Increasingly, businesses are becoming aware of Local Search , and how optimizing for this channel is vital for those that have local outlets. Each of the main search engines has focused effort on their local search tools as the best strategy for continuing growth in online advertising, and the subject has become sufficiently important enough to merit a special Search Engine Strategies Conference  devoted to the subject tomorrow in Denver. The importance of Local Search is further underscored by stats issued in a press release  today by comScore, showing that Local Search continues to gain in marketshare.
So, how exactly could one optimize towards Local Search?
Read on and I’ll outline a few key tips.
First of all, what are the primary sites and engines which people go to for finding local information? As Justin Sanger of LocalLaunch (recently purchased by yellow pages publishing company, RH Donnelley) has stated when speaking at conferences on the subject, the local search sector is fairly fractured, so there are numerous sites which can be considered to be the authorities for local info. With users going to such a diverse array of sites to obtain local info, it can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out where to focus efforts for greatest ROI.Not to worry — I’m proposing a rational approach that should work well for both large companies with chains of local stores as well as small businesses focussed on local or regional markets.
There are four general groupings of sites that online users go to for local information:
- Primary Web Search Engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, and MSN.
- Top Local Search Engines, such as Google Maps , Yahoo! Local , and MSN’s Live Local .
- Top online Yellow Pages, such as Superpages.com , YellowPages.com , and Switchboard.com .
- Diverse other local sites or sites with local components.
(I should disclose at this point that I am an employee of Verizon Superpages.com.)
It’s suspected that the majority of users trying to locate local information are now likely going to the traditional web search engines first, as a matter of habit. From there, they may pass directly into destination sites which have the info they’re looking for, or they may pass into the local search engines and online yellow pages links found in the search results pages found in their web search. A secondary group of users may have bookmarked their favorite local info sites, and just go directly to them for local info.
When a user commits a search for local info through the regular web search engine, there is a chance that they may find your web site if you have content which matches their keyword search. So, our first step is optimizing the content of your site in order to give you a chance to match these keyword searches. (There are many sites out there which outline how to perform general search engine optimization for your site, so I won’t detail all of those general requirements here. The tips I’m outlining assume that your site is indexable with spider-friendly links to all your content pages.)
User’s local info searches typically may include a subject matter keyword coupled with a locality parameter. For instance, a user might search for “pizza 10019” — seeking pizza parlors in their New York’s ZIP code of 10019. Or, “Boston Car Parts”, seeking auto parts in Boston. Some may even perform searches with your business name, such as “Sally’s Waffle Shop in Avalon, California”. For this reason, your business’s website needs to contain text that would match the locality parameters. So, if you’re a small business, have your full business address clearly displayed on your site’s homepage, in the HTML text. If you’re a nationwide company, there should be a page for each of your local outlets on your site, and each outlet’s full address should be clearly displayed in the HTML text.
Likewise, include the business phone number on the same page. In many cases the search engines and yellow pages are trying to use their spidered information to collect and aggregate data, and the phone number often helps insure that your website may get associated with directory listing information.
When adding the address and phone number to a web page, it is helpful to use Microformats  hCard code for the address. This open data format may allow search engines to properly interpret the address info and easily identify that it is an address, while still displaying the address legibly for humans. Jesse Skinner has a good, brief explanation of this at his blog .
Here’s an example of the Microformat hCard code for an example business:
<strong class=”fn org”>Example Company, Inc.</strong>
<span class=”street-address”>1000 Main Street</span>
<abbr class=”latitude” title=”37.230000″>N 37° 23.0000</abbr>,
<abbr class=”longitude” title=”93.380000″>W 93° 38.0000</abbr>
Email: <a class=”email” href=”mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>email@example.com</a>
<abbr class=”type” title=”voice”>Telephone</abbr>
<abbr class=”type” title=”fax”>Fax </abbr>
<span class=”category”>Internet Service Providers (ISP)</span>,
<span class=”category”>Web Hosting</span>,
<span class=”category”>Marketing Consulting Services</span>,
<span class=”category”>Public Relations Agencies</span>
I’m not a fan of placing bare email addresses on webpages due to spammers harvesting them, but I displayed hCard formatting for it in the example. I see some folx using it in hCard, though they’re trying to obfuscate the address by heavily encoding it, so that could be another option to allow it to display.
Note the GEO tag — this is for your geographic latitude and longitude coordinates. If you don’t know how to get these values, don’t worry about them — leave them out. But, if you do have them for your business location, using these could help you show up in more accurate positions in online mapping utilities. For each “category” I recommend using a business type name verbatim from NAICS .
Ideally, only use one or two categories per business, though you could use up to a maximum of five. Clearly declaring your business’s category on your webpage, using standardized category names, should help insure that your business is properly classified. I know many businesses would prefer to use a category name that may not be provided in NAICS, but if you don’t use a cat name that virtually everyone recognizes and can associate with other businesses of like types, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot. If there isn’t a business type matching your exact category (“Martian Restaurants”), use a more generic type that you’d fit within (“Restaurants”).
Don’t forget to mention your location in your homepage title tags! I suggest you put your business name with the city and state. Ex: “Acme Hotel in Springfield, MO”
Now, for optimizations that must be accomplished external to your site:
Check how your business is presented in each of the top Local Search Engines (Google Maps, Yahoo! Local, and MSN Live Local) and top Online Yellow Pages (Superpages.com, Yellowpages.com, Switchboard.com). Each of these obtain their business directory data from a variety of sources, so unless you’re a fairly new company, it’s likely that they already may have listings for you. Perform searches on these sites using your business name with the apropriate locality. If your data is incomplete, erroneous, or not present, register/login with each of these sites and correct it. Also, take the opportunity to add in as much information as you can about your business.
Just as with the directory site I work with, Superpages.com, most internet local directories allow you to add/edit your listings for free. [begin shameless hype] Superpages is tops in internet yellow pages sites based on overall usage traffic (according to independent research such as comScore’s audience share reports), and Superpages allows businesses to add on more extensive info (beyond just an address and phone number) for your business into the free portions of their Business Profiles. Purchasing advertising on top of the free treatments can sometimes bring you more elements to grab consumers’ attention, and to bring you up higher in search results where stats show more users are inclined to click. [end shameless hype] Is your business reviewed at any of these sites? If so, are the reviews fair/accurate? If not, you may be able to get the review removed or suppressed. At the very least, consider offering discount coupons to your happier customers in return for reviewing your company on these sites. Don’t pay for positive reviews, but you likely already know which customers are happiest, and you can hand them a discount coupon and ask them to rate or review you at the online sites. Listings with higher user ratings are more likely to be selected out of the pack when a user is deciding what business to pick. Part of your optimization strategy needs to pay attention to how you are rated online. Where possible and in-reason, keep your ratings higher and you’ll get more conversions.After you’ve made sure your listing info is cool with all the major Local Search Engines and Online Yellow Pages, where else should you expend some time?
There are many lesser yellow pages and other local info sites which do not have a big nationwide profile online, but which could be highly advantageous to promoting your local business. Here’s how to choose such sites out of the crowd of local info sites out there:
- Who is the dominant print yellow pages provider in your area? This might not be the same as the previously-mentioned top online YPs. Sometimes it’s the local phone company who also may publish yellow pages directories, and sometimes it’s a separate phone book publisher for the area. For instance, Dex Media is not part of a phone company, nor are they the top nationwide online yellow pages (as counted by traffic/users), but they are tops for the users within the 14-state region where they publish directories, including the Denver area. Chances are, the website of the top print YP publisher in your area would be one of the better places for your listing to appear, since they may have greater online market share in that area due to years of promoting themselves through their phonebook covers. So, make sure you’re represented in the top online YP for your area.
- Check to see what sites come up highest in the web search results on major search engines for your business type in your area. Typically, any of these which are guides of your type(s) of buisness may be perfect for you to be listed within. If you are a Restaurant in Springfield, try searching on “Springfield restaurants”, and “restaurants 56087”, and “dining in Springfield”. It’s likely that some or all of the sites which come to the top of the SERPs might be guides — click into those, and if you’re not listed, contact them to see if you could become listed.
- Check out the local newspaper sites for your area — more and more people have switched from reading print newspapers for online sources, and the newspapers have noticed. Some local news sites include guides or yellow pages of businesses on the site, so be sure you can be found there as well.
- Consider joining your local chamber of commerce, if you are not already a member, so you can be listed in their online directory. Being a member of the local chamber can provide you with a bit more promotion sometimes, and you should be found in the chamber’s directory.
- Look also to be associated with websites devoted to local events, if your business can conceivably derive customers from them. This is particularly critical for businesses which make money off of travel and visitors in some way. Restaurants and hotels, for instance, may be able to get more customers as people come into the local area to participate in: charity fundraising events, races, conventions, visiting days at universities, town fairs and festivals, rodeos, etc. Often, you can help sponsor such events and get your logo listed on those event’s websites. Don’t be afraid to ask them to link over to your website!
The key thing to remember is that there are a variety of online sites from which users are obtaining local information. Ideally, you should be findable in any site where users may look for info about your area. But, with limited time to devote to this, concentrate on the types of sites I’ve outlined here and you’ll already be ahead of about 90% of the pack, and you’ll have covered the areas which would bring you the greatest return on your time investment.
Make sure your business information is represented in the online directories, make sure your address info is present on your website for the sake of search engine bots, make sure you’re listed with the secondary local info sites most likely to bring you eyes, and monitor your info ongoing to insure you’re represented well.
These simple practices will insure that you’ve go the basic optimizations covered for local search.