Local Search Can be a Frightening Place

Cheshire cat, symbol of insanity for local search SEO

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Local Search is a visit to Wonderland through the Looking Glass. I’ve increasingly encountered this strange terrain as I work with more and more clients who need to be present in local search results. I’m going to use a recent adventure that I encountered on behalf of my client, and I want to share what I learned during my local SEO analysis as a cautionary tale. Warning, this is not for the faint of heart.

Alice with Humpty Dumpty

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Local means what Google says it means, neither more nor less. The client I referred to above is ranked very well for traditional organic results but is invisible in local results. This stems from some interesting confusion about their address (I wrote a separate blog post about the mess surrounding that situation and how we resolved it: “What to do When Google Maps Has it Wrong“).

One of our goals for this client is to make sure that they establish a presence in Google Local results. This means targeting the infamous Google “7-Pack,” the block of local results that Google displays when they think the searcher has “local intent.” In this case our client is moving company in a major metropolitan area.

The “7-Pack” and Local Listing SEO

A local listing can be a great advantage, but at the same time, Google has so stripped down what local search results display that in our practice we would always prefer a traditional organic listing to a local listing if–and this is a major “if”–the organic listing tops the 7-pack. The reason we prefer a pure organic listing has to do with our desire to optimize the title of the listing for improved conversions. Typically the title of the search engine results page (SERP) listing is drawn from the “title tag” of the page that the listing links to. However, in local, typically the title of the listing is the business name. This leads to an undesirable result if the business name is less than intuitive.

Additionally, you may have noticed that Google does not display an additional text snippet in local results, which in traditional organic results is usually taken from the meta description tag (especially if one has been optimized for the page, something we always do for our clients).

This leads to another, related concern: usually Google seems reluctant to display a traditional organic listing for business and a local search listing on the same page. This is sometimes called a “double.”  And in some markets, for some terms, it’s easy to score a double, but usually only if there are very few results for the search term.

But in this case a double seemed unlikely. I checked the term “moving companies” in about 6 different metro markets and could not find a single instance where any of the search results showed the same company in both organic and local results on the same page. While I was checking, I was struck again by the stark inconsistency of how Google displays results. And this is not an issue of personalization of search, because in each case they are displaying the results to the same confused person: me.

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” 
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”  

So how do you master such uncertain terrain as what Google has created for us? Really you only have one option: you have to master it all. Your best result would be a top organic ranking, if it shows above the 7-pack. But since you have no guarantee that will happen, you must also work toward a position in local results. My recommendation would be to go aggressively after the traditional organic ranking by studying the competitive landscape. Be present in Google Places/Plus Local, but don’t abandon traditional SEO for a local emphasis just yet.

I’d love to hear about your experiences in Wonderland. Leave a comment.

By the way, our Master SEO Class (which I teach in Colorado and Utah) goes into considerable depth on the techniques that you need, not merely for traditional SEO, but local search optimization as well. To find a class near you, check out our schedule of SEO Workshops.