You Offer 10 Services and Serve 10 Cities, So You Create 100 City Pages? Why City-Page Proliferation Is Dumb

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You want to rank for a bunch of keywords in a bunch of cities.  You don’t have a physical location in each city – which makes you ineligible for Google My Business pages in all those places – but you figure you can “optimize” as many pages you need.  Your competitors do it, so why shouldn’t you?  What have you got to lose?

Let’s say own an HVAC company in the Dallas area.  You offer 10 main services and want to reach customers in 10 cities.  You crank out 10 city pages for “heating repair,” with page names like:

/heating-repair-dallas-tx
/heating-repair-fort-worth-tx
/heating-repair-plano-tx
/heating-repair-arlington-tx
/heating-repair-richardson-tx
/heating-repair-irving-tx
/heating-repair-garland-tx
/heating-repair-mckinney-tx
/heating-repair-denton-tx
/heating-repair-grapevine-tx

Then you need pages on AC repair, so…

/ac-repair-dallas-tx
/ac-repair-fort-worth-tx
/ac-repair-plano-tx
/ac-repair-arlington-tx
/ac-repair-richardson-tx
/ac-repair-irving-tx
/ac-repair-garland-tx
/ac-repair-mckinney-tx
/ac-repair-denton-tx
/ac-repair-grapevine-tx

 And so on.

Before you know it, you’ve got 100 pages.  (Or maybe you only offer 5 services and in 5 different cities.  That’s still 25 pages.)

All the pages are nearly identical, except you swap out the city names and keywords from page to page.

Like the microsite strategy, the cities x services = number of pages strategy is shortsighted and likely to end in one kind of failure or another.

In a minute I’ll tell you what I suggest you do instead.  First, here are the problems with your rapidly reproducing pages:

  1. Even if the 100 “city” pages aren’t too good and you just squirt them out, it’s still a lot of work to build them all.
  1. What if you make a mistake in your master copy and want to fix it? Whatever it is, do it 100 times.
  1. It’s hard or impossible to incorporate the pages into your navigation – and not annoy visitors.
  1. It’s hard or impossible to incorporate the pages into your internal linking – and not annoy visitors.
  1. Do you at least want the option of writing and building the pages in-house – without spending so much time on them that you drop the ball on everything else?
  1. Google’s “Doorway Page” update – meant to keep useless “city” pages out of the search results. Now, those pages still pop up too often, so to me Google hasn’t been too serious about running them out of town.  But if and when that changes, you don’t want to be the one to find out first.
  1. What if the pages don’t rank well? Then what?  How will you make 100 pages more informative and in-depth?  What if you conclude you need to rustle up some good links?
  1. What if they rank well but don’t get any traffic? What is your plan to make more people click through to those 100 pages from the search results?
  1. What if they get traffic, but the traffic doesn’t convert? You’ll need to make 100 pages convert better.  You wanted those city-service permutation pages because they were quick to pump out.  Do you have time to fix 100 failures?
  1. What if you want to rename the pages or rework the URLs later? Lots of redirects and/or updating your internal links.
  1. What if some customers see 5 pages that all look the same except for the city? Are they more likely or less likely to call you?
  1. Do you want to be able to point customers and would-be customer to those pages easily – and verbally, if you want to?
  1. Do you want competitors, marketers, and customers alike to admire how you market yourself, or conclude that you’re just another hack?
  1. Your competitors have probably sunk to that strategy already. What makes you think you’ll do the same thing they do but enjoy more success than they’ve had?
  1. If your competitors haven’t cranked out 100 city pages yet, and they conclude your pages work great for you, how will you stay ahead of them when they follow your lead?

 

Enough for now about what you shouldn’t do.  Here’s what I do suggest:

  1. Have an in-depth page on each specific service you offer. Have some blurbs on your service area, and link to your pages on each city (see point #2, below), as appropriate.
  1. Have an in-depth “city” page on each of the main cities you serve. Apply my 25 principlesThis spreadsheet may help, too.

The idea is your service pages should have plenty of “city” info, and your city pages should have plenty of info on your services.  If you offer 10 services and serve 10 cities, that’s 20 pages.  Much more manageable, and it’s at least possible you can make each one good over time.

Any drawbacks of the “cities x services = number of pages” strategy that I missed?

Anything to say in its defense?

Any examples of great or hideous city pages?

Leave a comment!

Comments

  1. It’s interesting to note that Google doesn’t always do a great job of weeding out spammy content but this is a good post for those that would rather work smarter than harder

    • Yeah, Google has only halfheartedly gone after spammy city pages. Disappointing. I might add, though, that in this post I suggest smart work and hard work. Cranking out 100 crappy pages is not hard work, which is why people do it. It would be one thing if those pages worked beyond occasionally ranking well, but they tend not to bring in any customers, because they’re just lip service.

  2. Great points all around, and your advice at the bottom is what I shoot for nowadays. I’d love to get your input on a few finer points, though:

    1. For long tail searches like “duct cleaning Fort Worth,” is it safe to say that the duct cleaning page, not the Fort Worth page, should be the landing page? If so, what searches should use the Fort Worth page as the landing page – or is it really just for Googlebot after all?

    2. Assuming you use a service area page as the hub for the city pages, what do you do for the company’s hometown? Would you make a Dallas page, even if it’s going to have significant overlap with other pages, or do you just have one unlinked city in a sea of linked ones?

    3. Along those same lines, do you just optimize for branded searches on the home page for these kinds of sites?

    • Because I don’t know the particulars, here’s my general advice:

      1. I generally suggest using the homepage as your Google My Business landing page. It tends to do better, mostly because typically it’s got most of the link juice. Also, it’s usually better-thought-out than subpages, and so is probably stickier, too.

      2. I’d use the homepage as the landing page for the “hometown” Google My Business page, but still create a separate page for the hometown. You’d try to get it to rank well in the organic results and be good enough to get calls from it; you just wouldn’t use it for GMB.

      3. Yeah, the homepage (and probably all pages) should make it clear what the “brand” is. The company name should probably be somewhere on the page, and probably in the title/description. So that people who search for “name of company + service” or “name of company + city” can easily pull up the page in search results and not have to fish around for it in the navigation.

      • 1. Sorry, I meant organic, non-local landing pages for long tail searches in cities that are too far away to trigger the company’s GMB. I know CTR will always be low because you’re competing against someone else’s map pack, but sometimes a strong brand can earn the click anyways.

        2. Cool. That makes sense, and is more or less how I’ve been approaching it. Thanks!

        3. Agreed with all of that, though I meant optimizing the home page for the brand versus optimizing for commercial terms, or commercial + city terms. If Yeehaw Heating and Air’s most valuable search is “air conditioning repair Dallas,” how much should the home page reflect that? Or, what would you use as the home page’s focus keywords?

        • Re. #3: it should read naturally. Talk about the service(s) in-depth, and talk about the company. Link to pages that describe in more detail services you want people to know about, but that you don’t describe on the page.

          Beyond that, it’s a case-by-case, “know it when I see it” situation.

      • @Phil The note about using the homepage instead of the city specific page is interesting. I thought because the content, images and copy, is more specific to the search query on the city specific page it would do better as it’s more in line with the searchers intent. Can you elaborate more on why the homepage with more authority works better for a city location page URL in Google My Business pages? We are currently updating all our location pages design/ content so this is really timely for me.

        • Good question. I can only speculate as to why the authority (read: link juice) of the landing page matters, to the extent it does matter. Certainly it doesn’t always work out that way; plenty of GMB pages tied to non-homepage landing pages rank fine. It’s just something I’ve noticed. What you should do depends on a lot of particulars.

  3. Phil, I can’t tell you how often this question comes up in the Moz Q&A forum and I’ve long advocated:
    – A page for every major city
    – A page for every major service
    …and no amalgamations of the two, or you end up with the ream of pages (normally thin and awful) that you’ve so beautifully illustrated here.

    The two page types I advocate should have different goals. The city pages should be highly reflective of the customers and work accomplished in that geo. The service pages, on the other hand, should get into the nitty gritty details of the service (or product) itself. Both go towards building the authority of the brand in relationship to its topic/theme, and it’s manageable to create 10 city pages and 10 service pages of extremely high quality. 100 of them? 1,000 of them? Maybe not so much, unless the company is a large enterprise.

    You’ve hit on a pain point many Local SEOs should feel, and you’ve hopefully set the record straight with this post that a page for every possible city/service combination known to man is not a smart strategy. Nice job!

  4. Have you even seen a case of someone getting “hit” by a doorway penalty due to having dozens of city pages? I haven’t… 🙁

    • Nor have I. It seems to be a page-by-page penalty at most. All I’ve seen is specific lousy pages that used to rank well stop ranking well. Never seen anything site-wide.

  5. avatar Dave Oremland says:

    Phil: I think these are great suggestions above. More than anything you have pointed out what is unreasonable and what is reasonable and can work. Its interesting, you and Miriam are both suggesting a similar way for an smb to respond to the issue.
    I haven’t been looking at what google is calling doorway pages today, but in the more distant past smb types were creating what is called doorway pages today with a title that was town name/ a service . The pages would be identical except for town name. Those proliferated for a while.

    Then Google SLAMMED them ALL. All those sites with all those identical pages became worthless. No visibility, no ranking….no visits from searchers.

    Yours is good advice.

    Thanks

    • Thanks, Dave.

      I do still see doorway pages pop up more often than they should. Maybe not as much as before, but I still see ’em. Perhaps SMBs, SEOs, and Google are on their better behavior when you’re around 🙂

  6. Great stuff here. I still see so many SEO companies doing this (switching out the city within the content). This is straight lazy. Take some pride in your work. At least make the content unique! The sad part is, I still see companies ranking using these same exact methods and ranking, although there seemed to be an update that addressed this a few months ago.

    • Thanks, John. Yeah, those lazy pages still do pop up often.

      I’m all for “lazy” methods of doing things, as long as they work. Poorly-thought-out pages may rank well sometimes, but they don’t tend to bring in customers. (I say that partly because I’ve consulted for companies that had been churning out those sorts of pages.)

  7. Great article Phil, thanks.
    What are your thoughts then on actual results pages?
    We help small businesses find shared offices throughout the US. So the local results for our locations are similar in content (besides the description for each office). Is there a suggestion on how to organize them better than just having the optimized URL http://www.officelist.com/office-space-for-rent/us/new-york/new-york .

    For users it works perfect and that’s the way it should be, but is Google penalizing the fact that there are hundreds of “similar” pages we work on?
    Thanks!

  8. avatar Kyle Menchaca says:

    Hi Phil,
    Totally agreed on all points. I see these kinds of pages pretty often, with some ranking very well still (low/moderate competition industry). But even in some relatively higher population/higher competition areas. However, the ones I see working seem to be powered by the trust or brand authority of the overall domain, and not by virtue of being a great/resourceful page.

    Thanks,
    Kyle

    • Hey Kyle,

      I hear you. When a “city page” ranks well, it’s hard to tell how much of it is because of the merits of the page itself vs. because of the strength of the domain.

  9. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that way. It’s a good article and the list of downsides is accurate. Nevertheless, building pages that city/service targeted is smart. It does work. I have done it dozens of times for my clients with a great deal of success. And, again, I’m sorry but I don’t feel guilty about it or feel that it is being spammy. We didn’t make the rules. Google did. Google doesn’t look for websites, they look for web pages. And if someone searches for a particular service in a particular city that I wish to service, why shouldn’t I be free to build a page optimized to come up in such a search. Is Sears, or Angie’s List better than me? Angie’s List has essentially the same pages coming up for about every city and town in the country. And the same articles only titled for that individual city. They have the same helpful articles on the same page over and over again for city after city. So it’s okay for them, but not for me if I’d like to serve Chicago and 9 suburbs? That’s nonsense. It’s lazy not to create pages targeting a city that you wish to serve. Why is it spam (or a doorway page, whatever that’s supposed to be) if I create a carpet cleaning service page for Napervlle and then another one for Aurora. I serve both cities! I should be rewarded for taking the time to let searchers know that I’m available to handle their needs. So it’s okay for Sear to do this, but not for me? It’s okay for Yelp but for me? National firms create hundreds and thousands of page, but I shouldn’t create 10 if I’d like to serve 10 cities. Google seems to have an army of SEO experts in the private sector telling local marketers not to optimize their marketing. This is nonsense. Sorry, I just don’t get it. Google needs to treat a local advertiser as fairly as all the national firms and directories. Don’t tell me I can only serve one city!

    • Gary, I think you misunderstood the post. Nobody’s talking about “okay” or “not okay” or “guilty” or “why can’t I.” You can do whatever you want. It’s a question of what’s an effective way to reach more of the local customers you want to reach.

      If you can build pages in the way you described and not turn off searchers – meaning you actually get customers from those pages – more power to you. I’m not knocking that.

      No doubt you deserve at least as many customers as the next guy does, but ultimately that’s for customers to decide. A well-thought-out city page simply gives you a better chance of tipping people in your favor.

  10. It’s too late in the day for me to read all the other comments to make sure I’m adding something unique, but it’s not going to stop me from commenting.

    I’ve found that building authority and visibility for a service is really hard when you don’t have one good source of information for that service.

    When you’ve created 10 pages about a service with no discernible difference between them (save for locality), how can you rank well for that service in general? If you don’t rank well for that service in general, you get squeezed out regardless of hyper localization or personalization in search.

    I will say that I have seen duplicated content work at a hyper local level when the target is hyper local. The thing that stinks about that, no matter how you slice it, is that you’re not building a really great authoritative brand. Why not leverage your locality to help you have greater visibility? It provides a platform that can sustain all sorts of new services, product offerings, and locations when/if the time comes.

    • Very true, Aimee. On some level, Google can tell whether anything is unique/better about your services, compared to others. And people sure can tell. If you don’t show a connection to a place other than you want people who live there to pay you, the whole city-page strategy just won’t bring many customers (even where those pages rank OK).

  11. avatar Mark de Graaf says:

    Hi Phil,
    I found a website that also has like a dozens of city pages. So if you search for their service or variation + certain city, they are showing up in the google search results. So for each city they have a different page, but when i look on their website all these pages are untraceable from the main navigation or footer. They only maybe have like a link of 5 of the 80 cities they rank for in their footer. How is that possible? When i checked their sitemap, the list is huge. How does that work?

    Thanks,

    Mark

    • It’s hard to comment on them in the abstract. But what I can say at the moment is: (1) if you throw enough crap at Google’s wall, some of it will probably stick, and (2) especially for less-competitive local search terms. Again, the big questions are whether that strategy actually brings in customers (not just rankings), and even so whether the business is one Google update away from having that well dry up.

  12. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for pointing out a really nasty practice (service x city) as used in most sites, despite as Gary previously said here there are clever ways to do city pages. I defend my own way (supposed to be clever) though… Main issue as I see and already mentioned by yourself is achieving a balanced coexistance between your navigational content and that obviously overwhelming pack of serialized links that will enoy wherever you place them.
    My way is a technified one, based on SaaS CMS (custom exotic pretty thing 😉 we care for not showing bulky series on navigational (which would probably kill mobile UX BTW) but at the same time provide the webdev background that makes possible making a very decent internal linking. You may think of it as AdWords landing pages built for a great (SEO driven) QScore.
    In adition this way works very well over time as we grow our website design clients, building up our success stories grid and thus feeding/boosting eventual new featured cities. And we still dare x3 since it is feasible for all modes: website creation (no SEO believers), SEO services (standalone) or finally and our very preferred comprehensive projects.
    Missing external linking? We trust in our formerly known to be PR5 based on university and other high end customers, and care for a good cascading interlinking with deep links where feasible.
    Our main concern is to provide reasonable cause-for-content to our customers, so it does work for us too.
    Whish you best in your service-to-city tactics!

  13. Phil: Great topic and I believe great advice. The article has gotten a lot of commentary. Its a rich topic.
    Years ago, possibly around 2009/2010 possibly different years I saw a fair amount of precise duplicate content for city pages for different services, especially for certain industries. The pages were ranking well. Then BOOM BOOM. Google nuked them all and those primarily duplicate pages with virtually identical content were nuked to ranking oblivion. Alternatively “city pages” with unique content were up and running. They weren’t called “doorway pages” then…but it was the same crap–different name. If that crap is showing now…well google’s filters to wean out crap pages have flaws. Sooner or later they will nuke them again.

    One little suggestion to Gary, who argues if Yelp and Angie’s List and large websites such as Sears can get away with this identical content, why not he and his clients. (I assume his clients are smaller less well known non branded/ non big advertisers.)
    Local SMB’s win in a general sense when they distinguish themselves from the well known brands. They do it by being distinctive and offering typically some customized service, more expertise, better relationships, etc etc. They can’t compete on the big spending big branding game.

    I’d look at my “city pages” similarly. Sears might not be a good example anymore. Its a business that is dying across the nation. But if Jiffy Lube Smallville USA is competing against Dave’s Lube Service, Smallville USA Jiffy Lube has a huge advantage on branding, name recognition etc. Dave’s Lube Service can’t compete on the big name basis. Dave’s has to do unique things to get customers to favor his Lube Service over well known Jiffy Lube. I think the same applies to city pages for businesses that don’t have a big well known name. Now all that is a little different than how you rank in the SERPS…though it might overlap especially for the local business with duplicate content on pages. I’d work harder. I’d work to get well recognized and be seen as better and superior. The same with City Pages.
    Anyway that is my $0.02. 😀

    • Well-said, Dave.

      The Sears example is funny – and not just because the company’s become a punchline. I actually used Sears Home Services for some appliance repair recently. Why? Because they had a halfway decent “city page” that rolled in front of my peepers at the right time – after I’d concluded there wasn’t a clearly good smaller repair company. Louie the one-truck repairman couldn’t be bothered to have a site that inspired a modicum of confidence in him, nor could he be bothered to get two customers a year to write him a review. So, “the devil you know.” The guy did a great job, so I made the right choice.

      Still. The bar is so very low. When good old Sears-Roebuck outmaneuvers you at online marketing, you’ve got to peer deep into the soul of your business and see what it’s really made of.

  14. From my experience, consolidating metro area info into one city page, and then combining multiple products or services into another (so as to avoid large scale city page creation) is fine for less competitive markets.

    But from my experience (which this is quickly becoming a major % of our overall work), this strategy is DOA in highly competitive markets such as “car accident lawyers” in large metro areas. Although the number is relatively small for now, the number of law firms investing in unique, high quality city pages to compete in the “practice area” + “metro area” organic level is growing exponentially…

    It’s not uncommon for us to get orders of 40+ city pages for a client. But we have an editorial staff that produces 100% unique content, and an SEO team that ensures the site structuring elements are sound for each. In fact, we are about 50% of the way through a 2,000 city page project… but at this level it’s more like creating a directory vs. the context of city pages.

    Just wanted to share my thoughts! Love the content here… thank you for sharing.

  15. I agree with the articles message in general if the 10 services are all done by the same company/address in each city. But if you have separate phone numbers, addresses, contact persons etc. I highly recommend to go for the citiesxservices approach. Even if only “standard contact information” is essentially different it makes sense from a user (and with this Google) perspective.. If I want to get a service in Dallas I m not interested in something in Richardson. I just want to get all essential information about one place/service and not mixed up with other topics.
    Not doubt that its hell of a work to add more individual content (map, images…) but it will definitely pay off.

  16. Phil, I agree and disagree. I know that sounds controversial, but you make a lot of valid points as to why you should not do it. As we know SEO is lots of work and Google ranks pages not websites. With that being said, most of the pages created for “City-Keyword Phrase” are not well done and do not pull in the traffic that they could. If done right this can be a great strategy to pull in traffic from other nearby cities. But the page needs to be treated like a major page. Earn links, build links, get social indicators and real traffic to that city page can really help boost the city page and overall presence of the website as a whole. But most of these pages are treated like orphan pages and in most cases not done right. But that is just my opinion.

  17. Hi Phil,
    in your post you are referring to SAB without a physical location in the cities they are trying to rank for. But what about businesses that actually do have several locations and do offer several services? Is your advice the same for them? My impression is that it is (almost) impossible to rank with a single service page in several locations or with a single city page for several services. One reason seems to be the importance of HTML-Title and h1-Headline: You would have to work all of your keywords into them (“Heating repair in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston”) which would look somewhat artifical and usually does not rank nearly as good (in any of the locations) as a the single city/single service combination.

  18. Hi Phi,
    I would also like to get your opinion on Lars’ comment above. We work with a lot of Franchise clients that own completely separate businesses from the other locations. They are a cell phone repair company and repair multiple brands and device types i.e. “iPhone Repair” “iPad Repair” “Computer Repair”. How do you recommend optimizing each location for each of these different services, so that they have the best chance of ranking for those different services in their individual cities?

  19. Hi Phil, the point that resonates with me is that, even when these pages rank well hyper-locally, they are still so unlikely to convert. I have spent some time today and yesterday searching for a local oven repair service and it drives me *nuts* when I find myself on the website of a business a gazillion miles away because it’s not always apparent from the snippet in the SERP and sometimes you have to work really hard to find out where the business is based. I came across an SEO site recently with over 2,000 city x service pages. I wonder how many customers these pages generate http://www.jasondexter.co.uk/html-sitemap/. He popped up 4th in my little old town of Camberley but is 190 miles North of here.

  20. Unfortunately I see some websites doing this, which they have been recommended by SEO companies.. Without letting them know, that they’re violating Googles guidelines. But some sites still ranks pretty well.. That’s annoying!

  21. Interesting article, and I do like your logic. I have a 10×10 implementation, and will give some thought to this alternative approach. I agree that it will read better for site visitors.

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