As more and more people get online, learn to use smartphones and otherwise become more connected to the Internet, Google will continue to dominate as a springboard where consumers start researching local businesses.
But SEO (search engine optimization), best described as a collection of techniques that help a website show up on Google and other search engines, is so open-ended that it’s difficult to define a starting point. One of the best ways to do so is to assess the competitive landscape, check what your competitors are doing and emulate the things they are doing right.
We talked to Tony Emerson and Josh Waldrum, both members of our in-house SEO team, about what self-storage facilities can do to assess (and match) their competitors’ online efforts in both local and organic search.
Identify Direct Competitors
The first step in conducting competitor research is to identify which sites are your direct rivals. To do this, you’ll need a list of key terms that visitors are likely to use to find your site.
Josh: “Google has a ton of free tools out there to figure out what your keywords are, mainly Google Analytics and Google AdWords Keyword Tool. You can type in ‘self storage’ and your city, and you’ll get suggestions on what the highest-trafficked terms are.”
Tony: “Compile a set of five to 10 keywords to check. The ones that are popular from our research–and it varies on a market-to-market basis–are ‘(city) + self storage,’ ‘(ZIP code) + self storage,’ ‘(city) + storage’ and related terms like ‘storage in (city)’.”
Pinpoint Facilities that Outrank You
The next step is to see who’s outranking you for those terms by Googling them and identifying other similar facilities. Remember, when you conduct a search while logged into a Google account, you may receive customized results that don’t reflect the reality of the ranking situation. This usually means you’ll appear to rank higher than you actually do, because Google has seen you click on your own website before and assumes that this is what you want to see. Either log out of Google or open a “private browsing” (Firefox) or “incognito” (Google Chrome) window to conduct your research.
Josh: “Google these terms and look for sites that are in the same niche or industry as you. For instance, if a Craigslist or Wikipedia page ranks above you, that’s obviously not your competitor. The fact that they may outrank you has an influence on your traffic, but you’re not going to be able to go after the same kind of links.”
Tony: “The same is true for Yelp. For instance, when I type in ‘Seattle self storage,’ I see Yelp ranking at number one. It’s worth noting that you’ll have to outrank them to get to number one, but researching their keyword usage and link profile isn’t going to get you very far.”
Learn About Local
Local SEO is all about getting citations, also known as NAP (name, address, phone number) blocks. Google looks at these as confirmation that your business is operating and that you’re located where you say you are.
Tony: “For local search, make sure you’re out there everywhere you can be online with your name, address and phone number as one block. Take a look at your competitors’ Google+ Local listings and make sure you have the same depth of information or more. For example, if they have a video, you may want to create one as well so that you’re on the same baseline when it comes to on-listing optimization. Then take a look at their citations, which is that name-address-phone combination. Google their address and see what techniques they’ve used to get listed.”
Josh: “A good tool for this is GetListed.org, which will show you the top citation sources for your area and will help point you in the right direction. Most of these are pretty basic, like YellowPages and Yelp. Although these sites offer premium services, signing up for free is enough to get the citation. Make sure your local footprint is out there everywhere it can be.”
Tony: “If you’re a storage facility and you’re not on Yelp, you should take a step back and reconsider your marketing strategy as a whole. You need to be willing to put your business on Yelp, even though it opens you up to negative publicity, in order to dominate in search. You’re not in direct control of your online reputation, and trying to control by not signing up for Yelp, Google and other user-generated review sites is just going to hurt you.”
Get More Links
While the main factors for ranking higher in Google local search or Google Maps are shoring up your Google+ Local listing and getting more citations, the key to ranking in organic search is getting more links to your website.
Josh: “Putting content out there is the number one thing to do to improve your actual site. Adding a blog or just fresh content every once in awhile–that’s the future of SEO. Once you’re doing that, and you’re sure you’re not making any SEO mistakes, the next step is to get some links.”
Tony: “To continue our ‘Seattle self storage’ example, nickersonstreetstorage.com is a mom-and-pop that ranks really well. I’ve pulled them up in Open Site Explorer, which is a tool that helps you look at what links a given site has acquired. It’s free for up to three uses per day. These guys have done a YouTube video that links back to their site, they wrote a Squidoo article and they do some blog commenting. Blog commenting isn’t the most valuable strategy, but it can help in less competitive spaces–especially if the article you’re commenting on is relevant to storage in your area.”
Josh: “They’ve also put out some press releases on free PR sites. These can be valuable, especially if you’ve got some truly exciting news that local media might pick up. If it’s newsworthy enough, it may be worth paying the release fee to a paid site like PRWeb.”
One thing to keep in mind for competitive SEO research is that not all links are valuable. Even if a competitor that ranks above you has a similar link, acquiring that same link actually might hurt you.
Tony: “If you do a backlink lookup on one of your competitors and you see things that are on the spammy side–for instance, buying links is a huge red flag–that’s not a green light to go get that same link. There are a lot of other factors there that may cause them to not get penalized for a link that would penalize you–they might have a more trusted domain, so they can escape that penalty, whereas you may not. They also may have already been hurt by that link getting devalued, but they made it up elsewhere, so they’re still outranking you.”
Tony: “RavenTools is one that we would heartily recommend for a mom-and-pop facility. It’s a fully functioning tool that helps guide your SEO process. The only component that it doesn’t currently offer is rank tracking, which we recommend supplementing, but this can be conducted by hand as well. If you do this, try to look at rankings at least once per week, and keep track of everything in a spreadsheet so you can easily see when movement occurs.”
You also can use these tools to check out the distribution of anchor text, which is the text used for the links themselves. Unnatural anchor-text distribution is one of the signals that Google’s team uses to identify spam links.
Josh: “MajesticSEO also has a cool functionality that shows your anchor-text distribution. Especially after Google’s Penguin and Panda updates, you don’t want to have keyword-specific anchor text that isn’t distributed naturally. For instance, most of nickersonstreetstorage.com’s links just say ‘Nickerson Street Storage,’ which is good. It would open them up for penalization if the majority of their links just used ‘Seattle storage’ for their anchor text.”
A good starting point for backlink research is mapping out the backlink profile of your competitors. Seeing a graph of link quality of your sites versus your competitors’ sites can help you visualize what you’re lacking. This can help you figure out whether you need to focus on quality or quantity of links. There’s a chance you have more links than your competitors, but they have higher-quality link distribution.
Updates of Google PageRank–which analyzes and grades your website’s links–occur about once every three months. So if your facility has been doing things to get links, you’ll want to use a tool with up-to-date reporting like MozCheck.com to monitor your progress.
Whether you’re trying to optimize for local or organic SEO, and whether you’re doing that by shoring up your listing/website or by improving your citations/links, looking at what your competition is doing is a good strategy. But keep in mind that it’s just a starting point. Following the footsteps of the competition may get you closer to their level, but you’ll need something unique to push your website or local listing over the edge and begin outranking the competition.