Mar 06 2008

Take the Local Route

A regional strategy on keywords can help attract the right customers to your Web site.


Photo: Jenny Hopkins
Focusing keywords on select regions can help a company target its audience, says SEO expert Don Deveau of Register.com.

How many potential customers in your city are searching the Internet right now to find products or services just like the ones you offer? Google has in many cases replaced the Yellow Pages, not just for national services but also for local ones. It’s a common practice to append a search phrase with a local qualifier, such as “accounting firm Boston.” Yet surprisingly, few companies focus their efforts on ranking high for these localized search queries.


Not so for Pacific Shore Platinum. This luxury real estate broker in San Diego made localized search engine optimization (SEO) the cornerstone of its Web strategy. Working with a local SEO firm, TreeHouse, it modified its Web pages to emphasize local content. The site now ranks high in response to such searches that combine the word “luxury” with a location-based qualifier. In an industry where a new contact could be worth several thousand dollars, the company now draws 90 percent of its leads through organic search referrals from Internet search engines.

Rules of Attraction

“Focusing on localized keywords has really helped our business,” says Brett Combs, president of Pacific Shore Platinum. “Overall, our revenue has doubled in 2007. Our Web presence and our organic rankings have played a huge role in that.”

Local SEO absolutely makes sense for small to midsize businesses. As searchers become more sophisticated, locale is increasingly important. If you’re engaging in SEO, you want to first and foremost attract the customers that are closest to home. Going local lets you focus on your market and use proximity to your advantage.

Close-to-home opportunities abound. Bob Kanoff, vice president of MemoryStore.com in Montgomeryville, Pa., recalls one particularly memorable lead that came through their Web site. An employee of the Federal Aviation Administration had been searching online, looking for a supplier to support a major memory upgrade of the thousands of servers controlling national airspace. He found MemoryStore.com through a Google search, and before long Kanoff was bidding against IBM for the attractive contract. Kanoff’s ace in the hole? Location, location, location. His company was literally just down the road from the FAA’s headquarters.

“One of the key factors in their deciding on us was our proximity,” he says.

Operational efficiency aside, focusing on a local audience also greatly enhances the potential impact of your effort. When you focus your SEO effort on specific regions, your chance of success increases dramat­ically. Don Deveau, the SEO expert at Register.com, a domain-name registrar and Web hosting service, regards location as a valuable way to reduce competition. He points out that a generic search phrase, “boat rentals,” returns 1.89 million results on Google, while a localized search phrase, “cape cod boat rentals,” returns just 383,000. “If you opti­mize your page for that particular phrase, then not only will you narrow your competition but you will also attract that targeted market of searchers who specifically want to rent a boat on Cape Cod,” he says.

Five Pointers

Deveau sees SEO as an essential part of the small-business marketing toolkit for companies that want to develop an online presence. Here are some simple steps he recommends to help you cater to a local crowd.

• Target regional keywords: There’s not much point in optimizing your site for search phrases such as “cape cod boat rentals” unless you know for certain that people are actually using this phrase in their search. It’s also important to know what similar queries are being used and which are the most popular. For example, is “cape cod yacht rental” a better choice? Keyword selection tools let you look up potential search phrases and check actual search volume in a given month.

A good keyword research program lets you know which regional qualifiers potential customers are actually using to search for the products or services that you offer. Once you have this information, you can begin to compare the search volume of these keywords against the number of competing pages. You may find that some phrases are searched regularly, but there are surprisingly few search results returned for that phrase. If you find medium to high search volume on a regional phrase and also few competing pages from other sites, you’ve very likely found an excellent opportunity to bring in some highly qualified local traffic.

• Localize your content: It’s hard to be relevant in search results for local phrases if you don’t actually include those phrases somewhere on your site. “Make sure that the phrase ‘Cape Cod boat rentals’ is well-represented within the copy of your Web page,” Deveau says.

Also, make sure that your keyword phrase is included in the Meta area for all relevant pages, specifically in the Keywords section and the Description section, but most importantly as the centerpiece of your Meta Title.

• Find local links: The quality of your site’s inbound links is a huge factor in how search engines rank your Web pages relative to others. If your focus is on the local market, you can benefit from creating a strong network of link partners within your region. This will boost your relevance with those regionally targeted search phrases. Of course, there’s also a good chance that these links will send some local traffic your way. Deveau recommends online business directories such as yellowpages.com, Yahoo yellow pages and Verizon Superpages. He also recommends free online classified ad services such as craigslist.org and hoobly.com. And don’t forget to list your business with services such as Google Local Business Center, which creates a Google Map listing.

• Geo-target pay-per-click: Marketers generally spend far too much on pay-per-click advertising compared with what they spend improving their organic search rankings. Many are following Combs’ example, shifting emphasis away from PPC to organic listings, and they’re seeing great results. “Most people aren’t clicking on the paid ads anymore; they’re going right below to the organic listings,” he says. “So we’re taking money away from paid search and moving into our organic campaign.”

Still, when it comes to targeting a geographically defined audience, it’s tough to beat the precision of pay-per-click advertising. Using the Google AdWords or Yahoo Search Marketing programs, you can define your advertising region by country, by city, or by defining a targeted radius on a map. Consider PPC as a useful complement as you ramp up your organic SEO efforts.

• Monitor and adjust: Your Web analysis tools offer valuable insight into the location of your site visitors. Use these reports to pinpoint your visitors on a map, noting key hot spots. You may find clusters of visitors coming from outside your target market. Try cross-referencing visitors from these locations with the referring source to determine what is driving these referrals. If you are tracking online conversions, such as the completion of a contact form or an online sale, be sure to segment conversion data by location so you will know how your site is performing with the customers who count most.

By taking these steps early, you can achieve better search rankings from your SEO campaign and, more important, attract an audience from the right locale.

Dan Skeen is director of search engine marketing for Quarry Integrated Communications (www.quarry.com) in Waterloo, Ontario.