Top 10 Ways Local Business Owners Botch the All-Important Homepage, and How You Can Get Yours Right

http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/507925-you-had-one-job

It’s a shame so many business owners spend more time chasing shiny new objects than they do nailing the fundamentals.

Mess up your homepage and your local rankings won’t be all they can be, or you’ll scare away people, or both.  It’s of outsize importance to Google and to customers/clients/patients.  Craft an excellent homepage and you might give yourself wiggle room to mess up in other areas – and maybe for it not to matter as much.

In helping business owners make rain, I see and get to work on more homepages than your average bear.  Here are what I’d consider the 10 most-common homepage mistakes, and how you can avoid making them:

Homepage mistake 1: It’s wafer-thin on content.

Most homepages skimp on info about specific offerings (services, products, treatments, or practice areas).  Have at least a blurb on each offering you care about, and include links to the pages where you describe them in more detail.

Homepage mistake 2: There’s little info about the service area or locations.

You don’t want Google and customers to have to guess or dig to determine where you are or what areas you serve.  Make it as plain as day.

Homepage mistake 3: It’s got no or too-few links to important subpages.

If you’ve got other pages you want visitors to see and for Google maybe to rank well, you’d best link to them.  Maybe your most-important 5-10.  I like bullet-point lists.

Homepage mistake 4: It’s been colonized by a slider.

Most sliders slow down the load-time of your page, push your strongest material below the fold, and are ignored by visitors.  Consider taking yours behind the barn, or at least replacing it with a static image.

Homepage mistake 5: There’s nothing unique or compelling in the title and/or description tag.

Having your keyword(s) + city is not enough.  Be a giraffe among zebras.  Weave in as much of your USP as you can.

Homepage mistake 6: Not tracking visitors’ clicking and scrolling behavior.

Use a tool like CrazyEgg or HotJar to determine which parts of your page visitors care about and which they ignore.

Homepage mistake 7: Clear calls-to-action aren’t in all the places they should be.

Having one call-to-action at the top and bottom of the page is a no-brainer.  If it’s a long page, have a call-to-action somewhere in the middle.  Because you’re tracking clicking and scrolling behavior (see above point), in time you’ll probably know which one pulls the most weight.

Homepage mistake 8: A functional Google Map isn’t embedded.

If you’ve got an office or bricks-and-mortar location, your would-be customers probably want to be able to pull up directions easily.  Google may like to see driving-direction look-ups.

Homepage mistake 9: It’s filled with knickknacks for non-customers.

Links to social profiles, a “recent blog posts” section, etc.  Eschew them – unless you want people to pay attention to those doodads and not call you.

Homepage mistake 10: It assumes the visitor saw the reviews.

Will your homepage impress a word-of-mouth referral or others who might have gone directly to your site without Googling you first?

Hhomepage mistake 11 (bonus): It’s too reserved.

Don’t assume everyone will even see other pages on your site.  Make it very clear where visitors can get more in-depth info on you and your services if they want it, but don’t assume they’ll click or scroll.  Say your piece, say it early, and say it plainly.

Any homepage mistakes I forgot?

Any you don’t think are mistakes?

What do you consider the most or least serious issue, and why?

Leave a comment!

The Most Obscure “Rule” in Google My Business – a Nasty Surprise

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jayvee/6317802466/

A few days ago I wrote about a tricky issue I seem to have figured out based on a hunch: that having two or more Google My Business pages in the same service area can cause problems if you need to owner-verify one of the pages.

When I was troubleshooting with my client, I couldn’t remember where I saw that overlapping service areas might be an issue for Google.  That bugged me.

Turns out I hadn’t gone totally senile (yet), and that at one point I must have seen this MapMaker thread (or one like it), where MapMaker editor Gregg “Flash” Gordon wrote that:

It is important to note that there is only one listing permitted per SAB per urban area and per location. [Emphasis added.]

Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge).

As of today (April 4, 2016), that “per urban area” part is not in the Google Places Quality Guidelines:

Businesses that operate in a service area should create one listing for the central office or location and designate service areas.  If you wish to display your complete business address while setting your service area(s), your business location should be staffed and able to receive customers during its stated hours. Google will determine how best to display your business address based on your inputs as well as inputs from other sources

Nor is it in the Google My Business Quality Guidelines, nor in “Service-area businesses on Google” guidelines, nor in “Address entry guidelines,” nor in any other document I know of.  It’s certainly not in any documentation a business owner will ever run across.

It’s not even mentioned by any of the Google My Business Forum “Top Contributors” in my 2014 post on “What’s Missing from the Google Places Quality Guidelines?

Apparently, the only people who know about this dumb, buried “urban area” rule are Googlers, MapMaker editors, and maybe Top Contributors at the GMB forum.  Fine.  Whatever.

But what in tarnation constitutes an “urban area”?

Is it a small town?  Is it Manhattan, or the Five Boroughs of New York City, or the Tri-state area?

What if you’ve got two locations of a business in the middle of nowhere – where the definition of “urban” is the dirt road between the church and the general store?

Oy.

If it’s a rule that’s actually enforced – especially a mushy-worded one like this – it should be present and visible in the rules that Google expects the average business owner to read.  Period.

I guess Google has had bigger fish to fry, like Mic Drop.

Did you know about the “urban area” rule?  If so, where did you read it or hear about it?

Have you seen it enforced?

Leave a comment!

Top-3 Local SEO “Content” Wins for People Who Hate to Write

You shudder at the thought of having to write content for your site or pay someone to write it until the day you sell your business or buy Depends.

Don’t get me wrong: writing and sharing your best info over a period of months or years can have enormous payoff.  My post “100 Practical Ideas for Small-Business Blog Posts” and its follow-up can help you on that.

You’ll probably find a way, if that’s what it takes for better local rankings and more customers.  But must creating “content” feel like a trip to nowhere?

Img. credit Ratha Grimes https://www.flickr.com/photos/ratha/4833010513/

No.

Is there another way to make progress?

Yes.

Focus on one-time content first.  Build on the content you have, the knowledge you have, and the site you have.

You’ll still have to write or get someone else to, but the point is you’re focusing on the highest-payoff work.

So, before you worry about what to create and share long-term, here’s what you should do on your site to make the most of a limited tolerance or budget for writing:

Priority 1: Perform “content CPR.”

Find short, undetailed pages on your site and beef them up with all the info a potential customer might want to know.  Focus on pages where you describe a specific service you offer.  If possible, find pages that rank very low on page 1 or somewhere on page 2.  Those pages may just need a little life breathed into them to start moving in the rankings.

Not sure what to put on those pages?  My post on “25 Principles of Building Effective City Pages for Local SEO” might get the juices flowing (even if you’re not creating “city” pages).

Priority 2: Fill in the gaps.

For example, do you have a giant “Services” page with one paragraph on each service you offer?  Break it up.  Create a separate page for each service, and go into more detail on each of those pages.  You can keep the main “Services” page if you want: just add some links to the more-specific subpages.

In general, is there a service you want to promote that doesn’t have a page you’re really proud of?

That’s low-hanging fruit, especially if it’s a less-popular search term.  The benefits of getting really granular with your pages are that (1) it’s an easy way to pick up rankings for niche terms (e.g. “blower door test Atlanta”), and that (2) the people who’d type in those niche terms probably aren’t tire-kickers, know exactly what they want, and are just looking for the right person or company.

(For more suggestions on busting out more pages, this other post of mine might help: 21 Pages a “Small Local Business” Site Needs for Tip-Top Local Visibility.)

Priority 3: Cannibalize your other resources.

Do you have underperforming microsites or old websites that have some decent info in them?

Did you put a lot of time into writing a blog post that not even your mom would read?

Did posters on your Facebook page ask questions that you get asked all the time, and that should maybe go on an FAQs page?

Do you have customer reviews that would be a shame not to show off on your site?  (As I’ve explained, it’s OK to do that.)

Was the “about us” section on your Yelp page a labor of love?

If you think your site would be a higher-payoff place for anything you’ve written, online or offline, bring it on home.

Only once you’ve taken those 3 steps as far as they’ll go should you turn to creating blog posts, videos, or whatever other content on an ongoing basis.  The timing matters.  At least the one-time stuff can start paying off while you’re wrestling with the ongoing content-creation.  Or you can just conserve your energy.

What are your “content priorities”?

Any you’d add to the list?

Leave a comment!

 

25 Principles of Building Effective City Pages for Local SEO

So you want to create “city pages” to attract local customers in places where you don’t have an office.  How can you make those pages attract customers rather than repulse them, rank well in the organic results, and not get stomped by Google’s “doorway page” update?

I’m mostly talking about pages that target cities where you do not have a physical location.  Still, most or all of these principles also apply to pages you’d create for specific “location” or “office” pages.

City pages in general have about the same reputation that Gigli has.  The bar is low.  That’s good news for you.

By no means do you need to apply all my suggestions.  I don’t know of anyone who does.  Some of my clients are killin’ it even though they’ve only put a few of these best-practices into practice (so far).

Here are 25 principles for creating the kind of city pages that Google likes, customers like, and you won’t be ashamed of.

Bedrock principles

1.  Make your city pages so good you’d be willing to pay $20 a click for PPC traffic. Think of how hard you work for your “free” online visibility.  Do you really want to send that traffic to 30 squirted-out pages?  This isn’t just a thought-exercise: It may come to paying $20 a click.  Especially if your SEO campaign doesn’t work out, you’ll probably try PPC next.  Then you’ll learn all too quickly that it’s important to send visitors to pages that are ready for battle.

 

2.  Make them unique, in every way you can. In a minute I’ll go into more detail as to what I mean.  For now, let’s just establish uniqueness as a basic rule of effective city pages.

 

3.  Think of a genuine connection to the city. Did you grow up there?  Do any of your employees live there?  Did you do your first or biggest project there?  Do an inordinate number of your clients come from that city?

Think of an angle and explain it.  If you can’t do both of those things maybe you shouldn’t target that city after all.

 

4.  Especially if you can’t think of a genuine connection to the city, mention specific features of the place, landmarks, current issues, etc. Show would-be customers and Google that at least you’ve done a little homework.

 

5.  Make a few pages and see how they fare before making a bunch more. Get 2 or 3 pages to rank and see if they bring in any customers.  If they don’t, work on them until they do.  Sounds like a pain, but it’s a lot less painful than having to send 30 pages to fat camp.

 

6.  Don’t treat all your pages the same: Put extra work into the pages for the highest-payoff cities. Sure, you want to rank in 10 nearby cities, but probably only 2 of those cities contain the lion’s share of your would-be customers.  You probably know already which few cities matter the most.

 

7.  Even if your pages rank well and bring in customers, don’t necessarily make too many more. My somewhat arbitrary limit is 10 pages.  Beyond that number, it’s hard to make good pages and to avoid spreading your time and resources thin.  There is a point of diminishing return.

 

8.  Long and detailed is good. Don’t give me that “people don’t read” hogwash.  There’s no such thing as too long; only too boring.

Lay out every reason that someone from the city you’re targeting should call you.  Explain it in plain English, but also include testimonials or reviews from past customers from that city, include pictures of jobs you’ve done there, and whatever else you can round up.  (More on this in a minute.)

 

9.  Include city-specific info that even non-customers might find useful. Non-customers are the people who might – might – conceivably link to the page, if it’s a helpful “local” resource.  That’s about the only good way you’ll ever get someone to link to your city pages.  Even if you don’t get links, you’ll have created some good “local” content.

 

10.  Avoid making “doorway” or “island” pages. Integrate your city pages into the navigation and into other pages so that people don’t have to be Jim Rockford to find them.

 

11.  Include testimonials.

 

When appropriate, mark them up with Schema or hReview when possible.  You want those golden “review stars” showing up in the search results.  You can mark up your testimonials by hand, or use a service like NearbyNow.

 

12.  It’s never too late to craft great city pages. Especially if yours suck, work on them.  But keep working on them even if they’re just pretty good.

 

13.  Recognize when your pages are fine but you’ve got other problems. Do you get plenty of leads but lose them while they’re on the phone?  Do people start to fill out your “Contact Us” form, but abandon it partway through?  Your landing pages are just one part of the funnel.

 

14.  Don’t create a page for every city-service permutation. Sometimes I see companies that offer 5 services and want to reach 10 cities end up creating 50 pages.  It’s a hot mess that looks like this:

air-conditioning-repair-cleveland.html

air-conditioning-repair-columbus.html

air-conditioning-repair-cincinnati

heating-repair-cleveland.html

heating-repair-columbus.html

heating-repair-cincinnati.html

Yeah, don’t.  You’ll spread yourself thin and create pages that bore or turn off customers, even if those pages rank at all.

Create a page for each specific service you offer.  Create a page for 5-10 of the top cities you’re trying to reach.  Just don’t multiply them like rabbits.

 

15.  Photos are good. Include them whenever you can.  Photos of specific projects in specific cities are the best.

 

 

Pro tips

16.  Scour competitors’ city pages – even their entire sites – for good ideas to use on your city pages. This is one of the relatively few ways competitive intel is useful for local SEO.

 

17.  Vary more elements than you think you “need” to. For instance, experiment with wildly different title tags, or make one page three times longer than all the others, or create a video dedicated to one of the cities.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if you created a bunch of pages and just assumed you knew what works best in all cases?

 

18.  Link out. Cite resources.

Outbound linking may be a small ranking factor in and of itself for Google, and it’s a nice way to make your content more unique, but that’s not why you do it.  It’s simply more helpful to the reader.  The worst posts I’ve read are the ones that don’t link to anyone’s work – as though the deadbeat writer never learned from someone who came before.

 

19.  Consider positioning your pages as part of a “Portfolio” or “Gallery” or “Success Stories” structure. Each of your (let’s say) 5-10 city pages can show up under a “Portfolio” menu dropdown, for example.

There are at least a few benefits to this setup:

  • People who didn’t land on your city pages originally might actually go to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one factor Google looks at to determine whether a given city page is any good: do visitors only leave it to go somewhere else on the site, or is it a two-way street?
  • You’re incorporating the pages into your navigation – rather than leaving them as “doorway” pages.
  • It’s a little easier to link to pages that show off work you’re proud of – rather than link to one city page of a dozen.

 

20.  If there’s ever a time to use call-tracking numbers, this is it. Having a separate number for each page might be excessive, but having a tracking number that only appears on your city pages might help you gauge their effectiveness.

 

21.  Consider adding city-specific coupons or special offers. This is another nice way to track leads, I might add.

 

22.  Think about the subdirectory / path structure before you make the pages. Keep it simple and short, like example.com/milwaukee, rather than example.com/milwaukee-dentists.  Otherwise, it’s easy to create spammy URLs, and harder to restructure later if you need to.

 

23.  Don’t necessarily have the same person write all the pages. Especially if you’re running out of ideas and can’t think of a genuine connection to the city (see principle #3), have someone else rub some brain cells together.

 

24.  Consider hiring a pro writer. Someone like Joel Klettke comes to mind.  Even if you’ve done the legwork and even if you’re a decent writer, it’s wise to have someone who can challenge your assumptions and offer new ideas.  You need a wingman.

 

25.  Especially if you’ve got a big ol’ multi-location company, give ownership of the page to a person on your team. Give that person access to your CMS. Have him or monitor city-specific news or events and keep updating the page and building it up over time.

Make it easy for your “boots on the ground” to publish content.  That is how you make your city-page strategy scalable, if that’s a concern of yours.  (Thanks to Darren for this point.)

 

What’s the best “city page” you’ve ever seen (or made)?  How well does it rank, and how well does it bring in leads?

Any principles I missed?

Leave a comment!

How to Cultivate Hearty Local SEO Genes for Your Business

 

If you’re opening a new business or considering some changes, can you make your business itself local-search-friendly?

Can you bless yourself with an inherent advantage in the local rankings – like super local SEO genes?

Yes ma’am.

It’s like with athletes.  Of course, hard work separates them from each other and from couch potatoes.  But if you’re a swimmer, wouldn’t it help at least a little if you’re like Michael Phelps and have flipper-feet, and arms longer than your legs?

Genes only get you so far.  But every bit counts in a competitive world.  If possible, you want to make the inevitable hard work easier, and you want everyone else have to work a little harder.

You’ll only find this post useful if you’re starting your business, opening a new location, or considering making major changes.

I’m going to throw out a bunch of suggestions for how you might make your business inherently more local-SEO’d.  Some of them you may have considered before.

I’m not saying all these ideas are applicable to you.  It’s more likely that only a couple of them are realistic in your case.  Just see what you can apply to your situation.

Relevance genes

Suggestion 1.  Position yourself as a specialist – or focus your whole company on a niche.

If you’re a roofer and you focus on metal-roofing jobs it’ll probably be easier to rank for “metal roofing” than for “roofing” and “roofers.”  The same is true if you’re a dentist who mostly wants to do more implants, or a mechanic who wants more transmission work.

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean you offer fewer services.  Steakhouses serve more than steak.  It’s a marketing decision, more than anything else.

Less competition often makes it easier to rank well.  Your local visibility might also open more wallets, because you’re catering to a specific group of people and not trying to be all things to all people.

The traffic is likely to be of higher quality.  The more specific the search term, the more likely it is the searcher has moved beyond tire-kicking and know what he/she wants.

Also, you’re in a better position to use a descriptor on your Google Places page.

 

Suggestion 2.  Name your business with a relevant keyword or two.  Like “Acme Windows & Gutters” or “Smith Accounting & Bookkeeping.”

Do it for real: make it official with the State.

Speaking of state, consider using a state name in your name, like “Acme Windows & Gutters of Maryland.”

A couple nice upshots of picking out a strategic business name are:

(1) brand-name links to your site will include relevant anchor text, and

(2) customers’ reviews are more likely to mention relevant keywords, just because there’s a good chance they’ll mention your name.

 

Suggestion 3.  Include your 1-2 main service(s) in the name of your site.

Think hard about whether to include the name of your city.  Unless you plan to focus on one city and don’t really want customers from elsewhere, don’t pick a city-specific website name.  You don’t want to force yourself into using multiple websites.

 

Suggestion 4.  Hire someone who speaks a language that many of your customers speak, or that’s widely spoken in your city or neighborhood.  For starters, that will allow you to create multilingual pages on your site, where you describe your services in that language.  That will help you rank for those services.

 

Location genes

Suggestion 5.  Get an address in a populous city, if that’s where you’re trying to rank.  (Gee, Phil, I didn’t see that one coming…)

Must your business be in the big city if you want to rank there?  Maybe not.  It depends on several factors, chief of which is how much competition you’ve got.

I have no idea how practical it is for you to move your operations, but that’s not the point.  We’re simply talking about whether a big-city address is a ranking advantage in the big city.  It is, especially since Google’s Pigeon update.

Don’t forget that in some ways the bar is lower.  Even if you only rank well in Google Places in a ZIP code or two, you might reach all the customers you need.

 

Suggestion 6.  Pick a location near the center of town, or near to your competitors.  Google may consider the “centroid” to be some place downtown, or somewhere in the main cluster of where most businesses like yours are located (Mike Blumenthal has suggested the latter).

 

Suggestion 7.  Try not to pick a location on or very near a town line.  That can confuse data-aggregators, like InfoGroup and Acxiom, which might sometimes list your business as being in City A and other times in City B.  These sites feed your business info to all kinds of local directories – citation sources.  You don’t want some of your citations to list you in the wrong city.

 

Suggestion 8.  Pick an address near a popular local landmark or destination, so you can rank for “keyword near place,” “keyword near me,” or “keyword nearby” when visitors search that way – most likely on their phones.  This seems especially important post-Pigeon.

 

Suggestion 9.  Get an office that looks good enough that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to get a Google Business View photo shoot.

No, your place of business or your photo shoot don’t need to be as cool as this.

(Hat tip to this post.)

 

Phone genes

Suggestion 10.  Research the phone number you’re considering, to make sure that the previous owner didn’t own a business with tons of citations that use that number.

Also, don’t get 867-5309.

 

Suggestion 11.  Make sure the phone number you use isn’t a number you might want to retire later – like an 800 number or your cell number.

 

It may seem odd to consider local SEO when making the most basic business decisions.  On the other hand, all the ideas I suggested also make sense from an offline, old-school-marketing standpoint.

Your local rankings and business will only really grow from hard work.  But you can give yourself some advantages from the get-go.

Are you considering any of those ideas?  Can you think of other ways to breed a local-SEO-friendly business?  Leave a comment!

12 Reasons Google’s "City Experts" Reviews Program Sucks

Well, what I mean to say is that it’s going to suck.  What I suspect will be the short life of Google’s latest program has barely begun.

Google’s “City Experts” Google+ reviews program is essentially Google’s version of Yelp’s “Elite Squad.”

(For more detail, read this excellent piece in TechCrunch and this even-better write-up by Greg Sterling.  And if you want the “official” line, see the G+ post.)

The program has only rolled out to a few cities.  Normally I’d be miffed at Google for not including Boston in a rollout, but in this case I’m not too cracked-up.

Why?  Because I think City Experts will be either a quiet little misfire or go up in a blaze of glory before being discontinued not too far in the future.

I see at least 12 problems:

 

Problem 1.  The quotas.  You have to write 50 Google+ reviews to become a City Expert, and 5 reviews every month subsequently in order to keep your standing.  Not only does that tell me and everyone else that Google values quantity over quality, but it also creates an unnatural pressure to review X number of businesses within Y number of days.  To paraphrase Google’s review guidelines, that’s a “conflict of interest.”  At least Yelp’s criteria for becoming a member of the Elite Squad boil down to “we know it when we see it” (their words, not mine).

Problem 2.  It will be abused by marketers.  They’ll post reviews of their clients, and perhaps negative reviews of their clients’ competitors.  What’s to prevent that from happening?

Problem 3.  It will be abused by business owners.  Too many of them already cut corners to get Google Plus (and other) reviews.  What do you think happens when Google raises the stakes?

Problem 4.  It will be abused by unethical reviewers.  Pretty soon we’re going to catch City Experts offering reviews on Fiverr.com.

Also, will their reviews be subject to Google’s review filter?  Elite Yelpers’ reviews aren’t filtered.  But, then again, Elite Yelpers are vetted by other humans.  It’s not clear to me whether that will be the case with Google.

Speaking of unclear parts of the program, it’s unclear to me whether “City Expert” = “Top Reviewer.”  If so, then that means their reviews will pull a lot of weight in the “new Maps” rankings, when the searcher chooses to sort search results by reviews.

Problem 5.  It will be abused even by generally well-meaning reviewers.  Why?  Because there’s no rule that says you need to be a real customer of a business in order to review it.  There no such rule on Yelp, but Yelp doesn’t specify a 5-monthly-reviews quota.  What we’re going to see is some City Experts running out of businesses where they’ve actually spent money, but needing to write reviews anyway.  So they’ll reviews businesses where they’ve never been customers, just because it’s the 29th of the month and they have two reviews to write – or else they’ll lose their “title” and free swag.

Problem 6.  Google will need more of a support or conflict-resolution system to deal with the possible problems I just mentioned.  Without it, the waters will be muddied for everyone.  Users/customers won’t see the City Experts’ reviews as credible, and reviewers won’t put in the time to earn a distinction that isn’t distinguished.

Problem 7.  There’s going to be no sheriff.  Nobody will really be in charge.  It will be just like Google+ Local.  At most Google will get some well-meaning but callow intern to try to oversee the program.  Google’s all about algorithms…remember?

Problem 8.  The reviewers themselves may get confronted by business owners, especially if there’s nobody at Google to take some of the heat.  Their reviews are tied to Plus accounts, which generally have more and more-detailed personal information than the average Yelp Elites’ profiles do.

High-visibility reviews + potentially angry business owners + relatively low privacy for reviewers + no conflict-resolution mechanisms at Google = big mess.

Problem 9.  The fact that photos are required creates a bias in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Speaking of photos, what will be done about ugly or inaccurate or promotional or fake photos?  Will Google examine those in any way, or will this be another Wild West situation?  What if Anthony Weiner wants to become New York’s City Expert?

Problem 10.  Greg Sterling brought up an excellent point: what will happen to duplicate or near-duplicate reviews?

I suspect some of the Yelp Elites might join and duplicate their reviews on Google. Will Yelp penalize them if that does happen?

I’m wondering the same thing, and I also want to know what Google will do about duplicates.  The review guidelines specify that Google “may…remove reviews that include plagiarism or are copied from other sites.”

Problem 11.  How do we know Google won’t sunset the program in 6 months?  Google has a track record of euthanizing its products, both good and bad.  Anyone who pays attention to Google+ knows that, and must be at least a little concerned that his/her reviews eventually will lose their “Expert” stickers and become as inconspicuous as everyone else’s reviews.

Problem 12.  Google won’t be able to make it “cool” enough to catch on.  City Experts are Yelp Elite manqué.  At the moment, the program is too much like Yelp’s program to be anything more than an also-ran.  It needs to be different, or it will play second fiddle.  My educated guess is that City Experts will be retired or rolled into another Google property, sooner or later (probably sooner).

I hope I’m wrong about the future of the City Experts reviews program.  Not many people have been beating the “get Google reviews – ethically!” drum as hard as I have.  Few things make me happier than when clients tell me that the Google reviews we worked to earn helped them attract new customers.  So, suffice it to say, I like Google reviews.  I rant because I care.

It would be cool if the program is problem-free enough to be around for long enough that it becomes rewarding to honest business owners and to searchers.

If you’re a business owner, my advice is: if you’re already getting reviews on Google+ and (ideally) on other reviews sites, don’t change your strategy because of the City Experts program.  If it’s around for long enough to matter, then sooner or later you’ll get reviews from those chosen few just by doing what’s worked for you so far.

4 Local SEO Tools from Uncle Sam

The US Government is dysfunctional.  Congress is corrupt.  It’s so bad that, even in these times of spiraling deficits, lawmakers are still earmarking precious funds so that Uncle Sam can help you with…your local SEO.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

I don’t know that The Man has appropriated precious resources specifically to help your business grow its local rankings.  But he does have some resources that you might be able to use to your advantage.

Of course, they’re free.  (Actually, you’re paying for them…but let’s not go there 🙂 )

Here are 4 government-issued tools that can come in handy for your local-search-visibility campaign:

 

Tool 1: USPS ZIP Lookup Tool

Is your business in a small town, near a city line, or in a big city with a bunch of tightly-packed ZIP codes?  Better double-check what ZIP the Post Office thinks you’re in (or, for that matter, which city they think you’re in) – before you do any citation-building for your business.

If you don’t “measure twice, cut once,” you’ll probably be in for a nasty surprise if the Post Office lists you at an address other than the one you use for your listings.  Why?  Because ExpressUpdate.com (AKA InfoGroup) feeds off of Post Office address data, and in turn feeds business data to a ton of directory sites where your address needs to be listed consistently across the board.  There will be conflicting info on your business, hurting your Google rankings.  You’ll feel like going postal.

(By the way, I’d known about the USPS checkup for quite some time, but I must tip my hat to Mary Bowling for reminding me by way of her great SMX Advanced presentation / slide deck.)

 

Tool 2:  Census.gov

Want to know more about the people (AKA potential customers) in the city you’re targeting?  The Census is the great-granddaddy of big data.

If you rummage around the site for long enough you’ll probably find out whatever you want to know, but I’d say following two areas are the best starting points:

http://www.census.gov/econ/cbp/

http://www.census.gov/econ/susb/

 

3.  OSHA’s Standard Industrial Category (SIC) Tool

If you’re listing your business on ExpressUpdate.com for the first time, OSHA’s category-search tool can help you pick out the best category to list your business under.  (More detail on this in my recent post on the new ExpressUpdate.)

 

4.  Your city’s local-business directory.

If you suspect some of your competitors are using fake business info – like a keyword-stuffed Google+Local business name or a phony address – you might want to look up their official business info.  From there, you’ll probably be in a better position to draw a conclusion as to what to do about it – like possibly reporting them to Google through the “Report a problem” button on their Google listing, or reporting them to the MapMaker fuzz.

You should be able to find your local-business register by searching Google for the name of your city/town + “local business directory,” “business register,” or “chamber of commerce.”  (Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.)

Do you know of any government-issued resources that might be handy for local SEO?  Anything local-business-related that you wish our tax dollars would go toward?  Leave a comment!

How to Name Your Local Landing Page(s)

 

Your landing page matters if you want to be visible in the local search results.

The landing page – also known as the URL you enter into the “website” field of your Google Places page (or Google Plus listing if you’ve “upgraded”).

Most businesses use their homepage for this – which is usually fine.

(No need to read any of this if you only have one business location and know that you want to use your homepage as the landing page for your Google listing.)

But if you have several locations or just want to use a different page as the landing page for your Google+Local listing, one of the first things you have to do is figure out what to name your page.

Or if you’re trying to snag some visibility in the organic rankings for local businesses, you still have to figure out what to name your page(s).

It’s easy to pick a page name that helps your rankings.  But it’s even easier to pick a lousy one that hurts you.

Here are my tips for how to name your page in a way that doesn’t get your site penalized, doesn’t mess up your citations, doesn’t annoy people who visit your site, and does help you rank better:

 

Tip 1:  Make sure the entire URL of the landing page for your Google+Local page is 40 characters or fewer.  The first reason is that Google will cut off your URL after that, and show an ellipsis in the search results.

The second reason – and the-more important one –is that you’ll run into problems with your citations if the URL (without the “http://www”) exceeds 40 characters.  Why?  Because ExpressUpdateUSA.com won’t allow URLs longer than that.

If ExpressUpdateUSA doesn’t give your URL the thumbs-up, the sites it feeds – AKA a bunch of your citations – won’t use the correct landing page, either.  That’s the kind of inconsistency that can hurt your rankings.

It’ll also be a problem at Yelp, where long URLs usually aren’t allowed.

 

Tip 2:  Realize that you don’t need hyphens in your page name for Google to recognize your search term(s) in it, and to display it in bold letters in the search results.  It recognizes that “carpetcleaning” is the same thing as “carpet-cleaning.”  You should still use hyphens if possible, simply because they make it easier for people to read your URL.  But if you’re pressed for space, you can get rid of them.

 

Tip 3:  Don’t repeat elements of your domain name, like location names or keywords, in your page name.  It’s a waste of space and looks spammy to Google and to humans.  Either your domain name or page name should contain a search term you’re going after, and maybe even the name of your city.

 

Tip 4:  Consider using two-letter state abbreviations.  They’re a good use of space, because they may help you snag rankings for search terms that include state names (e.g. “lawyers Orlando FL”).

 

Tip 5:  Triple-check for typos when you create your landing page.  Sounds obvious, but I’ve seen people mess this up – and I’ve done it a couple times myself.

 

 

Tip 6:  Use dashes, not underscores.

 

Tip 7:  Don’t worry too much about what to name your subdirectories.  If your page name is relevant but your URL is more than about 40 characters, Google will show an ellipsis in place of the name of the subdirectory.

A few notes

Page names don’t matter quite as much in Bing Places, at least from a “user experience” standpoint, because URLs aren’t shown in the local search results.

You won’t see spelled-out URLs if you’re looking at the Google+Local results on a smartphone.

The only way that I know of to get Google not to show “www” in the 7-pack search results is if you specify it with rel=“canonical” on your landing page.

(There seems to be another way to get the “www” not to show up; see comments below.)

But I can’t think of a good reason why you’d want to use rel= “canonical” on your landing page; if your landing page is a duplicate of another page, then you’ve got bigger problems to deal with than the length of your page name.

By the way, I’d also recommend all the above tips except #1 if you’re going after organic rankings and want to get the most out of the names of your city pages.

Any suggestions for how to name your “local” landing pages?  Leave a comment!

16 Ways to Create Unique “Local” Content for Cities Where You Want to Rank

Are you creating pages on your site that target specific cities where you want to rank well in the organic search results for local businesses?

If so, you’d be crazy not to spend a little time making those pages unique – that is, clearly and substantially different from each other.

I’m going to show you a bunch of ways to make your “city pages” unique.  As opposed to having a page for “city1 + keyword,” another page for “city2 + keyword,” etc.

Differentiating your pages will help you avoid (1) possibly being penalized by Google and (2) annoying and repelling your potential customers.

(If you want, you can skip right to my suggestions for how to make your pages unique.  But maybe first you need to get up-to-speed – in which case just read on.)

I’m going to assume three things about your business:

(1) You’re trying to rank for a “boring” service;

(2) You only have one physical location (but also a service area that may encompass many cities/towns), and that

(3) You haven’t been able to think of much to say about the various towns in your service area (other than that you serve customers there).

If any of the above isn’t the case with you, great.  So much the easier for you to make your pages unique.  But I’m working under the assumption that yours is a head-scratcher case, where you just aren’t sure how to make anything but cloned pages.

My suggestions are also applicable if you have multiple physical locations and aren’t sure how you can differentiate your pages (or sites) from each other.

 

Why you might need city pages

Why might you want to go after organic rankings when you can get visible in the classic local search results?  (AKA Google+Local and Bing Places.)

Because sometimes there are towns in which you just can’t rank in the local search results.

Let’s say you’re a contractor located in a little town that’s 15 miles from three bigger cities.  Maybe you rank well in the Google+Local results within 5 miles of your office, but you haven’t been able to rank in the local results in the bigger cities because you’re just a little too far from where the action is.

What do you do?

You create pages on your site that target each of those cities you want to rank in.  Your aim is to snag some rankings in the organic results – the ones for local businesses.

 

Why you need unique city pages

It’s pretty easy to get organic rankings in nearby cities, right?  Just whip together a page, clone it for as many cities as you want to rank in, swap out the city names on each page, and watch those rankings roll in – right?

Maybe you’ve seen clone pages work for your local nemesis.  That schmuck has 25 pages on his site that are nearly identical, with only the city names differing from page to page, and he outranks you.

So why shouldn’t you create a bunch of near-identical “city pages”?  Why not build your very own clone army?  For at least four reasons:

1.  There’s a good chance it won’t work.  After all, you only see the cases where Google doesn’t penalize businesses for putting out a bunch of garbage pages.

2.  Even if it works now, it’s not going to work forever.  Google is slowly but surely getting more teeth with which to penalize sites that are long on “optimization” but short on helpful info.

3.  Even if you get the rankings you want, who says your pages will bring you phone calls?  (For that matter, who says your competitors are making money off their clone pages?)  Your customers aren’t stupid.  They can tell when you’re just paying lip service to their city.

4.  It’s lame.

The good news is it can be quick and easy to make your city pages different from each other – in a way that’s Google-friendly in the long-term and customer-friendly always.

 

16 ways to make your pages unique

Here are all the ways I know of that you can make your city pages unique from each other.  Some of these (probably the first 6) will be obvious to you, whereas you may not have thought of others.

On-page elements

1. Title tags.

2.  Description tags.

3.  Page names.  Don’t have these run too long.  A name with more than 4-5 words may look fishy to Google.

4.  H1s, H2s, etc.

5.  Internal links.  For example, you could link to a blog post you wrote about a job you did in your “target” city.

6.  Outbound links.  You could link to the town’s website, to the site of a charity you support in the town, or to a blog post that someone else wrote that’s relevant to the town and to your services.

Content

7. Write a simple case-study on a job you did in your target city.  (All the credit goes to Matt McGee for this idea.)

8.  Write about what you like about working in your target city, or what you like about its residents.

9.  Write a blurb about any employees of yours from your target city.  Better yet, have them do it.  Just something that shows at least a small (but real) connection to that city.

10.  Write about any local laws or regulations that your potential customers might want to know about.  (Hat tip to Marcus Sheridan of The Sales Lion for this technique.)

11.  Photos.  If you don’t have pictures of jobs you did in your target city, maybe have a picture of a local landmark.  Reflect the “local” subject matter in the names of the photos, and maybe in the alt tags and title attributes.

12.  Videos.  Each city page can have a different video.  Assuming you’re the one who created the videos, you can include in your YouTube descriptions a link to your city page, and you can geotag the video.

13.  Testimonials.  Mention the city of the customers who wrote them.  Depending on what your business is and how close you are with your customers, you might also be able to weave in relevant photos (e.g. “Fred’s front yard” or “Before-and-after of Sara’s smile”).

14.  Rich snippets.  You can mark up customers’ testimonials with Schema or hReview, so as to get those nice review stars to show up in the search results.

15.  Offers or giveaways that are tailored toward the residents of your target city.  Depending on how you approach it, this might also help you to track leads / conversions.

16. Make some Google “My Maps.”  See if you can make a few custom maps that potential customers might find handy.

 

Examples of good city pages

LandscapeGuys.com/white-bear-lake-landscaping.htm
(see search results here)

AttaboyPlumbing.com
(look under “About” tab)

(Note: I’ve worked with both of the above companies; I’ve done some consulting for Attaboy Plumbing, and Palumbo Landscaping is a long-time client.)

 

Great resources

(If you don’t read anything else, at least be sure to read the first two posts.)

Understand and Rock the Google Venice Update – Mike Ramsey

How to Create Local Content for Multiple Cities – Matt McGee

The Anatomy of an Optimal Local Landing Page – Mike Ramsey

The #1 Problem with Local Blogging – Matt McGee

The Nitty Gritty of City Landing Pages for Local Businesses – Miriam Ellis

Matt Cutts and Eric Talk about What Makes a Quality Site – Eric Enge

Guidelines on duplicate content – Google

Policies on keyword-stuffing – Google

Do you have any tips on how to make pages unique?

Any really good examples of city pages?

Any city-page woes that make you sing the blues?

Leave a comment!

What Matt Cutts Says about Local Search

The Most Interesting Head of Google Webspam TeamI tip my hat to Matt Cutts.  The man has a tough job.  He has to explain to SEOs, webmasters, and business owners why their websites suck and shouldn’t rank well in Google.

Cutts is good at his job, and I get the sense he loves it.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes even he feels like Al Bundy at the shoe store.

Organic SEOs follow him more closely than the tabloids follow J. Lo.  Some of them pose stupid questions and try to get Matt to reveal more about Google’s “secret sauce” than he can (or should) reveal.

Matt Cutts doesn’t talk much about local search.  Nor do we local-search obsessives pester him to do so.

But Phil, if Cutts doesn’t talk about local search, why are you even bringing him up? Especially when the people in charge of Google Plus, umm…Google Places, uh…that Google local thing usually tell us what they recommend business owners do?

Well, Gentle Reader, I bring up Cutts because occasionally he does say something relevant to Google’s local search results – and to the question of how to rank well there.

Although the people “in charge” of Google+Local surely have their hearts in the right place, they pretty much just regurgitate Google’s “Quality Guidelines.”  Usually all we come away with is a tessellated picture of Google’s rules, and not much else.

True, Cutts also rehashes Google’s rules a lot, but sometimes he also yields more real-world, usable insights.  Those are what I’ve tried to round up in this post.

We local SEOs have many best-practices that we preach.  If you know these best-practices and follow them, great.  But if you don’t, at least see what Matt Cutts says.

 

People’s Exhibit “A”:

Takeaway:

  • You can’t just “target” any city you’d like.  Location matters.  Even if a city is in your “service area,” you can’t necessarily get visible in the local search results there if you’re not located there.  That can be a tough pill to swallow, but for better or worse, that’s how it is.

 

People’s Exhibit “B”:

Takeaways:

  • (5:55) “Make sure you have your business name and your address on your webpage.”  This matches what some of us wrote in 2012’s Local Search Ranking Factors – about how your business name / address / phone needs to be on every page of your site.
  • (9:00) Flash or Javascript navigation links/buttons can hurt the crawlability of your site.  (This isn’t a problem specific to local SEO, but given the importance of on-page factors to your local visibility, it’s certainly a problem that can hurt your rankings.)

 

People’s Exhibit “C”:

SEO Advice: Make a web page for each store location

Takeaway:

  • Each location/branch of your business should have its own webpage.  “If you have a lot of store or franchise locations, consider it a best practice to 1) make a web page for each store that lists the store’s address, phone number, business hours, etc. and 2) make an HTML sitemap to point to those pages with regular HTML links, not a search form or POST requests.”

(Minor point:  Marking up your name/address/phone with microformats and the like isn’t a bad idea; see the comment from well-known local SEO-er Martijn Beijk as well as Cutts’ response.)

 

People’s Exhibit “D”:

Matt Cutts and Eric Talk about What Makes a Quality Site

Takeaway:

  • (About 3/4 through interview)  Cookie-cutter pages are bad.  That is, if you have pages on your site that “target” a particular city, those pages shouldn’t be near-duplicates of each other with just the city names swapped out.  (Yes, yes, I know that sometimes pages like these can rank pretty well, but if you have them there’s a good chance you’ll get whacked by Google sooner or later.  But hey, it’s your website, your business, and your choice.)

 

Finished going through my CliffsNotes?  I suggest you also read the above posts and watch the videos in full, just for that extra bit of context.

If Cutts’ suggestions were news to you, great: you should now have a better sense of what Google is “looking for” when deciding where to stack you up in the local rankings.  If they weren’t news to you, then they should reassure you that your approach to local SEO is solid and not likely to get you whacked in any way by Google.

Have you run across any posts or videos featuring the Word of Cutts that I missed?  Leave a comment (and a link)!

P.S.  Wouldn’t it be cool if MC stopped by and commented on some of this?  🙂