Late last month, Google released a list of 40 search quality updates that were implemented in February. For location-based marketers, the most important changes to be aware of are probably these two edits, which are now generally being referred to as the “Venice” updates:
Improvements to ranking for local search results. [launch codename “Venice”] This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.
Improved local results. We launched a new system to find results from a user’s city more reliably. Now we’re better able to detect when both queries and documents are local to the user.
Combined, these two updates have generally increased the visibility of local results for broad search queries. In other words, for short and generic queries, searchers are now more likely to see local websites ranking instead of national websites.
For some specific examples, Mike Ramsey at SEOmoz has a great post, showing how non-localized queries produce local results. If this seems obvious, the important thing to understand is that we’re not talking about 7-pack or blended-local results. In this case, pure organic results are being localized, even for queries that aren’t specifically local.
How Venice Changes the Local Search Space
One obvious impact of Venice is that websites relying on traffic for broad, locally-oriented queries are likely to take a hit. This means that national players offering fundamentally local services – like dentists, lawyers, car rentals, and so forth, may start to lose traffic, as fat-head keywords start pushing more traffic to actually local websites.
As Andrew Shotland points out, Venice could also hurt IYPs and other local aggregators. This type of site is already basically blocked from local map results, and more SMB presence in local-organic could squeeze directories even lower.
The flip side is that truly local businesses are likely to see some extra SERP presence. Linda Buquet makes an interesting argument here – according to research, consumers search for local keywords without geo-modifiers 3-4 times more than they search with specific local keywords.
This means that many more people are searching for “Dentist” than “Dentist Los Angeles” – and for local SEOs, this can be a bit of a paradigm shift, as many of us are used to tracking rankings and chasing traffic only from localized queries.
However, any business looking to capitalize on Venice is going to have to focus harder on local SEO. Google’s looking to deliver quality, relevant results to local users, and websites hoping to capture this local traffic will have to convince Google that their content really is locally relevant.
Optimizing for Venice
At a high level, Venice optimization means bringing a local focus to your SEO efforts. However, more specifically, Venice is likely to put more emphasis on local-organic factors, rather than Places factors.
Some Venice optimization techniques include:
Building and Optimizing Local Content
This is an obvious point – in order to rank for a local query, your site needs some content that can actually target local keywords. For small businesses, this should be easy – just make sure that your regular business website has all the relevant local information.
For larger organizations with multiple locations, or websites offering location-based information but not actually operating any physical stores, localizing content is harder. Creating local landing pages, one specifically optimized URL per location or service area, is a product that Where 2 Get It offers to many clients.
This strategy allows you to hit your core keyword areas, like title tags, descriptions, headings, alt text, and body copy, on a scalable, per-location basis. However, companies should be warned against over-optimization – especially for businesses that don’t actually operate physical stores, mass producing thin content could lead to a penalty.
Use Schema.org’s Local Markup
Marketers can use the rich local markup from Schema.org to extend content with added local information. For example, a local restaurant can use the Restaurant Markup to add a significant amount of valuable meta-data to otherwise plain address information.
Even before the Venice update, savvy local marketers were using Schema.org markeup to generate rich snippets, which help to improve CTR in search. But with Venice live, using Schema.org is a powerful way to send local signals to Google.
Leverage Local Image SEO
One often underused technique for local search is optimizing images for local search. One great technique is to embed geographical information within the EXIF meta-data of images. If this sounds complex, it basically just means embedding latitude and longitude information within an image.
Chris Silver Smith has a great guide to this process over on Search Engine Land - there’s many ways to do this, some more complex than others. Beyond just the geocoding, image sitemaps can be an added way to provide more local image data to Google, and as mentioned, Schema.org is another way to get more localized image content.
GeoSitemaps and KML Files
KML, or Keyhole Markup Language, is an data file used to communicate local information to “earth browsers” like Google Earth and Bing Maps. GeoSitemaps are just an extension of the usual sitemaps protocol, that allows you to inform Google directly of your geodata.
Again this may seem complex, but there are tools available to make this process very simple. The GeoSitemap Generator simply lets users plug in location information, click a few buttons, and generate both the KML and XML files. From there, webmasters can simply upload the KML and XML files, and add the GeoSitemap to Google Webmaster Tools, and the whole process is complete.