Author: Miriam Ellis
The low-code revolution of recent years has quietly but profoundly changed how local businesses market themselves online.
Just a decade ago (when I was still hand-coding websites in HTML and CSS for small- and medium-sized brands), a need for basic programming brought many business owners to my agency. Companies struggled to achieve a professional digital presence without substantial help from designers and programmers, and if budget drove them to a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) content management system, the available solutions often lacked essential SEO capabilities.
This could create a cycle of failure for the owner, whose poorly optimized website wouldn’t be able to achieve their organic search visibility goals or contribute to their local search rankings. Ultimately, that would mean fewer opportunities for revenue, which could become a major cause of business closure.
Gradually, and without much fanfare, that dynamic has changed completely. For someone like me, a local SEO consultant, the big shift has meant transitioning from website design to consulting.
For local business owners, this evolution can best be described as moving from a challenging place of needing to know code to a softer spot of needing to know tools.
The learning curve has become much less steep, and today, we’ll look at the two major causes of this metamorphosis, and provide you with a useful tutorial on the three foundational elements it takes to succeed in the modern SEO and marketing of local businesses.
Why low-code platforms are great for most local businesses
The first thing all local business owners in search of success should do is clearly define the amount of revenue they will need to earn to call their venture a winner. This figure will be unique to each situation/business.
For example, I live in a rural part of Northern California, where many of my neighbors succeed at earning a little pocket money by selling vegetables or eggs at honor-system roadside stands. Their revenue goals are so modest that no phone number is needed, no website has to be built, and no SEO is required. They simply hang a sign at the end of their driveway to start enjoying microbusiness-sized rewards. Talk about low-tech!
For most small businesses, though, revenue goals will be higher and achieving them will require some investment in online marketing. The surprising thing is how few assets you actually need to begin winning customers. Two key factors are the chief contributors to this low-code phenomenon:
01. Easier, better content management systems
As discussed earlier, older content management system (CMS) solutions often produced low-quality websites lacking basic SEO components. Today, there are multiple platforms with excellent website development software that enable small business owners to publish and publicize an online presence that not only looks professional, but that can be substantially optimized for maximum search visibility. The low-code revolution has helped level the playing field in this regard. Putting programmatic needs behind the scenes allows SMBs to focus on telling their unique stories and communicating with their customers, instead of trying to become programmers in their very limited spare time.
02. Google has cemented a low-code approach to local search marketing
In 2005, Google launched its local search offering—Google Maps. Since then, it has grown to become the solution of choice for most customers navigating the local commercial scene. Google Business Profiles (listings of local businesses in Google’s search results) now drive more local business leads than organic results—as much as six times more leads in some industries. Business owners don’t need to know any code to create and optimize a Google Business Profile, and they only need tiny snippets of code to fully track performance. Even more than improvements in CMS SEO capabilities, GBP’s centrality to local business revenue goals has cemented the low-code approach to local search marketing.
Unless your business plans to custom-develop apps or other high-tech solutions, your SEO and marketing plan will rely substantially on three major components, and we’ll look at these next.
The three SEO factors of local business success
Achieving visibility for your local business means you must ultimately understand and fulfill the intent of searchers in your area. It can be useful to think of this activity as consisting of three buckets that work together like the parts of a water wheel—continuously in motion, contributing to one another with a unified purpose.
Bucket #1: Optimize your website for customer intent
As mentioned above, a modern CMS removes the burden of needing to know code or hire programmers in most small business cases. Just be sure that the solution you choose doesn’t limit the amount of content you can publish and enables you to optimize all of the following elements:
Alt text and tags
Sitemaps (Note: Wix automatically updates and optimizes sitemaps for users)
URL status codes (300 and 400 codes)
Your CMS should make managing each of these elements possible with a few clicks, but it’s what you actually do with these elements that can influence how many leads your business receives from the web.
You may not need to know code, but you do need to become skilled at using these two approaches to understand and fulfill local intent on your website:
Polling and surveying the community you serve is the most direct method of discovering exactly what they need and want. If you have already grown a social media following on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Tiktok, regularly poll your audience to discover unmet needs and grow your products/services to include them.
If you do not yet have a social following and have never conducted a poll before, some options include:
Handing out survey cards at your place of business
Embedding a survey on your website with a small reward for participants
Conducting an email-based survey (if you have begun to establish an email database)
Starting a phone- or text-based survey campaign
Hiring a company like SurveyMonkey to conduct a professional survey for you (provided your survey group can have geographic limits placed on it)
You will want to take all of the data from your polls and surveys and combine it with formal keyword research.
There are good free keyword research tools like Answer the Public and Google Keyword Planner, as well as a variety of sophisticated paid tools. The only drawback of standard keyword research tools for local businesses is that they cannot be accurately refined to a limited geography (like a smaller city).
If you live in a major city and want to know how many people are searching for organic vegan tacos san francisco, the numbers keyword tools show you may be somewhat accurate, but if you’re doing business in a small town, volume estimates will not be reliable.
Instead, the best practice is to do your keyword research without geographic modifiers (like city names, neighborhood names, or zip codes) to get an overall sense of demand. Then, add back in those geo-modifiers when you optimize your website for these terms.
The key to deriving the most benefit from both types of research is to pay attention to exactly how potential customers talk about and search for the goods and services you offer (or may offer in the future). These are the terms you will use to optimize the URLs, titles, tags, internal links, and text of your website. While little or no code may be needed, outstanding knowledge of your community is a necessity!
Bucket #2: Optimize your Google Business Profile for success
To build a powerful Google Business Profile (GBP)—one that’s not hindered by novice mistakes—you should familiarize yourself with Google’s guidelines for representing your business. These guidelines determine your eligibility to be listed in Google’s local platform, and tell you what you can and can’t do with the various components of your listings. Local businesses looking to compete should fill out every possible field in the new merchant experience editor.
GBPs bring us to one of the key moments in the low-code scenario, because in order to track the performance of your listings, you will need to know something about URLs and Urchin Tracking Models (UTMs). When you add UTMs to specific elements of your listings and a user interacts with those elements, it will be recorded in your Google Analytics for analysis. For the best tutorial on all the places you can utilize UTMs on your Google Business Profile, watch Claire Carlile’s excellent presentation.
Beyond this, no code is absolutely required, and there are five crucial elements of your listing that directly impact its rank in Google’s local results:
Business title Google’s guidelines state that you should list your business by its real-world name with no additions (with some special rules for scenarios like co-located businesses and multi-practitioner firms). However, because the name of the business has been shown to influence its local search rankings, local business owners may be tempted to add extraneous keywords to their business titles. If detected, Google may remove these words from the title. The best practice is to follow the guidelines. If, however, your business name is in some way holding you back from achieving your visibility goals (as in the case of a business named “San Diego Tacos” opening new branches in multiple cities), you always have the option to formally rebrand your company.
Categories Your keyword and market research should inform the categories you choose for your business. Miscategorization may result in invisibility in Google’s local packs, finders, and Maps. To that end: - Read Google’s tips for choosing categories - Use a browser extension like GMB Spy to see all the categories your local competitors are using - Select as many categories as are relevant to the business while avoiding redundancy For example, if you are marketing a Mexican restaurant, there is no need to use “restaurant” as well as “mexican restaurant” for your categories. The more specific category is generally the better choice.
Website When filling out your GBP, you have the option to link it to a page on your website. Typically, the homepage of a small business website will have accrued the most authority and is the best choice to link to from the listing. However, there are cases in which multi-practitioner or multi-location brands will link from each listing to its respective page on the website to provide a more streamlined user experience. The fact that the website URL contributes to local search rankings strongly highlights how crucial it is for small businesses to have a professional, SEO-enabled website.
Services One recently discovered local search ranking factor relates to the services that Google auto-suggests to certain businesses while the listing is being created. This is not to be confused with geographic service areas. You can read more about adding services to your listing in this Google support doc, and it’s a best practice to select as many of the suggested services as are relevant to your business model.
Reviews The number of reviews a business earns has been shown to impact rank. Current thought leadership in the local SEO industry asserts that the first ranking impact can be seen when a business earns its first ten reviews, with diminishing returns following that. It’s theorized that there is a subsequent benchmark which could possibly be achieving 100 reviews, but this is a matter of debate. The ideal approach to reviews is to avoid any of the forbidden tactics outlined in Google’s prohibited content guidelines, and to receive a steady drip of reviews over time (rather than a big wave all at once). Getting too many reviews too quickly can cause Google to flag them.
Taken altogether, these five factors will go far towards contributing to your lead and revenue goals, and the last factor is of such importance that it goes in its own bucket below.
Bucket #3: Acquire and manage reviews
Google-based reviews not only impact Google’s local search rankings, they are also an SEO and conversion factor.
On the SEO side, Google excerpts language from reviews and displays it within the local search results in a feature known as “justifications.” So, if a searcher is looking for great food near me, and one of your reviewers has written “great food!” (as shown above), Google may embellish how your business appears in the local packs by including that review language in a highly visible spot in the local pack.
From a conversion standpoint, a recent large-scale survey I conducted at Moz found that 96% of US consumers read local business reviews and 86% say reviews are either the most important or a somewhat important contributor to whether they give a specific business a try.
Reviews can become strong contributors to meeting your revenue goals when you take the following approach:
01. Understand that excellent customer service is required to earn positive reviews. What happens in your store and on your website is what customers will write about when they review your business. Investing in customer satisfaction via staff training and generous consumer guarantees are essential for earning a positive, lucrative reputation.
02. So long as it does not violate the guidelines of the review platform, actively ask for reviews at the time of service, or via email or text shortly thereafter.
03. Respond to all reviews. In the survey mentioned above, I found that the majority of reviewers want to hear back from you within two or fewer days. In the case of negative reviews, the quicker you respond, the better. An apologetic, problem-solving owner’s response to a negative review can salvage your relationship with the customer and your good name in the public eye.
04. Promote your best reviews. Republish them as Google Posts, social media posts, on your website, and on in-store signage. I’ve found that only 11% of the public trust what brands say about themselves as much as they trust what consumers say, so put your customers’ praise everywhere you can.
Low-code is the best of both worlds for local businesses
With all three buckets on your water wheel feeding into one another, your local business will have covered all the elements essential to succeed in search. And you will have done it all with little or no knowledge of code.
The journey isn’t over, though—you need to keep your water wheel going to ensure you stay ahead of competitors and continue to reach new audiences.
Miriam Ellis is a local SEO columnist and consultant. She has been cited as one of the top five most prolific women writers in the SEO industry. Miriam is also an award-winning fine artist and her work can be seen at MiriamEllis.com. Twitter | Linkedin