Studies show that the majority of small businesses draw customers from within a 50-mile radius. The good news is that a variety of tools make it easier for your business to be found by people searching for local businesses.  And the tools are getting more precise and more intelligent as the search engine companies invest in local search technology.

Here’s a primer on local search.

What is local search

Local search is a pretty simple concept.  It’s when people search in Google or another search engine using a geographical parameter.

For instance, let’s say I want to order a pizza.  I might search for “pizza” plus the name of my local city “Medina” or maybe by city AND state, “Medina, Ohio.” Or I might plug in my zip code in place of the city and state if I want to be especially precise.

That’s local search.  You may have done searches this way yourself. 

But there’s another way local search occurs:  when the search engines help out.  For instance, some of the search engines can detect from my IP (computer) address where I am located, and will deliver up local search results even if I neglect to plug in the city, state or zip code.  The search engine technology “fills in” the searcher’s location.

How can local search for my business

If you want your business to get found by those searching for local businesses, there are a number of specific actions you can take to increase your chances of being located.

To provide local search insights, I called on Bill Slawski, an expert in local search and President of SEO by the Sea, Inc..  Here are some of the pointers Slawski suggested:

1. Include address information on your website

The most common reason businesses do not rank well in local searches is that they fail to include their full address information prominently on their websites. Remember to:

  • Include your address in text, not in an image -- search engine spiders read text.
  • Use your full address, including street, city, state/province and zip code.  That way your business shows up for all those search parameters.
  • Spell out the state or province, not just the postal abbreviation, since many people search by full state name (“Ohio” rather than “OH”).
  • Do not bury your address three layers deep. Put it in the footer of your home page.
  • Include city and/or state in your title tags and/or Meta tags in your site’s HTML code.

2. Use “key value pairs” to describe contact information

Some search engines recognize something called key value pairs.  In other words, their spiders look for information paired up with a key term.  The word “telephone” is a key and your actual telephone number is a value:  Thus, use a word such as telephone along with a colon and the number.  Example:  “Telephone: 800-000-0000.”  This way, your contact information will be more likely to be found.

3. Include hours, disabled access and more

Some specialized local search engines provide more information about a business than simply address.  For instance, they may provide business hours, accessibility for the disabled, and so on.  According to Slawski, one of the search engine patents says its algorithm considers pages with such detailed business information to be more important than other kinds of pages.  Plus, detailed information is a sign of credibility for your business, aside from the search engines. 

4. Remember local searchers using mobile phones

Residents in your local area are the obvious people searching for local businesses.  But don’t overlook a wider potential audience. Slawski says,  “Remember business travelers, tourists, those visiting relatives in the area, commuters who live elsewhere but work in your area, and relocating newcomers who will soon be moving to the area -- they will be looking for you via their mobile phones.“ 

Local search is becoming tied closely to mobile search.  Those looking on their cell phones may find you if you are listed well in local search engines.  Consider optimizing your site for mobile-phone viewing. 

5. Consider mail forwarding for a home business

Home-based businesses have a special problem.  They want to be found, yet for security reasons prefer not to publicize their home addresses on the Web.  A mail forwarding service that provides a physical address for mail may be worth it.  Even a post office box address is helpful.  For fax and phone, consider a phone forwarding and fax forwarding service (I use GotVMail) so that the numbers cannot be cross-referenced to your home. 

6. If you can’t get a link, at least get a mention

Standard search engine optimization advice beats us silly with the idea that we must get links to our websites.  “But for purposes of local search, mentions even without hyperlinks can have value,” says Slawski. If you can get your business mentioned where the mention also includes your address or phone number, the search engines may extract the information and use it to validate that the business is in fact associated with that location.  So, for example, getting mentioned in the local chamber of commerce website or in your local online newspaper, can be helpful for local search purposes.  The more mentions, and the more specific the mentions, the better.  

7. Geo-target paid search campaigns

So far we have been talking about unpaid search results.  But if you purchase search advertising, such as Google AdWords, be sure to geo-target your ads, so that they are shown only to those in your area. Paid search for a local market is not as expensive as for a global market.

8. Be found even without a website

It is possible to be found via local search even though you don't have a website.  Visit some of the local search engines and local directories to:  (1) make sure your business is listed, and (2) make sure the information is correct.  To do this, look for a link, often near the bottom of the page, saying something like “add/edit your business” or “list your business.”

Anita Campbell is a writer, speaker and radio talk show host who closely follows trends in the small business market at her site, Small Business Trends.