Ready for a comprehensive, layman’s terms break-down of all of those wacky SEO terms you hear so much about? Are you a local business owner struggling to make sense of what you actually need to do to rank because you’re not a tech nerd? Well, look no further, we’ve got your back. Local SEO ranking factors and how to make them work for you is what you’re about to learn.
In the beginning, there was Google.
Actually, it was WebCrawler, Lycos, AltaVista, Yahoo… etc. I’m revealing my age by confessing that I remember those.
I even remember the years when people said, “What is this Google thing? Funny name.”
But now, there’s pretty much just Google, and they’re not so funny anymore.
In fact, they have become just a little bit terrifying – as I peer around nervously for a lightening bolt for fear of being smited by the Google Gods.
Anger or ignore Google and your business will be a grease spot.
Keep Google happy and you’ll have a thriving business.
So, the million dollar question is – what makes Google happy?
At a high level the answer is simple, Google wants data.
The more detailed answer, specific to your business listing, is harder to know for certain.
No one except the big G knows the exact algorithm used in rankings, but we have a lot of hints on strong signals which experts will agree do make a difference.
Keeping up with Google’s ever-changing algorithm is
a nightmare challenging, but there are universal consistencies almost guaranteed not to change; including having clean, concise information on your website and about your company that tells your customers what you do and how well you do it.
Let’s dive in and examine the specifics one by one to take your Local SEO strategy to the next level.
Now, if you want to boost your marketing strategies overall (not just SEO), my Small Business Marketing article focuses on that.
LOCAL SEO RANKING CRITERIA OVERVIEW
Observe, if you will, exhibit number 1 – the Google Happiness Bubble Chart. (For those of you Silicon Valley fans, this is reminiscent of the conjoined triangles of success.)
While we could go overboard with hundreds of less relevant SEO items, if you can nail all of the things in this image you’ll be sitting pretty.
To start, let’s define each one so that we are all speaking the same language.
TERMS & DEFINITIONS
|Alt Tags||Image description used by screen readers & search engine robots to understand image contents.|
|Backlinks||Links to your website pages pointed back from other websites.|
|Citations||Directory listings which come from directory sites such as YellowPages.com.|
|Crawl||The process a search engine goes through in order to discover the pages and structure of your website.|
|DA||Domain Authority – a score from 1 to 100 to evaluate how highly your site will rank with the search engines.|
|EAT||Expertise, Authority, Trust. Factors used by Google’s algorithm to determine your site’s credibility.|
|GMB Posts||Google My Business Posts – Posts that can be created on the Google My Business listing.|
|GMB Q&A||Google My Business Q&A – Questions & Answers shown on your Google My Business listing.|
|Google My Business||Google My Business is the listing information that Google shows for any particular business when it comes back as a result for a local business Google search. Google My Business information will be shown as a 3-pack of businesses initially, and can be expanded into a Listing Pack when the searcher requests more businesses than the initial 3. This is different from organic search results, which just display the results of the query with the normal website result pages.|
|H1 Tags||The HTML formatted Heading 1 Tags which identify the title of a page or article, or what it is your website does on the main page. There can be only 1 of these per page to avoid a penalty.|
|H2 & Greater Tags||The HTML formatted Heading tags which identify the hierarchy/subheading structure of your pages. H2 is usually a top level heading (after the solitary H1 tag) and each subsequent heading defines a lower level heading.|
|Keywords||Words that define the main subject of the page or site.|
|LSI||Latent Semantic Indexing – secondary words which provide clarity around the meaning of the primary keywords. For example, if your keyword is “Glasses”, LSI terms could be either drinking or reading, to define if the keyword refers to kitchenware or spectacles.|
|Mobile Optimization||How easily your site is to use on a mobile device.|
|NAP||Name Address Phone – This is the information for your business; in this context we are specifically referring to how this information appears on directory listings.|
|Off-Page SEO||Factors not coming from your actual website that give your site a higher or lower ranking for Search Engines. An example would be backlinks from a highly trusted website that references an article on your site.|
|On-Page SEO||Factors from your website which give your site a higher or lower ranking for Search Engines. Website loading speed is one of these.|
|PA||Page Authority – Similar to Domain Authority, Page Authority is the ranking score between 1 – 100 of a specific page on your website. The higher the score, the higher the probability this page will rank highly in the search engines.|
|Proximity||Distance from your physical location to your customer’s home or current location.|
|Reviews||Customer ratings provided on your site, on Google, or another ratings site like TrustPilot or Yelp.|
|Schema||Specific Markup Data used by search engines to help search engines process your site’s information more easily.|
|SEO||Search Engine Optimization.|
|SiteMap||Said to no longer be used or necessary, sitemaps were at one time the way that search engines could process the data including pages, structure, and hierarchy of your site.|
|Speed||A factor in ranking and customer experience, the speed of your site can either help or hurt your overall SEO score.|
The first ranking factor is something you don’t control. Your distance to the location of your customers is not easily changed or fixed unless you are prepared to move or add a store closer to your target customers.
However, you should be aware that this is a factor in how people are finding you – so if you are in an extremely remote location, you are not showing up at the top of many people’s lists and this is why.
After proximity, this is your largest ranking factor. If you complete everything else on this list but don’t have a review for your company, or you have low review scores, you are not going to rank well with Google for your category and customers will more than likely skip right over your listing because you’re not a proven entity.
You can thank Jeff Bezos for this as Amazon was the first known large company to display honest product reviews, good and bad. Bezos understood that people needed help making purchase decisions; and for better or for worse, majority rule was typically a good way to build confidence in (or abstain from) product considerations.
The first thing I look for when I audit a site or before I use an unknown company, is their ratings. I look at these 3 factors: 1) number of reviews, 2) what customers say, and 3) the average score. I am not unique here, most people do the same thing – and Google and every other search engine (Yelp, Bing, etc.,) know this as well.
A Low Number or No Reviews
So what do you do if you have few or no reviews? This is a little tricky because you should never be pushy about getting a review, especially a positive one – but it is okay to request that your customers give a review after their service/sale. You can place a request on their receipt or send a follow-up email that asks for feedback and/or a review.
The easier you make it for them to find your review link, the more tempted they will be to complete it. These are Google’s directions on how to grab your review link.
What Can I do About Bad Reviews?
Bad reviews are tough, and they are really hard to recover from. I have seen first hand how Google will almost never remove a bad review, even when the review was representing a bad experience with a former owner but the company was purchased and operated by a new owner.
Google tends to err on the side of the reviewer, even when they are in the wrong, or even when the person isn’t actually a customer and just had something nasty to say. You can continue to fight to get it removed, but there is no guarantee you will make progress. If you can afford it, you can get a reputation management company to attempt to clean up bad reviews on behalf of your business.
Your best immediate recourse is to respond politely to the negative review and ask the customer to contact you so that you can make reparations. Most people are willing to work with a business who genuinely wants to make things right. If approached correctly you can even convert these people into your biggest advocates.
Quantity vs. Score
While having an ample amount of reviews for your site is good, it’s preferable that they are on average higher than 4 stars. One 5-star review is better than having five 1-star reviews. Low stars tell people to stay away. Even if your business listing appears in the list, low star ratings discourages people from using your services if others are unhappy with your company.
Sites like YellowPages.com, Angie’s List, Thumbtack.com, all provide directory listings for local businesses. You want to be sure that your business appears in these listings, and most importantly, that it appears CORRECTLY (see NAP below).
If you are looking to do some competitive analysis to find out which sites you should be listed on, follow the instructions provided in our article Marketing Strategies for Small Businesses under “Audit Your Competition’s Directory Listings”.
Your Name, Address & Phone Number needs to appear consistently on any directory listings. When there are discrepancies your site’s integrity becomes degraded in the eyes of search engines, because it doesn’t know which piece of information is accurate. A simple win for your business is just to clean up any outdated information. You can attack this yourself by finding all of the references where your site’s information appears and making sure this is correct, or you can use a company like BrightLocal or WhiteSpark to configure these on your behalf.
While backlink importance is a subject of a lot of debate lately, they are still important. In the past, this was one of the largest ways to know that a site was highly revered, as it was basically being referenced or “recommended”, via a backlink from someone else’s site. With the abuse of blackhat SEO, where people were paying companies with fake sites to obtain backlinks, Google has diminished this signal’s importance some.
Some, but it still matters a skosh. The authority of the domain linking to your site is more important than a large quantity of random links from low-quality sites.
This is where Domain Authority comes into play.
Domain Authority is a site’s reputation score and goes from 0 to 100. Sites which are trusted in the eyes of Google will have a much higher Domain Authority (DA). So if you are getting backlinks, you want these to come from quality sites with a high DA.
What constitutes a quality site (high DA)? You can do a lookup on a site’s DA with a tool like this Domain Authority Checker but as a good rule of thumb is that if you know of the business/website already (and know that’s it’s considered reputable) then you are probably safe to assume it’s credible. This includes anything from a newspaper site like BuzzFeed or a business site like the Better Business Bureau.
HOW TO GET BACKLINKS
It goes without saying, don’t engage in any shady ways of obtaining backlinks. This is one way to get your site booted from Google altogether, and you definitely don’t want that. If you really think you’re going to get one over on Google – run by a bunch of PhD accredited data scientists, well, I wish you good luck.
Honest ways of getting backlinks include writing great content that other sites reference, legitimately being referenced by the community for things your company has been involved with or sponsored, business associations to professional organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, and Press Releases about your company’s news published by reputable news sites.
GOOGLE MY BUSINESS
It’s easy to forget that Google wants small businesses to succeed.
It often feels the opposite because Google’s business tools are fairly non-intuitive, and forget about their customer support channels for any type of real support. It takes a small miracle to get through to their support and to have them provide help.
I’d sooner believe in the tooth fairy (a la Dwayne Johnson’s version) than in Google’s desire or ability to resolve any one person’s specific issues. Google certainly doesn’t need me to survive and thrive.
What they do need, however, is good, accurate, information to present to the public. People trust Google to show them the right information.
If you can crack the code on the ways to help Google provide better information, in return your business gets free promotion from them, and it’s a win-win.
Fill out all of the Google My Business information that pertains to your business. As they are updating and adding things often, check back regularly to see if there’s a new field you may want to use. The more data the better.
In addition to the basic information, here are some of Google My Business’s (GMB) extra features to help your business stand out:
GMB Q&A is a great way to answer questions and prove that you communicate well with your customers. If/when potential customers reach out with questions, be sure to respond as quickly as you can. This shows that you are highly engaged with your visitors.
Hint: You can (and should) seed the Q&A section with questions/answers and your FAQ section from your website.
Upload high quality, fresh, current photos to your GMB listing. Some studies have reported that showing the inside of your store can boost customer visits, but I would recommend having a good mixture of images: your store’s location from the outside, inside, and some of your products and/or services.
You can also upload videos and 360° images if you have these.
Posts are one of the more under-utilized and perhaps lesser known ways to grab a potential customer’s attention and boost the appeal of your Google My Business listing. Posts are free ads that Google allows you to place on your GMB listing where you can put a Call To Action (CTA) link – basically a clickable action to something you want your customer to do like CALL or USE COUPON.
Posts have a specific date range so they expire at the time you set – which makes them ideal for running specific ads and promotions.
I’d recommend all businesses create a post for your business at least once a month with high quality images and something enticing enough to get that customer click.
For instructions on creating a post, read Google’s tutorial on creating a post.
Social Media is a whole category of its own as it pertains to driving business.
For the purposes of this reference though, we’ll keep this limited to making sure you have your social media configured properly to link to your website.
Typically, when you are setting up your social media accounts, you will use a link to your website in your account settings.
Make sure that your website’s address is set up correctly on any of your social media channels: Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Next, you want to make sure your open graph information is set correctly in your website’s SEO tool – i.e., All In One SEO, The SEO Framework, Yoast, etc. Each of these plugins will have a specific area where you can input your Social Media links – make sure these are filled out, and filled out correctly.
Your theme or social media plugins may also have an area to input your social media information, make sure they’re connected to the applicable social media links that you use.
A well optimized site is probably one of the harder things for non-technical businesses owners to address.
This is an intimidating area as there are a lot of technical components to consider and address.
As this is scaled down, here I’ve focused on the simple things you can do to improve the optimization of your site.
Your website speed begins and ends with your hosting. If your hosting is slow no amount of fine-tuning can fix it.
You can test the speed of your webhost by running your site through a site like bitcatcha.
If your host is slow and you are prepared to switch – checkout our webhosting recommendations page for some fast host recommendations.
Enter your website’s URL in a speed analyzer like GTMetrix, this will give you a breakdown of what is slowing down your site the most.
Often it comes down to these main perpetrators:
- WebHost – This will determine how fast your site can load if you had absolutely nothing running on it at all. If an empty page takes a while to load, you’ll never get a page with data to go faster.
- Images – Believe it or not image compression is one of the largest factors to a slow (or fast) website. This is usually an easy fix to achieve with 2 tools: GZip & Image Optimization Plugins (we use Ewwww).
- Code Minification – This boils down to extra spaces in website code that can be easily consolidated with a plugin. Note: Be careful to do a full site backup before you implement any of these plugins – on more than a few occasions after testing different minifiers an entire site restore was needed.
- Too Many Plugins – It’s easy to want to install plugins to do a lot of fun or cool things. If you want your site speed to stay fast, try to keep your plugins to only mandatory functionality and to a minimum. Also, install plugins one at a time and check what each one does to your site speed to see if you should consider a different one altogether.
- Updates – If your WordPress version, PHP version, theme, or plugins haven’t been updated in a while, not only is this a security risk but can also be slowing down your site as the newest code has not been applied. Make sure you are applying your updates at least once a month for anything that has a new version.
While there might be many other factors involved in slowing down your website, these are the ones that should be addressed first.
No longer an optional feature, today your site must be mobile friendly. Not only does this matter to Google, chances are a large percentage of your visitors are using a mobile device to view your site. Numbers vary, but approximately 50% of people are web-browsing on a mobile device*.
The best way to ensure mobile compatibility is to purchase a theme that is mobile-responsive.
Then, always test your site after you make changes to it, to ensure no adjustments are needed for mobile view-ports.
You can test your mobile responsiveness using Google’s Mobile Testing tools.
If your theme is not mobile friendly you can consider altering the code using bootstrap, but this will require your knowledge of coding or contracting a web developer to help you recode your site, and for the extra overhead this will create it would probably be worth it to invest in a solid mobile-friendly theme to switch over to instead.
It is important that you are not preventing Google or other search engine bots from crawling your site. Unless you have specifically gone out of your way to prevent crawling, you should be fine.
However, you should run your site through a crawl auditing tool like this seo-crawler every now and again to make sure everything on your site looks good.
If there are any call-outs on specific issues, fix those.
Also make sure you have a working robots.txt file – which your SEO tool settings should validate as setup and working correctly.
Your SEO tool will also let you know when a specific page is not being indexed, which is usually the case if you haven’t published the page yet. Once you do publish it, make sure you get a green light (or however your SEO tool notifies you of the status) on the indexing of that page.
Age test: Do you remember the days when you could just place about 1000 keywords at the bottom of a webpage and then make the font white so it wasn’t completely obvious that you were keyword stuffing the crap out of the page?
Yes, that actually used to work. Folks – don’t try this at home.
Anymore, that is what we call Black Hat SEO, and while black hats are great for witches and horse jockeys, you don’t want none of that if you want to stay in GGG – Google’s Good Graces.
Try anything funny like that and your next steps will be begging Google to take you back… which is a bit like screaming into the void.
However, there are plenty of legitimate places to add keywords that Google wants you to be using.
These include the following:
- URL if applicable
- Slug if applicable (this is the url of a specific page that is not the home page, i.e., /local-seo/)
- Page Title if applicable
- Meta Description
- H1 Tag if applicable
- H2 & Higher Tags if applicable
- Body Content – But don’t stuff keywords, make this natural and organic.
- Images – specifically the first image on the page – ALT tags and title should include keywords
Latent Semantic Indexing sounds like a big scary term but it actually isn’t. It just means that you should be elaborating on your focus words by using supporting words.
For example, if I use the word shampoo in an article, but I’m actually talking about shampooing carpets, I want to make sure to have plenty of words that support the fact that I mean carpet shampoo and not hair.
In this instance you would want to make sure the article included the words vacuum, carpet fibers, length of the nap, floor, etc., so that search engines would clearly be able to decipher what the article was about.
Chances are, if your article is informative and well-written, you’d be including these anyway.
It’s just basically writing in a meaningful way that describes what you are doing.
- H1 Tag – This is your main heading tag which describes your content and the focus of the page. There can only be one per page.
- H2 – H6 Tags – These are the subheading tags which break up your content into easy to consume sections. They are good for the user experience and search engines like these as well.
- Bold – Good for readability purposes, and search engines will sometimes give bolded text that includes keywords a bit more ranking weight.
In general, good formatting should be followed for an overall good user experience.
Search engines are slowly catching up to ranking a site the same way a person would rank the experience – so, if it’s easy to read and has a lot of valuable information broken up into logical sections and formatting, chances are both readers and search engines will like your pages.
Sites that have high-quality, relevant images will do better from a user experience perspective.
From an SEO perspective, you want to ensure your images are titled and ALT-tagged with information relevant to your pictures.
Don’t use titles with random numbers or letters such as 232899.jpg, as this will not clue a search engine in as to what the picture is about.
If your picture is a beach, title your photo beach.jpg and the alt tag should be “sunny day at the beach,” or something to that affect.
Remember that most search engines have an image search component these days as well as basic text/data, so your image data is an important signal to tell the search engines what your pages are about.
E – A – T
This stands for Expertise – Authority – Trust and simply means that Google would like to know a bit about your background to help them rank your expertise levels.
What this means to you, specifically, is that your ABOUT page (or wherever this information resides) should include ample information on your credentials and experience.
About a year ago Google got serious with credentials as they pertained to who should be giving out medical, legal, and financial advice. They called this “Your Money, Your Life” and it disrupted the worlds of many a financial or health blogger who wasn’t “qualified” in the eyes of Google, for better or for worse. Some unfortunate souls lost a lot of traffic.
With this algorithm change, Google tightened their purse strings across the board on who they feel is best able to represent specific categories.
While local businesses were mostly unaffected by this change, the more that you can prove that you have an education and a reputation to back up your services, the better off you might be.
Schema is markup text invented by a union of search engines with the intent of allowing website developers to clearly mark specific information like organizations, articles, recipes, and have this information easily processed by search engines.
While the extent of how impactful this information is in boosting ratings is unknown, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have it on your site – so if you can swing it, add it for good measure.
If you think your site has schema already on it (which some themes have by default), you can test it using Google’s structured data tool.
If this is working properly, you will see your organization show up on the right side when you analyze your main URL.
If you do not have Schema already and would like to implement it, for WordPress you can use a plugin called Schema which will automatically add it to your site.
Remember: Always make a backup of your site before installing and activating any new plugin.
This is a lot of information, so try not to get overwhelmed by it.
If you can tackle a little bit at a time you’ll be an SEO pro in no time.
Download the checklist below (signing up for free gives you access to our business download folder) and get through what you can.
If you can do just one item per day, in a few weeks your SEO improvements will be done.
Know that it does take a while for any changes to show results, so the waiting game is one of the hardest aspects.
You won’t know that what you have done has worked for possibly months.
But, these are good practices to get in the habit of anyway, regardless of when you see improvements in your rankings.
I hope you have found this useful, and if so, please comment below and let me know!