If you would have asked a small business owner 10-20 years ago, “What’s your greatest challenge to getting found by new customers?” She may have said something about how her location could be better or he may have replied that his newspaper ad could be bigger.
Today, it’s an entirely different world for small businesses. In addition to keeping up with customer service demands, you’re challenged to stay in tune with search engine algorithmic changes, emerging social media channels, and online reputation management to stay afloat.
It’s intimidating: the vast majority of those looking for products and services locally will still start their journey on the internet. With a few keystrokes, they can change the course of your balance sheet. What can a small business owner do to stay - and come out - ahead?
What's Local SEO?
Local SEO, while sounding complicated, is all about making sure that the customers who are looking for what you have to offer can actually find you. By creating a website that serves their needs and online presence that makes you more visible, you can refer and build relationships with more customers.
Don’t get hung up on the technical aspects of SEO to start with. Instead, approach local SEO from the perspective of, “How can I help more people find what they are looking for through my communication channels?”
Believe it or not, now more than ever, businesses of all shapes and sizes have the unique potential and opportunity to get themselves in front of people they can help. Those problems you want to solve? Those people you want talking about you? They’re all within reach - and it starts by laying out a strong foundation for getting found.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of missteps along the way. To give you some tools and tips before you dive into putting together your own local SEO strategy, let’s start first with what NOT to do. With so much information (and misconception) surrounding online marketing in general, it’s good to have an idea on what pitfalls to avoid before you start implementing tactics of your own.
Pitfall #1: Ignore Your Reviews
Reviews, both positive and negative, are an opportunity to build your online reputation. Every time a prospective customer searches for products or services you offer, they’re looking for votes of confidence in what your business offers in relation to the competition. Customer currency today can be measured in star ratings - and if you’re not keeping an eye on yours, you’re missing a huge chance to make an impression.
Online reviews on trusted third parties such as Facebook and Yelp are often where searchers and potential customers go when they’re evaluating prospects. In addition, signals from third party review sites and from Google properties like Maps can influence the way your site appears in local searches.
Start building a habit to keep a pulse on what others are saying about you online. You can use tools like Google Alerts, Social Mention, Reputology, ReviewPush, Review Trackers, Merchant Centric, or Reputation.com to track and respond to reviews easily and quickly. Or, you can monitor the key review sites in your industry or geographic area manually.
From there, evaluate and respond to reviews, both positive and negative. Businesses that respond to reviews often have a greater chance of gaining improved star ratings over time and are perceived to be more trustworthy and conscientious of their customer communities. With speedier response times to customer feedback and a stronger insight into what’s being said about you, you can only improve your business and its reputation.
On the subject of review velocity, also include calls to action to leave reviews in your other marketing efforts. Everything from having signage at your point-of-sale to including links to your reviews on your website can support more customers leaving reviews across the web, and that means:
- Greater potential for appearing higher in local searches
- Greater potential for appearing higher in searches on the individual review site
- Positive customer perception about the quality of your business
Pitfall #2: Muddy Your Business Signals
Let’s say you’re a bakery who specializes in wedding cakes. A bride from outside the area is researching bakeries to whip up something special just in time for the big day. She starts her search on Google Maps and starts looking for well-rated bakeries close to the venue. Your listing comes up and she’s delighted. There are positive reviews and the address looks like it’s close to the wedding venue - perfect! She grabs the phone number from your listing and dials. There’s only one problem: it’s your old number - and it’s not set up to forward. “The number you have reached is no longer in service.” A few clicks later and she’s on your competitor listing, making another call.
Missed opportunities like these are what can be some of the most frustrating experiences for small business owners. In local SEO, your business name, address, phone number, and URL are so incredibly important. If your listings on other websites are inconsistent, outdated, or just plain wrong, the effects can be both frustrating and devastating.
Make it a point to audit your local citations on a recurring basis to make sure that your key business information is accurately represented across the web. Moving locations, changing phone numbers, or making changes to your business name are all events that can muddy your business signals. Even if you haven’t make significant changes to your business, there’s still the chance for a stray typo to throw off your profile or make it more difficult for you to be found in local search.
There are several options to monitor and update your local listings on sites like Google My Business, YP, Foursquare, or other key channels. The manual way involves doing a lot of searching and updating of sites individually. If you’re a sole proprietor or already stretched thin, this task is daunting.There’s usually a lot of research involved, it can be a significant time investment, and the management of your business info can become a bit unwieldy. Thankfully, there are some great services and tools out there like Moz Local, Bright Local, Yext, SinglePlatform, Whitespark, Universal Business Listing, and others that make it easier to manage your local citations in one place.
Pitfall #3: Neglect Your Website
“I don’t have time for one.”
“I already have too many customers - can you turn off my website?”
“I just use Facebook. I don’t need any other business listings.”
Believe it or not, these are all things I’ve heard personally from business owners when asked about why their website was out of date, or in some cases, non-existent. Despite the fact that more than 70% of users use search engines in starting their customer journeys, some small businesses are unwilling or unable to adapt to how people have begun to go about finding their product or service providers.
Your website is a direct reflection on your business as a whole. Think of it as an extension of your showroom or waiting area. It is both your entryway and storefront - only it’s open 24/7 and customers expect more than just its presence.
Customers demand your site to be accessible, full of key business information, and easy to use. They want it to be attractive, responsive (or at least mobile-friendly), quick to navigate, and clear about what you offer to solve their problems. If possible, they want to see it personalized to them, the geographic region they are searching in, or related directly to whatever question they’re trying to answer. Like a skilled member of your team, they want your website to guide them, serve them, delight them, and educate them.
Make sure your website fulfills those customer needs and is up to date with the right information to answer their questions or give them a positive impression. If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at your own browsing habits and expectations. Do you bounce quickly from a site that doesn’t load fast enough? Do you get frustrated when you can’t find the hours for a location or see what brands are carried? These are the things you should be running through on your own site to start with to make sure that you’re only offering a great experience for people who arrive on your site.
If you have a great site, you can boost your user engagement once they land on your page, reduce bounce rate, drive traffic, and encourage higher rankings. Did I mention better conversions, too?
Pitfall #4: Avoid Being Social
Have you ever come across a Facebook page that was created 3 years ago but hasn’t seen an update since? Like a blog that still has that “Hello, world!” post but no other updates, an un-updated social profile is as good as no social profile at all.
Social media works best when you’re, well, social! While you don’t have to spend all of your time on your pages, it is important for you to have at least some sort of social strategy so that you can work on building a presence that actually delivers a return on investment.
Make a schedule for yourself to post regularly and engage regularly with customers. Responding to reviews and direct messages is key, but also look at encouraging conversation directly on your posts. Ask open ended questions, host polls, or post about topics that your customers are interested in.
Businesses who have active social media presences often see a correlation with higher search rankings. In addition, social media creates additional touch points with potential customers who may choose to research you or visit your site in the future. After all, isn’t social media just another example of digital word of mouth?
Pitfall #5: Be A Best Kept Secret
While it may be tempting to set and forget your website or online marketing presence, it’s a fatal mistake to build it and expect customers to flock. Building a reputation online and gaining momentum around being found in your community takes time and investment. Like the rapport you build with customers, it requires ongoing effort to ensure that you can be found by customers past, present, and future.
Integrating a great website, accurate local citations, social media, and a strong online reputation with other marketing channels is an area where some businesses stop short. Sure, they may have some of the right pieces, but perhaps they’re missing a key opportunity to tie things together by adding cohesive branding. Or maybe they have the potential to do more to reach their returning customers but just haven’t taken the plunge into email marketing yet.
Whatever the reason might be for not having a fully-rounded online presence, the key thing is to take a look at what you do have and ask yourself these questions periodically:
- How are people finding me?
- Who am I not reaching effectively?
- How can I better communicate with all of my customer groups?
A pulse check on your overall stack of communication tools can be a great way to ensure that you don’t let your efforts slip, no matter how busy your season may get or whatever other challenges may come up. I promise it’ll be worth the effort.
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* Adapted images: Public Domain, pixabay.com via getstencil.com