Posted June 24, 2011 11:15 am by with 2 comments

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I remember the first ad buy I ever made. The year was 1996 and I was purchasing a 3”x2” ad in the independent newspaper the Houston Press. I had never bought an ad before and the experience was exciting knowing that my ad would be read by thousands of people who just might purchase the services of my employer, a local ISP in Houston. Now you might ask why I wasn’t buying ads for that campaign online. Well, the answer is simple. That’s not where the local customers were. Oh how times have changed.

The Evolution

Time Warner ran a series of commercials a while back where a nerdy know-it-all sits in his basement and claims to have thought of all of Time Warner’s products first. We’ve all had this experience, but in most cases it’s more likely that our idea is the natural evolution of established thought rather than some revolutionary new approach. Chances are someone had already thought of the idea or was thinking of it at the exact same time you were.

This has been shown over and over again with inventors creating nearly identical products without any contact with each other (read this funny example of Dennis the Menace). As most inventions are the product of technology and thought which preceded the inventor, so too is the new face of local search a product of that which came before.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, most search engines were content with figuring out what pages best matched the intent of the visitor using on-page content and off-page factors like back links. Just creating that core functionality was enough of a challenge and competitive advantage that layering in complex location based results pages didn’t really matter.

As the search engine industry started to mature and companies like Google, MSN and Yahoo began to take clear leads in the search engine wars, their coffers filled and their ability to use location for search results and advertising also increased.

During this period the word “relevancy” was being redefined to include a visitor’s geographic location.

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What is a local search?

Before you can tackle the local search problem, you must first define what local search is. In the early days, local search meant that a visitor had included a city, country or state name in their search phrase. For example, “pool cleaning Austin” would give Austin specific results and “pool cleaning” would give more general information on pool cleaning.

As search engines evolved their local search algorithms, they began to classify certain search phrases as local searches even if there were no location based qualifiers in the phrase.

For example, most people searching for “tire repair” are probably looking for a nearby business and not a Wikipedia article on tire repair. Armed with this simple concept on relevancy, search engines were equipped to provide a proactive approach to serving quality search results based on locality.

What is a local search result?

The definition of a local search result has changed quite a bit over the years. In the initial phases of local search, a local search result might have meant something similar to the A, B, C, D, etc. map listings as seen in some Google search results. These local listings were independent of the web sites shown in the organic web results and in Google’s case, was tied to a completely separate system of business listings called Google Local (eventually Google Places).

This seemed simple enough. Marketers could just optimize their website for old-school search algorithms and optimize their local directory listings with keyword rich titles and descriptions. Optimizing your local listings was so effective; you could be the first search result on a local search phrase in under a day (wish that still worked).

As the search engines became more sophisticated with local search so did their results pages. Using Google as an example, the search phrase “pool cleaning” currently returns 4 different types of local search results as illustrated below.

1. Google Places listing tied to an Adwords ad using the “Ad extensions” tab.
2. Local business web pages *not* tied visually with a Google Places listing.
3. Local business web pages tied to Google Places listings.
4. Map of local businesses with clickable push pins.

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What factors influence local search rankings?

Okay, let me start with the compulsory “no one really knows all the factors search engines use to rank websites” disclaimer. That being said, there are few key factors that drive rankings across a variety of search engines serving local search results.

Generally speaking, all the normal on-page and off-page factors affecting SEO apply to local search. Create good meta titles and descriptions, write compelling content, attract lots of links and make sure you have good penetration on social media linking, sharing and liking.

Additionally, you want to optimize the description, categories and other editable text in your local business profiles (e.g. Google Places) to include keyword rich descriptions. Keyword stuff at your own peril.

You’ll also want to pay close attention to your reviews as the quality of your reviews will affect your ranking. While all the typical warnings about gaming these systems apply, black hat local search optimizers should take note that it is actually illegal to write fake reviews about your own company.

Deals, coupons and offers are also a great way to get your local listings noticed and can help you rank higher if only for the benefit of an increased click through rate on your listing; however, the mere presence of offers can arguably have an impact as well.

How do search engines know where I’m at?

This is the most common question I’m asked about local search and the answer is a combination of ambiguity and Orwellian nightmares.

The first method search engines can use to determine your location is through GeoIP. Every IP address in the US is registered through The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN). Each registration includes information about the company who owns the IP address. In some cases this could be your company name and address, but in most cases it’s the name and address of your ISP. If you’re in the same town as your ISP, search engines can determine your city this way; however, in rural areas the IP address of the local ISPs are actually registered to their upstream Internet providers in nearby cities.

I have a client with an office 25 miles north of Austin but Google thinks they’re in San Antonio which is 80 miles to the south of Austin. On my iPad 3G Google thinks I’m in Houston. GeoIP is far from perfect.

Don’t remove your tin foil hat just yet. It’s about to get a little creepier.

Remember when the AOL search data came out in 2006 and it was supposed to be anonymous? Well it turned out that with a little reverse engineering of the phrases people searched for, you could tell who they were. Guess what? Search engines can do the same thing to you by using things like the statistical patterns of driving direction searches in map applications. Of course they know where you are, you tell them all the time.

And while this practice has supposedly been suspended, Google at one point used WIFI sniffers on their StreetView cars. This basically gave them precise longitude and latitude coordinates of hundreds of thousands of networks around the world. #glancing around office looking for hidden cameras#

Want to learn more?

If you’re in Austin on Monday June 27th, catch me at trendy Enzo as I speak about 10 Ways to Attract Local Customers Online.

  • I realized that the use of marketing have makes local search wide and much faster.and this article is fantastic which make me realize..

  • This article has great insight. Especially about the use of deals and coupons in an advertisement. I wonder what the effect would be if there where lots of ads like a free classified site.