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The importance of local search has been growing steadily for some time now. Google pointed out in 2010 that location-related searches make up over 20% of all desktop searches, and that number was closer to 40% for mobile users. And with the much-talked-about recent release of Google's Venice update, which sought to improve local search results, those figures have surely increased.

All of which means one thing: If you don't have a strategy for local search optimization, you're doing it wrong.

The Breakdown

Based on David Mihm's most recent survey of local search ranking factors, the following are the Top 5 factors that impact local search results:

  1. Physical address of the business
  2. Manually owner-verified Google Place page
  3. Proper category assignments on the Place page
  4. Volume of traditional structured citations
  5. Crawlable address matching Place page address

Notice that nowhere in the Top 5 do "inbound links" or "website homepage authority" appear (though they are No. 6 and No. 7, respectively). Local search optimization, then, is not the same game as regular SEO.

Some of you are already raising your hands, calling out that this survey data comes from last year—before Google's Venice update, which according to Google "improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of [Google's] main search results as a signal." So, you argue, doesn't that mean those first five factors will now be less important as Google gets closer to mirroring its main SERPs in local search?

My annoying response: Maybe, maybe not. It's complicated.

Because in the more talked-about part of the Venice update, Google has also started regularly presenting local search results, even from location-agnostic queries, any time it finds it relevant to do so. Which is quite often.

Now, with post-Venice Google, a searcher located in Wichita, Kansas, who searches for "lawyer" will see many local results that she previously wouldn't have seen without explicitly including "Wichita, Kansas" in her query.

In other words, while Google's local-search algorithm may now weigh nonlocal factors (such as inbound links for the business's website) more heavily, the reverse is also true: Google's main search results for nonlocal queries are being infiltrated by local search results more than ever before. Given that, do you really want to stick your head in the sand and keep optimizing for standard search as though nothing has changed?

Instead, I'd assume the local ranking factors were more important than ever, and I'd double-up on my local SEO efforts. Time and testing data will surely demonstrate changes in the factors' weight, but in the meantime local results are clearly a more meaningful piece of search than they were before Venice.

Back on Track

So back to those top factors. Of the Top 5, three (manually owner-verified Place page, proper category assignments, and crawlable address matching Place page address) are fairly self-explanatory, though a little guidance is worthwhile for advanced techniques.

Another one of the five, physical address, is more or less impossible to optimize unless you want to physically move your business—in which case, get as close to the city's centroid as you can.

Which leaves us with just one final top factor to discuss: citations.

When Is a Link not a Link?

Think of citations as links without the links. They're simply mentions of your business, including information like your business address, phone number, and sometimes a (hopefully keyword-rich) description of what services or products it offers.

Until July 2011, conducting competitive research on citations through your competitors' Google Place pages was super easy, allowing you to find great sources for your own business. But since Google stopped listing mentions from third-party sources on Place pages, local search optimization (LSO) citation research has become a bit more difficult.

Luckily, we have other options.

The Fun Begins

1. Directories and Business Review Sites

Think national, regional, local, general, industry and niche. Some of the big ones are Yelp, Superpages, Citysearch, YellowPages.com, Angie's List, Kudzu, and Localeze, not to mention Yahoo Local, which Google crawls for citations as well. Many more resources are listed at SearchEngineLand, and you will find still more opportunities via No. 7 on this list.

2. Authoritative Organizations and Government Bodies

Check out the Better Business Bureau, your local Chamber of Commerce, and clubs and guilds related to your industry. Getting listed on their sites is usually easy (though some, like the BBB, charge a fee). The authority of their websites is usually high as well.

3. Local Sponsorship Opportunities

Seasonal fairs. Community events. Charities. Getting involved with any of those can easily lead to citations in the form of donor lists (and often "dofollow" links, too). Rather than donating bottom-line cash to these causes, you can often donate your products or services instead. And don't forget the tax write-off potential.

4. Press Releases and Publicity Stunts

Championing a good cause or taking part in a community program (see No. 3) can result in press for your business. Depending on your niche, you might also be able to get creative with the way you launch a new product or service and earn organic citations from the press that way.

5. Offer Special Deals to Local Clubs, Associations and Schools

A pizza restaurant that offers discounts to the students of a nearby college can earn a mention in the school's online newspaper. Special deals for other groups or categories of customer—even if you don't expect many of them to be interested in your business—will still get you a citation.

6. Whitespark's Local Citation Finder Tool

This citation-finder tool is one of the easiest ways to find local citation sources, and you can use it in a limited, albeit still useful, form for free.

7. Google Queries

Google queries can find more targeted resources and ferret out where your competitors are getting their citations:

  • Other (often smaller) directories, aggregators, and review sites. Use search queries "yourcity yourindustry," "yourcity yourniche," and "yourcity yourproduct" in standard Google search. Your business category can be described in many ways, so try as many as you can think of (e.g., Austin food, Austin bakeries, Austin cakes, Austin organic cakes, Austin organic food, Austin organic bakeries, Austin healthy food). If the results of those queries are too broad, try adding "reviews," "directory," "listings," or "businesses" to the end of each to get a juicier list.
  • Local bloggers. In standard Google search, try "yourcity blog," "yourcity yourindustry blog," "yourcity yourniche blog," and "yourcity yourproduct blog." And, again, try to use multiple angles for each query (e.g., Austin blog, Austin food blog, Austin bakery blog, Austin cakes blog, Austin organic food blog, Austin organic bakery blog, Austin healthy food blog). Remove "blog" from your queries and use Google Blog Search for still more results.
  • Competitors' citation sources. Take a dozen of your competitors from all your previous citation-discovery efforts and plug their information into the standard Google search. Specificity will net you the best results here, so try using queries like "competitorname competitoraddress," "competitorname review," "competitorphonenumber," or the information of several competitors in the same query. You can also use Google Image Search to find citation sources in much the same way.

Parting Words

Does that previous list remind you of anything? Let me guess: link-building, circa 1999? You cringed when you saw "directories" first thing, didn't you? But we're not talking about links here. When your goal is a simple listing with no actual link, it's much easier to find high-quality directories to accomplish your goals.

Though it's tempting to think of building citations as just another form of link-building, you can't apply the same tactics to both.

For citations, you need to keep your NAP (name, address, phone number) consistent. Each time you acquire a citation, you should use the same exact business name, phone number, and address as on your Google Place page, and that data should match what you're listing on your business website itself. Mismatched citation data is a serious negative ranking factor, so don't create variations.

Other Ideas?

If you have another tactic for building citations, don't pass up the chance to school me! Leave a comment and tell me all about it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zach Thompson is a partner in RYP Marketing, which specializes in white label link building. Reach him via Facebook (www.facebook.com/RYPMarketing) and Twitter (@RYPMarketing).