Search engine optimization for small and very small businesses.

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How to Improve Local Rankings in Google

Local search rankings are critical to local businesses

Increase your local search visibility on Google.

If you’re a local business, how you rank in local search can make or break your business. If you’re not showing up in Google when people search for what you do, your competitors are eating your lunch. That’s why it’s important to understand how to improve local rankings in Google and stay competitive.

It’s important to understand that there are two different local rankings in Google: the Local 3-Pack and the organic listings. The 3-Pack is the map with (typically) three local businesses beneath it corresponding to map pin icons on the map. The organic listings are typically beneath the Local 3-Pack and are the most common rankings customers consider.

These two parts of a local search result are determined by different factors. What’s most important to show up in the Local 3-Pack isn’t the same as what’s most important to show up in the local organic results. Let’s take them one at a time.

Google's Local 3-Pack for "near me" searches. To show up here, you need to improve local rankings in Google.

Google’s Local 3-Pack

Ranking factors for the Local 3-Pack

#1 Google My Business

This is the most important factor here. Critical to success here is making sure your category is correct, that your NAP (name, address, phone) is consistent with what’s on your your website, and that you’ve filled out as much information as possible. This may be the most important step you can take to improve local rankings in Google.

Related: Don’t Show Up Missing on Google My Business!

#2 Reviews and Citations

Positive online reviews are next in line. Make sure you have reviews on your Google My Business page. And not just review stars, but informational reviews; Google considers review comments important. 9 of 10 people trust online reviews. So does Google.Get reviews on a good number of other sites, too. Facebook, Yelp, DexKnows, SuperPages and CitySearch are good ones. Also any vertical directories you’re listed on.  You can suggest that delighted customers review at some of these places. You also need to monitor any reviews you get and respond to them whenever possible. A positive customer-focused response to a mediocre review can leave a very positive impression.

Related: How to Get Online Reviews

Citations that are consistent widely across the web gives Google confidence in your location and phone number. Consistency is critical because if a number of your listings have a previous address, some have a local number and others a toll-free number or fax number, Google isn’t confident which is right. If Google isn’t sure, it’s much less likely to rank you highly.

Related: Understand Common Citation Myths

#3 On-page SEO

This relates to making sure your website is secure, fast, and thoroughly Google-friendly. Make sure keyword placement is appropriate so that Google can tell clearly what each page is all about, and studiously avoid keyword stuffing.

Related: On-Page Optimization

The better your link profile, the higher your domain authority - and the higher you'll rank in Google results.#4 Domain Authority and your link profile

Your authority across the web informs Google about how important your website is. A commonly used measure of this is the Moz Domain Authority. It’s derived from a number of factors, the most important being your link profile: the number and quality of other websites linking to you.

Ranking factors for local organic listings

#1 On-page SEO

This is the same as #3 above for Local 3-Pack listings. It’s just more important for your organic ranking. It’s clearly indispensable for showing up in both parts of the search results.

#2 Domain Authority

See factor #4 above under the Local 3-Pack.

#3 Behavioral factors

A number of behavioral factors can affect your organic rankings in Google. They include the following.

  • Click through rate reflects the number of searchers exposed to your listing on a search engine results page (SERP) who actually click on your listing. They have looked at your page title and description and concluded that it’s a good match for what they’re looking for.Google's Local 3-Pack for "near me" searches. To show up here, you need to improve local rankings in Google.
  • Mobile clicks to call are possible only for mobile searchers, since you can’t click to call on a computer. But when someone finds you in a search on their phone and clicks to call you, it’s a very concrete message to Google that your page is an excellent result for that search. The more that happens, the better.
  • Bounce rate is related to the click through rate. For either to happen, the searcher needs an impression – you need to show up on the SERP for their search. A bounce occurs when someone is on a SERP with your listing and clicks on you but immediately bounces back to the search results to pick someone else instead of exploring your site. That’s a negative ranking factor. They clearly did not like your page or determined it wasn’t a good match for what they were looking for. And Google understands that.
  • The longer someone spends on your site, the more Google assumes they liked what they found there.Time onsite is something that Google tracks and most people aren’t aware of it. When someone clicks on your site and stays there awhile, perhaps exploring additional pages on your website, that tells the search engines that your site was an excellent match for that search. The longer they spend on your site, the more good information they must’ve found there. That makes you look really good in Google’s eyes, and will help you rank higher in the future.

#4 Reviews and citations

See#2 under the Local 3-Pack above. These are important to your rankings in both the organic results and the Local 3-Pack.

To improve local rankings in Google, you really need to pay attention to every one of the above ranking factors.

Facing challenges with your local search rankings? Start or join a discussion below.

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Google’s New Ranking Factor: Page Experience

Google to focus on user experience as a ranking factor.Google’s next big algorithm change for Page Experience is planned for launch next year. It will measure user enjoyment of web pages using both old and new specific ranking factors, grouped into a page experience score. Google explains it:

The page experience signal measures aspects of how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page. Optimizing for these factors makes the web more delightful for users across all web browsers and surfaces, and helps sites evolve towards user expectations on mobile. We believe this will contribute to business success on the web as users grow more engaged and can transact with less friction.

So what are these page experience factors?

I’ve broken them down into nine discrete thing that a small business owner needs to address on your website.  Let’s hit them one at a time.

Your site needs to be responsive and mobile friendly

A responsive site is one that adapts to the device it’s showing up on. If you open up your site in a browser and change the width of the browser window, the display of the website should respond to that. If you make the browser window narrower, you shouldn’t see it cut off the right edge of paragraphs.

Bring mobile-friendly is no longe an option. Most searches are done from phones now.This is it really obvious on a phone. Your website should look  different on a phone than it does on a desktop computer. But you don’t want to have a separate mobile-only websites like some people did in the early days of the smart phone. You want the same information available on a phone that’s available on a computer, since Google is using a mobile-first index. If your mobile site is abbreviated and has less content in an effort to more easily fit on a phone, that’s the version of your site Google will index and rank. You want one website that can display differently on a computer and a phone. That way the same information is available regardless of how a customer is looking at it.

Also in terms of being mobile-friendly, it’s important that tap targets, links, buttons and so forth, are large enough and far enough apart to make it easy to tap them. If they’re too close together, your fingers are likely to hit two at once and that provides a poor user experience. The size of your text also may need to be different on a phone so that it’s easy to read.

Page speed

Page speed is important: all else being equal, a fast page will outrank a slow page.Page speed refers to how many seconds it takes for a page on your website to download into a user’s browser or phone. Google likes to see a web page that displays on your phone or in your computer within 2½  seconds. Fully displaying in 4 seconds is considered adequate, but any longer than that and Google considers it to offer a poor experience.

From a practical matter, we live in an age of impatience. If someone clicks on your listing in search results and drums their fingers while they’re waiting for to load, they may give up before it finishes loading and go back to the Google search results. They are there likely to click on another listing and that “bounce” tells Google that they didn’t like what they found on your site. Not only did you lose a potential customer, but it’s likely to hurt your rankings in the future.

Visual stability

All across the web they are calling this “cumulative layout shift” or CLS. Let your web designer worry about those terms, but don’t  let this jargon intimidate you. What this refers to is things jumping around on your screen as a page loads. It can be very annoying, as you can see on the website Media Bias Fact Check. Google considers this a poor page experience and if it’s happening on your website, your rankings will suffer for it.

Avoid 404 errors

404-error-page-not-foundWhen a user tries to go to a page that isn’t where they think it is, they get a 404 Page Not Found error. If there are links on your site that point incorrectly to content on you’re website, your shooting yourself in the foot. It’s a poor user experience if you send your users to pages that aren’t there. It’s important to scan your website and make sure you clear up any of those.

Beyond that, though, there may be malformed links on other websites or links on those sites that point to pages you have since eliminated or moved. Those 404 errors are pretty much unavoidable. But you can improve the user experience of them with a custom 404 page. Unlike the default 404 error your browser provides, if you have a custom 404 page it’s formatted just like your website so users know that they haven’t been completely lost. Many websites treat this with a little bit of humor and offer to help the misled user to find what they’re looking for via a search option or a link to your site map.

Security is important

HTTPS padlock icon

Is your website secure? Google is on a mission to improve security across the web, and as a result it tends to give a ranking advantage to secure websites. If your website URL starts with HTTP:// then it’s not secure. Secure websites start with HTTPS:// and insecure websites are flagged when they show up in Chrome. Many people will see the “Not secure” indicator in the address bar of their browser and mistake it to mean that the site is dangerous. You certainly don’t want that for your own website.

If your website is insecure, our blog post from a couple of years ago may help. It’s entitled Make Your Small Business Website Secure with HTTPS.

Avoid intrusive interstitials

Boy, that’s a mouthful. Intrusive interstitials refers to those annoying pop-ups that block most or all of the page content when you arrive on the page. You may have run into them when loading certain websites with an ad blocking plug-in in your browser. Very often they pop up to ask you to subscribe to a newsletter, and so forth. They provide an annoying user interface, and Google doesn’t like them for that very reason.

Not all pop-ups are bad; just those that are intrusive, blocking too much content.

Readability

Writing readable text The Internet expression TL:DR has become popular lately. It means “Too Long: Didn’t Read”. If your web page is too long or too dense and intimidating, people may leave before they digest what you’re trying to say. That doesn’t mean you need to have short pages with little content on them. On the contrary. But you can reduce the density of the page with effective implementation of images and white space.

You also want to avoid sounding pedantic because it takes too much effort on the part of your reader. The Yoast SEO plug-in for WordPress has a very valuable feature in that it will assess the readability of your content and offer suggestions to make it more approachable.

Employ clear headings and subheadings

Clear headings and subheadings can go a long way toward making your material less intimidating. Users can scan the page to find the precise portion of the page they are most interested in. Odds are you scanned this page’s headings before deciding to read it. And by employing proper heading tags in the code of your page, you help Google more easily understand your page, and that can only help in your rankings.

Don’t forget CTAs

Include a Call To Action on your page for best reaults.A CTA is a Call to Action and is critical in getting your users to take the action you want them to. If you’ve ever ordered a burger at a fast food joint, the cashier almost certainly asked you “do you want fries with that?” They sell a hell of a lot more fries because they ask.

So if you want someone to call you or to sign up for your newsletter, or to buy something, you need to ask them to do just that. The easiest CTAs to see are buttons, but you can also employ text-only calls to action if that fits your purposes better.

Page experience is important in so many ways

A good page experience will entice more people to read what you have to say, will keep them  engaged and on your page longer, That will reduce your bounce rate and increase your time-on-page, and thus will increase conversions as more people click on your calls to action. Not only that, but Google will like your page better and rank it higher.

Get ready for Google’s upcoming Page Experience algorithm update by improving the user experience across your website now.

Facing challenges with your page experience? Start a discussion below.

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How to Avoid a Google Penalty

Oops! Don't run afoul of a Google penalty.Some “Google Penalties” Aren’t

Colloquially, the term “Google penalty” , usually means anything on your website that is harming your rankings. According to Google, though, a “penalty” is a manual action taken by Google that negatively affects your rankings.

Manual Penalties

These are real “penalties”. If you get hit with a manual penalty, you should see evidence from that in your Google Search Console. Normally Google will identify exactly what you’ve done that they don’t like. So obviously, you should fix whatever that might be.

Google penalties will reduce your online visibility and traffic.

Once you’ve fixed the offending practice on your site, you can ask Google to re-index your site with the corrective actions implemented. Normally that will restore you to Google’s good graces and eliminate the penalty. This doesn’t happen immediately, though, and you can expect the delay of possibly weeks before you see your rankings improve.

Algorithm penalties

There are a number of things that might happen on your website that can negatively affect your rankings without incurring a manual penalty. I call those algorithm penalties because they’re just a normal result of Google’s algorithms evaluating the content on your site. Here are a few of the most common ones.

  • Free hosting services
    • If you’re cutting costs by using a free hosting service, there is one common attribute of those that can get you in trouble with Google. That’s when the hosting service compensates for the free service they’re giving you by adding advertising to your web pages. Some of  that advertising may be pretty spammy, and Google is not likely to be happy with it.
  • Malware
    • If your website has been infected by any viruses, trojans, or spyware, you’ll get hit with one of these penalties. Make sure your website is malware-free. The GlobalSign blog has some excellent suggestions on how to find malware on your site and how to protect against it. You can check that out here.
  • Thin content
    • Many websites for visually oriented businesses overly rely on images on their pages and have very little text. Those photos or graphics could be pictures of your pet cat as far as Google can tell. Google can read the alternate text behind your images (you do have that, right?), but other than that images do little to help Google understand what your page is about.
    • Aside from that, if you’re overly concerned about brevity on your pages, you can run into the same problem. If there’s too little text content on your pages, regardless of why, you may be penalized for thin content.
    • You can also run into those pages being considered “duplicate content” if the actual body content of the page pales in size with other elements on the page that are common to all pages on your website (think footers, sidebars, and so forth). In this caseyou may be facing the plagiarism penalty (see below).
  • Keyword stuffing
    • This is an ancient SEO technique to make sure your targeted keyword phrase appears many times on the page. This used to work with some early search engines. But it provides a very poor user experience for those trying to read your content. Google is smart enough to identify that and consider it a negative ranking factor. I still see this from time to time.
  • Plagiarism
    • Duplicate dogs are fine. Duplicate content? Not so much.If you copied significant amounts of content from another website (even if you own that other website) Google considers it to be duplicate content. Google is excellent at identifying duplicate content and will usually try to show only the oldest of those duplicate pages. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that there is little benefit to the user if Google shows a bunch of pages that all say the same thing. So Google doesn’t do that. If the content on your page is not original, it may never show up in Google search results.
    • I see this sometimes on websites designed by vertical web services. These are companies that specialize in a particular kind of businesses like handyman services, dental practices, plumbers, etc. The often have lots of excellent pre-written content about the kinds of services these businesses provide. One problem with this is that many other businesses in your niche may use the same pre-written content that ends up on your website. Bingo: you have duplicate content! If you use such a company, please ensure that the content they put on your pages is unique to you.

We can help!

If you’re concerned that you might be at risk for some of these penalties, give us a call. We can review your website with you over the phone at no cost and help you understand any potential issues that may be lurking there.

We value your opinions! Let us know what you think of this in the comments below.

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How to Get Online Reviews

How to Get Online Reviews

How important our online review stars?

How important is it to get online reviews?

For more on the value of online reviews, see our infographic.

People use online reviews to pick a business

When searching online, people really do take online reviews into accout when deciding which listing to click on. For example, if you were looking for an Indian restaurant in Lake George, NY, this local 3-pack might well convince you to drive ½ hour south to Sarasota Springs. But if that’s too far, it’s an easy choice between the two local restaurants.

Avoid phony reviews

There’s an understandable temptation to sort of start the ball rolling by writing a review for yourself. Or to make up for a mediocre average star rating by creating some 5-star reviews.

Don’t do it.

Here are a few things to avoid – don’t do any of them:

How to get online reviews

I strongly encourage all small businesses to actively get online reviews. They can make all the difference between just getting found on Google and getting chosen.

What are third party reviews?

Third party reviews are reviews on websites other than your own. Reviews on your own website are referred to as first party reviews. I have no clue what second party reviews might be.

Some of the most powerful third-party review sites include Google My Business, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yelp. You may like our post about whether Yelp reviews really help.

If a potential customer already knows your company name and looks you up by that, you are very likely to show up in the Knowledge Card at the top right of Google’s SERP (Search Engine Results Page). When that happens, your average review stars from Google My Business are clearly displayed.

Beyond the Knowledge Card, when someone searches for your company name they are also very likely to see your pages on Facebook, Yelp, LinkedIn, MapQuest, vertical directories, and other sites. To the extent that those listings display review stars in the Google SERP, they all work toward establishing your reputation and encouraging people to look at you more closely. Obviously, the more stars that show up on your own Google SERP page, the better you appear to be.

How to get third party reviews

Third party reviews on sites like Yelp can help both your rankings and your conversions.

Ideally, your services are so outstanding that your customers are driven by their delight to want to provide positive reviews for you online. Pragmatically, we must admit that an unsatisfied customer feels more motivated to write a scathing review than a delighted customer is motivated to write a positive review. To counteract that, you will want to make it very easy for those happy customers to write about how wonderful you are. There are a few ways you can ethically increase the likelihood that satisfied customers will review you online.

  • Ask them. If they indicate a willingness to write a review for you, follow-up with an email to them which includes a link directly to your page on the third party site of your choice. In that email, tell them where to find the button or link to click to write a review.
  • Provide links on your website to your pages on third party sites that display reviews. You may increase the likelihood of people clicking to leave you a review with a call to action suggesting that.
  • Include a link in your email signature block.  That way, every email you send to a client includes a link to your page at one or more third-party sites that host online reviews.
  • Write reviews of others yourself. When you write a review for a strategic partner who may refer business to you or to whom you refer business, seeing that review may motivate them to write a review for you in return. The same thing applies to businesses in your networking circle. An honest positive review might make them feel at least slightly obligated to return the favor.

What are first party reviews?

First party reviews are simply reviews that appear on your own website as opposed to anyplace else.  BXB Media wrote a nice comparison of first party and third party reviews. And if you have them coded properly with  schema markup, Google will display your review stars in SERPs.

 A couple of quick warnings are due, though.

  1. You may not apply structured coding reviews you copy onto your website from somewhere else. That violates Google’s terms of service and you will suffer for it.
  2. For reasons only known to Google, reviews on your home page will not be reflected with review stars in Google’s SERPs. Review stars only appear when your internal pages show up in search results.

If you do it properly, however, those review stars showing up on Google can make a big difference in how many potential customers click on your listing, even if you’re not the first one. Here’s an example for one of our clients in a local search for floor tile repair. Which listing would you be likely to click on first?

Customer reviews on your website can greatly increase the number of clicks you get when people search for what you do.How to get first party reviews

I caution that this needs to be “done right”. Potential customers, and Google itself, are aware that you control your website and may be suspicious that the reviews displayed there are somewhat less than honest. So the first rule is to heed the two warnings in the paragraph above. Google explains that:

Google may display information from aggregate ratings markup in the Google Knowledge Cards. The following guidelines apply to review snippets in knowledge cards for local businesses:

  • Ratings must be sourced directly from users.
  • Don’t rely on human editors to create, curate or compile ratings information for local businesses. These types of reviews are critic reviews.
  • Sites must collect ratings information directly from users and not from other sites

The last item above means you can’t just take testimonials customers have sent to you and enter them onto your website yourself and apply structured coding to them. They really need to be gathered directly from your customer and entered on your web pages automatically. That’s to prevent you from cherry-picking only good reviews to display on your site.

The tool we prefer here at Rank Magic is Yext Reviews. As part of their location platform subscription program, they provide an automated review gathering form and a widget on your website. You can direct customers to the form and the reviews they enter will be automatically displayed on whichever pages of your site you have placed the widget on.

An added advantage of the Yext platform is that it alerts you anytime someone writes a review for you in either your first party reviews or any of the third party review sites in their network. I’ve written recently about how important is is too know when a new review is written so you can replay to it promptly.

Rank Magic can help.

Contact us to find out how we can help review stars make you a “star” on Google.

I welcome you to join the conversation in the Comments section below.

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Don’t Show Up Missing on Google My Business!

Your Google My Business listing is a local business essential

Google My Business listings are essential for local businesses.If you’re a local business, dealing with your customers face to face, having an accurate Google My Business listing is critical. Google says this is one of the first things to do to rank well for local searches. Google says “The information in your listing like address, phone, logo, business hours, and website determine what shows up when people see you in Google Search and on Google Maps. See our blog post about getting found in local searches.

Too often information for small businesses on Google My Business is old or out of date. And when your NAP (name address, phone) is out of date or inconsistent with other citations across the web, that compromises your listing. It may even prevent your listing from showing up.

But worse yet is not having a Google My Business listing at all. If you’re a very small business or a new business, odds of not having a Google My Business listing are greater.

How to tell if you have a Google My Business listing

You might have a listing even if you’ve never created one yourself, so the first step is to see if you do. Start out with a simple Google search for your company name.  If your company shows up in the Knowledge Card at the to right, you have a listing.

Google My Business listings is found for this company

If this was your business, go to that listing and make sure everything you can fill out has been completed. Also make sure that everything is current, especially your NAP. AdviceLocal has published a nice set of things to do to optimize your listing.

Have you claimed your listing?

Compare the above good Google My Business listing with this one:

This listing hasn't been claimed yet.

I’ve highlighted the question: Own this business? — that only shows up if no one has claimed it yet. You need to click that and follow the on-screen instructions from Google to verify your listing

Verifying your listing

In most cases, Google will give you two options to verify the listing: by mail or phone. If the phone number on the listing is correct, that’s often the best choice. I’ve had several experiences where clients have selected the mail notification option, only to have to request it two,r three or more times because whoever sorts the company mail mistakes the Google letters for junk mail and discards them. However, if no phone number is included on your current Google My Business listing you may have to select the mail option. Exercise some diligence so that when the letter arrives from Google you’ll spot it. When you get it, follow the instructions to login and enter the PIN in your letter to verify your ownership of the listing.

Once Google confirms that you own the listing, log into it and make sure everything is filled out correctly and is consistent with how you’re listed everyplace else.

If you don’t have a Google My Business listing

When you search for your listing, if a number of listings about your business show up but there is no Knowledge Card about your business in the top right (like the search results page below), that’s an indication that Google My Business doesn’t have a listing for you.

No Google My Business listings exists for this company.

You need to create your listing

This isn’t as daunting a process as you might think, especially if you have a single location. If you have multiple locations, you’ll need to go through this process for each of them.

  1. Go to this Google My Business create-a-listing page and click on the green GET STARTED button.
  2. Enter your full business name and click NEXT.
  3. Enter your full address and indicate if you provide services at customer locations instead of at your business address. Many local service businesses operate out of a home office. You may want to hide your street address so customers don’t come knocking at your front door.
  4. Continue to follow the on-screen prompts until you get to the point where Google wants to send you a PIN by mail or phone. See the information above about verifying your listing.
  5. Once you get your PIN, enter it into your account to complete the verification. At that point you own and can manage your Google My Business listing.
  6. Next make sure to optimize your listing. Enter as much information as Google My Business will allow: logos, photos, business hours,  business description, and so forth. The more information you fill out, the more prominent your listing will appear. Make absolutely sure that your NAP is current and consistent with how it’s displayed everywhere else.

A quick note about consistency

When it comes to showing up for local searches, an essential factor is Google’s trust in your NAP. Some citations may have a previous address, some have a local phone number and others a toll-free number. Some may even have variations on your company name. When that happens Google isn’t sure which is right. If Google doesn’t trust it knows your current and accurate NAP, it will be reluctant to display you prominently.

You can check your listing at several dozen of the top citation sources – local search engines, directories, maps & apps – with our handy  scan here. If that scan reveals problems, we can help.

Please join the conversation below with your own experiences and opinions.

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