaurants near me,” they include:

  • The TripAdvisor carousel
  • Rich snippets and images
  • Videos of local restaurants
  • Organic search results
  • A map of local restaurants
  • Related searches

Yahoo

yahoo restaurant near me

Yahoo relies on Yelp to build out its local search results, which are pretty bare bones. For the query “restaurants near me,” they include:

  • The Yelp local pack
  • Organic listings
  • Videos of local restaurants
  • Related searches

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo restaurants near me

DuckDuckGo keeps things simple. For the search query “restaurants near me,” they include:

  • The TripAdvisor local pack
  • Favicons for each search result
  • Videos of local restaurants
  • Organic listings

While these search engines aren’t Google, they still provide value; searchers use these search engines to find the products and services they need locally.

Local SEO and voice search

What about voice search?

According to Statista, voice search assistants are expected to climb to 8 billion by 2023. Voice search is easier for people to use. It’s faster, more convenient, and a perfect fit for mobile.

When it comes to local SEO, voice assistants, Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa, are relevant and important. They’re a channel more searchers are turning to and they’re supported by multiple search engines — Google, Apple, Amazon, and others.

  • Google devices recommend search results based on their local pack.
  • Siri relies on Yelp though they may be building their own index.
  • Alexa takes information from Bing search, then uses both Yelp and Yext data to create a response.

You’ll want to optimize for All three voice assistants, focusing on ranking factors like page speed, top three ranking, and earning a featured snippet position. As I mentioned previously, focus on building your Google My Business profile. You’ll want to verify that your citation data is accurate.

Another important, but obvious point?

Make sure your content is easy to understand and simple to read.

Local SEO via third-party industry and review sites

Industry-specific review sites have a strong presence in Google’s local search results via rich snippets and listings in their organic results. Specialty review sites like Healthgrades, Avvo, Zillow, and others also function as third-tier search engines. 

Searchers use these specialty sites to ferret out in-depth information that’s not immediately available in Google’s search results. What’s also helpful is the fact that these specialty sites rank high in Google’s local search. We’ve published several comprehensive guides you can use to improve your review portfolio and local search rankings; take a look.

  • Consistently request online reviews. A face-to-face request (in-person, via Skype, etc.) is the most effective, followed by text and email.
  • Conduct a complete social audit of client and competitor channels.

How to improve your visibility in local search

In her recent post, Miriam Ellis shares a really simple strategy for boosting your rank in local search results.

“Google’s house may be structurally unsound, but it’s also huge, with a 90% search engine market share globally and over 2 trillion searches per year, 46% of which are for something local. Right now, running the most successful local business possible means acquiring the largest share you can of those estimated 1 trillion annual local searches.” 

Her advice?

You feed Google a steady stream of content about your business. This isn’t rocket science, and it’s not particularly difficult.

  • Send the right citation signals by adding citation data, e.g., the name of your business, your address, and telephone number. Make sure this data is accurate and available in major directories, reviews, and social media sites.
  • You claim, optimize, and update your Google My Business account on a consistent basis.
  • Optimize your website, making sure your on-page optimization is precise and consistent.
  • Continue to build local links to other local online properties. Build links internally and externally, inbound, and outbound.
  • Build social engagement, build a following on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Build a strong review portfolio on mainstream, niche, and industry-specific review platforms.

Your website, Google My Business account, and online review portfolio are the most important. Citations can be handled via software. With your Google My Business account, you’ll want to:

  • Verify your business listing.
  • Fill out your profile completely and accurately.
  • Add content to each of the portions on your profile (e.g., posts, attributes, keywords, photos, updates, etc.)
  • Respond to reviews, when appropriate.
  • Seed your profile with a consistent stream of content.
  • Request customer reviews on an ongoing basis.

With your website, make sure that:

  • You're providing searchers/visitors with relevant, high-quality information about your business.
  • You offer high-quality content that's built around your core categories/topics.
  • Your website leads with a strong value proposition answering three questions on every web page. Where am I, what can I do here, and why should I do it?
  • Your website is fully responsive and mobile-ready.
  • You provide searchers/visitors with the local content they need.

As an aside, you’ll also want to build your following and engagement on Twitter and Facebook. Use these social profiles to build a relationship and facilitate a conversation with your audience. Spamming content at your audience isn’t as valuable as two-way communication. 

What if you need more help with local search?

Local SEO resources you can use

These Local SEO resources will provide you with the communication you need to manage your local search campaigns properly. They are part of the Local SEO blueprint.

Local SEO is a must-have for local businesses

Almost 50 percent of Google’s 2 trillion+  searches per year have local intent. Half of the world’s internet traffic is mobile. Local search is growing 50 percent faster, and this number is expected to continue to grow.

Small local businesses aren’t ready. 

Here’s the good news. Your local business can be. Use this basic primer to orient your business around local search. If your business is local, local SEO is an essential component for growth. Optimize your business around searchers and their micro-moments, and you’ll have the traffic you need to attract and convert more happy customers.

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