We have a wonderful world full of Web searchers, but if your business targets a local region, the trick is connecting with those in your own back yard. This is quite important when it comes to search engine optimization.

It's wonderful to rank well in search engines for a competitive search phrase, but if your product is available only to a small subset, how much time and bandwidth can you afford to waste dealing with visitors from too far afield?

By taking the right steps early, you can get better search rankings from your SEO campaign and, more importantly, attract an audience from the right locale.

Here are some simple steps to help cater to a local crowd.

Start with localized keyword research

Overture's keyword research tool can be filtered based on over a dozen countries. If you are in a non-US market, it is essential to learn what 32 million Canadians or 20 million Australians are searching for rather than extrapolating from data based on 298 million searchers in the US.

It should be no surprise that language usage changes across borders. With retirement-savings vehicles, for example, the "401k" has its equivalent in the "RRSP" in Canada, while Aussies would be searching for "superannuation."

Spelling differences are notable as well. Sticking to the finance example, a "labor-sponsored investment fund" in one locale will be a "labour-sponsored investment fund" in another, whereas a financial "advisor" might be an "adviser." Small differences, big opportunities.

Add regional search qualifiers

In our lab we've watched many people search for regionally limited products or services.

A common pattern we've noticed is that the searcher will start with a fairly broad search, then scan the results looking for regional pages, in this case judging location by URL and page title. After three to four seconds, if they haven't found a match many will search again using a regional qualifier.

If the original search was for "car insurance information," the next search is for "car insurance information Canada," for example. A subset of users will repeat the search using a location-based filter, like Google.ca's "Canadian Web pages only."

With a good keyword research program, you will know in advance which regional qualifiers potential customers are actually using to search for the products or services that you offer. Without this, you are marketing in the dark.

The next step in the keyword research process is to compare the search volume of these keywords against the number of competing pages. When you find medium to high search volume on a regional phrase and also few competing pages from other sites, you've found some low-hanging fruit.

Host locally

One of the factors that a search engine will use to determine where your Web site is located is through the location of your Web server. If your site happens to be hosted elsewhere, you can still compete with local Web sites, but the hill is steeper. Switching your hosting location is no trivial effort, and probably not worth it for this reason alone; but keep this issue in mind for future hosting decisions.

Build local links

Search engines are placing increasing weight on the quality of your site's inbound links to determine how it ranks in search engine results. If your focus is on the regional market, you will want to work hard at creating a strong network of link partners within your area. This will boost your relevancy for those regionally target search phrases.

Also, let's not forget the other thing that links do: drive traffic. Overzealous link-building campaigns can lead to a surprising reaction when the links in those Web directories in Korea and Taiwan actually start sending traffic. Ideal customer experiences typically don't start with "sorry, our product is not available in your region." Local links mean local traffic.

Geo-target PPC

It's still the case that marketers spend far too much on pay-per-click advertising compared with what they spend improving their organic search rankings. Yet when it comes to targeting a geographically defined audience, it's tough to beat the precision of pay-per-click advertising. Here you can define your advertising region by country, by city, or by defining a targeted radius on a map.

Start with a solid baseline

I've heard horror stories from clients who launched an SEO campaign without a full understanding of how their site currently ranks for relevant search phrases.

The problem is, despite some good intentions, the changes you make to the site can inadvertently wipe out any quality search rankings that you currently have. Always first have a good understanding of where your traffic comes from and what top 20-30 rankings you have in Google, Yahoo, MSN, and their local search engine offerings.

Monitor and adjust

Use your Web analytics software to pinpoint your visitors on the map, noting key hot spots. You may find clusters of visitors coming from outside your target market. Try cross-referencing visitors from these locations with the referring source to determine what is driving these referrals. Be sure to segment conversion data by location so you will know how your site is performing with the customers that count most.

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These tenets should help you get the attention of a local audience as you plan your search engine marketing efforts. Consider this a local supplement to the standard set of SEO and PPC best practices.

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Dan Skeen is practice lead of Traffic Generation Solutions at Quarry Integrated Communications (www.quarry.com). His areas of expertise include social media optimization and search engine optimization. Reach Dan via 519-743-4300, ext. 2493, ordskeen@quarry.com.