Local SEO in 2014: just use common sense

Created: Joel Klettke
Categories: Local SEO

SEOs are a speculative bunch. In fact, spend time reading too many SEO blogs and you may be led to believe that SEOs actually like to speculate more than they like to do SEO. So naturally, you may be expecting this post to be full of… well, speculation. What will 2014 bring? How might the great mysteries of Google Hummingbird change the landscape of local SEO? What factors will be important?

I've got some answers for you…

 But I'm going to keep this post free of wild guesses and focus on common sense, highlighting a key areas worth taking note of for the coming year and giving a few ideas as to how emerging trends should factor into your strategy.

So come on – let's stare into the majestic double-rainbow of local SEO and ask what it all means.

Google Hummingbird

In September of 2013, Google revealed they’d been running a new algorithm – Hummingbird. The SEO world went bananas, despite not having noticed for months.

Contrary to the mass confusion, Hummingbird is a new algorithm engine (not an update) that future updates will be built on. It improves semantic search and allows Google to better understand the intent and context of entire queries – including the relationships between keywords, entities (e.g. businesses, people and physical places) and user history.

How does this impact local? Part of context is where you are and what you’ve previously searched for. Arguably, context is ALSO provided by the recommendations of people you trust (hello, Google +1 buttons…) Leveraging all this info and using its newfound ability to understand context and intent, Hummingbird will add to the hyper-localization (down to the neighborhood) of searches and make features like voice search better at delivering results tailored to your situation.

What should I do about it? If you’re already adhering to best practices, then it’s  business as usual – just take it from Danny Sullivan:

"No, SEO is not yet again dead. In fact, Google's saying there's nothing new or different SEOs or publishers need to worry about. […] Signals that have been important in the past remain important; Hummingbird just allows Google to process them in new and hopefully better ways"

Google are getting better at giving users exactly what they want – which – sadly for some businesses, may mean losing ground on once-lucrative keywords (like "Calgary auto shop") as results get more specific to the user’s context – something you ultimately can't control.

But the goal of local SEO has ALWAYS been to be as relevant to a localized query as possible. As for what those signals are, read Moz' Top 20 Local Search Ranking Factors. A few pointers:

  • Your chosen categories matter (a lot)
  • You still need to be building consistent, authoritative citations (here’s how)
  • The NAP (Name, address, phone numer) must be in the HTML of your page
  • Unique content for location pages is a must (it’s not so hard to create, either)
  • Overall website authority still matters

Summary: The same best practices from 2013 still apply today. Andrew Shotland recommends investing in FAQ content, and fresh, unique location-based content to help make your site the best answer to the more complex questions being asked in long-tail queries.

Reviews

Google spent a lot of time emphasizing reviews in 2013 (Phil Rozek has a killer list of specific actions you can read here), doing things like loosening up their terrible reviews filter, launching a team of "City Experts" and adding Review Extensions to AdWords. Now, before you go scampering off Googling "Do reviews affect rankings", stop. I already did that, and here are the results:

Reviews almost certainly have an impact on the local carousel, and they seem to have an impact on pack results, too. Further, there are at least 9 known factors that affect how reviews work to your favor (at least, there were in 2011):

  1. Total number
  2. Total number of "Google" reviews
  3. Total number of reviews on 3rd party sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc.)
  4. Average rating
  5. Relevance to services
  6. Relevance to location
  7. Velocity (the speed at which you get reviews)
  8. Diversity of sites
  9. Prominence/authority of 3rd party sites

But use common sense: it really doesn’t matter if Google likes reviews. People do.
In a world where 97% of consumers search for local businesses online and 79% of them trust them as much as personal recommendations, reviews matter. And now that horizontal search results (Local carousel) are in play, reviews are another way to get a click-through.

So how do you actually get reviews? I compiled a pretty extensive list of ways to grab up reviews without winding up on anyone's bad side.

Summary: Reviews impact rankings, influence click-throughs and are used by real- live human beings to make purchase decisions. Have a strategy for earning them. 

Local Carousel

The local carousel is the "new kid" on the block: a horizontal display of up to 20 locations (also used for other entities, like albums, movies, and so on) that turns the traditional ranking model sideways. Critical here is that these results put a heavy emphasis on your listing’s image and rating, while showing users multiple options side-by-side.

It’s all based off the knowledge graph:

What this means for your business:

  • Earning a click may now depend more on images and reviews (though initial click through studies are inconsistent to say the least)
  • You really, really need to be on Google+ (sorry)
  • It’s time to put a nice, crystal-clear photo in your Google+ business profile
  • Review quality and volume both matter, influencing click-throughs and for positioning. 
  • Proximity to the user factors into positioning in the carousel

Be a Barnacle

Reviews websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor have an ability to usurp search results – in addition to the benefits of "barnacle SEO" (leveraging another site’s authority to get your own business found), these are trusted sources of information that people turn to as a first point of discovery.

It’s early days for Hummingbird, but David Mihm has noted a growth in the presence of reviews sites and directories among prime search real-estate – possibly on account of their heavy levels of authority and well-optimized location pages.

Business ought to be attaching themselves to these large "fixed objects" in search results, leveraging them to drive traffic and interest in their services. 

Mobile

By now, most everyone is ringing the ol’ alarm bell for getting on board with mobile. It’s a trend worth mentioning, mostly because:

Local results routinely take top spots on mobile devices –and it’s inevitable that local rankings will take mobile-optimized websites into account (if they don’t already).

Summary: If your website isn’t mobile-optimized, not addressing that this year is business suicide.

Change is the Only Constant

While the search results might LOOK much different from early 2013, best practices for rankings and visibility remain largely the same.

As the year progresses, the joined forces of the knowledge graph and Hummingbird stand to shake up the way search results are delivered to users – changes outside your control.

There's more value, I think, in looking at where the ball is moving: Hyper-local results, real answers to long-tail queries and an emphasis on human factors like reviews.

So while it might not be revolutionary, here’s my advice: Steady the course, adapt where you haven't – and whatever you do, don’t abandon common sense.

Author: Joel Klettke
is a copywriter with a history in digital marketing. He runs Business Casual Copywriting, working with businesses and agencies who are more concerned about creating awesome things than they are about word counts. Follow Joel on Twitter at @JoelKlettke.