Local SEO “Substitutions”

I’ve always liked the part of cookbooks with the “substitutions” chart.  It’s a life-saver for those of us who buy all the right ingredients at the market but gobble up half of them before we can cook anything.

One reason I like the substitutions chart is it reminds me that good cooking isn’t necessarily perfection.

Sure, you can’t substitute every ingredient in a recipe.

But if you’re a little short on time or ingredients and need to improvise, the finished product still will turn out great (usually).

The same is true of local search. Some people seem to think that local search “optimization” means “everything’s got to be perfect.”  It doesn’t.  There isn’t just one correct way to do the steps that will make your business visible to customers in the Google+Local search results and beyond.

Granted, for some steps in your local-search campaign there’s no such thing as “good enough.”  For instance, you must follow Google’s “Quality Guidelines,” or you risk having your business flicked off the local map entirely.

But for other steps “close counts.”  (No, it’s not just in horseshoes and hand-grenades, as the saying goes.)

If you’ve had a tough time of implementing some of the local SEO best-practices you’ve heard from me or from other people, check out my list of “substitutions,” below.

By definition, a substitution isn’t perfect.  These are no exceptions.  Think of them in terms of “if you can’t do this, do that.”

 

For your Google+Local listing

If you…
Can’t include all your main services as categories in your Google listing (you can list yourself under a maximum of 5 categories).

Then…
Have a separate page of your website devoted to each specific service you offer.  This page should tell potential customers all about that particular service. Then make sure you’re linking to these pages from your homepage (or whatever is the landing page you use for your Google+Local listing).

Explanation
Categories are the best way to tell Google, “Yoo-hoo, over here…OK, these are the services I want to rank for.”  But probably the next-best way to do this is to have distinct, focused pages that describe in detail each specific service you offer (e.g. one for heating, another for air-conditioning, etc.).  That makes it easy for Google to scour your site and determine exactly what kind of business you’re in and what you offer.

Have a page for each service you offer - esp. if you run out of categories

 

If you…
Can’t think of any eye-catching (but relevant) photos to upload to your Google+Local page

Then…
Upload screenshots or photos that aren’t necessarily eye candy but that are relevant to your services and informative in some way.  Things like handwritten testimonials, “fan mail,” your BBB accreditation, or documents that show you’re certified to do whatever it is you do.

Explanation
I haven’t found that photos affect local rankings.  But good photos will make people more likely to click through to your site or pick up the phone.  Which is what it’s all about. And which means it’s perfectly OK to upload photos that aren’t flashy but that tell potential customers something they might want to know about you or your services.

 

For your website

If you…
Don’t have a keyword-relevant domain name.

Then…
Create a page (or subdomain) on your site with a keyword-relevant page name, and use it as the landing page for your Google+Local listing.

Explanation
Let’s say your competitor’s website is AcmeChiropractic123.com.  He ranks well locally for search terms that contain “chiropractic.”  Your website is DrJohnDoe.com.  Consider building a page named “Doe-Chiropractic” that talks all about your chiropractic care.

Then use “http://www.DrJohnDoe.com/Doe-Chiropractic” as the landing page for your Google+Local listing (in other words, enter that URL into the “Website” field of your Googl+Local listing).  That should make you a little more likely to rank well locally for “chiropractic” and similar searches.

In lieu of a keyword-relevant domain, try a keyword-relevant name for your landing page

 

If you…
Can’t or don’t want to use hCard or Schema.org to mark up the name/address/phone (“NAP”) block of text that should be on every page of your site

Then…
Put the NAP on every page of your site without marking it up with hCard or Schema.

Explanation
I haven’t seen any evidence or noticed first-hand that marking up your name/address/phone number with search-engine-friendly code (AKA rich snippets) helps your rankings significantly.

Sure, we know Google pays attention to rich snippets.  If you or your webmaster can implement them, great (one easy way to do it is with this excellent Schema generator).  But it’s OK if you can’t or don’t want to use the markup for some reason.  Just make sure the name, address, and phone number of your business is on every page of your site.

 

For citations

If you…
Can’t claim your business listing on a given third-party site (Yelp, CitySearch, etc.).

Then…
Make sure that the listing at least has the correct info on your business – regardless of whether you’ve claimed that listing – and make sure you get any listings with the wrong info removed.

Explanation
In my experience, the consistency of your basic business info (name, address, and phone) as it appears all across the web is the biggest factor in how well you’ll rank locally.  Getting this consistency needs to be at the top of your priority list – and it doesn’t really matter how you do it.

If for any reason you can’t claim a given listing for your business, that’s OK: I haven’t found that Google will give you any brownie points for having done so.  But if the listing has incorrect info, you’re in trouble.  The good news is there’s almost always an area on these business-directory sites where you can suggest corrections.

 

If you…
Aren’t using the Local Citation Finder but want to get all the citations your competitors have.

Then…
Use this neat citation-discovery technique or my Definitive Citations List, or some combination of the two.

Explanation
Citations matter.  A lot.  ‘Nuff said.

 

For reviews

If you…
Have trouble getting Google or Yelp reviews.

Then…
Get some CitySearch or InsiderPages reviews (or other sites).

Explanation
Google reviews are central to your local-vis efforts, but there have been serious problems with them recently.  The filters are WAY too strict.  Legitimate reviews from real customers in many cases won’t “stick” on your Google+Local page.  Similar story with Yelp, although their review “filters” have always been pretty draconian.

But even if you have loads of Google and Yelp reviews, you’d still be smart to get customers to review you on CitySearch and InsiderPages.  (For a little more detail on this, see my “Local Business Reviews Ecosystem”.)

 

If you…
Can’t get reviews because it’s nearly impossible to do so in your particular industry – to the point that even your competitors don’t have reviews.

Then…
Put a Google +1 button on your site and ask customers to “+1” you, or ask them to email you (or even handwrite) a testimonial that you could feature on your site.  Preferably ask them to do both.

Explanation
Reviews help your rankings.  Most likely so will having “+1’s” – at least in the near future.  Reviews are great “social proof” that show potential customers why your services are worth their attention and possibly some of their hard-earned money.  Testimonials can do that, too.

In case you want something to slap on your fridge, here’s a little chart that sums up all of the above:

Your handy-dandy local SEO "substitutions chart"

Any other local SEO “substitutions” you can think of – or have actually used?  Leave a comment!

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Quiz yourself on your Google Places Quality Guidelines smarts!You may not agree with them.  You may not even completely understand them.  But unless you want your business’s local visibility to take a faceplant onto hard pavement, you’d better know and follow the Google Places Quality Guidelines.

Unfortunately, you can’t follow the Quality Guidelines the same way Captain Kirk “follows” the Prime Directive in Star Trek.  The Google Places Quality Guidelines are “the book,” and you have to go by the book even when it’s inconvenient to do so, or else you risk losing customers.

But you have to know the rules in order to follow them, because many of them simply aren’t intuitive.

I like what Nyagoslav Zhekov said in a recent post, that you really need to memorize the Quality Guidelines and stay up-to-date on them.  Otherwise, the chances are good you’ll mess up your Google Places rankings—or, if you’re a local SEO, you’ll mess up your clients’ rankings.

That’s why I’ve put together this short quiz, to see how well you know the Google Places Quality Guidelines off the top of your head.  (No peeking at the link to the guidelines I put at the top of the page!)

It’s 10 questions.  Unless you score 10/10, there’s a chance you’ll shoot yourself in the foot by accidentally breaking the rules and losing business as a result

The questions are below, or you can open them up in a PDF here.

A link to the answers is at the bottom, below the questions.

Enjoy!

Question 1:  If you haven’t opened your business yet, how far in advance can you create your Google Places listing?

a)  Whenever your website goes live

b)  About 2-3 weeks—which is about how long it takes for Google’s verification postcard with the PIN to arrive in the mail

c)  You can’t set up your listing before your business has opened

 

Question 2:  Let’s say you work at a law firm that has 10 lawyers, all of whom work from the same address.  What’s the maximum number of Google Places listings you can create and associate with that address?

a)  1: Only the law firm itself can have a Places page, whereas the individual lawyers can’t

b)  11: The firm can have one, and each of the lawyers can also have a Places page

c)  There’s no specific limit; it depends on how many branches of law each lawyer practices

 

Question 3:  What number of “keywords” is too many (and therefore prohibited) to include in the “business name” field?

a)  2

b)  3

c)  An “extraneous number” of keywords

 

Question 4:  Under what circumstances can you use a P.O. Box as your address?

a)  Only if you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option, so as to hide your address from showing up in Google Places

b)  Only if you enter the P.O. Box into the 2nd “address” field, but first specify the physical address of your business in the 1st “address” field

c)  Never

 

Question 5:  When MUST you select the “Do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option?

a)  If you work from home, rather than at an office or store

b)  If you don’t meet your customers or clients in-person at your business location

c)  If your “service area” encompasses more than one town or city

 

Question 6:  To what extent must you use a number with a local area code as your primary phone number?

a)  You absolutely must use one, always—no exceptions

b)  You should use one “whenever possible”

c)  It doesn’t matter what the area code is, as long as your street address is local

 

Question 7:  What is the maximum number of custom categories you can specify?

a)  1

b)  4

c)  5

 

Question 8:  Which of the following custom categories would Google deem acceptable?

a)  “Sedation Dentist”

b)  “Sedation Dentistry”

c)  “Sedation Dentistry w/ Nitrous Oxide”

 

Question 9:  Let’s say your business has 12 locations and 12 Google Places pages (one for each location); under what circumstances can you use the same website for each location?

a)  Never; you need to have a completely separate website for each Google Places page

b)  You can use the same website only if you have a different landing page for each location / Google Places page

c)  You can always use the same website for each Google Places page, and you can even use the same page of your website for all your Places page

 

Question 10:  Which of the following are you NOT allowed to put into the “website” field?

a)  A shortened URL

b)  A forwarded domain (i.e., a website name that forwards to another website)

c)  The URL of your business listing on a third-party site (e.g., Yahoo, SuperPages, etc.)

Take a second to jot down your answers (how old-fashioned, I know), and then check your answers here.

Note: the Quality Guidelines change from time to time.  If and when Google changes them significantly, I’ll update the quiz to reflect the change(s).

13 Best-Practices for Picking Google Places Business Categories

So many categories in Google Places - how do you pick?The “business categories” you choose for your Google Places page matter—big-time.  Your choices can help get your business visible to all the local customers you’re trying to reach, or they can cause Google to pluck your business off the map (and not put you back until you fix your categories).

Fortunately, it can be easy to pick the optimal categories when you’re first creating your listing, and it’s also easy to change your categories later if you didn’t get them quite right at first.  All you have to do is login to your Places page and change them—and you don’t even have to get a PIN and re-verify your ownership of your Places page.

Whatever stage your Google Places page is in, you can get visible to the maximum number of local customers by picking your categories according to 13 best-practices:

1.  Follow the Google Places Quality Guidelines.  They’re straightforward and concise regarding categories.  Sure, there’s plenty of room to mess up even if you follow them, but if you don’t follow them, Google will almost surely ding your visibility in Places.  (Make sure to pay extra-close attention to the rule about how your categories should describe what your business is, rather than describe the services you offer.)

2.  Pick as many relevant categories as you canpreferably 5, which is the maximum number you can choose.  Emphasis on “relevant.”  If you’re an appliance-repair service, don’t choose “Appliance Store” if you don’t sell appliances.

3.  Use Mike Blumenthal’s Google Places Category Tool to find the proper category names that describe your business and to make sure you’re not forgetting any categories that actually apply to you.

4.  Use the Google Keyword Tool when you’re having a hard time deciding exactly which category to pick (out of several good options).  Enter the category names verbatim into the Keyword Tool, and see which one has the most local searches.  In a toss-up, I’d generally suggest you pick the one that’s more searched-for.

5.  Look at which categories your higher-ranked competitors have picked, and the order in which the categories appear.  Do this simply by going to their Places page and looking at their categories.  See if you notice any patterns.  If, for example, the 2 highest-ranked businesses use the same categories, consider those categories for your Places page.  (By the way, LocalSearchToolKit is a really handy tool that can help you with this step and others.)

6.  Make sure the first 3 categories you pick are the most dead-on relevant and representative of your specialties, because it is only the first 3 categories that potential customers will see on your Places page unless they click to see the others.  You don’t want people leaving your page because they didn’t realize that you actually do offer the specific service they’re looking for.

Make sure the most "important" categories are the first 3 you list

Most visitors to your Places page won't see categories 4 and 5

7.  Routinely check your Google Analytics data and your Google Places Dashboard statistics to see if you’ve been getting visitors for the keywords you selected as categories.  Let’s say you’ve selected “Bagpipes Repair Shop” as a custom category.  If Google Analytics and your Places dashboard are telling you that nobody has visited your site or Places page after having typed that search term or a similar one into Google, it’s probably worth selecting a different category and seeing if it brings visitors.

For picking custom categories:

8.  Always remember that Google scrutinizes your custom categories against the other categories you’ve chosen and the keywords in your Google Places “description.”  If the keywords in your custom categories are identical or very similar to those in your other categories or your description, Google may bump down your rankings or (worse) suspend your listing.

9.  Don’t choose plural or singular versions of categories you’ve already picked from Google’s list.  For one thing, the plural and singular versions of a given search term usually return the exact same local search results.  However, even if you’re ranked #1 in Google Places for the term “dentist” but not for “dentists,” adding “Dentists” as a custom category is unlikely to make you visible for that term.

10.  Recognize that including multiple “keywords” in one category field is a gray area, in terms of what Google accepts and what it doesn’t.  On the one hand, Google states that “Only one category is permitted per entry field.”  So you generally shouldn’t write really long category names or string two significantly different categories together with “and” or an ampersand.  But sometimes it makes sense to do so, and Google likely won’t penalize you if you don’t overdo it.  For instance, a custom category of “Roofing Maintenance & Roofing Repair” might get your listing pulled, but the less keyword-spammy “Roof Repair & Maintenance” will probably be OK.  (In fact, the latter is probably better than having “Roof Repair” and “Roof Maintenance” as two separate custom categories, which also might get you in hot water with Google.)

11.  Double-check that your custom categories actually return Google Places local results when you type those words into Google.  The whole reason you’re going the extra mile to choose the best categories is so that you can get visible to customers who are searching locally for what you offer.

If possible, pick custom categories that return *local* results

Custom categories that don't trigger local results = not ideal

12.  Make sure you’ve spelled the categories correctly, for Pete’s sake. Don’t use any abbreviations, either (unless the abbreviation is how customers typically search for that particular term).

13.  Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion (or a third or fourth opinion).  Maybe ask an employee or your spouse to skim through this post and then come up with 3-5 categories that might apply to your business.  Then compare notes and see which categories you both came up with.

Any tips you’d suggest for getting the maximum local visibility from your categories?  Any questions or suggestions for me?  Be cool and leave a comment!

5 Google Places Tests I’d Love to See

I discover a lot about Google Places by wrestling with it all day, every day.  But I’m also constantly scratching my head at questions—things that I just started wondering about based on observations, or that people have asked me.

Some of these questions I’ve yet to find the answers to.  I know someone—maybe you, maybe me—can find the answers with a little (or a lot of) testing, studying, experimenting, analyzing, tinkering, doodling, or whatever word you prefer.  Here are a few questions about Google Places that I think would make for really cool tests:

 

Test 1:  Is there a measurable benefit in claiming your listings on third-party sites (i.e., citation sources)?

Let’s say my business is listed on Yelp, YellowPages, and SuperPages 100% correctly (as it ought to be).  To what extent can it help my Google Places rankings to claim—AKA owner-verify—my listings on those third-party sites? 

Does claiming third-party listings help your Google Places rankings?

What I know:  You’re in a better position to control your business info if you’ve claimed as many of your third-party listings as possible.  This is valuable from the standpoint of keeping your info accurate and consistent across the Web, and of preventing any unethical competitors from hijacking your listings.

What I don’t know:  Whether simply the act of claiming a third-party listing provides a “trust-signal” to Google that you’re the rightful business owner, which could help your Places rankings at least a little bit.

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Priority #1 is to have consistent and accurate info on third-party sites.  If we have to claim all your third-party listings in order to accomplish that, then we’ll claim them all.  But if your info is already consistent and accurate, let’s mess with owner-verification some other time.”

 

Test 2:  To what extent can you increase the number of business categories that show up on your Google Places page by listing your business under a broad range of categories on third-party sites—and can you get visible for more search terms this way?

As we both know, you can only pick up to 5 categories on your Google Places page.  But sometimes more than 5 show up on your Places page.

How can you get additional business categories on your Places page?

What I know:  Google adds these additional categories based on business info from third-party sites.

What I don’t know:  There’s a lot I don’t know: First of all, exactly what information does Google draw on from third-party sites in order to assign these additional categories? That is, does Google look at the categories your business is listed under, the keywords, the tags, the text of customer reviews on third-party sites, or some mysterious combination of all of the above?

Let’s say there are more than 5 categories that accurately describe my business and I want to score some of those additional categories.  How should I go about it, exactly?  Most third party sites—with a few exceptions, like MapQuest—also limit the number of categories I can list myself under.  So should I try to pick slightly different categories on these sites from the ones I picked for my Places page?  Or is it possible that Google pays more attention to the “keywords” and “tags” fields on my third-party business listings?

Last but not least, is there any correlation between (1) the additional categories that show up on my Places page and (2) the likelihood that my business will rank more visibly for searches related to those specific additional categories?  Obviously it’s good to have some additional categories show up on your Places page because they give potential customers an even better sense of what your business offers.  So in terms of the “human element,” the additional categories are good.  But does having more of them correspond to being visible for more search terms?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “My top task is to get you visible for the 5 categories on your Places page, so I’m going to pick roughly the same categories on other sites whenever I can, in order to reinforce the 5 on your Places page.  Of course, different sites have different categories to choose from, so some deviation from your 5 Google Places categories is inevitable.  But I’ll always pick as many relevant categories as I’m allowed to pick, because my understanding is that will give you the greatest exposure for the greatest number of services you offer.

 

Test 3:  How many “flags” by Google-account users does it usually take to get an obviously abusive or spammy Google Places review removed by Google?

How many flags or reports to get an abusive Google review pulled?

What I know:  It’s possible to get Google Places reviews removed if (1) they blatantly violate Google’s rules and (2) if Google is notified via “flags” or “Report a problem” complaints.

What I don’t know:  How many flags or “Report a problem” complaints does it generally take to get a clearly abusive review taken down?  From how many different Google users?  Does a flag from a Google user who just opened an account and has written zero reviews “count” as much as a flag from user who opened a Google account in 2007 and has contributed 190 reviews?  What does it generally take?

(Actually, obvious spam reviews have only been a problem for a couple of my clients—and neither case was recent.  I simply don’t remember how much effort it took to get them removed.  Plus, Google’s “support” infrastructure changes constantly; what works in one month may not work the next month.)

What I’d tell a client for now:  “If we want this clearly libelous review to get taken down, you and I are going to have to flag it and report it as spam at least once every few days until Google gets the message and takes it down.  If you can, tell your kids, Uncle Fred, and Aunt Ruth to open a Google account and do the same.  Yes, yes, I know it’s a pain to ask them, but the alternative is to lose customers because of some moron.”

 

Test 4:  Does it matter whether your site contains multiple non-local phone numbers that are crawlable by search engines?

What I know:  It’s always a good idea to have your local phone number—the one featured on your Places page—as crawlable text on your website.  It’s another clue to Google that your business in fact is local, and that the phone number listed on your Places page and elsewhere is the correct one.  In cases where a business has one website but multiple locations, it’s OK to have the corresponding phone numbers for each location as crawlable text (ideally in hcard microformat); Google never seems to get the numbers confused.

What I don’t know:  What if you have other crawable numbers on your site—numbers that aren’t associated with a Places page of yours?  I’ve never heard of or seen a duplicate listing created by additional phone numbers on a site, nor have I ever noticed that they cause any third-party sites to use the wrong phone number.  But still…is there any measurable risk in doing this?

What I’d tell a client for now:  “It’s probably OK to list your 1-800 number, your secretary’s number, and your cell number as crawlable text on your site, but just to be on the safe side, let’s just take 5 minutes to add them to your site as an image, because Google can’t read images.”

 

Test 5:  Does running AdWords Express ads cause your business to drop off of the first page of Google Places results if you’re ranked there?

One client of mine ranked well—though not #1—in Google Places until he decided to give the then-brand-new AdWords Express a try.  Around the same time, Mike Blumenthal wrote that you can’t have a #1 position in Google Places and an AdWords Express ad at the same time —which Google actually confirmed.  Last but not least, a couple of people have contacted me about this, wondering if it’s just their imagination or if AdWords Express ads and all page-one Google Places rankings are mutually exclusive.

Can AdWords Express ads and top-7 Google Places rankings coexist?

What I know:  I know for a fact that this wasn’t the case with the predecessor of AdWords Express, Google Boost.  I know that setting up “location extensions” in an AdWords account has never harmed visibility in Google Places.  I also know that Google won’t let you keep a #1 Google Places ranking if you run AdWords Express (which, again, Mike explains in this post).

What I don’t know:  Whether any page-one Google Places ranking will vanish if you run AdWords Express.  I’ve yet to put my suspicions to the test by asking a client with a page-one Google Places ranking for a specific search term to bid on that search term with AdWords Express and see what happens.  (There must be a better way to test it than that, but I can’t think of anything as conclusive).

What I’d tell a client for now:  “Express is just a dumbed-down version of AdWords to begin with.  Unless your Express ads have been an absolute cash cow, switch over to classic AdWords, which is more robust and allows you—not Google—to control the text of your ads and your keyword bids and to do things like split-tests.  Plus, though I don’t yet know this for a fact, I’ve found that Google Places rankings can take a major hit if you use AdWords Express, so let’s not play Russian Roulette with your business.”

There may or may not be good ways to test these questions.  It may be tough to create conclusive tests, given that every local market is unique.

I love to procrastinate, watch TV, and eat potato chips as much as the next guy does, so it may be a while before I personally take the time to set up these tests and crunch the results :)

Are there any other questions that you would really like to see tested?  Any suggestions for how to test the ones I mentioned?  Any first-hand experience or observations?  Leave a comment!

Google Places Visibility as a Decathlon

I apologize in advance if sports metaphors annoy you.

But if you can tolerate them, I’ve got a good one: Getting your business visible in Google Places is like the Olympic decathlon.

(You know, that 10-event track-and-field challenge that’s as painful to watch as seeing someone eat a pack of Jolly Ranchers the day after getting a root canal.)

How is local visibility like the decathlon?  For one thing, both demand balance—being strong in many different respects.  You can’t win one event and win the decathlon.  Same thing if you want to get visible in Google Places: you must do many things well, not just one or two.

You win the decathlon if you rack up the most points—points earned by performing at a high level from the 1st event through the 10th.  Google has its “algorithm”: dozens of factors big and small that Google takes into account when deciding which local businesses get medals and which ones get a pat on the back.  Bottom line: you don’t have to win every event.  The winners are the ones with the most points overall.

Here’s how I’d compare each decathlon event to 10 of the biggest components of a top Google Places ranking:

Picking the right city to market yourself in = Javelin.  Precision counts: you have to know exactly where you want to place yourmark.  Anyone can chuck spears downfield, but a skilled javelin-thrower visualizes exactly where he wants the spear to go.  In Google Places, you have to set your sights on a very specific local area: usually the one your business is physically located in.  If you just try to get visible in “greater San Diego” or “within 50 miles of here,” you’ll end up disappointed, and you’ll lose business to any competitors who plan their throws with more precision and finesse.

Picking the right business “Categories” = 100m sprint.  The 100m sprint is the first event in the decathlon.  “Categories” are one of the first things you specify about your business when you create your Google listing.  Both are quick and relatively painless, but if you screw up either one, you put yourself at a disadvantage.  (By the way, in a nutshell, the way to pick “Categories” well is to pick only the ones that are dead-on relevant to your services.  It’s easy, but many people screw it up.)

Only pick relevant categories for your Google Places listing

Listing your business on 3rd-party sites (AKA getting “citations”) = Shot put.  The shot requires brute strength, but also plenty of technique.  Likewise, you likely won’t get visible in Google if someone can’t muscle through the arduous process of submitting your business info to numerous directory sites (Yelp, Angie’s List, etc.).  But this also involves technique, in knowing which sites can help you the most.

Making sure your basic info appears consistently across the Web = Long jump.  Many business owners don’t know that their business is actually listed on sites they’ve never heard of.  You have to reach far and wide across the Web to find these sites and make sure all your basic business info—business name, address, phone number, etc—is listed 100% correctly there.

Name + address + phone (NAP) must appear consistently across the Web

Informative, useful, search term-relevant website content = 400m sprint.  A short but intense race.  Anyone can waddle a lap around the track, but to do it in less than 50 seconds is way harder than it looks.  Anyone can get “content, but it’s hard to get good, relevant content on your website that appeals to local customers and helps answer their questions: it takes a little time and effort to write good stuff.   It needs to be clearly relevant to the services you’re trying to get found for, but overloading your content with “keywords” will get you nowhere in Google.  But with a few bursts of focused, intense work, you can get winning content—stuff that Google can tell is relevant to your services, and that’s helpful and informative enough to win you local customers.

(Effective) on-page SEO = High jump.  The high jump takes technique and “feel” and is very tricky to execute properly.  Brute force won’t help you clear anything higher than a baby bar.  A typical SEO “expert” can apply simplistic tactics—like overstuffing your meta tags with keywords—but it takes more finesse and especially a light touch if you want to get visible in local Google.

Beefing up your Google Places listing = 110m hurdles.  Hurdlers have to contend with lots of obstacles (each hurdle).  Any one of them isn’t too hard to clear, but it’s much tougher to clear all of them smoothly while bolting full-throttle down the track.  You have to optimize multiple little areas on your Google page: your “Description,” photos, etc.  None is too tough, but you can’t take your eye off them, or else you get a scraped knee and lose ground to other people

Inbound links to your site = Pole vault.  You have a few attempts to fling yourself over a high bar. Similarly, it may take several attempts to get some good, industry-related or locally relevant links coming into your site.  It can test your patience.  But once you have some relevant, quality links coming in, you can take a deep breath (for a little while, at least).

Continually adding content everywhere = Discus…wait.  I actually don’t see how this is like the discus.  Kind of coming up dry here.  Anyway, what I will say is it’s important that you keep on the lookout for ways to add more and more relevant content to your site, and to add things like coupons, real-time “Posts,” and even videos to your Google Places listing.  Keep it fresh and keep it coming.  Google pays attention to activity and progress—and so do your potential customers.

Customer reviews = 1500m run.  The last and longest event.  You’re running on fumes.  You have your hands full with running your business, and drumming up customer reviews is probably the last thing you feel like doing.  But you’ve come this far and can’t quit now.  It takes endurance, because you have to keep the reviews coming in on an ongoing basis.  Like the 1500, reviews require you to pace yourself: if you try to get too many reviews at once, Google will likely conclude that you’re not getting them legitimately, and you’ll get nowhere fast.  Impatient jackrabbits lose.  Reviews can be tricky to get, but you’ll be glad once you have them—and you’ll enjoy watching your lesser competitors finish in tatters because they couldn’t hang on.

In the decathlon and in Google Places, it’s the big-picture that counts.  You can win even if you only manage to blow ‘em out of the water in a couple of events, and you can win even if you do downright lousy in one event.  But you will only emerge as a stone-cold butt kicker if you’re consistently strong.

Are there even more track & field events worth clobbering your competition in?  Yes: you’ve got the 800m run, the 5000m run…and many others.  Likewise, there are even more elements of getting visible in Google Places.

But if you shine in all of the above, you’re a regular Bryan Clay, and you’ll get that laurel wreath around YOUR neck—meaning more local customers coming through your doors.

5 Easy Experiments for Your Google Places Listing

Are you a gritty, gutsy gambler? Do you like taking business risks, especially when there’s the possibility of making more money than you do today?

If so, that may be bad news for your business’s local visibility in Google Places.

Sure, you can use your drive and determination to hammer away at trying to get visible in Google Places FAST—but it probably won’t work.  Google usually doesn’t reward furious flurries of changes.  Rather, the best way to get lasting visibility that actually attracts local customers is to take small, deliberate steps.

But you also need to be able to retrace your steps.  The steps need to be reversible and low-risk—so that you can see to what extent they actually help your local visibility versus harm it.

5 experiments for boosting your local visibility in Google Places

AKA an experiment.  You can build a better local ranking by experimenting with your Google Places listing.

I’m assuming your business is somewhat visible, but not as visible as you’d like.  (If you’re nowhere to be found, you have no business reading this and instead should spend time applying the steps in my free guide to local visibility.)  Maybe you’re ranked #8 and are just barely missing the first page of local search results.  Or maybe your business is pretty visible locally, but for the wrong search terms.

These 5 low-risk experiments can help you feel your way to better visibility to local customers.  Even though it takes a couple of weeks to “run” most of them to completion, each takes only a minute or two to implement.

The best part is you’re not taking a big plunge by trying these experiments: save your gutsiness for the next BASE-jumping competition.  See how many of the following you can try out.

 

1.  Tweak your Google Places “Categories”

 

Why: Picking a new lineup of relevant “Categories” can help you rank more highly for different local search terms—possibly including the ones you’ve been trying to get visible for.

How to do it: Log into your Google listing, go to where you edit/update your listing, and change some of the “Categories” fields.

When to do this experiment: If you rank poorly in Google Places, or if you only seem to rank well for searches that aren’t completely relevant to you (for instance, if you’re a house painter and don’t rank well for the term “house paining” but do rank well for “paint supply”).

When NOT to do it: If you rank well locally (top-7, AKA page 1) for the search terms you want to be visible for.

How you know if it works: After a week or two, see if your business is visible in Google Places for terms that it wasn’t visible for previously, or see if you notice a boost in ranking.

More detail: If you’ve already selected categories that clearly describe your services or business, keep them.  In general, only try changing the “iffier” ones.  For instance, try changing 2-3 of your categories if there are some that aren’t spot-on relevant to what you offer, or if there are some categories you chose even though you saw plenty of other applicable ones to choose from.

Experiment with your Google Places categories

Another way to do this experiment is by selecting a different number of categories.  The maximum is 5, so if you’ve already specified 5, maybe try going with only the most relevant 3.  Or if you’ve only chosen a couple, rack your brains to come up with 3 more pertinent ones.

 

Not completely sure which new categories to try?  Mike Blumenthal’s free, ridiculously excellent Google Places Category Tool might help.

 

2.  Try NOT showing your address on your listing

Why: You might become visible in slightly different geographical areas within your local market.

How to do it: In the “Edit” area of your Google listing, select “Yes, this business serves customers at their locations, and then select “Do not show” address:

Try not showing your street address on your Google listing

When to do this experiment: ONLY if you travel to your customers (rather than have them come to your location).  Given that, only do this experiment if you’re trying to rank more visibly in a big city but you’re located a few (about 2-6) miles outside the center of the city.  Or you can do it if you’d just like to be visible in slightly different specific towns/areas within your local market.

When NOT to do it: If you have any really good rankings in Google Places that you wouldn’t want jostled around.

How you know if it works: Type in a local search term (let’s say “roofing” or “roofer”) and see how visible you are for it.  Then go to the “Change Location” bar on the left-hand side of Google and set the location to another town in your local market (a town that you serve).  Type in the search term again and see how you rank for it.  Repeat this process for other towns in your local market.  Then you’ll know whether you’re visible in the local areas you want to be visible in: if you are, great, but if you’re not, then uncheck the “Do not show my business address” box to undo the experiment.

More detail: Your business will appear on the Google Places map as a floating red dot, not as a pin that’s “stuck” in a specific location on the map.  If the experiment succeeds, you’ll see your dot and a bunch of pins on the local map that’s on the first page of Google:

Your location won't appear as a "pin" on the local Google map

By the way, you’ll also want to remove mentions of your physical address from your website (at least while you’re running the experiment).  Or if you want to try this experiment but feel you really need to include your address on your website, simply create an image that contains your street address, and put the image on your site. (Google can’t read what’s in images, so you won’t be confusing it by not including your address in your Google Places listing but including it on your website.)

 

3.  Narrow or widen your geographical “Service Area”

Very similar to experiment #2.  All the same conditions apply.  As before, only do it if you travel to customers.  Everything else I said about #2 also holds true for #3.

Under “Service Areas and Location Settings,” simply change the “Distance from one location” or “List of areas served.”  No guarantees that you’ll be visible exactly where you want, but this at least allows you to tell Google where your local market is.

Try either narrowing or widening your service area.  I don’t know your market, so I can’t say for sure which one is more likely to help your visibility.  Still, if your main goal is to get visible to customers in one specific town, try narrowing your service area to just encompass that one town.  If you serve many local towns maybe try widening your radius by 10 miles.

 

4.  Tweak your Google Places “Description”

Why: It’s a way of establishing your business as relevant to the services you’re trying to get visible for.  It’s another little factor that can help you rank more visibly.

How to do it: Go to the “Edit” area of your Google Places listing and change what’s in the “Description” field.

When to do this experiment: This is a “finishing touch,” so only do it if you’re trying to bump up your ranking by 1-2 spots (for a given search term).

When NOT to do it: If you rank in the top-3 for some of the major search terms you want to be found for: in this case, it’s probably not worth rocking the boat by messing with the description.

How you know if it works: You might see a little improvement in ranking.

More detail: Don’t just stuff the description full of “keywords.”  It still needs to make sense to a human reader.  You should only have a couple (2-4) local search terms in the description.  Therefore, the “experiment” shouldn’t extend beyond just trying out slightly different search terms in place of the ones you already use: don’t just shoehorn a bunch of additional search terms into that tiny description box.

 

5.  Add more “Additional Details”

Why: Same reason as #4: another little factor in your favor.

When to do this experiment: It’s really never a bad idea, because the “Details” aren’t a big ranking factor, and you can instantly change them.

How to do it: Scroll down to the bottom of the “Edit” area of your Google Places page and fill in the “Additional Details” fields with more information about the services or products you offer.  You might want to mention your specialties, some of the equipment you use, what types of jobs you do or don’t do, your professional certification, etc.  Be as detailed as possible.

Try adding more "Additional Details" to your Google listing

How you know if it works: Again…your ranking might go up a notch within a couple of weeks.

More detail: There’s no limit to how many details you can add: Google lets you include as many as you want.  And you should use multiple fields: don’t just slop everything into one.  Make sure all the details you add make sense to a potential customer and that they aren’t just a parade of keywords.

By the way, jot down every change you make.  The experiments are reversible as long as you remember how you had your Google Places listing before.