Anyone who runs a local business will likely know the power of search engines for driving new customers. Google has all but replaced the yellow pages for local advertising, and the new generation of consumers is glued to their smartphones, quickly searching and finding whatever info they need with a few taps.

Therefore SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, can be a huge source of value for local businesses looking to gain visibility in front of this new generation of consumers.

But in a world full of spammers, opaque search engine algorithms and shifting online landscapes, how can a local business begin to improve their SEO in a legitimate way? We’ve attempted to answer that question with a few helpful tips.

But first, a bit of a preamble:

One of the advantages that real, legitimate local businesses have over generic SEOs is their relationships with other local companies, suppliers, and with the local community. This is what Will Reynold’s refers to as “Real Company *Stuff*”, or RCS.

So what’s more important than specific tactics (some of which are detailed below) is that you, the business owner (or SEO specialist working for a business owner) start viewing every relationship as if it has a backlink (or review, or piece of content) buried within it.

“There is a backlink hidden in every relationship”, that’s my slogan, and I think it holds remarkably true. Sometimes it’s obvious and quick, sometimes it’s obscure and laborious, but in the modern age, nearly every positive relationship can lead to a relevant backlink at some point down the line.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, on to the tips!

Tip #1 – Leverage Professional Relationships

One of the primary “ranking factors” which Google and other search engines use to rank websites is backlinks. If you’ve spent more than a few moments researching SEO, it will become apparent that the majority of the effort associated with SEO is geared towards link building.

However sometimes it can seem like link opportunities are scarce, especially for B2B and locally specific companies. Nonetheless, if we start to leverage our professional relationships for potential citations, mentions and backlinks, we will start seeing opportunities abound.

Some of these examples include:

Vendors and Suppliers

All your vendors and suppliers will have a website. You should endeavor to get listed on all of them.

The great part about leveraging vendors is that they are relevant to your business (either by niche or location), but not in direct competition to you. This means you can link to each other without risking siphoning off customers.

Some of the ways that are relevant to grab a backlink are:

  • Vendor Lists/Partner Pages
  • Old Fashioned Link Pages
  • Press Pages
    • Publish news story mentioning company, tell them about it.
    • To get really crafty, don’t link to company itself, but link to Facebook or twitter page.
  • Testimonial Pages
    • This is great, offer a professional testimonial to be featured on their website, and have a back-link appended going back to your website.
    • Can be used across almost all vendors, even outside of your niche. As long as it’s local, it’s still relevant.

Your niche will dictate the viability of these tactics, as well as many more not listed above. Do some clicking around and some brainstorming and you will no doubt start thinking of new ways you can leverage your partners.

Community Members

Local businesses are often active in their local community in various ways. This could include the standard chamber of commerce membership, networking events, volunteering time or supplies for local charities, etc.

Again, it’s important to start viewing these activities as potential to acquire backlinks. When you are active and providing some type of value, chances are pretty good that a mention of your website would make sense.

Here are just a few potential opportunities, but feel free to brainstorm up some of your own:

  • Local sports teams (little league, pee-wee football)
    • Sponsor a team (partially or fully), or provide in-kind donations.
  • Local churches
    • In-kind donations, financial contributions, host events, etc.
  • Chambers of commerce
    • Memberships usually run $300/year and have added benefits, but make sure to get a link.
  • Business Improvement Districts
  • Community Development Centers
    • Good for special interests and activist causes, choose some that are close to your heart.

As you can see, sponsorships make up a big part of this initiative. The good part of this is that you can help causes that you care about, generate citations and links, and most of the time they are tax deductible (of course I’m not a lawyer or tax expert, but generally charities and church donations are tax deductible, and COC and BIDs are legitimate business expenses).

Tip #2 – Leverage All Business Locations

Here we step away from link building and talk about some tactical SEO, specifically related to Google

Maps. If you’ve done a bit of local searches on Google, you’ll notice that the presence of the “map pack” is very pronounced, appearing on virtually all local service searches.

While this diverts traffic from the “organic” results, it presents an opportunity for businesses to gain additional visibility. In some ways it’s even easier to rank in the map pack then to rank organically, and one of the big reasons behind this is “proximity”.

“Proximity”, or how close a searcher is to the business location, plays a huge role in the map pack ranking. If you have additional addresses that you can verify, you can potentially start ranking in more areas and generating more calls for your business.

We want to go about this as naturally as possible, so some of the legitimate ways are:

  • Verify all locations and branch locations.
  • If you don’t have an address in the center of your target geography, get one.
    • DON’T use virtual offices or paid mail services like UPS Store, they get blacklisted.
    • Depending on the value, consider opening up a small branch office in the center of town. This may or may not be worth it, you’ll have to do that analysis yourself.
  • You can also verify your home address. This is defensible as a “home office”.
    • Taking it one step further, do you have long time employees that would be willing to do this?

Verified locations are very valuable, as such there is a lot of goofy spammy ways to get in maps, but I won’t recommend those here. Main offices, branch offices, and home offices are all legitimate and defensible, so try to leverage those as much as possible.

Tip #3 – Reviews and Testimonials

The importance of reviews is not lost on local business owners. Potential customers have their choice of provider, so they will likely do at least a little bit of research before deciding to buy from you or your competition.

The advent of Yelp and other review sites has made it even more important to both encourage positive reviews and avoid negative ones. Not only are reviews important for a potential customer to read, but they can actually impact the ranking and visibility of your site on Google Maps, Yelp and other review sites.

How can we best optimise our reviews? Here are a few tips:

  • Leverage colleagues and vendors
    • Vendors are completely legitimate source of reviews, reach out for a review and whatever arrangement works for them (including review exchanges, links, etc).
    • Colleagues might not have done business with you as a customer, but they have insight as to your quality of work, so leverage them anyway.
    • Just as you can leverage relationships for links, so can you leverage them for reviews.
  • E-mail Follow Up with Customers
    • Provides an easy way for your satisfied customers to leave a Yelp or Google Maps review.
    • Be careful to avoid negative customers, as you don’t want to enable them.
    • Providing incentives to review is against guidelines, so be careful. “Encouraging” reviews is acceptable, provides free advertising for Yelp, etc.

There are, of course, other ways to go about getting reviews, but the above tips stay within the general guidelines of the review sites. For large companies with lots of satisfied customers, you will eventually be swimming in good reviews, so have no fear. For small companies, those just starting up, or those will some past reputation issues, consider using these tactics to get a foothold and help build your reputation/rankings on Yelp or Google Maps.

Conclusion

SEO is hard, no matter if you are a real company or a fly by night spammer. However, being a real business can yield you opportunities that are extremely relevant (to your niche and/or location), and are outside of the reach of your SEO competition. Use those real company activities and relationships to your advantage, after all, chances are you are already devoting resources to them!

To that point, if you take one thing from this post, it should be this: start viewing your professional relationships and activities by how they can benefit your SEO or digital strategy.

This could mean reach out for a link to those charities or organizations you already support, deciding to provide some additional donations to local organizations, or beginning to analyze your colleagues to see which of them has powerful websites, and brainstorm a way to get listed. The tips I list above are just a taste of what’s possible if you start thinking about your business activities in this mindset.

Michael Hayes is founder of Darby Hayes Consulting, a digital marketing firm based in NYC. He has been helping business grow online since 2008. He can be reached at mike(at)darbyhayesconsulting.com.

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