By John Eberhard

I was recently talking to a guy who was interested in getting a new web site created. One of the questions he asked was “What about SEO (search engine optimization)?”

At that point my first question to him was “Is your business a local business?” Because if it is a local business, that changes the priorities of what you need to do in order to get your business to appear on search engines.

The Local Business

We will define a local business as any business that services customers or clients mainly or only in one city or metro area. Some examples are restaurants, dentists, chiropractors, doctors, or home improvement companies.

Google Maps, also called Google Places, has completely changed the landscape of search engine ranking and appearance for local businesses. Google started Google Maps a bit over a year ago.

Now, for any type of local search where Google can see that it is a local type of listing, it shows Google Maps information. That consists of a map (with red balloons showing where the local businesses in this category appear) which now appears in the right hand column, and individual listings, marked with a red balloon, in the wider left hand column.

Google typically displays 8-10 listings on the first page. This means essentially that for a local type of listing, like “dentist Glendale” or “restaurant Sylmar” (or even just “restaurant,” because Google knows what city you’re in) the Google Maps information completely dominates the first page.

So that really changes the picture of what a local business needs to do to rank well on Google. Instead of trying to rank well on Google’s organic (non-paid) listings for a term like “Italian restaurant,” in which you would be competing with other Italian restaurants worldwide, you now just have to get your restaurant appearing in Google Maps, and you just have to compete with other Italian restaurants in your local city.

So what do you have to do to get a listing on Google Maps and compete effectively with other local businesses in your area?

  1. First of all you have to get a listing on Google Maps. Just because you have a Gmail account or Google AdWords or AdSense or Google Analytics account does NOT necessarily mean you automatically have a Google Maps account. If there is one up there (Google put up thousands of listings for businesses) then you have to claim it. There is a procedure for how to do that.
  2. Next you have to get a lot of what are called “citations.” These are essentially listings of your business on other sites, like Yahoo Maps, Bing Maps, Yelp, Hotfrog, and others. This helps to push your Google Maps listing toward the top. And believe me, in some cities and in some industries, there is a lot of competition.
  3. Get lots of online reviews. These are where someone goes to one of the review sites, logs in or signs up for an account there, and writes a review on your business. For example, you have to have a Gmail or AdWords or Analytics or other type of Google account to write a review on Google. For an idea of how many reviews you need to get, look at the businesses that are showing up in your industry and in your area, on page one of Google Maps listings, and see how many reviews they have. We have developed systems to help clients get online reviews.

Regional or National Businesses

For regional or national businesses, the way to get your business to appear high on search engines, is either through:

  1. Search engine optimization and link building, or
  2. Pay per click advertising

Search engine optimization (SEO) is something you do once, or every three years or so. First you do research on potential keywords, and find ones that have decent amount of people searching for them, but a low number of sites competing for them. This usually ends up being what we call “long tail keywords,” meaning more detailed keyword phrases of more than one word. In most cases, single word keywords will have very high competition and you just won’t be able to compete or rank well for them.

Next you select the best keywords to work on, and put those into appropriate places on the pages of your web site, including into the titles and descriptions that appear on Google when your organic listing comes up.

Next you have to build up links to your web site on other web sites. Google says the number of links to your web site from other sites is the most important criteria for how well your site will rank for any given keywords. This does not mean writing to webmasters and offering to trade links. That is called reciprocal link building and Google discounted the value of it over three years ago. Amazingly some consultants still recommend it and do it.

The best ways we have found to do link building are:

  1. Writing articles on your topic and submitting them to article directories. We have ways of making each one count as more than one link.
  2. Writing press releases about your company and submitting them to online PR sites and putting them on blogs
  3. Setting up accounts on free blogs and posting your articles and press releases on all of them, including several keywords in each article or release that are linked back to your site

So the first thing you have to do is determine if your business is local, regional or national. That will then define your direction for search engines.