The Art and Science of Local Search Databases

Local search and SEO (define) are drawing increased attention. It’s getting harder to sort through the overwhelming heap of observations and commentary on the relationship between these two hot topics.

Have you tried setting up keyword e-mail alerts for “local advertising” and “local content” from Google and Yahoo? It’s not unusual to get about 100 notifications per day. Who can keep up with all that reading? It’s more than a full-time job.

Weeding through all these alerts, I look for good tips and cost-effective tactics for local merchants and national chains that want to raise their online visibility. There are plenty of great ideas, but I’ve come across some that must be carefully considered and even more carefully executed.

Increasing Search Visibility

Lots of articles offer basic advice or simple ways to increase a given listing’s visibility. One fundamental is adding valuable content such as products and services you offer. Another tip is asking satisfied customers to write a review of their brand or business experiences.

In most categories, these two simple exercises will keep you ahead of your competition.

But you could quickly complicate things by following some recommendations that fail to recognize the nuances that separate the local search marketplace from the overall search space. Both require a delicate balance of art and science in vastly different ways.

SEO is the process of improving the volume and quantity of search engine traffic to a Web site through natural (organic and algorithmic) results. The local search end game is essentially the same: driving traffic to a Web site (if the local merchant has a Web site), driving phone calls, and driving traffic to brick-and-mortar store locations.

The differences begin with how you arrive at the goal. In overall SEO, companies try to attract consumers through various techniques that reside within a Web site or link to it. Local search, on the other hand, depends on a database that is wholly controlled by the search engine, Internet yellow pages (IYP), or local directory.

For this reason alone, optimizing a Web site for local search demands more than proficiency at traditional SEO. You must also have a solid understanding of how local search databases (LSDBs) operate and function.

Does an Old Trick Work for Local SEO?

I recently read a few articles suggesting businesses include city names as part of their merchant content. This isn’t a radical, new practice. Business owners have been using some form of this tactic for years in the print yellow pages. City names are so effective in print directories that businesses pay for them. People in the print directory space tell me this is a tried-and-true practice.

Is this is a fundamentally sound approach for online local search? I’m not so sure. It could vary from industry to industry. Ultimately, it’s up to each online directory to decide how it deals with this issue, both operationally and financially.

Where the Art and Science of LSDBs Intersect

Let’s look at how this might typically play out. Say you own a local kitchen remodeling business, A1 Kitchen Remodelers. You have a highly optimized, professional Web site, so it’s a given to include the areas you service somewhere on the site. This data creates value by driving phone calls and improving clicks and foot traffic to the showroom.

What happens if you try to generate more leads by adding “Chicago” to your business name — A1 Kitchen Remodelers of Chicago — and updating your listing with the usual-suspect search engines and IYPs?

You update your listing at the major search engines and IYPs, but review sites such as Insider Pages and Yelp still list your business without the city name. You hesitate to change your name there because you have five glowing reviews on each site. But now when consumers search for you at a search engine, it’s highly probable they won’t link the two business names together.

This really hurts. In a category such as remodeling, positive reviews are worth their weight in gold. Consumers are more likely to spend a lot more money with a local business that has five good reviews than a business that tweaked the system to appear at the top of a local SERP (define).

It’s also probable the search engines will figure you out and remove your listing. I don’t have evidence of this, but it does stand to reason based on engines’ drive for relevancy and positive user experience. Plus, they’re always adjusting their algorithms to ensure relevancy and a good user experience.

This is just one example of how a mainstream SEO mindset can undo efforts toward local search optimization. With SEO, you have a lot more control over results through your own Web site. Be careful not to let it wreck your local search optimization, where control is more firmly in the hands of search engines, IYPs, and local directories.

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