The term ‘Local Search’ describes the action when someone is looking for something in a particular geographic location. Google has determined that people will frequently do ‘searches with local intent’, and has adjusted its search algorithm many times over the years to make it easy for its users to find people, places and businesses in their location of interest.
So when someone in your area is searching online for a new dental practice, you’d probably expect that your practice would be one of those that appears on page one of their search results.
Trouble is, there aren’t many positions of the first page of the search results. And if there are a lot of other dental practices nearby, there’s going to be a lot of competition for each spot.
Like organic search, local search is complex, with scores of factors influencing which practices appear, and which do not.
So what do you do when your practice is in a particular location, but it’s not appearing in local search?
There are seven key factors to keep in mind, and I’ll be discussing them here in some detail.
The Local Search Algorithm Has Changed
The internet changes far more frequently than I ever recall changes occurring in dentistry. So, like all Australian Dentists, I dedicate a lot of time to keeping up-to-date with what’s happening in my new profession.
Recently I completed a certification on the topic of Local Search for small businesses.
The trainer was Mary Bowling, a well-respected and highly sought after consultant, speaker and educator in the area of Local Search. I try to read everything that Mary writes. I choose to learn from her because her approach to local search is always Google-compliant and has been developed to really help small businesses become more visible in their local communities. You can learn more about Mary here.
I came across my course notes the other day, and thought it would be great to share some of my key learnings from Session 1 with you.
But before we get into the good stuff, let’s talk about why you should pay attention.
Why It’s Important To Appear In The Local Search Results
You probably already know that there are three types of results that appear when you search Google for a dental practice:
- Organic (natural) results
- Paid results (Google AdWords)
- Local results
You can see an image of the search “dentist Sydney” here:
The organic results are in green, the paid results are yellow, and the local results is that lovely blue piece of real estate, just below the corresponding map.
You can see why this real estate is so precious.
Just three practices get to sit in the most eye-catching bit of real estate on the page.
We call this the “Local Pack”. In times past (like the first half of 2015) it used to be fairly common to see 7 practices in this pack. Google changed its algorithm later in 2015, and now this 3-pack (sometimes called the “Snack Pack”) is consistently present across the local search results.
That’s what local search tactics are all about. It’s about proving to Google that YOUR Practice deserves to sit in one of these three coveted positions.
With that in mind, let’s explore the key learnings from Day 1 of the three-day local search course…
7 Key Learnings About Local Search
There were 7 key learnings on the first day, and every single one is applicable to Australian dental practices.
1.. Google Makes The Rules
You’ve heard me say this many, many times. Google is the head honcho, in charge of their playground. Google has full control, and we, as business owners, have to comply with its guidelines and rules if we want to stay in Google’s good books.
And in their rankings.
It’s easy to be persuaded or tricked into engaging in marketing practices that are against Google’s Guidelines (and our own Advertising Guidelines). Plenty of Online Marketing Agencies will come to you again this year offering brilliant-sounding tactics to tempt you.
You know the drill. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
And even if Google doesn’t mind the tactic, it may run afoul of AHPRA.
In 2016, online visibility is harder to achieve and maintain than it’s ever been before. It’s like marketing in the days before the internet: it takes effort, time and money.
All business owners ignore Google’s (and AHPRA’s) rules at their own peril.
2.. There Are Three Pillars Of Local Search Success
To appear on a map, you need all three.
Dentists usually have the first one covered. If someone searches for ‘dentist’, any dental practice website should be amongst the candidates that Google considers to be worthy of ranking. So Relevance for the search query “dentist” is (usually) a given.
The caveat is, if your website hasn’t been well optimised (made clearly legible to search engines), you may not be as effective as your competitors in this regard.
Your website needs to make it quite clear to Google that it is representing a local dental practice. Sounds obvious, but it requires a multi-level solution, and not all web developers or designers know how to do it well.
Your Relevance needs to be apparent in the following:
- the content on the pages
- the code behind the pages
- the code behind the images
Please don’t think that your work in this area is just to keep the search engines happy. Google has said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Build your website for humans, not search engines.” More on this later.
When it comes to online searches for local businesses, Proximity refers to the closeness of your practice to the intended search area. Google determines this in a couple of ways:
Google Knows Where You Are
If the search term is simply ‘dentist’, Google will serve up results depending on where it thinks or knows you are located. Most mobile devices have the geolocation mode switched on, and home and office computers give their own signals to Google about their location. So if I’m standing in Pitt Street in Sydney, and google ‘dentist’, Google will give me a map with the three nearest relevant businesses it can find.
Google Thinks It Knows What You Are Looking For
If the search term is “dentist Melbourne”, Google currently gives me Melbourne CBD results (Spencer Street, Collins Street and Flinders Street).
There are two important things to note here:
- If I really wanted a dental practice out in Prahran, I would have to try again with a search for ‘dentist Prahran’.
- See all the little red dots on the map? Those are all the other businesses that Google has identified as being Relevant to this search. So they are all dental practices, and they were not considered by Google to be worthy of a top three position, despite their Proximity. Why not? I’ll answer that in a moment…
Now it’s pretty obvious that Proximity isn’t something you can easily change. Your practice is in a fixed location, and if you are out of Google’s range for a particular search query, you can’t change that.
This fact can be VERY frustrating for dentists who are located in a suburb adjacent to what they perceive to be a more popular location. Trying to get onto the map is almost impossible!
This wasn’t always the case.
In local search it used to be possible to get on the map and local listings for a particular location even if you were situated a long way from that location. There was a time that you could be located in an outer suburb of Sydney, for example, and still be on the map for the trophy search query ‘dentist Sydney’.
But this is no longer the case- it hasn’t been for years. It doesn’t stop dentists in distant suburbs from asking their marketing agencies to try to get them onto the map for CBD terms!
Google has figured out that people generally don’t want to travel very far to visit a dentist. If you are searching from your home or workplace, the local (map) results you’ll see for a search for ‘dentist’ will be practices in your immediate area. This is because Google’s algorithm uses information about your location to decide what results to show you.
For most of us, we’ll have to accept that if we are trying to appear on the map for the next suburb, but there are plenty of dentists in that suburb already, we probably won’t be visible in the Local results.
Rank Organically For The Target Phrase
If appearing on page one for a local search is really important to you, one option is to try to rank organically. Be warned: in competitive areas this can take a lot of time- it can be a marathon effort.
Pay To Play
Your other option is to “pay to play” and run a Google AdWords campaign. This is the fastest way to get on page one for a location-based search, but of course it has a downside. More and more non-Proximate practices are moving towards AdWords now that it’s harder to appear in local and organic search results for the most important location-based terms. This increased competition makes it more expensive for your ad to remain on page one.
Prominence is the pillar that I think we all need to concentrate on. To be Prominent, you need to stand out from the crowd.
This has always been a challenge for Australian Dentists. Most of us don’t like to stand out from the crowd. And I’m certainly not advocating that we do say in a way that belittles our nearby colleagues (THAT would be against our Advertising Guidelines, and even if it weren’t, it would be poor conduct, unworthy of our profession).
Failure to stand out is a big problem with dental digital marketing right now. Look around. Every dentist is pretty much doing what every other dentist is doing.
- Most dental websites look very similar: same menu, same stock images, often very similar layouts. Most of them are visually attractive, but few truly stand out
- The content on our websites is very similar. We all have pages about cosmetic dentistry, implants, dentistry for kids. Of course this is fine, necessary even. But if you were to look closely at the pages themselves, you’d see that they all say the same sort of thing in much the same way. (Some practices even copy and paste text from other websites). It’s a sea of sameness
- We’re all in the same directories
- We all make similar claims: we are “committed to quality, continuing education, exceptional care”. And of course it’s true (or should be). But it’s also expected. These are all hallmarks of our profession. Saying so doesn’t make us different to the practice next door or across town.
Unless there is something that distinguishes us, REALLY distinguishes us, from other practices, we blend into the online sameness.
And this is sad, because I KNOW (having been around the traps for many years) that EVERY practice has distinguishing features that makes it truly unique. EVERY practice has a personality, a philosophy, a feeling that is theirs alone.
That’s why your current patients love you and tell their family and friends about you. That’s why they stay, even when the practice down the road starts selling dentistry at a discount or the one up the street offers more convenient extended business hours.
Your practice already has something that would make it stand out from the crowd, if only you could find a way to share it effectively with your community.
More about this is a future article.
3.. You Need To Achieve The Top Positive Local Search Ranking Factors
Every year Moz produces its latest version of the local search ranking factors by polling a group of experts (including many of my mentors) about what they think are the most important factors for local search.
Here’s a screenshot of the top 10 factors for appearing in the localised organic search and the local pack.
You can read the list here.
Before you do any fancy marketing, you need to make sure that your website and online visibility covers at least the top 10 positive factors.
Even better, be sure you comply with all 50.
4.. You Can’t Have ANY Of The Top Negative Local Search Ranking Factors
Particularly the top 10. Any of these will severely restrict your ability to rank in the local maps.
5.. Bing And Yahoo MIGHT Be Useful To You- But You Need To Know For Sure
Google is easily the dominant search engine for local search in Australia. But some practices may still be getting a reasonable amount of traffic from Bing and Yahoo.
How do you know? You need to check your Analytics.
(You’ve got Analytics installed on your website, right?)
If you are getting some traffic from Bing and Yahoo, then it’s probably worth investing in optimising your website and visibility for these two search engines as well as Google.
If not, it’s probably not worth the effort.
6.. Don’t Be Hyper-Reactive To Google Changes
It’s easy to panic when you see a sudden change to your online visibility. If you suddenly drop off page one and the phone stops ringing it’s usually very hard to sit on your hands and to do nothing.
Googling the problem doesn’t help either. You might find yourself tapping into a panicking online crowd. Often the internet buzz goes into overdrive if there is a change. Theories and rumours do the rounds, and people will often start sharing their own ideas about how to respond.
This is the point where dentists get worried and start tinkering with their website, link profile or other aspects of their online visibility.
Important to remember that “only Fools rush in”.
The rest of us take a deep breath, sit back and wait for the dust to settle. And then look to the experts (including Google itself) for guidance.
Sometimes the changes are real. Even then, it’s important to analyse the changes to determine what needs to be done to compensate or take advantage of them.
Sometimes the changes are actually glitches in the system. They might hang around for a few days, even a couple of weeks, but they are usually corrected and things return to the pre-glitch status. In this case, if you responded in a panic, you may have done damage to your visibility.
In the words of the sensei, ‘Patience, Grasshopper.’
7.. The Three Most Important Areas To Concentrate On (Plus A Fourth That Can Be Trickier For Australian Dentists)
There are three areas that you need to make sure you have covered when it comes to your online presence if you hope to be visible in the local search results:
- Create a website that tells Google exactly where you are
- Be sure your site has a quality link profile
- Make sure other websites tell Google your exact location and contact details
Create A Website That Tells Google Exactly Where You Are
Your website is undeniably your most important digital asset. What many Aussie dentists don’t think about is how best to use their website to enhance their connection to their local community. This is important for two reasons:
- Search engines will use local signals to cement your Proximity to your local area
- (More importantly) local signals help local people to see that you are connected to the local community, and this can improve your Prominence in Google’s eyes.
Be Sure Your Website Has A Quality Link Profile
Links are tricky little buggers.
Too many links (or even a reasonable number of low quality links to your website) scream out to Google that something weird is happening. A lot of old-school SEO (what I like to call SEO Malpractice) is based on creating links to your website from lots of other websites from across the internet. In the past, the more links you had, the more popular your website appeared to be, and Google was tricked into ranking it higher because of its apparent prominence.
These days, Google has incorporated algorithms into its engine that notice this type of trickery.
In 2016, a link profile that is unnatural is a sure sign to Google that you are trying to game the system, and it will attract a manual or algorithmic penalty. Your website could drop out of the rankings faster than composite cures under a blue light.
Make Sure Other Websites Tell Google Your Exact Location And Contact Details
Google looks at the location information on your website and uses it as an indication about where your practice is located. But it also checks trusted third party websites to crosscheck this information.
If you think that it’s easy to prove to Google that your practice is exactly where your website claims it to be, think again! Dental practices frequently run into problems in this area, for all sorts of reasons.
If your practice isn’t ranking well in the local search results, it might be because:
- at some point in the past your practice has changed location
- or phone number
- the name of the practice has changed (this often happens when a practice changes hands and is rebranded by the new owner)
- you occupy a suite in a large office building and the suite addresses are confusing
- someone has misspelled your practice name (it happens!) or address when submitting your business details to online directories like the Yellow Pages
- a previous owner has left and set up practice nearby
- there is no consistency in the address format that is being used by your website and trusted third party directory websites.
Reviews: The Tricky One
As you know, Australian dentists can’t use testimonials as part of our marketing mix. It’s against the law (Section 133 to be exact). So any dentist venturing into the area of testimonials and their more legal cousin, reviews, needs to be very cautious indeed.
Reviews are helpful in local visibility. People read and believe reviews (which is interesting and concerning, since reviews can still be easily faked). They send Prominence signals to Google. Even negative reviews can, somewhat perversely, cause your practice to rise in the local search results.
People WILL review you from time to time- usually either when you’ve done a very good job or a very bad job. They may also review you if you ask them to. It’s important to know HOW to ask. Doing it the wrong way can get you into trouble. More about this in a future article.
What you must NEVER do is:
- allow testimonials to appear on any platform that you control. This includes your website and social platforms like Facebook. If you have testimonials posted on these platforms, remove them now.
- incentivise people to give you reviews. You can’t offer discounts or gifts, it’s against the law and against the terms of service of the review platforms themselves
- pay people to post fake reviews – or allow this to be done for you on your behalf. If your digital marketing agency has guaranteed that they will get a certain number of reviews for you every month, you need to know HOW they are doing it.
- allow your family, friends or staff to post positive reviews without fully disclosing their relationship to you and your practice. I’ve seen many reviews that I’ve been able to track down to people associated with the practice: especially from spouses and staff members. It’s very kind of them to try to promote your practice in this way, but their actions are misleading and breach the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
It’s also important to have a process in place to respond to poor reviews if they ever do appear. Your response will potentially be read by others who may be influenced to join your practice or run away screaming.
Here are some things you can do now to review and improve your visibility in the local search results:
- Review the Advertising Guidelines and check your website (and every other digital asset, including Adwords ads and social media posts) against them. Fix whatever needs fixing
- Review Google’s guidelines for website owners. They have an easy-to-read version here for the non-techie
- Do a search for “dentist + your location” (for example, “dentist Adelaide”). If you’re not in the local results, take a look at the practices that are. How does your practice compare to them using the three pillars of Relevance, Proximity and Prominence?
- Check out the Local Search Factors 2015 and make sure your practice has at least the top 10 positive factors and none of the negative ones
- Check that you have Google Analytics installed on your website and that you have access to the dashboard
- Check your Google Analytics to see if you are getting any traffic from Bing or Yahoo. Now check if that traffic is from your local area. Make a decision as to whether it’s worth putting time and effort into attracting more traffic.
- Does your website have a true local focus? (Bonus points if you have local markup in the code)
- Is your website’s link profile entirely natural? (Hint: If you’ve ever paid for SEO services you need to check to see whether any SEO Malpractice has occurred)
- Google your practice name, its address and its phone number. Check the results up to at least page three for each search. If every result is for your practice, move onto the next item. If not, you may have a problem with your location information.
- If you are using testimonials ANYWHERE in your advertising, remove them. NOW!
- How does your practice get reviews? If you’ve hired the services of an agency to help you, contact them and check how they get them. Review this process against all relevant guidelines, regulations and law.
- If you don’t have a plan for responding to reviews, positive and negative, develop one now. It’s better to have a clear plan than to respond emotionally when someone trashes you in public.
Remember that we’re here to help if you’d like another set of eyes to look over your online visibility. Simply let us know you’d like a hand!
PS In case you wondered, I passed the certification with 95%. Here’s my badge and a link to my other SEN certifications.