The business landscape of 2021 is almost unrecognisable from that of just 12 months ago. As society adapts to an uncertain climate, the way we do business has changed rapidly, forcing firms to reassess their priorities. Where once a prominent high street presence might have yielded a steady flow of customers, these days the streets are empty and non-essential businesses have been forced to shut their doors. The events of the past year have accelerated the trend towards online operations, with those firms slow to react now paying the price.
Whether you’re a service-based business, selling products direct to consumers or B2B, your online presence is everything right now. SMEs seeking not just to ride out the current crisis, but to strengthen their position and see growth this year and beyond have had to invest in their websites and target new and existing customers through increased online marketing efforts. But having to quickly get up to speed with the intricacies of digital engagement can be daunting, particularly when you’ve not historically had to rely on sales and enquiries coming from your website. So where do you begin?
In the spirit of walking before you can run, most SMEs will want to target their local area to win new customers and this means local SEO has to be a priority consideration. With this in mind, we have prepared a simple-to-follow small business local SEO checklist accompanying this in-depth post on practical steps to ensure your business is found online in your local area.
Check your existing online presence – can your site be found?
It sounds simple but in order to be found online you need to be visible. A profile on Facebook or LinkedIn is useful but it’s no substitute for a proper website hosted on your own domain. If you haven’t already got an operational business website then your first step will be to brief a web design agency to make that dream a reality.
Assuming you’ve already got your own presence, be it a simple brochure site or a fully functioning eCommerce store, you’re going to want to check that users can find you. Fire up Google and enter your brand name. Is your website the top result? Sometimes if your business has a very generic term as its trading name other search results may come up first, but hopefully your site is there or thereabouts. If you don’t see your site among the top results for your brand name then you have a problem. To narrow things down try entering the following command into Google (replacing yourwebsite.com with your site’s URL):
This instructs Google to search its index for every page it can find on your domain. If your pages show up in the results, you know that your site is indexed. If they don’t then something is preventing your site from being picked up by Google (and more than likely other search engines too). The most common cause for a site not being indexed is accidental use of the NOINDEX directive or an instruction in your site’s robots.txt file to block indexation. You should speak to your web developer to check these issues or get an SEO company to take a look.
If you can’t see your website when you search for your brand name but it is appearing when you use the site:yourwebsite.com command then this suggests your site is under optimised for search and this guide should help.
Is your site mobile-friendly?
Not only do mobile users account for over 50% of all online users worldwide, but Google is no longer prepared to give a free pass to sites offering a poor mobile experience. If your site has not properly considered mobile users then Google will not consider it for the top ranking spots.
Of course, if you’re using an all-in-one site-building service like Squarespace or Wix these sites will automatically come mobile optimised so you shouldn’t have to do anything. Alternatively, if you’ve had a web designer build your site in the past five years the chances are it is a responsive site that will automatically adjust to best fit the device it is being viewed on. If you are unsure the good news is this is easy to check and Google offers a free mobile-friendly test that will quickly tell you if your site is up to the job or going to need work. Again, if it looks as if you’ll need help getting up to speed, contact your original web developer or find a new one.
Does your site explain what you do?
This may very well be one of the simplest yet most commonly overlooked items on our small business local SEO checklist. You might think that your name and logo tell customers everything they need to know about your business, but in truth this is pretty unlikely. They say a picture is worth more than a thousand words, but Google would prefer those words. This means that you should leave no room for interpretation and offer clear and to-the-point details on precisely what you do.
Think about specific products and services rather than generic umbrella descriptions. For instance, you might be a carpenter, confident that everybody knows what a carpenter is, but does that tell the whole story? Are your customers going to be simply searching “carpenter” or are they seeking “fitted wardrobes”, “bespoke wooden cabinets” and “hardwood internal doors”?
Your website can be as wordy as you want it to be, so take advantage of this fact and really thrash out what you do, then convey this to your target customers in clear terms.
Does your site really explain what you do?
Go back and check it again. In fact, get somebody else to take a look at it for you and describe what they believe you offer based on what your website says. Maybe you nailed it the first time around, but a fresh pair of eyes will help you make any tweaks if needed.
Have you detailed the areas you serve?
Don’t expect search engines to work everything out by themselves. If you’re a welder in Woking, have you detailed that you’ll happily take on jobs in Guildford, Farnborough and Leatherhead? If not why not? Simply listing nearby towns and regions could triple your website traffic. You don’t need to list every hamlet within 50 miles, but think about the opportunities you are open to and make sure this is clear on your website.
Understanding basic SEO factors – does your website have a clean bill of SEO health?
Broken down to its core elements there are three main considerations when it comes to effective SEO: onsite content, authority backlinks and user experience. You can learn more about SEO fundamentals in our small business SEO guide and it pays to understand the basics, but here we will quickly cover off the three primary pillars of SEO.
1/ Onsite content
We’ve already touched on the importance of onsite content and why you should be drilling down into precisely what your business offers its customers. Great, high-quality content is vital, so if you’re light on content you’re going to be light on customers.
As well as considering what you’ve written on each page of your site you should also pay attention to what you’re telling search engines to display in search results. You control this via the meta title and meta description fields, which you should be able to customise across every page. How you do this will depend on how your website is built, with some content management systems more flexible than others. For WordPress websites, you can easily make use of SEO plugins such as Yoast SEO, which will allow you to insert and edit custom metadata on a page-by-page basis. Make sure each page has a unique title and description, keeping them distinct from other pages of your website.
2/ Authority backlinks
When you’re comfortable with your onsite content you need to consider your site’s authority. Imagine that from a content perspective your site is near enough identical to that of a close competitor; how would a search engine determine which site to serve first when a user enters one of your preferred keywords? The answer is a closely guarded secret, with Google unsurprisingly unwilling to detail the precise factors that go into their industry-leading ranking algorithm, but we do know that they assign a value to every page and domain which is heavily influenced by links. The more high-quality links a website has pointing to it, the higher its perceived authority and therefore the greater that website’s chance of achieving the competitive positions in search.
In the past Google shared the PageRank value they had attributed to different pages of different websites, helping users identify those sites with the highest value to solicit links from. This lead to links being traded like a valuable commodity and ultimately devalued the PageRank metric. In 2016 Google pulled the plug and left everyone to guess how they’d scored their sites, with PageRank values never having been made public since.
This doesn’t mean the void hasn’t been filled by all manner of software companies seeking to help web marketers and popular measures for estimating the authority of a site include Domain Authority, Trust Flow, Domain Rating and Authority Score. They all work in a similar fashion, assessing the volume and perceived quality of links that point to a site, to then attribute a value between 0 – 100. The higher the score, the greater that site’s authority and the more valuable its links become.
Your site will hold more authority with links from other sites, and the more authoritative those sites are, the better for your business. More high-quality links means more opportunity to rank competitively in search.
3/ User experience
The final essential element to successful SEO efforts has become increasingly important in recent years: that of ensuring a smooth and seamless user experience (UX) across your website. In a crowded market, users don’t have the patience to put up with slow-loading pages, clunky navigation or convoluted forms and order processes. You need to consider the quickest route to your desired end goal for every potential customer who lands on your site.
If that goal is an enquiry, make sure there’s a simple form presented to users early on, along with prominently displayed contact details. If your goal is an online sale, you need to get users into your sales funnel, and minimise the steps throughout the process from browsing products to confirming the delivery. It’s no coincidence that Amazon will come up in search results for the lion’s share of eCommerce product queries, and the website makes it obscenely easy to order. The quicker and easier your site is to use, the more Google and other search engines will prioritise it in search results, compared with less UX-friendly alternatives.
Don’t neglect your user experience. If in doubt, test, test and test again. How easy is it for new users to reach everything on your site you’d like them to reach? Anything that takes too long or isn’t immediately obvious will need to be addressed. For more insight take a look at our importance of UX blog post.
Have you taken full advantage of Google My Business?
When it comes to shop windows, they don’t come much bigger than Google, so when they offer you a prime bit of window real estate to promote your business, for free, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.
You will have come across Google My Business listings in the past whenever you’ve used Google to search for a company by name. Where that company’s logo, contact details and opening hours are displayed to the right of search results is fed from their Google My Business listing. Any business with a physical address of some kind (even if you work from home) can take advantage of this enormous targeted local business directory and it’s very simple to do so.
You may already have a listing but even if that’s the case it’s still worth heading over to google.com/business to cram in as much detail as you can. If you don’t already have a listing you’ll need to verify your details by waiting for a postcard to be sent out by Google with a PIN, so get on that straight away if you haven’t already.
Key fields to fill in are your contact details, including contact telephone, physical address and email, along with website URL, operating hours and both primary and secondary categories to help describe your business. Take your time to drill down through all the many category options to find the two that are closest matched to your main service offering and don’t skip the secondary category just because you think the first one you picked sums it all up. You can effectively double the number of times you might show up in search results if you fully utilise both category options.
Have you taken full advantage of other major business directories?
Whilst Google My Business is certainly the biggest directory you can be featured in, there are plenty of others worth 15 minutes of your time to get set up. Get yourself registered in Bing Places, Yahoo Local (now administered through Yext), Apple Maps Connect and the LinkedIn Company Directory.
You ideally want to maximise the number of places people can find information on your company, be they on their iPhone, desktop computer or Android device. Every website you’re featured in also provides a valuable link back to your website so can’t be underestimated.
Is there anywhere else you can get listed?
Spoiler alert: the answer is always yes. No matter what industry you’re in there will be dedicated directories and resources devoted to your niche. Some of them you might already be aware of and others are just a Google search away. Have a look for the sites that are happy to list your company for free and take advantage. Sometimes more specialist sites may ask for a fee to be listed and you’ll have to weigh up whether the cost is justifiable. A good rule of thumb is to check on how many of your competitors are listed. If you see a number of familiar names then your decision might be made easier.
As well as industry-specific sites, you should also find there are excellent local business resources for where you’re based. Again, a quick search should identify local business directories relevant to your locale. For instance, iSurrey has over 27,000 Surrey-based businesses registered, and getting listed is free, so you’ve nothing to lose by signing up.
Some directory sites will try to upsell you a “premium” listing but often enough there’s minimal additional value over a regular (usually free) listing. They might highlight your listing or push you to the top of their results pages, but from an SEO perspective, all that really matters is the link back to your site. Remember links are the most valuable currency in the world of SEO, so any opportunity to pick up a free link should be grabbed with both hands.
Whenever you’re adding or updating directory listings for your business it’s very important to maintain consistency. If you have more than one phone number, make sure you stick to using the same one across all your listings. Similarly, keep your address formatting identical and make sure you always refer to your company in exactly the same way. You might be ABC Cars Ltd on one website, ABC Cars on another and just ABC Ltd elsewhere. Stick to one name and keep it consistent. Google considers name, address and phone number (often abbreviated as NAP) as vital elements in trusting your business, so if there are any conflicting details from site to site, you could be missing out.
You’ll want to maintain consistency with your URL as well. Strictly speaking, https://prefacestudios.com is not the same as https://www.prefacestudios.com or even https://prefacestudios.com/ (note the trailing slash) even though all three URLs will get you to the same place. Your site should always resolve to the one primary domain URL so try entering your URL with and without the www, and the trailing slash, then see what happens to the address in your browser. For example, if you type in https://www.prefacestudios.com/ the page loads up but the browser corrects the URL to https://prefacestudios.com so it’s that final URL you should be entering in directory listings.
If you find some directories don’t actually offer a link back to your site, or they will only let you add one if you pay a fee, don’t lose heart. Search engines now consider individual business citations, even if they’re not linked. Every time your business is referenced elsewhere it counts as a new citation so as long as you’ve kept your NAP consistent, you’ll be leveraging value.
Are you using social channels?
Love it or hate it, social media remains an important channel for your marketing activity and can work hand in hand with your local SEO efforts. Different industries will have different preferred platforms and it’s important to research in advance where your audience is most engaged. Where you’re selling direct to consumers, particularly in food & drink, health & wellbeing and property you might find the visual nature of Instagram serves you best, whilst many B2B operations will likely find more traction is gained via Twitter and LinkedIn.
Even if you’re unable or unwilling to post updates regularly, it’s still important to claim your presence, associating your social profiles with your website. In a worst-case scenario should your website go offline, you’ll still be able to communicate directly with your audience via social channels, to update them on current circumstances.
Using social channels effectively helps deliver social proof, associating your brand with positive engagement and contributing to your overall SEO health. If nothing else, each social profile is another shop window, referring users back to your website, so be sure to add your URL to all your active profiles.
Are you encouraging reviews?
Once you’ve set up your profile on Google My Business and other platforms, customers will be able to review your business. Unfortunately, they won’t usually seek out your profiles to leave a review unless they have had a poor experience. Therefore it’s generally beneficial to solicit reviews from your clients and customers following a successful transaction. You can incorporate requests for feedback via your favourite platform in marketing emails you send out, assuming you’re confident in your service.
The average local business in the UK has 39 reviews on Google however statistics suggest a business needs over 40 reviews before users genuinely trust the accompanying star rating. Whilst these numbers vary between different industries, the trend is clear, more reviews mean more trust in your brand. You might find it awkward asking people to go out of their way to rate you online, but the benefits are too great to ignore. To make things easier you can incorporate review requests into your marketing automation activity and remove yourself from the process. Of course, you’ll still want to keep an eye on the rates of engagement and make sure your ratings are coming in high. It also pays to respond to less-than-favourable reviews in a constructive manner. Just make sure you take the time to consider your response and avoid getting accusatory and dismissive.
Don’t be tempted to pay for reviews, no matter what they promise to deliver. This kind of behaviour is easy to spot and you will be penalised for it. Having a handful of honest reviews is better than a stream of fake reviews that get removed.
Are you soliciting links?
Our small business local SEO checklist has already highlighted the importance of links to your site, and by now you should already be benefiting from links from business directories like Google My Business. But this is only the beginning of your journey into link acquisition. If links are the currency of the web then you’ll want to be making regular deposits at the bank of SEO.
Just like reviews the most effective method to attract new links is by asking for them. Think about what you can offer to other sites in your industry. Do you work with other companies in your field offering complementary services? If so perhaps see if those firms will link to your site from their own. Do you have expertise you can contribute to an industry journal or trade publication? Offer your insight in return for being able to promote your business with a link. There are hundreds of ways to encourage and seek our valuable links to your site so do your research and experiment with what works best for you.
Follow the steps and reap the rewards
You can use our handy small business local SEO checklist graphic as an easy-to-reference accompaniment to this meatier guide. Follow each of the steps and you should find your online visibility is significantly improved. Don’t forget to benchmark your performance so you can measure the success of your efforts. Make a note of your organic traffic in Google Analytics, then compare it three months on to report on the (hopefully positive) change.
If you’d like more advice on local SEO, improving your website or help with your marketing activity Preface Studios is here to help. Just get in touch below to start the conversation!
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