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How Winning at Local Search is Like Winning The Hunger Games

How Winning at Local Search is Like Winning The Hunger Games

By Lindsay Mineo

Starting a local search campaign can feel like you’re the tribute sent off to fight your way to victory in the Hunger Games. The rules of local search are constantly changing, having the wrong kind of Google+ listing can be an injury that sets you back (months, sometimes), and you need to play nice and earn the sponsorship of customer service representatives at the major data aggregators so they can help you clean up incorrect and duplicate listings. Every time I feel like I’ve figured it out, someone spins the game around and I’m back to square one.

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It’s easy to see why local search is so much fun.

Starting From Scratch vs. Cleanup = Career vs. Reaped Tribute

If you’ve just been handed a brand new local search campaign for a brand new business that has zero existing citations out there, you’re on the same level as a Career Tribute. Your work is cut out for you, you will likely have an easy time of it, and you’ll emerge the shining victor with minimal effort. Your client will have provided you with all of the details you need, you’ll create an SEO-friendly description, and you’ll knock out the important local citations in a matter of hours.

But if you’re tasked with cleaning up existing citations for a local business that has moved, needed major reputation management or rebranding, or had someone building citations without any clue as to what to do, it can feel like you’ve undergone a reaping, and lost.

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The rules and the goal are the same in both situations, but you have a clear advantage in one while the other provides you with plenty of obstacles to keep things interesting.

Google+ Local: The Arena

Google+ has been critical for local search since Google Places was created a few years back, and its importance has grown exponentially since. However, the process hasn’t been an easy one, and Google Places/Google+ Local is still somewhat of a mess (to put it nicely). All local businesses must create a Google Places page, and Google will transfer that page to a Google+ Local page at their discretion. Fortunately, the process is much faster now, and some businesses are seeing the transfer happen within days.

Experts are still disagreeing whether a Google+ Local page benefits search results, but I’m gonna go ahead and say it does. Anecdotally, it sure seems to influence organic results, and it definitely influences the Local Search Carousel.

Google recently decided to have a little fun with search result pages. In addition to bringing on the Carousel (which only shows up for a handful of local searches), Google changed the appearance of local search results. Now, you get a whole bunch of ads at the top of the screen…

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…followed by Yelp listings and some sidebar ads…

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…then we get the local results, which is exclusively Google+ Local pages (with more sidebar ads, of course)…

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…until you finally scroll to organic results, with a handful of directories thrown in for good measure.

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Oh, and all those pretty title tags and meta descriptions you wrote need to be shortened to accommodate the larger size of bolded words and Google generally making everything larger.

This layout takes a highly competitive game and makes it downright cutthroat. In this search, there are 20 main results, 7 of which are pulled directly from Google Places/Google+ Local and 4 of which are organic, but all of the organic results are also in the local results.

And now, probably so people will stop asking how Google+ makes money, there are Google+ Post ads. These will further change the local search environment, ensuring that new “how to do local search” posts will need to be written well into the future (+Post ads are still in Beta; SEER Interactive checked them out). Also, there are new schema markups for multiple phone numbers, your business address, and operating hours to help Google intelligently index your business details.

How to Win the Hunger Games at Local Search

Some might feel that Google’s intent is to punish, but in reality they’re trying to create a helpful Internet in spite of people trying to game the algorithm with crappy sites. Google is the Arena, not the Capitol. And while local search might feel like a really complicated game, you can win. Use some common sense, think of the Google and Your Business Forum as your sponsor, and play by the rules.

The Rules

1. Before creating a citation on a website, be 1000% sure a citation doesn’t already exist.

  • Search the business name, phone number, old phone number, and any common misspellings. Directories aren’t very smart and you could have a few different incorrect listings
  • It’s far better to fix one incorrect listing than it is to deal with duplicates sending conflicting data out into the universe.

2. Be exactly consistent.

  • Use a local phone number. The tracking number you’re paying good money for just doesn’t have a place in local search.
  • Use a preferred URL (a local URL is a must if you serve more than one area or have different branches or business locations). Know how you want this URL to appear and use that version: http://www.thunderseo.com and http://thunderseo.com are two different websites!
  • Decide how your address is going to look ahead of time and stick to that version and that version only (you may want to use Google Places preferred format to make your life easier later). Depending on the directory, 2920 North Park Way sends a different signal than 2920 N. Park Way, and Haymitch help you if you have a suite or unit number.
  • If you do have a suite or unit number, follow a consistent format. Google Places/Google+ Local has a second address line for this exact purpose, as do many other major directories. For those that don’t have a dedicated field for unit numbers, don’t use #11G in one listing, Suite 11G in a second, and Ste. #11G in a third. Pick one.
  • Select one image to accompany all listings. Use the logo, if you have one, or a good photo of the storefront, and create a square version, a regular version, and both a high res and low res version.

3. Start with the data aggregator websites.

  • Many big directory sites feed data into smaller directory websites, so you could actually cut down your local search time by strategizing appropriately.
  • Google+ gets data from a number of sources, so having correct citations elsewhere first will help you manage your Google+ listing later.
  • The other big data aggregator sites include Infogroup, Localeze, Acxiom, and Factual.

4. Earn reviews.

  • Darren Shaw reminds us that listings with reviews provide a better user experience, and Google loves a good user experience.
  • Google+ Local reviews are prominently displayed in local search results (see above). Enough reviews gets you an overall score with bright orange stars. This is highly visible and undoubtedly encourages click-throughs.
  • Not only are your potential customers scoping you out on Yelp, but Yelp listings show up in search results above both local and organic results. You want to be there.
  • Don’t cheat.

No doubt the local search landscape will change drastically soon enough, but for now you have all the weapons you need to win. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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Lindsay Mineo

Lindsay Mineo is a Senior Search Specialist at ThunderActive. She lives with a dog, a cat, and a boy.

She likes to talk about animals and food on Twitter and Google+.