Most Internet users use search functions many times a day, whether they're looking for information on a general topic ("Movies") or something more specific ("James Cameron Movies"). But while the more Net-savvy may also know that they can find out what movies are playing in their area and at what times ("Movie Times Chicago, IL"), they may not be aware of how such localized search can be applicable, and a valuable tool, for their own business. In fact, whether a given company's prospects are mostly located within the same zip code or scattered around the world, local search has become critically important to drive traffic, both physical and electronic, to its stores. Wisely employing local search gives a company an additional chance of appearing high on the results listings of a given search ("Wholesale Clothing Chicago"), and in the still-developing mobile device market, may prove invaluable when potential customers perform searches on their iPhones or similar devices.
Not surprisingly, all of the major search engines currently have a local search application, from Google Maps (formerly Google Local; http://maps.google.com) and Bing Maps (formerly Windows Live Local; www.bing.com/maps), to Yahoo! Local (http://local.yahoo.com) and ask.com's AskCity (http://city.ask.com). Most of these sites' homepages require visitors to type in at least a zip code, if not a business type or name, to get results, though often they'll immediately go to a general landing page for the locality of the computer being used for the inquiry. These search engines typically offer local businesses the opportunity to upload their business data to their respective local search databases. Additionally, traditional local media companies such as television and radio broadcasters and newspapers are increasingly adding local search to their local websites, in order to capture a bigger share of their own local search traffic, as well as potential advertising revenue. Such print directory publishers as Yellow Pages (www.yellowpages.com) and Superpages (www.superpages.com) also offer local search portals.
Of course, simply listing your company at these or other sites is only the first step; after all, if your competitors are doing the same thing, you're still not differentiating your business. A number of variables can affect how high your business' ranking is, and they go well beyond the old Yellow Pages trick of naming your company "AAA Wholesale Jewelry." It's a given that the higher the ranking on a local search result, the more likely that your company will be the first contact for a confused consumer. No one, needless to say, wants to appear on the second, much less the 22nd, search results page.
According to the 2009 edition of Local Search Ranking Factors, an annual report produced by web design and search engine optimization firm David Mihm, Inc., some of the most vital components of a successful local search strategy include:
? Claim your listing. Whether taking the steps to ensure your company is listed, or simply proofreading existing information about your company, this is probably the most important and relatively effortless task. Sites like getlisted.org (http://getlisted.org), which launched in January 2009 and co-founded by Mihm, is an intuitive-to-use resource that can help business owners claim their listings at Google Maps, Yahoo! Local, and others.
? Location. Naming your company "New York Wholesale Jewelers Inc." when you're physically located in San Francisco, isn't going to do you much good here. Including your location in your local business listing (LBL) title or description is a generally good idea, as in "Wholesale Jewelers of San Francisco, Inc."
? Proper categorization. Once you've claimed your listing, you can place your business in appropriate, keyword-rich categories. Including keywords in the categories improves rankings dramatically, and mentioning your services/products in the title will also help avoid confusion. This can also be done by listing a company named "Panda China," as, "Panda Chinese Restaurant," to make matters more clear.
? Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) citations. Just as being listed in the physical Yellow Pages remains important for most businesses, so too is being listed on their Internet equivalents. Just as a display ad in the actual phone book might help your company stand out, paying for a listing on an IYP can be rewarding as well.
? Customer reviews. If anything, this has become an even more important factor in recent years, as the sheer number of competing businesses on the web continue to look for cheap and (hopefully) unbiased comments from actual customers to sway potential buyers. The number of reviews can have a positive effect on rankings. Many search engines also allow for reviews; the report lists as the five most important of these: Yelp, InsiderPages, Yahoo, CitySearch and Google.
? Add extra media. Including photos or even video with your LBL can help in your rankings, and generally gives visitors the impression that your company is a legitimate, professional one. In general, any updates to your LBL can help you move up in the rankings.
The report also features negative factors to keep in mind, which include:
? Only listing a toll free number with your LBL. If an 800 or 888 number is your only phone listing, it doesn't exactly scream out, "local business." Including a working local number is therefore very important. Yahoo asks for both local and 800 numbers where applicable.
? Using one business name for several different businesses. While this practice might make sense for McDonald's franchises, listing "Fred's Wholesale," as a dealer in jewelry, clothing, toys and electronic equipment will only engender confusion, and could persuade customers to avoid your business altogether. Separate listings for "Fred's Wholesale Jewelry," "Fred's Wholesale Clothing," and the like will help, while coming up with completely different names, "Fred's Wholesale Clothing," and, "F.A. Wholesale Jewelry," is even better.
? Using one address for several different businesses. This is listed as the number one "Must Avoid" in the report, not because there's anything illegal or immoral about it, necessarily, but because such repetition can actually result in the search engine reading that conflicting information as an error, and deleting all such listings. You don't want that. Again, employing different company names can help, while simply listing your company as "Fred's Wholesale Clothing, Jewelry, Toys and Electronics," while cumbersome, can avoid this problem altogether.
Keeping Up with Competitors
The grass may always be greener on the other side of the fence, as the old saying goes, but that doesn't mean your business can't learn a thing or two about lawn care (or, if you prefer, fertilizer) from close observation of your competitors' practices. While this may be obvious when it comes to website design, pricing and other such matters, it's also true when it comes to LBLs.
Taking a close look at what a competitor is doing, both in terms of search engine optimization and in link-building opportunities, can be rewarding. Figuring out why one competitor is failing can be just as important as determining why another is doing so much better than you are. Simply mimicking a successful competitor's strategy may not necessarily help you usurp his position high atop local rankings, however. Search engines rank pages based on literally hundreds of algorithms, not limited to those listed above, so maintaining that this is an exact science is inaccurate. However, there are a few steps that your business can take when examining a competitor's strategy that should help your own rankings.
Employing a keyword suggestion tool is a good place to start. Sites like Google's Keyword Tool (https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal) and Wordtracker's Keyword Suggestion Tool (http://freekeywords.wordtracker.com) can help you determine which keywords are not only most applicable to your business (and avoid less valuable keyword phrases), but also which ones might help improve your rankings. The Google Keyword Tool also allows users to sort by Local Search Volume and by Search Volume Trends. These applications can help identify what your local competitors are doing, while the Google Keyword Annualizer (http://www.netconcepts.com/google-keyword-tool-annualizer) is an Excel spreadsheet tool that can help determine how the keywords are affected on a seasonal basis (Note: Despite its name, the Google Keyword Annualizer is not affiliated with Google).
By performing keyword searches on your preferred search engine, you should be able to see how high your company ranks when compared with your competitors. Your search results may also give you some surprising results, by listing companies that you were either unaware of or had not considered competitors. If your search results include a large number of companies that, in fact, are not competing with you, you should definitely re-examine the keywords you're using for your company.
The importance of local search rankings will only increase as the household penetration of mobile devices (PDAs, BlackBerries, iPhones, etc.) continues to rise. Potential customers who are on the go-whether commuting to work, killing time at a coffee shop, or wandering around a city in a car or on foot-are looking at smaller screens, and often feeling time-constrained. If the idea of scanning through several pages of possible matches on a desktop computer is daunting to most users, the very suggestion of doing the same on a small, handheld device is absurd.
How large is mobile's potential? According to market research firm Gartner, sales of mobile phone ads are expected to grow from $525 million in 2008 to more than $13 billion in 2013. On November 9, Google acquired mobile advertising company AdMob for $750 million in stock, while its new smart phone, NexusOne, is designed to encourage users to conduct more of the searches that link to mobile ads. And on January 5, Apple acquired mobile advertising company, Quattro Wireless, for an estimated $275 million. Apple reportedly considers the data generated by mobile searches so valuable that it's debating whether to replace Google with Microsoft's Bing, as the iPhone's default search engine. Both Google and Bing have separate indexes for mobile content, which (for now, at least) return much more localized, and fewer results than a regular search. Thus, the quicker you can optimize your site to rank well in local searches, the higher your potential for reaching that growing crowd of mobile device users.
Of course, making your website "mobile friendly" is key, but that doesn't necessarily mean a complete redesign. Instead, your website platform may have plug-ins available that can do the job for you, or failing that, companies like MoFuse (www.mofusepremium.com) and Mobify (www.mobify.me) offer conversion-to-mobile services for a fee.
Technology never sleeps, of course, so if you're waiting for things to settle down before making your local search move, you may well find yourself left hopelessly behind. In December, the official Google blog (http://googleblog.blogspot.com) outlined how the search engine has been sending out window decals to over 100,000 local U.S. businesses, that people can scan or take pictures of with their mobile phones, to learn more about those businesses. If proven successful, the bar code system could potentially be applied to everything from parks and landmarks to government buildings and other attractions.
One wonders if personal bar-code tattoos, long a science fiction staple, might not be the next logical step.
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