When I see businesses with a global footprint trying to rank at the top of local search results, I know local SEO has well and truly arrived. Contrary to popular belief, its efficacy is not limited to local businesses; it can also benefit businesses with a global footprint wanting to geo-target their customers. Local SEO should be made an integral part of your SEO strategy as it helps optimize the local search experience for users.

An ongoing consumer tracking study conducted by BIA/Kelsey and research partner ConStat puts the figure of consumers using online media to shop for local products and services, at a massive 97%. Local SEO ensures your business is found by these consumers. But, it’s not as simple as that. Local SEO has been evolving since the time it was first used by intrepid search marketers who understood the importance of ranking locally.  Its evolution has kept pace with Google’s attempts to weed out spam and improve search quality.

On that note, how should internet marketers approach local SEO marketing in 2014? What are the factors that will impact local SEO this year and how should SEOs navigate the treacherous Local SEO waters in 2014? In this guide, I’ve covered each and every strategy that I believe will determine how your local SEO efforts pan out this year. Each one of them will play a significant role in helping you achieve local SEO rankings.

Let us begin:

#1 – Rethink Keyword Rich Domain Names

Do keyword rich domain names improve search engine rankings? Well, according to Duanne Forrester, Sr. Product Manager of Bing, they don’t. In the golden years of internet marketing when just about anything was kosher, keyword rich domains were considered premium domains. If you’d hire SEO experts for optimizing your web presence, one of the first things they would suggest is getting yourself a domain that centered on a specific keyword. So, if your business offered web design services, getting a domain name with either ‘web design’ or ‘web design services’ was considered a really good idea.

What changed?

Google and other search engines have begun considering a variety of ranking signals; as a result, the nature of domain names is starting to matter less and less. With great content emerging the undisputed champion of internet marketing, just relying on keyword rich domain names isn’t going to cut it for your brand anymore. In fact, those websites sporting a keyword in their domain name but offering really poor content are being deprioritized by Google.

When it comes to local SEO, you will still see sites with a geographic keyword in the domain name such as webdevelopmentcompanyqueens.com ranking well on search rankings but that’s purely because it delivers value to its target audience through some very useful content.

Here’s why you need to reevaluate your focus on keyword rich domain names in 2014:

  • Keyword centric domain names are generally not very brandable. What if Twitter was not Twitter but www.microbloggingusa.com? Yes, its branding would’ve gone for a toss
  • If you want to rise above the noise, you need an uncommon domain name; keyword centric domain names have a tendency to get lost in the crowd.
  • There is a tendency to make such domain names the linchpin of your SEO strategy and lose sight of other important ranking signals.
  • Why risk it? A domain name that includes a keyword and the name of a City/Town/Neighborhood just doesn’t look good enough anymore. It will just make Google scrutinize your site some more!

#2 – Nothing Beats Rich UI and UX

In 2014, you need to think beyond link building for improving your search engine rankings. Focus on user driven SEO and optimizing your web presence in a manner that delivers more value for target users. You can do this by building compelling sites with rich UI and UX. Baked into the algorithm of search engines is a very clear idea of what pages satisfy users and which don’t. Pages that are easy to understand and navigate, offer actionable information relevant to the search query and which encourage interaction between user and content are the way forward this year.

Google wants you to “make pages primarily for users, not search engines”, so why not give Google what it wants. Design and develop for the user, not for bots.

#3 – Fundamental On-Site Elements

Before you hunt for the most innovative local SEO tactics that will help you beat the competition, take a look at your onsite elements. Are they in order? Your onsite SEO elements are the first step towards improving visibility of your website amongst your local customers.

What are these elements? Let’s take a look:

Local Phone Number

Would you believe it, there are some websites that do not have a local contact number. This is a cardinal error, so make sure your local phone number is listed on every page.

Local Address and Zip Code

Local SEO is all about the specifics and it’s about making sure Google knows where your business is located. So, the complete local address along with the zip code must find a mention on every page of your site. There will be local customers out there who’ll be searching for your business using the zip code or a very specific local address.

Google wants you to leave no room for imagination.

Address on Map

Do not forget to mark your address on Google Maps. When users search for your business on Google, the marking on Google Maps will easily help them identify its location.

Social Badges

Merge social with your website with social badges. It makes it easier for your website visitors to ‘Like’ your Page or +1 the content they wish to share with their friends and followers on Google+.

Primary Message and Quick Contact Form Above the Fold

Back in January 2012, Google rolled out the Page Layout Algorithm. It penalized sites for having little or no relevant content above the fold. If readers cannot find your content quickly enough because much of it is below the fold, while the space above is occupied with Ads, graphic elements, and generally everything else that destroys the UX of visitors, your site is prime candidate for a Google Slap.

This algorithm is very relevant to your local SEO strategy. By ensuring the primary message mentioning your products or services with the location you are serving appears above the fold, you are killing two birds with one stone – You are in step with Google’s page quality guidelines, and a user who opens your site knows what your site does and the area its services cover.

For e.g. if a law site’s offering personal injury services in Denver, then a phrase like ‘ Denver personal injury lawyers serving the entire Denver Metro Area’ is best placed above the fold, and will positively impact your local SEO efforts.

Google+ Review Button

Have a habit of giving your business fake reviews that go to town talking about the “virtues” of your services and products? Well you aren’t alone; there are quite a number of businesses doing it, and who think they can pull the wool over Google’s eyes by writing fake 5 star customers reviews. To tell you the truth, the business of fake reviews picked up steam, because it seemed to work, but no more. Google’s pulling the plug on fake reviews as it’s tracking your Google+ account. If it thinks your reviews are illegal, paid or have been generated using unethical means, it’s going to remove them.

Why have fake reviews when you have plenty of ways and means to get more Google reviews for your business. Make it simpler for your clients/consumers to review your products/services. A Google+ Review Button on your site helps you do just that.  It helps you earn natural reviews to your site because it simplifies the process by a long way.

Title and Meta Description

The importance of Title and Meta Description in SEO is like the sun, the wind and the stars, it’s ever present. Local SEO cannot survive without these elements in place. The idea behind Title and Meta Description is that they need to be aligned with the purpose of the site. For e.g. an ecommerce portal’s Title and Meta Descriptions will differ from a Restaurant website located in New York (local business site). In the latter, the location must figure prominently in the Title and Meta Description.

An ideal Title for Local SEO includes the brand name, the page Title, and the location of the business, and all this within 70 characters. The ideal description should include the brand name, the targeted keyword, the location or area of operation, and all relevant information about the page. Sticking to 160-170 characters will help but if you really want to sharpen your description and make it friendlier for search engines, pack as much information as you can, in less.

Image Optimization

This post on KISSmetrics should be compulsory reading for SEOs who want to understand why and how page load impacts conversions. Another must read is How Website Speed Actually Impacts Search Rankings. If you go through these wonderfully written pieces, you will realize the pressing need for reducing page load speed. Page load speed reduction as an on-site optimization tactic is often ignored by the best SEOs. But it shouldn’t and one of the ways you can improve the loading speed of your site is by optimizing images.

If you want to optimize images with local SEO in mind, here’s what you need to do:

  • Use amazing images that best illustrate what your products and services are all about.
  • Incorporate your primary local keywords into your image file name.
  • Focus on an appropriate ALT text and define the right Title parameters of your image (leave no doubt in a search engine’s mind about what these images represent).
  • Link your image in Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. By specifying the image in the protocol, you ensure it is displayed as a thumbnail in Facebook searches.
  • Make sure you upload the best images to Google+ local pages. For Google, the quality of images on a site is determinant of its user experience. So don’t go wrong here.

And finally, read this article on image performance that offers technical insights on using images that do not increase the site’s page weight.

Content Optimization

The process of content optimization begins with the creation of superlative content that is marked by its usefulness, the value addition it bring to a user’s search experience, and its actionable nature. While this is a task in itself, there are other equally important activities that make or mar on-site content optimization:

  • Internal Linking: Link all the content internally to different pages of the site and do not over link the content. Using varied anchor text in your links makes for good SEO strategy. This article on smarter internal linking takes a comprehensive look into what new age link building is all about.
  • Say No to Content Duplication: According to Matt Cutts, around 30% of all internet content is duplicate. But just because so many people are doing it, doesn’t mean duplicate content isn’t a problem. In fact it’s a big problem, especially if your site has scraped content off websites on the internet. Avoid doing this.
    But what if you find some amazing content that you absolutely want to share with your website visitors and copy paste it on to your site, linking back to the URL where you find it. If you think that’s not going to put your website under Google’s penalty microscope, you’re wrong. This is regarded as content duplication. So, what’s the solution? The solution is the use of canonical tags that tell search bots your objective is to share content and not duplicate it.
  • Keyword Proximity and Prominence: You can’t shy away from keyword rich content, but do not stuff keywords into content. You aren’t writing content for bots, but for people. Google hates websites that don’t deliver content for humans.

#4 – Google Places for Business and Local Business Pages

Usually your business will already be listed in Google’s results, but if you want to be in charge of the information Google presents to your target audience about your business, you need to register for Google Places and fill detailed information about your business, its hours of operation, contact information and anything and everything else that Google asks for.  The fact that you need to verify your account by phone or mail, allows you to increase the credibility of your business.

Google has another ace up its sleeve as far as allowing businesses to improve visibility amongst their local audience. It offers Google+ Local for Businesses that allows you to connect with your target audiences on Google+.  Put them in your circles to ensure they can see the latest updates about your company. You could share links to your latest blog posts, or a festive offer you’ve just come out with or something else. As soon as you share these updates, the users who have your company in their circles will get wind of them.

But what does all this mean for local SEO? Apart from the social connect you develop with your target users, there is SERP benefit as well. Google’s started incorporating your Google + connections to offer personalized search results. E.g. if your company is offering web development services in Sacramento, a user having your company in his/her Google+ circles and is searching for web development in Sacramento, will find your company at the top of his SERPs.

To summarize, the benefits of Google+ Local include:

  • Better online visibility and improved information about your business.
  • Enhanced customer engagement through its social features.
  • Establishing a more personal connect with customers, more feedback and natural reviews.
  • Helps you rank higher on SERPs if you consistently share fresh content with your audience.

Whether you’re able to optimize the use of Google+ for your local business depends on your ability to create and deliver actionable content to your potential and/or existing customers at the right time. This ‘right time’ is the optimal time to share your posts on Google+, when they are most likely to get read and shared. An app called Timing+ will help you calculate the best time to share posts on Google+. In internet marketing, where every second counts, a ‘share’ timed to perfect can deliver the best returns!

#5 – Google+ Authorship

With over 350 million active users, Google+ is giving Facebook and Twitter a run for its money. You ignore this social network at your own risk; if you don’t want to miss out on reaching out to such a large chunk of audience, you need a Google+ strategy starting right now! Yet another reason why you should be leveraging Google+ is its features like Google+ Authorship. You can now link your Google+ account to the content you create; essentially you can claim your content as a site owner or contributor. It verifies your identity as the author of the content, lending it greater credibility and leaving no room for doubt that it was a human that wrote this content.

Yes, all those pictures of people appearing next to search results is a result of Google’s attempts to reward people who consistently produce quality content. But what’s establishing trust and legitimacy of your content got to do with local SEO? Plenty!

  • Your authorship byline helps improve your visibility; it helps your entry on SERPs stand out from the crowd. The richer the snippet, the more your link will get noticed.
  • Amongst the Fortune 100 companies, only 3.5% use Google Authorship, meaning your small local business has a tremendous first mover advantage if it uses this feature to compete against the big guys.
  • With Google trying to improve the credibility of its SERPs, identity will keep playing an important role in search. If you’ve got a verified online profile, any web information you link with this online profile, will get thumbs up from the search engines and which will reflect in improved rankings on SERPs.
  • It helps establish trust, and in the online world trust is a commodity that is in short supply. So don’t miss any opportunity to build credibility.

If you’ve decided Google+ Authorship is something you can’t ignore any longer, this guide tells you how it’s done.

#6 – Google Local Business Listing – Get it Right

At first glance, creating a Google+ business account and registering your local business by filling up all the necessary information looks like a simple task. And it is, provided you do not mess it up by taking it lightly.

So the question is how do you not mess it up? Here’s what you need to do:

  • Choose the right category for your business to define the right business area and target audience. Specify customer categories that describe your business, rather than something that represent your business.
  •  Include the name of your City in custom categories.
  • Your business’s local place landing page should mention your City/State and product/service name and zip code as well. E.g. Personal Injury Lawyers in Denver, Colorado or Personal Injury Law Firm in 80120.

A word of warning – Do not pepper your description with keywords that will just spoil your listing. Focus should be on optimizing listing with all necessary local information and not spamming it with local keywords.

#7 – Structured Data and Schema

Google, Bing and Yahoo have ganged up to endorse schema.org as the proper markup vocabulary SEOs must use so that all three can make sense of your data. You need to structure data to ensure Google understands the various elements you have on the page. But isn’t that what Titles and Meta Descriptions do? Well, no they don’t. While Titles and Meta Descriptions help search engines understand what the page is about, structured data helps them work out what’s on the page – Two different things, and both very important for SEO.

As a local business, if you want search engines to display relevant information about your business, you need to utilize Schema Markup. The great part about schema is you can store this data in fixed fields in the HTML of the website. Storing all data as per the business, its products and services helps search engines retrieve all necessary information from the markup.

But does it offer a ranking benefit? Matt Cutts says it doesn’t – but don’t panic – the use of structured data has plenty of ancillary benefits that can go on to prop up your rankings on SERPs.  Implementing schema with the reviews and testimonials on your site will help search engines extract relevant information quickly and ensure your business’s product reviews are displayed on SERPs. Suffice to say, this can help improve rankings and website traffic by a long way.

Post Hummingbird, the importance of schema.org has increased and it will be one of the cornerstones of an effective SEO strategy in the future.

#8 – NAP Consistency

NAP consistency is one of the often ignored ranking factors of local search. Think about it for a second. What if most incoming links that your business website attracts display your Name, Address and Phone Number (NAP) in different ways? When this happens, there is a chance that Google will think you don’t own one, but operate 2 or more businesses. This in turn will affect your rankings.

To make sure this doesn’t happen, maintaining your NAP consistency across your local business citations and websites, (in content, Title and Meta descriptions) is of critical importance. This will ensure each citation to your business on the review will work towards improving the rankings of a business page. Think of it along the lines of distributed efforts (NAP inconsistency) making way for a more focused effort (NAP Consistency). No prizes for guessing what will deliver the best results.

#9 – Natural Reviews

In local SEO context, natural reviews are those reviews left by your customers on a Google+ local page, Yelp and other local citations building sites. Reviews offer a direct ranking benefit. If your business earns a lot of positive reviews on its Google+ local pages, or on its Yelp listing, its rank will go up. Reviews also improve word of mouth about your products and services and also help customers make informed buying decisions.

The multiple benefits of reviews for local SEO, means marketers are tempted to offer money or other incentives to people to write favorable reviews for their business. But, Google frowns upon such tactics, so make sure you focus on earning natural reviews for your sites or you might find yourself in the crosshairs of a sting operation, like the one conducted by Yelp. The objective of this operation was to get rid of paid reviews on the site. Forget, improving credibility, phony reviews will destroy your business reputation.

Remember, you can always ask clients to leave a review, but do not lure them with rewards. That’s simply not on. The Crazy Egg offers some Clever Ways to Get Customer Reviews that Convert. You can come up with your own innovative ways to make sure customers take time out and post a review on your site.

#10 – Local SEO for Multiple Locations

If your business is serving more than one geographical area you do not need a different website for each location. A single website can do the job for you.

  • First, claim your Google+ local listing for each premise located in every location and verify this location. You will need to link your website to its Google+ profile. But while doing so, keep in mind that all listings are from a single login or dashboard. This is the ethical way of doing it, and also helps you manage your different listings at one place.
  • Secondly, make sure you add to the pages of your existing website by creating location specific pages (more on that later). This will allow you to optimize the content of each of these pages vis-à-vis the particular business location. More importantly, as each of these pages will have a business address and contact number specific to their geographic location, they will have the correct local signals that will improve their ranking in local search results.
  • The use of structured data in each page allows search engines to understand page content better, which ensures the links to the right locations are shown in SERPs pertinent to the geographic location of a business’s operations.
  • You can also build links for each of the location pages and put in place a content strategy aligned with the geographic location that each of the pages target.

#11 – Boost your SERPs

You’ve now come a long way in your local SEO strategy for 2014, but it’s not over yet. You now need to start thinking of bossing your SERPs.

Guest Post Strategy

Yes, I know Matt Cutts and by inference Google isn’t gung-ho about guest posting anymore, but writing and submitting guest posts on authoritative sites is still a very important SEO strategy. Let’s get one thing straight, guest blogging as we know it is not dead and buried, it’s just that Google doesn’t want you to approach guest posting from a purely link building perspective. It wants you to build relationships, brand authority and reputation through a well-written guest post.

That brings us to the question, what makes a great guest post. The guys at Distilled in their infinite wisdom came up with an Anatomy of a Great Guest Post, which gives the low down on the qualities that maketh a great post. Our other favorite people on Earth, the guys at Copy Blogger, came up with What Makes a Great Copy Blogger Guest Post, which again offers wonderful insights into the characteristics of a readable post.

Everybody wants to write a guest post like the ones up on Copy Blogger or Distilled, but frankly, that’s a tall ask for most people. So, it’s best to keep things simple, and focus on the essentials, which includes factual content that readers will love going through. Consistently produce content that solves a particular problem of your target audience, and share it across all your social media channels. Keep doing this and working on improving your content.

Whatever anybody tells you, writing worthwhile guest posts isn’t easy. But, as long as you offer useful information, you got it covered!

Citations: Local Business Directory Submission

Citations are local references to your business. It makes your business more visible to search engines and can also be called a reference, a mention, or a shout out about your business on a web page. A citation could just be your company name, but an effective citation includes your company with a logo link, its phone number, address or any other information that tells search engines exactly what your business is about.

You can get citations by submitting to local business directories like City Search, Local.com, Yelp, MerchantCircle, Yahoo! Local and others. Citations from reputed directories that are extremely quality conscious, will help you rank better on SERPs. Go through the Definitive List of Local Search Citations to identify the right third-party sites to list on.

Microsites

A microsite purely build for link building doesn’t deliver value but if you’re using it for a specific purpose other than building links, it can deliver high ROI.  For local SEOs, microsites can be used to host business reviews and testimonials or offer detailed information about products and/or services. A case in point is a microsite called http://www.insightpestreviews.com/, which primarily hosts reviews and testimonials for Insight Pest Solutions whose primary website is http://www.insightpest.com/.

Tap Local Newspapers/Magazine

Merge your online SEO strategy with an offline strategy. Get mentions for your local business from local newspapers or magazines. How do you go about doing it? Write an article for them, post a business advertisement, host events or contribute to the local community or charity; such events can get picked up by local newspapers or magazine. Finding natural mentions in newspapers is one of the better ways of letting people know about your brand. Most newspapers and magazines have their online versions, so it makes perfect sense to leverage their reach to target your audience.

Social Links

There is a huge debate whether social signals impact search engine rankings. This is what Matt Cutts, says about social signals and SEO:

“Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say “you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook”, to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that in our web search ranking algorithms.”

He categorically denies that social signals like the number of Tweets and Facebook Likes are factored into Google’s search algorithm to rank websites. So, are social signals unimportant? Not by a long way. They can be co-related with improved website rankings, but do not cause them.  For local SEO, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks is great for driving visitors and traffic to your site. It’s also an interactive and real time way of conveying news about your business to its target audience.

So create social pages and keep sharing useful, actionable content across various social networks. This generates more awareness about your brand, which means better traffic to your website, improved conversions; this means more reviews.  This ultimately results in better SERP rankings.

So, finally social media influence and its busyness does impact your ranking but it takes an indirect approach for doing so. The key here is not just sharing content on social media, but also making it easy to share your content. Bringing social to your website with the use of features like social share buttons make it simpler for visitors to share the content they like with their extended community on social media.

#12 – Create City Specific Landing Pages if you’re targeting multiple Cities

Creating multiple websites for multiple cities that you wish to target, doesn’t make sense does it? Of course it doesn’t, so use a single domain for multi-location businesses. Essentia, a foaming company specializing in memory foam mattresses, does this really well:

This allows you to streamline your local SEO efforts and target each page for the targeted geographic location. Every local SEO technique we’ve discussed in this guide, like Title tags, Descriptions, social links, etc. can be put to work for your City specific landing pages. After, all you want to rank for each one of them!

#13 – Local SEO Tools

Why make things difficult for yourself when local SEO tools are available to increase the effectiveness of your search engine optimization efforts. If you are looking for free local SEO tools, don’t just pick them because they are free, but for their ability to simplify the activities that are a part and parcel of local SEO. The time you save can be best used elsewhere.

Here are a few of my personal favorites:

Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool

This tool tells me what structured data Google will extract from the page, and also give me an idea of how rich snippets will appear on search results. This allows me to create and implement structured data that I know will work for my site.

Yext

Your business listing must be accurate and must appear in the same format everywhere. With Yext, I no longer have to move around from one site to another updating my business information. I can use Yext’s Power Listings services to enter this information and it updates this information across its network of directory listing partners, accurately and sticking to the same format across all listings. This saves time and a lot of effort.

Whitespark Local Citation Finder

This one allows me to find a wealth of citation sources, per keyphrase. I can start building citations without wasting any time trying to find the right citation sources. I can focus my attention on picking the right sources, analyze my competitors’ citation for citation and basically get my citations strategy right.

To Conclude

Getting your local SEO right hinges on whether you can think and act local. It’s about understanding the needs of your local audience, the communities they are a part of, the local issues, and all the choices they make locally.  The understanding that you must have of the location you need to target must be incisive and exhaustive. You must become a part of the locale and understand it in order to optimize your website for it. Otherwise your local SEO just won’t work.

And yes, local SEO is an ongoing endeavor, keep creating local citations, earning reviews and building links to your local pages all the time. It will only deliver results, if you keep at it.