The classic 1982 Activision game, Pitfall!, was so challenging that most players believed you could only win by running out the 20-minute clock. The real point of this adventure, however, was to gather up all of the treasures before the clock ran out on you.
Isn’t that just like business?
You’ve opened the doors of your local enterprise in hopes of gathering up enough revenue before it’s time to retire, and you’re determined to make enough of a success to secure some dignity in your golden years.
I’m not a professional economist, but I’ve read their statistics on how half of US businesses don’t make it past their 5th year. I’m a local SEO, and what I’ve learned is that to be agile enough to beat the odds, local business owners have to swing over the obvious pitfalls that less savvy competitors are doomed to become mired in. A plumbing company fakes a string of locations by using their siblings’ houses to build citations, a dentist hires a notorious marketing agency to pay global workers for fictitious reviews, an auto dealership takes a quick link building shortcut and ends up with a long-term search engine penalty. Missteps like these can force a local business to bog down, coping with cleaning up mess instead of making a beeline towards lasting success.
I’m a local business fan, and I don’t want to see you fail. So hang on tight to that vine in your local jungle. This is your guide to riding high, right over those bottomless pits.
This is all about starting out on the right foot, long before opening day. Avoid these common mistakes before they become deep-seated liabilities.
1. Indistinct name
Consumers need to be able find you via a branded search, looking your business up by name after they hear it mentioned. If you name your men’s clothing shop “Yacht Club,” don’t be surprised if Google shows searchers local marinas instead of a branded result for your business. You can plan to build the kind of authority that lets Google know that people looking up “Banana Republic” are searching for clothing and not a political science lesson, but in your early days, a vague name could slow the growth of your brand recognition and rankings.
2. Limiting name
If your business plan includes growth into other service offerings or other geographic markets, don’t tie yourself to a name that limits you. For example, a new lawn care business in Plano hopes to one day offer full landscaping services and open a second office in Dallas. They’ll find this harder to do if they’ve named their business “Plano Lawn Care.” Be sure your name can encompass future growth. While it’s very smart to use core keywords in your business name, be sure they won’t hold you back in the future.
3. Ineligible location
Don’t make the mistake of believing you can fully market a local business with a PO box or unstaffed virtual office as your public address. Both of these will render your company ineligible to create local business listings, severely limiting your Internet visibility. If you don’t yet have a real office, use your home address and list yourself on only those directories that allow you to hide your address if you have privacy concerns.
4. Undesirable location
You will likely only rank in Google’s local packs for the city in which you’re physically located. If you’re opening a location beyond the borders of a big city you’re hoping to serve, don’t expect to rank locally for big-city searchers. If the success of your business depends on serving a major nearby city, then having an office in that locale is a must. To see Google’s concept of any city’s borders, look it up in Google Maps. Anything outside the red boundary is likely to be out of the running.
5. Filter-sensitive location
In the past, it was considered a best practice to locate your business next to other businesses in the same industry (think of doctors parks and auto rows). Being near this “industry centroid” was believed to be beneficial for rankings. However, since Google’s Possum update rolled out in 2016, a new business located within the same building or block as its competitors may find itself filtered out of the local results. Because of this, you may want to base your business some distance from others in your geo-industry, if possible. Depending on your city or town’s layout, this may or may not be possible to do.
6. Lack of policies
Without clear staff training documentation or customer service policies, you’re likely to earn more negative reviews. A lack of a user-generated content policy for your website may end up in spammy or abusive use of your blog/forum comments or onsite testimonials.
7. Unrealistic expectations
Don’t expect to open your doors on day one and unseat all of your established online competitors on day two. Don’t let any agency persuade you that it will be easy to dominate the local or local-organic results. Your competitors have likely worked long and hard to get where they are, and you’ll need to do the same. Have a realistic plan for financial survival until you reach the point where a good portion of your traffic and transactions are stemming from your web presence. Be prepared to invest in PPC if you want early traffic.
8. Lack of demand
Even the best local SEO in the world isn’t going to be able to make up for a business idea that’s a non-starter. Does your city have need for another laundromat with 5 already available in your neighborhood, another book store with Amazon in the mix, a vegan restaurant when less than 1% of the local population dines that way? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe you’ll be able to create the demand with exceptional service and marketing, but don’t expect your local SEO marketer to be able to do it for you. Business research comes first, SEO second.
9. Lack of clarity
If you can’t clearly communicate the value proposition of your business in a few powerful words, you can’t expect your customers or marketers to. Every day, agencies hear from business owners who are unable to verbalize what their business offers that’s valuable to the public. While good marketers can often help a company hone its message for maximum impact, the local business owner must first research their own geo-industry to hit on the realization of what makes their company a desirable community resource. Maybe their service is the fastest in town, their clients’ white teeth cost less, their rooms are the only pet-friendly stays in the city. Whatever the unique selling point is, the business owner needs to be able to say what it is before the consumer or marketer can interpret it for further use.
If you can get your website right the first time around, you’ll avoid the hassle of having to undergo a complete overhaul of your most valuable online asset a year or two down the road.
10. Limiting URL
As with the business name, don’t limit yourself with a domain name that only features one facet of your business if you have plans for future expansion of services or geography. For example, don’t choose a URL like sugarlandmuffler.com if you hope one day to open full-service auto repair garages in Dallas and Houston as well. Choose your domain name with an eye to the future.
11. Strange URL
Know that .com extensions are still the most recognized type of domain name. If you want consumers to easily remember and easily find your website, get a .com whenever possible. When not possible, watch this Whiteboard Friday on choosing domain names for other options.
12. Long URL
Long domain names are harder to type, harder to speak out loud, and may get shortened on social media. Local businesses should aim for a delicate balance between brevity, branding, and keyword usage in choosing a domain name, weighing which factors will ultimately have the most positive impact on the business.
13. Limiting provider
Don’t sign up for any hosting or marketing service that a) limits the size or SEO opportunities of the website you build, or b) results in your business assets being held hostage by a particular provider. For example, a website-builder-type offer that restricts you to having a 10-page website or only 300 words on a page will stifle growth. Similarly, an agency that threatens to undo any work you’ve paid for if you choose to end your contract in future is an undesirable choice. Be sure you are in direct control of your domain, hosting, and website, and that no service you sign up for limits your growth.
14. Limiting technology
Any website development technology that prevents your website from being discovered, crawled or indexed by Google represents a waste of investment. For example, websites built entirely in Flash present technical problems to both search engines and users and should be avoided. Similarly, any website development approach that fails to serve users on all devices (laptop, tablet, mobile, ambient) guarantees a loss of marketing opportunity.
On another note, should you choose to use unusual or unpopular technology to develop your website, future agencies you want to hire may not want to work with you. For example, a site built on Wix might be difficult to fully optimize, and an SEO agency may require you to switch to something like WordPress in order to accept you as a client. Read more about the basics of SEO friendly design.
15. Multi-site approach
The practice of building multiple websites to represent different locations or different services of a business is particularly prevalent in local commerce. This approach often stems from a desire to rank more broadly on the basis of exact match domains, but there are many reasons why this strategy isn’t commonly endorsed by experts, including:
- Marketing efforts being spread too thin, divided up across multiple sites instead of concentrated into building a single brand.
- Thin or duplicate content resulting from lack of resources needed to manage more than one site.
- Possible NAP confusion leading to local ranking problems if the same name, address, or phone number appear on more than one website.
- A fundamental dishonesty in which a single business attempts to fool consumers into thinking it’s multiple companies
With rare exceptions, it’s better to pour all your efforts into building a single, powerful local brand on a single, powerful website.
16. Poor content strategy
Local businesses don’t benefit by publishing website content that is insufficient, cursory, unedited, duplicative, or developed solely for the purpose of feeding keywords to search engine bots. At a minimum, each local business should create the basic pages (home, about, contact, testimonials) + a page for each main service they offer and each of their physical locations. Service-area businesses (like plumbers) should develop a page for each of their main service cities. Each page that is built should feature original, thorough, intelligently optimized copy that serves a specific goal.
Beyond the basic pages, each local business should have a plan for ongoing content publication that’s proportional to its level of local/industry competition and consumer demand. This could include on-site blogging, off-site social sharing, and other strategies.
For more on local content development, read:
17. Poor architecture
If the size, complexity, or navigational options of your website are preventing consumers from getting to the pages you’ve built for their use, you’re actively losing opportunities. The larger your site, the more likely it is that you’ll have to research solutions like siloing to maximize discovery of your content by the right users and resultant conversions.
18. Lack of contact info
At minimum, your name, address, and phone number (NAP) should be published on every page of your website, either in its masthead or footer, and you should have a “Contact Us” page highly featured in your main navigation menu. Be sure your complete NAP are the first things presented on the contact page. Phone numbers should be click-to-call enabled for mobile users. Don’t forget thorough driving directions and a map. For larger enterprises, contact information should include options for live chat and after-hours support.
Finally, beware of inconsistencies and typos. Audit the entire text of your website and all of its design elements to catch NAP irregularities. Don’t be “Green Tree Consulting” in your logo and “Green Tree Consultants” on your About page. Your website remains the most authoritative source of information about your business, both in the eyes of consumers and search engines.
19. Lack of CTAs
A page without a call-to-action is a page without a point. A website exists to support the desires of consumers, while simultaneously supporting the objectives of the business. Don’t leave it up to chance that people will intuit which actions you’re hoping they’ll take; tell them in plain, bold language that you’d like them to click for further reading, to make a call, to fill out a form, to attend an event, or to take advantage of a special. Every page of your website, from homepage to landing page to contact page, should feature a totally obvious call to action.
20. Link building shortcuts
Every local business wants to earn links that boost their visibility and ranking strength, but because of the extreme value search engines continue to place on links as a measure of relevance, the temptation to take shortcuts is irresistible to some business owners. A local business might intentionally or accidentally get mixed up in a link farm or get caught buying links. Before you take a risky step that might result in a horrendously costly Google penalty, read our beginner’s guide to good and bad linking practices.
21. Mishandling changes
When fundamental business changes occur, like a rebrand or a move to a new website, failure to adhere to specific best practices can result in a massive loss of rankings, traffic, and transactions. For example, a chiropractor hopes to maintain as much of their Internet visibility as possible while transitioning from their old domain, mychiro.net, to a new one, joneschiropractic.com, but they fail to set up permanent 301 redirects between the two sites and lose all of the former authority they’d built up. When a foundational aspect of your business changes, research proper technical procedures for managing the transition in a way that helps (instead of hurts) your SEO and marketing. Our Moz Q&A forum is an excellent place to search for current best practices, or to ask your own question if you’re a Moz Pro member.
Local business listings
They’re highly visible, highly interactive, and can drive major traffic to your website and your business, but if managed incorrectly, local business listings can end up undermining your entire operation. Take maximum control of your citations to avoid these prevalent problems.
22. Guideline non-compliance
Failure to adhere to a local business platform’s guidelines can result in suspensions and/or public shaming. Guideline violations can be detected both algorithmically and manually, and can be reported to platforms by the public, competitors, and marketers. Google can read street-level signage and can tell if your businesses are located in a series of legitimate commercial offices or in a string of your friends’ houses. Before you list yourself on any platform, know its policies and be sure you stick to them to avoid negative outcomes.
23. NAP inconsistency
Consistency of your listings on the primary data sources is considered the fifth most important local search ranking factor. This means that your name, address, phone number, and website must be accurate and consistent on the majors (Acxiom, Factual, Localeze, and Ingroup) as well as on powerful platforms like Google My Business, Facebook, Apple Maps, Foursquare, Yelp, and Bing. Inconsistencies not only weaken search engines’ trust in the validity of your data, but also misdirect your potential customers. While Google doesn’t look at suite numbers and doesn’t care about differences of abbreviation (st. vs. street), conflicting versions of your NAP must be discovered and corrected ASAP. Try our free Check Listing tool for an instant consistency check.
24. Listing incompleteness
A complete local business listing can feature your name, address, phone number, website, email address, hours of operation, driving directions, images, social media links, videos or video links, additional phone numbers, fax number, attributes, reviews, owner responses, and links to other media like menus. Whether you manage your listings manually or use software like Moz Local to automate distribution of your location data at scale, make sure you fill out as many available fields as possible. This ensures that a customer is given every chance to connect with your business in a variety of ways. Missing data = missed opportunities.
25. Duplicate listings
At their worst, duplicate listings can misdirect consumers, violate guidelines, and divide your ranking strength and reviews among multiple entities. For each physical location you operate, you should have just one listing per platform, unless you qualify for multi-practitioner or multi-department listings. Discovering and resolving duplicates is one of the core tasks of local SEO, and because duplicates can originate from a variety of scenarios (accidental creation, automated creation, business moves, mergers/acquisitions, rebrands, etc.) every business must be on the lookout. Not sure if you have duplicates? Enter your name and zip in the Moz Check Listing tool to begin your search.
26. Wrong focus
Local business listings are critical infrastructure for nearly every local enterprise, but it’s possible to overdo it or to put focus on the wrong platforms. Rule of thumb: Get accurately listed on the major sites that serve all industries and then hand-select a few additional platforms that are authoritative for your industry and geography. Don’t waste effort getting listed on dozens or hundreds of low-level directories that receive little human use or don’t rank for your core terms.
Once you’ve built your core set of listings, have a plan for monitoring them on an ongoing basis, make edits to them as needed, post updates to them where appropriate, and respond to your reviews. Once that’s done, attend to other tasks. If you and your direct competitors each have about 50 citations, you getting another 25 of them from low-quality directories isn’t going to move the ranking, traffic, or conversion needle. Shift focus to something that will.
27. Poor photos
It’s been reported that good photos on your GMB listing will earn you 35% more clicks-to-website and 42% more clicks-for-driving directions. Given that it’s increasingly speculated that user actions influence local rankings, these statistics alone encourage you to select high-quality local business listing photos. Moreover, because many platforms take a crowd-sourcing approach to the imagery that represents your business, it’s important to monitor your listing photos to catch anything that’s inappropriate.
You might choose to hire a Google Trusted Photographer, or, you can use some pro tips like these to go solo in creating the best possible imagery for your business.
28. Map marker misplaced
Google has been known to place map markers in the middle of oceans. If something this peculiar happens to you, your best bet is to report it in their support forum as it could stem from a bug. However, strange map marker locations can also stem from an error on your part, or the placement of your marker in the center of a bunch of zip codes you’ve entered in the GMB dashboard. If the normal process of moving the pin inside your GMB dashboard doesn’t result in a fix, definitely reach out to the forum for support, fully documenting your issue. A misplaced pin can equal totally lost customers.
29. Driving directions wrong
If your map marker is misplaced, your driving directions will be inaccurate, but bad driving directions can result from other scenarios, too. Bad or incomplete mapping on Google’s part has lead to tragic accidents and litigation, but even where no physical peril is involved, incorrect directions should be reported to Google’s forum or via this process to prevent customer inconvenience and loss.
30. Lack of monitoring
Because of the way local data flows across the ecosystem and the way in which many listings are subject to public editing, citations aren’t a one-and-done task. Ongoing monitoring is essential to catch inaccurate data appearing, as well as the appearance of new duplicate listings and the ongoing influx of consumer sentiment in the form of reviews.
The need for ongoing monitoring has led to the development of automated programs like Moz Local which will alert you if core NAP on your Google My Business listing changes, if a new duplicate arises, or if you receive a new review. For larger enterprises and multi-location businesses, the ability to scale monitoring is a major time-saver.
31. Mishandling changes
Rebrands, mergers/acquisitions, moves, change of phone number or website, opening or closing branches, bringing new practitioners aboard… there are many changes the average local business may face, and for each one, there’s a set of correct steps to follow to defend your local rankings. Mishandling changes can result in lost visibility, lost transactions, lost reviews, and more. When your business goes through a transition, big or small, be sure you’ve researched best practices for handling the technical side of it well. Here’s a good place to get started when it comes to your Google My Business listing.
Reviews aren’t opt-in. Your customers are telling the story of your business whether you create a profile or not. Reviews impact rankings and can have an incredible effect on the success or failure of your local business… so choose success, with the right strategy.
32. Too few
A business without reviews is like a job applicant without references. 84% of people trust reviews as much as a personal recommendation, and if too few people are recommending your business, a critical piece of your marketing is missing. This looks particularly unappealing when your competitors have earned a good body of positive sentiment. At the same time, Google-based reviews are believed to impact local pack rankings, mainly by sheer numbers but also with a growing emphasis on sentiment. Again, a shortage of reviews = a missing piece of your ranking strategy.
33. Too fast
You need a review acquisition plan, but avoid any tactic that results in a large number of reviews coming in all at once on a single platform — they may be filtered out due to suspicious velocity. Aim for a steady trickle of incoming sentiment instead of a flood.
34. Guideline non-compliance
Each review platform has its own guidelines, and knowing them can make the difference between a healthy online reputation and public shaming. It’s important to know the unique guidelines of the various sites, as some are more stringent than others. Yelp, for example, forbids business owners from asking for reviews, while Google allows it. Across the board, review sites prohibit paying for reviews and conflicts of interest, but if you’re about to launch a new campaign requesting reviews on specific platforms, be sure your strategy won’t lead to review takedowns or being called out by the public or the platform.
35. Lack of acquisition plan
Studies show that 91% of consumers read online reviews, that 82% of people visit a review site because they intend to make a purchase, and that 7/10 customers will leave a review if asked to. And yet, it’s startlingly clear looking at the neglected review profiles of countless local businesses that no plan has been put into place to earn these highly influential assets. While Yelp specifically forbids direct asks for Yelp reviews, most other platforms are fine with it, and each company should try a variety of techniques (time-of-service, email, print, social, etc) for acquiring reviews to find out what works best for them. Without an acquisition plan, the business is opting to forego all of the traffic and transactions that reviews could yield.
36. Lack of monitoring
No big brand would want to face a 33% decline in revenue or the closure of 13% of its stores, but outcomes like these can arise when a business ignores trending consumer sentiment citing problems that require urgent fixes. Reviews provide free quality control data to businesses large and small, and it’s only by monitoring this sentiment on an ongoing basis you can quickly identify emerging problems and step in with solutions that could save the brand. For example, a restaurant chain could notice from reviews that a particular location is suddenly being cited for broken fixtures or long wait times, signaling a need for intervention at that branch.
At minimum, brands large and small must either manually monitor their profiles on a schedule proportional to the daily or weekly volume of reviews they typically receive, or automate the process with software like Moz Local that tracks incoming reviews on the majors.
37. Lack of owner responses
The owner response function offered by many review platforms signifies direct reputation management, free marketing, free advertising, damage control, and quality control all in one feature. And yet, countless local businesses forego the immense power of this capability, allowing the public to have a totally one-sided conversation about their brands with zero company input. It would be impossible to count the number of review profiles out there heaping praise and blame on brands that sit unanswered, without thanks, without apologies or rectification. If your local business prides itself on customer service, it’s essential to integrate reviews and owner responses in your concept of what modern consumer relations look like.
You’d never advocate ignoring an in-store customer who congratulated you or voiced a complaint, but if your business is overlooking owner responses, this is precisely what you’re doing.
38. Poor owner responses
Kudos to every business owner who actively engages with their customer base via owner responses… unless those responses make things worse. Hallmarks of a poor response include lack of apology, lack of accountability, rude language, blame shifting and dishonesty. Here’s a real-world example of an unfortunate owner response that made a bad situation worse, with tips for how a better reply could have saved the day.
One of the most helpful things to remember in crafting owner responses is that as few as 4% of customers may take the time to complain about a problem they encountered with your business. Complaints give you the chance to act, but silence leaves you in the dark about your company’s true satisfaction rating. Complaints, including negative reviews, are invaluable. Treat complainers very, very well.
39. Poor staff training
One revealing survey discovered that 57% of customer complaints relate to poor/absent service and poor employee behavior. The fault here is obvious and lies squarely on the shoulders of the any owner who hasn’t done their due diligence in creating clear customer support documentation, detailed employee guidelines, and regular staff training sessions. Owners must hire people who can be taught to represent the brand well to the public. The viability of your business is in the hands of your staff — hire, train, and support them with this in mind.
40. Review kiosks
Whether it’s okay to set up a device in your shop to ask customers for reviews at the time of service continues to be a local marketing forum FAQ. Google is partly to blame for this, because they’ve changed their position on this practice radically over time. Their current guidelines specifically prohibit review kiosks, and sentiment received in this manner is likely to be filtered out. In fact, there’s anecdotal evidence to support reviews getting removed when left by customers using in-store Wi-Fi, even on their own devices. While you can’t prevent that scenario, formal kiosks shouldn’t be part of your marketing plan. Better to collect emails at the time of service and write to the customer within a few days.
Consumers expect to be able to contact you via social media with their requests for help, their complaints, and their suggestions. Modern customer service must include social media listening and responsiveness, but take notes from the mistakes other brands have made so that you can avoid them.
41. Poor social skills
Anyone tasked with representing your brand on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. should be familiar with infamous social media “fails” and have the skills to avoid them. Sadly, there have been numerous cases like that of a major auto brand whose marketing agency insulted the city of Detroit with a profane tweet suggesting that locals don’t know how to drive. Your social media expert must constantly guard against typos, poor wording that can be misconstrued, poor timing, and anything that reveals any type of insensitivity to any audience.
42. Guideline non-compliance
Each social platform has its own rules which, if broken, can result in removal of specific content or suspension of your profile. For example, if your local business decides to run a promotion, Facebook forbids the use of personal timelines and friend connections for the event. Failure to familiarize your company and social staff with each platform’s guidelines can result in wasted investments and public embarrassment.
43. Wrong platform
Different social media platforms tend to serve different demographics, and while it’s good to experiment with a variety of communities, knowing usage statistics can be helpful in picking the best places to connect with the most relevant audience. For example, if your business want to publicize a senior discount day it hosts once a week, you’ll likely reach more interested customers on Facebook (used by 36% of US citizens 65+) than on Instagram (used by only 5% of this age group). Similarly, certain industries tend to be natural matches for different platforms, like Twitter for tech-related companies, or Pinterest for businesses with a strong visual component. Be prepared to explore your options so that you’re not wasting efforts on the wrong platform for your specific geo-industry.
Social media platforms have become a component of customer service, as they are viewed by consumers as a convenient way to contact your business. If you set up a profile on a site where your local community is active, don’t neglect it. Regularly monitor the account for questions and complaints and respond quickly.
45. Selling vs. sharing
If you’re new to social media, the first lesson to learn is that while being helpful, generous, entertaining, and empathetic can win your brand a loyal following, the hard sell is better placed elsewhere. Yes, you can promote your products and specials as part of your social media campaigns, but a business that does nothing but “sell” isn’t going to engage any social community.
Social media, managed properly, can be an immensely powerful environment for local businesses to connect with customers, to learn about their preferences, to become household words in local consumers’ daily lives because of the way the business integrates itself as a go-to resource for a particular type of experience on Facebook, Snapchat, Google Posts, or Twitter. Experimentation and regular practice can point the way to a winning mix of sharing vs. selling over time.
Marketers know that one of the most important things they teach clients is what not to do. Local search marketing, with its mirror connection to the real world and its real-time pace, is particularly riddled with potential pitfalls. Being human, business owners are entitled to make a few mistakes. It’s okay! Particularly if you recover from them with some grace, good humor, and a determination not to repeat them. But it’s my hope that this article is one you’ll share with clients and team members so that no one gets tangled up in errors that are easy to avoid with a little quiet thought and a great deal of good planning.
By knowing what not to do, your adventure is more than half-won. Wishing you all the treasures and success ahead!