SEO is important for any business, but for a local business, it is often more important than they realise, often because it’s not something they have paid much attention to in the past. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that for many, maybe even most local businesses.
From restaurants who may have never thought of take-out options as being important before, or bricks and mortar non-essential retailers who are staying afloat by offering online shopping options that they never have before local SEO, and how to do it, became a particular pain point in 2020, and that pain is continuing into 2021.
Company owners and advertisers who have not accidentally stumbled on the numerous guidelines Google have published over the years are often left wondering how their non-brick-and-mortar companies should be marketed and how their websites should be optimized for local SEO.
They are not helped in all this by the fact that Google is actively – and sometimes it seems constantly – shifting its stance even when there is even recognition that such guidance exists. Making mistakes, overlooking crucial changes, and losing out on SEO and digital marketing opportunities is easy to do.
The good news is, for almost every form of local business, there are local SEO and local digital marketing possibilities, but you have to decide which direction to pursue, depending on how the brand you’re marketing operates in 2021. Here we are going to take a look at these non-traditional local SEO opportunities and how you can make the most of them in 2021.
Defining Your Local Business Type
If you are concerned about SEO for a local brand that is not a traditional brick and mortar based business, then the chances are good that your company falls into one of the following categories:
Service Area Business
Most home services fall into this category (plumbing, housekeeping, gardening etc.). You may or may not have physical street addresses that serve as headquarters or offices, but the distinguishing characteristic of your business is that it is at their locations, not at yours, that you serve local clients face-to-face.
Virtually, via phone, computer, shipping, and other remote means is how you perform all your business transactions. Your company might provide e-commerce or digital services or sell via a print catalogue or other remote methodology.
You may operate from one or more physical addresses and want to get customers’ attention in different regions or towns, but no customers ever come to your locations. The distinguishing trait of your organization is that you never meet with clients in person.
Home Based Business
Your home address is your physical location, and you might either service nearby customers at your house (like a childminding centre), or go to nearby customers to serve them (like a dog walker), or you may do a mix of both (like a yoga teacher who teaches some classes at their home studio and some as private appointments at clients homes). Your business’s distinguishing characteristic is that you work out of your home.
If you work from home but never meet face-to-face for delivery or fulfilment of some sort with customers, then you don’t fall under this category; you fall under the category of virtual business.
This category is a kind of catch-all covering a number of variations.
A classic instance is an on-site dining restaurant that offers customers several choices. Perhaps they can dine and pay in person, choose curbside pickup where customers come to the location but can pay electronically, or opt for delivery where customers pay online, and drivers come to their homes.
A home maintenance business such as a security consultant that offers walk-in key grinding at a physical premises, at-home appointments for installing new locks on doors, and sales of security goods via e-commerce is another variant.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other variables, hybrid business models became more common in 2020, and there is no single characteristic of them. They are only unified as all of them search for ways to improve consumer visibility in a particular local area.
Things You Should NOT Do
Now is the time to shield the brand you’re promoting from unintended consequences by preventing mistakes before we talk about your 2021 local SEO opportunities. Scratch these from your playbook, regardless of whether you are trying to gain extra local exposure for a SAB, a home-based business, a virtual brand, or a hybrid:
- Do not set up virtual offices that are unstaffed or P.O. Boxes in an attempt to build local business listings.
- In an attempt to fake running several locations, do not set up strings of locations through the houses of workers, relatives, or family members.
If you do not have a physical address to use that you actually occupy – and don’t mind having published in public – it’s okay. There are ways to compensate for this, as we will show you later in this piece.
2021 Local SEO For Service Area Businesses
For service area businesses without public physical locations, abundant possibilities exist. A more favorable scenario for SABs was potentially created by changes to Google’s Guidance in 2020.
Your journey to success starts with an understanding of Google’s SAB-specific criteria. You ought to read them in full, but here we will extract the most salient points:
Required In-person Contact
In order to be eligible for a Google My Business page, a powerful SEO tool, the current Google guidelines state that in the course of doing business you must make in-person contact of some sort with clients.
However, do not worry during the pandemic that your transition to contact-less services will disqualify you from being included. To make this more apparent, Google undoubtedly needs to update its guidelines.
Hiding your Address
When creating a SAB listing, you will be required to provide Google with an address. You must have some kind of address, even if it’s a home address, warehouse site, or another facility you don’t want the public to visit. Then, when creating the SAB’s listing, Google’s guidelines say that you should tell them to hide the address.
If you answer “no” to the question “Do you want to add a location that customers can visit, like a store or office” Google will automatically hide the address when a new listing is set up.
Businesses object to this condition for several reasons. It has long been debated among SEO experts if hiding an address impacts the local rankings of a listing, but whether or not it does, listings with a hidden address listings lack pins/markers compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts on Google’s mapped displays.
In terms of visual effects, this is a definite drawback. The lack of a published address can also influence whether customers believe that a company is genuinely local to them, and calls and leads may be adversely affected by this.
This aside, it’s still Google’s states position that this business model should hide its address, and clear its address from the GMB dashboard if it previously published one.
Setting a Service Area for Your SAB
There was a feature for older GMB listings that allowed you to set a radius representing the service area. However, you have to enter cities or postal codes on new listings to represent where your SAB serves. You can add up to 20 of these points. The limits of these areas should not exceed a driving distance of around two hours from where the company is located.
In some circumstances, you may be allowed more than one Google My Business listing.
You’re allowed more than one GMB listing if the SAB you’re marketing has several, separately staffed locations around two hours apart from each other, and with non-overlapping service areas. If possible, we strongly recommend getting a specific phone number for each office.
Don’t try to build numerous listings for the various services provided by your SAB, though. For example, a construction company can’t have one listing for home maintenance services and another for plumbing. No matter how many services you provide, Google sees you as just one brand and allows you just one GMB listing to cover it.
It’s up to you whether you link to your website homepage from your SAB GMB listings or to specific local landing pages on your website. Due to homepages usually having the highest Page Authority, the former can provide an SEO ranking boost. The latter may be better for customer UX, though.
Whichever you choose, do not miss the opportunity in your GMB dashboard to build service menus, listing all the various offers that the company you are selling provides. You do not get to link to a different external page for each service, but it will let customers who rely on Google My Business listings in their initial research to better understand what you do.
You will be pleased to know that other local business listings sites do not make listing SABs so difficult with respect to hidden addresses. Unless otherwise mentioned by a particular website, if you like, feel free to show your address on your other citations and enjoy the opportunity to prove to searchers that you really are local to them.
Onsite Organic Local SEO for SABs
In terms of the actual website that represents your local service area business, you want a mobile-friendly, stable, speedy website that offers a great user interface, has a solid link structure, features relevant and compelling consumer-centric content, and a steadily growing Domain Authority based on inbound links gained over time, just like a brick-and-mortar brand. And, for as many of your significant search phrases as possible, you want to get this page ranking as high as you can. All basic ‘SEO stuff’.
Where things get complicated and confusing for SABs in terms of local SEO based practices is whether or not they should create – and try to optimize – a landing page for each individual town/city/county etc., that they can currently offer service to.
For brick-and-mortar models, designing a special location landing page for each of their physical stores is a great practice and makes tons of sense. The purpose of these pages is to serve a specific local audience with content specifically tailored for their needs relevant to a specific location in the shop.
These pages can organically rank well and can be used as the landing page URLs for the GMB listings of a multi-location model. These types of pages may also be generated by SABs with several physical offices as evidence of local-ness, even if customers do not come to the offices.
But the big question is: what if a wide area outside its own physical location is served by the SAB? For the locations a SAB serves, should individual location landing pages be created?
The response to that is yes. And no. If you have something special to highlight in each service city, and if you restrict coverage to a reasonable geographic region, you can consider building SAB service area landing pages.
For example, if you have lots of great images showcasing your work in a specific city, and then different images showcasing your work in another, by all means, create and optimize two separate landing pages that feature these.
The two things that we suggest SAB marketers avoid:
- Building duplicate or near-duplicate service area landing pages when you can’t demonstrate the kinds of things we described above.
- In an effort to get a single SAB location to rank over a huge region, creating lots of pages that only differ in terms of the city-specific keywords featured on them, not because you have different work examples to showcase.
Local SEO for Homebased Businesses
Businesses in the service area arena – the SAB listings we have just discussed – may feel disadvantaged because most of them are required by Google to hide their addresses. The situation is often the reverse for home-based businesses: many owners of these models want to make sure their address is kept private so that they do not get confused potential clients showing up on their doorstep.
But not all-home-based firms are the same. To execute the most effective local SEO campaign, you’ll need to choose which of these scenarios matches your local business best when marketing a home-based brand:
1. I serve clients at my home in person and want my address to be public.
A childcare center, pet groomer, horse boarder, private tutor, or similar model may be best suited to this description. The company should invest in street-level signage in this case and take full advantage of selling themselves as a brick-and-mortar company. There’s nothing that holds up this business model from doing so.
Google prefers that you set no hours of service on your Google My Business listing if the company is by appointment only. However, you may be eligible for Google’s booking features based on your selected GMB categories. And, in the business description area, you can choose to note that access is by appointment only.
2. I serve clients at my home in person and want my address to be confidential.
For this particular model, Google does not have adequate specific provisions, but you can essentially handle it like you would a SAB that wants to hide its address. Google wants you to delete the address from the Google My Business dashboard’s Details section. You can opt to have a service area added.
If privacy is a specific concern for a particular organization, it is important to know that bugs or policy changes may lead to it being visible at any point if Google has some record of your home address.
You can choose to list the company only in those directories that support hidden addresses outside of Google. For this model, you would probably not build location landing pages, but you may want to concentrate the content of your website on a hyperlocal city and community terms to seek as much organic visibility as you can without an address nearby.
3. I operate from home and serve clients at their locations.
This may be a plumber, accountant, housekeeper, or similar model where the company’s home base is the house of the owner, but they travel for work around a service radius. In that Google needs the address to be hidden and a service area allocated for the listing, this model is just like a normal SAB.
It is important to emphasize here that home-based SABs on the Google Maps product are not allowed and that the solution Google provides for this is that by hiding their addresses, they can be included in Google My Business. Failure to hide the address could risk the listing being suspended and deleted.
Beyond Google, if you want to show your address on your listings, feel free to either show your address or just list in directories that support hidden addresses if privacy is important to you.
And, like other SABs, review the above section on whether your activities are suitable for the creation of high-quality, interesting landing pages to represent different cities in your service area.
4. I operate from home and do not serve clients in person
Owing to the public health emergency that forced so many people to operate from home when they have not before, and so many models to replace in-person service with tele-appointments and other modes of remote contact, these waters became quite murky in 2020.
In the past, Google My Business listings rules have strictly excluded virtual business models from getting them. Yet due to the pandemic, so much has changed in the world. Those with offices now are not making use of them. So does that make them virtual businesses and exempt from Google My Business listings now?
Although they have not made any formal changes to their policy, and although technically these businesses are virtual now, informal questions that Google have answered in SEO Q&A sessions seem to indicate that if your status as a virtual business is temporary, and that once the pandemic ends you and your staff will be serving clients in person again, then you can still be considered a brick and mortar business.
How to Do Local SEO for a Virtual Business
Under the heading of “virtual business” are e-commerce-only firms, suppliers of purely digital products and services, and big, national or foreign producers and suppliers without storefronts.
In this sector, local SEO questions most commonly arise from virtual brands that are frustrated by the limits of completely competing for online exposure with local, physical brands.
It is best to explicitly outline what virtual brands can and can not do to compete, to avoid wasting time and money on dead-end strategies. And we should emphasize grey areas, too.
What You Can’t Do
The virtual brand you are selling is ineligible for a Google My Business listing without providing an in-person service. It is also inadmissible without providing a physical address. You may be able to list the company in some other directories, but you can not compete for local pack/local finder/map rankings in Google’s world. So don’t even try.
What You Can Do
You can compete with the content you post and the links you receive to raise the Page Authority of that material for organic rankings. In regions that are important to you, you can compete via Google Advertising with location targeting.
There are several instances where a mostly virtual company could apply for a GMB listing if it has a staffed headquarters that needs to be found, not by consumers, but by partners such as B2B partners. However, such a listing would not in any way assist in vying for country-wide local pack rankings for virtual products with national or foreign consumers.
Google reps have recently stated that 46% of searches have local intent and that it is the user’s location that has a far greater effect on the SERPs results they are shown than other forms of personalization. None of this is good news for truly virtual firms, and the strong localization of their organic SERPs by Google leaves e-commerce and other digital-only brands struggling to compete.
You can compete, however, with content, strong link building practices and a focused, well thought out off-site SEO campaign. For virtual businesses, Google My Business, Google Maps, all that kind of local SEO that is so valuable to other brands is pretty much irrelevant. But E.A.T, strong backlinks, authority building off-site content and more? All that can help you compete – and beat – local rivals that operate in other business sectors.
Whatever your business model, when it comes to local SEO, Perl Lemon has the experience and expertise to help you make the most out local SEO in 2021 and beyond. Contact us today to discuss how we can help you.