In the last decade or so, local small businesses have experienced a fundamental shift in the way customers find them.
Print advertising, yellow page listings, and outdoor advertising—while still relevant in some cases—have gone by the wayside.
In their place, we have the most advanced discovery engine ever created: the internet. Savvy local business owners shifted with their customers, prioritizing increasing local search ranking via engine optimization (SEO), conducting internet advertising, and participating in social media.
However, between the pandemic and advances in technology, things have changed again, and will continue to do so whether or not local businesses are prepared.
Local search in 2023
The internet has grown more fragmented as a content discovery engine. Consider the following innovations, and their impact on small business discovery.
Searching on the go
Instead of conducting a Google search on a desktop computer, many people simply reach for their phone or tablet.
Key stat: as of spring 2021, 97% of people in the U.S. owned a smart phone (Pew Research Center)
As of fall 2022, 76% of US adults surveyed by Pew reported using their phone to buy online.
Is your website optimized for mobile users?
Most newer mobile devices come equipped with voice recognition software (such as Apple's Siri), allowing users to search without typing.
Key stat: Even back in 2019, "A study conducted by Uberall found that 21% of respondents were using voice search on a weekly basis" (Search Engine Watch via Backlinko).
Does your website have content optimized for the way people talk?
Organic search ranking is less important
Google increasingly emphasizes (formerly "Google My Business") Google Business Profile-based results and (of course) paid results at the top of its results pages for local searches. Just look at the results for the local search "plumbers madison wi:"
The first unpaid, plain blue link result doesn't appear until nearly half way down the page, well after the "above-the-fold" area.
Key Stat: in 2021, local SEO pros surveyed by Whitespark believed that Google Business Profile-related factors accounted for 36% of your ability to rank in Google Maps results like the ones above.
Is your business investing in a marketing strategy that includes optimization of Google Business Profile and paid results?
Local online business directories like Yelp and TripAdvisor allow consumers to bypass traditional search engines entirely. They also provide platforms for users to leave reviews to help other users make buying decisions.
Key stat: Back in 2019, a study by Uberall found that 97% of local businesses "fail to list their business information properly" on listing sites like Google Business Profile and Yelp.
Have you claimed and optimized your directory listings?
5 ways keep up in local search in 2023
1. Claim and optimize your business' Google Business Profile (GBP).
If you only do one thing to improve your local search ranking in 2023, do this.
Google is pretty good at guessing where and what your business is, but the more information you provide Google via GBP, the better chance you have of it showing up in Google Maps, Google Search and Google AdWords.
GBP also allows you to manage your Google reviews, which I'll discuss next.
2. Get your current customers to review your business on Google and other directory sites.
By now you probably know online customer reviews on Google Business Profile and other review sites can go a long way toward encouraging other internet users to give you their business.
But did you know reviews also play a role in local search rankings? According to one survey, local search experts were focusing more on earning quality Google reviews in 2021, and voted negative Google reviews, reports of fake reviews on your profile, and reports of soliciting only positive reviews among the top 20 factors that could hurt your search rankings.
You can see why it's considered a local SEO best practice to properly ask customers for reviews, tactfully respond to positive and negative feedback, and report fake reviews or ones that violate platform guidelines.
3. Consider content marketing and setting up a business blog.
Especially in industries where customers tend to do a lot of research about the problem they're trying solve before contacting a local business (I'm looking at you, law firms), content marketing can be a huge boon to local businesses.
Successful business owners are, by nature, very familiar with the questions their customers have about them. If potential customers ask you a lot of questions, they probably ask Google quite a few more.
If you're publishing blog posts and other content that answers these questions, this can help your customers find you and generate goodwill.
Google ultimately wants to give its users the best possible experience. Publishing great content gives Google an opportunity to do that, via your website.
4. Make sure your business' social media profiles are easy to find and updated with fresh content.
Social media channels provide a great way for local businesses to communicate with existing customers and spread their business information around the internet where more potential customers can encounter it.
If you've decided to publish blog posts or other content on your site, social posts are also an easy way to promote them, which could draw more traffic to your site.
5. Build out business citations in directories and elsewhere on the web.
Before the days when local businesses were expected to have a web presence, Google used the number of citations—a fancy way of referring to anywhere on the internet a business' name and address show up—from authoritative sources as a factor in determining how credible a business was.
While citations are less critical for SEO than in past years, according to Whitespark's survey, they still are an asset today.
Creating accurate, complete, and up-to-date business citations can offer the following benefits:
- Potentially better search visibility
- Future customers can find and contact you from a number of sites
- Decreases the risk of someone coming across outdated information, a poor review that went publicly unaddressed, or unchallenged spam reviews that could hurt your reputation
To make sure your ducks are in a row, you can:
- Seek out business directories, chamber of commerce websites and other pages that include your name and address
- Update them completely with your business' information
- Ensure this information is exactly the same from citation to citation.