What is Local SEO, and How Does It Work?

Learn how Google works so that you can harness this search engine optimization strategy and grow your business

Local SEO is a search engine optimization strategy that helps your business be more visible in local search results on Google.

Any business that has a physical location or serves a geographic area can benefit from local SEO. If you search Google for any important keywords related to your business and a map with 3 listings appears underneath it (also known as a map pack), then local SEO can help you grow your business.

But to understand local SEO, you need to know how Google works first.

How did search engines evolve?

In the early days of the internet, there were relatively few websites, so navigating the web was easy. Once the internet started to expand, however, search engines were created to allow users to find the sites they were looking for more easily.

If you typed a phrase into a search engine, that phrase was matched to websites that included the keywords in your search phrase. Google used this same approach, but it quickly dominated the other search engines when it became the first search engine to use links between sites as an indication of which websites were trusted and had authority.

Today Google looks at hundreds of factors both on and off your website to determine if it’s relevant to display as a search result. Factors form your “digital footprint,” and each factor has a different weight or value, which the search engine combines to return results. Your digital footprint determines whether or not you’re a top result to an inquiry that a user types into Google.

So how does Google work?

When you type a search phrase into Google, it checks the pattern of various website signals, or ranking factors, such as how relevant your site is, to return a list of sites that match your search.

Most people don’t realize that Google isn’t doing a live search of the entire internet every time someone types something into the search bar. It’s actually searching a stored copy of all of the sites that Google has discovered. This copy is called the Google Index.

To form the index, Google uses small programs called “spiders” to crawl the web. Each spider works the same way: It starts on a single page, then follows the links on that page, looking at content on the next pages, and so on.

As web content gets crawled, it’s stored in Google’s servers, and the index is built. The spiders work at a mind-blowing scale, constantly crawling trillions of pages at an incredibly fast pace. This ensures that the index is as up-to-date as possible and new sites and connections are discovered quickly.

How Google ranks search results

Google uses various processes to rank hundreds or thousands of sites in the blink of an eye. These processes are called algorithms. When you Google something, an algorithm checks the index and returns a list of websites that match your search. Those results are chosen and ranked based on relevance and prominence.

The algorithm looks at various on-site and off-site factors to determine which websites have something related to your search. All of the relevant sites are added to the list, which is then ranked by prominence. Again referring to the various on-site and off-site factors, the algorithm determines which sites best answer your search query, and those sites are listed at the top of the search results.

Improving your SEO influences both relevancy and prominence factors for your website. If the right elements of your site’s digital footprint are optimized, your site shows up higher in more search results.

Local SEO is a different pattern

After analyzing the behavior of users during trillions of searches, Google figured out that people seeking certain types of businesses need results from their immediate area. That’s why Google’s local search algorithm includes a proximity factor, which is a fancy way of saying that Google takes your location into account when you search. This happens even when the searcher doesn’t include a city name or "near me” in their search.

If you’re at work and want to get a pizza delivered for lunch, for example, Googling “pizza delivery” shows a list of locations near your office.

But if you try that same search at home, you’ll get an entirely different set of results. This makes sense, considering you need a pizza delivered from somewhere nearby.

Local search has been around for years, but it was limited due to people only using their desktop computers. With the recent growth in mobile internet access, however, mobile search has exploded, so local SEO has become hugely important for the success of any business offering local products or services.

What matters for local SEO

While the local map pack is displayed within the standard Google organic search listings, separate algorithms power the main Google search results and the local map pack results. As a local business, you have the opportunity the appear within both the main organic search results and the local map pack at the same time.

If you’re new to marketing your business online, one of the main challenges is knowing what you should focus on to make your efforts as effective as possible.

Marketing analytics software company Moz posts its annual Local Search Ranking Factors survey, which includes the top 35 to 40 worldwide experts in local SEO. Its results provide the best insights into which factors influence local search visibility.

Website content is a significant factor, just as it is in Google’s traditional search algorithm, but location-based factors like Google My Business, citations, and review signals are also included.

Start harnessing SEO

Now that you have a solid understanding of how Google ranks local search results, you can start to concentrate on signals that will optimize your site’s digital footprint. This way your business shows up higher on the results page, which can lead to more potential customers finding your business.

There are many factors that influence your visibility in these searches, but keep in mind that local search continues to grow and change. To keep up with what signals are increasing and decreasing in importance, you can refer to Moz’s annual survey to form your strategy playbook. Once you start to improve each important signal area, you’ll be able to serve more people in your geographic region—and grow faster.

Written by Greg Gifford for Mailchimp. Greg is an expert in local SEO.