Is your local SEO lagging behind while hyper-local search queries and contextual search are becoming the norm?
Improving your local SEO is about optimizing citations and garnering quality reviews for your business online.
In this article I am going to help you leverage both opportunities and garner authority building trust signals in the most responsible ways possible. I’ll cover local citations, business reviews and testimonials and even give you actionable tips to properly earn, manage and use them.
In local SEO, your company’s “NAP” refers to its business name, address, and phone number as they appear online across all websites. Together, these three pieces of information form what search marketers refer to as “citations,” which are one of the fundamental building blocks of optimizing search presence within specific geographic regions.
Determining your company’s NAP is the first step in the local SEO process, and the most important. Here’s why:
Identical Citations are Vital: All local citations for your business can’t have any variance in their naming conventions. You can’t call your business “Joe’s Crab House” on Facebook and name it “Joe’s Crab Hut” on Yelp. Doing so creates NAP confusion, which makes it harder for search engines to trust your company at the local level. Yes, even spelling counts in local SEO.
Check Your Address for Accuracy: If your address has a suite or office number, you must include that info in all citations. Missing even this tiny detail can sink your local SEO strategy. Double check the zip code as well and make sure everyone in your marketing team knows the right address in full.
Do Not Change Phone Numbers: Your business might love having multiple phone numbers for call tracking purposes, but that doesn’t mean you should include them in your local citations. Decide on one public facing number and stick with it.
Fear Mismatched Listings: Having inconsistent or duplicate local citations on the same websites, especially Google properties, can cause the search engine to take action against your business. For your efforts, Google may slap a “permanently closed” tag on your Google Maps listing; a mortal blow unless you get it fixed fast.
Want to check the accuracy of your business listings? Try our free local listing tool today!
Google and other major search engines want to see both consistency and uniqueness in all your local citations. They want consistency in that your company’s citations are identical on all sites as well as uniqueness in terms of address and phone number use. No other business should include your exact physical address, name, or your phone number as part of their own citations. This information is your unique footprint in the local online business community.
While not the weighted ranking signal that they were in years past, citations are still a very important part of getting your website to do well in local search. Google isn’t going to serve your website in Map Pack results (example shown above) unless it trusts that your company does legitimate business in the area and gives off the proper trust signals.
Citations help to increase these signals by accomplishing the following:
Brand Mentions on the Web: Your company’s citations appearing on high authority domains, including Facebook, Yelp, and Google My Business, increases how often your brand shows up as Google’s spiders crawl the web. Citations increase visibility, which can lead to more search queries that include your business name, and that’s good for all SEO efforts, including local.
Reinforcing Geographic Ties: Local citations contain your business location in the real world, which search engines take into account when presenting results from queries using geographic keywords or queries that they believe have local searcher intent. By maintaining a consistent geographic presence through correct citations, your company helps keep up and even improve its relevancy to its own geography.
Build Local Authority: Citations on high-powered websites can work just as effectively for local search growth as dofollow backlinks help push organic rankings. By increasing your domain’s authority at the local level, you help legitimize your business as an entity that has ties to the community and wants more local customers.
Would you spend money with a company that can’t get its phone number right and the address leads to a P.O. Box instead of a storefront?
Those factors don’t scream “legitimate business” so much as “probable identity theft ring.” Google and other search engines view citations much the same way. Influencing local search is only possible if those citations lead searchers to real companies.
Building citations in mass number on any directory website you can find is no longer the right or safe way to master local SEO.
In July 2014, Google rolled out a massive update to its local search algorithm that industry professionals dubbed, “Pigeon.” The Pigeon Update fundamentally changed the way Google ranked businesses in its Google Maps Pack, shuffling them around depending on queries and even reducing the number of websites it served.
Pigeon affected both organic web search and Google Maps, bringing local signals more in line with traditional desktop ranking factors. The update also gave more weight to specific local directories, including Zagat, Trip Advisor, and Kayak. In short, after Pigeon, it’s not possible for companies to game the system and rank well in local search.
Here’s what else changed:
Google Moves the Centroid: Once centrally located map pins by which all local results in a city might rotate, Google altered centroids to hyper-target local SERPs by neighborhoods and districts. Where one centroid ruled New York City before the Pigeon Update, in its aftermath, searchers could find local businesses and other relevant content for all five boroughs. Ranking well for Manhattan local search terms does not guarantee that sites can do the same for Queens specific queries.
Changes to Contextual Search: Google works constantly to better understand searcher intent, including serving results based more on the device used, time of day, and location than the query itself. A person stepping out of a hotel conference in Boston and typing “breakfast” into a Google search bar on their smartphone gets relevant results dictated not just by their keyword, but also by the context of their search.
Neighborhood Search Gets Elastic: Even as Google targeted smaller areas, Pigeon also considered queries from searchers that bordered two distinct areas, serving them results from both areas based on simple distance and not geo terms. This change means coffee shops in Society Hill in Philadelphia might show up for search queries based on its neighboring district like “coffee shops in Old City,” and vice versa. Being on the border presents new local search opportunities.
As the dust settled after the Pigeon Update, local listings for many businesses disappeared over night, causing many companies to scramble frantically to restore lost leads and search engine traffic. Adapting to Google’s new requirements demands that your company does things better, including having robust profiles to go with your local citations, cease faking local presences in areas where you do no legitimate business, and stop creating citations in spammy directories that give searchers no real value.
Auditing your existing citations is a mandatory part of successful local SEO — you can’t avoid it.
While there are plenty of online tools for local listing management that you can use to help ease the tedium, the most effective method is to start with a Google search of your company’s phone number. From these results, you can see where the “P” part of your NAP occurs on every URL in Google’s index. Make note of every full or partial NAP you find. From here, you can get a sense of the scope of citations you’re dealing with and develop a plan to tackle them one at a time.
Take these steps next to properly audit your local citations:
Gather All Your Passwords: If your business stored passwords to social media accounts in disparate places, this is your hardest step. You’ll need log-in information to review sites, company email addresses, and social networks to correct incorrect citations and change passwords. Hopefully, you’ve maintained positive relationships with your former social media managers because you may need to talk to a few of them to get all the necessary info.
Watch Out for Pay Sites: Many local directories know how important citation correction is for SEO, which is why they think they can get away with charging people money, sometimes hundreds of dollars, to fix listings. Set aside a budget to fix citations living on these paid sites. If you can’t spend the money, see about getting them deleted for no cost. Removing incorrect citations is just as good as fixing them. You can always build new ones later.
Track Your Progress: Auditing citations in a vacuum with no ability to track your work breeds that kind of confusion that caused your current problems. Track your citations, and the changes you make, in one centralized document where you can visualize your efforts. Online citation tools like ours or Moz Local (formerly Get Listed) also have features to help with citation management, if you’re willing to pay the monthly service cost associated with them.
Verify Your Google My Business Profile: As part of your audit process, make sure to verify your company’s Google My Business page, if one exists. Verification takes a short verification code sent over the phone to your company’s main number or through the mail at your business address.
Once you’ve corrected your company’s existing local citations, it’s time to go after new targets to help bolster its search presence. Remember, this strategy isn’t about quantity. You want to steer clear of websites advertising “free SEO directory listings” or opting to hire a third-party to build citations in bulk. High authority domains are your only targets when seeking to build citations to help local search performance.
Consider these options to grab new local citations:
Target Local Directories: Every city and county around the country has websites that feature local businesses. Get your local citation on municipal government sites welcoming tourists or on local business directories with robust followings. These sites can be powerful signals to Google and other search engines that your business has strong ties to its place.
Do Humans See the Pages: After the Pigeon Update, Google simply stopped crawling the deeper pages of many older online directories because real humans never saw or clicked links on them. Before you build any citation, consider if people interested in your company could ever find this page, and whether they would find enough value in it to interact. You can judge ball park human interaction by viewing the site’s monthly web traffic from organic search via an online tool like SEMRush. A site that provides value for searchers and has regular visitors should show sustained search traffic over months without significant dips due to potential algorithmic penalties. Also view a site’s Domain Authority (DA) through Moz’s Open Site Explorer. Stay away from any opportunity that has a DA of 30 or lower.
Build Profiles on Major Social Networks: Social media signals, including interaction, sharing, and click-through rates, are powerful signals for local SEO. Make sure your team maintains profiles on these sites, including Twitter, Facebook, and Yelp, along with correct local citations when the platform allows you to place them. Upkeep, along with regular content posting, helps support community interaction. Avoid building multiple profiles for different facets of your business, as this tactic dilutes your brand and potentially leads to duplicate citation creation.
Citation building is an ongoing effort that requires continual maintenance and monitoring for new opportunities. Pay close attention to how fast you acquire new local citations, as velocity can serve as a low-quality signal to Google and other search engines that your website is trying to manipulate search results unfairly. When you get the itch to create more citations than you should, pivot strategies to support your existing listings with review content.
If citations are the bedrock of local SEO, testimonials and reviews are the wings that lift the ceiling on ranking potential and brand reach. Real customers sharing their experiences with their peers about your products and services is crucial for your company to reach new potential revenue sources and develop the headwinds that lead to sustained, long-term success. What makes a useful testimonial? It’s not just about gushing success stories or hyperbole laden tales of awesome service.
In an ideal world, every review would include:
Detailed Description of Events: Reviews should give readers the specifics on what customers enjoyed about your business or what challenges they faced in completing their order. When you get details, you can help find solutions to make weaker areas stronger and reward those who performed well.
Reviews from Verified Accounts: You want real people leaving testimonials and reviews for your business. Verified purchases from established profiles have more weight than those left from day-old accounts with no personal information on them. Searchers don’t trust reviews that look fake and neither do search engines. In fact, review sites like Yelp are notorious for deleting reviews (positive or negative) left from newly created accounts.
Positive Language and Emotional Impact: Happy customers can leave just as many bad reviews for your business as irate customers. Let’s be honest, a review that’s all exclamation points and smiley faces isn’t going to convince someone to buy your product or hire your firm. You want positive review language that devotes enough word count to engender an emotional response from readers, informing them of how your company helped them solve a problem and that they’re beyond grateful for your help in their time of need.
Without online reviews, your company may find it difficult to generate the kind of social proof online that boosts engagement and local search growth. Reviews that highlight your company’s shortcomings may sting in the short-term, but if you devote time to reach out to these reviewers and seek to learn from past mistakes, you can easily turn uphill battles into fast-moving slopes.
Convincing customers to leave a review for your business online is one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences any owner or principal can go through when engaged in local SEO.
What website should they leave their review on?
Should they borrow an on-site computer?
What if Google notices the IP address and deletes all our reviews?
Will our local rankings vanish?
Queue the essential death spiral and heavy breathing. Fortunately, there’s a simple method to get customers to review your business without causing a panic attack — ask them.
That’s all you need to do. In a cheerful way, ask them if they would mind leaving your business a review on your target website. Sometimes, all you need to do is place a review website’s logo decal in your storefront window or at the checkout counter to help customers find you online and leave their thoughts about their experience. Don’t be afraid to leverage your company’s existing social profiles in this way if you’d rather not approach customers directly to voice their opinion online.
It’s largely out of your hands where customers or clients choose to leave their reviews online. You could attempt to direct traffic to more useful sites from a local SEO perspective like Google My Business, but neglecting your profiles on other sites could lead competitors to create accounts in your company’s name to try to throw off your local success. The last thing you want is to get into a spat with a competitor that could spill onto other domains and escalate though social media. As long as your marketing team is making your followers aware of all the great reviewers your customers are leaving, it shouldn’t matter where they live online.
A Note About Yelp Reviews: Many business owners have said for years that they prefer to avoid Yelp due to the site’s alleged practices of promoting negative reviews and bullying site owners to pay for advertising. Yelp remains a powerful weapon in the local SEO arsenal, but you shouldn’t need to shell out money every month to see a benefit. Don’t give in to them.
Every review website, including social networks with review features, have rules about who can post reviews and how businesses can conduct themselves when approaching followers or customers to leave them some love. How your company navigates these terms of service is the lynchpin in your online review generation strategy.
Here are the review tactics your business should never engage in online:
Do Not Incentivize Online Reviews: Do not offer customers, influencers, or bloggers compensation, including free products or money, to post reviews of your business on any website. Doing so can violate terms of service, causing the website to delete all of your reviews as punishment. In a similar vein, don’t pay into a service promising mass amounts of online reviews for your business. The companies usually employ foreign profiles that lack the local social signals you need to sustain traffic and search engine rankings.
Do Not Commence Network Trickery: Don’t force your customers to give online reviews while they’re in your store using a computer that’s running an IP scrambler. Not only is the practice suspect from a societal level, Google may even see through the tactic, resulting in the summary execution of your existing online reviews.
Do Not Single Out Negative Reviewers: Customers who leave unhappy reviews are opportunities for your business to do better. Use their anger or disappointment as a chance to open a dialogue with them about what they would like to see change in your company and keep them informed of your progress towards that goal. Involving customers at this level may just change a negative review into a brand relationship that sustains itself over many future transactions.
Best practices for soliciting online reviews is to prize natural placement over manipulative tactics. Search engines want to emulate searcher behavior, and online reviews are a natural extension of the same word-of-mouth virality that can happen offline. Trying to tailor the message or squash dissenting opinions only leads to backlash. Focus on making your business the best possible version of itself and the positive reviews should build on themselves.
Local SEO, like any organic channel, demands an ever-evolving strategy.
You’ll need regular upkeep to sustain your prominent placement in local search rankings and to grow traffic over time. If you stay ready to adapt and keep a close watch on citation building, you shouldn’t get caught on the wrong side of the next surprise search algorithm update.
More importantly, if you focus your efforts on creating amazing products or experiences and providing consistent, outstanding customer service, then your customers will help grow your business for you.
Feeling stuck or overwhelmed with local citations and reviews? Let’s talk!
January 27, 2023
This is helpful to me as I am helping a Veteran owned Non Profit company to rank their website and to rank their shopify product that they are selling to help fun the non profit mission. I understand the local citations for brick and mortar, but am still gathering information to understand how this should or should not be used as a strategy for the shopify product piece of it. And what if they don’t want their phone number published? Is that possible for any citations?
January 29, 2023
Thank you for your comment/question, Jay. A phone number, specifically a local phone number, is a pretty important factor for local search ranking as it’s one of the three pillars of NAP (name, address, phone number). Even though a local business listing is probably not going to be a huge driver of online sales, it would still be important to have (optimized) as it’s a result that shows up for the business. Outside of local SEO, having a phone number that customers can see/use does add some trust and legitimacy to a business.