While we usually talk about how to rank well in Google, there are plenty of non-Google local search engines such as Yelp, YP.com, CityGrid, etc. that have a significant amount of highly-qualified consumer search traffic.
Each of these sites has its own proprietary search algorithms. It may make sense to study the algorithms of the biggest; but, in general, there are a number of standard basic ways to provide data about your business that can influence how you rank in any local search engine.
These are signals that tend to be directly related to the phrases input into a search interface. These may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised (or not) how many businesses get these wrong:
- Business Name: Business names are important when someone is searching for your specific business and when someone is searching for a keyword that is contained in your business name. While most search engines will downplay the keyword in the name (categorization is typically more important), it does count for something, particularly in the less sophisticated engines. Overall, make sure your business name is spelled correctly. It often isn’t.
- Business Category: Categorization is critical. It’s a major way for engines to bucket a business and relate it to a query. For those search engines you are targeting, run some test queries to understand how they map keywords to categories. In particular, try to figure out how granular they get. For example, is the categorization [Tax Return Preparers] or do they also have [Tax Return Preparers for Businesses]? Understanding how to target the more granular (aka long tail) categories means you’ll have more chances to show up for these qualified queries.
- Business Description & Keywords: This is really a subset of categorization, but in many cases having the right description (in fact, just having any description as many listings don’t) with the right keywords can help improve your visibility for queries. Understand the different ways people search for your service. Many services now offer suggestions as you type your query. Make sure the relevant suggestions are included in your business descriptions.
- Business Services: Services are another form of categorization. I like to think of services as informal categories, kind of like a tag. So, [Emergency Plumber] would be a category and [Toilets], [Faucets], [Leaks], [Free Estimates], [Rooter Service], etc., would be services. Make sure you understand the most popular services that you offer and include them in your listing.
- Association With a National or Regional Chain: If your business is part of a chain, it’s important that local search engines understand this. Chain store business listings often contain inconsistent data that cannot be easily normalized. For example, a site may have three listings with the names [Home Depot], [Home Dept, The], [The Home Depot #234]. They all refer to the same chain. But, if you did a pure business name match on [home depot], you would get a less than optimal sort order; so, understanding that these listings are associated with a chain helps the search engine consolidate these listings into a single entry.
These typically are signals created by consumer behavior that are generally out of the business’ control.
- Click Thru Rates: A listing’s performance, when it appears in results, is an indicator of its potential to satisfy the query. Most sophisticated, local search engines reward listings with high CTRs with better rankings. There are plenty of things a business can do to improve CTR on a directory, starting with making sure the above Relevancy Signals are as up-to-date and targeted as possible. Presenting offers along with high-quality images and videos can also increase CTR.
- Ratings & Reviews: Get them and get them often. Five stars helps. And, Google and Yelp are not the only places where reviews count. At this point, every major local search engine has a review system. When you are asking customers to write reviews, send them to a variety of sites such as YP.com, InsiderPages, TripAdvisor, etc.
- Likes & Check-Ins: If you think check-ins only improve your visibility on Foursquare, think again. APIs allow local directory publishers to use this data to influence their rankings.
- User Generated Content: Many sites now offer the ability for users to ask questions and for businesses to respond. Many also allow businesses to add additional content like blog posts. It’s safe to assume that directory publishers want to promote this kind of activity and will boost your rankings accordingly.
The location of your business combined with the location of the searcher is critical to the display of results. Often, the importance of these signals can vary based on what the user is searching for and what kind of device they are using.
- Business Proximity: How close a business is to the searched location. Depending on the category of the query and business density, proximity will matter more or less.
- Business Service Area: While physical location typically trumps most other location signals, for business categories with wide service areas, proximity is not as important. For example, fencing contractors often have large service areas. So when someone is looking for one, it’s not critical to only show businesses that are nearby. In the case of queries that map to large service areas, it’s likely that popularity signals will help determine if businesses that are farther away from the searched city show up high.
- Web & Mobile Search Radius Customization: Queries from mobile devices typically return results with tighter radii. If your strategy is to rank for mobile queries, you will need to figure out how to improve other data signals such as reviews, service area, etc., to compensate for the limited range of the results.
- Business Density: As mentioned above, if there are fewer businesses in your area competing for a category, you are more likely to show up better, but you will likely be competing against businesses in a larger service area. Conversely, if there are more businesses, the competition nearby will be stronger.
- Searched Geo: When a user specifies a specific location in their query, it’s usually a signal that they are prioritizing location, so it’s more likely that the search engine will favor businesses located in the searched geo in its results. If your potential customers tend to search this way, then you may consider opening locations in multiple cities to account for this.
Of course, we’re all in this to make money, so understanding how the advertiser display system on a search engine works, either in your favor or against you, can be helpful.
- Advertiser Levels: Typically, sites have different tiers of advertisers, which can affect which queries display the ad and what gets displayed (e.g., logo, like, tagline, video, bold, etc.)
- Advertiser Keywords: In cases where advertisers get to pick the keywords to target, it is important for them to understand if these are the right keywords to target. Often times, local search engines can have relatively weak keyword-mapping; so, your business may show up for keywords that you are not targeting (and you get charged for the priviledge). So, understanding how the search engine maps keywords can be critical to saving you from wasting ad dollars.
- Advertiser Boost: Many search engines offer an organic rankings boost to advertisers as an incentive.
- Deals & Coupons: Consumers love coupons. Local search engines love advertisers who offer them. ‘Nuff said.
- Listing Quality: This basically gets to the completeness of a listing. If you can outdo your competitors with filling out your listings, you will likely tend to outrank them in the local search engines. This is one of the biggest areas of opportunity. There are millions of listings out there that still have not been claimed and updated. One big yellow pages site told me that only about 10% of their millions of listings had been claimed. So, go out and claim them if you haven’t already, and you could put yourself ahead of the pack.