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In many respects, improving your restaurant’s search rankings isn’t all that unlike any other local search engine optimization (SEO) campaign, and for regional or national chains, broader SEO strategies will certainly apply as well. But even if you’re familiar with those concepts in general terms, it never hurts to seriously consider what local SEO for restaurants means in particular.

“One mistake that many restaurant marketers make is conflating SEO with local SEO,” Business 2 Community’s Jason Squadro argued in 2014. “A new report from Google shows that 4 out of 5 consumers use search engines to find local information. Additionally, more than 80 percent of consumers search for local information. Google’s research also shows that local searches lead to purchases, with nearly 20 percent of local smart phone searches leading to a purchase within a day, proving that optimizing for local specifically can have a dramatic impact on results.”

This is a unique industry that provides a service in high demand. It’s also a competitive one where any number of other eateries are also vying for valuable real estate among search engine results (SERPs). If your particular cuisine is common in your area, competition will be all the greater. Web users will often search for a kind of food rather than a specific restaurant, so you can’t count on brand recognition alone. Being consistently found online will require some comprehensive local SEO efforts.

Why all the fuss about local SEO? Writing for QSR Magazine, ZOG Digital’s Thomas Stern explained it aptly enough in 2014.

“Restaurants looking to increase their customer base and drive sales through digital marketing should focus on local search engine optimization (SEO) because of its proven ability to drive in-store sales,” he writes. “Local SEO improves a restaurant’s rankings in local search results and puts businesses in front of consumers at the very moments in which they are actively searching and looking to make a purchase. For restaurants, it is essential to include local SEO as part of their overall marketing strategies.”

Better yet, local SEO campaigns can be far more cost-effective than alternative marketing efforts. When compared with paid advertising or traditional (billboard-style) methods, improving your search visibility makes plenty of financial sense. Even upon factoring in the costs associated with seeking professional SEO expertise, this is still one of the most prudent available strategies.

Local SEO has a high return on investment compared with other marketing initiatives,” Stern adds. “A survey done by Marketing Sherpa in 2013 indicated that 54 percent of marketers surveyed stated that local search optimization positively affected their businesses. SinglePlatform reports that 75 percent of consumers say they often choose a restaurant to dine at based on local search results.”

This is a savvy approach for local restaurants of all kinds, even if not especially those that haven’t branded themselves as “hip” or contemporary establishments. If consumers can’t easily find your restaurant online, they may be led to believe you no longer exist. And if they have difficulty finding basic information (hours, menus, location, etc.), then there’s a good chance they’ll move on to the next eatery on their lists.

Put simply, you really can’t afford to be left behind the local SEO wave. It’s absolutely vital both in terms of efficient marketing and increasing your market share. Word of mouth is still a powerful resource, but it’s also one that has increasingly migrated to a digital environment.

A few straightforward tips and strategies can ensure you remain in prime position to thrive within that environment.

Listings and Off-Page Optimization

Local SEO campaigns aren’t quite the same as your standard SEO best practices. One of the primary differences is that smaller, area-specific businesses like restaurants can take advantage of a number of search engine listings and directories. Restaurants are privy to an especially wide range of highly-visible directories that include sites like Yelp or Zomato. In addition to providing another valuable platform on which web users can find you, establishing listings with these search engines and directories will also improve your search rankings.

Major search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo) all offer local businesses their own listings that make them easier to find. The most popular example of these listings paying off is the Google “Maps Pack” that shows up above organic search results after a query is made. Beyond the premium placement, showing up among these results also tells users that you’re nearby.

That means it’s especially import to either create or claim a listing with Google My Business. Your listing will provide users information like your location, contact information, hours of operation and reviews. A series of buttons will also allow uses to call your restaurant, receive directions with Google Maps, share your listing or visit your establishment’s website.

While no online destination surpasses Google’s ability to provide people with information, it’s important to join all the major search engines and directories—especially all those that pertain to the food service industry. Once you’ve rounded up the listing you wish to maintain, there are a couple of important guidelines to follow.

First, be sure the information made available across all of your listings is accurate and consistent. This is especially crucial in terms of the Name, Address and Phone Number portion of your listing—often referred to as your NAP. Inaccurate or discordant data can confuse search engines and users alike, compromising an otherwise valuable element of your listings.

Second, the information contained within your listings should be as comprehensive as possible. That means adding photographs or logos, menu information, your website URL and links to any social media accounts you maintain. It also means being descriptive whenever possible—discussing the kind of cuisine you offer, mentioning price points or dress codes, laying out parking information or highlighting favorite dishes. The more you say, the more likely visitors will feel comfortable doing business with you.

And as a reminder, be sure your business is properly categorized in each of its listings.

As Forbes’ Steve Olenski notes, “Several local search engines offer you the ability to place your business into 2-5 categories to help them understand what your business does. According to Moz Local, (formerly GetListed.org) search engines will ‘not display a business that is not categorized, or even worse, mis-categorized for a particular set of keywords.’”

Beyond SEO benefits, it’s worth remembering that many web users will use directories in place of traditional restaurant websites. They may feel more comfortable searching for establishments within a particular platform or appreciate the readily available use of ostensibly objective reviews. These listings can also be especially useful if your website is older or less than impressive—an unfortunate but common byproduct of resource limitations.

So while it may be tempting to view listings as unessential luxuries, you’re better off treating them as a core element of your digital marketing strategy. In addition to their direct value, omission from such listings can send the wrong message to consumers and dramatically undermine your brand exposure.

Given the relative ease with which you can create, claim and maintain these listings, there’s really no excuse for doing otherwise.

Content and On-Page Optimization

While listings around the web will certainly help your search rankings, there are also a number of key things you should be doing on your website itself. Chief among those things is the development of high-quality content.

At minimum, you should have distinct webpages for each of your locations (assuming there are more than one). Each page should include basics like the address, contact information, hours of operation and—if unique to specific locations—the various menus.

From there, you should think creatively about what kind of content might exist on other pages. This could include a backstory on the restaurant’s origins, a profile of the chef, glowing testimonials from diners, a gallery showcasing your establishment and/or various dishes and—of course—a blog. Though keeping a blog up to date may seem like an overwhelming endeavor, remember that regularly-updated content can be a huge asset when it comes to improving search rankings. Such a blog also creates an opportunity for your restaurant to demonstrate its pedigree and expertise within the industry. If there’s something unique or especially reputable about your business, this is a prime opportunity to show off while also contributing to your SEO bottom line.

Yes, you’ll need to invest in someone to write those blog entries. But you should assess the dividends in terms of a patient, long-term approach and in the context of your available—and often costly—alternatives.

For the most part, the local SEO principles at play here aren’t unlike the conventional wisdom associated with SEO at large.

“Forget about keyword stuffing and a lot of keyword rich anchor text,” argues Restaurant Den. “Those days are over. When writing content for your website and blog just write for your customers and not for search engines. Write about what your customers want to read and not what you think will help you rank higher because of some keywords you want to shove in there.”

While most of those content guidelines are pretty intuitive, there are still a few technical components that require your attention.

As Restaurant Den adds, “You will however want to highlight important pieces of content to help you rank. Having strong and relevant titles, URLs and the use of H2 tags is still very important. While meta descriptions for your pages don’t necessarily help you rank higher, they will give the customer a glimpse of what’s on your website, which can lead them to click on your website versus a competitor’s.”

One useful addendum for local restaurants is the inclusion of location-specific text. Mentioning your location whenever possible is important, because web users will often perform location-specific queries (e.g. “best sushi in Santa Monica”). Additionally, a strong concept for blog entries might be covering local, food-related events or discussing how your restaurant is giving back to its community. While enhancing your brand image, that kind of content will also help search engines match your site to location-sensitive queries.

Finally, remember that strong content isn’t about text alone. Attracting and engaging users is increasingly a matter of catching their eyes. Use of video, photographs, charts or infographics, polls and other visually stimulating material is an extremely valuable addition to any website. These kinds of items give you something interesting to share on social media and another useful mechanism for holding their divided attention once on your webpages. That means an initial boost to traffic and an increased likelihood that those visitors are converted into customers.

Whereas some small businesses may struggle to come up with visually compelling material, restaurants are in prime position to take advantage of the trend. Colorful photographs of your offerings can reassure visitors that your food is as good as its sounds. A video tour of your establishment may make them feel more comfortable about dining there. You could even put together a short film of your chef in action, working in the kitchen and/or discussing his craft and what makes your restaurant unique.

However you go about making your content more multidimensional, don’t settle for the written word alone. Consumers are increasingly attracted by a more engaging experience, and that starts with giving them something to look at.

Link Building and Citations

Though various algorithmic updates have reflected an unmistakable backlash against attempts to game the system through a proliferation of superfluous or irrelevant backlinks, it’s still pretty beneficial when such links are found on other websites (or social media platforms). If unfamiliar with the concept, a backlink is simply any link around the Internet that sends users to your website. When such links exist on credible sources, they’ indicate that you’re a more highly sought-after website—and thereby deserving of improved search rankings.

Contrary to the somewhat commonplace reports of backlinks’ reduced importance, they’ll remain a central signal to search engines in the near-future.

“Link-building is one of the most effective strategies SEO experts use to positively impact search rankings,” explains Squadro. “Just like the SEO industry as a whole, industry ‘experts’ have deemed link-building dead multiple times. Search engine algorithms currently weed out spam links, unnatural links, and link networks created to game the system much faster and efficiently than ever before. Because of this, link-building has evolved into what exists today: an effective strategy that emphasizes relationship-building with authoritative publishers, quality content, and relevant links.”

Of course, there’s really no way to magically create backlinks on other websites. And sketchy attempts to do so will actually cause search engines to penalize your website. But there are still a few ways to facilitate the emergence of backlinks.

As Stern puts it, “Link building can be a time consuming task, which is why it is a tactic not fully utilized by most restaurants. But restaurants that want to incorporate it as part of their local SEO strategy should consider strategies such as facilitating reviews from local bloggers, creating non-branded content for local publications, creating coupons for deal sites, sponsoring local events or charities or establishing a digital partner for local link building.”

You may have begun noticing a common theme. Your involvement in the local community and association with other websites or media really pay off. Beyond the immediate benefits associated with raising brand awareness, you also build a foundation for SEO-friendly content and valuable backlinks.

Such strategies also increase the likelihood of generating SEO-enhancing citations. A citation is essentially any mention of your business on the Internet, and more complete citations—like directory listings—typically include information like your address and phone number (and perhaps a link to your website). In addition to directories, social networks and other online media can be excellent sources for citations—just one more reminder that your establishment shouldn’t be hiding under a digital rock.

The Growing Value of Social Networks

There’s no question that a robust social media presence is an important digital marketing technique in and of itself. Attracting followers via content sharing—and, ideally, re-sharing—can drive traffic to your website and dramatically increase brand awareness. Social networks inform consumers’ opinions and access to information, thereby creating a distinct channel through which you can constantly reach current or potential customers.

But social media isn’t an island unto itself. It can also be extremely beneficial for your local SEO efforts, especially with search engines having cracked down on gimmicky link building.

Hootsuite’s Kristina Cisnero explained in 2014 how social media came to be such a prominent consideration in the eyes of search engines.

“One of the many factors that contributes to a high ranking in Google’s SERPs is how many link-backs your website receives,” she writes. “Unfortunately, this factor is easily manipulated through black-hat SEO techniques, such as keyword stuffing, invisible text, and creating ‘fake’ websites that link back to the website you’re trying to optimize. As a result, Google has instead chosen to look into social signals like Tweets, Facebook posts, +1s and so on, as a non-manipulated way of getting links. Gone are the days where you had to work hard on creating ‘link juice’—now, social media and SEO can work together to give your website the link-backs it needs.”

Simply increasing your restaurant’s volume of social media followers tells search engines that you deserve more prominent placement in search rankings. When those re-sharing your social media content link back to your website, that also yields SEO dividends.

And, unsurprisingly, the sheer amount of user engagement with your social networks operates as a significant factor in search rankings.

Forbes’ Jayson DeMers outlined the associated benefits last year.

“Social sharing contributes to a brand’s authority much in the same way that external links do,” he explains. “To search engines like Google, any indication of a verifiable external source validating your brand or your content is grounds for a small improvement in domain authority. So, if you can get five people to share your Facebook post, that’s great, but if you can get 1,000 people to share it, that’s even better. Likes, shares, favorites, replies, and retweets all count toward this increased authority.”

Maximizing your social media influence isn’t exactly brain science, but nor should it be pursued haphazardly. As an administrative matter, you should begin by making someone on your staff a social media officer. Though maintaining various accounts needn’t necessarily be a full-time endeavor, this isn’t something you want slipping through the cracks. Even restaurants will the best of intentions can allow their social presences to become an afterthought. The first step toward preventing that from happening is assuring that someone’s actually dedicated to getting the job done—posting regular and high-quality content.

From there, your approach should more or less be in line with your content strategy. Posts should be unique, informative or entertaining—and above all engaging. They should reflect your brand and the voice you’ve chosen to adopt. While consistent in tone and style, posted content should also be diversified and reflect the range of interests that appeal to your targeted consumers.

And though you should obviously post special offers, coupons or event information, you don’t want your social media accounts to be dominated by transparently promotional content. Give your audience something useful, something that builds a long-term relationship without beating them over the head with shameless advertising.

Finally—and importantly—don’t forget to use your social networks as a vehicle for customer service. Many of your diners will expect prompt and helpful responses to any and all attempts to reach someone on your management team. Don’t let them down. While use of social media may feel like an uncomfortably visible platform on which to conduct customer service, that’s not an entirely bad thing. Your efforts will publicly highlight the way you do business, the extent to which you care about your customers and your willingness to resolve any problems that might emerge. This kind of interaction may not directly create an SEO advantage, but it’s another essential component to building your digital brand.

Reviews and Customer Engagement

Of course, social networks aren’t your only means for engaging customers. Responding to positive and negative reviews is another prime opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to the consumer.

But garnering those reviews in the first place is also valuable from a local SEO standpoint.

Writing for Entrepreneur in 2015, Jayson DeMers cites three digital marketing advantages associated with customer reviews: (1) the volume and quantity of such reviews directly helps your local search rankings; (2) good reviews will generally earn your search results more clicks; and (3) better reviews are obviously good for your brand’s digital presence.

Those local SEO benefits are especially compelling.

“As if the raw benefits weren’t enough, the power of reviews is actually increasing,” writes DeMers. “Thanks to Google’s local Pigeon update back in 2014, Yelp and third-party directories have more influence than ever over search rankings; some business pages on these directories are actually ranking higher than the business pages themselves. Plus, in the new local 3-pack, Google is doing more to prominently display average ratings for businesses immediately within results, so users know instantly how highly rated your site is.”

To be sure, reviews shouldn’t necessarily be your first priority when it comes to a new or emerging local SEO campaign. Factors like content, mobile-friendliness and high-quality backlinks are all generally more pressing concerns. But when attempting to go the extra mile, attracting (good) reviews will certainly help.

So how can your restaurant go about soliciting such reviews? And should it require an active effort in the first place?

At minimum, you should create passive reminders that your customers can post reviews on a preferred third-party website or two. That might mean a placard on the table or a sign near the exit. It might be something you mention on the occasional blast to your digital mailing list. And you should certainly reserve some space on your website that encourages customers to submit reviews. The occasional social media post (suggesting that followers post reviews) wouldn’t hurt either.

Note that none of these attempts is especially invasive or obnoxious. The last thing you want to do is sour a customer’s opinion of your establishment by pestering them for digital love.

More than any wink or nudge, a good old fashioned quality dining experience will go a long way toward generating positive reviews. Customers generally go the extra mile when they feel like an establishment has done the same—either via outstanding service or notable food. So the best thing you can do in terms of reviews is ensure you’re doing business the right way. People will take notice, and their digital word of mouth will speak volumes.

More than any SEO benefit alone, Search Engine Watch’s Graham Charlton noted last year that customer reviews often give web users needed encouragement when making purchasing decisions.

“In a nutshell, it’s the power of social proof,” he writes. “People need reassurance and confirmation that their actions are the right ones. So, when people are thinking about buying a particular camera, seeing an average review rating of 4 stars, or reading positive reviews may provide the extra push they need.

“For local searches, if you see a restaurant with an average score of 4.6 from 465 reviews, like the Girl & the Goat above, then it looks like a safe choice. There are so many stats around reviews that I could pluck almost any number out to show how many read them before buying, how they are trusted more than other sources, and so on. The bottom line is that they are used a lot and relied upon by many web users.”

So now is probably a good time to mention the concept of conversion rate optimization (CRO). If SEO represents the front-end of a consumer’s journey (clicking a link and visiting your website or listing), then CRO signifies the back-end (actually taking an action your business considers desirable). A conversion may take the form of making a purchase or simply signing up for a digital club or mailing list. In dining terms, it will often simply mean making the decision to eat your food after visiting your website.

You can learn plenty more about conversion and closing the deal by pursuing additional research or developing a comprehensive digital marketing campaign with the appropriate experts. Just remember that local SEO isn’t exactly an end unto itself. Getting customers in the door is as much about how you create an online experience as it is cultivating that initial traffic.

The Mobility Norm

Businesses can no longer separate local SEO—or any SEO—from the behaviors associated with web searches. Those behaviors have increasingly become inextricably linked to the use of mobile devices when performing queries. Consumers need information while they’re on the move, and they often find mobile devices more convenient (e.g. readily at hand) when they’re still at home.

Marketer Gizmo’s Andrea Fryear described the emerging dynamic earlier this year.

“More and more consumers are expecting to be able to perform a mobile search and make a purchase decision in almost real time,” she writes. “In fact, a recent study showed that 50 percent of consumers conducted a local search on their smartphone and visited a store within one day.

“Brick and mortar stores can either be ahead of this growing trend or watch as competitors pass them by. Internet searchers’ expectations are constantly rising; they won’t make allowances for small business who don’t have the time, budget, or expertise to give them information while they’re on the move.”

From an SEO perspective, this is important. Search engines consistently prefer websites that are mobile-friendly. This means optimizing your site so that it’s consistent with the performance and screen limitations of mobile devices. A lot goes into adopting the appropriate web design, so this is an area in which you’ll want to conduct further research and/or consult with digital marketing professionals.

Generally speaking, though, you want your site to be as user-friendly as possible for mobile visitors. That means assuring that all the basics (contact information, address, etc.) are readily visible and don’t require a user to scroll horizontally in order to find anything important. It also means utilizing action buttons that, for example, allow a visitor to call your restaurant by simply tapping the screen. Along those lines, your buttons should be large enough for mobile visitors relying on smaller screens, and those buttons shouldn’t be packed so tightly together that attempting to press one accidentally results in activating another.

The mobile movement should also shape how you think about content. Put yourself in the shoes of consumers who are on their way to your restaurant or quickly trying to choose between your establishment and one down the road. If potential customers have decided they want a particular kind of cuisine, what might persuade them to pick your iteration thereof at the last minute? That might mean prominently featuring some distinguishing awards or simply making your menu more accessible. It might mean highlighting some competitive advantages (convenient parking in an otherwise crowded urban location, great happy hour pricing, etc.).

A failure to understand mobile users’ thought processes will inevitably translate into a web design that doesn’t meet their needs. Some planning on this front will go a long way toward attracting online traffic and converting that traffic into new or returning clientele.

Putting Local SEO Into Action

For many small businesses, digital marketing understandably seems like an ambitious undertaking. It requires investment, and it certainly entails some patience. But with restaurants frequently failing or losing ground in competitive markets, this is an all but essential set of strategies.

Rather than expecting an overnight transformation, approach local SEO like a marathon rather than a sprint. Seek help when needed and incorporate your digital presence into your company culture.

Fryear offers a wise outlook for any small business attempting to improve its local SEO standing.

“This can all sound a little daunting to small business owners, but it’s really just a matter of finding your weaknesses and addressing them one by one,” she writes. “If you don’t have a social media presence, set one up. If you aren’t encouraging customers to submit online reviews, start doing that. If you’ve never taken a good hard look at your website to make sure it’s easy to use, now is the time.

“Start small and work your way up. You don’t have to spend ten thousand dollars this month to do it all. Incremental improvements can work really well; just take the first small step and then take another. You’ll be reveling in your search engine dominance in no time.”

The worst thing your restaurant can do is put its local SEO efforts off entirely or dismiss them because of the perceived hassle. Remember that—even with the cost of professional SEO help—your return on investment can far outpace traditional marketing campaigns in the long-run. And remember that the cost of doing nothing is virtually intolerable in a world where your competitors are taking action.

Nothing is automatic when it comes to digital marketing, but nor are things like local SEO as difficult as they may appear at first glance.

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