There has been lots of talk over the past year or so about ranking factor studies.  While Moz.com has been famous for their bi-yearly SEO ranking factors study and survey, we’ve also seen players like Ahrefs, SEMRush and Backlinko come out with their own large scale, million+ data point studies on what factors correlate to the highest rankings in Search Engines.

This is no doubt a great source of data and insight, as well as a technical feat that should be admired.  However, if you aren’t careful, it could become a distraction to what is a true effective method for ranking websites.

Sometimes it’s best to keep things simple, and a list of 50+ different factors, with varying (perhaps conflicting) degrees of correlation among studies isn’t a great place to start if you are just beginning with SEO, or just trying to build or grow your local business’ web presence.

So, what exactly should a business owner or beginner SEO focus on?  Over the years I’ve worked on launching dozens of local business websites, and I’ve come to realize that certain key factors should be the focus, while others can be ignored without too much concern.  We’ll go into those below…

Content is Important, but be Reasonable

A main point I want to make in this post is that there are big differences between types of websites, both in what they want to accomplish and what tactics/strategies are effective and achieving those goals.

Content is a good differentiating factor between large scale sites and smaller local sites.  For the large website, content transcends a “ranking factor” and becomes a specific tactical aspect of growing traffic.  Targeting lots of longer tail keywords while leverage domain authority, gaining passive backlinks and funneling potential customers into their experience.

Sounds great, right? It is, but it’s not applicable to every situation, particularly a local business hoping to gain customers in their metro area.  Ranking for things like “fixing a cracked pvc pipe” is great, but of the 20 people that search for that term every month, probably none are your target customer.

Instead, first focus on content such as this:

  • Company and service descriptions that focus on user need and conversion rate optimization rather than worrying about spiders.
  • FAQ pages that are thorough and speak to actual user questions.
  • About page that gives history of company and personalizes the staff.
  • Custom reviews and case studies.

Also unnecessary: Dumping out 2,000 words on your sites homepage.  It’s not natural.  Keep it to around 500 words and relevant content and you’ll be fine.

All these pieces of content share something in common, they give you that lovely “word count” that SEOs love to tout, hits all the relevant keywords and “LSI”, but also achieves legitimate user needs.

NOTE: At some point if you’d like to start a more robust content marketing strategy, have at it!  My only point is that the most effective use of resources when starting out is to focus on these much more relevant and useful pieces of content.

Keyword Research, Title Tags and URLs

I’ll say it again and again, keyword research is the backbone of any SEO initiative.   Proper keyword research into the keywords of your target customer is where the money is at (literally).  You simply need to pair this will some standard on-page optimization to take full advantage.

Here I’ll focus on just a few ranking factors that will do almost all the heavy lifting when it comes to on-page ranking factors:

URL

A Keyword rich URL is probably the #1 onpage ranking factor nowadays.  I personally believe it has eclipsed the title tag in terms importance, and thanks to WordPress permalinks, it’s just as customizable as any other part of your content.

In local services, you really don’t have to get too creative (like you might with long form articles).  Just peak at any local SERP, you’ll probably see the same URL slug in all the results (and that’s because it works).

Dump in the target keyword in your URL, and move on.

Title Tags

Title tags are the next most important factor.  This is especially important for your homepage, since you can’t get that URL keyword relevance (unless, of course, your company name has some keyword love in it).

In these situations, I try to squeeze 3 keyword variants into a natural sentence, with my brand name at either the beginning or end.

H1-H3 Tags

Next up are the H1 Tags.  While these won’t move the needle like title tags or URL keywords, they definitely help to craft the content.  What I like to do is find different categories within the keyword research (sub-niches within the niche), and make header tags for each of those.  It creates a nice semantic package to the page.

Links, Links, Links

Ah, Links.  It always comes back to links.  For good reason, too.  Anyone can put together a nicely optimized website (they don’t, but they could).  How Google tells the difference between the good, bad and ugly is largely with backlinks.

So what backlinks should local businesses focus on?  Well, it’s important to realize that local businesses don’t generally attract high powered links from large authority sites.  This is a good thing, because it means that you can succeed more moderate approaches.

Some great sources for links:

  • High quality, local directories (Yelp, Manta, etc). Make sure they are indexed!
  • Local organizations, chamber of commerce.
  • Partner and vendor websites (tend to be other local businesses).
  • Local newspapers.
  • High quality Press Releases (Be Newsworthy!)

If you get after all of these opportunities you will likely be ahead of your competition already.

Conclusion
People practice SEO in all manner of ways.  There is not a singular answer to how to approach ranking a website, but what I’ve hoped to accomplish here is to simplify things a bit for the local business owner or local SEO.

With 200+ ranking factors and almost that many opinions on what to do, sometimes it’s better to remove the chaff and narrow the focus.  Following these 3 general buckets, you’ll likely start to outperform your local competitors.  No need to worry about all the other noise…

Michael Hayes is a veteran SEO and owner of Darby Hayes Consulting, an SEO and PPC agency based in New York City.  He thinks Twitter is elitist so you should just email him at mike (at) darbyhayesconsulting.com.