Longtail Locations: Conquering the SEO Landscape

The longtail is one of those beautiful concepts in SEO. It’s an elegant thought; once the volumes are small enough (longtail enough) for a specific term, they seemingly disappear in unimportance. In a game where quantity is so important, the battles are fought over the juicier prizes. But when you simply count up these longtail phrases, you realize how many there are, and the implications of such a quantity and their massive power in aggregate.

Where else does the longtail shape appear?

The local search market is serious, and always going to get more so as populations creep ever closer towards a 100% saturation of regular and competent Internet users, and as more and more of life gets wired. The classic [big city + keyword] combo isn’t going anywhere, and even keyword searches without specified locations are starting to be treated as local searches.

But what about small cities and towns? And then the longtail thought: how many…? If each tiny town is not so much worth the general ambitious SEO’s time, what about considering them in aggregate?

The only sites that seem to really be able to operate on this level are large directories like the Yellow Pages, who have reason to not only have pages for each town, but pages for each town and their adjoining business categories. Is this the only way?

As has been the case throughout history, the conqueror tends to have better technology than the conqueree. There’s a curious phenomenon whereby if you check smaller and small cities for their local web sites, they tend to get crappier and crappier. The web saturation is often lower in these areas, and there tends to not be the demand to push things forward. This creates a strange situation in which the urban SEO is so embroiled in his own conflicts that no time is spent mopping up easier territory, because it isn’t juicy enough. Isn’t it, though? Is there a way to reach enough at once, such that it certainly is?

Firstly, if the state of web use isn’t impressive in a tiny town now, it might very well be in the future. This is what you call “getting in early”. Can the web possibly stagnate to a halt in a given region, never quite catching up? I say, plant your seeds, and win some easy battles. Secondly, if you find a system that works, why not multiply it out? The longtail adds up. How many [longtail phrases + longtail locations] keywords are there?

Centralized vs Decentralized

Let’s say we’re going to go for the longtail locations. Which is better? To follow the Yellow Pages structure of one major site with pages for just about everything, or build local sites for each? The more finely grained you go in what you target on a per site level, the more actual sites you have to develop, multiplying out work that’s much easier on a page by page level within a single powerhouse. On the other hand, going fine grained not only gives a more targeted user experience and potentially engenders a feeling of local pride, but can also serve to differentiate and avoid a vs Yellow Pages sites head-to-head that is hard to win.

We know how Yellow Pages work. The next level down is the city directory. I live in Oxford, where Daily Info dominates the classified market. The site doesn’t come off as super au courant despite a Facebook and Twitter presence, but in a way it adds to the charm given that a printed paper version of weekly classifieds has been running since 1964. The online version is well-populated with reviews, and the fresh information has no equal within the city. Making sites like this means one site per city. No small task as far as work, and still potentially not targeted enough to have the highest in credibility.

The highest in credibility comes with a local listing for a specific area, for a specific niche. I grew up in a suburban area outside Montreal known as the West Island. Enter West Island Restaurants, and aptly named site fulfilling this specific function. It is not as long running as sites like Yellow Pages or Yelp!, yet given the focus, it has been attracting increasing numbers of reviews. How much more likely are people to comment and leave reviews on a site that seems like it’s made for them and their community? But making pages to cover the breadth of longtail locations, without some large scale automation, is just about impossible. A site for every niche in every city might be just too much, but could potentially have the most targeted, user-participation inciting appeal. Plus, do people in a city want to check a different site for everything to do with their city or town? Or is a site like Daily Info a better compromise for retention and a greater ability to cross over niches?

An SEO can try to pick a small subset of location+category combinations from which to build sites, but then the heart of the longtail concept is lost, and research on where to focus will ultimately, most likely, make it a medium tail project at its longest. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to consider vis-a-vis the longtail location discussion.

Local SEO vs Organic SEO

I have to be clear about what kind of SEO I’m talking about here, especially given the recent changes to Google local search listings. While local and organic results are increasingly blended, we can still considering them as two relatively separate strategies offering relatively separate results, even if they share the same results page.

The introduction of Google Places in shaping local search results points to a muscling out of directories that don’t offer much beyond basic listing information. Google provides its own basic information for those businesses that have been picked up on the Google Places radar, and doesn’t want to push traffic seeking such information elsewhere when they can address it themselves.

That said, the main way these Google Listings offer support to other people’s sites is in connecting users to external reviews on trusted sources. With this in mind, if offering a locally-tuned site is more likely to generate reviews, this might be the only way to grab local traffic. As with Daily Info, an offline presence may be necessary. Just as competing with Yellow Pages is tough, competing with Google as a Yellow Pages competitor is that much more daunting. More specific is the only way to go.

A very important question that needs to be answered is how well Google would be able to identify local city directories or city+category directories as authorities whose reviews are worth linking to from their Places results. If you build a small town directory, even if it’s full of reviews, will Google even notice? The Places listings review traffic, assuming it doesn’t go anywhere, might be important enough that a lack of assurance in Google noticing local directories and their reviews could be a deal-breaker. It’s certainly easier to draw from reviews on the big sites like Yelp! than try to find the little guys, even if they might have more to say.

Also, as it stands now, Places results are still mixed with organic results, and a city/town-targeted site has some immediate credentials for organic relevance, at least.

An obvious tough part is attracting link popularity, for which efforts are much more collected and as such easily distributed on a mammoth single site. But because the locations are as targeted as they are, they have potential for natural linking rankings that can snowball into other keywords. The organic competition is weaker, and the Places results are, so far, not as populated. As Andrew Shotland points out, there are still relatively few localified listings for small towns.

This is not to say that small local domination will be a walk in the park. Local listings are evolving quickly, and even if people take a while to sign their businesses up to Places, it doesn’t mean Google won’t take care of it for them. Every site will be an older local site than yours, but there is a lot less design and usability quality and SEO know-how, so these are winnable fights.

The biggest obstacle, whether the city directory option is chosen or the city+category option is chosen, is the development work. Business listing data is expensive and often requires significant cleanup and management of multiple sources. Scraping listings has ethical (legal?) considerations and can still be subject to disorganization and inaccuracy. If the longtail principle is followed, this could mean developing hundreds if not thousands of sites. Even automating processes, that’s still a whack of a hosting investment, and requires significant planning. Building would have to be streamlined, always at the risk of a cookie-cutter look suggesting a network. Public awareness of a network, from Google and from searching people, could impact performance.

So what do you think? Can a value-in-aggregate local SEO strategy mirror the organic SEO strategy in targeting the longtail of a given keyword niche? Does the ever-changing landscape of Google’s local listings make the endeavor entirely too risky to justify the expense? Is there anything unethical about even trying?

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