You've worked hard to make your small business a success. You have a great location, attractive products or services, and a friendly staff, all combining to improve your customers’ experience. But how do you continue to drive traffic to your company in today’s highly competitive marketing environment?
Many small businesses are increasingly turning to digital strategies, among them local search engine optimization (SEO). We asked Jason Walker, Managing Partner of Smart Harbor, (a digital agency based in Columbus, OH), to give us some advice on implementing local SEO.
Why local SEO?
A small business presents particular challenges, observes Walker. "You need to ask yourself: how do I generate more foot traffic, more eyeballs, and more interest in my products and services, beyond my physical location and existing customers, and reach a broader audience?"
Many small businesses will need to start focusing more on their digital presence. “You may already have a website, but you need to do more with it to establish a sustainable presence and generate more inquiries,” says Walker.
How do you enhance that presence? Local SEO can help, answers Walker, which encompasses developing strong content, submitting to popular online business directories, creating relevant inbound links, and participating on social media channels, all of which are integral to improving your company’s online presence.
"There is a myth that SEO is complex, but that is not the case,” Walker asserts. “SEO is really just building content to appeal not only to the human eye, or consumer, but also to search engine bots, which are scanning millions of sites within milliseconds.”
Help search engines find your site
"In order to appeal to your audience, make sure you are writing your website content so it is relevant to the searcher and relevant to the search engines." The three biggest search engines are Google, Yahoo, and Bing, which together control approximately 97 percent of the search market share, Walker explains.
"With that in mind, it is also imperative that your company is listed in local online directories. In addition to building out content that is relevant to your product and service, it’s also very important that your NAP (Name, Address, and Phone Number) information is accurate and consistent across all the online directories, like Google My Business and others."
Reviews are another important tactic, says Walker. "Your small business must have a business profile on the ‘Yelps’ of the world,” he advises. “Allowing a consumer to review you is important. To shut them off is a bad tactic. You should comment on all reviews, and address complaints openly. Reviews lend credibility to your website, and are another variable that search engines assess. It is more important to just have the reviews than to worry about whether they are positive or negative."
Another way to drive traffic and increase search engine rankings is by building inbound links to your website. Walker suggests asking your local contacts with business, community, and educational organizations to put your URL on their websites, perhaps in exchange for you doing the same for them.
"This backlink to your business’s website indicates credibility," explains Walker. "The search engine algorithms will see those links and factor in their impact to your overall SERP rankings." Of course, Google and others are constantly changing the formulas on how they do this so that they cannot be exploited. “Algorithms are not static – there are a lot of nuances. So you need to have technical expertise within your company to keep up with a fluid online environment,” recommends Walker.
When asked about the role of social media in local SEO and digital marketing, Walker maintains that social media is a great referral source. "You can drive traffic back to your website, which again lends credibility to all of the other SEO tactics that you have deployed."
Don’t forget the importance of building and maintaining a local business page on Facebook and LinkedIn, and ensuring that company employees have LinkedIn pages as well. Walker recommends utilizing social media not only as a tactic for building brand equity and loyalty, but also as a strategy for distributing content and supporting your local community. “It will give your business a human touch, beyond just trying to make money.”
Walker acknowledges that consumers' use of mobile devices to search for local businesses and services, such as with smartphones and tablets, will continue to increase.
"Small businesses must ensure that their site, content, and interactions can all be accessible and viewed not just on desktop or traditional devices, but also on mobile devices. Content must be able to consolidate and render itself on compact screens, requiring responsive website design and development to meet evolving consumer demands."
Walker observes that one trend that is becoming increasingly important is the concept of "semantic search."
“Search engines like Google, which pave the way for digital best practices, are changing. Previously, SEO tacticians relied heavily on keyword selection and placement throughout the website to drive SEO performance. With the advent of artificially intelligent technologies like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, consumers have begun to converse with machines and ask questions in the same manner they speak in normal conversation to help empower and complete their purchase path. They expect the devices and search engines to understand their intent and return relevant results.
“Semantic search is increasing as search engines become smarter and learn to decipher user intent. This interaction provides an authentic customer/user experience and will help improve your ranking, user engagement, and sales conversions.”
So what is the takeaway from these digital strategies? Walker summarizes for us: "Local SEO is the amalgamation of content development, link building, local directory submissions, social media posts, and the solicitation of ratings and reviews. Although the formula subtly changes, searchers and search engines rely on the written and spoken word and a seamless user experience to identify, rank, and recommend your business as the authority in the industry. Proper upkeep, including test and measure, ensures that you adapt to consumer demands and search engine best practices, positioning your local business for success as local SEO continues to evolve."