Why Slow Local SEO Rules

Hikers know that the best way to avoid dehydration is to drink water before you’re thirsty.

Engineers say a project can be “good, fast, or cheap – pick any two.”

I say local SEO can bring you more customers without breaking the bank…especially if you can work on it slowly, if you start before you’re desperate for business.

In most cases it’s inevitable that growing your local rankings (particularly in Google) will take a while.  Good results and more customers can never come too soon.  It’s frustrating to be patient.  (Hey, I should know.  I’m an Aries :).)

But I suggest you work on your local visibility even more slowly than you’re inclined to.  If at all possible, you should consider intentionally take a long time (say, 6-12 months) to work your plan.

Slow-but-steady local SEO is underrated.  People tend not to consider a few advantages it has over a “hustle” approach:

Advantage 1:  You’re less likely to have trouble with duplicate Google listings.  There are a few major sites that feed Google info on your business.  If your listings on those sites isn’t accurate, sometimes Google will automatically create additional listings for your business based on the (mis)information on those “trusted” sites.  Those usually hurt your rankings.

It’s easier to prevent those listings from popping up in the first place than to play the whack-a-mole game of trying to get the unwanted Google listings removed, only to have them reappear later because Google is still being fed incorrect info.  But it takes time for those major sites to start feeding your info to Google – usually 2-3 months.  So you’ll want to take the time to square away your listings on these sites first.

Advantage 2:  A slow approach makes your customers’ reviews more likely to stick.  Not all your customers will review you.  Many times your reminders to them will go in one ear and out the other, or sit in their inbox, or sit on the kitchen table.  So it’s going to take you a while to build up a good base of reviews on Google+Local and third-party review sites.  But here’s the kicker: if you rush the process and ask too many customers in too short a spam for reviews, their reviews are more likely to get filtered on sites that have (overly) strict review filters – namely Google+Local and Yelp. If you want your customers’ reviews to see the light of day, err on the side of asking a handful of customers each week, and keep it up indefinitely.

Advantage 3:  You can commit to building up the amount of helpful, useful content on your site without feeling like it’s “all or nothing.”  In some markets a good, active blog (or routine article-writing) can help you pull ahead in the rankings – in addition to helping anyone who visits your site.  But that’s not going to happen if you write or shoot videos furiously and then stop because nobody seems to notice.  Of course they won’t – at first.  It takes time.  However much time you spend on creating helpful content, make sure it’s something you can stick with for months or years. Otherwise don’t even bother.

Advantage 4:  It’s less stressful, daunting, and frustrating.  I say this for the reasons I already mentioned, and for the reason that It may actually mean you can do all the local SEO yourself without having to delegate to someone in-house, hire a third party, or give up.

If good old Jared Fogle was told he’d have to shed hundreds of pounds in the span of a couple months, he’d probably have OD’d on arugula or impaled himself on the wreckage of a stationary bike he sat on.  But trading in a Big Mac diet for a Subway diet was at least doable and seemed to work for him, although I’m guessing it took a while for him to go from XXXXXL pants to an XL.  Don’t embark on something you can’t stick with.

Advantage 5:  If you don’t rush, you’re less likely to make mistakes and to have to redo your work.  It’s Murphy’s Law.

Advantage 6:  You’ll be able to spend more of your time cultivating other sources of customers.  You never want just one source of new customers – be it Google+Local visibility, or AdWords, or Facebook ads, or word-of-mouth.  Google is unpredictable.  Being visible in Google+Local is essential, but you’re taking a risk if you spend all your time on it.  At the very least, you’ll want to be not just listed but visible on other sites. But the more doorways customers have into your business, the better.

Advantage 7:  Anyone you hire for help with local SEO will be eternally in your debt, to the extent you’re fine with a relaxed pace.  I’m grateful to my clients for so often giving me the time and breathing room to do what I’ve got to do.  It helps me help them.

I realize all of this may sound abstract, despite my getting into the details.  What do I mean by “slow”?

Well, it’s time for a little story, to illustrate an extreme example of slow local SEO that worked out well.

My second client ever – let’s call him Bryant – had a business located on the outskirts of Austin.  He wanted to rank on the first page of Google’s local results in Austin for a couple of very competitive search terms.

Bryant’s wasn’t even a “service area” business: His customers came to him, through the front door of his home – no doubt occasionally tracking dog doo on his carpet.  I told him that in a walk-in industry like his he was probably a bit too far from central Austin to be considered a “good match” by Google, but I said I’d do what I could.

We made a little progress over 4-6 weeks, but I couldn’t get Bryant to where he wanted to be.  This was in late 2009, when local SEO generally was simpler.  The steps we took were good, but there’s more I’d do and more I’d suggest if I had to do it over again.  But I was too much of a newb to know and tell him that we’d need to give it at least a few more months for the work to pay off.  Bryant was disappointed, and we parted ways.

On one or two occasions during 2010 and 2011 I checked on his rankings for the main 2-3 search terms– just out of curiosity.  He still wasn’t there.  But then about a month ago something reminded me of his situation, and I caved to my curiosity and checked on a couple of his rankings for the first time in about 2 years.  Alas, he was (is) ranking right where he wanted to be – after more than 3 years.

I’m sure Bryant didn’t completely sit on his hands during all that time.  A quick look at his Google+Local page told me he’d racked up an OK number of customer reviews.  On the other hand, his site was untouched – exactly the same as before, and still not very good.  He could probably make even more progress with just a couple hours of further work.

The bottom line is that Bryant started to work on his local search rankings when he wanted more customers but wasn’t absolutely dying.  It took 3 years for him to get good results, but he got them.  He gave it time.  At the very least, that meant he didn’t constantly meddle with his Google listing or look for shortcuts.  I’m guessing that also helped his citations to grow naturally.

I’m not saying it will take you 3 years to get from where you are to where you want to be.  You can get visible in much less time and still be taking your sweet time.  There’s an ideal middle ground: It’s called “slow and steady.”

My suggestion is very simple: go slowly if you can.  Don’t hammer away at your local SEO campaign every single day.  Maybe every week or two (?).  Also, take time to read about it (as you’re doing now – good job!).

Sure, work on your local visibility today.  Do some work now.  But consider doing it more slowly than you might be inclined to.  It can be faster than doing it the wrong way and having to redo your work.  Slow is the new fast.

Any reasons you can think of to go slow?  What’s your approach?  Leave a comment!

How Long Local SEO Takes: the Short Version

Some topics demand epic blog posts.  The question of how long it might take your business to see good results from a local SEO campaign is one of those topics.

If you’ve read my post on this from last October, you know that it took a few vials of cyber-ink for me and 10 of my fellow local-search junkies to get our opinions across.

But sometimes you just want a handy recap.  A project I was working on with Ken Fagan recently led me to whip together such CliffsNotes.

Wondering roughly how long it might take for your business to get visible in the Google+Local search results?  Print this out and clear your kids’ artwork off the fridge:

(click to enlarge)

Please note that although the above “cheat-sheet” largely reflects my fellow local SEOers’ opinions, it doesn’t speak for them: Rather, it’s a summary of my opinion, informed by theirs.

Oh, and be sure to read the Big Daddy post if you haven’t already.

Special thanks to David Deering of Touch Point Digital Marketing for spiffing up the cheat-sheet.  He kindly offered his eye for design to create a version that’s sexier than the version I originally threw together for this post.

Any questions?  Penny for your thoughts?  How about leaving a comment?

How Long Does Local-Search Visibility Take?

The question I get asked more frequently than any other is: “Roughly how long until my business ranks well in local search?”

(“Ranks well” usually refers to being on page one and “local search” usually means the Google+Local results.)

People have at least a basic idea of what is involved in getting a business to rank visibly in local search if they’ve talked with me for a few minutes or have been to this site or others that deal with local search.  Or, to the extent they’ve done some “homework,” they may have a very solid understanding of what the main moving parts and to-dos are.

But the question of how long a local SEO campaign takes doesn’t get nearly as much attention, and fewer people have even a rough idea of the answer.

That’s why recently I asked some of my fellow local-search aficionados how long it takes them to help get their clients visible in local search.

The following pros took the time to offer some eye-opening insights:

Mary Bowling

Linda Buquet – Admin, Local Search Forum

Miriam Ellis

Matthew Hunt

David Mihm – President, GetListed.org

Dave Oremland

Mike Ramsey

Darren Shaw – Creator, Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder

Adam Steele

Nyagoslav Zhekov

(Plus me, Phil Rozek)

I asked the above people 3 specific questions about “how long local SEO takes.”  And boy did they answer (as you’ll see in a second).

Their commentary – though superb – does not make this a “scientific” post.  There’s no such way to answer this question (or many other local-search-related questions, for that matter).

Rather, I wanted to know: to what extent is there a consensus – among people who do this stuff all day long – as to how long it takes to get good (typically first-page) local rankings?

Do you want the shortest of short answers – the “consensus” in a pistachio-sized nutshell?  Well, here you go: local SEO usually takes anywhere from a month to a year.

If all you wanted was a rough number, you just got it.  But settling for that is like going to a 5-star steakhouse and only eating the bread.

Plus, rough numbers don’t give you a sense of the particulars – like how much time it might take in your situation for your business to get more visible in local search.

So, if you’d like the insights from thousands of man-hours and woman-hours of local-SEO experience, read on.

Question 1:  When a potential client asks “Roughly when can I expect to see results?” what is your typical answer?

“I usually tell them 3-6 months, depending on the level of competition in their location and industry.”– Mary Bowling

“When I was doing optimization services I was very conservative in setting expectations with potential clients. I always try to under-promise and over deliver. But this, in a nutshell, is what I would tell Dentists:

“Ranking in Google local takes a well optimized Google+ Local page AND a well optimized web site to match PLUS the right local hooks for Google to tie it all together, so ranking is a 2 stage process. (In my process – that’s the way I did it.)

“1st I’ll optimize your Google+ Local page. For 2nd tier keywords like ‘[city] teeth whitening’, ‘[city] dental implants’, ‘[city] laser dentistry’ we can usually get significant results in less than a month because those keywords I can typically impact when I optimize your Place page. (That’s if they didn’t already have those KWs in G+ Local categories.) Most of my clients move right up to page one, but of course there are no guarantees and it depends on the competition in your market for each of those keywords.

“For your core keywords like ‘[city] dentist’ and ‘[city] cosmetic dentistry’ – just optimizing the Place page normally won’t move the needle, as those keywords are the most competitive. To impact ranking for your core keywords will take the on-site Local SEO and Local Hooks changes I need to do. After those changes are complete we normally start to see an improvement in about a month. But then rankings can gradually improve for awhile after that.

“(Note: I no longer personally do optimization – stopped a few months ago to focus on Local SEO training for other consultants, so no longer offer the above service).”
– Linda Buquet

“While this is dependent on how much work has been done by the client or other Local SEOs prior to the client becoming mine, I reply that initial gains in visibility should occur within a couple of weeks of our first work being complete, with additional gains typically being visible at the end of 6 months. By then, we can be confident of where the work has gotten us because it’s had time to settle in.”
– Miriam Ellis

“We tell clients they will see improvements immediately.  Which they will.  As for ranking guarantees, we don’t make them.  Typically we see low competition stuff ranking as fast as 30-90 days (sometimes immediately on long tail stuff, if domain is clean, and site has history/age, etc)  All our agreements are month-to-month, but we expect people to mentally commit to 6 months with us before making decision on what they think.  Brand new domains take much longer to rank than existing aged domains.  We look at that for sure before setting expectations.  Example: if you get to aggressive on link building on a brand new domain you’ll sandbox it for 6-8 months.  TIP: Never build more links than you have traffic.  I’ve seen this mistake so many times.  Business owner gets new site live.  It has like 20 unique visitors, then newbie SEO builds 400 links to site with no visitors and history.  This is not usually natural… expect to get slapped if you do this.  On brand new domains it’s best to focus on content creation and social media networking to get buzz going.  Do some light citations and PR’s.  That’s it for the first 6 months.  Then as your site starts to show 1500-2000 unique visitors then start getting links.  Nice and slow and only stuff from high quality sites.  Now if aged site with traffic, you can be more aggressive out of the gates.  Still focus on content 1st, but you can for sure have more fun with backlinking to help boost rankings.  Focus on deep linking most of your stuff.  Focus on the long tail.  Do these things and you’ll get success out of the gates.”
 – Matthew Hunt

“‘It depends’, of course, as you already acknowledged 🙂  If it’s a client in a fairly non-competitive industry who’s never done ANY optimization (e.g. claimed many listings, added custom categories to their +Local page, has no optimized Title Tags on their website), I’ve seen some substantial results in two or three weeks.  Clients in competitive industries who need to start review campaigns, dramatically revise their site architecture (for multi-location businesses), etc., it’s going to take considerably longer.

“So, if you want a full range, I’d say 0.75 – 6 months.  All clients should see *some* results within six months, in my opinion.  That makes the average time around 2-3 months, I suppose.” – David Mihm

“Somewhere in the 6 month range, give or take some months.

“Contingent issues include the following:

A.  Starting point.  Where is the client subject to competition?

B.  What is the status of existing citation/ NAP information on the web.  Clean or not clean?

C.  Willingness of the client to partner and act on substantial link building activities.  I like to build strong links.  But it is often contingent on the client’s willingness to participate.” – Dave Oremland

“I tell them that they will generally see change within the first month. I usually tell them that results are not always top position ranking but change in positions, more organic traffic, more referral traffic. That way they aren’t counting down to page one but seeing progress. Overall, I dodge the question.” – Mike Ramsey

“We typically say 3-4 months, but we assess this on a case-by-case basis. We always do a little competitive analysis before quoting the project so we can set the budget and expectations. A flower shop in a small town with no competition can be ranked easily within a month or two. A brand new hotel in New York City with a brand new website is going to need at least 6 months to a year of hard work.”
– Darren Shaw

“Typically speaking, when potential clients think ‘results’ they think in terms of rankings. With that said, I like to separate organic from Google Local. Organic I can improve in a week’s time. Local however is a different beast, and much slower to react to positive change…especially off page changes like citation building. On-page changes can push a trusted Google Local page pretty quickly, but I don’t like to make any promises here – too random. Thus, with Local I generally quote 3 months to be safe.” – Adam Steele

“I usually tell them the following: ‘It might take anything between 1 and 4 months. Biggest ranking changes in Google+ Local are observed during the business data index updates, which happen every 4-8 weeks. However, sometimes, especially if your ‘footprint’ is very messy, it might take two updates until some significant traffic/ranking increases occur.’ – Nyagoslav Zhekov

“I usually say at least 2-3 months.  Then I launch into a long-winded explanation of how there are a ton of variables, and that sometimes it can take significantly longer, depending on those variables.  Around the time I provide this ‘ETA’ (often beforehand) I usually ask my potential client to fill out my questionnaire, or (if we’re on the phone) to fill me in on some of the details of his/her situation.  The sooner we’re both clear on all the particulars, the sooner I can say whether to expect a smooth or bumpy ride.” – Phil Rozek

 

Question 2:  When your local-SEO efforts go smoothly for a given client, how long does it usually take for his/her business to reach the local rankings you set expectations for?

“When I get one that doesn’t have a lot of NAP confusion and inconsistency, 2-3 months.” – Mary Bowling

“If it’s a matter of adding categories for secondary keywords that they didn’t have listed in their Places categories before – then just 1 – 2 weeks.(Or however long the category update cycle is at the time.)

“For core KWs that require on-site SEO, normally I would get an average 10 spot jump within a month. Sometimes in 2 weeks. (Once had a site go from #16 to #2 for ‘[city] dentist’ in 2 days which is pretty rare for an organic ranking increase – that was on-site changes only.)

“(Also I have some tricks to get client sites spidered and re-indexed faster because that’s a problem for local sites. Many of these small biz sites just don’t get much traffic, therefore may not be spidered very often. So if I’m going to go to all the trouble to optimize the site, I’m not going to sit back and hope/wait for the Google spider the optimized content. I force feed her the changes, to get my client’s site re-indexed faster.)” – Linda Buquet

“I never, never promise rankings. In my own mind, I expect to see results within a couple of months, but I am very careful not to guarantee anything, due to the variables of Google’s behavior as well as competitive efforts.” – Miriam Ellis

“First 30-90 days for ranking those ego terms 😉  You know i really hate talking about rankings as a measuring stick.  Here at SBOC we always get success right away because we focus on traffic and conversions as a way to measure success.  We are experts at improving conversions and usually really easy to show success b/c most small business site’s suck and they do not do any A/B split testing.  We always increase traffic out of the gate b/c we are content publishers first before we are link builders, citation builders, etc.  Bigger sites always get more traffic. We focus on building bigger websites first and creating linkable assets.  This gets you more relevant traffic. More relevant traffic = more leads/sales.  Thus success! We do not focus on rankings as a success measuring stick nor should any agency or small business, especially with all the different search results available, between local search results, personal results, etc.  This will drive everyone nuts and (excuse my language) but it’s a piss poor way to measure success.  I am in the business to help small business make more money, I am not in the business to feed SMB’s egos on silly rankings.  Don’t get me wrong, rankings are a good signal to measure SEO, but not a good way to determine internet marketing success.  Measuring traffic and conversions is.  That is all you need to understand as a small business to decide if something is working.  SMB’s should ask: Did my traffic increase? Did my conversions increase?  Ask those questions and do not judge success by some silly ranking for some silly ego term and then you’ll know if you are getting a ROI from your internet marketing.” – Matthew Hunt

“Well, I never promise any rankings.  I try to give people a realistic assessment of where they are based on the point they’re starting from and the market they’re in.

“For a client starting from dead scratch with a brand new website and brand new location, four-six months is realistic.  I recently went through this exercise with my cousin’s group health insurance agency and she has just started to rank well across a broad range of terms (health benefits portland, group insurance portland, etc) after a full-on launch and citation campaign starting in March.  Everything here was very smooth obviously since there were no NAP conflicts and I was in complete control of the process.

“For a client starting from a pretty good position who’s just in need of a little push in the right direction, one month is realistic.” – David Mihm

“Somewhere in the 6 month range.  Always contingent on above issues [mentioned in Question 1].” – Dave Oremland

“Usually speaking we see things happen anywhere from 2-4 months. That is enough time for a lot of fixes to take effect. There are always exceptions though both on the faster and slower side.” – Mike Ramsey

“We’re usually on target with the expectations we set out at the beginning of the campaign. If things go smoothly, we sometimes get results earlier. If there are client delays (as is often the case), it can take months longer than we estimated.”
– Darren Shaw

“Funny you add ‘smoothly.’ Clearly you added this because so often Google Local throws us ridiculous, illogical curveballs. Promises are often mistaken for guarantees…and in my cautious opinion, SEOs should not be making ranking guarantees. Way too many variables, bugs, etc.

“For a semi competitive niche, top 3 rankings (for example) in Google Local will come in 3-4 months.” – Adam Steele

“If the client is a low- to mid-competitive market, it might take 3-4 weeks, but these cases are rare, because business owners that come to me are usually not in easy markets. I’d say that the average is 8-10 weeks.” – Nyagoslav Zhekov

“About 2-3 months.  Sometimes a month or less IF my client has already made some efforts at local SEO and doesn’t have a bunch of different addresses or phone numbers floating around the web.  However, in really competitive local markets (e.g. big-city lawyers), everything takes longer: even a “smooth” local-SEO campaign can take 4-6 months to bear fruit.” – Phil Rozek

 

Question 3:  For the “trouble cases,” when things don’t go so smoothly, how long does it usually take for your client to get the rankings you expected?

“Short answer 6 months, but it really depends on their budget and/or if they are willing and able to do a lot of the NAP cleanup (with my instructions). Updating directory listings can take an unexpectedly long amount of time, especially if they have been careless with setting up accounts, recording log ins, etc. I have cleaned up unbelievable multi-location messes in 3-4 months, but it was with a big budget.

“I also ask them about what they are doing for link building, because if their domain authority lags behind their competitors’ by very much, it’s a necessary ingredient in the ranking recipe.” – Mary Bowling

“I could almost always get clients ranked on page one with my Google Places and on-site Local SEO techniques, in the time frames above. (I don’t ever do citations or backlinks – just on-page on the Google page and web site.)

“The only exception was, if it was a really competitive market and they were really low to begin with. So let’s say I took a client from #26 to #12. That’s a nice 14 point jump – BUT not enough to get to page one. So at that point after I’d done everything I could ON-PAGE, if it wasn’t enough to get to page one, they would maybe need some off-page help which I would refer out. Only had to do that a couple times though.” – Linda Buquet

“It can take many months, or even more than a year for really bad problems to be resolved. I was just looking at a thread today in which a business owner had sent 123 emails to Google demanding resolution of his merging problem. Think of that!”
– Miriam Ellis

“30-90 days usually.  Depends on what the issue is.  Example, duplicate listing can get cleaned up in 60 days.  Deleted and black listed Google Places listing may not be able to come back at that phone and address again.  Or recent Doctor/Professional duplicates, can’t get rid of b/c Google Places is allowing the practice and the professional to each have a listing.  Local search, especially Google Places can be a hot mess and often out a Local SEO’ers hands.  Hopefully, one day Google Local will get their shit together. My guess it won’t happen until they monetize it, as we all know Google doesn’t like providing any real support unless it’s a paid product.” – Matthew Hunt

“It can honestly take years.  Mary Bowling and I have a joint client who’s had all kinds of NAP confusion and clusterf*cks that we are still trying to help about 30 months after I first started with them.  Luckily, they had a pretty good idea of how tough their situation was before they hired us, but these kinds of situations can take constant vigilance and results are not always going to happen if the cluster was corrupted a long time ago.” – David Mihm

“Cleaning bad results and building rankings could add 6 months roughly to the process.” – Dave Oremland

“We have some that have been 6 months to a year. Usually due to duplicate issues or really bad NAP information when things can’t stick. Some listings constantly hop in and out of rankings. That can happen for years at a time.” – Mike Ramsey

“This is so variable, it’s really tough to answer. I have some mystery cases where everything looks good with their website and their Google+ Local page, and they have more citations, reviews, links, etc than the competition, but they’re still not ranking in the local results a year after we started working with them. Some cases can get resolved after cleaning up problematic NAP consistency issues, and the time it takes to do this work is quite variable as well. Sorry I can’t give any solid timelines for you on this one.” – Darren Shaw

“Depending on the severity, problems that CAN be sorted out, typically take another 1 or 2 months on top of the 3-4 months.” – Adam Steele

“The only cases when it never worked smoothly were when the client was not doing what I was ‘recommending’ them to do. In these cases we usually terminate our relationships as soon as I realize there is no hope.” – Nyagoslav Zhekov

“6 months or more.  On the one hand, there are any number of “issues” that can throw a wrench into your local-search efforts, so sometimes even ~6 months isn’t enough time to stick in your hand and fish out all the wrenches.  But on the other hand, progress only comes really slowly if my clients for whatever reason don’t what needs to be done on the website, are unwilling even to ask customers for reviews, etc.  When my suggestions are implemented (by me or by the client – just depends on our arrangement), it’s rare for there not to be at least significant improvement in local rankings after ~4 months – if not for the rankings to reach the levels we both expect during that time.” – Phil Rozek

Additional comments from some of the experts:

“What I’ve found, working in Local Search, is that every case is different. There is no standardized template for success, not only because each business is unique, but because Google’s behavior is erratic in its local products. Imagine the different results you might expect working with a local hair salon vs. a local auto dealership. Competition and scrutiny are going on at very different levels. Some verticals are so under-served and under-optimized that you can literally take a client to the top in a couple of weeks. But not if your client is an attorney in a metropolis; in such cases, there will be many months of effort ahead to outrank competitors, if that’s even possible. So, every new client is a new and interesting challenge, and in my opinion, results should never be guaranteed. We don’t control Google. We only control our own efforts, with the expectant hope that things will turn out well and the realistic caution that, sometimes, they don’t.” – Miriam Ellis

“After all is said and done, with Google as you know, a new issue could arise with glitches.” – Dave Oremland

“Overall, I am really moving away from only selling or focusing on ranking and trying to take a much broader approach to services we offer. I don’t sell strictly Google+ local optimization anymore. We tend to want to focus on maps, organic, content, conversion, etc. I think that this allows for us to produce quick wins and constantly show progress. Diversification helps the client and also our relationship with them.”
– Mike Ramsey

“It is hard to generalize any part of the SEO process. Delivery of results is one of the variables that depends on more than one factor, and is thus largely unpredictable. In the Google+ Local world everything spins around the index pushes, though, so the 4-8 weeks period is a potential target checkpoint.” – Nyagoslav Zhekov

 —

All fantastic insights.  Except for what that Phil Rozek guy said.  What a goofball 🙂

A HUGE thanks to all the great local SEO-ers who offered their time and first-hand knowledge.  Each of them is worth following and learning from (or even hiring) if you want to get some more local-search visibility for your business.

What’s been your experience so far, in terms of how long local SEO “takes”?  Leave a comment!