Local SEO Guide: How to Actually Rank

There are a ton of articles on local SEO explaining all kinds of theories on “why” websites rank locally.

Unfortunately, most of it is a bunch of guru nonsense.

We rank local businesses on a daily basis and the process isn’t as complicated as people make it out to be.

In this guide I’m going to show you how you can rank in both the local pack and local organic results simultaneously.

Let’s start:

Keyword Research for Local SEO

Every SEO campaign requires diligent keyword research. Local search engine optimization is no different.

Since you know I like giving examples, I’m going to show you how I would do keyword research for a local dentist in Chesterfield, MO.

All you’ll need for this exercise is the Google Keyword Planner. We’re going to conduct two different types of searches.

For the first one, enter “city + keyword”. For me, that will be “Chesterfield dentist”.

Scroll down to the Ad Group Ideas and find what variation of this keyword gets the highest search volume. This will be our pillar keyword that we will focus our efforts on.

Later in this post, I’m going to show you how to rank for all variations of your pillar keyword without needing to do anything crazy.

After looking through the Ad Group Ideas, I found a search phrase that gets higher volume than the original: “dentist chesterfield mo”.

This will now be my pillar keyword.

At this point, we’ll want to narrow the search down to find more opportunities. To narrow it down, we may want to search surrounding cities that the dentist services or different classifications of dentists.

For this example, I’ll check cities neighboring Chesterfield.

Here’s what I found:

There would be a lot of opportunity to capture customers in surrounding cities for this mock client. If this imaginary dental office gives an amazing experience for its patients, then they will be more than willing to drive to their location. For someone to drive past every dental office near their house and go to a dentist 30 minutes away, they must see actual value.

Unfortunately, getting this type of customer loyalty is only possible AFTER they’ve had an experience with the dental office.

When someone searches for “Chesterfield dentist” or any search for that matter, they are faced with many choices.

It’s not the #1 result in Google that wins the customer.

In fact, it may not even be the top 5 results that win…

The only result that wins is the one that generates the most perceived value to the searcher.

I’m going to explain in a later section how you can exhibit more perceived value on your website and win over more search engine traffic coming to your site.

Now that we have our pillar keyword along several other service areas, we’re going to search for other classifications with the dental practice. For this exercise, I usually perform a generic search like “dentist”.

Right away, I find “emergency dentist”, “pediatric dentist”, and “cosmetic dentist”.

What I do now is add the “Chesterfield” extension to these search terms.

Here’s what I get:

Now you’re probably saying, “that’s some really low search volume!” It is very low, but you need to consider the Lifetime Value (LTV) of a single client.

For example, a popular cosmetic dental procedure is porcelain veneers.

According to most sources, the minimum cost for one veneer is $975. If someone wanted to get veneers on their six front teeth, the procedure would cost approximately $5,850 on the low side.

This is why you must judge a search query based on the LTV model instead of the search volume model (which is pointless).

At this point, you should have your pillar keyword, keywords for your surrounding cities, and keywords for different classifications of your profession.

But now an important question…

What happens when you search “keyword + city” and no search volume shows up in the Google Keyword Planner?

This typically happens because A) your industry is very niche or B) you’re trying to rank in a very small city.

Don’t fret!

There is a solution.

Go back to the Keyword Planner. Go to “Targeting” and then “Locations”. Remove “United States” and enter your city.

In the keyword search, enter the generic term without the city extension.

So instead of “Chesterfield dentist”, and I’m just going to enter “dentist”.

This will show you how many people are searching for “dentist” from the geo-location of Chesterfield.

Competition Analysis

Analyzing your competitors who are already having success in the local SERPS is the easiest way to find link opportunities. It also allows you to find holes in their strategies, which will help you to beat them out.

For the competition analysis, you’ll need Ahrefs and Majestic. You can also use Open Site Explorer, but it doesn’t usually have links that the other two can’t find.

When I analyze a competitor I’m looking for these types of links:

  • Guest posts
  • Editorial mentions
  • Geo-targeted directories, sponsorships, or resource pages

These four link types are really the only ones that matter. After you’ve found these link types, you should run them all through Majestic to check the Trust Flow. Only focus on link opportunities with a Trust Flow of at least 10.

After I’ve dissected the top 10 competitor’s link profiles, I then look at other areas of their marketing strategy.

Here are the basic questions I ask:

  • Are they blogging consistently? If so, is their blog actually giving value? Can we produce better content?
  • Are they on social? If so, are their social media accounts regularly updated? What social platforms are they NOT on? How can I leverage the untapped audience?
  • Are they on YouTube or producing video content? If so, is it educational and insightful for their ideal customer? Can we produce higher value videos?

These questions are simple, but highly valuable.

It allows you to not only beat them in the SERPs, but you can also focus your resources on beating them in other areas they’re not focusing on. Most local businesses are not producing valuable blog content, not actively marketing on social media, and not creating valuable videos.

There is a huge opportunity in almost every local vertical.

On-Site SEO

Since most local businesses have small websites, the on-site SEO is much easier. Unlike larger websites, you won’t be dealing with large scale duplicate content and thin content issues.

Site Audit

Although local businesses typically won’t have large scale on-site issues, it’s still important to audit the website.

Use the following tools:

  • Siteliner: finds duplicate content and broken links on your site.
  • Screaming Frog SEO Spider: finds duplicate and missing META information, response codes such as 404 errors, 301 and 302 redirects, and directives like “nofollow” and “noindex” tags.
  • SEO Quake: helps you check the META information and keyword density for individual pages.

These are really the only three tools you need to perform a strong on-site SEO audit.

META Information

META tags are the first stop when it comes to building relevancy for any page on your website. It would be ideal if you wrote unique META information for every page on your site. If you don’t, Google and other search engines will crawl a page and assign it META information based on what the crawler finds. The only two elements of your META information that matter are your title and description. META keywords are worthless.

META Title and Description

It is absolutely critical that your META title has your primary keyword in it. If I’m trying to rank for multiple keywords on one page, I’ll try to get as many as I can into the title. Google will only display 55-60 characters in the search engine results, so you have to use the real estate wisely. For the description, you have 160 characters to use.

Here’s how I would optimize META information for the dentist example I used in the keyword research section:

META Title: “Chesterfield Pediatric & Cosmetic Dentist | Dr. Dentist”
META Description: “Dr. Dentist is a cosmetic, pediatric, and emergency dentist that serves Chesterfield, Wildwood, St. Peters, and Town and Country. Click here now to learn more.”

With this title and description combination, it would allow this dentist to rank for many different variations of keywords. Sometimes just changing the META information like I did above is enough to increase rankings in uncompetitive cities. You’re not going to rank #1 by changing your META tags, but it could bring you from out of the top 100 into the top 30-50 almost immediately.

Also, notice that I used a call to action at the end of the description. You should do the same on all of yours because getting a high click through rate in the SERPs is now a pretty strong ranking factor.

You may have also noticed that I didn’t include a phone number in the description.

That’s because we want the searcher to click through on the result and not just call.

Direct calls = lower CTR

Direct calls are nice, but keeping top organic rankings will be more profitable in the long run.

Keep in mind:

Local searches have much lower competition, so it’s acceptable to target multiple keywords on one page.

I don’t recommend this same approach for national keywords. National keywords are more competitive and require targeted SEO content for a single keyword.

I have one last thing I’m going to show you that will increase your click through rate in the SERPs. It requires more work, but it can be worth it.

Here’s what you do:

Instead of targeting one page for all the cities, you can create individual pages for each city. These aren’t going to be some over-optimized doorway page that Google hates… You are actually going to give value AND target the geo-specific keyword at the same time.

Here’s an example:

Although I’m only ranking around #3-#4 for this search term, my click through rate is as if I was #1.

Here’s what you do:

You have to step inside the mind of the person who is searching for your services or product. As you can see, this particular page is highly targeted for a business that is prospecting for an SEO company in Atlanta. More specifically, a business that wants to avoid common scams that the SEO industry is known for.

You can easily apply this strategy to your landing pages. The only thing you have to do is create your ideal customer avatar and then create a piece of targeted content/valuable content.

Keyword Placement and Density

Now that your META tags are optimized, it’s time for you to place keywords prominently on your page. The most important places to inject your keywords are in the title, and first sentence and last sentence of your copy.

Don’t stress out about keyword density too much. Just keep it between 1-3% and you’ll be good.

Internal Linking

Building an effective site architecture is the single best way to drive your rankings without needing more inbound links.

What is a GOOD site architecture?

It should A) flow link equity to the most important pages, B) guide users to your most important pages, and C) do it in a non-spammy way.

Before I jump into how to do this correctly, you need to know what NOT to do:

  • Don’t use sitewide menu, sidebar, or footer links
  • Don’t go crazy

Here’s what you SHOULD do:

  • DO create a “Locations” page
  • DO use keyword-rich anchor text
  • DO link within content (when possible)
  • DO use your blog to build the authority of your homepage/other money pages

Here is a diagram of an effective site architecture for a local business:

As you see in the graphic, you want to use the strength of your homepage to boost your other important pages. Any link equity sent to your “Locations” page will flow to all your targeted pages. You can also build internal links from within your blog posts to your main money pages.

This site architecture will send a hurricane of authority through your site and make your link building 10x more effective.

Meaning, you’ll get more results with less links.

Prominent Name, Address, Phone (NAP) Information

Although you shouldn’t have sitewide internal links, you SHOULD have sitewide NAP information.

Place it in the footer like this:
Company Name
Phone (should be a local number)

Your NAP consistency starts with your website.

From here on out, all business citations, social profiles, or anything else online should use the EXACT NAP information you put on your site.

If you serve customers at your location, then it’s beneficial to place a Google Map widget with your NAP information. This can also go in the footer.

Site Speed

It’s pretty common knowledge at this point, but a slow site can hurt your revenue. Consider moving off shared hosting or hiring a developer to increase your site speed. It makes your users and Google very happy when your site loads fast. Use Pingdom to check your speed.

Mobile Friendly

Over 50% of all searches are on mobile devices and Google is now devaluing websites that aren’t mobile friendly. The #1 thing Google cares about is the user experience. Non-mobile friendly websites give a terrible user experience and therefore do not deserve to keep top organic rankings. The moral of the story is that your site needs to be mobile friendly because A) it’s hurting your revenue from mobile users and B) it’s hurting your revenue because your organic rankings will drop.

Broken Links

Broken links are not only annoying, but they can actually hurt your organic rankings in the process. Don’t let them get out of hand. Run an audit of your site every quarter to clean up all broken links.

Duplicate Content

All content across your site should be 100% unique. Sometimes duplicate content issues can arise from pagination problems or by keeping your categories, tags, and archives indexed in Google. Make sure you use Siteliner to see if you’re having any of these issues.

If you’re using WordPress, then install SEO Yoast or All in One SEO pack so you can “noindex” categories, tags, and archives.

Structured Markup/Schema

The purpose of using structured data is so that Google can understand your business easier. In general, you can only markup content that is visible on your website or you’ll have some issues with Google. At the bare minimum, you should markup your NAP information in the footer.

Here’s a helpful article on how to do it.

Google + Business Page Optimization

Your Google + Business page is the foundation of your entire local SEO campaign. All business citations should match your listing on Google.

The most important part of setting up your Google + page is to make sure your NAP-W information is 100% correct and aligns with the information on your website.

Business Name

Should exactly match what’s on your website.


There are two options when filling in your address:
1. “I deliver goods and services to my customers at their location” — check this if you don’t serve customers at your business address. For example, I check this option for my business since we deliver our service online.
2. “I also serve customers at my business address” – check this option if you serve customers at your business address.

Contact Info

Your phone number should match your website. Your website URL should be whatever page you’re targeting for your geo-location. It is typically the homepage for most local businesses.


This isn’t as important as the NAP-W information, but I believe it should still be consistent across all platforms.


Write a brief introduction and place your primary keywords within it. I typically link back to the website with a branded anchor text and will link out to the important social accounts.


Continue populating your business page with photos and updates. Whenever you write a new blog post, share it on your business page.

NAP-W Audit

Before you can build citations for your business, you need to cleanup the ones that already exist. We use Bright Local for citation audits, but you can also use White Spark, Moz, or Yext.

Fix Citations

There are only two options for fixing citations: do it yourself or outsource it to one of the sources I listed above. I suggest the latter because it can be extremely time consuming.

Build New Citations

Like fixing citations, you can do this yourself or outsource it. I know there’s more important things for you to be doing than mindlessly building citations. So you should probably take the outsourcing route.

Social Profile Development

Many local businesses don’t realize that social profiles have an impact on their local SEO results. Many social profiles will allow you to place your address and phone, so make sure you take advantage of this opportunity. Just like any other citation you build for your business, make sure your NAP information on your social accounts matches your website.

Every citation counts!

Link Building

Every step we’ve taken so far has built a strong foundation for your link building. In many instances, just using the strategies above can greatly improve organic and local pack rankings.

But to reach the top 5 or #1, you need to build links.

Geo-Targeted Links

Getting geo-targeted links is the créme de la créme of local SEO. For the “Chesterfield dentist” example, I would prospect for the following geo-targeted links:

  • Local sponsorships
  • Local chamber of commerce
  • Local blogs
  • Local directories
  • Expired local domains

I would start the prospecting in Chesterfield, but I would expand it into surrounding cities like St. Louis as well.

Niche Targeted Links

Niche targeted links are a critical piece of any local link building campaign. Here are the types of niche link opportunities I would prospect for:

  • Niche profiles
  • Niche directories
  • Niche forums
  • Niche guest posts
  • Expired niche domains

To find these link opportunities, you can use the following tools:


Anchor Text

You don’t need to be super aggressive with anchor text in local SEO. As I explain in my anchor text post, you should keep exact match anchor text below 1%.

User Signals

Link building is still king when it comes to ranking, but user signals are what will determine if you actually keep your position on the first page.

Google now heavily analyzes SERP click through rates and sees how users interact with websites.

So, if people are performing a search in Google, click on your result, and immediately bounce off or click the back button (pogo sticking), it will start to impact your rankings.

It may or may not be true, but Google’s algorithm will start to believe that your website isn’t serving the user, isn’t answering their question, and might not be valuable enough to be listed near the top of the results.

Aside from your organic CTR, some other important metrics that you should measure and try to improve on include bounce rate, average time spent on site, and pages viewed per visit.

Perceived Value

On the surface, “perceived value” may seem like some sort of manipulation, but it’s not.

You can create greater perceived value on your website in an honest and ethical way.

The point of this strategy is to build rapport and trust with every single visitor who enters your website.

At the bare minimum, your website should display prominent reviews/testimonials, and strong value proposition. You can also use the “Featured In” strategy if you’ve been published or referenced on any popular websites. If your business is results-based, then make sure you have case studies explaining how you achieved the results.

What if you’re a new business and you don’t have any of these things?

1) Don’t LIE, and 2) get your first client/customers and give them an amazing experience, so you can display that on your site.

Remember, a searcher looking for a solution in Google will choose a company that has displayed more perceived value. This applies to both B2C and B2B. By making your customers/clients happy, you’ll be able to display REAL perceived value on your website.

Greater perceived value than your competitors = more wins.


Getting reviews on your Google + business page can give you a serious boost, but you should also try to get reviews on outside platforms as well. Some of those platforms include Yelp, Yellow Pages, and White Pages to name only a few. There’s no real secret to getting reviews except for doing an amazing job/having a great product and simply asking!

And if you run out ideas, this Google maps marketing guide provides some creative tips to get more reviews for your Google My Business page.

That’s It

Local SEO isn’t crazy difficult. You don’t need to go crazy with links or spam your site in any way. Just make sure your site is optimized, your NAP information is consistent across the Internet, you have geo-targeted and niche targeted links, and users are finding the answers they need on your site.

and BOOM:

You will rank.

Have some questions? Drop it in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading!

– Gotch

56 thoughts on “Local SEO Guide: How to Actually Rank”

  1. Suddenly some of my keywords disappeared from Google search, While some keyword’s ranking has been dropped. what would be the reason? And yeah I’ve checked google search console, There’s no message under manual actions. I type site:mywebsitename, Search engine shows all pages. I am confused, what happened. Have you any idea, what is the possible reason?

  2. Very well written post. It will be useful to anybody who usess it, as well as myself. Keep doing what you are doing – looking forward to more posts.

  3. Hello, Thank you for this post
    immmmm but i need to ask what about categories & tag should I optimize them, simply because my Competitors optimize the categories & tag ???
    Thank you in advance

  4. Hi Nathan,
    I’ve been contemplating whether or not to execute the multiple city pages strategy. A few questions: do I need to get a physical address in each of the locations for each of the city pages? (And if so, a corresponding Google Business page?)

    And as the main office address is in the footer of the site, how would I address this issue for the city pages?



  5. Awesome post and especially for me as i have only Local SEO projects and this post will nailed it for sure. Thank you, Nathan Gotch, You solve some of my queries as well. Great.

  6. One thing I like about you will be you improve things and extremely receptive to remarks. Got an inquiry however when you expel the US from seek inquiries and enter just dental practitioner which at that point uncovers of dental specialist looks in Chesterfield does it mean you’re utilizing Chesterfield IP which is perceived by Google along these lines it gives you more precise neighborhood result?

    • Hey Jenish,

      Yes, Google serves local results based on your geo-location. For example, if I search “dentist”, I’ll see results for dentists located in Chesterfield without having to use “Chesterfield” in the search query.

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