At its core, SEO is a multi-faceted keyword, content, and competitive analysis exercise.
Local SEO, by extension, includes several specific tasks geared to establishing the relevance and authority of a business within a targeted geographic area.
Even before you can convince a local consumer your search result is the best answer, you must it prove to the search engines and earn a high enough ranking to get in the running.
Search engines like Google reference many different data points to determine who gets top billing in organic search engine results, featured snippets, maps, local packs, image, video, or other SERP features.
How can you identify and prioritize optimizations with the greatest potential to deliver converting traffic to your website and your door?
In this column, we’ll walk through an evaluation of each key facet of your local search presence and uncover your best opportunities to improve search rankings.
What does a comprehensive local SEO audit checklist entail?
- Google Business Profile.
- Review management.
- Local business listings and citations.
- Local content.
- Google Search Console.
- Competitor analysis.
These tasks are listed in typical order of completion during a full audit, but some can be accomplished concurrently.
1. Keyword/SERP Audit
The natural place to start a local SEO audit is in SERPs for the keywords and phrases you are hoping your business will be found for, in order to identify where you stand relative to your competitors and other websites/content.
This research can help you quickly identify where you have established some level of authority/momentum to build on, as well as keywords upon which you should not waste your time and effort.
SEO is a long-term strategy so no keyword should be summarily dismissed. Even so, it’s generally best to focus on those keywords you realistically have a chance to rank and drive traffic for.
You may determine some keywords are better pursued in the short term via a paid Google Ads strategy until you are able to build up your local organic authority.
There are several excellent SEO and keyword research tools available to automate the process of gathering search results for specific or topical groups of keywords and assigning value to keywords based on metrics such as search volume or keyword difficulty.
Ideally, you’ll choose a tool that will break down the different types of search features, so you can understand whether you or a competitor has secured any of this search real estate and then devise strategies or tactics to proceed accordingly.
Alternatively, you can conduct your own searches manually. In that case, do so in an Incognito Window in Google Chrome or Private Window in Safari to remove potential bias/personalization tied to your Google login, location, or personal search history.
Most automation tools have processes in place to do the same.
For those businesses also running PPC campaigns, close attention should be paid to the keywords and search terms working there.
It’s likely that top-performing PPC keywords will also be top performers from an SEO perspective.
SEO and PPC should complement each other for optimal results.
Different people search in different ways and it’s important to not limit your research to single keywords, but rather account for the various ways and phrases your audience may use to try to find you or your offerings.
Your keyword analysis and the resulting content you create should address the intent of searchers, which will vary depending on where they are in the buying cycle.
Some are just beginning their search for a product or service and are simply looking for information e.g. “Where can I find x?”, while others are ready to buy now e.g. “Order x near me.”
A broader keyword view will provide a better picture of the overall strength of your presence and where to best focus your attention.
2. Website Audit
With your focused keyword data in hand, you can now conduct a full keyword and technical website audit to ensure your site is optimized for maximum crawlability, indexability, and visibility.
A typical audit is designed to analyze the underlying structure, content, and overall site experience.
Here again, there are many site auditing tools that will crawl a website and then identify issues and prioritize actions to be taken based on SEO best practices.
A website audit and optimization can be broken down into several buckets.
Web page optimization is all about ensuring pages are well structured, focused around topical keywords and provide a positive user experience.
As a search engine crawls a web page it looks for signals to determine what the page is about and what questions it can answer.
These crawlers analyze the entire page to determine its focus but specifically focus on Page Titles and Headings as primary descriptors.
Ideally, pages are keyword-focused and unique.
As such, keyword variations should be used consistently in Titles, URLs, Headings, and meta descriptions.
Google, and the other search engines, appreciate well-structured pages and will grab or create the components they need to construct a search engine result similar to the one below for “breakfast in Barrie.”
Note how the keyword “breakfast” is highlighted in the meta description.
Specifically, an audit will highlight issues related to:
- Missing Title tags, or those that are too long (60 characters max) or duplicated.
- Headings (particularly H1s) that are missing or duplicated.
- Meta descriptions that are missing, too long (160 characters max), or duplicated.
Another important potential tag issue raised in an audit, depending on the nature of your local business, is image alt text.
As a best practice, all images should include relevant descriptive filenames and alt text, which may include pertinent keywords.
This becomes particularly important when images (e.g. product or service photos) are central to your business, as image carousels can and will show up in Web search results.
In every case, attention should be paid to the images appearing on your primary ranking pages.
Internal Link Audit
Over time, the various links within a website can become stale or outdated as content is moved or deleted.
A link audit will help you quickly identify any potential misdirected or broken links, which can create a less than optimal experience for your site visitors.
Links are likewise signals the search engines use to determine the flow of a website and its ability to direct searchers to appropriate, authoritative answers to their questions.
Part of this audit should include the identification of opportunities to crosslink prominent pages.
For example, if a page within your site has keywords that reference content on another page a link may be created.
This can have the effect of boosting both pages, provided the link logically guides users to more relevant content or an appropriate conversion point.
External links should also be considered, especially when there is an opportunity to link to an authoritative source of information.
From a local business perspective, this may include linking to relevant local organizations or events.
Pro tip: These links should ideally be opened in new browser windows, so your site visitors are able to continue on your site after they have explored any external links.
Featured snippets are increasingly superseding traditional organic search results in Google, as the search engine aims to provide the answers to questions directly within its SERPs.
Local businesses have an opportunity to have their content highlighted as featured snippets if they:
- Publish highly authoritative and relevant content.
- Use structured schema markup to tag content such as their local business details, products, events, FAQs.
An effective local SEO audit should include the identification of content within a website to which schema can be applied.
As more consumers begin searching via their mobile devices – especially for local services – it naturally becomes important for local businesses to provide a positive mobile web experience.
It will, in turn, affect how they are viewed and ranked by the search engines.
In short, websites need to load quickly, be easily navigated, and enable seamless user interaction.
Google offers a range of free mobile testing and three mobile-specific monitoring tools (Page Experience, Core Web Vitals, Mobile Usability) in Google Search Console.
More on this toolset below.
More in-depth user experience and SEO analysis can be done via Google Lighthouse, though a local business owner will likely want to enlist the help of a web developer to action any of the recommendations this tool provides.
High-quality, authoritative content is, by definition, original content.
As such, it’s important to let Google know if your website contains any content/pages which you did not create, by adding a canonical tag to the HTML header of the page.
Not doing so can have a detrimental effect on your authority and, by extension, your ability to rank.
Most site auditing tools will flag content that requires or has malformed canonical tags.
3. Google Business Profile Audit
A Google Business Profile (GBP) effectively represents a secondary website and highly visible point of presence for most local businesses.
An accurate, comprehensive GBP is critical to establishing visibility in Google Maps and organic search results.
A Google Business Profile audit should focus on the accuracy and completeness of the various components within the profile including:
- Business information and location details.
- Correct primary business category.
- Hours of operation.
- Correct pin location in Google Maps.
- Proper categorization as a physical location or service area business.
- Appointment link(s).
- Informational content.
The more complete the profile is, the more likely it will be viewed as a reliable local resource and be given appropriate billing in the search results.
Assuming you have claimed and are authorized to manage your GBP, you can access and edit your info directly within the search results.
4. Review Management
Another very important aspect of a GBP is reviews.
Local business customers have an opportunity and are increasingly willing to write reviews, which appear on the GBP for other customers to view and play a significant role in determining visibility in the local map pack.
Google will notify business owners as soon as reviews are submitted and they should be responded to ASAP. This goes for negative reviews just as much as positive ones.
However, we all get busy and so a complete audit should include an analysis of your reviews to ensure none have fallen through the cracks. This will also help determine whether there are recurring customer service and satisfaction issues or themes that need to be addressed.
Of course, there are also several other places for consumers to submit reviews including Facebook, local review sites like Yelp, and industry-specific sites such as TripAdvisor and Houzz.
A full audit should take inventory of reviews left on any of these services as they can show up in search results.
The search engines and savvy modern consumers will most certainly find them.
A quick way to discover what reviews you may have on lesser-known properties is to simply search “‘your business name’ reviews.”
Alternatively, here too there are several good software platforms designed to help business owners ask for and manage their reviews on GBP and other review sites.
Pro tip: Request positive reviews from all customers and politely suggest they reference the product or service they are reviewing, as this can have a positive effect from a keyword ranking perspective.
5. Local Business Listing/Citation Audit
Local business listings and citations provide search engines with a way of confirming a business are both local and reputable within a specific geographic region.
It is important to have a presence in reputable local directories, review sites, business directories (e.g. Chamber of Commerce), or local partner sites.
Depending on the size and scope of your local business an audit of your listings and citations can be done in an automated or manual fashion.
Business listings and citation management tools can be used to find, monitor and update all primary citations with your proper Name, Address, Phone Number (aka NAP), and other pertinent business details found in broader listings (e.g. website address, business description.)
If you manage a limited number of locations and have the time, one quick method of identifying where your current listings can be found is to simply conduct a search on your business name.
The first 3-4 pages of search results should reveal the same.
If the goal is to understand where you are missing listing and citation opportunities, you can conduct a search on the list of keywords you have researched and want to be found for.
The most valuable directories and listing sites will be those which appear in the search results for these keywords.
It’s also important that you find and resolve any duplicate listings to prevent confusing customers and search engines alike with outdated, inaccurate information.
6. Local Content Audit
As noted, people search differently and require different types of information depending on where they are in their buying journey.
A well-structured local web presence will include content tailored and distributed for consumption during each stage of this journey, to bolster visibility and awareness.
You want to be found throughout your customer’s search experience.
A content audit can be used to make sure you have content for each of the journey buckets your audience members may find themselves in.
Informational content may be distributed via social or other external channels or published on your website to help educate your consumers on the products, services, and differentiators you offer at the beginning of their path to purchase.
This content ideally answers your prospects’ why, how, and what type questions.
Transactional content is designed to address those consumers who already know what they want, but are in the process of deciding where or who to purchase from.
This type of content may include reviews, testimonials, or competitive comparisons.
Navigational content ensures when people click through from Google after having searched your brand name or a variation thereof, they land on a page or information validating your position as a leader in your space.
This page should also include a clear call to action with the assumption they have arrived with a specific goal in mind.
Commercial content addresses those consumers who have signaled a strong intent to buy.
Effective local business sites and social pages must include offers, coupons, discounts, and clear paths to purchase.
Quality content is content your audience wants to consume, like, and share. In 2022, for many businesses, this means considering and experimenting with content beyond text and images.
Video content shared via platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and others is easier to consume and generally more engaging.
YouTube videos, in particular, can be optimized and do appear within organic search results.
Keep in mind, each social network includes a search function and any content distributed here should incorporate targeted keywords and hashtags to enhance visibility.
Pro tip: Make it easy for your readers to like and share your content by including visible share buttons; a simple best practice missed by far too many website owners.
While social signals are not a search ranking factor, shared content has a higher chance of being linked to, which in turn can positively affect authority and organic visibility.
7. Google Search Console Review
Google Search Console is an invaluable free resource for data related to keyword and content performance, indexing, schema/rich results validation, mobile/desktop experience monitoring, and security/manual actions.
A complete local SEO audit must include a review and analysis of this data to identify and react to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats outlined in each section.
Website owners and managers will want to pay particular attention to any issues related to pages not being crawled/indexed or manual actions having been taken based on questionable practices, as both can have a detrimental effect on search engine visibility.
Google Search Console does send notifications for these types of issues as well as regular performance updates, but an audit will ensure nothing has been overlooked.
8. Analytics Review
Whether you are using Google Analytics or another site/visitor tracking solution, the data available here is useful during an audit to validate top and lesser-performing content, traffic sources, audience profiles, and paths to purchase.
Findings in analytics will be key to your content audit.
As you review your site analytics you may ask the following questions:
- Are my top-visited pages also my top ranking pages in search engines?
- Which are my top entry pages from organic search?
- Which pages/content are not receiving the level of traffic or engagement desired?
- What is the typical path to purchase on my site and can it be condensed or otherwise optimized?
- Which domains are my top referrers and are there opportunities to further leverage these sites for backlinks? (see Backlink Audit below).
Use Google Analytics (or another tool of your choice) to find the answers to these questions so you can focus and prioritize your content and keyword optimization efforts.
9. Backlink Audit
Backlinks or inbound links are similar to citations but are effectively any links to your website pages from other third-party websites.
Links remain an important factor in determining the authority of a website as they lend validity if they come from relevant, reputable sources.
However, links from non-relevant or non-reputable sites can do more harm than good from an SEO perspective, and sometimes these links can be created without your knowledge.
It is therefore wise to conduct a backlink audit every six to twelve months depending on the size and scope of your website.
As with other components of an audit, there are several good free and paid backlink tools available, including a link monitoring service in Google Search Console, which is a great place to start.
In terms of auditing linking domains, you should quickly determine if there are any you don’t recognize or those which appear non-reputable or irrelevant to your local business.
Depending on the source, nature of the link, and the content it links to, it may be necessary to inquire about having the link removed.
An effective backlink audit has the dual purpose of identifying and building links via potentially valuable backlink sources, which can positively affect your ranking and visibility.
For local businesses, reputable local sources of links are naturally beneficial in validating location.
Potential backlink sources can be researched in a variety of locations:
- Free and paid backlink research tools such as Ahrefs, Semrush, or Majestic. Identify any domains where your primary competition has acquired backlinks, but you have not.
- Any non-competitive sites appearing in the organic search results for your primary keywords are, by definition, good potential backlink sources. Look for directories you can be listed in, blogs or articles you can comment on or publications you can submit articles to.
- Referral sources in Google Analytics may reveal domains where you already have links and may be able to acquire more.
10. Competitor Analysis
A comprehensive local SEO audit would not be complete without identifying and reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of your competition.
You may already have a good sense of who your competition is, but to begin it’s always a good idea to confirm who specifically shows up in the search results when you enter your target keywords.
These businesses/domains are your true competitors and the sites you can learn the most from.
A recent Google algorithm update appears to signal more emphasis is being placed on results tied to the immediate proximity of a business, which means the most attention should be paid to your closest high-ranking competitors.
If any of these competitors’ sites and/or pages are ranking ahead of yours, you’ll want to review what they may be doing to gain this advantage.
You can follow the same checklist of steps you would conduct for your own audit to identify how they may be optimizing their keywords, content, Google Business Profile, reviews, local business listings, or backlinks.
In general, the best way to outperform your competition is to provide a better overall experience online and off, which includes generating more relevant, high-quality content to address the questions your mutual customers have.
Prioritizing Your Action Items
A complete local SEO audit is going to produce a fairly significant list of action items.
Many of the aforementioned keyword, site, content, and backlink auditing tools do a good job of prioritizing tasks; however, the list can still be daunting.
One of the best places to start with an audit action plan is around the keywords and content you have already established some but not enough authority for.
These are your keywords, webpages, and content assets sitting on the cusp of prominence in the local organic search results and Map Packs.
Determine how to best address deficiencies or opportunities to optimize this content first before moving onto more competitive keywords or those you have less or no visibility for, as we all know, SEO is a long-term game.
These audit items and should be reviewed every 6-12 months, depending on the size and scale of your web presence, for the best chance at being found by your local target audience.
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