Local search has become increasingly important for small business owners nationwide. Google’s local search algorithm (Bing and Yahoo! have them, too) is giving entrepreneurs the chance to separate themselves from the competition, both online and on the block.
Search engines are using a consumer’s IP address and geography-specific keywords to generate more nuanced results. Today, users who search for “shoes” will likely find local shoe stores and neighborhood retailers rather than a laundry list of major brands.
That’s a tremendous opportunity for small business owners to serve their communities. For entrepreneurs, the key is crafting marketing campaigns that optimize their site in the search results. Here are a six paths to consider.
1. Local engines
Google is the big dog, so we’ll talk mostly about Google Places, the search behemoth’s local business directory. It’s about as close to the Yellow Pages as the under-30 crowd will ever get.
Creating a Google Places page for your business is essential. This complement to your website can feature your hours of operation, pictures, video, contact information and more. Establishing a presence in Places ensures consumers will find your business when they’re searching for goods and services.
In fact, the search results will be intermingled with websites and Places results. Having your key contact information (address, phone number, business name) from your business website match your Google Places profile is a key trust and credibility builder for the search engines, not to mention consumers.
2. Verify the information
Building your Google Places presence includes a significant final step: Verifying your information with the search firm. Google wants to make sure the information and business are legitimate and will ask the business owner to verify the page over the phone.
Without some manner of verification, black-hat types might be tempted to create fake Places pages for their competitors. Imagine having consumers search for a product and find your company only to be directed to a bad telephone number, a broken website or a non-existent physical location.
Make sure your key contact information is accurate. Any inconsistencies can exact a heavy toll on your ranking.
3. Stir up citations
This is a word small business owners will become increasingly familiar with during the next year. Essentially, a “citation” is an online reference to your key contact information in a business directory or review website. Racking up citations is proving important, as they help guide the search engines and, in turn, consumers. Securing local citations was named the top method to help small businesses boost their SEO campaigns in this year’s annual Local Search Ranking Factors survey, which is created by local search guru David Mihm.
4. Encourage reviews
Create profiles for your business on as many review and directory sites as possible, including hubs like Yelp, SuperPages and CitySearch. But dedicate a good chunk of time to fostering consumer reviews within Google’s platform. That’s because the search giant recently stopped pulling in reviews from third-party sites like Yelp. It’s more important than ever to encourage reviews from satisfied customers.
5. Check in
Seize every opportunity you find to establish a business listing. Consumers’ growing compulsion to “check in” means you should have a presence on FourSquare, Yelp, Facebook, LinkedIn and pretty much every other social media site. Make sure your key contact information is correct and matches what you have in your Google Places profile.
6. Remember the links
You still need to build high-quality links to your site. But look for ways to weave in your key contact information when you’re sending out a news release or cranking out a guest piece for an industry blog or niche publication. Don’t forsake those organic efforts to go all-in on building citations. Besides, you can also target more locally focused blogs and aim to generate relevant, engaging content while getting some citation love in the process. A balanced strategy that finds common ground and cross-promotional opportunities can go a long way to helping your business own the local search results.
Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortgage Center.com, the nation's No. 1 dedicated VA lender. A recovering journalist, he also teaches at a private Midwestern university. Follow him @cjbirk.