If your business has a physical location, you’ve undoubtedly been told that you need local SEO. But for many business owners, local SEO remains shrouded in mystery; what does “Local SEO” even mean? What do you need to do? Why do you need it?

I caught up with Sam McRoberts, CEO of Vudu Marketing, for an interview to answer these questions and more. My goal was to create the ultimate resource for local SEO, including an action plan you can immediately execute whether you’re a small business owner or an agency SEO with a local SEO client. Admittedly, I learned a lot from this interview, and I hope you do too!

1. What types of businesses need Local SEO?

Any business that gets some or all of its customers or clients locally should consider local SEO. That could be a local restaurant, retail outlet, doctor, dentist or lawyer, but it could just as easily be a local ad agency. If you have a physical address in a city and expect people to go there, you should be doing local SEO for that location.

2. How is Local SEO different from National SEO?

While all of the elements that apply to national SEO also impact local SEO (on-page factors, links, social, indexing, etc.), local comes with a few unique elements.

The first and probably most important is that for local SEO you need to create and claim a local profile on Google (and other platforms as desired.) Your local listing is what will show (usually) for localized search results.

The second most important thing is called a citation. A citation is any place online that uses your company NAP (name, address, phone number) all on the same page, in the same format as your local listing. This same format bit is pretty important. While Google is pretty smart, it’s best to make sure that your local citation efforts match your local listing as closely as possible. Don’t abbreviate in one and not the other (St. vs Street, (800) vs 1-800, etc.)

Third, reviews. Lots and lots of reviews (preferably really good ones.) Quantity and quality of reviews left for your business on your Google Places page is one of the most important local ranking factors.

3. How does on-site optimization differ for Local SEO vs. National SEO?

All of the same elements apply, but there are four things you should strongly consider mixing in. One, make sure your name, address and phone number are used on every page of your site, in the same format as your Google local listing (in the footer is an ideal location.) Two, use your City and State names in your Title tags, Meta descriptions, and the content on your site (as it fits, don’t just force it in there.) Three, make use of Schema local markup to better help search engines identify and show your location. Four, include a KML file on your site (Keyhole Markup Language). While some of this may seem redundant, it never hurts to send as many legitimate signals as you can 🙂

4. What are the most important signals that boost local SEO rankings?

The three biggest factors in local listings appear to be the number of citations, the number of reviews (primarily on your Google Places listing, though other places do count), and how positive the reviews are overall. From what I’ve seen, positive reviews will trump citations, so persuading your customers and clients to leave great reviews on your Google local page is the single most important thing you can do. Of course, there are some things that have a big impact and that may not be directly in your control, such as how close your business is to the city center.

5. What does the location of a business to the city center have to do with anything?

Google uses something commonly called “centroid bias”, which means that if someone searches for, say, Seattle Dentist, there will be a bias towards the dentist locations that are closest to the center of the city. While it is possible for a business in a neighboring city to rank for a metro keyword (i.e. a business in Cambridge trying to rank for a Boston keyword), if you’re on the outskirts of a city, or in a city neighboring a major metropolitan area, you’re going to be at a disadvantage.

6. Can you outline a brief action plan you’d recommend for new company looking to compete for local search results?

First, claim your local listing on Google Places, and make sure to complete your listing until it’s at 100%. This will require adding images, videos, and more. When creating this listing, DO NOT use any keywords or location names in your business title or business description that aren’t a part of your official business name or absolutely critical to accurately describing your business.

Second, use a service like Yext to make sure that the information from your Google Places page is spread across all of the other major local platforms, in the same format. Each of these will become a citation, which is hugely valuable.

Third, use a tool like KnowEm to snag all of your social profiles (while not strictly local-centric, many profiles will show your name, address and phone number, which will instantly give you a whole pile of local citations.) Google of course is free, but using Yext and KnowEm will set you back $500 to $1,000 per location depending on the packages you select (KnowEm is a one-time fee, but Yext is ongoing.)

Next, make sure you have your on-site SEO in order (see #3), and that at least some of the links you build contain your target City/State combo (you can also use some Zip codes in your anchors as well, to spice things up.) If you aren’t doing link building yet, that’s OK, we’ll cover it.

Last but not least, do everything you can to get your happy customers to leave positive reviews for you on Google Places. You aren’t supposed to directly solicit positive reviews, but there are plenty of ways to encourage great reviews.

7. Can you recommend some ways a local business can get citations?

You can use a tool like the WhiteSpark local citation finder to locate the best citation sources for your city. Guest blog posts are also a fantastic way to get citations, as you can often work them into your author bio.

8. Can you recommend some ways a local business can get reviews?

Let your customers or clients know that they can rate their experience with you on your Google Places profile. Have logos up in your windows or in your office showing the places where people can leave reviews. Include your profile links in your email communications (particularly in follow-up emails after a purchase or visit), direct mail, and anywhere else you can think of to get it in front of customers. Of course, if you want positive reviews, you need to provide a product and/or service that warrants them.

And while this should go without saying, DON”T BUY REVIEWS. While Google doesn’t always catch fake reviews, they are working constantly to get better at it. Yelp on the other hand errs on the site of extreme caution, and often banishes overly positive reviews.

9. Do you recommend small, local companies do local SEO in-house or hire an agency?

What are the pros and cons of each? This depends entirely on your budget. There are plenty of guides out there that will walk you through local SEO, and you could quite easily put an intern in charge of reading those posts and following instructions (getting citations isn’t terribly complex.) Of course, if they mess things up, neither you nor they may realize it until it’s far too late. An agency will almost certainly be able to do the same things much, much faster, and while an agency may cost more upfront it might end up being worth it for the speed and accuracy.

10. Are there any specific services, websites, or tools that you recommend to help companies with local SEO?

The WhiteSpark local citation finder should be your first investment. It’s pretty cheap, about $16/mo, and is the best tool available for finding citation sources. This should keep you busy for quite a while. You should also use something like MySEOTool to track your rankings with localization (your rankings as seen by someone in your City/State.) You’ll also want to set-up Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, so that you can effectively track what keywords are driving search impressions and traffic to your site.