Local SEO for Multiple States: a Case-Study in How to Expand Your Reach

https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomas_gremaud/8060749561/

You probably want to reach more customers/clients/patients outside your immediate area.  The question is: how?

In general, what I recommend is to specialize as much as possible, work your tail off to earn relevant links over time, and maybe create great “city”/location pages or “state” pages.  Spend most of your time on those things and you’ll do well.

But that’s general advice, and it doesn’t necessarily address what work you might need to put into your site, which is a big part of the equation.  A real-life example might come in handy.

Joe Dillon of Equitable Mediation Services has provided me with a good case-study of a “local” business owner who expanded his reach, mostly just by nailing the on-site content.  Joe and his wife, Cheryl, are divorce mediators.  They work in-person with clients, but fly all over the country to do it.  They didn’t need visibility in Google’s non-local organic results, but needed to get visible in specific local markets.  In their case, they wanted to get more visible in specific states, for certain state-specific search terms.

We worked together at the beginning of 2017, when Joe and Cheryl had me do an X-Ray – meaning I did a comprehensive audit of their situation and gave them an easy-to-follow report with all my specific suggestions.

As of this writing, Joe and Cheryl haven’t taken all of my suggestions.  Also, they were doing a number of things very well even before the audit.  Still, they’ve taken enough suggestions to see results, put in serious work, and are a great example of how to cast a wider net.

Because every situation is different, you probably can’t do the exact steps Joe describes and expect the same results.  Local SEO is not a paint-by-numbers deal.  But at the very least his case-study will give you some ideas, and should make your next steps a little clearer.

Here’s Joe on how he broadened his local SEO strategy to reach people in more states:

Our blogging strategy helped, but wasn’t enough

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (well, New Jersey in 2008), my wife / business partner and I decided to start a divorce mediation firm to help people in NJ and Illinois get a divorce – if they want one – without lawyers. Like any small business that is strapped for cash when it first starts out, we had to be efficient with our marketing dollars. Which meant having to be even smarter with how we spent our time.

So we decided we would try to get clients by blogging. It was free, there was a lot to write about, and since the phone wasn’t ringing yet, we had the time. Blogging served us quite well. Before we knew it, traffic to our site had quadrupled over the course of two years, and we were getting clients. Life was good.

One day, I decided to take a closer look at Google Analytics to see exactly where in the state these people were coming from. Much to my surprise, I found our traffic was no longer coming from only New Jersey and Illinois, but from all over the US.

 

Our blog posts didn’t get us in front of many local people

Divorce is a state-specific issue, because the guidelines that govern how a settlement is reached change significantly from state to state. So there is little sense in a visitor from California reading an article about “Alimony in New Jersey.” Yet that described most of our visitors.

All that traffic was an ego and morale boost. But since we didn’t practice in 48 out of 50 States, essentially we were saying to all these visitors, “Hey thanks for coming, but please go away now.”

So my better half and I reviewed the data, and decided to start serving clients in three additional states: California, New York, and Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a decision we made casually, because we had to think out the logistics, and we knew we’d be in for a certain amount of work. We decided to expand our “service area” for two reasons. First, we were already getting some visitors from those three states. Second, divorce in those states is handled similarly to how it’s handled in Illinois and New Jersey (where we’d already seen clients).

Before we could begin helping people in these states, we knew we needed to change the structure of our website in a pretty significant way, as it was targeted exclusively to New Jersey and Illinois visitors.

Where we started from, and what changes we wanted to make

Before the big revamp, our approach had been to welcome everyone in the front door (the homepage) and then funnel them through the site depending on where they were in the process, or what information they were looking to find.

The new plan was to have more visitors land deep into the site, on a state-specific blog post or page, so that they got the sense right away we knew the issues in their state and could help them where they lived.

From there, we would encourage them to visit a state-specific hub page (so they could see where we could meet with them), and from there to encourage them to book an initial meeting. In effect, we wanted to reverse the path visitors used took through our website.

Getting the right visitors to the right “state” page: the challenges

Our goal was simple enough, but as with many things in SEO and in life, it’s easier said than done. Our situation had a few complexities: 

  1. How could we rank for three new states without hurting our existing rankings in New Jersey and Illinois?
  1. How could we convey to visitors that we weren’t some big corporation or franchise, but rather the same husband-and-wife team we’d always been?
  1. How could we convince visitors who live far from one of our office locations that we could help them negotiate the terms of their divorce virtually AND get them the same good results as if they met with us face-to-face?
  1. How could we show any given visitor that we had expertise specifically in his or her state?

First, we wrote nine new blog posts to show our state-specific expertise 

As I said, divorce laws and processes differ from state to state. So it’s a good fit for state-level local SEO, and there is plenty of helpful content one could create on how child support or alimony and things like that work in each of the new states we were practicing in. The one thing we did not want to do was write thin content, or simply duplicate content, just to add blog posts for the three new states we wanted to target.

We chose to write blog posts instead of pages for two reasons:

First, we didn’t want visitors to see right away that we practice in five states. By putting up blog posts, we were able in effect to “hide” them until visitors were ready to see them. That may seem counterintuitive, but we didn’t want to scare visitors off right away thinking we were some large corporation.

Second, writing blog posts instead of pages allowed us to use state-specific category tags. That way, when a visitor reads our blog and searches posts by category, they can choose the state they live in and be served content relevant to where they live.

For example, a California visitor can choose the “California” tag and read an article about Child Support in California.

 

Then we built five new “state” hub pages for each of the states we were practicing in – and put SERIOUS work into those pages. This was the biggest challenge, as we had to come up with even more state-specific content that wouldn’t overlap with the blog posts we created. Here too, we wanted to give visitors a sense that we knew their state, and weren’t some faceless corporation.

So we wrote unique intros for each state hub page to show our local knowledge and to drop some state-specific references.

We created a high-level overview of the four main topics of divorce in each of the five states, with links to the state-specific blog posts.

We also put ON our “state” pages some frequently asked questions that address head-on who we are and why we practice all over the place.

Believe it or not, there are divorce “franchises” out there, and we did NOT want to be perceived as one of them. (No disrespect to anyone who owns a franchise.)

We also fielded inquiries from visitors in each state regarding their most frequently asked questions, and answered them right on the page. Those FAQs were in addition to the more-general ones we added to each state page. That process gave us a bunch of new content ideas. And since it addressed a question from a specific visitor in a specific state, our logic was that if one person had that question, maybe other visitors in that state did too.

We made our internal links do more work

Once we had the new, detailed, state-specific content (described above), we could take links from our blog posts and point them to the state hub pages, and vice versa. Google seems to like internal linking, and visitors who landed on one resource might find other relevant and valuable, so we figured a two-way trail of breadcrumbs could only help.

Also, once we had the “state” pages we linked to each one in our footer.  Again, we figured both Google and people would find those helpful.

The scary parts: surgery on our title tags and H1/H2 tags, and transplanting content into and out of our homepage 

Phil advised us not to try to “optimize” the homepage for 5 different states, but rather to make it describe in more detail our services, with just enough info about each state to make it clear to Google and clients where we work. Before, we struggled with how to “optimize” for New Jersey and Illinois on the same page. Stuffing in state modifiers everywhere got awkward.

The first place we had to work that out was in the homepage title tag. Using state modifiers everywhere worked well when we were only practicing in two states, but when practicing in five, it would have looked like this: 

Divorce Mediation in New Jersey | Illinois | California | New York City | Pennsylvania | Equitable Mediation Services

117 characters, in case you’re curious. Ouch.

And the homepage welcome paragraph would have been:

“If you or your spouse live in New Jersey, Illinois, California, New York, or Pennsylvania you can mediate your divorce with us.”

Not exactly helping with the whole “we’re a small, two-person husband and wife team and not a franchise” vibe.

Also, if we were going to get our state hub pages to rank for the state-specific terms we wanted, we were going to have to move those tags, and the related state-specific content, over to those pages. This was the scariest part of the plan, because we weren’t sure how well it would be received by Google, and whether we’d mess up the rankings we already had and not pick up additional rankings.

Anyway, to give it our best shot, we did some keyword research for the state-specific “head terms” and used that as the focus of our our title tags and H1 tag. For example, in California, the term “Divorce Mediation California” had the highest search volume. So our title tag became “Divorce Mediation California | Our Locations | Get Started | FAQs” and our H1 became “Divorce Mediation California – Locations, How to Get Started, and FAQs.”

Then we had to deal with the substance of the pages themselves. As previously mentioned, we wrote lots of state-specific content for each of the hub pages. Once we had it on those state pages, we removed it from our home page. For example, here is a section on how divorce mediation is conducted in a particular state. In this case, Illinois:

Part of the restructuring between the homepage and state pages was to move the really detailed, state-specific content from the homepage to the state pages. But we still wanted some location-specific info on the homepage, so we added to the homepage a section on each state.

We kept our fingers crossed 

Making this kind of jump required a significant leap of faith.

Faith that our plan was the right plan, as you never know with the search engines if what you’re doing will help or hurt.

Faith that our state hub pages, and state-specific blog posts, would more than make up for any potential lost traffic to our homepage.

Faith this wasn’t just a big waste of time.

Faith that our visitors would respond to our messages, get to know us as humans and not some faceless corporation, and respond by booking a meeting with us.

If things didn’t work out as planned, we would simply revert back to practicing exclusively in Illinois and New Jersey as our business was fine as it was. But given the traffic we had from visitors from other states, and the fact that people throughout the United States get divorced, we felt we had to stick our necks farther out of the shell.

So what happened?

While it’s only been a few months since everything has gone live, so far the effort has been worth it.

  • We’ve climbed up the rankings for state-specific, divorce-related terms in our three new states, cracking the top 10 in Google for a few keys terms, and flirting with page one, for a number of others
  • We’ve shifted our search volume for our original two states from the homepage to their respective state hub pages with no loss of ranking (whew!)
  • We’ve increased the number of page views on our site by 71% year over year
  • We’ve increased the number of initial meetings booked with us by 38%
  • And most importantly, grown our bottom line revenues by 17% with that growth coming exclusively from the three new states we added to our practice – and reached by changing our strategy.

We believe that once we have a full year of these pages being live, and our ranking climb into the Top 10 for our key search terms, that contribution to our bottom line will grow.

Here is a screenshot of visitors from California from February 1st thru November 30th.

It wasn’t easy for us, and it won’t be easy for you 

My partner and I are not the best multi-taskers. We prefer to work on one thing at a time, and see things through from start to finish, sometimes at the detriment of other tasks or priorities. So finding the time to write blog posts, create new pages on our site, and monitor our results while servicing our current clients was challenging for us to say the least.

But despite the significant increase to our workload, and competition among multiple priorities this new project would create, we felt it was important to do it ourselves. Given the proliferation of “content marketing and creation professionals” separating the good from the bad from the ugly has become far too time-consuming for a small business like us. You would think with all the “writers” out there it would be easy to find someone good to help, and that that person would be a net time-saver. Neither of those is an outcome you can count on.

And given that this project took more than 5 months to complete (that’s 100’s of hours of man and woman power) we had to take the long view and key our eye on the prize, as results were not quick to come. Especially as we worked on it in-between our day jobs! 

Big-picture takeaways

I’ve described the finer points of what we did to expand our geographical footprint. Those exact steps may or may not be exactly what you need to do. So I’d like to sum up the broader “lessons” I’ve learned, which I’m more certain will be applicable to your situation:

Key Takeaway #1: Don’t just wing it. If possible, hire a professional to help you build a plan. Or plan yourself. Just plan! 

As business owners, we’re sometimes too close to our businesses and miss things that others can more easily see. Bringing in someone from the outside can give you a fresh perspective on what you’re doing well, and what areas you could improve on. An experienced professional can also give you peace of mind, and can be a sounding board for ideas.

We could have pumped out 50 more blog posts, or gone crazy trying to optimize our homepage for 5 different states, and it may or may not have worked out. We were tempted to try, but we’re glad we were able to reach more states after all by using less ham-handed methods.

Even if you choose not to work with a professional, there are many resources you can tap into to put together an action plan of you own to follow. One site I find helpful is the U.S. Small Business Administration and their “Small Business Guide” section in particular.

When you think about it, expanding into a new territory or market is kind of like starting a new business. You need to do market research, competitive analysis, write a business plan, calculate your costs to expand into that new market, and put together a plan. It’s probably not your idea of fun, but it’s better than launching into a strategy that you just have to abandon.

Key Takeaway #2: Decide what you want, why you want it, and what you’re willing to do to make it happen. 

I’d love it if I could just snap my fingers and grow by business. Wouldn’t that be great? The reality is it takes a lot of time, dedication, and hard work to grow. And if you’re not willing to commit 100% to the process, forget about taking on a new project in the first place.

So before you decide to make yourself crazy, or set yourself up for failure, ask yourself these questions:

Do I have the time in my day to commit to a new project? If you are already burning the candle at both ends, you’ll only stress yourself out by piling even more work that you simply won’t have time to do. Make sure you can commit the time needed to give your idea the best chance at success.

Do I have the emotional bandwidth to commit to a new project? You ever have one of those days where you just don’t feel like getting out of bed? Yeah, me too. Imagine feeling that way every day. And adding a new project to your mix. You might have the time for a new project but not the drive. And it’s the drive that’s going to get it done. Not just how many hours in the day you have free to work on it. 

Why am I considering this new project? Is it because I’m bored and I’m looking for something to do? Is it because I don’t want to address a significant concern in my business? Am I chasing some trend with no idea if it will help me or my bottom line? (Hello, social media!) If it doesn’t grow your business or move it forward in some way, don’t do it. Period. 

Is my plan solid? Do I even have a plan? How many clichés would you like me to throw at you here? How about “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” or the one about SMART goals. You may think of these as clichés but the fact is they’re universal truths. I’m guessing you don’t have unlimited time and money to waste so you better have a plan and be measuring your progress and results against it. 

Do I have the resources in-house to accomplish this? Or do I have to outsource some or all of it? As I previously mentioned, finding a competent professional to help you can be a real challenge. If you can’t find someone to help you execute the plan, can you and your team do it yourself? Or will the unfinished work become an albatross around your neck? 

What if my project doesn’t succeed? You shudder at the thought, but you’ve got to think about it. As small business owners we want to believe that our ideas are always right on the money because we know our customers and our crafts. But you must consider the possibility that your idea may not work out. And you’ll be left standing in the very same spot you are right now. You OK with that? You can afford to have it work out and reach and serve more customers, maybe even ones from another city or state. But can you afford for it not to work out? Can you take the hit?

Many business owner friends of mine have dozens of irons in the fire but never manage to complete a single project. They’ve got no time, no plan, and no resources assigned to it. They might try easy “fixes,” but nothing more. That leaves them mentally drained, stressed out by all the undone work, and frustrated that their business isn’t growing.

“I’m doing all I can!” they say. As they post pictures of themselves at the beach. On a Tuesday. At 2:30 in the afternoon. Actions speak louder than words.

If you want to grow, you need to make sure your actions are aligned with your desires. You can’t just speak the words and revenue will flow. You need to do work no one else is willing to do. Take the chances that no one else is willing to take. And pursue your goals with laser-like focus.

I’ve found this is the only way to get things done as there are lots of other distractions out there competing for my attention. If I don’t put my head down, and execute my plan, I can easily find myself playing fetch with my dog, playing the guitar, or doing one of a hundred other things that don’t contribute to my bottom line.

And if you don’t want to grow, that’s OK too. I know plenty of business owners who are content exactly where they are. They work as hard as they want, and balance their business growth with other, perhaps higher priorities. For instance, I have a friend who runs a small mortgage business, but his focus is on “being there” for his two high-school aged sons. Sure, he could grow, because there are lots of people who buy houses and need mortgages, but he’d rather spend the time it would take to grow doing other things. That’s perfectly fine.

Key Takeaway #3: There’s more to local SEO than your Google My Business pages!

 You might think that these days Google and other search engines are so hung up on providing users with hyper-local results that there’s no room for businesses that operate state-wide. Or that don’t have physical office locations near the searcher. Though that may be true to a certain extent, there are still opportunities to create local content and have searchers find you, as we did with our state hub pages.

Here are some elements you may want on a “state” or other type of location-specific page:

Introduction. A great opportunity to let visitors know upfront you can help them where they live, and that you speak their lingo. Also lets you work in some state-specific search terms. 

General FAQs. The job of any good website page or post is education and action. Sharing FAQs upfront tells your reader you know why they’re there and that you can help. And if you don’t know what FAQs to address, ask your visitors and customers. Or just listen to them a little more closely. 

Locations. Let people know your office locations, or the areas you serve. More opportunities for SEO by using state or location-specific terms. 

An in-depth look at your service, and how it’s geared to the place you’re targeting. Share with visitors how your service works in their particular area. Is there something different about pest-control in Florida from how it’s done in North Dakota? Something tells me there is. Write about it so they know you know what you’re doing. Mention specific cities and landmarks and so on where appropriate. 

Call to action. Depending on how long your page is, you may want to have multiple opportunities for a call to action. But at a minimum, tell the reader what it is you want them to do next.

Key Takeaway #4: A project with payoff is not “set it and forget it.”

 Just because you’ve completed your project doesn’t mean it’s over. In fact, the work has only begun.

Major changes like the ones we undertook required us to first set a baseline of where we were so that we could know if what we were doing was helping or hurting. We also had to put in place a system to monitor the changes we made, to ensure we were still getting the results we wanted.

Yep, after all that writing and restructuring, we created even more work for ourselves. 

Undertaking significant projects like these can seem overwhelming. But if you’ve got a plan, maybe a team of professionals who can help, and the drive to see it through from start to finish, you can do it too.

Joe and Cheryl have done a good job of avoiding the content hamster wheel, where you write 10 blog posts a month that not even mom reads, just because you heard that “Google likes fresh content.”  Instead, Joe and Cheryl focused on the one-time, permanent content on their site: mostly the homepage and the “state” pages, with blog posts that are (1) designed to be helpful and that (2) have a long shelf life.

They didn’t try to optimize every page for every state/region, and instead carved out specific pages to do that.

They didn’t try to “optimize” every crack of the homepage for every state, and instead used it to describe their services in-depth, while adding just enough location-specific content for Google and visitors to sink their teeth into.

They put in a ton of work, and have seen some very nice results, but are nowhere near “done.”  They didn’t mistake a simple plan for an easy plan.

What’s something you learned from Joe’s case-study?

Any particular step you’re eager to try?

How would you adapt it to your situation?

Leave a comment!

Should You Make It a Page or a Post?

You’ve got content you want to stick on your site.  Maybe it’s about a specific service or product you offer, or it’s in-depth “educational” info, or it’s your answer to a frequently asked question, or it’s some attempt to reach people in a specific city, or something else.

You know what you want to put on your site, but aren’t as sure how best to weave it in: Should you create a static page or a blog post?

That depends on many factors – your goals, your preferences, and other specifics of the situation.  More on those in a second.

You might have heard soundbites like “Google likes fresh content,” or “blog posts are search-engine-friendly,” or “every small business should have a blog,” or “blog posts rank better” (especially if you use WordPress or are considering it).  Not necessarily.  Those statements are true to one degree or another, depending on the situation, but in my experience reality is a little more complicated.

It’s complicated partly because the goal isn’t necessarily to get a page or post to rank, but maybe instead for it to (1) drive leads, (2) to impress however many people find it, or (3) to get shared and linked-to and help make your name.  Or some combination of the above.

If you pressed me to suggest one to err on the side of using more, I’d go with pages.  At least in my experience, static pages tend to rank a little better than do blog posts, and often go farther in converting the right leads into the right kinds of customers/clients/patients.  If that’s true, I can only speculate as to why.  That’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, if the question is “Should I create a page or a blog post for this info I want to put up?” and the answer is “It depends,” then what does it depend on?  Well, here’s how I decide when to make a page vs. a post:

Make it a page if you:

  • Want to convert readers to customers/clients/patients right away (if possible). If your content has “commercial intent” it should probably be a page, rather than a post.  People expect posts to be educational.
  • Want most or all visitors to see whatever you’ve written. Posts usually are a little harder to navigate to.  Even if you have a prominent “Latest Posts” display, the posts you want everyone to see will probably get buried by more-recent posts sooner or later.

  • Plan to make it an evergreen resource – one you may significantly edit or add to later. Posts tend to have at least one indication as to when they were written.  An old post with new, up-to-date info may confuse people.
  • Want it to rank for very specific keywords. Again, people generally expect blog posts to be informational.  There’s just a little more footwork you can do on a page – and not have it look weird – from the title, to the name of the page, to the internal links you can weave in, and so on.  Even more important: it’s possible any link-rustlin’ outreach you do will result in more links, if ultimately you’re asking people to link to your “resource” rather than to your “latest blog post.”
  • Want it to rank in a specific city, or for certain city-specific search terms, or both.  (See this.)
  • Want to point AdWords traffic to it. If you’re running AdWords competently, most people who click on your ad have an imminent need for what you offer.  Don’t confuse them by using a blog post (meant to appear kinda-sorta educational) as your landing page URL.
  • Need to be able to tell people the URL verbally. Blog post URLs tend to be longer and messier (example).
  • Need people to be able to type the URL.
  • Created it as a post already and now want to revive it. Let’s say you created a post 3 years ago, and it didn’t accomplish what you wanted it to, or it’s slipped in the rankings.  Simply updating the URL and timestamp to reflect the current year won’t help you.
  • Care much which subdirectory it’s in.

  • Care much what’s in the URL slug.

  • Want it to appear as a sitelink in the search results for your brand name.

  • Don’t want people to leave comments, as they can on most blog posts.
  • Aren’t yet sure what to call it.
  • Plan to migrate to a new CMS soon.

Make it a post if you:

  • Want mostly non-customers and non-leads to consume your info. Sometimes the people who read and share and link to your posts aren’t people who will ever pay you a dime for anything.  That’s how it is on my blog, for one: Many of the people who “spread the word” about my posts, site, and business aren’t my clients.  That’s a good situation, and it’s a good situation for you, too.  You want “cheerleaders” in addition to customers.
  • Feature news or other info with a shelf life shorter than that of a Slim Jim.

  • Think it will still look good in the search results even when the timestamp is 5 years old.

  • Can’t figure out a good way to incorporate a static page into your navigation.
  • Have a dedicated audience of people who expect posts from you. That’s why what you’re reading now is a post, and not a page 🙂
  • Want to make an announcement.
  • Offer a discount or make a special offer.
  • Are just testing out an idea and aren’t sure you want it to be a permanent fixture.  A blog post can make a fine Petri dish.
  • Want to serialize your work.

What are some criteria you use to decide when to make a page vs. a post?

Do you have a resource where you’re not sure you got it right (and want a second opinion)?

Leave a comment!

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

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

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

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

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

No.

Is there another way to make progress?

Yes.

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

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

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

Priority 1: Perform “content CPR.”

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

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

Priority 2: Fill in the gaps.

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

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

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

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

Priority 3: Cannibalize your other resources.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your “content priorities”?

Any you’d add to the list?

Leave a comment!

 

25 Principles of Building Effective City Pages for Local SEO

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

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

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

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

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

Bedrock principles

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

11.  Include testimonials.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

air-conditioning-repair-cleveland.html

air-conditioning-repair-columbus.html

air-conditioning-repair-cincinnati

heating-repair-cleveland.html

heating-repair-columbus.html

heating-repair-cincinnati.html

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

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

 

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

 

 

Pro tips

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

 

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

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

 

18.  Link out. Cite resources.

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

 

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

There are at least a few benefits to this setup:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Any principles I missed?

Leave a comment!

Low-Tech Local SEO Fix-ups for Your Site

You can’t make big or technical changes to your site, for whatever reason.  (Maybe you just aren’t sure how.)  Your options may be limited, but you still want to start ranking in Google Places and elsewhere.

Maybe your webmaster pulled a Houdini on you.  Or selfishly went belly-up at just the wrong time (before you’re ranking top-7).

Or maybe you are your own webmaster, but don’t think you can take your site apart and make it whole again.

There’s still plenty you can do to make your site local-search-friendly.

After my last post – which was a little technical – I thought it was time for something lower-tech.  Here, my suggestions would have made sense for you to do 10 years ago, and they’ll benefit you 10 years from now.  Many of them I’ve mentioned before.

You only need to be able to make basic changes to your pages.  You should be able to implement these suggestions whether you’re using WordPress, a hand-coded site, one of GoDaddy’s contraptions, or any other “website builder.”

Here are the low-tech local SEO steps I suggest you take on your site:

Structure

1.  Create a page for every specific service you offer.

2.  Create a page for each location, if you have more than one location.  (Don’t necessarily use these as your Google Places landing pages.)

3.  Create the other pages you should create.

 

Content

4.  Make sure your homepage at least mentions your specific services.

5.  Add old-school driving / walking / public-transportation directions.

6.  Describe some local landmarks.

7.  Go through every page of your site and see if you can explain your services better.

8.  Describe your qualifications, certifications, etc.  If applicable, also link to them.

9.  Describe your service area.  (Notice I said “describe” it.  Don’t just paste in all the city names in a paragraph that’s taller than Shaq.)

10.  Rework crappy blog posts.

11.  Remove or rewrite duplicate content.

 

Details

12.  Put your business’s “NAP” (name, address, phone) info on every page.  No, it doesn’t need to be in Schema.  (Some guidelines here.)

13.  Add links to your subpages – particularly pages where you describe specific services – where appropriate.  Do not overdo this.  Only add links when you realize, “Gee, maybe a visitor would want to know more about this point.”

14.  Add links to sites where customers have reviewed you.

review-links-sidebar

Maybe also create a “Review Us” page with those links on it.

15.  Add photos.  Name them relevantly, and make sure they’re relevant to whatever you’re describing on the page.

16.  Read your content out-loud.  Take note of any areas that sound clunky.  I’ll bet you a beer they’re links with keywords awkwardly inserted.  Remove or rephrase those links.

 —

Even if you nail the low-tech stuff, your site may still need work.  But you’ll be in much better shape.

How many of these fixes have you crossed off the to-do list?

Any non-technical suggestions you’d add?

Leave a comment!

21 Pages a “Small Local Business” Site Needs for Tip-Top Local Visibility

What pages on your site can help you snag some better local rankings – and customers?  And do you have those pages on your site?

May seem like basic questions.  But if most of the sites I see are any indication, most business owners haven’t lost sleep over them.

They’ve got a homepage.

There’s a “Contact” page with a phone number on it.  (The number has a typo.)

There’s an “About Us” page that doesn’t identify “us” or anything about “us” but does tell you how great the company is.  Maybe it even has a stock photo of office workers with clip-on ties high-fiving each other.

The better sites might even have a “Services” page, plus maybe a “Testimonials” page with a one-liner from JJ in Chicago and Anna Karenina penned by Martha in Florida.  Now that’s marketing gold.

Let’s put aside the fact that most small-business sites don’t include a good blog or have any way to grow bigger this year than they were last year: The slim number of pages alone makes most sites online paperweights.  If a business is doing OK for customers, it’s despite the site, not because of it.

Fewer pages on your site means there’s less info for visitors to grab onto.  Each page you create is a chance to answer a question a potential customer might be wondering.

And don’t give me that “but people don’t read” hogwash.  They read…when you address their problems and questions.  You want them to have the option of reading more if they want to.

Creating more pages is also a chance to pick up some local-organic rankings, if you play your cards right.  Most sites are so thin that the only page that might – might – rank well in the local results is the homepage.  A meatier site gives you – if nothing else – more opportunities to grab some organic rankings.

Not all of these page-types will apply to your business, but I’m guessing most will.

See if you can create these 21 types of pages on your site:

“Locations” – If you have locations in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, you might have an “Ohio Locations” page with a short blurb on each of those locations, plus links to pages where you say a little more about each location.  Or you might have a “service areas” page.  Same idea, but you’d be pointing people toward “city pages” for the main cities you serve.

Individual location – You’d have a page for your Cleveland location, a page for your Columbus location, and another one for your Cincinnati location.

“Services” – List all your services, have a blurb on each, and link to a page for each.  Do the same if you offer products, rather than services.

Individual service – The more detail you can give on each service, the better.

“Our Team” or “About Us” – This is a page everyone expects to see.  It’s also one that you can pretty easily optimize: It can be “Our Electricians” or “About Your Surgeons” or “Meet Your Attorneys.”  Here’s an excellent example.

Individual bios – Have a page for each employee, technician, agent, doctor, nurse, lawyer, paralegal, etc.

FAQs – You could have a general FAQ and one (or several) for more-specialized questions.  You could have “Dental Insurance FAQs,” “First-Time Home Buyer FAQs,” “Common Questions on Tankless Water Heaters” – whatever.

Testimonials – Ideally you’d mark them up with Schema or hReview-aggregate.

“In the Media” – Have you been featured in the local paper, or did the local news reporter stick a mic in your face for 15 seconds?  Show or mention it here.

“Community” or “Giving Back” – Describe what you do for charity.  (Do something, if you’re not already.)

Photos – Be sure to name the photos relevantly, and try to include captions.  Don’t overdo it.

Videos – Embed your videos on the page.  See if you can name your page something like “Videos on How to ____.”

Awards or Recognition – It’s fine to mention little stuff until there’s bigger stuff.

Company History – Stick to the story; on other pages you can talk about what makes you great.  If there’s not much of a “history” yet, consider doing a “Values” page.

“Qualifications” or “Certifications” – Same idea as with the “Awards” or “Recognition” page.  Use what you’ve got.

Insurance accepted – If applicable.

Financing – If applicable.

“Why us?”Here’s an example.

Case-study – Describe what you did for a specific customer or client (with his/her permission, of course).  Include pictures if you can.

“Learning Center” – Define relevant, useful, and unavoidable jargon terms you think customers should know.  Explain concepts you’d like your customers to grasp – for their sake and for yours.  Even cannibalize some of your FAQs and use them here.  Here’s an example of a good “learning center.”

“Portfolio” – Most applicable if you’re a contractor, designer of any kind, or consultant.

A late addition, #22: “Coupons” or “Savings” – Thanks to Zac Palmer of Divot Agency for this suggestion (see his comment, below).

By the way, you’ll notice I didn’t mention some common types of pages.  I didn’t mention boilerplate pages like “Contact” or “Privacy Policy,” because those just aren’t going to rank for any search terms, and pretty much every business has one already.

Anyway, back to the action items…

What if you already have those pages on your site?  See how you can beef them up.

What if you like the “minimal” look?  Then get used to minimal rankings and phone calls.  (Or just work on your navigation and menu structure.)

It’s up to you to create the lumps of clay – and yes, that involves writing.

But once you get to the sculpting stage, you’ll want to refer to these handy posts on on-page optimization:

The Anatomy of an Optimal Local Landing Page – Mike Ramsey

Designing Business Location Website Pages: Part One – Single Location Business – Aaron Weiche

Designing Business Location Website Pages, Part 2: Multiple Location Business – Aaron Weiche

Understand and Rock the Google Venice Update – Mike Ramsey

And a few relevant posts from me:

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

How to Name Your Local Landing Page(s) – me

50 Examples of Title Tags That Rock at Local SEO – me

Maybe the best thing about a bigger, more-detailed site is that it’s a reliable way to get found by local customers even if / when something bad happens to your Google+ Local (or Bing Places) rankings.  Relying on the “maps”-style rankings is just stupid.

While we’re on the topic, I have found that bigger, beefier sites tend to rank better in the Google+ Local (or Bing Places) rankings.  Even when they don’t have many or any links.  Don’t ask me why.  It just seems to work out that way.

March into battle with more weapons.

Can you think of any types of pages that (1) customers want to see and that (2) might actually rank well?  Leave a comment!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why you might need city pages

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

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

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

What do you do?

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

 

Why you need unique city pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  It’s lame.

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

 

16 ways to make your pages unique

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

On-page elements

1. Title tags.

2.  Description tags.

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

4.  H1s, H2s, etc.

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

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

Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Examples of good city pages

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

AttaboyPlumbing.com
(look under “About” tab)

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

 

Great resources

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

Understand and Rock the Google Venice Update – Mike Ramsey

How to Create Local Content for Multiple Cities – Matt McGee

The Anatomy of an Optimal Local Landing Page – Mike Ramsey

The #1 Problem with Local Blogging – Matt McGee

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

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

Guidelines on duplicate content – Google

Policies on keyword-stuffing – Google

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

Any really good examples of city pages?

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

Leave a comment!