Google doesn’t use the same algorithm for its national search results and its new local 3-pack, which displays three relevant local businesses for your local query. There are some overlapping ranking factors, of course, but the algorithms themselves and the target results are somewhat distinct. However, some experts in the industry have taken this to mean that national and local SEO should be treated entirely separately. For example, a local business might focus exclusively on trying to rank in the local 3-pack while disregarding national search, or a national company might ignore local ranks altogether.
Approaching SEO from one side or the other, despite the schism in Google’s algorithms, is a flawed strategy. It’s far better to use one group of strategies for the purpose of generating inbound traffic.
When starting out online, small businesses attempt different strategies. Some seek to tackle the whole world as their market; others start small by targeting their local region.
As the online world has grown to become saturated with businesses all vying for the top spot in global reach, some are turning to smaller, concentrated markets through national and local search.
In theory, national and local search are indeed much more promising to target. But you need to be aware of certain key differences between them to determine which you should aim for.
The following is a discussion that should help you distinguish between national and local SEO.
National SEO, being broader, allows you to use broader search terms. This can make it harder to rank for because the competition is inevitably fiercer at this level. After all, there are only 10 spots on Google’s first page.
If you are competing against 30 or 50 companies nationally, and all the metrics are the same, it’s going to be tough for your business to get ahead just in terms of creating solid backlinks.
So it’s probably safe to say that cornering local search is a lot easier. There’s much less competition in this area compared to national search. Optimizing for home improvement contractors by city or state is apt to be far less grueling than optimizing for a broader reach.
But if you are just starting out, you could be facing a fairly substantial amount of work to land local citations and get listed on small business directories in your city.
Occam’s razor suggests that when solving a problem, the simplest solution is likely the best one. Similarly, in SEO, the simplest approach is likely the most meaningful. That’s not to say that SEO can be handled with only the basics (even though I’m a proponent of the minimalistic approach to SEO), but the fewer unnecessary complications you add to your strategy, the better. Adding another “wing” of SEO could potentially confuse your efforts, especially if you assign different team members to those responsibilities. For example, if you have one set of people working only on national SEO and another set working exclusively on local SEO, you could end up working toward different goals, ultimately weakening the possible success of each one.
Rather than focusing on both national and local SEO as separate entities, some businesses completely eradicate one side of the spectrum to focus on the other. For example, a restaurant that only operates in one location might completely avoid national SEO and exclusively focus on achieving a local 3-pack ranking. On the opposite side of things, a large financial firm with locations in multiple states might completely ignore local SEO.
The problem is, both types of companies have something to gain from the other side of the strategy. For example, the restaurant could achieve a higher national rank and see a trickle of inbound traffic even if the majority of its hits come through on a local position. The financial firm could easily optimize for its specific locations and earn tons of local-specific traffic, resulting in more visibility.
While each algorithm functions almost independently, they are based in a wide pool of identical ranking factors. Even if you decide to focus exclusively on one, you could easily start influencing the other by proxy. For example, both local and national ranks depend in part on your domain authority as an independent site. Getting more inbound links from high-authority external sources will increase your ranks for both types of SEO. Mobile optimization, too, is important for both national and local rankings. The list goes on and on, to the point where it’s far easier to manage both simultaneously than just one or the other.
A handful of technological developments are making individual algorithms less and less important. A few years ago, it was possible (and advisable) to optimize separately for Bing and Google. Today, the search engines have developed so closely to one another that one set of rankings is almost indistinguishable from the other. The emergence of digital assistants like Siri and Cortana also muddy the waters by masking which algorithm they use to fetch results and combining them with other, offline search features. The modern search engine is almost algorithm-agnostic, meaning you have to pay less attention to individual algorithms’ quirks and subtleties.
While you can easily tinker with your Google Analytics account to tease out which visits came from your local rankings and which came from national rankings, at the end of the day, what you need to focus on are your overall organic visits. Organic visits are the best measure you have to determine the effectiveness and ROI of your SEO campaign, and both national and local rankings contribute to that overall figure.
Though there are plenty of technical requirements to earn a high rank, for the most part, all your search ranks are dependent on user experience factors. Lower bounce rates, greater content, more active social media profiles, and offsite relationship building all contribute to more brand awareness and better customer relationships, which also help your local and national ranks. The bottom line for any SEO campaign is making your users happy—because if your users are happy, Google will be happy, and you’ll rank higher accordingly. Keep your focus on the experience of your customers, and it’s hard to go too wrong.