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.
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”:
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):
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:
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:
Now look what happens when I search for “taco bar near me,” a more specific query:
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?
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:
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.
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:
With that said, let’s focus on actually achieving those goals.
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.
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
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.
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.
The process is pretty straightforward, but you’ll want to follow these best practices:
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.
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:
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):
There are three main ways you can do this:
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).
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
There’s nothing right or wrong here, as long as it’s relevant to your industry and your location.
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:
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:
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.
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”:
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:
With these ongoing steps, you’ll gradually start earning more and better reviews, and your authority will proportionately rise.
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:
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.
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.