Having a local presence within the search engines has become essential over the last year. More and more businesses are realising the importance of ranking well for local searches but a large number don’t exactly know what to do about it.
Most know bits and pieces and have set up the odd profile here and there but not a lot know exactly what should be done.
It’s not enough just having a half completed, unverified Google Places profile, there is a lot more than needs to be done and like all online optimisation work, it’s ongoing.
In this article I will be going through the main areas that you should be working on to maximise your chances of gaining better local rankings.
Work through these areas and you will be ranking in no time.
On page elements
Before you start any off site activities you need to make sure that you have the basics in place on your actual site. Optimising your site for local terms is just as important as any other work you carry out.
So many companies fail at the first hurdle by not including simple information that will help highlight exactly where they are to the search engines. Just because you are based in a specific location doesn’t mean that Google automatically know.
Basic areas you should review:
Title Tags: Including your location is important. If you are the owner of a cake shop then you want to target local custom. An example as to how this could look: “Smiths Cake Shop of London”.
Description Tags: You have your location in your Title tag; now include it in your description tag. You also have a bit more freedom so you could include other areas you may cover.
Include Your Address: An ideal place to include your address is in your footer. This helps to highlight to the search engines of your physical location.
Phone Number: Some companies have business numbers like 0845. If possible include your local number as this adds additional relevance.
Content: Just like any other optimisation exercise your content should be relevant. Including local information in your content will help.
Other pages such as your Contact Us page and even your Directions page can also help provide some valuable content.
Setting up a Google Places profile
The next step should be making sure you have a Google Places profile set up and verified. First, you need to be logged into your Google account.
Go to: http://maps.google.co.uk/maps and click on “Put your business on Google Maps”.
Before creating a profile, Google will check that an existing one isn’t already in place. So, on the next screen you need to enter the country that your location is situated and the phone number.
Click on: “Find Business Information”.
If this information matches up with any existing profiles they will be listed and you are given the opportunity to edit them. If yours isn’t there, click on “Add a new listing”. The next screen is where you enter all your information.
Country: You will have already chosen the correct option on the opening screen.
Company/Organisation: This should be your exact Company name. Its sounds obvious but some believe that you should also try and include targeted terms. You shouldn’t.
Address: This should be the physical address of the venue you are looking to include. So if you have more than one location, don’t include the Head Office address on all of them.
The following boxes are self explanatory: City, County, Postcode, Phone Number and Email Address.
Website: This is missed off far too many times. Be sure to include your site’s URL.
Description: You have 200 characters to include a brief description, but this needs to be kept to the point. Don’t include irrelevant information, this space is precious. Include key terms and key services, but don’t just list terms.
Category: A very important area. You are allowed to include up to five categories, so make sure you do. At least one has to be a Google suggested category. Google will suggest as you type in an attempt to lead you to the most relevant.
If you feel that a relevant category isn’t available you can add one of your own.
Giving Google as much information as possible is beneficial to your profile. So be sure to also fill in the remaining sections as much as possible:
– Service Areas and Location Settings
– Hours of Operation
– Payment Options
– Additional Details
Once you are done – Submit.
You are then asked to validate your listing. This is done by Google sending you a postcard that includes a code which you will need adding to the profile to complete the whole process.
Validating your profile is highly important. It gives you complete control of your listing and also stops the profile from becoming hacked. It is notoriously hard to gain back the control of a profile that has been hacked and this can be detrimental to your local online presence.
So you have your Google Places profile, what next?
How to gain reviews
As you may have seen, ranking sites and profiles tend to have star reviews displayed next to them in the SERPs. Ratings have become more and more of a ranking factor with the evolution of local search.
A recent change to the Google Places layout has placed more emphasis behind reviews being left on your actual Google Places profile. Before this update Google would pull in reviews from a number of review sites such as Yelp, Qype, ReviewCentre and BView.
For example, carry out a search for “Hotels in London”. You will now see that the number of reviews displayed with each profile, within the famous Google seven pack, are now only Google reviews.
But how do you actually work towards gaining these reviews?
It’s not easy getting customers to review your products or services, so you have to be a bit pro-active about it.
In the majority of cases, customers will have included their email address during an online purchase. Email them once they have received their products asking if they would be able to write up a review.
Google now provide a Short URL to your Google Places profile. Include this in your email making it easier for people to get to your page and to review it.
If you are the owner of a Hotel you can achieve plenty of reviews from your guests. If you have a PC in reception logged into your profile page, ask people to leave their thoughts on their stay while they check out. This could also lead to you building up your review count.
A Citation is a reference to your business and/or your address without a physical link in place.
These used to be seen as big part of Local Search however the recent design change in Google Places has left many questioning if they are still important.
Are citations important?
The easy answer is Yes.
Google still creates profiles from the information they grab from sites known as Internet Yellow Page sites, for example Yell. If you go back to when we mentioned about creating your Google Places profile for the first time, I explained that you may find a profile already in place. Google will have built this from information taken from sites well known for providing citations.
These are sites such as:
I am also of the opinion that regardless of whether Google still grabs information from these sites or not, they are still strong places of reference that people use. So not including your business in them means you are missing out on potential traffic from these sources regardless of any further benefit they may add.
So citations still work then?
As mentioned above, they still help Google create profiles for businesses that haven’t set up their own one. We also continue to see evidence of this within the SERPs. Look at a Google seven pack and as we pointed out earlier, you will see the number of Google reviews that a profile has.
Search for an actual company and we can see that reviews are included from other sites.
Our example below shows a listing for a hotel in Winchester. As you can see, included are lists of reviews the hotel has received from other sites:
If this type of information was no longer relevant then it wouldn’t be included.
In my opinion what we are seeing from Google is a move to try and push people into using their Google profiles more as opposed to completely ignoring the information provided by other sites.
Setting up Relevant Profiles
If Google are still picking up 3rd party reviews where should I set up profiles? Here are five review sites to get you started:
In much the same way as Google Places is set up, these sites allow you to include a decent amount of relevant information and claim your listing.
You will need a login for each one of these sites. Once logged in there is usually an “Add Your Business” option.
As with Google Places you may find that there is already a profile set up. If this is the case, claim it. You will then have full control and you can change and update.
Again fill in all fields as best you can and give as much information as you can. But don’t spam.
Some sites also allow you to include coupons or online offers. These sites have their own communities so you may find it beneficial to take part in this as a way of attracting some new customers.
With all the basics in place and profiles set up, gaining reviews is a big area to concentrate on. So the name of the game has to be gaining as many as you can. This can take time leading to one obvious option to speed things up a bit: creating fake reviews.
Should you? No.
No matter how much you think you can cover your tracks, it’s not worth it. If you get caught you will feel the full wrath of Google and you don’t want that. Fake reviews are becoming that much of a problem, so much so that Google are now starting to look into this more and more.
Trip Advisor was recently investigated for including fake reviews on their site and they labelled all hotels they suspected of having fake reviews with a large warning sticker.
The more this happens the stricter these types of sites will become. Don’t get caught in the middle of it.
Unless you provide the most flawless of services you are open to receiving negative reviews. If you are out there in the public domain someone will always find something to complain about. If you keep yourself prepared for this, this isn’t something you should worry about.
A lot of companies are wary of putting themselves out there in case they receive negative feedback but actually you can turn this around to your advantage.
Negative reviews give you the chance to show that you are customer facing and more than happy to interact with your audience. Just don’t break the biggest golden rule – Never ignore a bad review.
If you leave it unattended, sat on either your site or a profile you have created somewhere, then it can seriously start to affect how you are perceived.
So how should you respond?
First of all you want to be seen to be acting on the complaint so reply to the review, a majority of review sites allow you the right to reply. Address the problem. If it was your fault there is no harm in admitting this and expressing how you will learn from this.
If it wasn’t your fault, sympathise with the customer but give them the facts.
There may be times when you feel compelled to offer the customer something to compensate. Unless this is related to a faulty product then you should resist. Sure you don’t want disgruntled customers but at the same time you don’t want to be handing out freebies left, right and centre. Doing this could lead to copycat complaints from people just looking for handouts.
Above all – Never get personal.
No matter what is said, no matter what you are accused of, don’t make it personal. That is easier said than done, after all this is your business they are talking about, but always remain professional. You represent your company and future customers will be reading.
You’re now ready to rule local search
If you follow these pointers you will now be better equipped to work towards better local rankings.
As with any online project your work should be on-going. Don’t rest on your laurels thinking you have done enough. These are the areas to look into but all should be reviewed and updated so that you remain on top.
Andy Williams is a Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai a UK SEO Agency with offices in London and Southampton. He can be found on Twitter as @Koozai_Andy.