Tim makes an excellent point on his Convert Offline blog with this post: Nobody Wants To Admit The Problem With Local Is The Lack Of SEO. Tim is talking about the “confusion” and “challenges” involved in solving local search, and his point is that content isn’t the problem, it’s SEO:
“There is plenty of content in the local space you just can’t find it … why? There is so little SEO in Local.”
I agree with Tim on that count, but only up to a certain point. The other problem with local is … well, location.
It really can’t be understated: The addition of geography into a data retrieval and ranking algorithm makes the entire process more difficult for everyone involved. Let me put it this way:
Traditional Search: Entirely keyword-based. User provides a query and search engine matches documents to the keywords. To rank for “green widgets,” develop great content and links about green widgets. In theory, this is simple. (Not easy, but simple.)
Local Search: Keyword-based and location-based. User provides a query and search engine matches documents to both the keyword and the location. To rank for “seattle green widgets,” develop great content and links about green widgets, and be located in Seattle. In theory and practice this is not simple, nor is it easy.
Here’s why: The addition of geography screws everything up. It complicates everything. Consider:
What if there are no green widgets in Seattle? Should the results show Bellevue, the next city to the east? Or Tacoma, the next-biggest city in the area? Or Bellingham, which has the world-renowned #1 green widget store anywhere, but is a couple hours north of Seattle?
Why does that matter? Because in local search, sometimes the keyword is more important, sometimes the location is more important; it depends on the keyword & location entered. (It’s getting complicated.)
It’s not enough to match the keywords; the location also has to be matched. Users expect the nearest results possible, but is the nearest the most relevant? (Now it’s even more complicated.)
Plus, how wide an area should the search engine cover when looking for matches? A local search for a hardware store covers a smaller area than a local search for a Harley Davidson dealership.
And what about geographic city centers? Is a business closer to the geographic center of a city more deserving of local traffic than a better business 3 miles away? And what about an excellent green widget store that just happens to be located 500 yards outside the city boundary? Is that business somehow less relevant than a competitor who happens to be 500 yards inside the city boundary?
Then there’s the issue of IP and geo-targeting. The searcher is in Bellevue, but his ISP is in Tacoma, and he searches for “seattle green widgets.” (More complications.)
Tim’s right that the lack of SEO on small business/local sites is a problem. SEO can even help address some of these questions I’m raising. But it can’t address them all. Geography complicates things too much. Any discussion of the problem of local search has to include this, too.