For a long time, small businesses struggled with search marketing, because to succeed, they had to specialize, rather than being all things to all people in a local area. That's still good advice, but changes in how people use search (and in how search engines work) are suddenly making your location every bit as important as your specialty, at least for some businesses.
I've been talking for years about how businesses need to avoid the trap of thinking that being local will help them in search marketing. Just a few months ago, I beat that drum again, in urging that small businesses specialize on the Web. And that advice isn't wrong, because most searches are not focused on location, and if you want to win those customers, you need to do something special.
But that advice is increasingly incomplete.
Every week another shoe drops on local search--search queries that provide different results based on the searcher's location. Time was that searchers needed to type in a location to get a truly local search ("plumber in cleveland" or "dentist 90210"). Then the search engines started noticing the location of your computer using its IP address, and targeted paid ads and later organic searches based on where you are now, without you typing anything special into the search box. So, if you are in Cleveland, you just need to type "plumber" and you'll see local search results and local ads.
But now it is getting even more interesting. As more and more searchers are using their mobile phones, the kinds of searches they do are changing. Now they are likely to search for "coffee" or "office supplies" or any number of things that they need while driving or walking around. This makes being local again the most important thing, without any need for specialization at all.
As iPhones, Android phones, and other newer phones make it simple to search for things nearby (Google just announced its "Near Me Now" service), you can expect mobile search usage to increase dramatically in the next few years.
So how can local businesses make sure they are found? Start by trying out some searches yourself. Start first with your computer, but then try your phone, too. Ask your geeky friends to help you by searching on their phones when they are near your location so you see what they see. Different phones have different apps; different carriers have different default search engines; different locations will provide different results. And as personalized results become more common, different people will get different results, too.
So, yes, it's not that easy to check thoroughly, but you are better off checking in an imperfect way that looking at nothing at all (and just hoping that it goes well). And there are ways for you to help yourself:
- Use location words. It doesn't hurt to make sure your address is in your footer of every Web page and that you use other location words to describe your business ("Cuyahoga County" or "greater Cleveland area" or "northern Ohio," depending on how widely you draw customers from.
- But don't overdo location words. Be honest with yourself. No one is going to travel an hour for coffee, but they might do so to get their classic car repaired. Make sensible choices about your real drawing area.
- Use local listing resources. You should make sure you are listed in as many Internet Yellow Pages directories as you can (most are free) but you can also use a free service such as GetListed.org to quickly show you how your business fares in local search, and help you make the moves needed to improve.
- Don't ignore reviews. Yelp and other review sites have long been consulted by the savvy local shopper, but you should expect reviews to be increasingly built into the regular search experience. Google might have been rebuffed in its attempts to acquire Yelp, but you should expect every search engine to provide reviews in its searh results.
So, while that car repair shop still needs to trumpet its specialty (classic car repair) to draw customers from a wider area, focusing also on very local search might snag the motorist whose car just broke down a mile from the location of the shop. For that customer, it's still location, location, location.