You can't escape the studies and predictions about local search that establish it as an essential marketing task for businesses that want to increase sales:

  • Local search is one of the fastest growing categories of online advertising, expected to increase as much as 10% per year through 2015.
  • By 2015, 30% of all searches will be local, compared with 12% in 2009.
  • 80% of all searches conducted via smartphone are for local products and services.

Local search is a dynamic and evolving area of search, and it's drawing increased focus from major search engines as they strive to provide more user-friendly information. Google Places, for example, allows consumers to easily and quickly find relevant results and compare listings when they conduct a search for, say, "Chicago life insurance" or "San Diego car rental."

Consider a local search program that our firm created for a global hotel and resort management company. The program was piloted at 18 properties and showed such success that another 25 jumped on board within the first year. Participation in the program has expanded to 175 properties after those initial 43 recorded an average of $17,000 in incremental bookings per month, or $4.3 million in additional business, during the first six months of 2010. The return on investment (ROI): $84 in bookings for each marketing dollar invested—3-5 times greater than the ROI from either pay-per-click ads or traditional directory (e.g., Yellow Pages) advertising.

You don't need to have the deep pockets of a business like the hotel management company to capture the potential of local search and give yourself a competitive advantage.

Here are five steps to help you reap the most benefit from local search.

1. Get your SEO in order

Make sure your basic search engine optimization (SEO) is in order, paying particular attention to long-tail, geo-specific keywords throughout your website. Those are specific phrases that tie together your industry name and location, such as "Chicago life insurance agent" or "car rental in San Francisco."

Proper usage of keywords on your website is vital to enhancing your presence on major search engines. If you have more than one location, create a unique, optimized location page for each store location.

2. Set up local profiles

Claim and optimize your local profiles on search engines and directories (e.g., Google Places, Yellow Pages, chambers of commerce, review sites). Not claiming your profiles can significantly hurt consumers' ability to find your business.

For example, we read of one family restaurant that was failing to capture any of its town's brisk tourist trade because Google had it listed as a grocery store, Yelp had it listed as an Italian restaurant, and Bing had it listed with the wrong address. None of the listings had the right phone number for the restaurant.

By claiming your profiles, you can ensure that doesn't happen to you. Search engine algorithms like consistency, so be sure your business's name, address, and phone number (NAP) are consistent across the Web. In addition to the NAP, populate all applicable fields with information, such as business description, categories, and hours of operation.

Including as much information as possible in your local profiles will improve the chances of your business locations' appearing in the results of relevant search queries.

3. Encourage customer reviews and ratings

Encourage happy customers to rate and review your products and services via sites such as Yelp and Google. Nearly 70% of surveyed US consumers trust online consumer opinions as much as they trust personal recommendations, according to a 2010 BrightLocal survey.

Customer reviews help search engine rankings and increase click-through rates and conversion rates. They also validate your business to search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo, Bing), showing that you're actively serving customers and inspiring them to talk about you. Such user-generated content influences the search engines' decisions to rank you higher than your competition.

4. Don't forget the visuals

Videos and photos increase your appeal by making your offerings appear more tangible. Plus, search engines love them. For example, Google recently started surfacing as many as five photos in its local search results from business' Google Places pages.

Visuals boost your rankings, appeal to consumers, and help drive conversions. Customer testimonials, product or service demonstrations, answers to frequently asked questions, and images of your storefront and customer service staff are all good examples of relevant visual content.

5. Update your profiles

Make sure your business profile information is current. Each month, update your profiles with specials, new products and services, photos and videos, as well as (if they've changed) NAP information and hours of operation.

Remember that search engines like consistency, so make sure those updates are made across multiple platforms (e.g., Google Places, Yellow Pages, chambers of commerce, review sites).

* * *

Local SEO is more relevant than ever for geo-specific search queries. As the competition heats up among search engines to attract consumers who are looking for local businesses, businesses with strong organic and local rankings are best positioned to capitalize on that trend.

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Five Must-Do's to Get the Most Out of Local Search

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Jon Schepke is president and founder of SIM Partners, a full-service digital marketing agency that combines technology with marketing to create innovative digital strategies.