We're now 14+ years deep into local search marketing since the launch of Google Maps.

These days, local businesses and search marketers struggle to come out on top in search results landscapes full of moderately strong competitors that may already have passable websites, reasonably complete Google Business Profiles, and a set of accurate and consistent managed citations on top directories.

So how do you spot room for growth when the local SEO playing field looks too even?

Though an audit could uncover important improvements you can make to the overall optimization and health of a business's online assets, it won't always be enough to move the needle versus the competition. Meanwhile, Google's increasing control of local experiences on the search engine results page (SERP) tends to leave you with few options for growth.

Take heart, though—it's not all bad. When you take a closer look you'll find that the opportunities for growth are there and they can have direct, measurable impacts on both business online visibility and bottom lines.

Polling the Experts for Local Strategy in 2019

Each year, Moz publishes the Local Search Ranking Factors survey, aggregating opinions from the world's leading local SEO experts on which elements have the greatest impact on Google's local and localized organic rankings. I've contributed to that survey since its inception in 2008. This year, I also spearheaded the new Moz State of Local SEO Industry Report, which surveyed 1,400+ local business owners and marketers from all levels of commerce.

Together, these two surveys paint an interesting picture:

  1. The table stakes haven't changed much: You should still strive for the most influence on Google local pack rankings, with essential basic factors such as correct Google My Business categories, accurate citations, and an address in the city of search.
  2. However, links and reviews are the top two competitive difference-makers, profoundly affecting local search outcomes in crowded markets.

Here's where things become especially revealing:

  • 91% of the State of Local SEO survey respondents agree that Google reviews have an impact on Google's local rankings, but 60% lack a complete reputation management strategy.
  • Despite expert opinions on the power of links, 35% of respondents have no local link-building efforts in place.

Well over half of your competitors may be neglecting their reputation and more than one-third could be ignoring link building... So, do you see the opportunity?

Link and Reputation Growth: Tied Closely to Your Customers and Community

The foundation of success for both of these strong competitive-difference makers (links and reputation) is the business itself: more specifically, the business's willingness and ability to...

  • Interact well with customers
  • Interact well with communities

1. Reputation

The good news is that you have tremendous control over your reputation, and there's nothing overly technical about building and maintaining your reputation.

Google, Facebook, and Yelp may display your reputation, but you control what's said about you online by...

  • Writing a fair consumer policy
  • Carefully hiring and training staff to represent the business properly
  • Empowering staff to catch and resolve complaints in-person, before customers complain online
  • Offering excellent goods and services
  • Asking for reviews in compliance with review platform guidelines (each platform's is different!)
  • Reading your reviews and responding to them with grace and accountability
  • Noticing emerging problems cited in reviews for structural fixes at the place of business

Interacting well with customers both online and offline defines exceptional consumer experiences and further develops your reputation. As a marketer, you can provide recommendations of review management software and even help with online monitoring and responses, but it's what happens within the physical walls of the business that matters most.

2. Links

More good news: you have plenty of control here. Google doesn't dictate what links you can earn, but it will reward you if you receive links that are relevant to your location or industry.

For a local business like yours, that means the town or city you serve is a prime source of quality links that can be earned by...

  • Growing your B2B relationships (e.g., a home remodeler recommends a hardware store, which recommends a furniture maker, who recommends an artisan for decor, who recommends an interior designer, etc.)
  • Sponsoring local teams, events, causes, and organizations
  • Launching new campaigns to support worthy local philanthropy
  • Engaging in promotions and activities that give local reporters something interesting to report
  • Hosting or participating in conferences, workshops, expos, and other events
  • Joining local business associations

Interacting well with the community you serve creates that set of opportunities, and a proactive approach can yield both new links and new business.

As a marketer, you can provide the software that analyzes the strongest link opportunities for the business, but the best and most authentic links will result from the company's real-world engagement with the community it serves.

Why Links and Reputation Are a Future-Proof Strategy

Reputation management and link-building are a smart way to invest your budget and build your strategy, so long as...

  • Google continues to reward links and reviews with better organic and local visibility
  • Customers continue to reward businesses that treat them and their communities well

Neither of those is likely to change in 2019 or in the near future. There could conceivably come a time when Google drastically changes its algorithms and devalues them as ranking signals, but even then investments in them can drive new business as customers encounter positive reviews and link-based recommendations.

For the foreseeable future, then, links and reputation will remain competitive difference-makers.

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Local Business Links and Reputation: Competitive Difference-Makers in SEO

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image of Miriam Ellis

Miriam Ellis the local SEO subject-matter expert at Moz. She has been consulting with local businesses for 15+ years and is a proponent of thriving local business communities.

Twitter: @Miriam_Ellis