Search engine optimization can provide a cost-effective way for businesses to compete in online search. But for small business owners, in particular, having a local SEO strategy is crucial. Because local SEO helps brands connect with nearby customers, it’s often a far more effective means of marketing than targeting the entire internet. It’s a great way to grab the attention of shoppers right in their hometown, rather than half a world away.

But even though these small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) won’t be trying to appeal to customers on a global scale, local business SEO has a lot of moving parts. Understanding the ins and outs of local SEO marketing can help you and your clients make data-backed strategic decisions that will make the most of your marketing budget, reduce unnecessary competition, and lead to organic search wins.

With that, let’s take a closer look at the local side of SEO and learn why local SEO matters for your small business clients.

local SEO services

What Is Local SEO and How Does It Differ From Normal SEO?

Local SEO marketing is a subset of “regular” or general SEO – but with a geographic focus. We’d define it as the different strategies used to increase a website’s or business’s visibility in search results on a local level. Rather than attempting to appeal to the whole of the internet, local SEO aims to target customers within a specific area (i.e., where a business is physically located or the areas it serves).

While local SEO uses many of the same practices as general SEO, these practices are often tweaked to target smaller audiences in close proximity. Other tactics are unique to local SEO and are specifically intended to help local businesses rank in relevant searches performed nearby.

What Are Some Examples of Local SEO?

Local SEO can come in many different forms. In some cases, you can improve local SEO by tailoring your general SEO strategy for a hyper-specific audience. In others, you’ll need to make a more concerted effort to add local optimizations to the equation.

Some common examples of local SEO include:

  • Site optimizations with local keywords
  • Technical site improvements (especially mobile responsive design)
  • Location-specific service pages or other landing pages
  • Google Business Profile optimizations, updates, and backlinks
  • Online review management
  • Online directory listings
  • Website schema markup
  • FAQ pages
  • PR opportunities (local online guides, community events, etc.)

These are by no means the only ways to focus on local SEO marketing, but they are arguably among the most popular and most effective areas to include in your strategy. (That’s why most of them appear in our white label local SEO services and plans!)

Is Google Local Search the Same Thing as Local SEO?

The term “local SEO” is essentially a catch-all that can include a number of different approaches. This could involve local keyword optimization in blog posts and on landing pages, Google Business Profile activity, local search directories, online review platforms, backlinks from local publications or other organizations, and more. The goal is to optimize for (and reach) a local audience.

When we at Semify talk about “local search,” however, we’re referring to organic search results that take location into account. Here, we’re referring to a search query and related results pages that use the searcher’s location as a point of reference to determine assumed relevance and value.

In other words: Local SEO involves the various activities that marketers use to connect businesses with customers in their area. Local search refers to the query and its results that a potential customer might use and see when they’re looking for answers nearby.

local SEO vs local search

How Does Local Search Work?

When a customer performs a local search, the organic results that populate underneath the ads and Google map pack will typically be determined by both relevance and location, as well as other website ranking factors. Appearing in local searches can boost a site’s traffic from consumers looking for results close by.

To get your clients ranking in Google local search results, you’ll likely need to develop a local SEO strategy that includes geo-targeted keywords. This can provide additional context to Google so that search engines know the location is connected to that business in some way.

However, it’s about more than keyword optimization. Factors like mobile responsive web design, FAQ and landing pages, link-building, online reviews and directories, and even Google Business Profile management all play a role in helping a website appear more prominently in local searches.

Here’s the interesting part: Web users may not always be aware that Google is performing a local search on their behalf. If a customer specifies that they’re looking for “landscapers in Rochester, NY” it’s a given that Google will prioritize results within that location. But even if you don’t specify your area or add the words “near me” to your query, Google may still assume that you want answers within your vicinity instead of ones from across the globe. Because algorithms are meant to improve over time as more information is received, search engines often assume intent based on prior data.

We performed a quick experiment to test this theory.

Even when we typed in “landscapers” with no geographical context, Google automatically assumed, based on our approximate location, that we may have wanted to find landscapers in the Rochester area. That’s evident from the map pack that displays right underneath the ads, as well as the first few organic search results (which are comprised of pages from respected third-party platforms).

local SEO map pack

However, underneath those, we found the Wikipedia and IMDB pages for an HBO mini series called “Landscapers,” the show’s Rotten Tomatoes audience rating page, and corresponding write-ups in TIME, Curbed, and the New Yorker. Underneath those results, we found some local businesses and even some non-local websites.

local organic search results

In short, this was a bit of a mixed bag. But it’s clear that Google does utilize your location data in some fashion – even when you don’t include it in your initial query. The more context you can provide, the more relevant your results are likely to be. The same goes for business owners. The more information they give to Google – via their website, online directories, online review platforms, and Google My Business – the more likely they’ll be to connect with consumers in the immediate area.

How Does Local Search Differ From the Map Pack?

In our eyes, local search can refer to either the act of performing a location-oriented search query or the organic search results that appear based on that location data point. But above those local-oriented organic search results, you’ll typically see a large-scale map and a featured section with a list of a few businesses. This is the “Google map pack” or the “Google local pack.”

map pack results

local organic search results

Local map pack (top) versus local organic search results (bottom) for "lunch Rochester NY" query (Sept. 2023)

The Google map pack showcases specific businesses in a more prominent way and displays a lot of information, including their name, average GBP review rating, price point (if applicable), business category or subcategory, address, phone number, and even snippets from reviews or special highlights (like hours of operation, specific accommodations, or years in business).

Understandably, it’s a goal for many business owners to be featured in both the map pack and on page 1 of organic search results. What’s tricky about that is Google reportedly uses a completely different ranking algorithm for local organic search results than it does for map pack results. On the flip side, there are real opportunities for businesses to heighten their search visibility and theoretically appear in both places – essentially doubling their presence above (or right below) “the fold” in SERPs.

How Does Google Calculate Local Rankings?

When determining local rankings, Google is publicly concerned with three main attributes: Relevance, distance, and prominence.

how google calculates local search rankings

  • Relevance: Google specifies that this refers only to “how well a local Business Profile matches what someone is searching for.” Interestingly, Google doesn’t mention anything about a website’s perceived relevance; advice is focused solely on GBP, with recommendations of publishing detailed business information to help Google understand context.

  • Distance: Google’s definition is a bit vague in terms of data origin (i.e., Google Business Profile versus a business’s website), but the message is pretty clear. Google measures how far a given search result is from the location term included in the search query. Without a specific location, Google calculates distance based on known data.

  • Prominence: Google maintains that landmarks or well-known brands that are already prominent offline are more likely to have a prominent place within local search results, too. Google also notes that additional business information from across the internet (including articles, directories, links, reviews, and organic search ranking) can impact a business’s perceived prominence. From this last definition, we can conclude that these attributes are more geared towards map pack rankings than organic search – though these factors can certainly impact organic search rankings, too.

That doesn’t tell us a whole lot, which isn’t too surprising. Google likes to keep much of its algorithm under wraps. On rare occasions, they’ll give us a peek behind the curtain. But most of the time, we have to be willing to read between the lines.

One thing we do feel pretty confident about is that Google uses a separate ranking algorithm for its map pack than for its local-based organic search results. Each one uses different calculations and weighs its ranking signals differently.

To that end, Moz actually asserts that Google’s local search algorithms change based on the industry, the market, or even the device being used to perform a search. That means that the local algorithm may weigh certain factors differently for one sector versus another. For example, Moz cites that for drive-thru restaurants, the “popular times” factor carries a much greater emphasis in Google’s algorithmic calculations than it would for a search involving tax preparers.

Moz also claims: “Within Google’s own suite of local search results, the same business may rank quite differently in Google Maps than they do in the Local Finder [located within Google Maps or “More places”], and beyond the local results, the organic results are governed by a completely distinct set of calculations…Factors that are assisting a business to rank excellently in a local pack may do little to assist organic rankings.”

Which Local Ranking Signals Does Google Care About?

We can’t say for certain how particular factors are weighted – or even what’s definitively included in Google’s search ranking algorithms. However, we can make some educated guesses as to what Google cares about.

Experts assert that the following ranking signals are very likely featured (either directly or indirectly) as part of Google’s local ranking algorithms:

  • Google Business Profile business information
  • Business reviews (GBP, on-site, and third-party platforms)
  • Website domain authority and page authority
  • Name, address, phone number (NAP)
  • Technical web design and ease of use (including mobile responsiveness)
  • On-site optimizations (local keywords, FAQs, landing pages, structured data)
  • Content quality (volume across site) and localization
  • Online directory citations
  • Backlinks (quality, relevance, diversity)
  • Behavioral and personalization factors (GBP click-through rate, searcher proximity)
  • Website internal linking
  • Social media pages and listings

The good news is that Google does provide some guidance to improve a business’s visibility in local search results. But when making strategic decisions to amplify local search or map pack rankings, we have to use our own experience, knowledge, and best judgment.

How Does Google Determine Local Search Vs. Map Pack Rankings?

Although Google remains tight-lipped about its exact calculations, we can come to a general consensus about which factors matter more for specific aspects of local SEO marketing.

Whitespark’s 2023 Local Search Ranking Factors survey reveals how local ranking factors might be weighted. Note that these are not official algorithmic calculations from Google, but rather a visual representation of the importance that survey participants – all of whom are SEO experts – placed on each ranking signal for both the map pack algorithm (left) and local organic search algorithm (right).

local search ranking factors survey

Image credit: Whitespark

From this, it seems that most experts surveyed feel that Google Business Profile optimization plays the biggest role in determining rankings for both the map pack and local finder, with on-page factors and online reviews coming in second and third.

For local organic search results, on-page signals and link signals were viewed as the two most important factors. Factors like reviews, GBP, citations, personalization, and user behavior all clocked in at under 10% in terms of perceived algorithmic importance.

This survey data supports our own beliefs about the map pack and local search algorithms. Namely, Google Business Profile plays the most important role in map pack rankings, while on-page SEO, technical factors, and backlinks matter the most for organic search results (including local searches).

Why Is Local SEO Important for My Clients?

Because 45% of searches are performed specifically to find local businesses, you might assume that will be enough to sway your clients on the importance of local SEO. But there are actually a few other compelling reasons that can convince your clients that they need local SEO services:

  • Local SEO marketing allows small businesses to truly compete. Rather than going up against national or even international brands, SMBs are in a better place to beat out nearby competitors with a local SEO strategy. A small mom-and-pop store isn’t ever going to win against a global corporation. But if you’re optimizing for local keywords that resonate with their customers, they’ll have a good shot of ranking in the map pack above other brick-and-mortar locations in their area.

  • Local SEO services make for more cost-effective marketing. Small businesses generally don’t have the big marketing budgets you’ll see with enterprise brands. Competing with those brands and their budgets could result in wasting money with little to show for it. With local business SEO, you can show your clients that they can benefit from more affordable marketing and connect with relevant consumers in their area – and that’s really the goal, anyway.

  • Local SEO has high demand and immediate action. While SEO should never be sold as a “quick fix,” there’s a real demand for nearby results and fast solutions. Search Engine Journal reports that over 60% of consumers perform local searches every day. According to Google, over three-quarters of mobile searchers make a visit to businesses within 1 day of their search. You and your clients can harness that demand and urgency by tapping into local business SEO.

Need even more compelling local SEO statistics? Check out this data from SEMRush:

local SEO statistics

How Can I Help My Clients Improve Their Local SEO?

Assuming your clients are on board with local SEO services, what can you do to improve their presence in local organic search and the map pack?

We’d recommend steps like:

  • Updating their Google Business profile regularly and completing all fields
  • Ensuring accuracy across GBP and other online directory listings
  • Managing and responding appropriately to online reviews
  • Optimizing their website for location-specific keywords and landing pages
  • Claiming, updating, and managing their social media accounts
  • Creating high-quality, local-oriented content
  • Developing link-building relationships with other local organizations
  • Adding schema markup and making other website technical improvements
  • Following all other SEO best practices (with an emphasis on local search experience)

Of course, those tasks require a lot of time, effort, and know-how. But when you work with a white label SEO partner like Semify, you can rely on our team to optimize your clients’ sites for local search and prioritize their Google Business Profiles to help them rank in the map pack. That way, you can focus on growing your agency and nurturing those client relationships while getting additional support to improve local results.