How To Do Local SEO for Businesses Without Physical Locations in 2021

How To Do Local SEO for Businesses Without Physical Locations in 2021
How To Do Local SEO for Businesses Without Physical Locations in 2021

How To Do Local SEO for Businesses Without Physical Locations in 2021

Posted by MiriamEllis

“My business makes local deliveries, but doesn’t have a storefront. How do I handle listings management?”

“I work from home. How should I be doing local SEO?”

“Are there any tips for doing local SEO for clients like NerdWallet or Credit Karma that serve all customers virtually?”

Queries like these about doing local SEO for businesses with nuanced, hidden, or no physical locations and with varied models of customer fulfillment are AMA FAQs and perennial topics on marketing fora. Attendees at the recent Moz Webinar on The ROI of Local SEO repeatedly asked about this subject.

Business owners and marketers who haven’t serendipitously discovered Google’s various guidelines are left wondering how to promote non-brick-and-mortar brands. Even where there’s awareness that such guidance exists, Google is continually evolving its stance. It’s easy to make mistakes, overlook updates, and miss out on opportunities.

The great news is, there are local marketing possibilities for almost every business type, but you have to know which pathway to follow, based on how the brand you’re marketing operates. In today’s column, I’ll help you identify your model along with the best opportunities available to you for being discovered by the maximum number of local customers.

Identify your business model

If you’re asking about how to do local SEO for something other than a brick-and-mortar brand, chances are, the business you’re marketing falls into one of four categories:

1. Service Area Business (SAB)

Most home services (plumbing, landscaping, housekeeping, etc.) fall into this category. You may or may not have physical street addresses that serve as headquarters or offices, but the defining feature of your business is that you serve nearby customers face-to-face at their locations, not at yours.

2. Home-based business

Your home address is your physical location, and you may either serve nearby customers at your house (like a daycare center), or go to nearby customers to serve them (like a dog walker), or you might do a combination of both (like a yoga teacher who teaches some classes at their home studio and some as private appointments at clients homes). The defining feature of your business is that you’re working out of your house.

*If you work from home but don’t ever meet face-to-face with customers for delivery or fulfillment of any kind, then you don’t fall under this category; you fall under category 3.

3. Virtual business

You conduct all transactions virtually, via phone, computer, shipping, and other remote means. Your business may be e-commerce (like the Dollar Shave Club), or offer digital services (like Credit Karma), or sell via print catalogue or other remote methodology. You may be operating out of one or more physical addresses and want to get the attention of customers in various regions or cities, but no customers ever come to your locations. The defining feature of your business is that you never interact in-person with customers.

4. Hybrid business

This category is a sort of catch-all that covers many variations.

One classic example is a restaurant with on-site dining where customers pay in person, curbside pickup where customers come to the location but may pay online, and delivery where customers pay online and drivers come to their homes.

Another variant would be a home services company like a security specialist with walk-in key grinding at a physical premise, at-home appointments for installation of new locks on doors, and e-commerce sales of security products.

Yet another hybrid would be a model like the Vermont Country Store, with its brick-and-mortar shops, e-commerce shopping, and huge volume of print catalog-driven sales.

Hybrid business models became more common in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors, and there is no single defining feature of them. They are only united when all of them are looking for ways to increase visibility to customers in a specific local region.

In most cases, if the business you’re marketing is a hybrid, then your best bet will be to find the relevant opportunities in models 1-3, pair them with any applicable brick-and-mortar opportunities if those also match your model, and move forward with a very broad, hybrid strategy that seeks geographic visibility by every means possible.

Never do these things, regardless of your model

Before we begin listing out your model-based local SEO opportunities, now is the time to protect the brand you’re marketing from unwanted outcomes by avoiding missteps. No matter whether you’re trying to earn local visibility for an SAB, a home-based business, a virtual brand, or a hybrid, scratch these from your playbook:

  1. Don’t set up unstaffed virtual offices or P.O. boxes in an effort to fake locations for the sake of creating local business listings.
  2. Don’t set up strings of locations via the houses of staff, friends, or family members in an effort to fake operating multiple locations.
  3. Don’t set up listings for vacation homes, model homes, or empty properties. You can list the sales office of such businesses, but not the properties being rented or sold.
  4. Never, as a marketer, silently engage in violations of Google’s Guidelines. If you and a client choose together to risk a penalty or suspension for some reason, you’re agreeing to share the risk of potential disaster, but never undertake a forbidden strategy without the client’s knowledge.
  5. Be careful about over-promising results or agreeing to unrealistic goals when competing against brick-and-mortar businesses. Whether Google is genuinely biased towards locations that display their street address is a subject of long debate, myth, and speculation. What can be said with certainty is that it’s tough competing for local visibility with brick-and-mortar brands when you aren’t marketing a brick-and-mortar brand, so go into the work with informed expectations instead of unachievable aims, based on how Google appears to be handling results for your key search phrases.

Now we’re ready to talk strategy!

How to do local SEO for Service Area Businesses

Image Credit: Nacho

Abundant opportunities exist for service area businesses without public physical locations. In fact, updates to Google’s Guidelines in 2020 created a more favorable scenario for SABs. We’ll break your activities down into three sections: local, organic, and paid.

Local marketing for SABs

Your path to success begins in understanding Google’s requirements (which exist here and here) specific to SABs. You should read them in full, but I’ll excerpt the most salient points here:

In-person contact required

The guidelines state that SABs must make in-person contact of some kind with customers to be eligible for a Google My Business listing. However, during the pandemic, do not worry that your transition to contact-less services disqualifies you from inclusion. The business you're marketing is still an SAB if it’s painting a house or delivering a meal while observing social distancing. Google likely needs to update its guidelines to make this clearer.

Hiding your address required

You’ll be providing an address to Google in the creation of an SAB listing. Even if it’s a home address, warehouse location, or other facility you don’t want the public to visit, you must have some sort of address. Then, Google’s guidelines state that you should tell them to hide the address when creating the SAB’s listing.

Google will automatically hide the address if you answer “no” to the question “Do you want to add a location customers can visit, like a store or office?” when setting up a new listing.

There are many reasons businesses object to this requirement. As mentioned earlier, it’s long been debated whether hiding an address impacts a listing’s local rankings, but whether or not it does, listings with hidden address listings lack pins/markers on Google’s mapped displays, compared to their brick-and-mortar counterparts. It’s a definite disadvantage in terms of visual impact. The lack of a published address may also influence whether customers trust that a business is truly local to them, and this could adversely affect calls and leads.

Nevertheless, it’s Google’s position that this business model should hide its address, and clear its address from the GMB dashboard if it previously published one.

Setting a service area allowed

Older GMB listings had a feature that let you set a radius depicting the service area. On new listings, however, you must enter cities or postal codes to depict where your SAB serves. You can enter up to 20 such points. The boundaries of such areas shouldn’t exceed about two hours of driving distance from where the business is based.

No study has ever found that what you enter as your service area impacts your local rankings in any way. If you choose to depict them, it’s for the information of customers.

More than one listing allowed for some models

If the SAB you’re marketing has multiple, separately staffed locations about two hours apart from one another, and with non-overlapping service areas, you’re allowed more than one listing. I highly recommend having a unique phone number for each office, if possible.

Joy Hawkins has done a praiseworthy job summarizing the confusion that’s historically surrounded this topic, given that Google had previously stated that SABs could only have a single listing per state while not appearing to apply this rule to franchises. The latest addition of the two-hour context has made the guidelines better and clearer.

However, don’t create multiple listings for the different services the SAB offers. For example, an HVAC company may not have one listing for heater repair and another for air conditioner repair. Google sees this as just one brand, and it’s eligible for just one listing.

Other notes for SABs

A few last things to know:

  • Google defines the large, emergent field of ghost kitchens as SABs, so all of the above guidelines apply to this model.
  • It’s up to you whether you link from your SAB GMB listings to your website homepage or to local landing pages on your website. The former may provide a rankings boost due to homepages typically having the highest Page Authority. The latter may be better UX for your customers.
  • Don’t overlook the chance to create service menus in your GMB dashboard, listing out all the different offerings the business you're marketing provides.
  • Beyond Google, you’ll be glad to know that other local business listings platforms don’t make listing SABs so complicated in regards to hidden addresses. Unless a specific platform states otherwise, feel free to display your address on your other citations, if you like, and enjoy the opportunity to prove to searchers that you truly are local to them.
  • Moz Local can help you get listed on directories that allow you to hide your address, if you prefer to keep that private.

Organic marketing for SABs

No surprise here that every service area business should strive to publish the best possible website it can. Just like a brick-and-mortar brand, you want a mobile-friendly, secure website that provides a great user experience, has a strong internal link structure, persuasive consumer-centric content, and steadily growing Domain Authority based on inbound links earned over time. You want to get this site ranking as highly as you can for as many of your important search phrases as possible.

Where things become confusing for SABs in the organic marketing scenario typically relates to the concept of landing pages. This topic is constantly being discussed at SEO fora, and so we’ll break it down here.

It’s a best practice for brick-and-mortar models to create a unique location landing page for each of their physical stores. The goal of these pages is to serve a specific local audience with content that’s been specially designed for their needs related to a particular store location. These pages can rank well organically and can be used as the landing page URLs for a multi-location model’s GMB listings. SABs with multiple physical offices can also create these types of pages as proofs of local-ness, even if customers don’t come to the offices.

But the big question is: what if the SAB serves a large area beyond its own physical location? Should location landing pages be created for the locales an SAB serves?

The answer is, yes, you should consider creating SAB service area landing pages if you have something unique to showcase in each service city, and if you limit coverage to a reasonable geographic area.

For example, a house painter in the San Francisco Bay Area could create some really beautiful, highly-converting landing pages featuring houses they’ve painted in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, San Mateo, and Mill Valley, even if they don’t have offices in each place. Each page could focus on different completed projects, historic information about design styles in each city, happy customers in each city, home maintenance tips based on the different microclimates of each city, etc. These pages could rank well and convert customers if developed with thought and care.

The two things I would recommend that SAB marketers avoid would be:

  1. Creating duplicate or near-duplicate service area landing pages because there aren’t actually unique features about the services or customers in association with the different cities.
  2. Creating vast numbers of these pages in an attempt to get a single location SAB to rank over a huge area, like a dozen counties or even a state.

Take an approach that makes sense for the customer, and focus on content that will answer their questions and meet their needs. Build a strong internal link structure to these pages, try to earn a few good inbound links to them, and track how they are ranking in the localized-organic results for desired keyword phrases.

Paid local marketing for SABs

Anyone who markets SABs knows that one of their key, historic pain points has been being unable to rank throughout their service area because of Google’s bias surrounding user-to-business proximity. Despite having a separate set of rules for SABs, Google continues to treat these models too much like brick-and-mortar storefronts, typically focusing their ranking opportunities around their given (but hidden) locations.

When your local and organic efforts are failing to earn the visibility you need throughout your focus service area, Google’s Local Services Ads program lets you pay to fill in the gaps. If the business you're marketing is in a qualifying industry and geographic region, you can run these ads for the job types you want to do in the service area you want to cover, and pay Google for the leads they send. SABs can also simultaneously run Google Ads for additional paid coverage.

The downside to LSAs and Google Ads is that they require an investment (as opposed to the “free” visibility of local pack and organic results) and they increase local brand dependence on Google for revenue. Be sure you’re working hard to turn each Google lead into a repeat customer outside of Google’s lead gen loop. The upside to paid Google advertising is that it lets you pay for visibility you just can’t earn any other way. If it creates positive ROI for the brand you’re marketing, then it’s a worthwhile investment.

How to do local SEO for home-based businesses

Service area businesses may feel at a disadvantage because Google requires most of them to hide their addresses. For home-based businesses, the scenario is often the opposite: many owners of these models want to be sure their address is kept private and that and they don’t have confused customers showing up at their door expecting public premises.

But not all-home based businesses are the same in their requirements and opportunities. When marketing a home-based brand, ask the owner to select which of these scenarios fits their model:

1. I serve customers in-person at my home and want my address to be public

This could be a daycare center, pet groomer, horse boarder, private instructor, or similar model. In this case, the business should invest in street-level signage and take every advantage of marketing themselves as a brick-and-mortar business. There’s nothing holding this business model back.

If the business is by appointment only, Google prefers that you set no hours of operation on your listing. Based on your chosen GMB categories, however, you may be eligible for Google’s booking features. And, you can choose to mention in the business description field that access is by appointment only.

2. I serve customers in-person at my home and want my address to be private

Google doesn’t have clear enough provisions for this specific model, but basically you will be handling it as you would an SAB that needs to hide its address. Google wants you to clear the address from the Info section of the Google My Business dashboard. You can choose to add a service area.

If privacy is a special concern for a particular business, it’s important to know that if Google has any record of your home address, bugs or policy changes could lead to it being visible at some point.

Beyond Google, you can choose to list the business only in those directories that support hidden addresses. You likely will not be creating location landing pages for this model, but may want to focus your website’s content on hyperlocal city and neighborhood terms to seek as much nearby organic visibility as you can without an address.

3. I work from home and serve customers at their locations

This could be a plumber, accountant, housekeeper, or similar model where the home base of the business is the owner’s house, but they travel throughout a service radius for work. This model is just like a typical SAB, in that Google wants the address hidden and a service area designated for the listing.

It’s important to emphasize here that home-based SABs are not allowed on the Google Maps product and that Google’s workaround for this is that they can be included in Google My Business by virtue of hiding their addresses. Failure to hide the address could risk suspension and removal of the listing.

Beyond Google, feel free to either show your address if you’d like to on your listings, or only list on directories that support hidden addresses if privacy is important to you. And, just like other SABs, review the above section about whether your operations lend themselves to developing high quality, interesting landing pages to represent various cities in your service area.

4. I work from home and don’t serve any customers face-to-face

These waters became somewhat muddy in 2020 due to the public health emergency causing so many people to work from home, and so many models to replace in-person service with tele-appointments and other forms of remote communication.

In the past, virtual business models have been strictly excluded from having Google My Business listings. But so much has changed in the world due to the pandemic, and so I went directly to a Google rep to see how they may have adjusted their stance on this.

I asked how a professional like a therapist who used to have an office and see clients in person, but who is now working from home and seeing clients via telemedicine appointments, should be listing themselves. Since their model is now virtual, have they become ineligible for a GMB listing, or can they still be listed as a home-based business would have been pre-COVID-19?

Here’s the answer I received:

So, according to this representative, if the business formerly served customers in person and intends to resume face-to-face appointments when it hopefully becomes safe to do so in the future, then eligibility isn’t harmed. List the business as you would any home-based business, following the guidance shared above in this section. It would be a good thing if Google would update their guidelines to share this timely information.

However, if the business is fully virtual and has never served customers in-person, move on to the next section.

How to do local SEO for virtual businesses

Image credit: Charles Rodstram

E-commerce-only companies, purveyors of strictly digital goods and services, and large, national or international manufacturers and providers without storefronts all fall under the heading of “virtual business”. Questions most commonly arise in this sector from virtual brands that are frustrated by limits of competing fully with local, physical brands for online visibility.

To avoid wasting time and resources on dead-end strategies, it’s best to clearly outline what virtual brands can and can’t do to compete. And, we should also highlight grey areas.

Can’t do

Without offering in-person service, the virtual brand you're marketing is ineligible for a Google My Business listing. Without having a physical address, it’s also ineligible. You may be able to list the business on some other directories, but in Google’s world, you cannot compete for local pack/local finder/maps rankings. Just cross it off the books.

Can do

You can compete for organic rankings with the content you publish and the links you earn to boost the Page Authority of that content.

You can compete for paid visibility via Google Ads with location targeting in regions that are important to you.

Grey areas

There are some cases in which a mainly-virtual business might qualify for a GMB listing, if they have a staffed headquarters that needs to be found, not by customers, but by associates like B2B partners. However, for virtual brands with national or international consumers, such a listing will not in any way help with competing for country-wide local pack rankings.

Localized organic visibility for virtual businesses

In recent times, Google reps have stated that 46% of searches have a local intent, and that it’s the location of the user that has a much greater impact on the search engine results they're shown than other forms of personalization. For fully virtual businesses, none of this is good news, and Google heavy localization of their organic SERPs leaves e-commerce and other digital-only brands struggling to compete.

In a recent Moz webinar, an attendee asked how companies like CarInsurance.com can rank for searches formulated like “car insurance near me” when Google is most likely to give precedence to truly local businesses + major brands. The reality is, virtual businesses have to build all of the organic authority they can and find a way to localize some specific content as much as possible for the cities that matter the most to the brand.

A common approach that I can’t recommend is the development of thin, duplicate city-level landing pages for every city across the country. You see footers all over the Internet laden with links to dozens of city-level pages of very little value.

Rather, brands competing for extremely tough terms have to continuously invest in building authority to rival a Farmers Insurance or a Geico if they want to be seen as relevant by Google for prime organic visibility for head terms. And, where possible, create landing pages for top cities with truly top-notch localized information on them, sometimes adjusting optimization to target fruitful longer-tail terms.

This is no easy task, and it’s why so many virtual brands simply end up paying for placement instead of struggling for organic rankings. But take heart. The company our webinar attendee asked about, CarInsurance.com, is doing extremely well with this landing page for the longer tail search of “best cheap car insurance in San Francisco” when I search from my locale in the SF Bay The Moz Pro On-Page Grader shows what a strong effort has been made, and that there’s even a bit of room to do better with a few tweaks:

So find your geographic market competitors and audit them to discover where competition may be possible with the right mix of authority + winnable search phrases. Designed especially to help you understand which search terms to target for organic rankings in different geographic markets around the country is the Moz Pro beta of Local Market Analytics:

Local Market Analytics breaks new ground in offering you a multi-sampled view of your competitors in your chosen regions for the search phrases you most need to support with your best content. Be part of the beta of this exciting product in your quest to help a virtual brand compete with physical local businesses.

Summing up

There’s a fairly straightforward local marketing path for each non-brick-and-mortar model, but I predict that 2021 is going to be a year in which we’ll see further blurring of traditional, well-trodden lanes.

Clearly, more brick-and-mortar brands will adopt digital sales in the coming months to meet the demand for contactless fulfillment, becoming hybrids. Physical retailers will implement sophisticated e-commerce solutions on their own websites and tiptoe into Google Shopping with it’s “available nearby” filter.

Meanwhile, digital-only brands will continue to experiment with the Warby Parker approach of transitioning from full DTC sales to having physical stores, making them eligible for local pack rankings. I’d say 2021 looks less promising for such tests than the environment of previous years because of the obvious need to limit in-person shopping due to the pandemic.

And, also because of COVID-19, entrepreneurs who spent 2020 researching opportunities to support themselves by working from home may begin to enjoy their first hard-won successes in the new year. They will run the gamut of brick-and-mortar, SAB, virtual, and hybrid models, all from their living rooms.

The onus will be on Google to remain relevant by absorbing all this change and continually reevaluating whether their guidelines reflect current commercial reality or need new updates. Be on sharp lookout for new opportunities that may arise from guideline revisions and new Google features over the next few months.

For brands and their marketers, the task at hand is to identify the easy, medium, and hard local and organic wins based on the business model, and then supplement with paid inclusion where wins can’t be had in any other way.

Having trouble finding your wins? Contact Moz to learn how our SEO software can help. We’re wishing you good fortune in the year ahead!

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Mary Pierce

Mary Pierce

Avid gardener, artist, writer, web designer, video creator, and Google my Business local marketing pro!
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