Free SEO Help for Small, Locally-Owned Businesses Hurt by Looting & Rioting in 2020

https://www.flickr.com/photos/pug50/4636347841/

If you’re part of a small and locally owned business that’s been looted or trashed by rioters in recent days – or if you know someone in that situation – I’m glad to provide some pro bono marketing / SEO help.  All you’d need to do is contact me, though you’ll probably want to read the rest of this post for context.

Many problems marketing just can’t solve, of course.  But I can think of at least a few situations in which a little well-executed local SEO or other online marketing helps your business get by for at least a while longer.  For example:

  • Your store or office is boarded-up or not staffed, so you need to offer a mobile, home-based, or online/virtual service.
  • Your store is destroyed, but you can sell some of your products online and ship them.
  • You’re fully operational, but nobody’s coming to your doors due to some combination of riots, police, the COVID lockdown, or nearby peaceful protests.

No business should be looted or trashed, and larger outfits often serve a purpose in minority communities.  But any medium-sized chain (or larger) business is less likely to have been seriously hurt by the rioting.  Larger organizations are not my clients, and that’s always been true of my pro bono work, too.

That’s why my offer is geared more toward family businesses and the like.  I’m thinking particularly of (a) single-location or other very “local” businesses that are (b) owned and operated by People of Color who (c) also live in the affected community or nearby.  But there is a know-it-when-I-see it factor here.  In any case, I’ll ask you for basic info about you and your situation.

Peaceful protests are important and noble.   Violent rioters’ hostage-taking is selfish and evil.  Looting and destroying makes economic hardships even harder, and that ultimately means hungry kids, not just broken or missing “replaceable stuff.”  Anyway, if your livelihood and family’s future have suddenly become collateral damage, I’d like to do what I can to help.

Again, I am not saying online marketing can solve every problem or even can come close.  But let’s at least make it one small-to-medium factor working in your favor.  You can contact me (or pass this along) and let’s discuss what we can do pro bono.

Two quick notes:

1. My universal caveat: my time is pretty limited. Time is a limiting factor in my longstanding Visibility for Veterans program, in my offer to certain businesses early in the COVID pandemic, and in my work for my many clients.

2. If you’re an SEO or other marketer and you also would like to offer some pro bono help, please let me know. It would be great to have a few skillsets besides mine, because every business owner’s needs are a little different, especially now. (Maybe we can even get a Google Drive doc of pros who offer this or that, in this amount or that, and affected business owners can just contact whomever seems like the best fit.)

Even if you don’t have a need for pro bono local-marketing help, if you’re a business owner in a situation like the one I described, I’m still interested to hear how things are.  Do send “just a howdy” if you feel like it.

Stay frosty.

Reopening Checklist for Local Businesses: Make It Confusion-Free, Local SEO-Friendly, and Safe

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tambako/49416838482/

No matter how operational your business has been, or how “open” it can be now, or how your goals have changed, sooner or later your local search visibility again will be one of your sorest spots.  Whether that’s already happened or is still a while off, at the very least you don’t want your local SEO to be in worse shape than it was before the lockdown.

There’s a good chance you’ve been open in some capacity this whole time.  So when I say “reopening” I’m referring to whenever you’re (1) welcoming more in-person business and (2) focusing more of your local SEO effort on drumming up that in-person business.  My guess is you’re not emerging suddenly.

 

Of course, I don’t know your specific situation, so I assume it’s safe and legal for you to “reopen” in one manner or another.  I assume you’ll apply your best judgment.

I’ve put together a quick checklist of the main quick tasks to help you pick up your local SEO effort where you left off, and maybe even make a little progress.  Here’s my “reopening” checklist (chunked into sections for clarity):

Google My Business (“GMB”)

  1. Make sure your GMB page is not marked “temporarily closed.” The ideal situation is you never did that, because for a while marking your business as “temporarily closed” would you from the 3-pack (from what I saw). In any event, now is probably a good time to mark it as “open.”  By now, most people know to check with you if they’re unsure of your hours or SOPs.

  1. Accept or deny any auto-updates Google has made on your GMB page, depending on whether they’re accurate.
  1. Make sure your latest GMB post reflects your current status, especially if you created a sticky post or a “COVID update” post.
  1. Confirm your GMB description is up-to-date.

  1. Submit edits on any recent keyword-stuffing in competitors’ Google My Business “name” fields. (In the COVID era Google has allowed certain kinds of descriptive phrases in there, which of course certain people have used as a justification to keyword-stuff even more than they did before .)

Website

  1. Make sure your title tags reflect your status as of reopening time (if you updated any of your title tags to reflect your COVID status).  Even if your title tags are unchanged, at least your description tag (or even a sitelink) should anticipate and address the question on everyone’s mind.

  1. Make it clear whether your online or “virtual” offering is available long-term, once you’ve resumed seeing customers / clients / patients in-person. Many business owners scrambled to roll out that kind of service and to create a page for it, but many of them conflated that page with their “COVID policies” page. So you want to make it clear to people whether your virtual offering is or was strictly a spring of 2020 thing.

  1. Confirm your “contact” page reflects your current status: how open you are, your hours, willingness to offer a virtual service, etc.

Reviews

  1. Determine whether Google is allowing new Google Maps reviews through. As you may know, Google put new reviews on hold for a while, though Google been allowing some reviews through (to varying degrees) since about mid-April, from what I’ve observed. Do a dry run by asking someone you know (customer or not) to leave you a Google review.  A few hours later or maybe the next day, sign out of your Google account, open an incognito browser tab, and see if you can see the review in Google Maps.
  1. Try responding to a Google review to confirm whether Google has restored your ability to respond to reviews. (Yep, that feature also was on ice for a while.)
  1. Encourage a recent customer or other reviewer to mention your safety protocols in his or her review. That accomplishes at least a couple things: it makes it clear you’ve seen customers recently, and it gives would-be customers a sense of your business’s current SOPs.

Other

  1. If you run Google Ads (AdWords), make sure none of your ads or extensions has been pulled because you mentioned the pandemic or telehealth by name. (You can only refer to those obliquely.)
  1. If applicable, make sure HealthGrades shows correct answers in the FAQs section (which shows up because HealthGrades uses Schema FAQs markup).

  1. Send a “howdy” or low-key announcement to anyone who may have wanted to visit your business or work with you in recent months, but who couldn’t. I’m referring to people you had to turn away, people who had safety concerns you may have addressed in the meantime, etc. I’m sure your website and Facebook page will convey the message, but I’d also recommend an email blast, a one-on-one email, or even (dare I say) a piece of snail mail.  Even if your rankings are OK and you’ve got no local-visibility-related problems, it may be a while before you get any new customers through the local search pipeline. See who’s been stuck in the pipeline for the last few months.  No doubt some people have lost interest, while others are in real bad need of what you offer.

 

Once you’ve reopened, of course you’ll get back to the same challenges you had before: getting more visible than your competitors are, and getting business out of the deal.  Then you’ll be back to the same questions, like of how to earn good links, how to get good reviews, how to make your site as big and bad as it can be, how to keep a lid on competitors’ spam, and more.  In a strange way it may feel good to get back to the point where those things are the biggest problems; they might not seem as daunting.

What else is on your reopening to-do list?  Anything I forgot?

Any big decisions you’re pondering (that tie in with local search)?

Leave a comment!

Doable Examples of Online/Remote Services Offered by Local Businesses

https://www.flickr.com/photos/squeakymarmot/4103305434/

While everything and everyone is on lockdown, how can a “local” business still bring in a little revenue?  How can you set yourself up for a strong comeback?  And how can you do it from your yurt?

As you might guess, you do it by offering an online or “tele” version of at least one of your services.  Customers / clients / patients may need to keep their distance, but many still want or need now what you offer.  Only a video, phone, or other online option meets both of those needs.

The problem now is you’re not sure where to begin, because you don’t have examples or blueprints of online-only services that you can adapt to your situation.

I’m not saying a remote option is an option for every business.  Some businesses can only do their work in-person, and don’t have a practical online option.  (Movers, roofers, dentists, and others come to mind.)  Others can ship, or deliver, or offer gift cards or prepay options, so this post isn’t geared to those businesses as much.  But if my experience before and during COVID-19 is any indication, a solid 75% of businesses can roll out an online-only service of value to local or non-local customers.

Below are examples of non-ecommerce, mostly “local” businesses that offer an online-only service.  (Some of these examples are from current or one-time clients.)  The online or remote service they offer is an option both for people nearby and for non-locals.  As you go through the list, think of what kind of rigging might just work for you.

 

Example 1: Online mold remediation by Moldman in Chicago: moldmanusa.com/virtual-mold-consultations/

Big strength: the business makes it clear that there may be a DIY solution to a mold problem.  That may save the client a lot of money, and more than offset the small cost of the consultation.

 

Example 2: Online therapy / counseling by Heartland Counseling Center in Missouri (multiple offices): heartlandcounselingcenter.com

Big strength: the online offering is unavoidable, because it’s in the sidebar on every page.  It’s not limited to one page that you hope people see.

 

Example 3: Telemedicine for pain management by Dr. Jason Attaman and Dr. Cameron Cartier in Bellevue and Seattle, WA: jasonattaman.com

Big strength: it’s clear what the doctors can and cannot do virtually, it’s clear what the logistics are, and it’s clearly geared toward patients in areas locked down by COVID-19 restrictions.

 

Example 4: Online plumbing consultation by Lutz Plumbing in Shawnee, KS: lutzplumbing.com/about/virtual-plumbing-consultation

Big strength: an extremely clear value proposition: it’s mainly for do-it-yourselfers who want a second opinion on a project.

 

Example 5: Online dog training by Fun Paw Care in Los Angeles: funpawcare.com/pet-services/phone-consultation/

Big strength: a thorough list of very specific dog-behavior problems and concerns that a consultation can help with.

 

Example 6: Online electrical troubleshooting by RightWay Electrical Contractors in Jacksonville, FL: rwecinc.com/online-electrician

Big strength: the page has some free troubleshooting tips before the paid-consultation option.  That helps people determine whether their issue calls for an electrician at all.  If it does, then the virtual option is right there.

 

Example 7: Online patent law consultation by OC Patent Lawyer: ocpatentlawyer.com/schedule-consultation/

Big strength: a very clear rundown of what to expect, with links (lower down on the page) to posts that get clients’ feet wet before the deep dive.

 

Example 8: Online divorce mediation by Equitable Mediation (multiple offices): equitablemediation.com/divorce-mediation/online-mediation

Big strength: very solid copywriting.  That includes the FAQs, and the way the owners make it clear why many people prefer the online version.  (By the way, you can also read my case-study post on this business.)

 

Example 9: Online tutoring by Boston Tutoring Services: bostontutoringservices.com/online-tutoring/

Big strength: even though the company has a clear local focus, the very top of the page makes it clear that in-person lessons are completely optional.

 

Example 10: Online voice lessons (in Spanish) by Vox Technologies Vocal Studio in Barcelona: vox-technologies.com

Big strength: it’s implied that many students do online lessons, and that the online offering isn’t second banana.

 

A couple of examples that get an honorable mention, because although they’re not “local” businesses to begin with, they took a clever approach to offering services that bricks-and-mortar and service-area businesses usually have a monopoly on:

 

Honorable mention: Online veterinary consultation by NHV Natural Pet Products: nhvnaturalpetproducts.com/veterinarian-consultation/

 

Honorable mention: Online landscape design by Tilly: tilly-design.com

 

I hope those examples gave you some ideas for the online version of your service, whether you’re trying to ramp it up or roll it out for the first time.  Getting a blueprint is the hard part, and probably the most important part, but here are 5 principles I suggest you keep in mind when figuring out your online service:

  1. It must solve or help with a problem people have now.
  2. It must help in self-contained way, and not just serve as initial consultation or a free quote.
  3. It won’t necessarily provide all the things you can do in-person, and that’s probably OK.
  4. It should be available and helpful to non-local people, too.
  5. It should probably be a service you’ll still want to keep around as a permanent component of your business.


What do you like about those examples?  Anything you’d improve about them, if you could?

Do you know of any examples of a “local” business with a clever or well-presented online offering?

Are you trying to figure out a work-from-home version of your service?

Leave a comment!

Is COVID-19 the End of “Google As Your New Homepage”?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jocelyn777/45797423941/

Over the years, we’ve seen Google add so much stuff to the search results that we’ve concluded Google doesn’t even want searchers to click through to your website, because (Google assumes) everything people want to know is right there in the search results.  Some smart people in the local-search space have called that slow transformation “Google as your new homepage.”  Who needs to see your homepage when Google can save people a click or tap?

As with so many other things, COVID-19 will probably change that.  At least in the crazy world of search, it seems the big lesson is: we still need to click.

Google’s local search results are affected by the disruption and (to a lesser extent) contribute to it.  In the long haul, that may us a little less reliant on them and more reliant on what’s on businesses’ sites.

The main problem (as usual) is in the combination of Google Maps/My Business and the knowledge panel.  That’s where Google has really made a dog’s breakfast of things.  The rest of the search results (organic, PPC, and YouTube) are just SNAFU.

What problems do I think have ended, delayed, or complicated Google’s ability to function as the “homepage” for businesses?  What’s likely to have forced or compelled more searchers to click through to businesses’ sites?

1. The info in the local search results has been even less trustworthy since the COVID-19 outbreak started. Businesses are labeled as “temporarily closed” that may be open, and vice versa. Edits made in the Google My Business dashboard have been “pending” for longer than usual, so updates to hours (for instance) may be late to appear.  One result is people need to click through to the site to see what a business’s status really is.

2. The info is even less fresh. Google hasn’t allowed new reviews, new responses to reviews, or new Q&A. In recent days, posts have not worked properly.  (I put up some GMB posts for some clients early on in the outbreak, but since then it seems the wheels have popped off the wagon.)

3. Google My Business “support” has been on life support. In an understandable and wise effort to limit Coronavirus spread between employees, Google has used only a skeleton crew to provide support, and presumably has had some staff working remotely. The unintended consequence is there is less help for more problems.

4. Google My Business never has made accommodations for telemedicine or other virtual offerings. The list of business categories, “attributes,” or other fields in the GMB dashboard do not allow you to specify whether you offer non-in-person versions of your service.  (The Google Helpouts feature sorta-kinda used to  do that, but that feature has been gone for much longer than it was around.)  So all you and customers are left with is the Google My Business description, which you may or may not be able to update, and which you may or may not want to change.  So everyone needs to click through to your site to determine whether and how you offer a virtual option.

5. In the Google My Business description and in “posts” (when they function) there isn’t enough space to say much. Another reason people need to click through to your site.

6. Google doesn’t introduce relevant new Google My Business categories or filters quickly enough. Search for something like “Coronavirus testing near me” and you’ll see what I mean: no local map 3-pack results for that, partly because there isn’t a Google My Business category for that.  Similar deal with filters.  You can type in “urgent care clinic” and filter by rating or by hours, but you can’t filter by “offers virtual appointments” (for instance).

Google’s mission has always been to rob people blindorganize the world’s information.”  It’s somewhere in the middle of that process, or perhaps it’s the end of the beginning.  But Google doesn’t have all the world’s information, partly because some of it is in business owners’ noggins, and partly because that information changes by the hour.  That should be where business owners come in, because only they can fill in the gaps, if only Google will not get in the way.

So that’s where one’s website must come in.  The local search results have become more complete and helpful over the years, but the local results fall apart when people want to find a very specific service or product, delivered in a certain way, perhaps under unusual circumstances.  That’s why your site needs a page on every offering, many and visible internal links to those pages, and a powerhouse homepage, and you need the ability to make quick and imperfect changes fast.  Google can’t do all that for you, or for the people who want or need to find exactly what you offer.

Google’s years-long push toward showing everything in the local search results assumes that everyone has a short attention span.  Many people do, of course, but people who want to find one particular thing often will dig until they find it.

Think of when you’ve tried to buy toilet paper.  Walmart could throw a brick of 24 on the roof and someone would find it.  The supermarket could hide a roll between the frozen lima beans and the frozen Brussels sprouts, and the rolls would be on the conveyor belt 5 minutes later.  That’s because all the shoppers are basically in the right place, and not on the road or in the parking lot.  Only your website can show people where the toilet paper is.

What’s your take?

How else might the COVID-19 outbreak change the “Google as your homepage” mission?

To what extent have you found it helpful to make website changes on the fly?

Leave a comment!

Want to Help a Local Business in Tough Times? Write That Review Already

https://www.flickr.com/photos/145039335@N03/29197697660/

At some point, daily life will go from FUBAR back to good old TARFU.  When that happens, do you want to continue with the businesses you love and rely on, or will you find them on Boot Hill between Sears and Toys “R” Us?  Your review might make the difference.

Supporting businesses that do a good job is always a good thing.  Whatever form that takes during this disaster (COVID-19) or in future disasters is probably helpful and welcomed.

But do you know what most business owners like even more than your prepaying for services or ordering a gift card?  Customers.  Both the fish and the ability to fish more.  That’s where reviews come in.

Any revenue businesses get now will help them now, but then they have to fulfill later.  That’s the deal, of course.  But it can create a serious pinch later, especially if a lot of customers prepaid around the time you did.

Writing a detailed and useful review – maybe one you’ve meant to write for a while – helps in at least two ways that prepaying or gift-carding can’t:

1. It can help the business get a customer now who needs the business’s services or products now. The business can probably do the work or fulfill the order now more easily than it can later, when it may be under a pinch. You may not need the service or product now, but someone out there does.

2. You may expand their customer base a little. The only thing better than a happy and loyal customer is one who also brings in more customers like him or her. That is the ultimate.  On a couple of occasions I’ve been told, “By the way, thanks for your review a few months ago.  A few customers have mentioned it as a reason they ended up choosing us.”  That’s always nice to hear.

Writing a helpful and maybe influential review takes time, and maybe you don’t have the time to help all the local businesses you want to help.  In that case, at least help a couple of businesses.  If you don’t do it for them, at least do it for selfish reasons: If it’s a business you like or rely on, you probably want it to stay in business, or else you’ll need to shop around later and still maybe not find as good a provider.

How can you write a review that packs a wallop, and at just the right time?  A few basic SOPs:

  • Go into detail, or as much as you can. Explain why you picked the business, and how it stacks up against alternatives (e.g. other businesses you may have used in the past). If possible, explain why you still use the service or brought the product even now, when times are tough, or explain why customers’ money is well-spent if they do so.
  • Post your review on a 2nd review site, or at least offer to do so. Stick your Google Maps review (for example) on another review site, or vice versa. It won’t get filtered because of the cross-posting, in my experience.
  • Ask the business owner what he or she would find most helpful. One way to do that is to ask, “Hey, I’d like to write you a review. Any particular site you want, and any points you want me to touch on?”  Another way is to say, “I just wrote you a review. Let me know if you want me to tweak anything, expand on anything, add photos, etc.”

I guess it depends on the business and on the owner, but I’ve found often that I get extra-good service after I’ve reviewed a business.  On the one hand, maybe that’s because I do my research and only work with solid companies and people, so I avoid the deadbeats.  On the other hand, most business owners remember a good word and a good deed, and try to make it worth your while.

Writing a review of a business you like is free, but it can accomplish a lot:

  • Help keep them in business for their sake, in a time of need.
  • Help keep them in business for your sake.
  • Help other customers find and pick a keeper.
  • Possibly earn you “VIP” treatment sooner or later.

Reviewing good businesses is time well-spent.

Do your reviewing habits change at all during rough times?

To what extent do you have customers come out of the woodwork when it matters most?

Any unconventional suggestions on how business owners can encourage stressed-out people to put in a good word online?

Leave a comment!

Pro Bono Local SEO Help for Businesses Locked Down by Coronavirus

https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortbraggnc/9395210348/in/photostream/

If you or someone you know is a business owner whose business has been shut down or severely hobbled by Coronavirus regulation or the like, I’m glad to offer a bit of local SEO/search/visibility advice free of charge or obligation.  All you’d need to do is read the stuff below and email me your questions.

It’s possible you’re not legally allowed to see customers / clients / patients at all, or in the way you usually do.  In that case maybe you have a plan B you want to get off the ground, or you’re rolling out a remote, “socially distanced” version of your service, or you just want to use your downtime to maximum effect so that business is OK once this has stabilized.  For goals like those I can probably help.

Some things to know – please read all of this before contacting me:

1. I can offer only a limited amount of help. My family and clients are my first priorities, and I have a full dance card.  I can’t do hands-on work for you, or spend much time.  The ideal situation is you have some specific and pressing local-search-related questions, and just want clear guidance on what to do.  I’ll email you back.  There’s a chance I’ll also suggest a quick phone call, if that’s the quickest way to convey my suggestions.

2. Your struggles need to be specifically because of Coronavirus. I’m thinking of dentists who aren’t allowed to see patients at all, doctors who can’t perform elective procedures for a while, and restaurant owners who rely on butts in the chairs more than on takeout – for example.

3. Some groups of people I can’t help. If you’re a marketer/SEO with a client who’s been clobbered by recent events, you’ve got my empathy, and you can send this to a client and he or she can contact me and CC you, but I wouldn’t send you advice that you white-label and charge for.  If you’re a competitor of one of my clients, I probably can’t help (for obvious reasons).  If your business is one that’s in a temporary slowdown, but not in a real pinch caused by COVID-19 regulation or aftermath, then I can’t offer any pro bono help, because you’re in the same situation as probably 80% of businesses.  My SOP is “I know it when I see it.”

4. You may want to check my list of posts first, to see if I’ve done a blog post that does the trick.  (I’d love to hear if that’s all you needed.)

5. Send me at least a brief rundown on the situation CV has created for your business. I will ignore “I’m here for the free help, k thx”-type requests.  I just want to make sure you truly need help, and that it’s entirely or mostly because of regulations (or similar fallout) that hit your business unusually hard.

6. If you need or want more help than I can provide pro bono, I’ll need to point you in another direction.  I’ll tell you one of three things: (1) “Just follow those suggestions and see how far you get,” or (2) “Consider such-and-such service I offer,” or (3) “Contact so-and-so, who may be able to help – though probably not for free.” I’ll still point you in the right direction on whatever questions you send me, if possible.  It’s just that I have an obligation to “flatten the curve” on the time I spend on any one situation.

7. Some problems don’t have a local search/SEO solution.

8. Feel free to send this to someone you know.

Why am I offering to help Coronavirus-clobbered businesses for free?  Just for good karma.  On the one hand, I’m stingy with my time, because I need most or all of it to meet my commitments.  But on the other hand, if in the short time left over I can help people in a pinch, that makes me feel good.  I’ve helped veterans pro bono in a similar way for many years, and that’s worked out well.  We have an understanding, and so I can offer a little help to people who can and do use it.  Should be a similar situation here.

Plus, I always like an up-close success story.

Anyway, if all that describes your Coronavirus conundrum and the fine-print sounds reasonable, feel free to email me or to pass this along to someone you know.

Other people offering pro bono local SEO help during the Coronavirus crisis:

  • Chris Barnard of Social Dental Network.  Consider contacting Chris if you’re a dentist who’s had to hunker down, consider contacting.
  • Dani Owens of Pigzilla.  I’ve worked with Dani on many client projects over the years.  Dani also builds websites, so if you were already considering a new site, but need to hold off until things settle down, now may be a good time to get to know her.

You can leave a comment on this post if you have questions about the above.  (No specific SEO questions in the comments, please.  That’s what your email is for.)

Google My Business Category Not Showing for Service-Area Businesses with Hidden Addresses

If you’ve got a Google My Business page that specifies your service area but not your address, Google won’t show your category in the sidebar (the “knowledge panel”).

You’ll still see it in Google Maps and in the 3-pack.

You’ll also see it if you’ve specified your street address.

But you won’t see it in the sidebar for a business with a hidden address in Google My Business, when you search for that business by name.  Someone asked about this at the GMB forum last year, so either nobody else noticed it until now, only I didn’t notice it until now, or it’s another test that Google made on a micro scale (last year) and then rolled out more broadly (now).

Why the change?  Who knows.  A few theories:

  1. It’s possible Google is downplaying where the business is, because when Google used to show the category it would be in a context like, “Roofing company in Peoria, Illinois.” Of course, because Google no longer requires you to specify your street address after verifying your Google My Business page, Google may not have confidence it knows where a service-area business is located.
  1. It’s possible Google is downplaying the “category” field. The list of categories is odd and full of holes, and many people pick too many or irrelevant categories, and Google long has chosen to show whichever category it thinks is most relevant to whatever a person just searched for.
  1. Maybe it’s just another test or part of a larger change, perhaps somehow tied to a scheme to stuff more ads into the local results.

Have you noticed anything odd with how Google displays categories, especially for hidden-address / service-area businesses?

When did you notice the change?

Any theories?

Leave a comment!

How to Make a “Service Areas” Page That Hunts

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevegoeringer/7238895806/

An “Areas Served” or “Service Areas” or “Cities” or “Locations” page doesn’t get much consideration in the local SEO world, and that’s a shame.  If you do it right, that kind of page can rank for some juicy terms, help other pages to rank, make your site structure simpler, help people navigate your site, and impress would-be customers.

A “Service Areas”-type page is like a “Location Finder” page, except it’s more for service-area businesses that travel TO most customers (rather than have customers visit a bricks-and-mortar location).   Most often it’s for a home-based business – or one with one physical location – that serves customers in a wider area (like within a 30-mile radius, for example).

Even more so than your typical “Location Finder” page, the average “Service Areas” page is pretty feeble, because it’s hard to know what you should put on it, other than a big ugly list of cities you serve.  The result is those pages usually have all the charm and appeal of a rubber glove factory.

 

 

The competitive bar is low, yet you have a lot to gain by getting a “Service Areas” / “Areas Served” / “Cities” page right.  How can you do that?  I’ll do this post somewhat backwards and start off with a list of examples.  I’ve got a little color commentary below each example, plus my list of principles below all of the examples, at the end.

Example 1: icedamremovalguys.com/ice-dam-guy-services/service-areas/

 

Main strengths of this page: Lots of content on the places where the business has done jobs, effective “near me” optimization, internal links to relevant “city” pages, and relevant photos and videos.  This page itself gets plenty of internal links from other pages on the site.

 

Example 2: kammescolorworks.com/service-areas.html

 

Main strengths of this page: Photos of jobs in specific areas the business owner has prioritized, a blurb on why each town is in the service area, and well-placed links to “city” pages (without overdoing it).

 

Example 3: r3detailing.com/near-me-car-detail/

Main strengths of this page: Plenty of info on the specific services offered within the service area, and a good section on why the service area matters.

Though not technically a “service areas” page, this similar page could double as one, and it’s also done well: r3detailing.com/houston-mobile-car-detailing/

 

Example 4: tri-spestcontrol.com/areas-served/

 

Main strengths of this page: Houses “city” and “county” pages effectively, has a nice map graphic at the top, and doesn’t just pay lip service to each city or county.

 

Example 5: centralmassauctions.com/boston

 

Main strengths of this page: Though not presented as a “service areas” page, it functions as one, in that it targets and seemingly ranks in a variety of cities and towns surrounding the main focus (Boston).  Also wheels out a ton of proof elements (photos, videos, reviews, and news appearances).

 

Honorable mention: 770arborist.com/tree-services/24-hour-emergency-storm-services/

 

Main strengths of this page: It’s a “service areas” page in disguise.  Technically the page is about one specific (relatively niche) service, but it’s optimized somewhat for several main cities in the service area.  With some work it could be like the pages in examples #1 and #5, above.

Now that we’ve gone through a few examples, my dos and don’ts might stick more.  Here are my main suggestions to create a “service areas” page that works for you:

1. Don’t assume the visitor has chosen your business yet. You can’t assume visitors are ready yet to take the next step and click on one of your “city” pages or pick a nearby location to visit, because you can’t be sure they’ve picked you yet. Especially if your “Areas Served” or “Service Area” or “Locations” page ranks for a competitive search term, pretty much everyone on your page isn’t in the bag yet.  Devote a visible blurb or two to why people should pick you at all

2. Try to get it to rank for “near you” / “near me” or “near [city]” search terms. In general, those terms are relevant to an “Areas Served”-type page. In most cases that “near me” optimization is pretty straightforward (see this post and this one).

3. Include plenty of info on your specific services – or at least on each service you consider a high priority. The page shouldn’t be limited to info on your service area. All that would say is what places you travel to, and not what services you perform in those places.  A good “Areas Served” page makes both the “what” and the “where” clear.

4. Provide war stories: showcase the jobs you’ve done more than the jobs you want. Some customers don’t care if you’re new to their town or area. But other people do care, for reasons good and bad, practical and tribal.  If you’ve never done a job in a certain place, you might still rank there and may get customers out of the deal.  But it’s a little harder then, because your page is more likely to amount to a fancy way of saying, “Pick me, pick me, pretty please.”  Talking about the jobs you’ve done is the best kind of content also because you don’t have to think too hard about what to say.

5. Go heavy on internal links to relevant pages. Your “service areas” page is one of the best places to plop down plenty of links to relevant pages on your site, like to “city” pages and to various “service” pages. Of course, you don’t want it to be the only place you link to other pages you care about: your homepage and main nav (and maybe footer) also should have plenty of links to high-priority pages, and your “city” pages should link generously to your “services” pages and vice versa.  Still, the “service areas” page is the place to go heavy, if ever there was one.

6. Make your “service areas” page good enough that you link to it often on other pages of your site. It’s not just there to rank: it also serves a practical purpose for customers. But it won’t help them if they never go the page, and (in my experience) Google is much less likely to rank pages that aren’t woven much into a site’s internal linking.

7. In general, observe the same principles you would for “city” pages or “state” pages. That means, among other things, that you should explain (or at least hint at) why your service area is what it is. It also means that although you should try to think of something to say about each town and why someone there should hire you.  If you can’t think of anything to say or show off about a specific town, but still want to try to rank in a place, at least mention it on your “service areas” page.  (In most cases that won’t be enough to rank there, but because you’re don’t just ignore the place, at least it’s possible you’ll get calls from there.)

8. Know that it can rank for a range of search terms: “city” terms, “near me” terms, and “service” terms (without any place name).  One result of that is “service areas” pages take a little pressure off of you to create “city” pages, particularly slapdash pages that don’t rank, don’t rank for long, or that don’t get you any customers.

 

9. Build your “service areas” page before you build any “city” pages.  That makes it much easier to integrate your “city” pages into your internal linking, and to house them in a place visitors will see them.  Also, if it takes you a long time to create a good page on each high-priority city or place, your “service areas” page can run interference in the meantime.

10. If you have multiple physical locations within the larger service area, add at least one solid blurb about each physical location. It’s a little easier to write something coherent about a place if you have an office or showroom there.

11. You don’t need to call it “service areas” or “areas served,” necessarily. It can be a page about a whole region, or about a core city and its suburbs, for example. You can see one example of that in example #4 (earlier in the post), and a few related examples here.

12. It’s a good time to lay it on thick with the “image SEO,” especially if you can showcase specific jobs you did in specific cities in your service area. Also consider putting up a map or other graphic that shows your service area.

13. It’s OK if the page doesn’t rank – either for a while, or much at all. Your consolation prize is that you put work into a page that answers would-be customers’ questions, and that either gets them to pick up the phone or that directs them to another page that gets them to take the next step.  Again, that’s the worst-case scenario.  More likely is that you’ll also sweep up some rankings you didn’t have before.

 

Do you have any examples of GOOD “service areas”-type pages?

What’s a principle that’s worked well (or hasn’t worked) for you?

Leave a comment!

Good Ways and Bad Ways to Save Money on Local SEO

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave7dean/3690274838/

Some business owners say things like, “I don’t have enough budget for local SEO.”  You may not have money to waste on work that doesn’t work, and you may not have the budget for all the conveniences you want.  But the basic activities you can always afford, if you make the right decisions for the right reasons.  Half the battle is not wasting money on stuff you don’t need, so that you have some left over for what you do need or really want.

Below are (in my experience) the bad ways and the good ways to try to save money on your local SEO effort.  I want to emphasize that they are general rules.  I don’t know your exact situation.  Sometimes your money is well-spent on something I don’t think is useful for most people.  Sometimes you don’t need and wouldn’t benefit from a tool or service I recommend to most people.  Sometimes you’re so short on time that your least-bad option is to farm it out.  And so on.

Bad ways to save money on local SEO

1. Moving to a cheaper or free website platform just because it’s cheaper or free. I won’t name names. But I will say that whatever money you save on upkeep you’ll probably lose (many times over) because you can’t make basic changes easily, or because you can’t make certain improvements at all.  Probably won’t work out the way you want it to.

 

2. Buying spammy links. May help your rankings short-term, until it doesn’t or until Google whacks you.

 

3. Working with an “SEO copywriter.” Sounds better than “professional keyword-stuffer.” You’ll end up with a site that’s optimized only skin-deep, and copywriting that makes you sound as exciting as a three-bean salad.

 

4. Buying Fiverr.com gigs of any kind for SEO-related work of any kind.

5. Working with a cheap (usually local) company.

6. Using a “listings management” SAAS solution (e.g. Yext) rather than pay for one-time manual work on your local listings. (I’m talking about services that claim to take care of pretty much all your listings. Those are different from, say, Moz Local, which often is a good way to take care of a few listings that are a pain to deal with manually.)  Hiring an outfit like Whitespark to create, correct, and de-dupe your listings usually isn’t cheap, but unless your business info changes you’ll only need to do it once.  (Even then, because you’ll have the logins to most of your listings, making changes will be easier.)  If you cancel a listings-management service, many of your listings at some point will revert back to the way they were before you signed up.  Also, many directories that matter (especially “niche” sites) aren’t covered by the listings-management service, so you’ll need to do or pay for some amount of manual work anyway.  Listings-management software can be useful if you’re a big organization with a ton of locations.  Otherwise, “renting” your listings yearly soon becomes more expensive than getting manual work done once.

7. Glad-handing experts in the hope you’ll get free advice and won’t need to pay for any help. People with expertise tend to be in-demand and a little guarded with their time. Aside from not wanting to be known as a tightwad and avoided as one, you run a couple of risks: You risk getting boilerplate advice that isn’t specific enough for you to act on, and you risk getting advice that’s based on a poor understanding of your situation.  That advice can mess you up, even if it’s from a great source.

8. Requesting a bunch of proposals just for the free input on your situation. Same issue as in the last point. RFP abusers don’t come away with much.

 

Good ways to save money on local SEO:

1. Do your own local SEO, or as much of it as you can. (That’s where an in-depth audit can help.) Even if you do only a couple of steps, you’ll make it easier to hire competent helpers later, because they won’t need to be good at quite as many things.  You’ll also want your sea legs in case the company you hire doesn’t work out, in which case you are your plan B (at least temporarily).  It’s possible you might even take a little satisfaction in it.

 

2. If you need to get third-party help, consider hiring a website developer and a stunt pen (“content writer”) or copywriter, rather than a marketing agency. With specialists often it’s clearer exactly what you’re paying for, because the scope of work is tighter and there’s less overhead. You’re less likely to pay for the catered lunches, the beanbag chairs, and the bathroom janitor.

3. Keep only one site or very few sites. If one site doesn’t rank, put time into developing it and earning links to it rather than into squeezing out another site that doesn’t rank. Five sites that almost perform don’t get you anywhere.  Five Pacers don’t equal a Mercedes.

4. Let your site develop a fine crust. A font you can’t shrink or an image you can’t align is not an emergency. Unless your site is so hard to navigate and use that you know you’re losing business, an ugly site is not why you’re struggling, so you can deal with it once your dance card is fuller and you’ve got more budget.

5. Skip reputation-management tools, unless maybe the one you want to use is supplementary to a review strategy that’s worked for you. If your whole review-encouragement strategy is to use software, you may get good results, but more likely is that would-be reviewers still ignore you. The basic issue is that most customers can tell when they’re asked for a favor by a piece of software rather than by a person they recognize.

6. Run a feeler AdWords campaign for a week rather than use keyword-research tools or SEO tools that require a monthly subscription. The difference is you can see what people do search for, rather than what they probably search for. You’ll be amazed at what you see in an AdWords “Search Terms” report and in other reports, even when you run ads just to glean data and not necessarily to try to get customers.

7. Eschew paid third-party tools in general. (I’d probably make exceptions for Ahrefs and Mouseflow, though.) Focus on building up your internal resources.

8. Skip paid local-business and industry directories. Unless you have reason to believe your listing or ads bring you customers or some other clear benefit, paid-inclusion directories are a slippery slope. Before you know it you’re shelling out for 10 of them every month.

9. Don’t get BBB-accredited just because you think you’ll get a link. These days, for better or for worse, you won’t get a link that helps you. (There are other reasons to consider getting accredited, though.)

10. Don’t pay for LocalEze. I say that not because that data-aggregator isn’t important, but because usually you can take care of your listing(s) there by using Moz Local or by using a citation-building service that has an API relationship with that site and others.

11. Avoid or wean yourself off of listings-management tools (e.g. Yext). Ideally you work on your listings in-house. The second-best option is to get manual work done once and be done with it.

 

12. Minimize the number of SEO consultants you use. Maybe get a second opinion every now and then, but don’t hire 7 different people. You won’t develop a good strategy by United Nations resolution.  If none of the SEO people seems good, don’t settle for the least-bad of the bunch.  (In that case, consider doing at least some of the work in-house.)

How have you saved money (or blown money) on your local SEO effort?

Have you had success with any of the practices on my “worst ways to save” list?

Leave a comment!

Is Your Local SEO Person Shell-Shocked, Gun-Shy, and TOO Afraid of Angering Google? How to Avoid the Phobias

https://www.flickr.com/photos/salisasaki/194846206/

SEOs often have a hard time with moderation.  They tend to sit at extremes and take an all-or-nothing approach – to getting links, building citations, creating “content,” jamming keywords into pages, and so on.  If they were actors, they’d be William Shatner.

 

You can have too much of a good thing.  Most SEOs take practices that are good in small amounts and overdo them.  Some of the most cautious, by-the-book SEOs I’ve known once had a black hat or a gray hat, until Google penalized their sites, or until the overplayed strategies just stopped working,

Some SEO practices get an undeserved bad rap.  I think that’s mainly because some people have overused or abused those practices, and because most other people aren’t sure what’s “just right” and what’s too much, and don’t want to make a judgment call (especially with clients’ sites).

Some caution around those practices is good, but you shouldn’t be so cautious you don’t go anywhere near them.  That’s why I’ll refer to them as phobias.

Below are 10 practices I’ve found to be good in moderation, or in certain cases, or both.  The underlined parts denote my advice.  By the way, in case it’s not obvious, I want to stress that all of this is based on my experience as a full-time, long-time local SEO dweeb – on what I’ve seen work and not work.

 

Phobia 1: “Having lots of internal links is spammy.”
If they’re heavy on exact-match anchor text, or aren’t relevant to what’s on the page, or you’d waste a visitor’s time if he or she clicked on them, then I agree: You don’t want those.  But if you’re hyperlinking a search term you’d include on the page anyway, and the page you link to also is relevant and useful, then I say pile on the internal links.  I’ve found that beneficial for rankings, at least for my clients, and especially when trying to get subpages to rank in the organic results (as opposed to the homepage / Google My Business landing page in the 3-pack results).

 

Phobia 2: “Even footer links to relevant pages are spammy.”
Same response as to phobia #1: how you do it is what matters.  The type of footer link I recommend most often is a short-to-medium list of links to the pages on your most-important services (or products).  Maybe 5-20 of them, though having more is probably fine.  (If clients’ competitors and other sites are any indicators of what’s OK, then Google’s pretty forgiving even of spammy footer links.)  I’d put only the name of the service, and not include the city name in the anchor text of every link.

 

Phobia 3: “Don’t describe the service area in the footer, because that’s spammy.”
Then that’s pretty ineffective spam, because you won’t rank in all the places you mention in your footer.  You probably won’t even rank in half of them, especially if you serve a large area, and especially if you’re in an industry with a high density of local competitors (e.g. roofing).

So why do it?  Well, besides the possibility that it may still help you a little even for competitive terms, I suggest you specify your service area (or a partial one) on every page for two main reasons.  One is to make it clear to people (not Google) that you serve their city or area.  (You can’t assume they’ll go to your “Areas Served” or “Locations” page, or will want to.)  The other reason is that it does seem to help you rank for niche terms, especially in cities/towns where the density of competitors is lower.  At least for niche terms, Google doesn’t need much content to grab onto to (1) understand what you offer and (2) where you offer it.

 

Phobia 4: “Why should I describe the service area on the homepage if I have a ‘city page’ for each place?”
Because some people may want to know what your service area is.  Also because – at least in my experience – the homepage often is more likely to rank for any given search term (and for a wider variety of terms) than “city” pages and other subpages are, if the guts of the homepage make it clear what you offer and where you offer it.

Just stuffing keywords and place names onto your homepage usually isn’t enough to rank for much.  (You’ll probably also need some links from solid and relevant sites, for starters.)  But if you don’t even mention basic points like where you work, Google won’t necessarily play gumshoe, especially if your competitors have made their service areas clear everywhere.

 

Phobia 5: “Why would I link to other sites and risk bleeding off PageRank or looking spammy to Google?”
I’ve never seen that it matters either way, much or at all.  Most of my greatest-hit, most-visible posts include links to relevant other resources, and that’s also true of many of my clients best-performing pages and (sometimes) blog posts.  Does a page or post do well because of the outbound links?  I doubt it, if only because that’s too easy, and too easy to overdo at the expense of users’ attention spans.  Don’t link to another resource just because you think Google likes that, but because you think that resource is useful for your visitor.  If your page is less useful because it doesn’t lead anywhere else, it’s a dead end, and is less likely to get links or anything else that Google pays attention to.  That can limit its rankings eventually.

 

Phobia 6: “‘City’ pages are doorway pages, and doorway pages are spam, so you shouldn’t create ‘city’ pages.”
Don’t belch out pages full of boilerplate, that say nothing more than “Pay us, pay us, wherever you are.”  Create pages that show people the experience you’ve got in their city or town, or that explain why you’re in a uniquely good position to help them.  Even great “city” pages shouldn’t be your whole strategy for ranking in more of your service area, but they can be part of your strategy.

 

Phobia 7: “Play it safe and don’t let title tags go over 70 characters.”
Usually the concern is that Google will truncate a long title tag and only show a piece of it in the search results.  But that concern isn’t too applicable these days, because most of the time Google rewrites your title tags.  It dynamically generates what it “thinks” your title tag should be (based on the search term) and shows its preferred version in the search results.  Like speed limits on the road, the title tag you specified is just a suggestion.  That’s how Google handles it, anyway.

I wouldn’t let a title tag run on for 300 characters, and I’d still think hard about what to put in it.  But I’ve have never seen that pages with title tags longer than 70 characters do any worse in the search results, and many of them perform just fine.

 

Phobia 8: “Those pages need to be under a subdirectory, like ‘/services’.  It’s not OK for subpages to be at the root level.”
I’ve seen both rank just fine – on my clients’ sites and on others’ sites.

If you’re putting up a new batch of pages, or a new site, or redesigning your site, and it’s relatively easy to stick your pages under a relevantly named subdirectory, then yeah, I’d probably nest the page in a subdirectory.

But if you’ve got a page that ranks OK at a URL like yoursite.com/nameofservice, I wouldn’t change it to yoursite.com/services/nameofservice or yoursite.com/doctors/nameofdoctor  just because your person says it’s a “best-practice.”  That’s unlikely to bump you higher up page one, and it’s not worth needing to mess with your 301 redirects, or having to fix broken links,  or both.  Separate the SEO from the OCD.

 

Phobia 9: “We want the homepage to load faster, so it’s never OK to add something that may slow down the load-time.”
Too many SEOs have a fast fetish.  They won’t add the perfect photo because of its file size, or embed a YouTube video because of its iframe, or install a useful plugin because it’s another plugin.  If speed was the most important thing, Amazon’s homepage would be the fastest of all, but it’s not.  Customers need stuff to look at and interact with.

 

 

Fast-loading pages should always be a consideration and a priority, but not the only consideration or only priority.  Always see what you can cut, but that doesn’t mean you should cut everything or never add anything.

 

Phobia 10: “Don’t keep pages or posts that rank for irrelevant terms.”
Keep them around for long enough to try squeezing some benefit out of them.  I’ve had success with that on occasion, but I’ve never just deleted pages and seen the remaining pages move up.  As far as I know, you don’t get points for perfect tidiness.

 

What’s an SEO practice that gets a bad rap, but that has helped your local visibility?

Was there a time you flew too close to the sun?  What happened?

Leave a comment!