If you run a local business, then you may have noticed that in the last year Google has drastically changed the way you need to do SEO. In large part this is because of the rising importance of your Google+ Local Page (formerly known as Google Places) for your business.
Basically, if you create an awesome Google+ Local page for your business, then you will have a much better chance of staying at the top of Google search results in your local community. Sounds great, right? It is actually not great for local businesses that compete across a 15-50 mile geography, because at the moment, Google appears to be using proximity as their most important factor in determining “relevance,” which means that Google local business listings are much, much more difficult to improve than they used to be.
To illustrate this, I did an experiment last week. You’ll see three screenshots below that show three different search engine results pages. Each search was identical: it contained the exact same search terms, and it was conducted on the same day, the same computer (cookies cleared and not logged into any Google products), and by the same person. The only difference is physical location: (1) the first was conducted in Arlington, Virginia, (2) the second was conducted in Reston, Virginia, and (3) the third was conducted in Washington, D.C. You’ll see that the identical search terms yielded eight different business listings. Absolutely no overlap, despite only traveling five miles between one search, and 15 miles between another. There was actually only ~20 miles difference between the first and last search.
Here is the Google results page for “custom home builders” with the AdWords ads in red, the traditional organic results in blue, and the Google+ Local results in green.
Here is the same view, but after the search was conducted in Arlington, Virginia:
And here is the search engine results page when the search was conducted in Reston, Virginia:
You can learn at least two things from these screenshots: first, the green section changes 100% each time. This means that Google’s local listings are heavily influenced by (no real surprise) how local you are. For some businesses, this is good. If you are the only dogwalker in in a hyperlocal area, and you don’t want customers who are too far away from your homebase, then you should be doing backflips. But if you are a custom home building company, or any midsize business that has customers who span a 10, 25, 50, or 100 mile orbit, then you need to focus on areas other than your Google local listings. (Note: you should not ignore your business’s Google+ page under any circumstances, but for some businesses, you need to be realistic about how much direct business or SEO juice you will really gain from it.
The second thing you can learn from these screenshots is that the AdWords placement does overlap a bit. These specific screenshots were edited down for space, but everything contained in the images are accurate, which means that when I did the search from Arlington and then from Reston, I saw different local listings, but I saw some of the same AdWords ads, which means if you want to control your appearance in search, Google is making its paid AdWords service more valuable and reliable than SEO, which is certainly something to keep in mind.
Will Marlow is a search engine marketing consultant (specialty in Google AdWords, Bing and Yahoo Ads) who loves helping businesses get found by customers in search results and holds four certifications: Google Analytics Certification, Google AdWords Search Certification, Google AdWords Display Certification, and certification as a Bing Ads Accredited Professional.