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Local 3-Pack 101: Everything You Need to Know About Getting in the Top 3

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When you think about it, SEO is a vague term. Search engine optimization could be any process that makes you more likely to appear for a search—in no specifically designated engine (though we usually refer to Google by default). But too often, it’s taken as a one-size-fits all approach; optimize for various queries relating to your brand, and compete with the world to get higher ranks.

As you undoubtedly know, search is far more complex than this. There are hundreds of variables considered when a user inputs a query, from the location data of the searcher to the intent behind the phrase. Today, I want to look at the local “3-pack,” a designated type of search result entry that appears for local searches and functions independently from Google’s core, national algorithm. More to the point, I’ll tell you everything there is to know about getting your business ranked there.

What Is Local Search?

Let’s start with the basics. The “local 3-pack” is a type of result pulled for local searches, which draw upon Google’s distinct local algorithm. This isn’t the only type of local search result possible, but it is one of the most common (and your optimization efforts will give you power to appear in multiple formats).

Let’s take a look at a few examples. These are the results I get when I search for “defense lawyer”:

search results defense lawyer

There’s a rich answer at the top, followed by “traditional” results.

Now, let’s take a look at the results when I tack on the phrase “near me” to the end of the query (one of several possible local indicators—geographic keywords like cities and states also yield local results):

Google 3-pack

This is an illustration of the local 3-pack; note the three separate entries, complete with a map, appearing above the traditional search results. Obviously, these three winners aren’t the only defense attorneys in the area, but they are the ones getting the greatest search visibility benefits. These aren’t perfectly optimized (for reasons we’ll get into later), but do take note of the format. All of the following are visible:

  • Business name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Reviews
  • Hours of operation
  • Interactive buttons to take you to a website or give you directions. On a mobile device, a “call” button is also present

Now let’s take a look at an example with a more specialized search.

This is the result I get for “tacos near me,” a general search that returns a handful of taco restaurants:

tacos near me

Now look what happens when I search for “taco bar near me,” a more specific query:

taco bar near me

Instead of a 3-pack (as, presumably, there are fewer than 3 business that match the “taco bar” designation), there’s an entire designated entry for one business.

Wouldn’t it be nice for your business to appear in the top 3 local search results, or even better, have its own encyclopedic entry embedded on the page?

Why Local Search Matters

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself: isn’t this just for restaurants, doctors, contractors, and other businesses that exclusively depend on local foot traffic? Or wouldn’t a national search get much more traffic?

This is partially true, but there are distinct advantages for local search that apply to any business, even one operating internationally:

  • Less competition. There are far fewer taco restaurants in Cleveland than in the United States. Local searches mean less competition, less effort, and an easier time ranking. You don’t have to be the best in the world—you just have to be one of the best three in your area to get the payoff.
  • Mobile appeal. Most mobile devices give location data by default, making local searches even where they weren’t intended. Mobile traffic is at an all-time high, so don’t neglect the mobile appeal.
  • Users aren’t just shown your website—they’re shown images, reviews, hours, and even have the one-touch option to call you or get directions to your site. Traditional search entries can’t match that level of interactivity.

Key Points for Local Search

At this point, I’ve hopefully convinced you that local SEO is a valuable opportunity worth pursuing. Now, how do we go about getting into that local 3-pack? There are several things you’ll need to do, including onsite and offsite optimization, both as once-only and ongoing work.

local search

I’ll go over everything in more detail, but to lay a groundwork for you, these are the most important goals we have to accomplish for local optimization:

  • Making sure Google finds and displays the right information about your business.
  • Making sure your prospective searchers see as much information as possible.
  • Gaining more domain authority to rank higher than the competition.
  • Earning authority and transmitting information via third-party directories and review sites.

With that said, let’s focus on actually achieving those goals.

Building a Foundation for Local SEO Success

I won’t lie to you. Local SEO takes a lot of upfront work if your site and online presence aren’t yet in order. But once complete, you can get by with only periodic adjustments and moderate levels of ongoing optimization work.

Onsite Optimization

Let’s start with your website. This is going to tell Google as well as third-party directories what your business is, how it operates, and what you can offer customers. The most important thing here is consistency—decide on what specific information you want to include, and keep that information consistent across every channel and strategy you pursue. Otherwise, you run the risk of submitting duplicate or contradictory information, which can wreck your chances of getting into the 3-pack.

DO NOTE: Most of these

  • Indexation. First, make sure your site is being indexed by Google. You can check for sure in Google Webmaster Tools—they’ll tell you if there are any pressing issues that need to be dealt with, or if there’s anything barring you from being visible.
  • Titles, Descriptions, and Headers. Your title tags, descriptions, and header tags are basic national SEO components, so you’ll want to follow basic best practices there. There’s only one difference: throw in location keywords when appropriate and relevant (usually your city or region).
  • Body Content. Again, this is a national SEO best practice. Make sure your body content is ample and describes your business accurately.
  • NAP Information. NAP information is your Name, Address, and Phone Number. This is critical to keep accurate and consistent, for onsite optimization and offsite work alike. Be sure this information is present in your footer and in your contact page.
  • Services Pages. Make sure you have a dedicated page for every service you offer to maximize which local queries you rank for.
  • Contact and Business Hours. List your business hours (accurately) and all your contact information on your Contact page—this will make it easier for Google to find.
  • Images and Video. Rich media can appear in the local 3-pack (as you saw in our taco search above). Be sure to include some good images of your business throughout the site.
  • Reviews and Testimonials. Local searches can sometimes return testimonials as rich answers if you’re using microformatting (more info here). Be sure to include at least a few marked up reviews and testimonials.

This is the “quick and dirty” of local onsite optimization, but it should get you everything you need to get started. Additionally, it’s important to follow all standard best practices for onsite optimization—though local search uses a separate algorithm, your domain authority is still important.

Google “My Business” and Social Media

With your onsite optimization taken care of, your next stop should be Google’s “My Business,” which took the place of Google’s previous (and somewhat confusing) Google+ system last year. If you haven’t yet, sign up and follow the steps to get your business listed with Google. This will feed Google information directly, which it can then use to formulate your entry in local search results.

Google My Business

The process is pretty straightforward, but you’ll want to follow these best practices:

  • Consolidate any business pages you have. You might have erroneous duplicate entries if your business has changed names, changed locations, or has been entered incorrectly by a third-party directory or user. Clean up these errors, make sure your information is accurate, then verify your ownership of the business (Google will tell you how in the setup process).
  • Verify your NAP consistency. Remember your NAP (name, address, and phone number) information from the previous section? I promised it would return, and this won’t be the last time. Make sure it’s accurate and consistent.
  • List the correct categories for your business. Google offers you the ability to categorize your business, so choose relevant categories, and make sure you’re describing what your business is rather than what it does. If you need some help choosing the most relevant, valuable categories, you can consult Blumenthals’s tool, which I’ve found to be quite helpful. See below for an example from Google:

business category

  • List your correct hours. People will rely on these, so ensure your accuracy.
  • Create a compelling description. You’ll get 150-300 words to describe your business (not sell to people), so make that space count. You can also include links to various internal pages—they’re nofollow links, but they’re still useful for getting some extra traffic.
  • Complete your profile. There’s no excuse for being at less than 100 percent completion.

This advice is meant to guide you in following all best practices for a Google business listing. However, be aware that Google updates its policies and practices from time to time. Read up on Google’s local business guidelines regularly to check for new changes.

It’s also important to claim your business profiles on social media. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are the big players here, but take the time to claim as many profiles as you can, and fill them out thoroughly with your business information (including your consistent NAP). This won’t help your ranks directly; however, many third-party directories and local review sites crawl social media pages to get information on businesses. Having correct, accurate information here can help you stay consistent throughout the web.

Local Citation Cleanup

Now it’s time to take a look at your local citations. What is a local citation? Basically, it’s a complete or partial reference to your business somewhere else online. That’s a vague and open description, but generally, it’s in reference to a business listing like you might find on Yelp or TripAdvisor.

Local citations serve as third-party references to your business’s authority, and occasionally provide additional information about your company. As you might imagine, there are several goals to accomplish here:

  • Ensure the accuracy of your citations. One mistake could cause confusion, both for Google and for your users.
  • Maximize the information provided by each source. Every new source is a new point of visibility for your company, so make the most of it.
  • Get as many citations as possible. More external references to your business is never a bad thing.

We’ll get to the ongoing local citation best practices later on, but for now, let’s worry about cleaning up any mistakes. Here’s a good example of correct and incorrect given by Moz (but for the most part, you can use common sense):

Good and bad NAP

There are three main ways you can do this:

  • The manual method is exactly what it sounds like. You’ll track down every third-party directory you can find, starting with the most valuable, and find your local listing on each. You’ll claim your profile, fill it out completely and accurately, and correct any mistakes you’ve made on each. This is a very time-consuming process, and it’s prone to error, but it’s still a possibility for the budget-conscious marketer. If you’re trying to hunt down the best third-party sources to consult, Whitespark has a great list of its “top 50” available here.
  • There are many agencies that specialize in automatically cleaning up your local citations, including the aforementioned Whitespark along with Yext and BrightLocal. The main problem here is that most of these companies won’t “clean up” your local citations for a one-time fee; they want you on retainer, and accordingly, it could cost a significant sum to maintain all your local listings.
  • Hybrid Approach. The hybrid approach tries to make the best of both worlds. Most local citation cleanup providers will give you an audit of any current mistakes or inaccuracies about your business on the web for free in an effort to gain your business. Take advantage of this by pulling the report and tackling the cleanup manually (as long as you can stay sane doing it).

Thus far, you should have your onsite SEO in order (with locally relevant keywords throughout), your My Business page profile complete, your social media profiles claimed and completed, and your local citations cleaned up.

Congratulations! The upfront work is over. Depending on your competitive environment, there’s a chance you have emerged in the local 3-pack already.

Now, let’s take a look at the ongoing work that will improve your position (and help keep you there).

Ongoing Work

The frequency and intensity of your ongoing work depends on your goals, current position, and budget. For example, if you’re in a highly competitive environment and you want to dominate the 3-pack, you’ll have to build links and generate new content several times a week (possibly even daily). On the other hand, if you’re already at the top of the 3-pack and enjoying a steady stream of traffic, you can back off and use these as subtle maintenance projects.

Use your best judgment with the following techniques.

Local Link Building and Offsite SEO

When it comes to offsite SEO, local SEO follows most of the same rules that national SEO does. Links serve as the primary mechanism for passing authority to your domain. This means every relevant link pointing to your site will pass authority to you, making you seem more noteworthy to Google’s algorithms and thus more worthy of rank.

The keyword here is relevant.

You can’t just build any links you want, or else you’ll be penalized for spamming the community. Instead, at a minimum, all your links should be:

  • On high-authority sources. The bigger and better-established the source, the more authority the link will pass (and the safer it will be).
  • Relevant to your brand. The link should be tied to your industry somehow, either in relation to its surrounding content or in the source’s affiliation with your niche.
  • Anchored by contextually relevant content. Your anchor text should be descriptive of the page you’re linking to, and the link itself should be important to the content in which it’s provided (usually a guest post, press release, or other article).
  • Diversified. Point to different pages of your site, and use different sources to diversify your backlink profile.

The best way to build links is by naturally attracting them with great content. The second-best and most practical, efficient way is to build these links by posting offsite content.

I’m glossing over a very complex subject here, worthy of several guides on its own, but these are the basics you need to familiarize yourself with if you’re new to the strategy.

There’s one more point to offsite link building unique to local SEO, and it has to do with the relevance of your sources. Local sources, such as neighborhood forums, city newspapers, and locally exclusive organizations, serve as excellent sources for link building in a local SEO campaign. They’ll naturally add local relevance to your content, increase the local affiliations of your brand and site, and best of all—because they’re local, they’ll be easier targets for your link building strategy.

Local Content and Onsite SEO

Onsite SEO is another complex national SEO topic, but since it’s important to improve your authority over the long term, I want to go over some of the most important tenets:

  • Produce new content often and regularly. Google likes to see businesses who add new material to their site constantly. Aim for at least once a week to start out.
  • Write on topics your audience wants to read. How-tos, lists, “why” articles, and original research are especially popular, but dig deep into some market research to better understand what your demographics want.
  • Write clear, detailed content. Your content should be easy to read and packed with valuable details (not fluff).
  • Add other mediums. Writing isn’t enough—images and video can help increase your popularity.
  • Publish and syndicate your content. Spread the word about your content on social media and on other sites to spark an initial following.
  • Learn and adjust. Don’t stay still for too long.

Like with link building, these tips are ridiculously simplified for the sake of brevity. There’s also one more point important for local SEO exclusively: write locally relevant content.

Writing content relevant to your locale will give you a natural opportunity to add local keywords to your site (and attract local traffic as well). This will help you enter or remain in the 3-pack for longer. As for the locally relevant topics themselves, that’s up to you. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Attend a local event and write about it.
  • Detail your opinion on a new neighborhood development.
  • List the best businesses in your industry in your area.
  • Detail the specific challenges or opportunities your area provides to business owners.
  • Volunteer and write about the experience.
  • Host a public event and write content leading up to and following it.
  • Ask for local user submissions or conduct a local survey.

There’s nothing right or wrong here, as long as it’s relevant to your industry and your location.

Local Citation Building

Remember—the more local citations you have and the more complete they are, the better. Earlier, I helped you clean up your existing profile. This step is all about finding new opportunities for citations and taking them.

It takes some doing to hunt down new sources, especially after you’ve tapped some of the biggest channels. Leveraging an external resource (like one of the local citation audit providers above) can help point you in the right direction, but don’t rule out the idea of doing your own research.

Don’t be intimidated by the idea of setting yourself up on countless channels. Most citations are relatively easy to create. Hopefully, you’ve already claimed your Yelp profile, but use its add a new business feature as an example:

add a new business yelp

It should only take you a few minutes to fill out this form, and the verification process is pretty straightforward too. TripAdvisor is similarly simple:

List an attraction on TripAdvisor

Also, don’t forget to update your local citations if anything changes with your business. Getting a new name or new contact information published around the web is a real pain, but it’s necessary if you want to keep reaping the benefits of local visibility.

Review Optimization

There’s one more major element to your position in the top three that I’ve yet to discuss: online reviews.

Google uses the quality and quantity of online reviews of your business as a major determining factor for its 3-pack. That means it’s in your best interest to actively monitor anyplace your business might be reviewed, and do what you can to ensure the most, best reviews from your customers. This is especially true for Google Business reviews, as your star rating (and select reviews) may be visible in the local 3-pack when users search for businesses like yours.

Take a look at this search for “pizza near me”:

pizza near me

Would you prefer the pizza joint with a 4.4 rating and 29 reviews, or the one with a 3.6 rating and 7 reviews? Think about all the businesses with less than a 3 star rating that probably didn’t have a chance of ranking here. Bottom line: reviews are extremely important for local SEO, so don’t neglect them.

Here’s the main problem: most sites explicitly forbid companies from asking for reviews directly (or, more obviously, writing fake ones) in an effort to maximize the sincerity and value of all reviews. This is sensible, but it makes it hard to encourage good reviews when you can’t actually ask people for them.

Thankfully, there are a few tactics you can use to overcome this:

  • Prompt your customers with logos. You can’t ask for reviews directly, but you can let users know your business is available to review on external sites. For example, Yelp will give you free stickers to display your business listing, and you can publicize links to your business page on various external review sites.
  • Go overboard with customer service. The easy way to a great review is great customer service—go over the top. Add free services, give them your best, and be sure to follow-up—these are all standard business practices anyway.
  • Reply to reviews. With your business account, you’ll be able to respond to most reviews. Thank customers for going out of their way to review you, and apologize if something’s gone wrong. It will make you look good and encourage more people to voice their opinions.
  • Make up for bad experiences. Even good businesses slip up. When something goes wrong, remain patient, understanding, and submissive—never combative. Try to make up for the situation and definitely work to prevent it from recurring.
  • Learn from your reviews. Monitor both good and bad reviews, and tweak your business accordingly. Your customers know what they want—use that information and give it to them.
  • Get social. Show your personality on social media, and engage with your customers individually. Such personal interaction will encourage more reviews (and improve your brand reputation, too!)

With these ongoing steps, you’ll gradually start earning more and better reviews, and your authority will proportionately rise.

The Importance of Regular Audits

Even with your “one-time” work done and your ongoing strategy in place, it’s important to run occasional audits of your strategy for three reasons:

  • Your business can change. When your address, name, or other information changes, it’s easy to forget to update your local profile. An audit will help you catch these mistakes.
  • Weird things happen. Maybe your changes didn’t take, or maybe you accidentally built a bad backlink—weird, unexpected occurrences happen, and periodic audits will make sure they can’t hold you back (at least not for long).
  • Local SEO changes frequently. It wasn’t always a 3-pack for local searches. It used to be a 7-pack until last year. And before that, there was a local carousel. Google is always trying to give its searchers the best of everything, and that means overhauling its systems on a regular basis. It’s likely that most of the advice in this guide will remain practical for the next few years, but the format of local listings may change, and new best practices may emerge. Keep yourself plugged into SEO news, and don’t be afraid to change your strategy as necessary.

Of course, it’s also important to monitor your results—it’s hard to tell if your work is paying off unless you know you’re in the top three. When performing this test, be sure your local information is accurate, and run tests on multiple devices and browsers—cached data and personal accounts can sometimes interfere with the integrity of your tests.

Parting Thoughts

If you’ve followed everything in this guide closely and you remain committed to maintaining and improving the overall health of your local SEO campaign, you should have no trouble securing your place in the local 3-pack. And since local SEO shares much in common with national SEO, you’ll get some national ranking benefits as well.

The local SEO algorithm will undoubtedly change eventually. You could be displaced by a new competitor outperforming you. You could wind up with less traffic than you anticipated from this strategy, resulting in a negative or neutral ROI. These are all potential problems that can (and in some cases, inevitably will) come up, but these are topics for another guide.

In the meantime, check out the rest of our new-and-improved guide series, which can walk you through the details of almost any online marketing topic.

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Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is the Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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