Conventional wisdom suggests that robust content has become absolutely essential to any attempts at search engine optimization (SEO)—and that includes local SEO. If you want people to visit your website, content has become one of the principal means for encouraging them to do so. Better yet, a wide range of visually stimulating and engaging material is now considered one of the very best ways to retain visitors and improve your conversion rate. In fact some people believe there is no such thing as SEO without content.
Put simply, attracting customers ostensibly requires that your business create an experience in which they have plenty to read and/or look at.
As Quicksprout’s Neil Patel put it back in 2012, “Content marketing is the cheapest and most effective way to do SEO these days. Not only does writing high quality content produce links at a quicker pace than building them manually, but it’s also cheaper. Plus, your content will naturally get shared on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest.”
No one has suggested that content is an overnight solution to your SEO needs, but it’s widely regarded as one of the most sustainable and reliable strategies.
As Patel added at the time, “Content marketing doesn’t get affected by algorithm updates, while paid SEO does. Search engines can tell when you provide value, and in the long run, that’s the kind of stuff they want to make sure stays high in the rankings.”
To be sure, there’s no arguing with Patel’s premise. If anything, his claims have been repeatedly vindicated in recent years. If possible, your business should absolutely consider making high-quality content a central part of its local SEO campaign.
But here’s the thing. Some businesses—especially smaller ones—simply don’t have the resources to maintain a respectable blog or approximation thereof. This is the kind of endeavor that requires money, time and personnel—and ostensibly capable personnel at that. It also requires some imagination and creativity, perhaps even a niche within which your company’s voice will actually matter. For many businesses, there may appear to be little sense in joining an already saturated echo chamber. For other businesses, the barriers to entering that echo chamber may simply be too significant.
In other words, content marketing strategies aren’t for everyone. Valuable as they may be in general terms, alternatives are almost certainly in order for businesses working with a shoestring budget. If you can’t afford to maintain a writing and editing infrastructure (or the increasing need for video and graphics), there should still be some way for your company to make inroads with local SEO.
And fortunately, there certainly is.
That was the basic argument Search Engine Watch’s Pratik Dholakiya made in 2014.
“If the mainstream SEO opinion is to be believed, without a content marketing strategy in place, you might as well forget about Google doing you any favors,” he writes. “That’s what everybody seems to be saying anyway. Except, that’s not really true. There’s much more to do in SEO than content marketing.”
It’s a refreshing and rarely-discussed perspective, and all the more important because of it. The biggest mistake you can make is foregoing SEO efforts entirely simply because you’re unconvinced that your website can offer regularly-updated content. A unique—or even slightly incomplete—SEO campaign is still better than no campaign at all.
And while small businesses may never be in prime position to rank highly among broad, national search results, they can and should make every attempt to improve their local SEO presence.
As Jayson DeMers put it in Entrepreneur last year, “Unless you already have a dominant, nationally established presence on major search engines that newcomers can’t touch, or you don’t have a single physical location, local SEO is going to become a necessity if you want to achieve search engine visibility over the course of the next few years.”
Indeed, consumers frequently search for local goods and services when conducting research or planning purchases. Capturing their business should be one of your chief objectives—whether content is in your digital marketing arsenal or not.
If you’re sold on developing a comprehensive local SEO campaign without a consistent content element, we have some helpful tips to get you started. Working with SEO professionals is certainly worth the investment, but you’ll almost certainly benefit from a basic familiarity with the concepts at play.
SEO Without Content Starts With Giving Consumers Reasons to Visit Your Website
The appeal of attractive and useful content is that it increases your web traffic by encouraging search engine users to click on your site. So if you’re looking to cultivate such traffic without content, it’s critical that you pursue an alternative means by which to achieve the same result: getting people to your website in the first place.
Dholakiya argues that one option is developing an application that your target consumers would find useful.
“True, the resources involved in creating a web utility are certainly more extensive than the resources involved in creating a single blog post,” he writes. “But the amount of resources it takes to build a blog into something that attracts and retains business is often more than the resources necessary to do the same with an online tool.”
In other words, your short-term costs may well justify your long-term savings. If you can solve a problem that your current or potential customers are likely to encounter, they’ll likely frequent your website and potentially seek your other products or services. This is actually quite similar to one of the rationale behind content. When a law firm offers free legal advice via a blog, it increases the probability that readers will do business with said firm in the future. A non-content-based web solution can serve a parallel function.
Another option is creating an online forum. You’ll essentially host a potentially lively source of content, but it will be user-created content that obviates any need for the large staff needed to create and edit material. Sure, you’ll probably need a forum moderator or two, but that’s the kind of part-time position one of your current employees (or contractors) could conceivably take on. In some respects, forums can be even more useful than blogs thanks to their inherently interactive nature. People often prefer participating in discussions to absorbing material passively. In turn, letting your target audience become your primary content provider kills two birds with one stone. They both produce and consume information, allowing you to functionally outsource the most pricey part of content creation.
The community dynamic facilitated by these forums is another noteworthy benefit. Engaging in ongoing discussions gives visitors a reason to return to your site whereas a blog may only spur one-off exposure to your brand.
Similarly, curating content (e.g. reposting articles or video) can make your website something of a destination without necessitating the production of original material. Rather than hiring a team of writers and editors, a lone curator could easily populate your site with regular and engaging content. It won’t make your website the Internet’s most unique destination, but it can at least add some meat to the bones of an otherwise sparse online presence.
You should also consider a minimalist content strategy. Maybe you don’t have the resources to produce an extensive blog post every day or week, but you could probably generate a semi-regular discussion prompt or poll question. If you can spare the time to create something that might translate into a flurry of user comments, that’s arguably better than a lengthy article that fails to encourage dialogue.
Finally, it’s worth using your site to host guest blog posts from others in your supply chain (or even competitors within your industry). On face, you might be concerned about amplifying someone else’s voice and brand, but this can be a mutually beneficial strategy. Your guest gets increased exposure, and your website gets more traffic at no expense.
Ultimately, you should think creatively about how you can make your website more of a commodity. Why would your target consumers visit your site in the event they’re not already familiar with your brand? If a content-based strategy isn’t in the offing, spend some time exploring alternative options.
Use Good Old Brand Exposure for SEO
Most contemporary SEO strategies revolve around attempts to rank highly for non-branded keywords: terms that don’t explicitly mention your brand name. The theory is that branded searches are performed by web users who already know about your business and therefore may already be customers (or people inclined to become customers). There’s generally greater interest in attracting new eyes.
Though there’s clearly a coherent logic at work here, there’s something to be said for branded searches, too. After all, many consumers are especially inclined to research a brand after hearing about it for the first time. At minimum, you should endeavor to include branded search into any comprehensive digital marketing campaign.
“There is a misconception that branded search can’t be attributed to an SEO campaign and the campaign must not be successful if many of the keywords that generate traffic are branded,” explains Brick Marketing’s Nick Stamoulis. “A proper SEO campaign is integrated into all other marketing efforts. If you are implementing it correctly, it will not only help to build inbound links to your website but will also improve the awareness of your brand across the web. Content marketing and social media as part of an SEO campaign will help get your brand noticed. Even if the link isn’t clicked on immediately, people may search for your brand because of something they saw that was part of an integrated SEO campaign.”
There are plenty of ways to promote your brand online even if you can’t afford paid advertising. Social networks and complete listings can dramatically improve brand awareness (more on those tactics later). And you’ll want to make sure that when your optimizing your pages for search (more on this later, too) that you’re mentioning your brand with some frequency.
“Initially, someone may search for only ‘Brand X,’” Stamoulis adds. “However, they may be looking for something more specific than that. A potential website visitor that is closer to conversion may search for ‘Brand X case studies,’ ‘Brand X testimonials,’ or ‘Brand X reviews.’ Without incorporating branded SEO into your campaign, you have less control over what the search results may be for these terms. The web is full of user generated content and review sites. Preferably you want your own website to rank first for these terms. If you don’t optimize a page for branded terms you are leaving your brand more vulnerable to searchers finding content that wasn’t created (or approved) by you.”
So maybe you aren’t hooking new visitors with regularly-updated content. That doesn’t mean you can’t generate interest around your brand itself. Whether that means creating intrigue or establishing yourself as an industry leader, creating brand-related buzz can be a powerful substitute for traffic that’s simply looking for the products or services with which you’re associated.
At the local level, this often entails a “back to basics” approach. Involvement in your community, quality goods and services and first-rate customer service are the kinds of things that get people talking (and searching the web). Social media and online listings can help amplify these efforts, but getting it right in the first place is a key prerequisite.
And remember that these kind of first-order priorities can also create foundations for the kind of content substitutes discussed above. Even if you can’t maintain a blog, you can probably find the time to occasionally post some glowing customer testimonials—assuming your business performance warrants them. Even if you can’t add new content every week, you could almost certainly post some photographs or video from a local event you hosted or attended—assuming you’re involved with your community in the first place.
This kind of low-cost content is all the more valuable in that it’s ready-made for local queries. What better way to target local traffic than by covering an event from your own community?
The more your brand stands on its own two feet, the less you’ll need to rely on non-branded searches. And that ultimately mitigates any need for substantial content.
On-Page Search Engine Optimization
The SEO value of keywords may not be what it once was, but you should still use them and other on-page factors to optimize your search visibility. There’s no doubt that search results are now more informed by the general thrust of content than specific keywords. That said, search engines aren’t ignoring keywords entirely. Your page titles should incorporate your city (or location of your business’s services) and a keyword or two that reflects the interests of your target consumers. It’s always wise to research the kind of keywords those consumers are using so that you’re just taking uneducated guesses. Similarly, the “alt” tag for images should include a strategically determined keyword as well.
Note that it’s become incredibly unwise to stuff these fields with keywords. Search engines will interpret these tactics as attempts to game the system and penalize your pages accordingly.
“Heading tags” and “meta-descriptions” are other opportunities for you to optimize your pages. While the latter doesn’t yield a direct SEO benefit, it can absolutely encourage users to click on your search results. In fewer than 160 characters, you should mention your location and describe your page in a way that makes it sound useful, interesting or entertaining to your target audience.
Finally, be sure that each of your pages is complete and full of engaging, substantive content. Though you may be unable to maintain a blog, that’s no excuse for failing to invest in the copy featured on each of your pages. Consider it a one-time (or occasional) expense that’s essential for both SEO purposes and brand credibility alike. This isn’t just about creating the right first impressions for visitors. It’s also about creating a lasting impression that encourages them to return to your site and become customers.
On-page optimization isn’t always the most intuitive endeavor. Don’t hesitate to consult with professionals who can help design your site with local SEO best practices in mind.
Building a More User-Friendly Website
Important as content may be, it’s hardly the only factor used by Google or other major search engines when ranking webpages. Like the various tactics highlighted in the previous section (on-page optimization), an accessible and user-friendly website can serve as a powerful signal to those all-important ranking algorithms.
Given the proliferation of web users performing searches on smartphones and tablets, a user-friendly website also implies a mobile-friendly website. Whether using responsive or dynamic design, you want your homepage to prominently feature basic and highly sought-after information (like location, a contact phone number and/or email address, hours of operation, pricing, menus, etc.). Mobile users shouldn’t have to scroll horizontally or search extensively in order to find these things.
Generally speaking, the key is putting yourself in the shoes of mobile users. What kind of information will they be seeking, and what’s the most effective way to convey that information? Mobile experiences are unique. Those visiting your website probably won’t be interested in taking a leisurely stroll through the history of your company. They probably won’t have time for lots of videos or photo galleries. That kind of stuff is great to have somewhere on your website, but it’s not what you want to feature prominently in a world where mobile users are some of your most important traffic. Catering to their needs means creating an environment in which they can quickly and directly find what they need.
Keep in mind that many of these users will be accessing your website from a car or even within your brick-and-mortar location. They may be conducting research into your products or services. They may be looking to inform a purchasing decision at the very last moment. Or, they could simply be attempting to double-check your hours of operation or address. The easier you make life for these visitors, the less likely they are to check out the competition.
For example, a truly mobile-friendly site will feature easily accessible call buttons and a contact form or email address. Those and other buttons should be large enough for a mobile users to easily tap, and they should be spaced out enough that someone doesn’t inadvertently tap the wrong button. Similarly, text should be large for someone to read on a small screen without causing eye strain.
Remember that factors like a page’s loading speed can affect search rankings for mobile and desktop users alike. If your site is older or overburdened with graphics, you may be creating an uphill battle in SEO terms. That’s all the more reason to work with a web design team that has thorough experience building mobile sites and tailoring those sites to the interests and habits of contemporary web users.
Citations, Backlinks and Listings
Even without content, small businesses can certainly do a few things to optimize their webpages for improved search rankings. Most of the previous tips contribute to precisely such a strategy.
But there are also a number of ways to spur SEO without doing a thing to your website. These tactics are commonly described as off-page optimization. The common theme is that building a widespread and mutually reinforcing web presence can actually increase your website’s traffic, too. In addition to performing a range of other digital marketing functions (e.g. expanding brand awareness), off-page optimization enhances your site’s search authority by sending signals to engines like Google.
That starts with citations.
“Citations are good for business regardless of any effect they have on your online marketing,” explains Forbes’ Josh Steimle. “Anytime someone mentions your business on their website they’re bringing attention to you and providing you with exposure to potential customer or clients. But when it comes to SEO there is an added dimension in that Google and other search engines pay attention to citations, and the more citations you have, all other things being equal, the better your website will rank on those search engines for searches related to what you do and where you are geographically located, which will bring you more web traffic, and more web traffic means more customers.”
While any mention of your business technically qualifies as a citation, those that include your name, address and phone number (NAP) are always ideal. The quantity of citations matters, but so too does the quality. Citations associated with credible or well-known websites is especially helpful.
Citations are one of the very best reasons to become heavily involved with your local community and the media who cover it. Sponsoring or hosting events often encourages other sites to mention your company online. Encouraging media to cover or review your business will yield similar results.
Like citations, backlinks tell search engines that your site is in higher demand and therefore worthy of higher rankings among results (SERPs). A backlink is any link to your site from another online location. Citations can certainly include links to your site, but they don’t necessarily have to. So, while different from one another, citations and backlinks are both extremely valuable in SEO terms.
Once upon a time, building links to one’s site preoccupied a significant portion of many business’s SEO efforts. Given these links’ importance to search rankings, digital marketing campaigns tried anything and everything in a bid to make websites appear like popular and highly-regarded destinations. In turn, comparatively desperate small businesses often became the chief culprits among widespread attempts to game the backlink system in increasingly shady ways.
Now, however, that’s happening less and less—primarily because the search engines took notice. Search Engine Land’s Chris Silver explains the problem with backlink gimmicks and why SEO campaigns are heading in a new direction.
“Even so, it’s become very clear to me that it may be highly counterproductive to try to teach small businesses how to conduct link building,” he writes. “They don’t understand the best practices necessary to perform the development while simultaneously staying on Google’s and Bing’s good side. They take shortcuts. They make novice mistakes. They attempt to blatantly manipulate Google through building a linking scheme of interlinked microsites, purchasing numerous keyword domain names, spamming links onto sites or forums or blog comments, or by purchasing links.
“And, more frequently than not, they get into real trouble—resulting in their websites being penalized and their listing getting suppressed or removed from Place Search or Maps.”
Fortunately, there are a few ways to pursue links without resorting to tactics that result in ranking penalties.
Moz’s Casey Meraz offered a useful rundown of potential methods last year. His solutions included things like making news, joining contests (or seeking nomination for business awards) and offering discounts to students or teachers. Sponsoring (or hosting) groups, events and organizations is also likely to generate some links to your site. Creating relationships with other businesses or influencers in your community also helps.
The common theme—again—is that local involvement is a huge virtue. There’s no shortcut to putting yourself out there and making connections with others in the real-world and digital spheres alike.
Note that this is a long-term process, and patience is in order. And while attracting links will require some effort, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive. More importantly, these are generally things you should be doing anyway. Sure, sponsoring a local charity might generate a nice backlink or two—but it also builds brand awareness and credibility in ways that transcend digital marketing best practices.
While you’re waiting on those links to come along, there’s one kind of off-page optimization that allows you far greater control and more immediate results. This involves creating or claiming listings with major search engines (e.g. Google My Business) and any directories that may be associated with your industry (e.g. Yelp, Foursquare, Zomato, etc.).
You’ll find plenty of guides and resources among our SEO articles that offer more detailed instruction about how to take full advantage of such listings, but here are a few of the basics you should know.
First, make sure each listing includes important information (location, hours of operation, how you may be contacted, descriptions of your products or services, etc.). This should all be as detailed as possible within the constraints of your allotted space.
Second, double-check that the information posted across your listings is accurate and consistent. You’ll find a number of utilities online that can help you track listings down and ensure that everything is up to date. Note that some listings may be automatically generated by directories (or customers using said directories), so it’s definitely worth covering your bases around the web.
Third, to whatever extent possible, make your listings visually appealing with the inclusion of photos, logos or other graphics. Just as this strategy can make your website more engaging, it will encourage those using your listing to stick around and learn more about your business.
Remember that many users will rely on your listings even more than your website. So don’t take these opportunities lightly.
Use Your Reviews
Listings often offer customers the opportunity to post reviews of your business, and that’s a good thing. They’re even better when you’re taking the time to respond. That means taking the time to answer positive and negative reviews alike, addressing the latter in a timely and constructive manner. Either way, this is free advertising that can send a powerful message to potential customers looking to find out what your business is all about.
Better yet, the quantity and quality of reviews you receive operates as a local SEO signal. They help establish that your company is actually doing a fair amount of business and—hopefully—doing that business the right way.
Though you probably don’t want to beat customers over the head with invitations to post reviews, it certainly doesn’t hurt to passively mention the chance to do so (e.g. via a sign near your exit or somewhere in one of your mailing list’s email blasts).
While reviews on third-party sites are what matter in SEO terms, don’t forget to include glowing testimonials on your actual website. Beyond the obvious benefits associated with a little self-promotion, this is a particularly nifty substitute for content.
Social Media and Consumer Engagement
Reviews are hardly your only opportunity to respond to customer needs. Social networks have increasingly become an efficient vehicle for consumers to reach out to all kinds of companies. And that means they’re also a golden opportunity for engagement. In many instances, it’s simply a matter of training your customer service team to use social media. When a current or potential customer has a question, complaint or recommendation, someone should get back to them in short order.
Yes, this is a highly-visible platform on which to handle these interactions, but that’s not an entirely bad thing. Each time you handle a situation in a timely and productive fashion, that sends a powerful message to anyone paying attention. Without spending any more than you already would for customer care, social media also gives you the opportunity to turn that service into advertising.
Of course, social media isn’t just about customer service. It’s quickly become the kind of force multiplier that allows you to build brand awareness, drive traffic to your site and spur the creation of citations and backlinks. Indeed, simply having a large volume of followers on networks like Facebook or Twitter serves as a signal to Google that your website is probably of interest and worthy of better search rankings.
Companies struggling to produce consistent content may also have some difficulty maintaining a robust presence on social networks. That’s not a reason to avoid them entirely, though. At minimum, you should give a current employee part-time social media responsibilities. Task them to post regularly and creatively, projecting a unique brand voice that helps you attract interest and establish yourself as an industry leader. Even if that translates into some additional costs, the return on investment (and local SEO benefits) of a legitimate social media presence are absolutely worthwhile.
The big lesson here is that while content is great, it isn’t the only game in town. There are other ways to ensure your business is found online.
You may find yourself making an early investment in digital marketing (or the professional expertise associated therewith), but that can obviate the need for long-term content costs. Even in an online world increasingly dominated by content marketing, there’s more than one way to achieve your bottom line.