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

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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!

Can You Repurpose Customers’ Yelp Reviews on Your Website? An Answer from Yelp HQ

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Image Credit David Berkowitz flickr.com/photos/davidberkowitz/5923527436/

There’s long been a concern among “local” business owners and marketers that Yelp might filter or otherwise remove your hard-earned reviews if you copy and paste them onto your site.  Yelp’s a killjoy, so there’s some basis for that assumption.

But it turns out Yelp is fine with your publishing Yelp reviews on your site (and sometimes elsewhere), under a few conditions.

I couldn’t find the official policies on that practice posted anywhere, and a recent conversation on Google+ got me wondering, so I asked.  Here’s what Lucy at Yelp HQ told me the other day:

We have a few common sense guidelines if you want to use your Yelp rating and reviews in basic marketing materials, including your own website:

DO ask the reviewers themselves before using their reviews. You can contact them by sending them a “Private Message” on Yelp through your Business Account.

DO stick to verbatim quotes, and don’t quote out of context. If a review has colorful language that doesn’t suit your needs, you should probably move on to the next review.

DO attribute the reviews to Yelp using the Yelp logo (e.g.,”Reviews from Yelp”), and do attribute the reviews to their authors and the date written (e.g.,”- Mike S. on 4/5/09″). Yelp logos can be found at http://www.yelp.com/developers/getting_started/api_logos.

DON’T distort the Yelp logo or use it in any way to suggest that Yelp or its users are affiliated with your business or helped create your marketing materials. Your business and your marketing need to stand on their own.

DON’T alter star ratings. Average star ratings change over time, so you also need to include the date of your rating nearby (e.g.,”**** as of 5/1/09″).

While we would hope not to, we reserve the right to change these guidelines from time to time or rescind our permission for any or no reason.

Reasonable enough, except for that last clause.  It also squares with what I’ve found to be true of reviews (Yelp and Google+) regardless of policy: they just don’t get filtered if you repurpose them.

What’s been your experience with reusing reviews?  Do you ask customers first?  Have you run across businesses who flagrantly go against Yelp’s reuse policies?  Leave a comment!

Keep Your Site, Lose at Local SEO: When Must You Rebuild?

Can your camel’s back take any more straw?

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Take care of your camel and it’ll take care of you.  Give it plenty of food and water, be its buddy, and don’t overwork it.  When your camel gets very old, don’t ask more of it.  One camel can only bring you through so many miles of desert.

Your business will only survive the harsh conditions of the “local map” if you take care of your website – and if you get a new one when it’s gone as far as it will go.

I asked some smart local-search buffs a simple question:

When do you need a new site to move up in the local search results?

They – Mike Blumenthal, Mary Bowling, Dana DiTomaso, Adam Dorfman, Greg Gifford, Joy Hawkins, Casey Meraz, David Mihm, Max Minzer, Mike Ramsey, Darren Shaw, Andrew Shotland, Gyi Tsakalakis, and Nyagoslav Zhekov – offered some practical insights.

(By the way, this post doesn’t deal with the question of when you need to get a new domain name because you’ve got so many bad links pointing to your site.)

Not sure whether your local SEO goals simply demand a new site?  Here’s what the pros say:

Mike Blumenthal
Blumenthal’s

Flash – instant nuking.

Content – in some industries like insurance I have seen sites that contained ONLY syndicated content that was the same across thousands of sites. This relates to the next point.

On-going updates – sometimes the CMS or architecture are either so bad that it becomes nearly impossible to update or the work requires very expensive intermediaries to update the site and grow the content. This both slows down basic work and makes on-going work extremely painful and expensive.

Design Failures – Sites that don’t convert due to major design and content flaws often need to be replaced.  What good does it do sending all kinds of visitors if when they get there, they can’t or won’t become customers.

 

Mary Bowling
MaryBowling.com

The main problem with a website that can prompt me to recommend a new one is when the bones of the site – its architecture and URL structure –  are crumbling or broken.

This often occurs when a website is created without sufficient consideration of current SEO and local SEO best practices and/or has been “frankensteined” over the years by tacking on content without sufficient attention to where it belongs within the site structure.

 

Dana DiTomaso
Kickpoint

The decision generally boils down to “can this site be a success when we drive a lot of traffic to it?” Does it match with the impression you want to give new visitors, or will it drive them away? Some reasons why we’ve needed to get a site redone in the past include:

  • The site is bad on mobile and the price difference between adding a mobile version and just redoing the site to be responsive is pretty similar.
  • You need to email your web designer every time you want to change the text. At some point it just adds up.
  • The code is so bad that you have big technical issues. For example, site searches are creating duplicate pages.
  • The site might not play well with social – for example, you can’t Open Graph tags so your pages look like crap when shared on social.

 

Adam Dorfman
SIM Partners

We typically don’t work with many SMBs, but here are three issues I have repeatedly seen large brands running into that warrants jettisoning the existing strategy and starting over.

  1. No or unidexable location pages. Even today it is not uncommon with large brands trying to rely exclusively on a locator or a set of pages iFramed into a locator.
  1. Duplicate content pages existing under each location. In most cases if a business is selling services nationally, the description of the service won’t change from location to location. Unfortunately coming across a site with 500 locations and 50,000+ pages of “local” content indexed still happens. Instead of having store.com/location1 link to store.com/location1/service and store.com/location2 link to store.com/location2/service have them link to store.com/service.
  1. Microsites instead of and/or in addition to location pages on a sub-directory or subdomain. There was a time when brands could utilize microsites to drive non-branded search traffic and conversions but with domain strength becoming a much more important signal after the Pigeon update, brands are almost always better off putting their location pages in a subdomain or subdirectory under their primary domain.

 

Greg Gifford
AutoRevo

I always suggest a site update when a site looks dated, or isn’t user friendly. Many times, that just means design/organizational changes, but sometimes you get in and see that they’re on some free site builder platform, or some kind of crappy CMS. At that point, it’s time to make a change.

We see auto dealers all the time who are on flat out awful CMS systems. It’s almost unbelievable – there are thousands of dealers on a major website provider that can’t even add a page to their website! They have to create the page in the CMS (and they can only edit the H1 and content), and then they have to submit a support ticket to have the provider add the page to the site. Typically, dealers don’t know any better, so the button name, H1, and title tag all say the exact same thing.

But – they’re either required by their manufacturer to use that system, or they just don’t know there’s a better solution out there. If you’re not able to add pages, or edit the important SEO elements on any page, it’s definitely time to blow up the site and start from scratch.

 

Joy Hawkins
Imprezzio Marketing

1.  The current site has no CMS – Without a CMS it makes it really hard for any marketing company to scale the amount of work they can do on a site. Since lots of SEO companies charge by the hour, this could leave business owners paying for several hours to do a really simple task.  Thus, it’s better for the business to pay to get a new site with a SEO-friendly CMS (like WordPress).

I had a tree service business that recently paid us to redo his site and this was the main reason why. Even adding something like a Google Analytics code was really time consuming because we had to manually add it to every page of his site. Adding a new page to his site was something we had to get a higher-level web design employee to do since it involved knowing how to build a page from scratch using HTML. So getting a new WordPress site was definitely in his better interests.

2.  The current site is not responsive and has a template/structure that is not easy to convert to make it responsive. I have had some quotes come back from our web design team where it would be cheaper to build a new site based on a template that is already responsive than it would be to take the existing site and make it responsive. Having a responsive site is becoming more and more important for SEO and also for having visitors convert into customers. I also always suggest this instead of having a separate mobile version of your site because responsive design fits to any screen size (not just phones) and also makes it so you only have 1 version of your site that you need to update on a regular basis instead of 2.

3.  The current theme is outdated.  I’ve had clients that are using old WordPress themes that aren’t updated and don’t work well with some of the newer versions of WordPress. I had one that even broke the entire homepage when it upgraded to WordPress 4.0. Having the latest version of WordPress is important to help keep your site from being vulnerable to the many hacks that you hear about which can cause Google to actually remove your site from their index (for malware).

4.  The current theme doesn’t support certain types of coding necessary for Local SEO. For example, I have had several clients who have a CMS and/or theme that removes all Schema markup the second you press to save the page. Something in either the theme/CMS removes or strips the code off the page the moment it’s saved. The same thing applies to adding a simple H1 or H2 header. I had this happen with a personal injury lawyer I worked with and also a private investigator.

5.  You need a new site due to a manual penalty or Penguin issues.  After seeking advice from a manual penalty expert, a dentist I just started working with was advised to get an entire new site. It wasn’t just the domain that needed to be changed but also the content on the entire site. We also renamed all the images and changed the hosting to make sure Google didn’t associate it at all with the old site. The old site had 2 different manual penalties and also had a massive traffic drop after Penguin 3.0 in October 2014. All due to some terrible backlinks he had acquired years ago.

 

Casey Meraz
Ethical SEO Consulting

First of all, you will get the most out of your investment if you pick a system that your SEO Consultants are experts with. So in some cases it may make sense to rebuild and restart when starting a new SEO project. Moving to a commonly available CMS will give you more options for expert advice moving forward.

Also this really depends on the investment. Website design and development costs can be expensive. If you are going to pay an SEO on a monthly on-going basis for a set period you can be shooting yourself in the foot by just applying patches or minor fixes and limping along instead of fixing major root problems with your site. In my opinion its always better to start with the least imperfect base. If you do this you can rule out a lot of uncertainty moving forward.

Typically I would consider a site totaled if it meets a couple of the criteria below:

1) The theme is way too bulky and increase site load time significantly

2) The design/layout is not producing conversions when a A/B test reveals it’s an easy fix.

3) The CMS is not using SEO best practices like 301 redirects, title tags, etc. (I just saw this last week)

4) The site is not mobile friendly

5) When the architecture is so bad it takes too many clicks to find what you’re looking for

 

David Mihm
Moz

If a client is not on a standard CMS (Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, etc) and the site is under about 30-40 pages, I’m always inclined to get them onto WordPress.  It’s a good long-term investment even if it takes a few extra hours to set the site up.

Questions I would ask myself prior to doing so:

– How bad is the formatting of the URLs?

– How many URLs are indexed (site:clientdomain.com @ Google)

– How easy is it to edit individual page title tags?

– How easy is it to add links and content to the homepage?

– How easy is it to completely rework the navigation?

If the answers all “check out” above, and the client doesn’t update content all that often, then maybe it’s OK to leave them on the current setup.

 

Max Minzer
ReEngage Consulting

In the world where marketers say “You must have a website or your business will go bankrupt” (same about social media networks) I’d start on the other side.

When considering redesign/rebuild of business website – it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate website’s role in reaching your overall business objectives.

Consumer expectations are evolving. How do you adapt your digital properties to reach potential customers?

Not every business needs a website as a critical asset (example: http://goo.gl/A1xbdt) and not every small business website has the same weight and priority for reaching objectives of each specific business. That’s not to diminish the role of website as an online extension of their business – as a digital home, business card, branding and a source of information. But when considering redesign it’s an opportunity for critical constructive re-evaluation and it comes down to three things, in my opinion:

1) website fulfilling the purpose and value it has for that business. Business owner: “Am I getting (or missing potential) conversions/calls/emails?” Or another: “Do my customers learn more about my business?”

2) customer expectations. Customer: “I didn’t expect this high-end restaurant to have website that was probably built by their nephew with Dreamweaver 10 years ago for a school project”

3) conflicting information or confusing dated material. Customer: “Hmm, I think I saw a sign yesterday on my way out saying they’ll have my favorite local band this Saturday but their website has a poster from few months ago with another band listed.” Or another one: “Look what they have on the menu on their website! Let’s go!” and then visiting and finding out that the menu wasn’t updated for years and the dish you wanted isn’t available.

With that in mind, I’d consider different approaches for each business based on their objectives.

One business might be better off without certain parts of the website, like if customers feel like they’re visiting a Twitter profile with its last tweets from 2011. Go simple.

Another business will be fine even with an archaic website because customers don’t have high expectations and business continues to get plenty of phone calls and word of mouth referrals.

Another business might want to think about rebuilding if they get Yelp messages or customer feedback saying website contact form is broken. Things are broken.

And other business is doing great but will see missing potential and do redesign/rebuild to explore new waters, not out of desperation with poorly built site in the past.

 

Mike Ramsey
Nifty Marketing

I don’t think there is an exact point that is the same for every business. I generally try to determine it based on a simple formula:

Cost of Time to Fix vs. Cost of Time to Rebuild What is Needed From Scratch

This determines if we start over or not. The hard part in both cases is the same: determining what is needed. Once you can nail that down it becomes a lot easier to determine the time each option would take.

I know this is basic but it has proven quite helpful to us in making that call.

 

Darren Shaw
Whitespark

Every website rebuild project I’ve worked on has seemed reasonable at the start, but ended up taking 3 times longer than expected, so I try to avoid them. Usually, I find it’s less work to fix the architecture issues than to rebuild a whole site, but if the site is built in Joomla, Magento, or Drupal, then I want to tear it down immediately and build from scratch. I despise those platforms.

When determining whether it’s better to start from scratch, design is more important to me than CMS or architecture.  When I land on a website with terrible design that looks like it was built in 1998, I scramble for the back button, and that will kill a business’ SEO. If the design repels potential customers, then I’ll push the client to start from scratch with a new site.

 

Andrew Shotland
Local SEO Guide

We’ve certainly had cases where client sites were overly complicated and part of our SEO recommendations led to a redesign, but that has almost always been in the “enterprise” space, not SMBs. Any time we have recommended this for SMBs is when we are pretty sure there’s a Panda issue – lots of thin, SEOish pages that are getting no traffic.

Funny thing is we had this happen recently in reverse. A new client had just redesigned their website because it had hundreds of crap SEO’d pages and they thought it had a Panda problem. So they just chucked the whole thing out and launched the new one and guess what happened? Their organic traffic went down to almost zero. Because their web dev was playing amateur SEO (“Why pay an SEO consultant? How hard is it to update a title tag?”), when traffic started dropping he cried “Panda!” but he had neglected to realize that they still had organic traffic.

In his zeal to redo the site (and probably make some $ of the client in the process) he blew out all of the pages that were still getting traffic and that’s when their SEO really tanked. Their web leads dried up instantly. A few months later they brought us in and the first thing we did was roll back to the old Panda-fied site. Within 3 weeks they went from 2 clicks/day in Google to 60.

 

Gyi Tsakalakis
AttorneySync

This is definitely one of those case-by-case situations. However, if it’s a content-focused site (i.e. not ecommerce) and it’s not on WordPress, that alone can be enough for us to justify a reboot or migration.

Working with law firms, we see a lot of proprietary and quasi-proprietary CMS implementations. There are a lot of problems here (the fact that they’re proprietary, lack of support/updates, etc).

Assuming they’re already on WordPress, we look to architecture. Most firm websites we review don’t have a clearly planned site architecture. They’re usually blog feed + static pages (i.e. bios, practice areas, etc).

Fortunately, many of these can be restructured without needing a complete tear-down and rebuild. In some instances, cases of exceptionally long/spammy url structures, we will recommend rebuild.

Finally, there’s the “excessive plugins” issue. A lot folks will try to design/feature/layout implementations via plugin. We have found that this is a source of a lot of problems (site speed, reliability, security vulnerabilities, administration, etc).

If we can’t remove most plugins without greatly impacting the site’s overall structure/layout, we’ll probably recommend a fresh start.

 

Nyagoslav Zhekov
Whitespark

I once worked with a law firm with quite a few offices in a very competitive area of practice in a very competitive geographic region of the US. The guy in charge of the Internet marketing efforts of the firm was very passionate about SEO and very eager to get results. Needless to say, this is very frequently a formula for mess, and most certainly not one that delivers good and sustainable results.

The guy had at least 4 people work on his site (WordPress) prior to me taking a look. There were literally hundreds of scripts and plugins installed, or manually coded, as well as a lot of hard coding into the theme used by the site. Additionally, there were thousands of pages of duplicate, or near-duplicate content, as well as pages with content that was near-duplicate (or badly re-written) with content from external sites. Almost none of the content on the site has been optimized neither for humans, nor for robots. The architecture of the site was chaotic – and again, we are talking about a site with thousands of pages of content. There was no inter-linking between the pages, no universal hierarchy, and worst of all – no certain way to know what had to be linked to what and where it was supposed to belong (if anywhere).

I guess the short answer to your question would be – if it would take less time (and money) to get a brand-new, well-structured and optimized site, as compared to trying to figure out what exactly has to be done with your old (and ruined by time, people you have hired, or yourself) site, and actually implementing the needed changes, then it might be better to pick the first option.

 

Phil Rozek

I have a mental checklist.  It tells me the site may need to hang up in the museum if it:

  • Looks like it was built when Gerald Ford was president
  • Drives me crazy when I try to navigate it
  • Makes noises at me
  • Uses too much Flash
  • Won’t let me add pages easily
  • Has weird pagination, like with jQuery (example)
  • Isn’t mobile-friendly
  • Isn’t on WordPress (by no means always a deal-breaker, but it’s a consideration)
  • Takes too long to load, for reasons I can’t easily remedy

I usually become a pain in my client’s neck if the site has more than about 2 of those problems.

On the other hand, some sites are so bad that I hope they stay around forever.

Huge thanks to all the contributors for all the practical, hard-learned wisdom.  I suggest you follow all of them.

Think you might need a new site?

Under what circumstances would you know your camel can’t carry more straw?

Did you have a favorite bit of advice?

Leave a comment!

Ultimate List of Review Widgets and Badges for Your Local Business Website

What good are your reviews if nobody sees them?

Whenever possible, you should show them off on your site by using a review “widget” or badge.  Many review sites offer them for the taking.

But review widgets and badges are more than flashy “trust” symbols.  They can also:

  • Encourage any current / past customers who visit your site to leave reviews
  • Help with your barnacle SEO (because you’re linking to your listings)
  • Add a little extra color and je ne sais quoi to your site

For the record, here’s what I’m talking about:

For the third part of my recent unofficial trilogy on more-advanced review strategy (see this and this), I’ve rounded up every piece of review bling I could find.

How many widgets / badges you can put on your site depends mostly on your industry and on where you already have reviews.

See which ones you can add to your site.  Here are the links:

Angie’s List

Widget: http://www.angieslist.com/angie-badge/
Industry: Any

Avvo

Widget: http://www.avvo.com/partner_with_us/syndication
Industry: Legal

Cylex

Widget: http://bit.ly/1tYUsBR
Industry: Any

HomeStars

Widget: http://bit.ly/1ERKE4Y
Industry: Home-improvement

Houzz

Widget: http://www.houzz.com/buttonsAndBadges
Industry: Home-improvement

Note: You’ll need to have reviews on Houzz and be signed-in to get your widget. Thanks to Ben Bowen of Ross NW Watergardens for pointing this out in his comment.

Martindale

Widget: http://bit.ly/1D6bPY2
Industry: Legal

Kudzu

Widget: http://www.kudzubizsuccess.com/?p=599
Industry: Any

SuperPages

Widget: http://www.superpages.com/ratings_badges/search_page.html
Industry: Any

TripAdvisor

Widget: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Widgets
Industry: Tourism and dining

Trulia

Widget: http://www.trulia.com/tools/ambassador/
Industry: Real estate

WeddingWire

Widget: http://www.weddingwire.com/shared/Widgets
Industry: Wedding-related

Wellness

Widget: http://www.wellness.com/docs/12761/wellness-provider-program
Industry: Health

Yelp

Widget: https://biz.yelp.com/bling/
Industry: Any

Zagat

Widget: http://www.zagat.com/business-owners/badge
Industry: Dining

Zillow

Widget: http://www.zillow.com/webtools/widgets/review-widget/
Industry: Real estate and home-improvement

 

A few notes:

You’ll notice I didn’t include paid review-encouragement systems – like CustomerLobby, DemandForce, or SmileReminder – although they do give you ways to showcase your reviews.

Didn’t see the site you wanted represented among the above widgets / badges?  You can always create your own badges, which you link out to places where you’ve got reviews.  That’s the only good way to show off your Google+ reviews, for instance.  (If you do this, I suggest you have the links open into new browser tabs, so that you’re not making people leave your site.)

Use CrazyEgg or a similar tool to see how many people click on your review badges – or even see them in the first place.  You may conclude that you should show off your reviews in the sidebar, or only on specific pages, or on this or that part of the page.  Tinker around until your plan comes together.

Am I missing any review widgets that you know of?

Do you use any widgets on your site?  If so, which one(s) do you like?

Leave a comment!

How to Cultivate Hearty Local SEO Genes for Your Business

 

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

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

Yes ma’am.

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

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

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

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

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

Relevance genes

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Location genes

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

(Hat tip to this post.)

 

Phone genes

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

Also, don’t get 867-5309.

 

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

 

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

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

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

Microsites for Local SEO: the Pros and Cons

Image credit Stephen Chiang (stephenchiang.com)

Image courtesy of Stephen Chiang Photography

Some business owners think the best way to rank in many cities in the local search is to have many websites.  That’s a losing strategy.

They build microsites – by which I mean a bunch of small, usually almost identical sites with names like:

            PlumbingCompanyCambridge.com

            PlumbingCompanySomerville.com

            PlumbingCompanyWatertown.com

            PlumbingCompanyMalden.com

            PlumbingCompanyCharlestown.com

            PlumbingCompanyWinthrop.com

            PlumbingCompanyLynn.com

            PlumbingCompanyChelsea.com

            PlumbingCompanyRevere.com

There are two main scenarios where business owners feel tempted to use microsites:

Scenario 1.  They’ve got a single-location business that serves customers in a wide area – like within a 50-mile radius.  They know they probably can’t get visible in Google Places across that much terrain, so they want to pick up organic rankings in all those neighboring towns.

Scenario 2.  They’ve got several locations – using addresses that Google considers legitimate – and want each Google Places page to lead to a website that has the city in the domain name.

Microsites are a bad wager in both situations.  (They’re even a dumb move for ecommerce.)

That’s not to say some businesses don’t grab some OK local visibility with them – and maybe even some customers.  But it’s relative: I can’t think of a situation when those businesses wouldn’t be better off using fewer sites.

Here’s my assessment of using microsites for local SEO:

Pros

  • You can stuff the same city name into every greasy little crevice of the site, including the domain name.

 

Cons

  • You’re spreading your content thin.  Let’s say you have 8 sites and you bust your hump to create great info.  Either you kinda-sorta help 8 sites, or you give them all boilerplate content, or one site gets all the benefit.  Your desire to build good sites is caught between Scylla and Charybdis.
  • It’s a similar challenge with any links you earn.  (Not that you can create a bunch of sites with identical link profiles, unless they’re garbage links.)  You’ll have multiple sites with mediocre link profiles, rather than one strong lineup.
  • Even if all your sites saw an equally good boost from the content and links, you can’t help but imagine how much one site (or even a couple) would have benefited.
  • If you only have one location it’s hard to figure out which site – if any – should get a crack at Google Places.  Let’s say you’ve got 10 microsites.  That probably doesn’t correspond to 10 physical locations or separately registered businesses.  It’s more likely you’ve got just one location, in which case Google insists you can only have one Google listing.  (Although there are a few exceptions).
  • If you only have one location, you’ll be able to put your address info – an important ranking factor – on only one of the sites.
  • If you do have multiple locations, there is no good reason you can’t just have location-specific landing pages.
  • It’s easy to overdo the interlinking between your sites.  You’ll always be tempted to add one more keyword-rich link from one keyword-rich URL to another.  That’s a bad idea because…wait, quiet…I think I can hear Penguins waddling over to you.
  • Higher costs: More domain names, hosting, and development expenses.  That also makes you more likely to skimp on important investments – like help with local SEO, which you may need bad.
  • It’s harder to manage all the sites.  If you make a mistake, chances are you’ll end up needing to fix it 8 or 9 or 10 times.  Sometimes pain has a purpose.  Then there are those times you step on a Lego.
  • You’re probably creating a bad user-experience.  Your content likely will be thin.  Or you’ve “geotargeted” your content with cutting-edge techniques like repeating 15 times on the page that your company is the leading “plumbers Dallas TX.”  Would-be customers will know you’re just paying their city or town lip-service.
  • It’s harder to tell people you talk with offline which website to check out.
  • Are you really going to have 7 Facebook pages, 7 Twitter handles, 7 Google+ pages, etc. – that you don’t simply build, but also develop?
  • What if you already have one “main” site that all your customers are used to going to?
  • With nothing to differentiate your site other than a possible small advantage in the name, you’re one Google algorithm update away from the fiery pits of page 37.

 

My rule is simple: Have as few sites as possible.

Even if you think that number will end up being more than a handful of sites, figure out your exact reasons for having that many sites.  If your reasons begin with “Because Google…” then you’re probably headed for trouble sooner or later.

Ideally you have one site that you grow into a beast, through focus and sustained effort.

But however many sites you have, you’ll get out of them exactly what you put into them.

What’s been your experience with microsites?  Anything you want to say in favor of them?  Leave a comment!

12-Week Action Plan for Google Places Visibility

Action is awesome - but smart action is even betterUnless you’re Arnold, furious bursts of action alone probably won’t get you very far.  You need a plan for the action.

This is especially important if you’re trying to get your business visible in local search – and particularly important if you want to boost your visibility in the ever-finicky Google Places results.

That’s why I’ve sketched out a 12-week action plan you can follow to climb up a little higher on the local totem pole.

This is a timetable that’s worked really well for me and my clients, though I recognize there’s more than one way to skin a cat (figuratively speaking, of course…I like cats).

12 weeks may sound like a long time.  But I’ve found that’s about how long it takes to implement everything you need to implement – especially if you have a business to run and have your hands full.

I always have a heck of a time trying to explain this verbally, but, as you can see, it’s actually pretty simple.

(Click below to see larger version of the timetable, or download it as a PDF)

 

Here’s a little more detail on each step:

 

 Claiming Places page

What you’re doing – First editing your Google Places page to make sure all the info is accurate, and then claiming your page so any edits you made actually stick.  This is also when you should try to remove any duplicate Places listings for your business, and it’s when you should do any basic optimization, like picking your business categories.

Explanation of timing – It usually takes 7-12 days for Google to send you the postcard with the PIN that allows you to claim your Places page.  Sometimes there are hang-ups, so it’s best to get started on this ASAP.

 

 Tuning up website

What you’re doing – Making your site at least somewhat local-search-friendly.  Optimize your title tag (with a light touch on the keywords), add a footer with your business name / address / phone number to each page of your site, and make sure your homepage (or whatever you use as your Google Places landing page) contains detail on the specific services you’re trying to get visible for.  Also, make sure your site isn’t “over-optimized.”

Explanation of timing – What’s on your site has a huge influence on how you’ll rank in Google Places, especially in the ever-more-common “blended” local rankings.  Therefore, if there’s even a chance you’re in trouble for keyword-spamminess, bad links, etc., you’ll want to start crawling out of the doghouse ASAP.  Later on (like in weeks 5 & 9) is a good time to do some general housekeeping (like scanning for and fixing dead links), to see how you can beef up your pages with more service-relevant content, to put out a couple of blog posts, or maybe to do some link-building.

 

 Submitting to data-providers

What you’re doing – Listing your business on ExpressUpdateUSA and LocalEze, or – if you’re already listed there – making sure you’ve claimed those two listings.  If possible, also claim your listing at MyBusinessListingManager and make sure it’s accurate.  If you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider listing yourself on UBL.org.

Explanation of timing – It generally takes about 2 months for these data-providers to feed your business info to Google Places and to third-party sites (CitySearch, SuperPages, etc.).  Because your rankings really depend on how consistent your business info is from site to site, it’s important to deal with these sites at the very beginning.

 

 Gathering citations

What you’re doing – Getting listed on as may directory sites as you can.  Start with the most important sites (like all the ones you see when you do a GetListed.org scan) and eventually try to get on some of the sites nobody’s heard of (like some of the sites on my Definitive Citations List).  If possible, also try to list your business on (1) “hyperlocal” sites that are specific to your city/town and on (2) directory sites that are focused on your industry (i.e., your “vertical”). You can find these citation sources with the help of the Local Citation Finder, or by doing it the old-fashioned way.

Explanation of timing – You’ll be dealing with dozens of sites.  Not only does it take time on your part to list yourself on them, but it also often takes weeks for these sites to list your business or process any edits you’ve made.  You’ve got to start early.  Plus, the more citations you can rack up over time, the better.

 

 Fixing 3rd-party data

What you’re doing – Checking the data-providers (see yellow) and at least some of your citation sources (see green) to make sure all your business info is 100% accurate – and fixing any inaccurate info you find.  You should also check to make sure no duplicate Google Places listings have popped up – and remove any that have.

Explanation of timing – Making sure your citations don’t get FUBAR is an ongoing task, but there’s no need to check on them every day, because many of them take a while to update.  Just check on them every few weeks (at least during the 12 weeks).

 

 Getting Google reviews

What you’re doingAsking customers to write reviews directly on your Google Places page.  As you probably know, they’ll need Google / Gmail accounts to do this.  I suggest you ask about half your customers to write Google reviews, and ask the other half to write reviews through 3rd-party review sites (see below).

Explanation of timing – If you haven’t claimed your Places page, or if your business has a bunch of duplicate Places pages floating around, it’s possible Google will erase your reviews.  It’s best to hold off on requesting reviews until the Places pages aren’t being created, claimed, deleted, and otherwise jockeyed around.  Plus, you’ll have your hands full anyway during the first couple of weeks.

 

 Getting 3rd-party reviews

What you’re doing – Asking customers to write reviews on non­-Google sites.  CitySearch, InsiderPages, JudysBook, etc. (and Yelp, but Yelp has rules against requesting reviews).  I’ve found that having reviews on a variety of sites helps your Places rankings, and of course it’s a great way to attract the users of those sites.

Explanation of timing – You can start asking for 3rd-party reviews even while your Places page is up in the air.  But I suggest focusing on the other steps first – namely, having accurate and plentiful citations, a tuned-up website, and no duplicate Places pages.  On the other hand, getting 3rd-party reviews is another ongoing task, which means it’s worth starting fairly early…hence why I say start around week 3.

 

You might be wondering a few things…

What if you’ve been wrangling with Google Places and local search in general for a while?  I suggest you still follow the timeline.  If one of the steps no longer applies to you – for example, if you’ve already submitted your info for the data-providers – then cross that one off and focus on the others.

What if you already have a bunch of citations or reviews?  Keep racking ‘em up.  Sure, don’t pour as much time into them as you would if you were starting at Square One.  But don’t stop at “good enough” – especially if you’re in a competitive market.

What should you do after the 12 weeks?  Given that you’ll likely be much more visible to local customers, it’ll largely be a matter of maintaining your visibility by continuing to work on all the steps (except red and yellow), but at a significantly slower pace.  (For more, see my post on how to maintain your Places rankings.)

How does this action plan stack up with yours?  Leave a comment!

My Caveman Painting of a Local Search Engine

Fine, I guess our cavemen ancestors didn’t have search engines to help them find the closest woolly mammoth watering hole or the finest maker of custom wooden clubs this side of Bedrock.

I’m afraid I don’t have any caveman artifacts, per se. But what I can show you is the very first thing I ever wrote on Google local search:

My 1st article on local search - July 2008

(click to enlarge)

As you can see, I wrote that for my local paper in 2008 – which is like the Triassic period in the fast-evolving world of Google and the Web in general.

Much has changed in the last 4 years:

It’s known as Google Places and not as the Google Local Business Center.

There were probably one-fifth as many people offering local-search optimization/marketing services as there are now.

No longer is there space for 10 local businesses on page 1: that number has shrunken to 7 (sometimes fewer).

At that point I hadn’t worked with a single client on local Google (I’d only provided web design and Google AdWords management and other good stuff). All I knew about local Google had come from hours and hours of studying local businesses and their rankings.

I hadn’t even built my website. The newspaper sure as heck had no reason to give me more than 400 words to write something about that “local internet thing” (as the editor referred to it).

But I digress. Once I remembered and dug up my first piece on local search the other day, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the suggestions still hold water.

It’s still the case that you’re more likely to rank well locally in Google if you have a website than if you don’t have one. It’s still best to make use of the 200-character “business description” on your Places page, and to you ask your customers for reviews.

Of course, that’s old news to you: You already know those things help your local visibility in Google Places.

But that’s exactly my point. The fundamentals haven’t changed.

True: the people at Mountain View have an insatiable itch to twist the knobs and press the buttons seemingly every other day – causing Google Places to change and your local rankings to bob up and down along with it.

Still, your tasks are basically the same: make your Places page as relevant and beefy as possible, do the same for your website, get customer reviews, and pay attention to your citations (this is the one main factor I didn’t really know about 4 years ago). If my old article can tell you anything you didn’t know already, it’s that any time and effort you spend on these core ranking factors is well-spent.

In terms of shelf life, my first article is kind of like a Twinkie or a Slim Jim. Sure, it probably won’t be good after two decades, but it can sit around for a number of years without losing much. (The only difference is your doctor won’t yell at you for consuming my article.)