Too often we see local SEO getting neglected, manipulated, over-engineered, ignored or simply misused to try and target more customers. It’s time we reaffirmed the value of optimising for your own backyard.
Google Maps first launched 15 years ago this month, and since then has completely transformed our lives like few other inventions. In a decade and a half we have learned to take it for granted that we’re constantly one click away from detailed, accurate location data anywhere in the world, free at the point of access and able to give us virtually unlimited information on specific places, services and institutions.
‘Local SEO’ as a concept appeared slightly earlier, in 2004, with searches tailored to geographic intent. A year after maps launched, the first Google Maps Plus Boxes started appearing in SERPs. These events were not just key moments in the development of SEO- these were turning points in how we live our lives. Today, 46% of searches have local intent– that’s 30,000 local searches per second, roughly 30 billion per year. It’s fair to say we have embraced Google’s local search function.
However, all too often we fail to appreciate the importance of local search. All too often site owners are too quick to trim back their local focus and target UK-wide keywords, ignore local citations and technical optimisation and instead jump straight into the big leagues.
This can be for a number of reasons- but the biggest single reason I’ve come across can be boiled down to this: local search is still being seen as limiting; either the company wants to project an image of being bigger than ‘just’ a local service, or doesn’t want to promote one location ahead of others. These businesses tend to assume local customers already know them, and take their business for granted. This attitude carries a high level of risk, for several reasons.
- Local search can help competitors overtake you among local customers, even if you have a strong local reputation
- If local customers are your core market, you should owe it to them to give them valuable information easily.
- Google still tailors results for location even if there are no location keywords in the query- your local optimisation will always be relevant.
Location still matters
While some sectors, like eCommerce, don’t need to worry as much about local customers, a surprising number of firms should be more concerned. In fact, there’s evidence local search is becoming more important, for more businesses, than ever before. If you’re a B2B service provider, aiming at a UK-wide market, for instance, you might not feel your local visibility is a factor. You might choose to strip local keywords from your content or target locations further afield instead. You might not feel you need to include location data on your site or keep your list of premises up to date. Google My Business might be a secondary thought. But for a lot of companies this would be a mistake.
Why would UK-wide services want to consider prioritising local search?
Google wants to know where you are
Google is keen to know your location- partly to help people find you but also to help it improve its algorithms. If you provide limited, contradictory or evasive answers to this (I’ve seen all three multiple times) it’s likely Google will prevent you from appearing for even your local areas, or even simply penalise you. Remember you’re playing Google’s game here.
Your local customers are not beholden to you
Even if your brand is well-established and extremely well known in your local area, you shouldn’t take this for granted. Currently 72% of consumers are influenced by search results when looking for services, and if you don’t occupy that space, your competitors will and start to eat away at your hard-earned word-of-mouth reputation. Past prominence is no guarantee in an age where Google can give a voice to your competitors- not keeping up can be a huge risk.
Easy face-to-face meetings are increasingly desirable
Put yourself in your users’ shoes. Across B2B and professional services, conversion funnels are getting longer and more complex. Customers are spending more time considering their choice- 90% of conversions now feature a ‘loop’, where a user repeats at least one action during converting. This means sales teams must work harder and, most importantly, be accessible for prospective clients. Being nearby is the easiest way of achieving this- indeed in the B2B services industry, it’s rare to find companies with the majority of clients great distances away. People like to know their customer services, BDMs or consultants are within reach if they should need them.
Delivery of goods will be faster and more reliable
If you’re within reach of a supplier, this provides obvious advantages to some industries. Whether it’s collaborating on distribution, offloading production tasks or printing of materials, there’s a value in choosing a company that gives you this option.
SMEs offer something different
The key appeal of contracting national, rather than local, brands for services is cost. Reducing local focus and going for the national markets might make sense if your business model is focused towards charging less and undercutting your competitors. This is the driver that motivates customers to overlook the advantages that close proximity brings- the easy regular meetings, the speed of delivery, the understanding and shared focus on local markets. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes- when they shop for a UK brand, vs a local brand, the primary factor in favour of the former is low prices.
Yet while the bigger brands are depending on that one factor, the scales are tipping in favour of the small and local. Better customer service, genuine innovation, less complex supply chains and more dynamism, all mean local businesses are back in vogue. Big brands struggle to uphold their reputations while local firms step in as the provider of choice. So is it really the right time to uproot your local firm and go national?
You are always going to be partly a local business
This is key. Google will not ignore your location just because you do. The location of your server, the address details on your website, location data on social media, and other factors, mean you are local, and Google will be taking this into account. It makes more sense to use this to your advantage than to avoid targeting local customers.
Everyone is a local business somewhere
Everyone on the planet who is looking for a service provider has a ‘nearest’ option. There are clear positives to choosing a nearby provider of goods and services- think of this as your ‘home advantage’. Yet if you decide to neglect targeting local customers, you’ll not only be losing that advantage, but you’ll be competing in areas further afield where the advantage belongs to your competitors. Why forfeit an easier market nearby and swap it for a harder one further away- all for the sake of appearing bigger?
While it’s true massive national or global brands, virtual or actual monopolies on services, don’t adjust their marketing for location, this is because they don’t need to, thanks to contextual factors ie their market dominance. The number of SMEs who feel they should be copying this approach, as if aping the behaviour of huge brands will make you a huge brand, is striking, and is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. These mismatched priorities show the limited understanding of, and appreciation for, local customers. In our marketing we must recognise that most customers, even if they don’t use local search terms, will be shown local results, because this is how Google wants to sort search results. The requirement to provide accurate data to crawlers adds to the need to optimise for local search. But the main takeaway is that the customers who get the most from you are likely to be nearby, and being seen locally gives you access to your most promising market. At the end of the day, it’s in your own back yard that you have the best chance of succeeding.