Whether it’s a quest for the best tacos in town or research to find a reliable pediatrician, users engage with local search results on a daily basis. It’s Google’s job to help them find the best resources in those search results, and as a marketer, it’s your job to help the organization show up.
This 4-part series will cover the fundamental concepts that drive local keyword research and how to apply them to your local SEO campaign.
Reality check: When I first started my career in marketing, I’d typically associate local “keyword research” with an average search volume next to whatever phrase I typed into whatever keyword tool. This is not correct.
Keyword x Search Volume /=/ Local Keyword Research
As I quickly learned, keyword research is much more than numbers next to phrases. If an SEO campaign is a textbook, keywords are its index, with each term deriving certain contexts and goals. Individually, each keyword is relatively meaningless. But as a carefully constructed ecosystem, these keywords are the bedrock of a successful local SEO campaign, from tracking results to writing content to prioritizing tasks.
So, let’s begin our journey into local keyword research with the system that makes keywords inherently valuable—the local search microcosm.
The Local Search Microcosm
When we do local keyword research, we’re constantly scaling up and down the local search microcosm.
The local search microcosm exists because local SEO and local keyword research are not a list of volumes and phrases. Keywords, their locations, and the context in which they are used are an interconnected series of factors.
In the image above, we take a series of seemingly simple keyword queries—“dog walkers Boise,” “Dog walkers in Boise,”—and illustrate how these phrases scale the larger framework of the local search microcosm.
Here’s a breakdown of each piece of the local search microcosm in the example above and why it matters:
The Internet – This is where technical SEO comes in. If a page isn’t loading quickly on someone’s phone, or a crawler can’t find it, then the keyword research won’t matter. This also includes hosting, DNS, and all the other nuts and bolts.
Google – We know it; we love it. The search engine that rules our lives is also in constant, invisible motion, with SERPs in eternal unseen fluctuation and the algorithm receiving endless tweaks. Find out what shows up for the keywords (Local Pack, Knowledge Graph, snippets), who shows up, and why Google likes them.
Dog Walkers – Slightly different from keywords, this portion is the “topic” or “entity” related to the business. Understand what’s being sold with the SEO campaign, or you can’t market it properly (also known as the Blank Sheet of Paper test).
Boise – Local SEO without a location is like a taco without guacamole (tragic). Every city presents unique challenges when it comes to all the other things in the microcosm. Distance, population, local diction, and local search volumes all play a role.
Keywords – Oh look, it’s the actual keywords! We can start to think about all the phrases that might deliver traffic (and conversions) to a site, but we can’t forget the larger systems in the microcosm that got us here.
While marketers with even some SEO experience are probably familiar with these individual concepts, I intend to connect the dots. We should look at these elements as a whole whenever possible. Here are some examples of how a marketer trying to improve local rankings can bring it all together.
It’s More than Local Keywords
During the keyword research process, it’s important to generally understand the local search microcosm factors that will help vs. hinder progress toward that ranking.
I could write 100 examples of situations in local SEO where keyword research is ruthlessly extracted from the microcosm to the ruination of that campaign (AKA hindered), but here are a few examples:
Forgot the “Google” – A brand new one-page website tries to rank for “Phoenix AC repair,” (against 20-year-old websites with hundreds of pages).
It’s nice that “Phoenix AC repair” receives an average of 500 searches/month, but Google makes the rules. Once the website is launched, everything in SEO starts with “will Google like it?” And, Google will not like a one-page website with limited information because there are websites out there with more content, more history, and possibly bigger marketing budgets.
When we accept that website resources are limited, we also understand our place in the local search microcosm. From there, the keywords for the campaign take on a different flavor.
If I’m in a situation where I’m helping a small business client at Portent rank in their local market, I don’t want to deny any possibilities, but I want to start with realistic goals. Instead of doing a triathlon and ranking for “Phoenix AC repair,” let’s start with a 5K and try to rank for “swamp cooler repair service Phoenix.” Is it less glamorous? Yes. But will it drive calls? Probably.
Forgot the “Location” – An events center tries to rank for “Dallas wedding venues,” but they are located in McKinney, TX (a 54-minute drive from Dallas).
Again, we know that “Dallas wedding venue” is a high-value keyword. After all, it receives 600 searches/month. But check out the Local Pack map results for the “Dallas wedding venues” query:
As you can see, the Local Pack results are all so centered around “Dallas” that you can’t even read the city name on the map. The farthest out that Google is willing to rank a competitor is the “Dallas Palms,” probably because “Dallas” is in the name of the Google My Business profile.
So, while we’d love to achieve that “Dallas wedding venue” ranking from our location in McKinney, we have to stick with “McKinney wedding venue” unless some major changes are made to the location or name of the business.
Forgot the “Internet” – A dentist writes content for a service page about “teeth cleaning in Richmond, VA” but doesn’t invest in website security and gets hacked.
Every SEO practitioner has a moment in their career where they look at a website or a SERP, see the Chinese characters, and realize, “oh that’s hacked.” It’s not fun. I don’t even like bringing it up in this post because, ugh, the bad memories. But SEO practitioners don’t spend enough time considering the larger infrastructure of the Internet at large.
If essential website parameters like security and hosting are ignored until the situation becomes dire, then the situation with Google is very dire. The website will be removed from SERPs until security issues have been thoroughly addressed, resolved, and resubmitted.
This is all to say that it doesn’t hurt to review the dev team’s website security checklist in local SEO, even as early as the keyword research phase. No, it’s not your specialty as an SEO practitioner, but the website’s infrastructure absolutely can impact your strategy, plans, and processes if you don’t have a clear line of communication open with the dev team.
Connecting the Dots
In these examples, keyword research was technically completed for each website, but it wasn’t placed into the context of the website, community, or search engine guidelines. While keywords are nice, rankings are better—but they can’t happen if you don’t understand the situation at large.
Ultimately, it’s not the pieces of the microcosm that matter in local keyword research, but the system as a whole. If local keyword research is completed without considering the larger community, products, services, search engine, and website itself, then the pasta is being served without the sauce. And no one likes bland pasta.
Up next: How to Do Local SEO, Part 2: User Intent.