Competing for Local Queries With No Physical Premises

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Posted by Tom Capper

When we think of local SEO, we think of local packs, Google My Business listings, and local citations. While these things certainly are local SEO, they aren’t the whole picture. Local SEO can be split into three categories:

  • Local pack results for organizations with local premises
  • Organic results for organizations with local premises
  • Organic results for organizations without local premises

It’s the third category that I want to cover here today. This often-neglected and little-discussed area plays host to some of the biggest and most lucrative spaces in organic search. Think about searches like:

  • Chemical engineering jobs in London
  • Flats to rent in London
  • Used Ford Focus for sale in London

These terms are local in nature, and local businesses might compete for them — whether they be recruitment agencies, letting agents, or car dealerships. However, businesses without any local premises might also compete for them — whether they be online-only job boards, property listings sites, or eBay and Craigslist.

Let’s take recruiters as an example. A search for “recruiters near me” from Distilled HQ in London produces this result:

There’s a local pack, but the top result is for a listings site that does not itself have any local premises.

If we search for something more specific:

Firstly, this is a “near me” search with no local pack. The second very noticeable thing is that after the four PPC ads, are ranking both first and second(!!!). Neither they nor have any physical premises, and the second result ranking isn’t even location-specific. In case you’re curious, Indeed gets the double-rank if I swap out “near me” for “in London”:

The points I want to make are that:

  • It’s totally legitimate for Indeed and Totaljobs to try to rank for these queries
  • This is local SEO, but there are no local packs, and these are not local sites

There are a whole range of niche concerns around this sort of situation, which I’ll cover in turn:

  • Whether this applies to you: Should you be competing for local queries at all?
  • Granularity: Which local queries should you be competing for?
  • Optimizing pages to compete in these spaces.

A quick side note: It is possible to generate Google My Business listings for locations where you can get someone to sort your verification, but you yourself have no real premises. This is either spam or misleading marketing depending on how you look at it. Like many other spam techniques, some sites are having success with it, but it’s not something I would endorse or recommend, and I won’t be covering it any further here.

Should you be competing for local queries at all?

The example search queries I used above all had something in common — they were different offerings based on the location a user was interested in, so having location pages made absolute sense for the users, for the sites, and for Google.

This isn’t always true. Take this example from Serenata Flowers:

Award-winning florist in West Wellow.

For context, there are no florists in or even particularly near West Wellow, which is a tiny place on the edge of the New Forest National Park in Southern England:

Furthermore, the offerings on this page are identical to those that Serenata appears to offer on every other location page. This page exists purely for SEO benefit — it’s to target local search volume, with no benefit to users other than their ability to find it through that search volume. There’s nothing you can do on this page that you can’t do from any other non-location-specific page on the site.

This isn’t unusual in this vertical, or in several others. In fact, this is one of the last big areas where doing something just for the SEO benefit not only makes sense, but seems sustainable and fairly white-hat.

One might tenuously argue that users want reassurance that their flowers will be cut close to their intended delivery destination, or that Serenata offers delivery in this area. However, in this case it would make far more sense for Serenata to have landing pages for the locations where the flowers are cut, or for logical delivery areas rather than individual villages; nobody would think that a florist in nearby Romsey offering delivery would for some reason refuse to deliver to West Wellow.

The best litmus test for whether you should be pursuing this type of landing page strategy is whether you can actually think of a useful way to differentiate these pages for users (as opposed to for Google). A flower delivery site probably can — by showing local stock and delivery times and distances — but small villages are too fine a granularity for this.

I imagine Serenata drive considerable revenue through some of their location pages for higher volume locations — despite not differentiating these pages in this way — but it’s the fact that users would look for a locally differentiated page in the first place that makes this strategy viable.

Granularity: Which local queries should you be competing for?

When deciding how to target your location pages, there will be a wide range of options, for example:

  • State
  • County
  • City
  • Town
  • Zip/Postal Code
  • Street
  • All of the above

Which of these options makes sense for you comes down to two main factors:

  1. At what level of granularity are your potential customers searching?
  2. What level of indexation can your site support?

The first question initially looks like a simple keyword research problem, but it’s harder than that. We’re getting into the seriously long-tail with some of these groupings, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t volume. Search volume tools like Google Keyword Planner and Moz’s Keyword Explorer start to struggle to tell the difference between “zero” and “low” when we get into this sort of territory, so you’re probably going to have to do something better than that. Some ideas worth considering:

  • Test for volume and interest with paid search
  • If you already have a variety of pages, find out which ones receive zero or nearly zero organic traffic and conversions
  • Test opening up deeper locations for a small number of areas (small enough that you’re confident the strain on indexation and spreading of equity won’t impact your site as a whole!)
  • Search for the smaller locations you’re considering. Does your higher-level page already rank well?
  • Look at data from your internal site search
  • See what your competitors are doing. They might not be getting it right, but it could be a useful source of ideas to validate

The second question is more complex. Adding thousands or even millions of extra pages to any website is a dangerous game. You should be concerned as to whether Google will allocate enough crawl budget, or whether you’ll damage the strength of existing pages.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Test opening up extra locations for half of areas. Monitor the performance of the unaffected half of the site vs. a counterfactual, as well as the affected half of the site vs. the unaffected half.
    • If the affected side underperforms, you’re spreading yourself too thin.
    • If the unaffected side underperforms but the affected side does not, work out whether the aggregate effect was positive or negative.
  • Make sure you’re being clever with your information architecture.
    • Minimize the number of extra URLs Google has to crawl.
    • Consider using HTML sitemap (“browse all areas”) pages that are linked to internally, but “NOINDEX, FOLLOW” to distribute equity without crowding user-facing pages with links.
    • Test using nofollow attributes on individual facet links to control any potential spider traps.
    • Use breadcrumbs (marked up in structured data) to make the structure of the site and location hierarchy as clear as possible to search engines.
    • Monitor server logs to discover any crawling problems.

(How not to) Optimize pages for local search

Here’s what Serenata have done to optimize for local search in the example I used above:

This is sitting at the bottom of the category page and contains such stunners as “Our florists in West Wellow have the experience and the passion to create beautiful bouquets for any occasion.” I’m sure they would, if they existed.

Clearly this is keyword stuffing at its finest. In or out of local search, this kind of category/listing page SEO drivel feels like it shouldn’t work anymore, but in fact your mileage may vary, and again, if you already have this, you should test:

  • Removing it entirely
  • Turning down the keyword density

I’ve seen numerous examples in the last year of sites benefitting from improving or getting rid of this kind of useless content.

So what to do instead? Above, I said:

  • “The best litmus test for whether you should be pursuing this type of landing page strategy is whether you can actually think of a useful way to differentiate these pages for users.”

This means that you should have something genuinely useful that you can put on these pages. Some recommendations:

  • Proprietary data – e.g. what the most popular flowers are in this location.
  • Local differentiation – e.g. are some of the products delivered to this location sourced locally?
  • Genuine local expertise – could any employees or subcontractors in this area contribute?
  • Reviews for this location
  • Reassurance – e.g. if you think a user is looking for a local florist because of delivery concerns, say how long the flowers will be traveling for

Looking forward

As location targeting without physical premises is an area that still feels a little old-fashioned in its SEO trends, it’ll be interesting to see how it develops in the next few years. Personal assistants could have a particularly large impact here, for example. I’d love to hear your thoughts and predictions in the comments below.
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Glenn has been involved in a wide variety of Internet marketing over the last 20 years. He holds an MBA from the University of North Florida. He lives in Fernandina Beach, Florida with his wife and two children.

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