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Businesses of all shapes and sizes are increasingly well-aware of the advantages associated with online marketing. From cost-effectiveness to potentially high return on investment, a robust and diversified online presence is now all but essential for any profitable enterprise. Assuming you’ve taken the first steps toward such a campaign, odds are you’re already somewhat familiar with the merits and tenants of search engine optimization (SEO).

But many smaller and medium-sized businesses may not be devoting enough time and emphasis to local SEO strategies.

Back in 2013, a survey by ConstantContact indicated that a full 49 percent of responding small businesses had yet to update any of their listings online. Another 70 percent claimed they simply didn’t have enough time to oversee online listings often frequented by consumers. By now, one can certainly hope those numbers have improved. But there’s little doubt that many companies lack the resources or expertise to build an optimized local SEO campaign.

Fortunately, this is the kind of thing with which SEO and online marketing firms or consultants can certainly help. It may be especially wise to seek external assistance in the event your business lacks an in-house SEO team of professionals. Though optimization doesn’t have to be rocket science, things can indeed get a bit technical—and, at the very least, too time-consuming for many businesses to handle internally.

The bottom line, however, is that local SEO works.

In fact, a 2015 survey of 477 businesses by BrightLocal indicated that local and organic searches ranked most highly (among online marketing techniques) in terms of return on investment and sources of site traffic. When asked which online channel a business would use to reach consumers in the hypothetical event that it could pick only one, a leading 34 percent of respondents chose local search. To put those numbers in perspective, the value of local search ranked ahead of Google Adwords, email marketing, Facebook and Twitter (among other options).

Put simply, local SEO is worth your attention.

Before either embarking upon a new campaign or overhauling of an existing one, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with some basic strategies. Whether you opt to approach local SEO techniques on your own or with outside help, knowing where to start can spare your company some confusion.

Make Friends With Google

Creating or claiming a listing with Google My Business is almost certainly one of the most important initial steps for any business looking to enhance its local SEO. This establishes a presence among Google’s industry-dominating search engine, Maps and the Google+ social media platform. Upon searching for your company, users can easily find a listing that offers a quick rundown of your location, contact information, hours of operation and reviews.

Better yet, potential customers pay click on user-friendly buttons allowing them to call you directly, receive directions with Google Maps, share your listing or visit your website. Given the frequency with which people use Google in a bid to easily find information, this is one of the very best ways to increase your visibility and encourage consumers to further engage your business—either by learning more, increasing your exposure via shares or reviews or directly pursuing your products or services.

The advantages of such a listing are undeniable.

“For over 13 years I’ve been doing local SEO for many of our clients, and I’ve seen every change from search engine algorithm updates to the look of Google’s search results, including local and mobile,” Rand Marketing Founder and CEO Seth Rand recently told Small Business Trends. “One solid way to attract visitors to your website and to your business, especially if you’re a brick and mortar business, is by having an optimized Google My Business page.”

One of the reasons a Google business listing can be so valuable is the chance to be included among the three local results appear before traditional search results when a user is looking for a certain kind of product or service. Those local results—along with their mapped locations—are the first thing users see below sponsored ads.

In search terms, that’s prime real estate.

So how does one make the most of Google’s free service? You first want to compose a fairly lengthy and engaging description that ideally includes some links. You’ll also want to label your business with the appropriate categories, include a local phone number and accurate address and list the days and hours of operation. Finally, be sure to upload a profile image, a cover image and as many other relevant photographs as possible.

Google My Business is important, but it’s also just a starting point. To take full advantage of local SEO, there’s still more work to be done.

Joining Other Directories

Google may be the web’s premium information hub, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

As Small Business Trends’ Brian Hughes put it earlier this year, “Once you’ve mastered your Google My Business local SEO properly, it’s time to target third party visibility through other local search sites like Yelp, Yellow Pages, Bing, and Refer Local. Create local content, strategize keywords, build quality links and capitalize on social media outreach to drive local traffic.”

Indeed, there are many dozens of directories in which you may be interested in listing your business. A very short list of particularly large ones includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, YellowPages.com, CitySearch, Yahoo Local, Mapquest and Foursquare—among many others.

Note that you may simply need to claim and possibly amend some already-existing listings.

Though it might be virtually impossible to maintain a listing with every directory out there, it’s certainly worth building a presence with as many as possible—particularly those that are most likely to interest your target demographics. You can develop a better sense of which directories most appeal to your target market by searching for competitors and determining where they’ve invested most of their attention.

There are a number of benefits associated with all the added exposure.

“Many of these directories not only have substantial brands/marketing budgets to drive traffic, but they also do well in organic search rankings for important search terms,” explains Local SEO Guide blogger Andrew Shotland. “So even if you can’t get your site ranked high for a specific search term, you can appear on the local directory site that ranks for that term. Perhaps even more important is that links to your site and mentions of your business (aka “Local Citations”) can help your site rank well in both “national” organic search as well as in the Google Places results (I still can’t bring myself to say the “Google+ Local” results).”

Many directory listings also create additional opportunities for your business to amass reviews, in turn affording you still more chances to actually engage current or potential customers in conversation (more on this later).

Directories are all the more valuable for companies that lack the requisite resources for a website. In these cases, consumers will depend even more on directory listings for information like location, an email or phone contact, hours of operation or even a menu.

Some directories will charge you for a listing or otherwise offer you some kind of package deal. It may be worth looking into the value associated with those opportunities, but they aren’t entirely essential to building a local presence that’s at least somewhat effective. And there’s little doubt that some directories aren’t worth the expenditure—especially when costs can vary somewhat significantly.

As Moz’s Kristi Hines put it, “While some of the top local business directories are free, others require payment if you want beyond the basic listings, such as the addition of your website link, a listing in more than one category, removal of ads from your listing, and the ability to add media. Pricing for local directory listings can range from $29 to $499 per year.”

Is that kind of pricing worth it? It depends. You can learn more about a directory’s traffic using programs like SEMrush, and you can always do additional research into whether other businesses feel as though they’ve been scammed by a particular directory. You should also determine whether a well-trafficked directory would offer your listing premium (e.g. first page) placement.

Assuming the directory’s reputation, traffic, offer and price point all add up, additional investment may be worth while. Otherwise, you should see how far free listings can take you and ensure you’re properly maintaining those listings.

Be warned, however, that listings with especially low-quality directories can actually be counterproductive and result in ranking penalties being assessed by Google. Some directories were designed almost exclusively to generate multitudes of links to back to various business websites, and Google frowns upon those tactics.

Don’t Forget Local Citations

Though it’s relatively easy to find and control your presence on directories, they aren’t the only places your local business information can be found online. Local citations can be found on the websites for local newspapers, blogs, forums, social media and other websites. These citations consist of any business mention, but they’re most effective when they also include your physical address and a local phone number.

The more often your business is cited, the better—especially when it’s being cited by reputable websites or directories.

“To win the local citation game you essentially need more citations than your competitor,” explains Hallam Internet. “Whilst total numbers are important, so is the quality and accuracy of the information you enter. The more completed your general and niche citations are the more value they will create towards ranking your Google+ Local listing and improving your visibility and presence on the web overall.

“Whilst business listing citations are relatively easy to obtain, the more difficult ones come from local or niche websites or local newspapers. You’ve obviously got to have something newsworthy for them to talk about and you have to get their attention in the first place.”

Generating citations isn’t all that different from simply generating buzz. To whatever extent your business can do something newsworthy or build relationships with media, the more likely you’ll be to develop the kind of citations that promote your local search ranking.

Managing Listings and Citations

Now that you’ve claimed and created some directory listings, it’s time to make sure all the information included therein in complete, accurate and consistent. This is particularly important with respect to the basics: your name, address and phone number—often labeled as NAP.

“Local search engines use the NAP as a measuring stick of accuracy for a business’s existence,” writes Entrepreneur’s Neil Patel. “In order for the local search engine or directory to validate the presence of your local business, it must make sure that every point of data aligns perfectly.

“So, for example, if your business name is Charlie’s Killer Crepes, and you accidentally type Charlies’ Killer Crepes (a misplaced apostrophe) in your citation, then the directory might register your business inaccurately.”

It’s also crucial that your NAP information is listed consistently throughout directories and citations across the web. In the event your business has, for example, changed locations or names, you’ll want to be especially sure that your information has been updated wherever it can be found.

Besides accuracy and consistency, you should also provide as much information as possible in any important directory listings.

That means including things like your hours of operation, a link to your website, pricing, a general explanation of products or services, ratings and/or reviews, accepted forms of payment and other details like credentials or trademarks. This isn’t just about increased exposure. It’s also about satisfying consumers in search of useful information.

A more detailed listing can be especially valuable on sites like Facebook or Yelp. Many current or potential customers may well use a page on social media instead of an official website. Given that your social media pages are more likely to include objective reviews or user conversations, some consumers actually prefer them to traditional websites.

And if you want to be really thorough, it may even be worth adding mentions of your neighborhood to your Google My Business description, website text and local citations. The more precise you are in defining your business (where it is, what it does, etc.), the more likely you are to be found by a relevant target audience.

Reviews and Engagement

Just as it can be helpful to use social media as a vehicle for customer service, it’s also a good idea to respond to at least some customer reviews—either by appreciating glowing praise or constructively responding to especially serious criticism. And for local SEO purposes, it’s also helpful to maximize the number of these reviews in the first place.

Though you should avoid any appearance of desperation, there are indeed several professional ways to solicit online feedback from customers.

“There are plenty of ways to motivate users to give reviews,” Patel explains. “In exchange, you can provide them with free drinks, a shout-out on Facebook, discounts, props—whatever. At the very least remind them to leave a review. Post a sign on the counter or the door so they can leave a review. Put a QR code on the table or menu allowing them to scan and review. Have your service personnel ask for reviews at checkout. Place a kiosk in the lobby for them to leave a review. Sometimes, all people need is a little nudge.”

Indeed, simply providing instructions for where and how a customer should leave a review can dramatically increase your results.

Quantity of reviews won’t in and of itself determine the fate of your local SEO efforts, but a number of comparatively high reviews can certainly help your cause. And while Google+ reviews may have the most direct impact on search rankings, feedback on sites like Yelp make a difference, too. The bottom line is that a solid volume of positive reviews can increase your business’ visibility among local search results.

Perhaps more importantly, reviews afford you an opportunity to show your true colors once you’ve generated that visibility. Consistently responsive customer service says a lot about your operation and its priorities. The negative reviews can be tough to stomach, but that makes them all the more important to answer.

Local SEO strategies may be one among many considerations for any business pursuing a comprehensive online marketing strategy, but there’s no doubt they’re an increasingly important one. And investing some time, resources and detail-oriented attention into your campaign can make all the difference.

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