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!

How to Score Google Places Sitelinks

What’s are “Google Places sitelinks”?  They’re these:

Google Places sitelinks

Little links in the search result for your website–links that lead to several specific pages in your site.

Sitelinks have appeared in Adwords ads and some organic search results for a long time.  But only recently have they started showing up in the local search results.

More specifically, they show up in Google’s “blended” local search results–that is, when you have a bunch of local business / Google Places search results mixed up in with a standard “organic” search results–as in the picture above.  In any given local market, customers will see either this “blended” layout, or they’ll see the slightly more common “7-pack” search results (which we’re a little more used to seeing in Google Places.)

If you have a website–and you absolutely must have one unless you’re a barber shop in Mayberry–you want it to rank as highly as possible in the organic search results.  Duh.

To the extent that the “blended” local search results (above) appear when you type in a local search term that you want to be found for, you want your site to be as visible as possible in those “blended” local search results, too.  You get maximum local visibility by doing two things:

1.  Ranking as highly as possible in Google Places, AND

2.  Hogging as much territory on the blended search-results page as you can.  This is why you need to try to get Google Places sitelinks.  They take up an extra line of space on the page, and they draw attention the themselves.

You can use the resources on this site to accomplish #1.  But how about #2?  How can you get the sitelinks to show up under YOUR site?

Google won’t say, exactly.  According to Google, your site has to be “useful” to the visitor, and it has to be easy for Google’s bots to find your pages.  It’s an algorithm that determines whether you get sitelinks: as with a box of chocolates and everything Google-related, you never know what you’re gonna get.

Fine…but how do you get the sitelinks?

I suggest you follow 5 main steps, which are in rough order of importance:

1.  Feature helpful, informative, all-original content that’s highly relevant to the services you offer, for which you’re trying to get visible in Google Places.  Content is still King.  Sure, there are plenty of princes, jesters, and eunuchs who also occupy the court to a lesser extent.  But none wields the influence over the great land of Google that King Content still wields.  It’s also how you’ll get other sites to link to yours spontaneously, and good relevant content helps your Google Places ranking big-time.  If you’re not sure how to create good, relevant content that your customers will actually find useful, I suggest you take a look at CopyBlogger.  It’s a superb source of ideas.

2.  Use a simple page structure.  Don’t have your “Services” page, your “Contact Us” page, and your articles pages nested in a bunch of other pages.  The structure should not be “www.yoursite.com/locations/2011/page-you-want-a-sitelink-for.html”.  It should be more like www.yoursite.com/page-you-want-a-sitelink-for.html”.

3.  Make sure your page names are concise.  Google looks at this.  If you want your “Specialties” page to get a sitelink, make sure it’s called “specialties.php” or something.  Ideally, make the menu button match the page name.  If your page name is too long, Google won’t give you a sitelink, based on what I’ve seen.

4.  Get Google Webmaster Tools set up on your site (if it isn’t already) and then use it to submit a “Google Sitemap.”  This will help Google crawl your site.  Plus, it’s free.

5.  Keep grinding away at your link-building campaign.  Getting good content on other sites, with links back to yours, is still a great way to show Google how “useful” your site is.  This probably isn’t news to you; I’m just saying don’t forget to keep up with it.

IF the “blended” local search results show up in Google Places in your local market (as opposed to the “7-pack”), these 5 steps should not only help get your business visible there in the first place, but should also help you snag some sitelinks, more on-page territory, and more local customers than your competitors have.

How to Divide up Your Time for Maximum Local Visibility in Google Places

How to manage your time for maximum visibility in Google PlacesThe problem: you’re not visible in Google Places and are considering one of two things: rolling up your sleeves to try to get visible yourself, or paying someone else to help you do it.

In the first case, I assume you’d like to know how much time you’d need to set aside from running your business and devote to wrangling with Google Places.  In the second case, if you hire someone to help get you visible, you probably want to know what exactly you’re paying that person to spend time doing for you.

I can’t say exactly how many hours it would take you or someone else to get your business visible in Google Places.  It could be 2 or 12.  The whole process could take 2 weeks or 4 months.  It depends on many factors—like how competitive your local market is, how visible your business is today, the condition of your website, and (yes) your geographical location.

What I can tell you is how you or someone else should spend time trying to get your business visible.  Success in Google Places requires that you pay attention to many factors, not just one.  Time-management is crucial.  If you don’t divvy up your time properly, you can’t do everything you need to get done—and you’re that much less visible to local customers.

Unfortunately, too many business owners waste time on things that get them nowhere in local Google.  It’s not that these techniques are useless: more often it’s just that people spend too much time on the wrong stuff and too little time on what really counts.

I’ve got 4 pie charts for you.  Two of them show you a percentage breakdown of exactly how you should divide up your time to get visible in Google Places—based on my experience, at least.  The other two charts show how people usually do divide up their time—and how it goes to waste. (And those are the people savvy enough even to tackle Google visibility in the first place!)

Note: I’m NOT weighing the relative importance of each factor.  Just because I say you should spend only 2% of your time on a given step doesn’t mean it’s not important.  I’m strictly talking about the relative amount of time you (or someone else) should or should spend on each piece of the puzzle.

The pie charts should be pretty self-explanatory.  If you want to know more about any one of the factors, just scroll down to the section that’s below all the charts.

 

How business owners often DO spend their
initial “get visible in Google” time

 

How most business owners spend their “get visible in Google” time

Main reasons why this isn’t effective use of time:

  • Too much tinkering.  Too many people waste time constantly fiddling around with their Google Places listing, in the hopes that they’ll stumble across some magical keyword that when included on the Places page will please the Google Gods (AKA the “algorithm).  What’s more important is to make sure that you’ve deleted duplicate listings—i.e., that you spend more time on “data control.”  Make sure your Places page info is accurate, claim your listing if you haven’t already, and don’t spend more time messing with it.
  • Too many “website tweaks.”  Many business owners overdo this.  True: on-page website factors do matter to your Google Places ranking, but they’re only part of the puzzle.  So write title tags, H1s, etc. that are relevant to your services, but don’t keyword-research them for hours.  You won’t rank any more highly.
  • Overemphasis on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) can help you reach more customers once you’re visible to them, but they don’t help get you visible in the first place.  They’re nice to take up later, but they’ll simply delay your local visibility if you devote significant time to them at first.

Now compare the above chart to this one…

How you should divvy up your time
when FIRST trying to get visible

 

How you should use your time when FIRST trying to get visible in Google Places

Main reasons why this IS an effective use of time:

  • You’re paying attention to more local-search ranking factors.  Google pays attention to many factors when deciding how to rank you.  If you’re taking the time to produce content and put it on your site, you’ll win points with Google, and you may even get linked to by other sites.  Plus, if you set aside a little time from the start to ask customers for reviews, you’ll have reviews working in your favor sooner rather than later.
  • More “data control.”  This isn’t just limited to making sure you don’t have duplicate Google Places listings floating around: you also need to make sure that third-party sites like Yelp and CitySearch don’t have a bunch of duplicate listings for your business, and that all that info is 100% accurate and consistent from site to site.  If you set aside a little more time to make sure that you don’t have duplicate listings on these sites and that all your info is correct, you’ll avoid having to mop up the messy data later (which can really hurt your ranking).  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

Typical time-management for
MAINTAINING visibility

 

Typical time-management for MAINTAINING visibility

Why many locally visible businesses don’t stay visible for long:

  • They try to fix things that ain’t broke.  Most business owners breathe a sigh of relief when they can see their businesses in the Google Places top-7.  The trouble is they sometimes get a little greedy (which is understandable) and try to grab a slightly better ranking by tinkering too much with their Google Places pages and websites.  Rarely does this actually help their rankings climb: constant tweaking usually accomplishes nothing or causes a drop in rankings.  The other time bomb is this: people usually don’t know what else they should do for Google Places once they’re visible there, so they tend to turn their attention to social media—which doesn’t influence Places rankings significantly.
  • They neglect customer reviews.  Too many newly visible business owners, customer reviews suddenly aren’t a priority.  It always takes a little elbow grease and shoe leather to ask your customers for reviews—even if you’ve done it a hundred times and know what you’re doing.  But if you’re not sure how to get started and you know you’re basically visible already, the determination to ask customers for reviews tends to go the way of the New Year’s resolution.

Compare this “typical” time management to what’s in the following chart—which is how I suggest you spend your “maintenance” time:

Best ways to use your time to maintain and
grow your local visibility

 

Best ways to use your time to maintain your local visibility

  • You’re setting aside a little time to produce content.  Few business owners do this.  I’m not talking about article-spinning or creating self-promoting videos that come across as little infomercials.  I’m talking about stuff that helps inform your customers and answers questions that only you, the seasoned expert, can answer.  It can be in the written word or video.  In terms of your Google Places ranking, good website or blog content kills a ridiculous number birds with a few stones (just contact me if you want me to talk your ear off about this).  If you’re already somewhat visible in Google Places, more good content is one of the very best ways to pull ahead of the remaining competitors and put some nails in their coffins.  But it’s got to become a habit: something you keep up with over the long haul, and always carve out some time for.
  • You’re taking the time to get reviews.  You must set aside time for it while you’re visible and the phone is ringing: I guarantee you won’t feel like it if you’re freaking out because your Google Places visibility just tanked.
  • You’re looking for more third-party sites to get listed on: the 10% spent on “gathering citations” should go to poking around online for sites specific to your industry (like The Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association) or your local area or city (Austin360.com).  In the same way, you’re also spending a little time looking for ways to garner some extra publicity—like in blogs or the local newspaper—which can give you a boost in local Google.
  • You’re dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s: responding to customer reviews written on your Places page, brewing up coupons, keeping a foot in social media, etc.  You’re not getting OCD over any of these items because you’re spending time focusing on the big stuff (like original content and reviews).  You’ve turned your Google Places campaign into quite the lovely cornucopia.

 

More about the Google Places ranking
factors that compete for your time

Here’s a little more info about each factor, in case there were some you weren’t completely clear on:

 Researching your local market.  Before you try to get visible in Google Places, you need to find out whether the search terms you want to get visible for actually trigger the local search results, see how many local competitors you have, use the Google Keyword Tool to find the most relevant and searched-for terms, etc.  Look before you leap.

 

 Creating Google Places page/ Tweaking Places info.  This is actually the quick part.  If you spend a significant amount of time messing with your Google Places listing, you’re doing something wrong.  Google doesn’t like frequent changes.

 

 Gathering citations.  The tedious process of listing your business on third-party sites.  Crucial.

 

 Producing content.  It’s smart to get some in-depth, informative articles for your site or blog.  Good content can win you quality links without your even having to pester anyone.  Or you can put together some short, purely informative, non-promotional videos that a potential customer would find helpful (see “Creating videos,” below).

 

 Data control.  You need be on a constant crusade to remove duplicate listings, and to remove or fix any listings with incorrect info on your business.  To do this you need to keep an eye on the listings that show up in your Google Places “Dashboard,” and you also routinely need to check your listings on third-party directories (like Yelp) and on major data-providers (like InfoUSA) .

 

 Website tweaks.  Optimizing title tags, description tags, H1s, etc.  Business owners often hurt themselves by spending time trying to stuff keywords, or by constantly fiddling with these on-page factors.  Use a real light touch on the search terms you include, write them with your customers in mind (not Google), and for God’s sake don’t keep changing them around.

 

 Asking for reviews.  Customer reviews have become more and more important to your ranking—especially ones written through customers’ Google accounts.  There are a number of ways you can drum up reviews, but whatever method(s) you choose, you need to keep at it for the long haul.

 

 Uploading pictures.  It’s worth taking the time to put a few good ones on your Places page.  It’s not worth constantly changing them or laboring over them to death.

 

 Searching for links.  It’s a big Google Places ranking-booster to have links to your site from sites that are relevant to your industry and/or city.  To get good ones requires some poking-around, even once you’ve created the good content that you’ll need to be able to offer in exchange for the links.

 

 Adding coupons and/or “Posts.”  Coupons are always good, but extremely quick to create on your Places page.  Same with the tiny, 160-character Posts—aka “real-time updates”—that you can add to your page (you can do this from the top-right area of your Places “Dashboard”).  Still, neither of these is worth getting OCD over.

 

 Social media.  Good in small doses, but not worth too much of your time, especially if your goal is to attract customers through Google Places.

 

 Scouting competitors.  See where their customers write them reviews, see the videos they’re adding to their Places pages, see what content they’re adding to their sites and providing for other sites, etc.  Constantly type their names into Google, keep an eye on the Google Places and organic rankings, and above all see what you can learn from them.

 

 Creating video.  Short videos that serve as little nuggets of helpful info, not little infomercials.  They don’t need to be pretty, but they do need to be informative.  Upload them to YouTube, then to your Google Places listing and your site.

 

 Pursuing publicity.  I’m talking about keeping your peepers open for chances to write a short article for your local paper, do an interview in which you’re the “expert,” participate in a local charity event—anything.  Good publicity can win you links and/or citations, both of which can help your ranking big-time.  This needs to be an ongoing habit.

 

 Running tests.  Test coupons.  Test different ways to ask your customers for reviews.  Try other unconventional experiments.  This is how you find the best ways to stay visible and get the phone to ring more and more.

 

 Running SEO analyses.  You need to keep your site ship-shape.  WebsiteGrader.com is a good way to do this.  So is keeping an eye on Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools data.

 

 Responding to reviews.  You can log in to your Google Places listing and respond to reviews that customers have written through their Google accounts.  Reply to the positive ones, too, not just the duds.

Time-management is tricky in Google Places.  On the one hand, you have to juggle tons of balls (and a few chainsaws and torches) in order to get visible to local customer, and especially to stay visible.  On the other hand, you can’t spread yourself too thin and neglect the items that really reward a little extra investment in time.

I hope the pie charts help you get more bang for your hour.  Or, alternatively, I hope they better enable you to breathe down your local-search expert’s neck and make sure you get your dollar’s worth 🙂

What factors would YOU add to the pie charts?  How would you tweak the size of some of the “slices”?  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.

What To Do While Google Screws with Your Places Listing

The Google Places page layout has gone through big changes recently, as you may have seen.  These changes include not showing snippets of reviews written through third-party sites (like Yelp), and removing the “Details” area from the Places page.

Personally, I hope these changes are only temporary.  I and your customers prefer having more information about a local business rather than less information.  But Google didn’t ask my opinion or anyone else’s.  Whatever.  Not important.

What DOES matter is whether you’ll let the recent changes hurt your ability to attract local customers.  With all the buzz about the changes, I haven’t yet seen anybody clarify what you should actually do about the changes.

As it stands now, you’ll probably just have to make a few minor changes to your website if you want to avoid a drop-off in calls and/or customers.  Maybe all the missing info will return to Google Places page in a couple days or a couple weeks, making this post irrelevant.  But that’s a big “maybe.”  In the meantime, you don’t want to lose your mojo with local customers.

Time to get specific.  First, here’s what’s currently ABSENT from your Google Places page:

-Your business hours

-The short (200-character) “Description” of your business (according to Google, this may reappear soon…or it may not)

-The “Additional Details” section

Sure, there’s other missing info –like your “citation” sources and the list of sites your business has been reviewed on.  But the missing hours, “Description,” and “Details” provide info that’s especially important for anyone who’s considering becoming your newest customer.  They won’t pay you if they can’t learn basic facts about you–and they can’t just find what they need on your Google Places page.

Fortunately, this is where your website comes in.  You need to add the missing info prominently to the home page of your site (if it’s not there already).

I suggest you do the following:

Tweak 1.  Show your business hours visibly on your home page.  By “visibly” I mean they should be above the fold and should be formatted differently from the rest of the text–perhaps bold / slightly larger font / different color.

Tweak 2.  Make sure your homepage instantly tells people what you offer.  Know how the tiny 200-character Google Places “Description” was at the very top of your Place page and forced you to describe your services in a nutshell?  I you put a similar little blurb at or near the very top of your homepage.  Maybe throw in a really clear, descriptive picture, too.

In fact, if you log into your Google Places listing, you’ll find the “Description” that used to show up publicly on your listing.  If you don’t feel like writing, just copy that little blurb and paste it onto your homepage.  This at least gives potential customers the same info they’d like to have seen on your Google listing, and it tells them that they’re in the right place to find the services that they just searched for in Google.

Tweak 3.  Put any “Additional Details” you had on your Google Places page on your homepage.  If you log in to the “Edit” area of your listing, you should see any “Details” that used to show up on your Places page.  Stick any of these relevant, good-to-know details onto your homepage.  Make ‘em visible, too–perhaps bold.

You can still find your Details in the Dashboard of your Places listing

What if you didn’t have any “Details” on your Google Places page?  If that’s the case, I suggest you make sure all of the following is prominent on your homepage:

Accepted payment forms: a good photo for your site and your Places page

-Accepted forms of payment.  To the extent that you accept credit cards, it’s a good idea to include little pictures of each accepted card.  By the way, this is also a great photo to add to your Google Places page.

-All your services.  You want people who saw your Google Places listing and clicked on your site to know that they’ve come to the right place, and that you offer what they’re looking for.  Bullet-point lists are a great way to showcase all your services, by the way.

-Local areas you serve.  Don’t name like 50 towns.  But it’s good to specify that you serve (for example) “Greater Austin” and maybe a few nearby towns.  This helps you get visible in Google in those areas, and especially helps your customers know that you’re truly local.

It would be nice if Google reintroduced a way to put all this info on your Places page.  But it shouldn’t matter: most people look at your site at least briefly before becoming your customers.  To the extent you can make your site better and more informative, you’re more likely to get more local customers.

Can you think of any other “survival tips” for weathering unpredictable Google Places changes?  Leave a comment!

The 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show

Welcome to the 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show!I spend a lot of time talking about what you should do to rank well in Google Places.  One way I do this is by focusing on patterns: I try to show you what qualities are most common among businesses that have top rankings in their local markets

But we haven’t spent nearly as much time discussing what you should NOT do with your Google Places listing.  Nor have we taken a good look at the businesses that just don’t do what the others do.

Hence this 1st Annual Google Places Freak Show.  It’s the fun-filled day devoted to the extremes of local Google—the strange businesses that you and I and customers across the country stumble across occasionally.

I want to point out here that I am NOT using the word “freak” pejoratively.  Some of these businesses just have some aspect about them that’s extremely unusual.  And I’m not passing judgment on the businesses that aren’t following “best practices” for attracting customers through Google Places: I’m just using them as examples of what not do.  Above all, I’m using the term simply to refer to business listings and not to people.

By the way, these businesses all rank on the first page of local search results, last I checked.  Most of the ones that are “extreme” in a bad way aren’t actually doing anything that hurts their local rankings in Google (which are usually quite good): rather, they’re doing things that simply might turn away potential customers who see these businesses in Google Places.

Anyway, grab some cotton candy and let’s check out some freaks.

 

—Lamest Photo

Boring Google Places photo: a manhole cover

This is tough.  If you’re a septic tank-installation service, what’s an enticing photo you can use in your Google Places listing that’s relevant to the service you provide?  These guys chose to use a picture of a manhole cover.  At least they didn’t use a picture of a toilet.

I think the lesson here is this: if you can’t think of a picture to use for your Places listing that “paints a picture” of the service you provide, don’t try to get too creative or abstract.

For example, if you’re in a service industry—particularly one that’s not necessarily glamorous—it’s perfectly fine to take a picture of your crew in front of your truck.  It’s better than taking a boring, abstract picture that doesn’t tell potential customers anything about your business or why you provide a better service than your local competitors do.

If you’re coming up dry for photo ideas, look at what other businesses use for photos.

 

Scariest Photo

Bad Google Places photo: a bare-chested guy with a tattoo

There are a lot of things wrong with this photo.  Many of them are obvious to both of us.  But here’s how I’d explain why it’s not a good Google Places photo:

It’s distracting.  It’s an effective photo insofar as it’s eye-catching—but that’s where the effectiveness ends.  But once it catches your eye, the gut reaction likely is “Eww,” not “Hey, cool tattoo.”

Worst of all, it showcases the canvas, not the art.  The owner should have taken a few extra minutes or spent a few extra bucks to take a crisp, up-close picture of just the tattoo. Potential customers want to see the craftsmanship.  They search in Google for local tattoo parlors by typing in “tattoo,” not “chest.”

By the way, I just can’t make heads or tails of the business name.  I have no idea what it means.  Do you?


Angriest Market

Local market with BAD average customer reviews

This is a very “tough room,” as standup comedians say.  The customers consistently dislike the businesses listed in the Google Places top-7—big time.

The average rating of these businesses is 2.75 stars.  The minimum average rating is 1-star, and the maximum is 5.  This pitiful average rating is the first thing that stands out about this market.

The other thing that’s unusual about this market is how motivated the customers are to leave harsh reviews.  These businesses have a total of 176 reviews.  That’s an average of 29 reviews for each listing that has reviews (or an average of 25 if you count the one business that doesn’t have any reviews).

I’m sure there are plenty of markets out there that have sunken even lower into the smelly pits of customer dissatisfaction.  But it’s the combination of the low average rating and the high numbers of ticked-off customers that makes this market a “freak.”

It just goes to show how sometimes the bar for ranking well in Google Places can be pretty low.  I’m just waiting for a bridal shop with impeccable customer service to hang their shingle in Google Places, drum up some 5-star reviews, and squash the local competition like roaches.

 

Least Loved

A 1-star average customer rating

Generally, the people who are most likely to review your business spontaneously either love it or hate it.  You and I intuitively know that nobody can please everybody—which is why just about every business has at least a few bad reviews.

If your business has a few stinkers, no big deal.  Customers are used to seeing a few bad reviews.

But people are also used to seeing at least a few positive reviews.  This cab service has none.  It has a one­-star average rating.  That’s the lowest possible rating you can receive from a customer: there is no such thing as zero stars.

Maybe this is a great cab service.  But the reviews sure don’t paint that picture (just look up their reviews to see what I mean).


Most Terrifying Review

Disturbing review from a local patient

I don’t know what happened in the doctor’s office that day.

What I do know is most of us have had less-than-pleasant visits to one doctor or another at one time or another in our lives.

Patients generally heed what other patients say about doctors.  Kind of the opposite of that Seinfeld episode where the doctor offends Elaine by telling her that she’s a “difficult” patient and Jerry agrees with the doctor.

Bottom line: this doctor needs a LOT of shining reviews to outweigh this review.  The other bottom line is that you need a way to gather reviews from your satisfied customers—because one scathing review can be a deal-killer for anyone who sees it—whether the review is true or not.

 

Sketchiest-Looking Business

No info in Google listing and no website

No website.  No reviews.  No picture.  No contact information or name of business owner.  No apparent business location even when you take a look at the address in “Street View.”  I’m sure they know to come to you.

The listing isn’t verified, so this Google Places listing likely isn’t the deliberate work of the business owner.  Still…would you feel comfortable calling that phone number?

To get the full effect, just search for this Baltimore, umm, business in Google.

 

Most Disorienting Search Result

Seemingly irrelevant local search results

Where does a lady from Long Beach, CA go when she wants a manicure?  Aboard the RMS Queen Mary, of course.

If you’re from Long Beach, you probably know that the historic Queen Mary has been converted into a hotel, which now houses a beauty salon—hence the Google Places search result.

But I’m not from Long Beach and I didn’t know that.  All I knew is that my grandfather and many other people came to America aboard the Queen Mary.

So when I first stumbled on this particular search result, I just wrote it off as a classic case of lousy Google Places categorization—like when you search for “Italian restaurant” and Google shows you the local Pizza Hut.

In a way, I guess it’s good visibility for the owners of the beauty parlor on the Queen Mary: after all, seeing the old ocean liner in Google’s local business results doesn’t happen every day, and it demands a little bit of your attention.

On the other hand, when a particular business seems out of place in the local search results, people like me might not even click on the Places Page because we think it’s just irrelevant to what we typed into Google.

 

Runner-Up: Freakiest Business Name

A strange name for a business and a Google Places listing

It would be one thing if “Sweet Cheeks” was a cosmetics shop that specialized in selling blush.  But no: it’s a baby-clothing store.  I find this slightly disturbing.

 

Winner: Freakiest Business Name

"Just Another Hole" body piercing in Broken Arrow, OK

The business is a body-piercing joint.  The location is Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

What can I possibly say about the name?  It’s brilliant.

 

One last thing before I turn it over to the Ringmaster

As I said, all of these “freaks” rank in the top-7 of Google Places.  At least for the time being, their visibility is pretty good—and to the extent they’ve tried to rank visibly, they’ve more or less succeeded.

But there’s more to attracting local customers than just a good local ranking.  When people click on the listing, what happens?  Are they attracted, or repulsed?  Do they want to pick up the phone or leave your Google listing?

Some businesses, like “Just Another Hole,” are deliberately strange in a clever way.  But for some of the others, I wouldn’t be surprised if their business owners called me and said they weren’t getting too many actual customers, despite their rankings.  I’d tell them to pay more attention to the gut-level first impressions their Google Places listings create.

Whatever your ranking, I suggest you pay attention to how your Google listing comes across at a gut level.  Ask friends, family, or customers who haven’t seen it to take a look and give you their first impressions.  You’ll ensure that YOUR business won’t ever make it into a future Google Places Freak Show.

Do you have a “freak” you’d like to submit?

Do you have some strong opinions about the ones you just saw?

Let me know: drop me a line or leave a comment!  (I might even include it in the next Freak Show.)

The ABC’s of Local Search Visibility

The goal is simple: have your business appear more visibly in Google Places when local customers search for what you offer.

But there are all kinds of ins and outs and moving parts, big and small.  They can be tough to remember.

You and I and everyone else forget all kinds of things; some of us are especially good at forgetting about household chores and anniversaries.  But one thing we don’t forget is our ABC’s.

That’s why I bring you the ABC’s of local visibility in Google Places: 26 little blurbs devoted to the stuff you need to know to get your business visible to local customers.

How well do YOU know your ABCs?  Do you know enough letters to spell your own business name?

 

Area code (that’s local)

Your business phone number needs to have a local area code–not an 800, 888, etc.  Always use this local phone number for your business: use it on your Google Places listing, on your website, and on every other website you ever list your business on (Yelp, CitySearch, etc.).  It’s important that Google and potential customers know you’re a local business—not some faceless chain trying to scoop up local business where it shouldn’t.  Plus, it’s important that local people know you’re local, too.

 

Business “Categories”

On your Google Places listing, you can specify up to 5 “Categories” that describe your business.  These influence which search terms you’ll be visible for locally.  Try to pick as many relevant categories as you can—categories that accurately describe your business or services.  Google may not have your specific category of business, in which case you have to choose at least ONE category from Google’s list.  In this case, pick the one that’s *most* relevant (it may not be spot-on), and then I suggest you specify a couple of “custom” categories, using terms that really accurately describe your business/services.  Simply type them into the fields.

Google Places business categories--picked from a list or custom

Citations

You’re probably familiar with sites like Yelp.com, InsiderPages.com, etc.  Any time your business is listed in the local-business directories of sites like these, that’s called a “citation.”  Citations are a giant factor in how well you rank locally.  They’re similar to links in the world of traditional “organic” search.

A "citation" for your business

Long story short, you should try to get your business listed on as many as you can–the aforementioned ones, plus others like CitySearch.com, JudysBook.com, AngiesList.com, and many more.  Oh, and make sure that all the business information you submit to these sites EXACTLY matches what you use on your Google Places listing: so, for instance, use the exact same business name, with the same punctuation and capitalization, the same address formatting, etc.

If you want more info on citations, I suggest this excellent in-depth piece by David Mihm:

http://www.davidmihm.com/blog/general-marketing/local-seo-citation-is-new-link/

 

 

Data-aggregators

A fancy name for sites that collect your business info and distribute it to many other sites that list local businesses in their directories.  ExpressUpdateUSA, EZLocal, LocalEze are examples of data-aggregators.  Basically, you’ll want to go to these sites and list your business on them, and make absolutely sure that all the info you provide matches the info you use on your Google Places listing.

 

Excellent extra details

In the “Edit” area of your Google Places page you’ll notice some boxes where you can provide “Additional Details” about your business.  You should fill it out with as much relevant detail as possible.  But don’t just throw in a bunch of keywords: try to provide highly specific detail about your services: if you’re a doctor, indicate your specialties or say what kinds of injuries you treat.  If you’re a roofer, specify whether you service residential vs. commercial buildings, or both, or whatever.

You probably get the idea, but here’s a good example of what I’m talking about:

The "Details" area in your Google listing

 

Focusing on your city

Use Google Places to get visible in your immediate local area, first and foremost.  Don’t use it to try to get visible in a city that your business isn’t physically located in.  All too often, I see businesses in the suburbs trying fruitlessly to get visible in Google Places in the major city that they’re several miles outside of.  They load up their Google Places listing and websites with the name of the major city in which they want to get visible, hoping that Google will pay attention to their repetitive use of location keywords.  It rarely works, unless they’re in relatively uncompetitive markets or they’re one of only a handful of local people who provide a certain service.

Location is a really complex issue in local Google, but here’s the key point: if you want to be highly visible to local customers in (say) central Chicago, you’d better be located in the middle of Chicago.  If you’re in the suburbs, your best bet is to focus your efforts on getting visible in and around your specific ‘burb, and then to use AdWords (not Google Place) to get visible to customers in any areas that are more than 1-2 miles away from you.

 

 

Google (Places)

Often unclear and inconsistent in making the policies you and I have to live by, and occasionally downright maddening to deal with.  But Google is where the customers—including you and me—most often search locally.  Some people talk about how social-media is what matters for businesses.  That may prove true one day. But as it stands today, companies like Facebook are going through a noisy adolescence on their way to maturity: on the web in 2011, Google is still Big Daddy.

 

HCard microformatting

To make sense of “H,” you’ll need to take a look at letter “N” (lower down).

 

IYPs

Short for “Internet Yellow Pages.”  Just a fancy name for sites like Yelp.com, HotFrog.com, and many other sites with big directories of local businesses.  Local-search experts love this term (it’s pretty good, I have to admit).

 

J

I can’t think of anything that starts with J.  Good thing we’re not playing Scrabble!  (Please let me know if you can think of a “J”!)

 

Keywords

Often used interchangeably with “search term,” but there’s a distinction: “Pizza” is a keyWORD, whereas “pizza place” is a “search term,” because it’s multiple words.

Anyway, what most people don’t realize is that in Google Places you can’t necessarily get a high ranking for one keyword/search term and not for another: it’s hard to be surgical or deliberate about the search terms your business will rank for.  You can’t really control whether you rank well locally for “plumber” versus “plumbing.”

And THAT is one reason you shouldn’t try to overstuff your Google Places listing or website with a bunch of repetitive keywords/local search terms, in the hopes that you’ll rank highly for them.  In a nutshell, have a light touch in your use of “keywords.”

 

Links

We all know that good, relevant links matter to the “organic” ranking of your website.  But, to a lesser extent, they also matter for your ranking in Google Places.

I’m not going to go into detail about how you should get links, other than to say that you should NOT just try to “buy” them or do an exchange with some worthless website that has nothing to do with your specific services or business.  Oh, and don’t try to get links to your Google Places page: they won’t help you.  Any links you get need to lead to your website.

 

Maps tab

Enter a local search term into Google and then take note of the local businesses you see.  Then click where it says “Maps” in the top-left of the screen:

Google Maps tab

You’ll probably notice a slightly different assortment of local businesses under the “Maps” tab.  I mention it because it’s worth knowing that Google ranks businesses slightly differently under the “Maps” tab, and because you should always make sure you know where YOUR business ranks there.

 

NAP

Stands for “name, address, phone.”  You need to have the official name, address, and phone number of your business at the very bottom of every page of your website.  This helps show Google that all the info you use in your Google Places listing is accurate.  In fact, the NAP at the bottom of your webpages must exactly match the name, address, and phone number you use in your Google Places listing.

The formatting should be standard (as though you were addressing a letter to your business), meaning no crazy capitalization or punctuation.  Do NOT use an image; the NAP has to be written in text—text that you can copy and paste.  Otherwise, Google’s “spiders” won’t be able to read it, and your ranking may suffer.

NAP: Name, Address, Phone # at the bottom of your webpages

Different formatting for NAP: one long horizontal strip

Also, have your webmaster put your NAP in what’s called hCard format (the letter “H” I mentioned earlier).  This is a little snippet of code that tells Google “Hey, pay attention to this little blurb, because it contains my business info.”  Have your webmaster prepare your NAP in this way by using the free hCard generator at http://microformats.org/code/hcard/creator

 

 

Organic search results

AKA the “normal,” non-local search results we’ve seen in Google (and Yahoo, and long ago in Lycos, AltaVista, etc…) since before the local search results ever existed.  The organic search results show only websites, not websites plus Google Places pages.  What many people don’t know is there’s actually a surprising amount of overlap between the organic search results and the local search results.  What I mean is that your website matters to your local ranking: you benefit from standard SEO best practices, lots of original and informative content, and high-quality incoming links to your site (see letters K, L, N, S, T, U, W, and X).  In other words, the practices you’d follow to get a good organic ranking generally also help you improve your ranking in Google Places.

 

 

Proximity (to downtown)

Let’s say you and I run two competing businesses in the same city…let’s say two cigar shops in Cincinnati.  If yours is downtown and mine is a couple miles outside downtown (but still in Cincinnati proper, not the suburbs), your cigar shop will have a slight advantage in Google Places, and may rank a little more highly.  By no means is this always how it works out, but proximity to downtown (aka the “city centroid”) is a factor.  It’s more of a factor if there’s a great density in your local area of businesses like yours, but if there aren’t many others who offer what you offer, geography is less of a factor.

If you’re not located downtown, don’t try to fake your address just to pick up a slight ranking advantage.  It doesn’t really work and it can confuse customers.  First try to get visible in your immediate local area, wherever that may be: use AdWords if you want to get extra visibility outside of that.

 

QR code

Stands for “quick-response code.”  QR-code stickers are pretty cool: they’re barcodes that you scan with a smartphone.  Once you do, you’re taken to a specific website (the bars in the QR code are actually a link).

QR codes for your business

It’s possible to receive a decal from Google that contains a QR code for your Google Places page.  You put this decal outside your store/office/location, and customers can scan it with their smartphones and automatically go to your Places page to write you reviews, read reviews about you, and look up information about your business.

 

Reviews

Sooooo much to say about this one.  Better restrain myself.  First of all, reviews are a crucial part of your visibility in Google Places.  You need real reviews from your real customers.  Not a ton of them, and they don’t all need to be positive, but you do need a small trickle of them (maybe 1-2 a week).  You’ll want a method for getting customers to write them directly on your Google Place page and through third-party (“IYP”) sites like Yelp and CitySearch.

The other thing to know is that Google’s handling of reviews is riddled with bugs.  It used to be worse, but sometimes reviews for another business will show up on your listing for no reason.  Or sometimes your hard-earned reviews will mysteriously vanish, as though beamed up by Scotty.  The problems usually sort themselves out, but don’t be too alarmed if/when you encounter them.

 

Stick

Local visibility is useless unless it means that greater numbers of people who see you in Google Places actually become paying customers.  Who cares if you’re #1 locally: do you know for a fact that your top ranking has brought you some of your customers?  If

Casual visitors to your Google Places page need to stick around long enough to want to visit your website.  Then they need to stick around on your website long enough to discover more about what you offer, be impressed by it, and maybe pick up the phone.  You do this by providing as much specific information about your services as you can (exactly what you do, how you do it, etc.) and, whenever possible, how it benefits the customer.

Do this in the “Description,” “Coupon,” and “Additional Details” areas of your Places page, and especially on your website, where you have much more room to show potential customers exactly how you can help them.  Do it effectively and people won’t just bounce off of your listing and website: they’ll stick and become customers.

 

 

Title tag

The title tag of your website matters to your local ranking.  Not a huge factor, but a good one can help a little, whereas a lousy one can hurt a little.  There’s a lot to say about them, but the most important thing is that you follow a few best practices:

  • Keep your title tags 67 characters or less
  • Only include 1-2 terms that are spot-on relevant to your services or business.  Do NOT stuff “keywords”
  • Include the city you’re located in
  • Don’t include your phone number or address
  • Try to include the name of your business or your website name
  • Make sure it makes sense to a human reader; no gibberish
  • Try to use a different one for each page of your website

 

 

URL

You’re more likely to rank well in your local market if your website name (your URL) is phrased relevantly to your services and/or location.  For instance, if you’re a plumber in San Diego, you’re somewhat more likely to rank well for searches for “San Diego plumber” if your website is “TopSanDiegoPlumber.com” rather than “PipeProsSanD.com.

If you’re interested in getting a new website name but aren’t totally sure how to pick out a good one, this flowchart might help.

 

 

Verify/claim your Google Places listing

One of the first steps to adding your business to Google Places.  When you “verify,” you’re telling Google that you’re the rightful owner of the business you’re creating a local listing for.  Until you do it, your business most likely will be invisible locally.  Verifying also allows you to control exclusively what’s on your Places page; before it’s verified by the business owner, anyone can edit it.  It’s also possible for some slimy marketers or competitors to “hijack” your Google Places listing—but they can’t do it once you’ve verified.  Here’s more detail from Google.

Owner-verified Places Page

If you haven’t verified your listing yet, you can follow the steps in this flowchart.

 

Website

You didn’t think I’d try to tell you what a website is, did you?  Nope, I just wanted to say that your having a website is crucial to getting visible in Google Places.  Your website contains a number of specific factors that affect your ranking (including your title tag, description tag, overall domain authority, and the relevance of your content/body copy to the services you’re trying to get found for).  Plus, customers want and expect to see a website so that they can learn more about your services.  f you don’t have one, you’re losing big.

 

 

XML sitemap

Your website should have what’s known as a “Google Sitemap,” which is written in XML format.  This is simply a file you upload through “Google Webmaster Tools” that gives Google an inventory of all the pages of your website, so that it knows they exist.  This can help your website rank more highly, and therefore can help your local visibility to customers.

Your webmaster should know how to put up together one of these sitemaps, but here’s more detail from Google if you’re a DIY type.

 

 

Yelp

A great site that’s crucial to your local visibility.  Millions of users/active reviewers.  If your customers can write you some reviews on Yelp.com, that’s good.  Just don’t specifically ask them to log onto Yelp and write you a review (that’s against Yelp policy); simply mention it as one way they can leave you a review.  The most important thing for you to do, however, is just to make sure that your business is listed on Yelp, that you’ve claimed your listing there, and that all your information is 100% accurate and current.

 

ZIP code

Make absolutely certain you enter your ZIP code correctly every occasion you have to enter it—that is, on your Google listing and every time you list your business on other sites.  If you enter so much as one digit wrong, you could really screw things up, because Google will be receiving conflicting information as to what city you’re located in.  Don’t bother with the extra 4 digits: the regular 5-digit ZIP code is fine.

Use a 5-digit ZIP code for your Google listing--not a 9-digit one

 

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Now was that tougher than the ABC’s you learned back in preschool?