Search engine strategies for local business

In my work with small, local businesses, I often run into entrepreneurs who feel that the web can't be much benefit to them. They advertise in the newspaper, they rely on word-of-mouth, they don't intend to sell online, or sometimes they're uncomfortable with computers generally. These folks are among the 47% of small business owners who do not have a website — a surprising statistic that nevertheless rings true, in my experience.

But the era of getting by without a web presence is now officially over. In the fall of 2007, Nielsen/Netratings conducted a study on behalf of search marketing firm WebVisible that uncovered a sea change in consumer shopping habits: 73% of respondents stated that search engines are their top resource for finding local businesses, while 85% of 18-24 year olds placed search engines in the top spot. The Yellow Pages came in at 65%, and fewer than half look to such stand-bys as newspapers, radio, and direct mail.

Yowza.

These findings indicate that if search engines can't find your business, neither can many consumers, and that means lost sales every single day — potentially lots of lost sales.

Fortunately, gaining access to search engine placement is not difficult and can be done in a very cost-effective manner, even for free. For many businesses, the return on investment for marketing through search engines is so high that other marketing tactics become occasional expenditures or even unnecessary.

If you don't have a website...

If you don't have a website you really need to get one. There are many services that will let you set up your own site for free or for minimal cost. Yahoo! offers a complete website package that you can customize yourself for only $12/mo; Go Daddy offers a similar package for $155.50/yr; and of course, Microsoft Office Live offers a whole suite of tools for free — the trade-off being that you have to see ads on the website's back end while you are setting it up and maintaining it, but who cares? It's free!

If for some reason you just can't bring yourself to set up a website, all is not entirely lost. There are still several good ways to get your business noticed by search engines.

MerchantCircle

MerchantCircle is a directory designed specifically for local businesses to promote themselves on the internet. The basic listing is free and comes with a dedicated web page and a slew of internet marketing tools.

MerchantCircle's real magic, however, is in its ability to place paid, locally-focused advertising for you on the major search engines and even guarantees clickthrough rates back to your MerchantCircle page. When people in your community search online for what you offer, your business will be at the top of their search results. It is simply the most comprehensive and straightforward web marketing solution available to local businesses, at a fraction the cost and time you might otherwise spend.

Local directories

The three big search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and Live — all have local search directories, in which business listings are broken down by geographic location and category, and are associated with a mapping function. You can add your business listing to all of these for free.

The great advantage of these local directories is that even if you don't have a website, people can still find you when they conduct a local search. You won't get the same results you would with a properly optimized website, but you won't be completely left in the dust, either.

  • Google Local Business Center — FAQ page describing how to add your business to Google Maps so it will show up in the Local Business Center listings
  • Live.com — FAQ page with instructions for adding your listing
  • Yahoo! Local — FAQ page describing Yahoo! Local, including how to add a listing

Local.com

Local.com is similar to the local directories of the big search engines, but is dedicated solely to local business listings. You do not need to have a website to list your business at local.com, but again, if you have a properly optimized site you will almost certainly rank higher in the directory. Like MerchantCircle, Local.com listings have their own dedicated pages, and will also place paid listings on its own site as well as in major search engines for you.

If you do have a website...

If you already have a website you can utilize the suggestions above for paid, locally-focused search engine placements, which are extremely useful for targeting local consumers who neglect to use "place modifiers" — city, neighborhood, or county names; traditional and local nicknames; and area codes or zip codes — in their searches. In addition, your site needs to be optimized so that search engines can easily associate it with your local area in their unpaid (i.e., "natural" or "organic") rankings.

The trick here is to use place modifiers as important keywords on your website. You can also use the names of local landmarks (such as local universities or other draws) and geographic features (such as mountains, valleys, or rivers) as place modifier keywords.

There are three primary places on your site where these place modifier keywords will do the most good:

Your homepage title tag

Your homepage title tag should include the category of product or service you provide, and the geographic areas where you provide it. An example homepage title might read: "John Doe Gardening Supplies: Serving Portland, Beaverton, Oregon City, Tigard, Wilsonville and the Willamette Valley, Oregon."

Subpage title tags are also very useful if you can avoid duplicating the exact same phrase on every page. Subpage titles can be structured with a product name or subcategory title, followed by the list of place modifiers. For example: "Gardening gloves in Portland, Beaverton, Oregon City, Tigard, Wilsonville, and the Willamette Valley, Oregon."

In an H1 statement

The "H1 statement," as I call it, is something I've been incorporating into client sites for a few years now. This is simply a sentence or paragraph on the home page stating the nature of the business, with the inclusion of a targeted keyword phrase, and placed within an H1 tag. Search engines consider H1-tagged content to be the most important content on the page, so the more place modifiers you can pack into an H1 tag, the better chance your site has of being associated with local place names.

A word of caution, however: if you simply create an H1-tagged list of keywords, you will probably get penalized for trying to trick the search engine spiders. Your H1 statement needs to be written in natural language, even if it sounds a bit clunky, and placed on the page as if you intend it to be part of the content. This is really not difficult, as your homepage should feature a description of your business anyway.

On a "directions" page

If you want people to find your place of business, it is a good idea to include a page with directions. This is good for search engines, too — you might be on Main Street in Mansfield, but how many Main Streets are there in towns called Mansfield?

By creating a directions page, you give search engines street names and route numbers that help distinguish your Mansfield from all the others. It is also a good idea to embed the map from one of your local directory listings on your directions page, and to link to your local directory listings. This can give the spiders additional geographic clarification as they spot your links back to their own indexes of your business.

Additionally, you need to have your business name, address, and phone number — including area code — on every single page. Search engine spiders are smart enough to recognize an address and phone number when they see it and will index these appropriately.

Other important search engine optimization strategies include:

301 redirects

There are typically four different URLs with which a user can access your home page:

  • www.yoursite.com
  • yoursite.com
  • www.yoursite.com/index.html
  • yoursite.com/index.html

Search engines spiders regard these as four separate pages with identical content, since they each have different addresses, but will pick only one to serve up in search engine rankings. If you have inbound links going to all four home page addresses, you are diluting the weight these would add to your ranking by a factor of four, which can be especially damaging if you're targeting a limited geographic area. You are also leaving yourself open to 301 sabotage.

301 redirects consolidate all your URLs into one, and are also useful if you move your website and don't want to lose rankings in the process. Read more about 301 redirects.

Sitemaps

These are files that live in your site's root directory and help search engine spiders index your site more efficiently. In my experience, sitemaps go a very long way in getting a site to show up in search engine results quickly, and this can be especially effective if your primary keywords include place modifiers, which are, by their nature, specific and targeted.

Sitemaps need to be updated periodically, depending upon how frequently you update your website, to ensure search engines have up-to-date information about your site.

You can generate a sitemap automatically at XML-Sitemaps.com. Download the one that ends ".xml" and upload it to your website's root directory; then head over to SitemapWriter.com to notify the search engines. You should re-notify whenever you update your sitemap.

Search engine optimization is a huge subject and the suggestions I've included here are far from comprehensive. Nevertheless they should give your site a noticeable boost in local search results.

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