5 Steps to Local SEO Success

03/17/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Optimizing a brand's locations for search, discovery, and traffic -- both online and in the real world

There has never been more ways to find a Starbucks. You can go to the store locator on the website. Chances are, it will be the mobile version, because that's how local search happens more often than not.

Or you could use the Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Bing Maps apps. You could check Yelp, Foursquare, Facebook (Places), or the newest local discovery app, Vurb. If you're over 50, then your car's navigation system is also an option. What's more, you might just type "coffee shop" into a search engine and see what comes up -- could be a Starbucks but more likely it's a neighborhood cafe.

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This challenge for brands like Starbucks...and Bank of America and Target and McDonald's and H&R Block and Verizon -- any brand with hundreds or thousands of locations -- boils down to two things: search and discovery. How easy is it for consumers to find the restaurant, the store, the branch, the office? That's search. And how likely is one to find a particular store over another when searching the category? That's discovery. All of which drives foot traffic, web traffic, and ultimately sales. Managing this at scale is no small task. Given how fragmented the local search ecosystem has become, brands face a nearly impossible challenge in getting this right.

What I'm describing here is broadly known as local SEO i.e. search engine optimization for physical locations. What are the benefits and ROI? Not only does it mitigate lost traffic and sales that would otherwise go to competitors, but if you do this right, it will generate incremental sales by owning premium real estate on the mobile devices of today's consumer.

One thing is for certain. Tackling this challenge requires technology. It requires a software platform designed to automate the bulk of local SEO. It also requires the human touch to truly excel in this space. If you're looking to win in local SEO, the solution must combine the best of both worlds: technology and services.

With that in mind, following are the five steps to nailing local SEO:

1. Store Locator

The foundation of any local SEO strategy is the store locator. In the past, these were an afterthought. In the mobile era, though, store locators are often the face of a brand. It has to support the brand promise, which means it's not a simple zip-code lookup with an address list. Store locator 2.0 is one unique page per location, wherein the consumer is automatically located and shown the closest store. The design is responsive. It is fully integrated to the major search and social networks, and each page reflects the unique community the store serves.

Pro Tip: There are two hosting options for page-per-store locators. You can do sub-domain, which looks like this: locator.brand.com/santamonica. Or sub-directory, which looks like this: brand.com/locator/santamonica. The latter is better for SEO, but it also requires more resources to deploy.

2. Location Data Ecosystem

The store locator should host a brand's "location data of record." This means it's the most accurate, comprehensive, and current set of data for that brand's stores. The lat/long coordinate (geocode) for each location must be manually set over the building. There is no other way to get it right. The remaining address and contact information should be updated on a weekly basis. Once this has been established, these exact data must be syndicated to Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Bing, and 100+ other directories on an a regular basis. Finally, these third-party pages and listings each need to link back to the respective store locator page and vice versa, such that the local presence for each location is completely inter-linked.

Pro Tip: Some third-party services effectively "rent" local listings, such that when you cancel the service, the listings disappear. Be sure that you own and control all of these local assets outright.

3. Social Media Optimization

Social channels have recently become a major factor in local search results. Google's algorithm is using social signals -- likes, shares, comments, reviews, ratings -- to assess the relevance and popularity of a location across the entire local ecosystem but most importantly with Google+ Local pages. It's a bit like the lure we feel to a busy restaurant. It has social validation. Likewise, Google uses these signals to rank a pizza place, coffee shop, or retailer. The more happening and locally relevant each one appears, the higher it ranks in search results...and the more traffic it receives.

Pro Tip: Publish unique and locally relevant content to both the store locator pages and Google+ Local pages. The content may not directly reach consumers, but it's precisely what Google's algorithm wants to see.

4. Reputation Management

Consumer reviews and ratings are a double-edged sword, to be sure. One thing is for certain, though, they cannot be ignored. The most popular channels at the local level are Facebook, Yelp, and Google+ in that order. Multi-location brands first need a way to aggregate all of this content in real time with the ability to sort reviews at the national, regional, and store level. Next, they need to engage, whether by responding to a negative review or just "liking" a positive review to let customers know the brand is listening. By managing local reviews comprehensively, you'll not only increase search traffic but also lift the brand's overall rating. Because more customers will leave positive reviews if they know the brand is paying attention.

Pro Tip: Highly satisfied customers are not as motivated as unsatisfied customers to post a review. Brands need to encourage their best customers to leave positive reviews on Facebook, Yelp, and Google+.

5. Advertising

Once the ecosystem is in place, brands can boost results through paid media on both Google and Facebook. Each platform supports localized ads but from opposite angles i.e. one is reactive (Google search results) and the other proactive (Facebook News Feed). One of the best methods is the Facebook Local Awareness ad objective. These are unique ads on a per-location basis that can either drive foot traffic to the physical location through a "Get Directions" call-to-action or else drive web traffic to the local landing page, Facebook Local Page, or Google+ Local Page through a web link. Not only will this drive an intended action, such as calling or visiting the store, it also supports local SEO through traffic and engagement at the store level.

Pro Tip: Facebook Local Awareness ads enable marketers to reach mobile users based on their proximity to a business location. It's primarily a small business product, but select Facebook Marketing Partners offer them at scale.