Detailed Guide to Local Search Optimization and Ranking

Google has progressively made changes over the past few years to local search results displays, from rolling out Local Carousels to reviews displayed in company knowledge graphs to all the changing inclusion or display of the local pack of results in SERPs.  With all its new additions and updates, the path to businesses showing up in these coveted positions is no less clear.  Still, there is no doubt that showing up in local searches is incredibly important.   Google Insights reports that 45% of mobile searches are goal oriented and 55% of mobile searches lead to an action within 1 hour. 

As the importance of local optimization proves itself with the value of these local searches that result in actual actions taken by website visitors, I’ve found it important to have a best practice for local optimization outlined as a reference while working and for passing off to team members.  What follows below is a hybrid of a guide and a checklist, focused on what an SEO can do to help a local business improve their organic local rankings and rise above the competition.  This guide/checklist has been developed over years of trials, learnings, modifying the strategy, and gaining local rankings for at least 50 individual businesses.

I follow the “Local Search Ranking Factors” not just because of their authority, but because these core areas have proven to deliver consistent local rankings time and time again.  The main focus should be on the following four core areas of importance: (1) Places Page Signals, (2) On-Page Signals, (3) External Local Signals, (4) Link Signals, (5) Review Signals, with some additional attention to (6) Personalization, (7) Social Signals, and (8) Behavioral/Mobile Signals. Overall, the focus is on doing thorough research in the right places, being extremely detail oriented throughout the entire process, and remembering not to be afraid of trying new things. 

A. Inital Local SEO Setup & Research

Complete background research is necessary to get accurate information and determine what currently exists for the Name, Address, and Phone Number (called “the NAP”) of a business, as well as identifying existing citations, directory listings, Google business listing(s) and Google + profile(s).  Acquiring the complete list of information that is already online is vital; not doing so can lead to the creation of duplicate information online, which is a negative ranking factor that inhibits top local rankings.  Also it’s important to note that having wrong, outdated or even slightly differently typed information in listings (“street” vs “ST” or “Suite” vis “STE”) is a negative ranking factor.  Remember, search engines are robots, they aren’t intelligent and may not know how to match up two pieces of information that are not identical.  Below are some of the important places to check for information.

1.       Client Research = Pick up the phone.  If you’re not the business yourself, start with a phone call to the business (and each individual office if there are multiple locations) to verify their exact NAP (Name, Address, and Phone number).  Ask informed questions – are there multiple businesses at their location or in their suite? Did they move offices in the last year or two? Is this a headquarters, and their physical business is somewhere else? What address does their mail have on it?  Did they setup a vanity URL that forwards to the main site?

The best chance to get local rankings is having identical NAP information wherever the business is listed. 

2.       Information review of Business data aggregators. There are four main websites that give information to other sites and search engines about businesses:  Axciom, Localeze, Infogroup, and Factual.  Basically, these websites are akin to the importance the Yellow Pages had before 1990, without which, finding your business would have been based solely off of word of mouth.

An important place to start is finding out the information that each of these data aggregators currently has concerning your business.  Since these data aggregators aren’t Google, finding your business or duplicate listings can mean searching for different combinations of your NAP, and it’s imperative that you do this as duplicate listings or listings with incorrect information could end up appearing in all the places that these aggregators send information to. 

For example, wrong information in Infogroup can show itself as wrong information in Citysearch and Superpages, as Infogroup supplies these sites with business information.  If that information is a wrong phone number, you’ve just distributed that wrong phone number to these two sites and others. The image below shows how information flows from these data aggregators to other sites so you can see the complete distribution of your business information.   

local search ecosystem of rankings

So, in your research, keep detailed information about each listing that appears; ideally, keep a spreadsheet that lists each of these with the dates discovered.  (I’ve found that sometimes the directories will not take an update and thus I keep detailed information about when I found a listing, when I attempted an edit, etc. – if it’s been a while since the original listing was found, people are more willing to look into the issue and assist if you have detailed information on hand).  Also, it’s wise to ask the client if they’ve attempted to use a service such as Moz Local, Yext, UBL or others to update directories, which could be an indicator that there may be duplicates out there due to the processes of some of those services.

Knowing how the Local Search Ecosystem works will help you prioritize when starting your background research.  Here’s the updated 2013 Local Search Ecosystem, thanks to David Minh at Moz.  Note that there are 4 strong points of influence: infogroup, Axciom, Factual, and Neustar Localeze. You will want to begin your research with them. 

B. Citation Setup & Research

In this phase of the research you will move from taking detailed notes of business listing information to identifying all possible citations and their URLs, and identifying information about those URLs (PR, inbound links, aggregator of influence, etc.).

1.       Google Local – Once you have what the big 4 data aggregators identify as your business listing, search Google Local for different variations of the business NAP and client name if valid (i.e. doctor, restaurateur, self-named business, etc).  Using the scraper of your choice, keep a list of citations noting different telephone numbers, addresses, and business names and the # of results for each NAP. Also don’t forget to search for the NAP you are planning to optimize for if that differs from the listings that came up in the top 4
data aggregators and addresses found on-site. 

2. Search for NAP variations in Yext – note listings and citations that appear.

3.       Whitespark Search for the phone number in Whitespark – note listings and citations that appear.

4.       Competitor Research – Do a competitor analysis of the citations your competitors already have.  Value extends beyond high DA sites or citations and goes into #RCS which usually includes coverage in the local online newspaper for something they’ve done, charities they’ve donated to, other local businesses that they might support and offers they have run. 

Who’s in the house? – Research all the entities/businesses at the location to obtain an accurate overview of the local profile of the business and to gauge how complex it will be to optimize.  If there are several businesses in the same suite, or in the same building without a suite when they should list one, this can undermine your efforts if left ignored.  

C. Keyword Selection and Ranking Review

1.       Keyword research – Just like in any other SEO venture, getting the right target keywords is important.  Since the Google Adwords Keyword Planner will often not have any data to report on geotagged keyphrases, once you’ve done the research to discover the keywords your client should rank for, use a combination of Keyword Tool, Google Trends and SEMRush to check for patterns in search volume for local key phrases. 

Consider keyphrases that are both geotagged and not geotagged (when you are able to set a specific location such as in Google Trends).  It’s also been shown that men are more likely than women to type a zipcode when doing a local search, so if you’re targeting guys, try searching keyphrase + zipcode to see what the value could be.

Also consider how local searches are different from others.  Google has actually provided insight for how both local searches and mobile searches are different, more immediate, conversational style so the search “where to buy a bike in Northern Liberties” would be more expected than “bike in Northern Liberties” The Google Mobile Playbook has great case studies showing how brands figured out how to connect with their mobile searchers.

2.       Google Trends – In Google Trends, you will note that you can drill down into specific regions and this is how you can gather information on what the best local keywords are to focus on. For example, if my client operates a chain of family physician practices, I’d want to know how people refer to family physicians in their area.  Perhaps, with research, I find that “family doctor” is popular in North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina; “Family physician” is still poplar in North Carolina, however, Texas is no longer second, and I see that “family physician” becomes more popular in Kansas, Tennessee, and Nebraska.  These nuances aren’t only important to target keyphrase rankings, but to make connections with the community.   

3.       Ranking Tracking – Once the marquis local keyphrases are chosen, research how the client already ranks for them.  I personally prefer BrightLocal for local ranking tracking.  Although carousel rankings are something that I haven’t seen tracked yet, I still spot check In Google Universal, complete, and see if the client appears in the Carousel (if shown for the targeted keyphrases), the Near Me (if shown for the targeted keyphrases), and the Local Pack (if shown for the targeted keyphrases).

4.       Google Maps Ranking – Lastly, search in Google Maps to find the rankings in the Map-only view.  I’ve often found that duplicate listings show up and are easier to spot in the Map.

D. Local Business Listing Setup and Optimization

Listing setup and claiming will vary depending on if your business has less than 10 locations or more than 10 locations.  For businesses with more than 10 locations the Google+ Local Bulk Uploader is a great tool that allows for edits that don’t need to be verified.  With less than 10 locations, you will need to use a manual process for each location.

1.       Google Local Business Listing Optimization – Overall, important factors of Google Business Listing Optimization include: image quality (having well labeled, high quality, and accurate images), number of reviews, properly categorized selection, consistency of the NAP with the website, and to rank even better, your business’ proximity to the location searched.  While Google is currently allowing the merging of Google Local Business Pages with Google+ pages, as of 10/9/13 it’s recommended to wait until Google merges this for you and not attempt to or create a Google+ page for your business until then.

1a. Multiple Google Local Business Listings – In determining which listing to use, you’ll make use of all the research done through the Yext, Factual, Axciom, Infogroup, Localeze, Whitespark, and Google.  Usually, you will want to make the variation of the address with the most citations (if accurate address information) your listing of choice.  It’s still good to check the quality of the citations, as an address might not have the most citations, but be used by the highest authoritative sites and going with something else could require a lot more time updating these authoritative sites and waiting for it to trickle down to the other directories.

 Resolving multiple listings: If you find multiple listings, note that Google has really enhanced its local business customer service and you can now talk to a live representative.  I’ve been able to speak with someone in as quickly as 2 minutes.  It’s recommended to speak to a representative for merging multiple listings, removing duplicates, and ensuring that reviews are kept and attributed to the listing of choice.  The changes will be done without needing verification and even merging 4 listings can take just over a week to be completed, so thank you Google!  

1b. Listing, Needing Updates – If there is just one listing and it needs updates, first confirm if your client has or can figure out the login.  Google can give you hints if you don’t have the login, such as secret question prompts, showing a few characters of the email address that was used to set up the listing or a backup, etc.; beyond that, it becomes really difficult to update a listing without a login.  The Map Maker editor is a great temporary fix, but you can’t take
advantage of the social settings, offering specials, connecting to Google+, etc that are important for long-term success. 

1c. No listing, need to create one – If the business is new and a listing needs to be creative, this would be the expected scenario.  As the places page signal is nearly 20% of the overall ranking factors, pay special attention to how successful competitors categorize their business and keyterms that may be important. You will have to go through the process of verifying the business through either a phone call to the business or Google will mail a PIN in an envelope to the business.

E. Citations

1. Creating citations – As the Local Search Ecosystem shows, start with the “primary feed” sources.  Researching how successful competitors have their business setup (categories chosen, taglines, notes, etc) and using one clear and consistent NAP, submit (or edit if already existing) starting with this primary feed. 

Next step, be patient.  Changes can take 3-4 weeks to appear, and it can take just as long before you’ll find that they have been updated in the sources they were pushed to.  During this time you can work with your client to have them begin campaigns to acquire more reviews, become more social in their Google+ Local Business Listing, as well as work out onsite edits (covered in the next section).

After a few weeks, start with the citations that are most valuable, those listed in the “secondary feed,” and niche citations.  If you don’t yet know the niche directories, check the listings of the businesses that rank in the 6 pack and look for the link near the bottom that shows “reviews from” and setup listings there, as well as note them for further review acquisition campaigns. 

Casey Meraz has a great post on how to find and build citations, with some great tips for speeding up the process.


Reviews count significantly towards ranking in the 6 pack and carousel. Get reviews in Google and the niche directories that are important for your business.  Again, check the listings of the businesses that rank in the 6 pack and look for the link near the bottom that shows “reviews from” and outline strategies to help your client get reviews there.  Also keep abreast of new sites being included as a review source.  For example, Houzz reviews have recently started showing in local results, and reaching out to customers already active on that platform can now help you gain new and valuable reviews. 

F. Onsite Local Optimization

Onsite optimization is considered to be nearly 20% of the ranking factors for local search and is second only to the places page optimization.  There are a lot of one-offs to do (such as upload a KML file or implement Google Authorship) and there are plenty of ongoing action items, which should be in line with what the business is actually doing – after all, they’re conducting business locally, aren’t they?

1. One-Time Setup Optimization

a. Markup:  There are a lot of types of content that can be markedup with markup, but the basic address markup is a must for local optimization.  On the main business contact page, add a Google map, address, and phone number in markup .  This tool via 630 Marketing is quite handy or you can check out for more in depth markup options.

b. Google Authorship, get it done.

c. Create a local landing page.  Here is an example of a great local landing page.  Just note: you can’t link to this from your Google Business Listing, and therefore shouldn’t link to it from other citations.  This primarily gives a highly localized entry page for searchers when your homepage may not come up because you are located outside the city center or target location. 

d. Keyword Optimization.  This is not the spammy, keyword stuffing kind of optimization, read on. Find the highest value local keywords and select the 2-5 pages that can be optimized for local rankings.  This will usually include the homepage and most popular page about the service/product offered. Optimization includes adding keywords + city to the onpage text and metadata, using schema markup, adding reviews, credibility builder icons (awards or media logos), Google Authorship, and using Alt tags on images.  These pages should be linked to directly from the homepage, and should be easy to access.

e. Reviews.  Integrate reviews to the site.  This can be done with a static image of existing reviews from around the web, or the business could add a widget to the site allowing for reviews of products or some sites, such as Yelp, have an API that allows a site to incorporate reviews on-page. 

2. Ongoing Optimization

a.  Clarify your USP.  Drive home the USP (Unique Selling Proposition) of the business.  Without keyword data in Google Analytics, survey your client to find key information, such as: what are the common questions they receive when someone calls?  Be sure to clearly identify the USP of the business, and make sure there is ample information available about their USP on the site. 

b.  Content.  Create interesting, helpful content that solves searchers’ questions.  Rand’s whiteboard on “user relevant content” is very much geared to local and even mobile optimization.  Answer what your customers are searching for, in your specific location of business. 

c. Be your own PR.  This is more a motto for the client than for the SEO, but it’s really valuable.  Update your site with what’s going on in the business.  Find community outlets who will share your news updates.  For instance, here at Delphic, we recently announced our new Director of Marketing, so we wrote up the details and shared with local organizations that post this type of news, such as the Philly Ad Club.  Also, consider adding information about news and updates right to your own site.  These static pages can give external resources a place to link to and will then retain their quality links.

d. Acquire Local Links.  Being your own PR and having content outlined in a, b and c will facilitate the outreach to local bloggers and journalists that cover your industry.  The outreach still has to come with value to the recipient and usually has to go beyond “link to my awesome content,” but if you’re creating unique content, have a clear USP. This way, when talking about what’s going on in the business, it’s much easier to find mutual benefits.

Ranking Tracking and Reporting

1.       This is a pretty simple step – set up ranking tracking in your system of choice.  I personally prefer Bright Local for its local ranking trackin
g and ability to handle multiple campaigns, as well as pick up on citations and benchmark against competitors.  Although with the new carousels in Google visibility and actions available, Bright Local and any other ranking tracking service might still need some time to catch up to deliver the most reliable reporting here.

Bringing it all together

Local Search Optimization may at first seem like a labyrinth of tasks, but following through on it can provide long lasting value to a businesses.  Many of the individual optimizations haven’t lost their value over the years and once done, do not need to be redone, unless the business changes names or moves.  Bottom line: take it one step at a time and you’ll be rewarded. 

A few extra notes, Resources                                

1.       Recent Google Updates: It’s postulated that Google’s Hummingbird update was about finding the most valuable and best content for mobile; it could be a potentially important and valuable asset for your customers, so I recommend you look into it.

2.       There’s been a lot of confusion on what Business Listings in Google are called and that’s in some part due to Google being confused as well.  Here’s an article that goes through a rundown of “what is what.” A Note on Google+, Places for Business and Every other Name

3.       Beginner Local Search Optimization, for companies on a shoestring budget:

4.       Local Search Forum – a place to find community posted Google Local updates, post questions, and receive answers from the community, as well as find out about their training seminars.

« Prev Article
Next Article »