Act Globally, Think Locally: What Local SEO Means for Multi-location Businesses

If you work for a multi-location (multi-national, even) business and you think local SEO is just for small businesses: think again.

Not only do the fundamentals of local SEO have very real impacts on the performance of every business location or branch, but as time goes on and the internet gets more and more mobile, we’ll be seeing more and more aspects of local SEO impacting other parts of search.

Consider the following statistics on search intent:

Because local SEO is about so much more than website optimisation and organic traffic (as you’ll see in this post), multi-location businesses have a whole new skillset they need to invest in to truly reach the individual consumers searching for business locations like theirs among a crowded local marketplace.

What’s So Different About Local SEO?

The ‘SEO’ in Local SEO is perhaps something of a misnomer, but it’s the standardised term, so we’ll stick with it. Optimising a local business website for search engines is just one part of the puzzle, and these days it’s nowhere near as critical as it perhaps used to be.

This is thanks to a major evolution in the way Google (I could say ‘search engines’, but I’m not going to lie – this is all Google) deals with local business information. Earlier iterations of its local business product were called Google Local and, yes, Google+, but the current iteration is light years ahead of those: Google My Business is the #1 priority of every digital marketer that works with a local business wanting to get the phone ringing and fee through the door.

What sets Google My Business (GMB) apart from other search products is that, crucially, you can have a GMB profile without a website, and the information on your GMB profile, (such as address, opening hours, images, and so on) is very rarely, if at all, predicated on information on your website. It’s been said before that Google My Business is the ‘new homepage’ for local businesses, and with good reason.

The Google My Business Knowledge Panel (right) - your local business’ new homepage

The Google My Business Knowledge Panel (right) – your local business’ new homepage

Ultimately, success in local search today is less dependent on the quality of the website and more on the quality of the business location (not the overarching brand), as we’ll see.

The Local Search Algorithm

Google doesn’t display GMB profile results in the classic organic search results. Instead, there’s a dedicated box called the ‘Local Pack’ that appears at the top of search results for queries with local intent (but a little below the top if ads are present, of course – Google’s not crazy).

By ‘local intent’ I mean any search that suggests that the searcher is looking for a business in a specific area (e.g. ‘restaurants near me’, ‘restaurants in Brighton’, and if you’re sharing your location, even just ‘restaurants’).

Google is today clever enough to draw local search intent from even the broadest terms

Google is today clever enough to draw local search intent from even the broadest terms

This algorithm that decides which GMB profiles appear in this pack for a local search is entirely separate from the main organic search algorithm, and that’s a big deal for multi-location businesses as it effectively levels the playing field.

Let’s say you’re Starbucks. While you might have several claims for plenty of top rankings for organic searches around ‘coffee’ and ‘coffee shops’, when that search has a local intent, your Starbucks branch has just as much chance of appearing in the Local Pack as any other nearby coffee shop, regardless of size.

In fact, some would argue that because consumers are more likely to review and rave about a completely unique coffee shop experience provided by an independent business than one provided by a behemothic chain, the franchise has less chance of appearing in the Local Pack.

Proximity, Relevance and Prominence

These are the three key pillars of local SEO:

  • Proximity: How close is your business to the searcher?
  • Relevance: How relevant to the search query are your products and services?
  • Prominence: What do other consumers say about your products and services?

Although you can’t affect the first pillar short of moving you business location nearer to every searcher, you need to keep the other two in mind at all times.

If what you’re doing in your local search strategy isn’t making each business location more well-known for the kinds of things searchers are looking for or raising the profile of each business location, then it’s not worth doing at all.

Which Factors Impact Local Search Rankings?

Like any of Google’s algorithms, the local search algorithm is complex and ultimately unknowable. However, as with regular SEO, there are always brave digital marketers at the forefront of their profession, testing and analysing ranking factors and local search results, day in and day out.

This has led to what is commonly considered the bible of local ranking factors, the Local Search Ranking Factors Study, performed annually by Moz. (A caveat: this study is not based on actual search data, but opinions from a survey of industry experts – not the most statistically sound, I know, but it’s the best the industry has for now.)

When looking at the fluctuation of local ranking factors, as reported in this study, over time, we can see that, it’s very fairly consistently GMB signals (proximity, categories, keyword in business title, etc.) that rule the roost.

Google My Business signals go from strength to strength in their impact on local search results

Google My Business signals go from strength to strength in their impact on local search results

Next up are link signals, review signals, on-page signals, citation signals and beyond.

Classic SEOs will recognise link signals and on-page signals, but review and citation signals are very peculiar to local SEO.

I won’t go into too much detail about the latter, as it’s expertly covered in this piece about managing citations for multi-location businesses, but because of their impact on local search visibility, customer reviews is an area that everyone in your business needs to be concerned with, from top brass, through the Area Manager, and right down to the customer-facing boots on the ground.

What Can Multi-location Businesses Do to Compete in Local Search?

In the local search battle of David vs Goliath, David has a bit of a natural advantage, but there’s plenty that multi-location businesses can do to take back their crown in the fiercely-competitive world of local search.

Google My Business Q&A

For better or for worse, Google My Business gives all users the opportunity to ask the public questions about each business location, which other members of the public can then answer.

To make your business location stand out among the competition, make sure you’re answering or monitoring the Q&A section carefully. This is for reputation protection reasons as much as anything else. I looked for an example of a Q&A using ‘Starbucks’, to use here and, and I’m not kidding, this is quite literally the first question I found in a Q&A:

The Doors said it best: People are strange

The Doors said it best: People are strange

As you can see, there’s no date applied, or name, so we don’t know anything about the question asker or how long ago it was posted. All we can see is that Starbucks is not protecting its brand well enough here. All it takes is a little click of those three dots on the right-hand side to report it.

Managing Q&A at such a large scale is not easy for big brands, but this example shows how prevalent abuse and misuse of this feature is, so it’s worth investing in.

Local Links

Although I’ve talked a lot here about websites not having as much power in local search as they used to, you’ll still note that the #2 local search ranking factor is ‘link signals’.

This can easily become very tricky for large brands with huge websites not really wanting to create a separate website for each location, but at the very least a store locator with an individual page for each location is in order.

You can then get to work building local links back to that page. By local links I mean links from local organisation’s websites (e.g. the local newspaper website, a local church or community group, a local Scout’s group).

Even if a traditional SEO would balk at the idea of spending time and effort obtaining a link from a relatively unknown website with low Domain Authority, the fact is that Google sees a clear connection between these sites and a local community of consumers. This means that the more links like these you have, the more the individual branch location’s prominence is boosted in its local area.

Remember, though, that everything has to trickle up to Google My Business, so be sure to use the location’s store page as the website in its Google My Business profile.

Localised Pages

If you have the resources and capacity to build out more than one page about an individual location on your brand website, then it’s a great idea to do so. To use Starbucks as an example again, they could feasibly create a ‘hub’ on their website for the Western Road, Brighton branch, and then use traditional content marketing techniques to create and draw links to area-focused content, such as ‘The Best Shops to Visit on Western Road, Brighton’.

The more locations you have, the harder (and potentially less effective, due to cannibalisation) this will be, so consider it thoroughly before going down this ‘content silo’ route.

Build Citations for Each Location

Citations still have a really important part to play in local search as they appear in the directories people use to search for local businesses, but also because, provided they’re consistent, they show that your business information is reliable.

Smaller local businesses likely won’t have the budget or time to get in every available business listings site, so get ahead of them and build accurate citations for each of your business locations.

Make each Google My Business Profile Authentic and Unique

Apart from monitoring and responding to Google Q&As, as mentioned above, you should be making sure that each and every location’s GMB profile feels real and authentic. The last thing you want to use is stock photos, as these will appear everywhere from Google Maps to the Local Pack, and consumers want an actual sense of what the branch looks and feels like. If you can encourage customers to post photos of their experiences to your GMB profile, even better!

Another way to enhance the authenticity and uniqueness of your GMB profiles is to use Google Posts to highlight offers, promotions, events and activities unique to that location. 

This is still a relatively new feature and many of your local competitors won’t be using it, so take a look at this post from Google My Business Product Expert Ben Fisher for advice on how to get started.

Generate Reviews for Each Location

I’ve saved the best until last, but although it’s probably the easiest to explain, it can be the hardest to achieve: each and every one of your multi-location business’s individual branches needs to be generating reviews thick and fast in order to stand a chance at competing in local search.

As we’ve seen above, review signals are nearly as crucial as link signals in local search, so if you’re not generating reviews, your individual locations are going to suffer massively in local search visibility.

It’s not just about getting a good star rating, though, although that’s of course important. Research shows that velocity and recency of reviews are very important to consumers, too. That means that you can’t just invest in some short-term review boosting for your locations; you need reviews to come in regularly across multiple sites.

You also need to be replying to them (and not just the negative ones). Soon-to-be-published research from BrightLocal shows that review responses are becoming more and more intrinsic to consumers’ trust in businesses. All in all, I’d say that every multi-location business needs a defined and robust review generation, monitoring and response strategy.

The signs are all there: Google is taking what people say about your business far more seriously than what you say about it, so now more than ever you need to be influencing and directing the conversations around your local business locations as much as you would your overall brand.