Local SEO in the Real World

We are what you would probably call on the upper end of budget small business web design companies in our area. Most of our sites are under $10,000, and although we have a few national websites and several regional sites, most of our business is local, in the eastern/central Virginia area. We’ve been around for eight years, are on Google’s first page in two markets, have well over 100 websites and 80 active clients, and generally know what we’re doing.

Lately some clients have been forwarding SEO solicitations they have received to us, promising untold riches of hits, Google stardom and other inducements, all at the cost of between $29 and $49 per month. So I thought I should look into this, and see what a local business (that doesn’t sell products online) needs from Google and search engines in general. Here is what I have found:

  1. Most local businesses should only be concerned with local hits. It’s obvious that a local business in Virginia shouldn’t care about getting hits from Oklahoma, but it’s even more specific than that. If you have a small landscaping business, you need two things from your website; good site content so you can direct potential customers there to see your work, and enough SEO to attract “walk in” website visitors in your immediate area.
  2. You need LOCALIZED search engine optimization! A publisher client of ours in Hampton, VA got a solicitation telling him that his site was only on the fifth page of Google for his area, and needed SEO work. Since we had just finished an SEO campaign job for him, we researched that claim, since if it were true it meant that we’d done a poor job. I found out that the solicitation had Googled  “Hampton publishing”, and with that search term, he was indeed on Google’s fifth page. What the soliciting company didn’t know (since it wasn’t a local company) was that in this region, people Google “Hampton Roads”, not “Hampton”.  So I Googled “Hampton Roads publishing”, and as I suspected (and fervently hoped), the client was indeed on the FIRST page of Google.
  3. Small businesses don’t need page hits as much as they need content hits; hits mean nothing if site visitors look at your Home page for 30 seconds and then leave. A local business needs to have visitors get something of value from their website, such as a menu for restaurants, portfolio examples from a photographer or weekly specials from a retailer.
  4. Individual page hits aren’t important. We spent a lot of time developing an online slideshow for a performing arts school featuring their alumni accomplishments. Every month I check their Google Analytics account and find that the slideshow page did not get ONE SINGLE VISIT. While that does bug me, I find solace in the fact that the site gets huge traffic to their Programs and Admissions Policy pages. So think about it, aren’t those the exact pages that potential students SHOULD be looking at? Of course they are, so don’t concern yourself worrying about the fact that no one is looking at your About Us page.
  5. What is YOUR locality? Let’s say that you’re a retail business in a field where there are many of the same type of retailers in the region. How far should you cast your net for site visitors? Simple. Think about how far YOU would drive to visit a retailer, when there might be many similar retailers closer to where you live. If you own a small hardware store people simply aren’t going to drive past twenty other hardware stores to buy from you. So you need a relatively small SEO net. Specialize your SEO for your area. Use search terms for individual neighborhoods instead of just your city. Promoting your website on your regular promo and in the local “neighborhood shopper” magazines might be much more effective than a big SEO effort.

The bottom line is that you should be concerned only about hits from people that might actually BUY something from you. When we started out we did a lot of what were then called “vanity” websites. They were basically saying, “Look at us, we have a cool website!”  But now we are at the point where having a website is not only essential to be taken seriously, most small businesses can actually use their website to increase their sales. This wasn’t always the case (depending on the type of business) even two years ago. But it is the case now.

So to sum up, you may indeed need an extensive SEO effort. But for many businesses, getting your hands dirty with local marketing might get your website a lot more quality hits than paying $49 a month to some guy 1000 miles away. Because I’d rather see a client get 300 hits a month from people in the area who WANT to see your products than 1000 hits a month from people living three states away.