If you have been paying attention to your buisness' online presence in the last couple of years, you know how important online visibility is to your bottom line. You probably took care of the basics: your business information (name, address, and phone number) is on your website and you are posting on a couple social channels to keep up with the trends. Website pages, titles, and content are optimized for relevant topics that are useful for your customers. Your website is crawlable and speedy. You can even tell the difference between Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird Google algo updates.

"Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction." - Doorknob

If you focus on running your own business, you might find yourself feeling like Alice in Wonderland when it comes to latest search developments and algorithm updates. There are ever-changing guidelines from search engines, SEO tips from experts and advice from your friends who insist you are doing it all wrong.

Together, let's make some sense of local search best practices for 2014. We will go over content marketing strategies and fundamental tactics to keep up your online visibility. The overall objective is to create the best experience for your visitors when they come to your website.

State of Local Search

"I knew who I was this morning, but I have changed a few times since then." - Alice

Search results are changing all the time. Google is experimenting with carousels, local packs, blended and personalized results. Add social and localized filter to the mix and showing up on the first page of search results got a whole lot more complicated.

The local ecosystems are going through some adjustments as well. Yahoo is getting back in the game providing local business services and listing management. Amazon and GoDaddy launched new local offerings of their own. And this is just the beginning. Moreover, there are some unknowns, like what exactly will Google do with Nest and how it will affect you, for example.

"I'm not crazy. My reality is just different than yours." - Cheshire Cat

Location-based apps, services, management and targeting software are expected to explode in 2014. Will you be in the middle of it or will you be sitting on the sidelines? Our world is changing with new technology, our search habits and expectations are changing too as we become more proficient with search. Pages are becoming longer. Videos are becoming shorter. Attention is the hot commodity everyone is fighting for.

Predictions and tips from experts are helpful to map out your business strategy and define tactics. We will go through the main trends and identify what the focus should be.

Your site, your brand, your business

"Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle." - Alice

At 2013 SMX Advanced, Matt Cutts described a good website as follows, "Make a great site that users love, tell their friends, come back over and over again." Any business owner wants the same thing - loyal customers who love the product and refer their friends. Good to know that we are on the same page as Google.

In order for search engines to include you in many search results, you need to make a great site. In other words, build an authoritative website that is relevant to searcher's question, provides excellent user experience and is sensitive to user intent. Pretty simple. All changes that Google implemented in the last year are in agreement with this statement.

In the past couple of years, Google focused on improving user experience on mobile devices. And there is a good reason for that. According to Google Mobile study (2012), 67% of visitors are more likely to buy from a mobile-friendly website. Mobile-friendly sites turn visitors into customers and those customers will continue using Google search and click on Google ads. Win-win, if you ask Google. Therefore, if your website is not optimized for mobile, you will be demoted in mobile search results. Next step for you - make your website look perfect on mobile devices.

Fast, optimized websites are a part of great user experience. Know your audience and understand what they want to accomplish on your website. Give them information they are looking for based on the device they are using and you will never sink into abyss of irrelevance.

Your content in 2014

"Well, when I was lost, I suppose it's good advice to stay where you are until someone finds you. But who'd ever think to look for me here?" - Alice

If your content is useful, relevant and engaging, you are half-way there. People still need to find it, appreciate it, and share with their friends. For that, you need promotion. You probably already do some basic local link building. This year, trade link building for content marketing.

Look, I know your website is perfect and every page is a work of art. But people still need a reason to link to you. Give them a good reason by creating something unique and extraordinary or simply useful.

Hummingbird changed everything in terms of content creation. Now, the searcher's query is processed before the results are delivered. To website owners it means that keywords are not as important as the whole content of the page. The focus shifted from words to searcher's intent; to what they expect to see in the search results. If you know your audience and cater to their needs, you will win.

"Speak English! I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe you do either!" - Eaglet

Answering searchers' questions also means that your content needs to become more conversational: answer questions like "how do I do this" or "where can I find that." Use words that your customers are using, not the industry lingo. Create specific and detailed content around long-tail keywords (FAQ pages, for example). And finally, prompt visitors to take action.

On websites, people are usually looking for 3 things - find an answer to their question, do a specific task (make an appointment, buy a book, etc.), or locate information (business address, phone number, hours of operation, directions, product specs, etc). Your content needs to cover all three areas to be all-encompassing and powerful.

"It was much pleasanter at home, when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits." - Alice

Your content needs to be easily consumed on multiple devices. It means that readers should be able to read the text without zooming in, explorers should be able to click links to navigate your site, and achievers should be able to sign up for that special using their phone. Your content strategy has to work across all channels.

Searchers might come to your website many times, using phones, desktop and laptop computers, or tablets. They could come from other sites, search results, or ads. Regardless of the journey, the on-site experience should always remain the same. They need to be able to pick up where they left off. Add local relevance and solid social presence and you have fulfilled the search engine requirements. They will reward you with more visibility.

Local Relevance

"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." - The King

Have you checked how your business looks on Google and Apple maps? No? Now is the time. If your listing on Apple maps has errors, correct your business information on Yelp and Factual; report a map error using your mobile phone. To fix an error on Google maps, use MapMaker.

Add as much information as you can to any app that is featuring your business (Urban Spoon, Open Table, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, etc). Try to incorporate Instagram and Pinterest into your marketing strategy. If pictures fit well in your operations, use these channels to promote the real you.

This year invest in location-targeting to boost your local relevance. Make your own app, if you can (like Uber or Lyft). Not in the budget? Use apps like Foursquare and add as much business information as possible. Indoor positioning and tracking will only continue to grow. When reaching out with your marketing offers to people who are passing by your business or walking in the door, think "helpful", not "creepy."

If you have been holding off on implementing schemas, now is a good time to give it all you've got. Don't forget to check for implementation errors in Google Webmaster Tools - too many sites have not done it correctly. Be better than them.

Social presence, Pictures, Reviews

"We are all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad. You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here." - Cheshire Cat

Your customers trust others like them. They trust their own friends even more. Everyone will trust you if you are a part of the community. Reviews highly influence consumer purchasing habits, according to the Local Consumer Review Survey from BrightLocal (2013). Trust in reviews allows people to form opinions about a local business faster and act accordingly.

Search engines also like reviews and other social signals because it is harder to fake social signals than to buy links. Reviews and social media are a huge part of your business reputation management. They will become even stronger authority signal this year since many of local business directories are losing authority and becoming obsolete.

And there you have it - reviews are your priority for social strategy. Making your content sharable is another. Encourage your visitors to +1 your content on Google, leave reviews, check in on Foursquare, like you on Facebook, follow you on Twitter. Reach out to your advocates and foster a strong community around your business.

"In my world, the books would be nothing but pictures." - Alice

Become obsessed with pictures this year. Forget stock images. Get a good camera phone and snap shots of your business, of people working there. Use your stories to connect with customers. Tell these stories through pictures. Share them on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Invest in quality video. Go for shorter, to-the-point clips on how to use your product or utilize your service. Get a YouTube channel, acquire some loyal subscribers. Become an information resource for your customers.


"No matter where you go - there you are" - Confucius

You might be wondering why personal connection is important. Isn't the quality of service and product enough?

I was visiting a small business client today and met their customer who had been with them for 30 years. The business owner and the customer chatted about kids, local events, mutual acquaintances. They did not "do business", they "knew each other." Anybody can provide quality service and build quality product. People do not buy from businesses. They buy from people. Personal connection builds trust, security, and comfort.

Social media allows you, the business owner, to relay the reasons why you are in business. Your online presence shapes your reputation, showcases your personality. It empowers you to share your vision with others who come to you because they believe you can make their lives better. You and your customers already have one thing in common - you are a part of the same local community. All you need to do is to become friends. For real. Because of who you are.

Credit: Quotes from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.