How does local SEO work for small business?

How does local SEO work for small business?

Small business cafe owner smiling and handing a coffee over the counter

If your business is local to an area, like a locksmith or restaurant, do you still need to care about SEO (search engine optimization)?

Why should you care how high you rank on Google when you only provide services to a neighbourhood, not the whole Internet?

In fact, local SEO is incredibly important for small businesses because of this little box:

Google gets about 40,000 searches every second and 80% of those are for local services. When someone types “restaurants near me” (or “plumbers near me” or “pet stores near me”) into Google, they see this little box. It’s known to SEOs as the Local Pack.

The Google Local Pack shows the top three local results that match a search. Showing up in this box is the holy grail of local SEO. After all, most people use Google to find what they need and these are the top three businesses Google is recommending to the neighbourhood.

So, how do you get your business to show up in the Local Pack? The truth is there are a lot of factors that affect your SEO. Fortunately, there are some basic steps you can take that make a big impact.

Small Business Local SEO Checklist

  1. Claim and verify your free Google My Business Listing
  2. Make sure your website is mobile friendly
  3. Improve your website’s on-page local SEO
  4. Get accurate structured citations across the web
  5. Link building (aka Backlinks)
  6. Getting (good) reviews

Step 1: Claim and verify your free Google My Business Listing

Your Google My Business listing is the easiest, most effective way to tell Google (and Google users) important information like:

  • What your business sells and/or what services it provides
  • Your business address (or addresses, if you have multiple locations)
  • Your business’s hours of operation
  • The phone number and website for your business
  • The types of payment your business accepts

By claiming and filling out your listing information, you greatly increase your chances of showing up in:

  • Google’s Local Pack
  • Local Finder
  • Google Maps
  • Regular Google searches

Claiming your Google My Business listing is literally a freebie: it’s fast, easy to do and free. Yet, so many small businesses miss this crucial first step.

That’s good news for you, though, because it gives you a chance to pull ahead of your competition.

How do I claim my Google My Business listing?

  1. Go to
  2. Sign up for a Google account, using your business email (or sign into your Google account if you have one already)
  3. Google will ask you to fill out a bunch of information about your business, like your address, phone number and website
  4. You must enter a valid, local address to be listed on Google My Business. If you work from home or don’t have an office address, enter your home address and click “I deliver goods and services to my customers.” This way, Google won’t display your address. In both cases, you’ll have the option to add which local areas that you serve.
  5. If you have multiple locations, you can create a listing for each of your business’s locations. That way, each one shows up in local searches.
  6. When choosing the primary category for your business, choose one from the list that best describes your business as a whole. You’ll have the option to add more categories later, but it’s best to keep these to a minimum. (Still having trouble choosing? Check out this guide from Google)
  7. Fill out your business description. This is text people will see if they view your listing or find your business on Google Maps. Write a summary of the most important information. You have 750 characters for your description, but only 250 will show up in the Knowledge Panel “preview.” Therefore, make sure you put your most important information first.
  8. Lastly, Google will send you a code that you need to enter to verify your listing. Until you verify, you’ll have limited access to your listing.

Once you have your Google My Business listing up and running, there’s still more you can do to boost your SEO. However, for now we’ll leave that topic for another day and move on to the next item on our checklist.

Step 2: Make sure your website is mobile friendly

Having a site that displays properly on mobile phones is crucial. For local brick-and-mortar businesses like restaurants, bars and stores, this is especially true.

That’s because a huge volume of those “restaurants near me” type searches come from people searching on the cell phones. When people are shopping in an area and get hungry, they google “restaurant near me.” When they’re sitting and eating their meal, they might think of a book they want to buy and google “book stores near me.”

This is especially true for tourists and visitors from other neighbourhoods (and in a city like Toronto, we have plenty of both).

If your restaurant shows up in someone’s local search and they click on your website to check out your menu… but your menu is teeny tiny on their screen (or not on the site at all), guess what? They’re likely to move on to the next search result.

Why is it important for local business websites to be mobile friendly?

There are a lot of technical behind-the-scenes details that make websites perform better in search rankings. For local businesses, mobile responsiveness is the most important place to start.

How do you know if your website is mobile friendly?

You can usually tell if a website isn’t mobile friendly, because it will look strange when viewed on a smartphone. Often, the page shows up very small on the screen and the links are difficult to click. Other times, the page is huge and you have to scroll side to side to read the text.

However, you may not notice all the problems just by looking.

Fortunately, Google has a helpful free tool called Mobile Friendly Test. Type in your website’s URL and Google will tell you whether or not your site is mobile friendly and point out any issues you may need to fix.

Step 3: Improve your website’s on-page local SEO

I’ve already written about SEO best practices for your website, and these tips definitely apply to small business sites. However, there are a couple of extra things you should focus on as a local business.

Plan your keywords

Your keywords are the words or phrases people type into search engines to find your business. For a bar in Toronto, for example, those keywords might include keywords/phrases like “bar near me,” “bars in Toronto” and “best Toronto bars.”

Your main goal is to identify the main keywords people search for when looking for businesses like yours and use them effectively on your website.

How do you find good keywords for your website?

There are many ways to find keywords. Some of them require advanced or paid tools, but here are some easy ways you can do some keyword research yourself:

  • Type some of your keyphrase ideas like “bar near me” into Google and see what related search phrases show up in the dropdown list.
  • Go on service websites like Kijiji and Craigslist and look for the words used in related listings. For example, when I search “electrician” on Kijiji, I get results including terms like master, licensed & insured and affordable.
  • You can try a free online tool like Keyword Sh!tter. This particular tool lets you type in one of your keywords/phrases and then suggests a huge list of other related terms.

How should you use your keywords on your website?

  • Use your main keywords to create a simple, effective H1 title for your website. Titles like “Irish pub in Scarborough” or “Master Electrician in Toronto” are perfect. They succinctly tell visitors what you do, plus they include those main keywords.
  • Include these main keywords in your site’s behind-the-scenes metadata, like your page title and description.
  • Use your keywords to create the URL “slugs” for pages on your website. For example, the slug for my SEO Best Practices for 2019 article is
  • Include your business’s contact information (name, address and phone number) on your homepage and ideally in the footer on every page of your website. Make sure your information matches exactly, or as close as possible, the information on your Google My Business listing.
  • If your business has multiple locations, create a landing page on your website for each location. For each location page, include the business name, address, phone number, hours of operation and a description that includes some keywords for that particular location.
  • Include the necessary behind-the-scenes schema data on your website. This code helps search engines read and use the information on your website. It helps search engines identify parts of your website like your company name, address and services. You can generate this code and add it to your website yourself using Google’s helpful free tool Structured Data Markup Helper.

Step 4: Get accurate structured citations across the web

Citations are mentions of your business and its information on the Internet. We’re going to focus on structured citations, which include your company’s basic contact information (name, address and phone number). This information is usually structured neatly together as a listing.

Here’s the Yelp page for the Tara Inn, a small business I’ve worked with, showing an example of a structured citation

Examples of structured citations include:

  • Your company’s listing on directory websites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Homestars
  • The company information you put on your business’s social media pages, like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

It doesn’t matter, for SEO purposes, whether the listing includes an actual link back to your website. The important thing is to make sure that your company information is accurate and that it matches the information you’ve included on your Google My Business listing.

If your information on many citations is inaccurate, it can confuse both visitors and search engines. When your information is consistent, on the other hand, it strengthens your online presence as a whole.

How to get more structured citations for your website

Good news: you can go ahead and set up a lot of structured citations for yourself!

It takes a bit of time, but you can set up listings for your business on online directory sites (or check to make sure existing listings have correct information).

Good sites for local businesses to set up free structured citations:

Google’s top ranking results get there because Google thinks they’re the most valuable, popular result for the search.

Which means, in many ways, it’s a popularity contest.

How does Google know how “popular” your website is? One of the factors it takes into account is how many mentions of your site or links back to your site it finds on other websites.

In fact, according to a study by Moz, link signals account for 27.94% of your local organic ranking factor. And they were the second most important factor for getting businesses to show up in those top three Local Pack results.

How do you build more backlinks to your website?

There are tonnes of ways to build more links back to your website. This topic deserves its own blog, let alone its own blog post

Nevertheless, there are a few ideas I often suggest to small businesses who want to build their own backlinks.

Ten ideas to get more backlinks to your small business website

  1. Write a useful article (like this one!) on your website. The chances of someone sharing a link to a helpful blog post are much greater than a link to a service page on your site.
  2. Post valuable content on social media with related links to pages on your website, like the full article or a product page.
  3. Tweet a deal or special of the week on Twitter with a link to your website. Ask followers to retweet in order to claim the deal.
  4. Start up a monthly e-newsletter with links to articles or resources on your website, or products you have currently on sale.
  5. Reach out to a related local business to write a guest post for their blog (with a link back to your site).
  6. Participate in online forums like Reddit and link back to articles you’ve written on your website that provide more information.
  7. Write a testimonial as your business and include a link back to your company website.
  8. Write a press release for an event you’re running or your take on a related news or seasonal topic. For example, when I worked for a costume company, I used to write press releases on the top Halloween costume trends we were seeing that year. Quite often, news outlets contacted us as a source for their articles.
  9. Reach out to writers, websites and social media feeds that post discounts (especially if they’re local). Send them a discount for your own business.
  10. Add a signature to your email that includes a link to your website (and social media accounts).

Step 6: Getting (good) reviews

Love them or hate them, online reviews are here to stay. One study found that 84% of people read and trust online reviews—as much as they trust the review of a good friend!

Online reviews are worth encouraging and paying attention to, since they matter to customers and affect your SEO.

As you might guess, most people only bother to write a review if they really loved their experience… or hated it. So, what’s your game plan for each scenario?

Encourage positive customer reviews

Let’s assume that most of your customers have a reasonably positive experience with your business. (Otherwise, no amount of SEO in the world can help you!) But how do you get them to write a review?

Well, you ask them.

Here are a few ways to ask or encourage your customers to give you a review:

  • Ask customers at the cash desk or after you invoice them if they would write you a review. You can include a message with review site suggestions or links on your receipt or invoice.
  • If you have the email address for a customer, write them a personal email. Tell them how much it would mean to you if they wrote you a short review. To make their life easier, include the links to one or two sites where they can leave a review.
  • If you have an email list of customers already, send out a marketing email asking them to please leave a review. You might include a discount in the email as a “thank you in advance.”
  • Offer incentives, like 10% off for customers who show the review they’ve written for your business.
  • Have a social media contest. Ask customers to post an honest review (content not taken into consideration for the content) and do a prize raffle. Note: some social media platforms have rules about contests you may need to consider.

Do damage control on bad reviews

Sooner or later, you’re going to get a bad review. It’s not the end of the world.

Fortunately, most review readers are savvy enough to read between the lines. If you follow these best practices for bad reviews, you’ll come out still looking pretty good.

  • Don’t try to delete the bad review. Even if you succeed in deleting it, the customer may post again telling everyone you deleted their review. This makes you look even worse.
  • Respond politely to negative reviews. Apologize for the bad experience and offer a possible solution.
  • If the customer behaved truly inappropriately and you feel you absolutely must address it, be extremely tactful. For example, you might say: “We apologize for your unsatisfactory experience today. However, we have a strong policy against customers in our store swearing and yelling at our staff. Please contact our store manager directly and I’m sure we can resolve the original problem.”
  • I can’t stress enough how important it is to be tactful and polite. Do not respond to reviews when you’re angry. Do not engage in an argument with the customer.
  • Plan A is always to resolve the issue to the customers satisfaction. Plan B, in cases where the issue cannot be resolved, is to show that you tried to solve the problem and were polite and professional.

SEO and your business: moving forward

SEO is a many-headed beast, with many factors affecting it. It’s also a moving target, changing every year as search engine algorithms become more complex.

Nevertheless, if you follow the steps in this article and keep at it, you will be well ahead of the SEO curve.

Looking for more information? Here are some recent related articles you might find useful: