Google has attempted to improve local search, with a particular eye on mobile devices. Google Places and Google+ verifications have helped pinpoint business locations. If you're driving in an unfamiliar area and want sushi, it's very helpful to have all of the sushi locations displayed in Google Maps or Places. Many businesses have benefited immensely from local search, while others have lost all of their rankings online for the city their customers reside in.
Very small businesses seem to have been hardest hit. (I had one client recently verify his Google+ business page address and lose all of his rankings for his target city within a few hours of entering the 5 digit PIN number he received in the mail.) Many owners run their companies from their homes in the suburbs and travel into the city to meet with clients. Their website was optimized for the target city, and pre-Panda/Penguin they were successful in securing first page rankings in Google for that region. Now, with a heavy focus on local search, Google is ranking their site for their residence/mailing address instead of the area they actually service, no matter how many times they've mentioned the target city or cities in their content.
I've taken a particular interest in SEO companies that advertise that they are “local search” experts. These have appeared everywhere in response to the algorithm changes that already heavily favor local businesses. Getting a website ranked well for a West Vancouver company that is physically located in West Vancouver, and already is listed in Google Maps and Places, is an easy gig. The task that has become increasingly more difficult is getting a business located 80 – 100 km away, in another suburb city, ranked well. And earning top ranking positions for multiple cities, all outside of the geographic location Google has associated with the business, adds significantly to the challenge.
Most of our clients are in the small business sector, so this is something we work with every day. I can't say that we've got it all figured out, but we have come to some conclusions as far as what's working and what is not.
What's not working
1. Spammy regional links in sidebars, footers and site map pages
If your site currently has any of these links, with the target city in the anchor text, you'll want to remove them ASAP. I'm talking about anchor text like “Seattle widgets”, “Seattle widget service”, “Seattle widget installations”… followed by “Bellevue widgets”, “Bellevue widget service”, “Bellevue widget installations”… followed by Kirkland widgets”, “Kirkland widget service”, “Kirkland widget installations”, etc., etc.
2. Multiple websites on different domains, essentially displaying almost duplicate content but with a different city featured on each site
These once worked quite well, each optimized for a unique city. It wasn't uncommon to have several sites from one company come up in the search results for one query :-). More recently, we've experienced almost immediate ranking gains on the primary site as soon as the satellite sites were eliminated. Once an asset, they have now become a liability. (I'll discuss an alternative solution further in the article.)
3. Purchasing domains with target cities in the URLs and redirecting them all to one website
I don't believe this one ever worked. When we take on a new client where the domain name spam strategy has been employed, the first thing we do is kill all of the redirects and park the domains.
4. Hammering your target city in the anchor text of a big link building campaign
This is definitely not a good idea. Trying to undo the damage resulting from pursuing a quick fix can seriously slow down your recovery. Things would likely get a lot worse before they could improve.
5. Creating pages of nearly duplicate content for each of the cities you service
Even if the content is reworked somewhat, the similarity with other pages within your site makes it low quality content at best, duplicate content at the worst.
What has been working
1. City sub-sites in subdomains
In the root website we include all of the standard content like About Us, Services and Contact Us pages. We also include the blog in the core site. Each target city is represented by a sub-site in a subdomain. For example, to target “Vancouver” the sub-site would be http://vancouver.domainname.com.
In each city sub-site we build a Case Studies section. In this example, we get as many case studies as possible from the Vancouver area. The address of each project is added to the sidebar and we include the city in the title. We also include the project start and end dates and an embedded Google Map pinpointing the location. We've been adding photo galleries of other project work completed in that city. A Testimonials page, featuring comments by only customers from that city, is helpful. We then link the case studies to testimonials by the clients represented. We take questions customers from that area have asked by email and create Q&A pages. There can also be a Reviews page, again featuring only customers from the represented area. If there are products or services offered that are unique to the area, a page or two will cover those. Landing pages for special offers to people in the represented area are also put in the appropriate sub-site. AdWords campaigns target cities and link to landing pages in the applicable sub-site.
Every time we add new content in a sub-site, a blog post in the core site features the project, with a mention of the city, and it links to associated pages within the applicable sub-site. Tags used throughout the site architecture help Google index all of the content and understand the content hierarchy. Social media in support of the blog post indirectly references the content in the city sub-site.
If all of this sounds like a huge project, it is. With several target cities, it can take weeks or months to set up the WordPress Multisite application for several subdomains (We have tried three different CMS platforms. TheWordPress Multisite platform has proven the best suited for this approach.), configure Google Analytics to track the subdomain traffic and update all of the links for proper multi-subdomain tracking.
Is it worth it? Within a few months, we've been showing ranking increases for each city on the projects we've applied this strategy to.
What I love about this approach is that there's nothing contrived, black or even grey hat about it. All we're doing is taking the time to demonstrate to Google that our client has in fact been doing business in the various areas for some time. I understand why Google wants to rank companies that have set up shop in a geographical region at the top. Our experience would suggest that they are not against also giving favorable rankings to companies that demonstrate that this is where they do business, even if there's no physical location to plot.
2. Blogging and posting to social channels regularly, preparing ‘news' for each of the target cities every week
Social media posts and other inbound links all mention the city in the context of the project, deep linking into the applicable city sub-site. Video testimonials and project features can be published in the blog and on sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
Avoid location spamming. We mention the city only once in each post, to legitimately establish the geographic location.
SEO is not an exact science. Methods can be controversial. I also recognize that there are many roads that lead to Rome. I welcome the comments of other SEOs and content marketers that are facing this challenge. How have you worked around local search, when it's working against your client?