Keyword rankings are becoming meaningless.
Not that keywords matter less.
But your website rankings, and the order in which search engines show a user certain results, are now personalized based on 3 main things:
That means if you and I typed in the same exact key phrase right now, our search engine result pages (SERPs) would almost certainly show different rankings for different websites.
The best place to see this in action is on the ‘local’ pages that dictate what prospective renters see when they look up your property’s neighborhood or brand name on Google.
Believe it or not, these searches can also lead 50% of mobile visitors to your location within one day!
Here’s how those local pages are changing, and what you can do to capitalize.
Search engine optimization is a straightforward, relatively simple process to understand (the difficulty comes in the execution).
Search engines scan millions of web pages and categorize them based on several different criteria. Essentially they’re looking for the most authoritative, popular, and relevant ones to show you based on whatever you type in.
Higher rankings for a website typically meant you were judged to be the most authoritative, popular and relevant on that particular topic. That’s it.
But today, that’s not so true anymore. The days of a one-size fits all ranking scheme for everybody, everywhere, is going away.
That means the search engine pages you (and your prospective renters) are looking at don’t resemble what they used to. Search Engine Land has a great detailed write up on this, but the cliff notes version is that the organic listing areas have shrunk while new image listings, local listings have taken over, and the introduction of the Knowledge Graph. In addition, Google just removed their right sidebar in favor of 4 top ad units (as opposed to the original 3), further pushing ‘organic’ listings down the page.
SEO has become an increasingly complex practice over the past few years because of advances like this, where qualitative factors like context and even artificial intelligence are now being used to dictate who sees what in their search results.
Before jumping into the tips you can use to capitalize on these latest trends and updates, we need to dive a little deeper into what, specifically, helps you to rank locally.
The top three factors (of many) that contribute to your organic search rankings include:
The first two are largely known, and still largely contribute to ‘local search’ positions too (as we’ll see soon).
The third, RankBrain, is a more recent development to uses machine-based learning to (a) make rankings more accurate while (b) also limiting the potential for manipulation. This means using artificial intelligence to continually ‘learn’ and teach itself to become better at it’s job. It’s a complex topic beyond the scope of this article, but keep an eye on it as it’s influence will become more important over the coming months and years.
While the fundamentals of ‘local SEO’ are similar to standard SEO practices, certain elements are emphasized or deemphasized accordingly based on the unique characteristics of finding local information.
The primary thing people are looking for? Your business address or location.
The Moz Local Search Ranking Factors guide is an excellent resource that helps us uncover how to do that. The ‘factors’ below are like buckets or major categories, made up of several different individual elements. Let’s take a look.
The first two by percentage, on-page signals and link signals, are classic SEO factors that sum up a lot of smaller details or specific types of information. But the point for these two is to have a local emphasis. That means local keywords (i.e. the name of your city or neighborhood on pages) and local link signals (i.e. links from local directories or local news).
The next few categories - My Business, external location signals, behavioral or mobile, personalization and review signals - all have to do with specific ‘local optimization’ tips that we’ll unpack in a second.
But first, there’s another section of the Moz study worth looking at. The example below deals with assessing which individual elements can help separate or differentiate you from competitors in highly competitive markets.
Numbers two and three (domain authority and inbound links to domain) are high-level SEO factors that are beyond the scope of this article. But the excellent Beginner’s Guide to SEO can help if you’re looking for more information.
Instead, our focus is on the individual ‘local’ elements that make up the majority of success.
Now that we have the basics of how local search works, we can dive into the important part - optimizing your website and marketing efforts to take advantage of these new changes.
There are literally thousands of tiny details involved in the intricacies of how local SEO works.
Fortunately, most of those can be grouped into a helpful 80/20 analysis to simplify our lives.
The first deals with optimizing your property for those local ‘branded’ searches to make sure yours is showing up properly and consistently no matter what people search for.
The second focuses on how those local search pages look now, and finding the primary ways you can diversify promotional efforts to show up in as many places as possible.
‘Branded’ searches are exactly what they sound like; searches for your property or brand name by interested people.
In keeping with our theme here, they look vastly different today. Just take a look at the one for the AVA High Line in New York.
First, you’ll see a few advertising spots (yes, even on your own brand name or property search). Then a few organic listings, before the Image Search is pulled in.
But the most prominent thing on the page is that huge box on the right hand side of the page, which is known as the Knowledge Graph.
Unfortunately, you can’t directly select what shows up there. But you can indirectly influence it by making sure that you’ve added all of the appropriate information.
Start by making sure your website has ‘schema markup’, which you’ll need the help of a developer or someone technical to double check or implement for you. The next step is setting up Google My Business.
This is a free service from Google to help you list key property details to help them properly index and show it to interested renters. Signing up for it is pretty straightforward, and the information you enter will start influencing different Google properties almost immediately.
For example, if you flip over to Google Maps you’ll now see your property information show up with others in the area, along with details we discussed earlier like your address, hours, contacts, and even reviews or ratings. That’s incredibly important because 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations!
If we click on one of the individual properties you’ll see the Knowledge Graph-like view again. Here, you’ll find those all important reviews and ratings in detail, along with other helpful information that prospective renters can use during their proactive research part of the Renters Journey.
Once Google My Business is properly set-up and the information is consistent, start using it! That means post updates, new images, link to it from your site, and make sure to get reviews from happy renters because they’re going to have a huge influence on the next generation.
Next, you’ll want to make sure your property is accurately listed in the major local directories and listings that also influence local search results.
Moz Local is a helpful tool that will give you a fast assessment and help you get listed in these quickly. It will check how your property address, phone numbers, and other data shows up to make sure that it’s consistent.
The AVA High Line here does an excellent job, with minimal incompletes, inconsistencies, or duplicate listings. Not only does that help their chances in local search results, but it also prevents potential renters getting confused by finding conflicting information about your property.
Setting up your property for local search is the first step to influencing local search results and reaching more people.
But there’s still another huge development to notice and take advantage of if you’re looking to dominate the competition.
Let’s go back to how a local search engine result page (SERP) looks to see what’s going on. If you type in a local query, like ‘chelsea apartments nyc’, the first thing you’ll see is the new 4-ad unit on the very top.
First clue: advertising.
Next up, are a few organic listings before the Image Search shows up. Nothing surprising here until you read the actual websites showing up in these top results for such a critical keyphrase.
Not one individual property or multifamily brand! Instead, these are all third party sites like an aggregator that collects information for properties all over the city.
This trend continues after the Image Search section, where the only individual property site showing up on the first page is ‘thechelseaapts.com’ (which is only showing up because (a) I’ve visited their site before and to a lesser extent, (b) they have an ‘exact-match’ domain with the search we performed).
So, what does this all mean?
If you’ve done the first step here, people searching around your property name should find everything they need.
But… for all of those people who aren’t yet ‘brand aware’, there’s a big gaping hole. These people are earlier in the Renter’s Journey, and may not have come across you yet. Instead, they’re searching for other types of local queries, like the city or neighborhood example we just looked at.
And these important pages are dominated largely by (a) advertisements and (b) third-party listing sites. We can debate whether that’s right or wrong, but it’s reality. So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em to make sure your property has a fighting chance.
First up is Google AdWords, which is a detailed topic unto itself. But the best place to start (or analyze your current efforts) is to start looking at the costs and competition for these highly influential keyphrases with SEMrush.
The above example shows what kind of volume (or the quantity) of search volume for all related keyphrases, as well as the costs you can expect to pay to start generating clicks back to your site. Just a few minutes on this tool can help you quickly determine how far you’ll budget will go.
And you can even do a competitive analysis to see what keywords your competition is bidding on to get a sense for their strategy as well!
The next step is to begin listing your property with those aggregator-like sites. Most will have specific information to list property details just like Google My Business. Some, like Yelp, will give you additional options to receive ‘higher’ placement in their own listings (through advertising).
Just like with Google My Business, getting reviews and other customer interactions on these pages will also help influence their own ‘organic’ rankings process (which tend to be less complex or sophisticated as Google’s, relying more on basic metrics like the number and quality of reviews).
The only SEO guarantee you can bank on is that it will constantly evolve.
One of the biggest areas of change are the local search results that your property relies on to send new interested renters. Over the past few years, these pages have become much more dynamic by pulling in different information like images, reviews, or property hours.
Making sure your property shows up as completely and accurately is possible is the first step to capitalizing on these changes. While listing your site on the influential aggregators dominating local searches and using AdWords effectively will give you a major advantage over the competition.
While the small tactics can change quickly, the good news is that the major ‘rules of the game’ stay the same for the most part.
Run a good property, make renters happy, and get them to help spread the word online. That’s still the winning recipe for digital marketing, regardless of changes in SEO.
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