SEO vs Local SEO: What’s the difference?

For your site to be seen by online customers, you need to optimize your website for search engines. This is where SEO comes into your marketing strategy. Without a strategy for search engine optimization (SEO), your business could be and is missing out on a slew of prospects who are local to you, but unaware that you exist. But how do you make your website search engine friendly for both local searches and general organic searches? What’s the difference?

SEO vs Local SEO

Search engine optimization, to put it simply, is the process of increasing both quantity and quality organic traffic to your website. Quality traffic refers to visitors searching for exactly what you offer them, and organic results refers to unpaid content that shows up in search engine results pages (SERPs). Ergo, organic traffic refers to site visitors who click on your site from organic search, and SEO is largely the art of increasing organic traffic by making people and search engine robots happy. (Read more about SEO).

Local search engine optimization is a subsection of this that focuses on the geographical components of search. Local SEO is the practice of optimizing your website for local search results that it may not only increase visibility and traffic to your site, but foot traffic to your brick and mortar business.

Note: Search competition in your local business area is much lower than competing for high value keywords with online purchasing intent so it’s easier for your business to stand out and perform locally.

How does a search engine work?

Before diving into the differences between organic search and local search, it’s important to have at least a high level understanding of how a search engine works. And while no one outside of Google’s inner circle will know everything that’s involved in their search algorithm, we can provide you with a basic overview of how search engines, like Google, operate.

A search engine’s process can be cataloged into 3 simple steps:

  1. Crawl
  2. Index
  3. Retrieve

Think of search engines, like Google, as massive online libraries of content. They work by crawling websites (following links), processing their information page by page, cataloging its content with other similarly related content, and indexing those sites’ pages for users on the frontend to find during their searches. As users enter their queries into the search bar, the search engine then pulls content most relevant to those queries from its index to appear on the search engine results page, also known as SERPs.

Knowing the basics of how a search engine operates can give you an understanding of the importance of optimizing your site’s content so that the search engine finds your content as valuable as you intend it to be for your ideal visitor. But how does local search differ from regular, organic search and what does that mean for your SEO strategy for both?

Local Search and the intent behind it

While organic search and its results are based on the relevance to each user’s search query, links (both internal and external), and the other search ranking factors, local search takes into account something different: providing geographically relevant information from the local intent behind its users search queries.

Organic search serves to benefit a much broader audience of both informational and transactional searchers (think featured snippets to common questions and e-commerce stores). And while local search still serves the informational searcher, there is a heightened sense of purchasing intent within a user’s local search query.

Users performing local search queries are looking for a business or place they can visit in person or a service that comes to their home. Think local doctors, in-home healthcare, plumbers, lawyers, and restaurants. But what exactly makes the search intent local for users?

Typical search queries with local intent include the following modifiers:

  • [term] + city
  • [term] + near me
  • [term] + closest to me

These modifiers work to filter a user’s search results based on their location, how far they’re willing to go, and the urgency behind the search. More recently, however, these modifiers have been dropping from users’ queries. Google has stated that they’ve implemented neural matching for local searches. This means their search engine can better understand the meaning behind keywords that may imply local intent and match them with the most relevant local search results, even if there are no indicators such as a business name or specific locations entered.

This means that where you once would use more long-tail keywords like this:

You can now merely enter a single keyword and your intent is understood:

How are local SEO strategies different?

For any SEO strategy, you should always implement technical SEO, on-page SEO and off-page to get the most out of your website and see the best results. However, while both general and local SEO should involve a similar plan to improve and optimize your site for search engines, there are key differences in the areas you should focus on for successful a local SEO strategy.

Strategies you use for local traffic warrant a more customized approach, such as weaving location-specific keywords into your web copy or including reviews from local customers on your site. Local SEO can incorporate the SEO efforts found in off- and on-page optimization, but in a more specific way that’s catered to location and the local customer. These strategies affect not only your customer but also each other.

A Local SEO strategy for a brick and mortar store should involve:

  • Create & optimize Google My Business
  • Build online presence through directories & local listings
  • Generate content of all kinds (social media, blog, customer photos)
  • Tracking visitor & customer data
  • Reputation management
  • Having a mobile-friendly site
  • Having a dedicate location specific about us page

When to focus on local SEO

If your business is a brick and mortar location has a large, bustling local community and customer base, putting extra effort into a local SEO strategy is essential for your business’ growth and success. When a user performs a local search related to your business, you want your business to alway show up in their search results and within Google’s local pack. This is especially true if you operate a local store with multiple locations.

Use behavior-tracking tools such as those Google Analytics offers to help you determine whether you need to put more work into your local SEO strategy to boost your ranking in localized SERPs. Online reviews also provide actionable insights that can help you determine where your site visitors are from.

Measure success: How to find your local traffic

Behavior tracking tools are the first step in helping you understand what traffic to your site is coming from local visitors and what is not. You can find you local traffic from a few different tools- all within the google family: Google Analytics, Google Search Console, and GMB Insights.

Google Analytics

By default, Google Analytics will show you traffic from all over the globe. When in Google Analytics, you have two options for peering into your local traffic vs all traffic.

Option 1: Segmenting

1. From Google Analytics home, click Audience and then Overview directly below

2. Click Add Segment and then + New Segment

3. Click Demographics. For a focus on your Location, capture the city in which your business is located. Narrowing down location to city can leave you blind to other opportunities.

4. Click Save

Now you have a segment dedicated to your the region in which you conduct business, but now it’s time to see which visitors are coming in organically and which are not.

1. Repeat steps 1-3 above
2. Click Traffic Sources
3. Under Medium, enter Organic
4. Click Save

From here, you can see local organic traffic to all other traffic in your region, how they differ in interactions ( what blog posts they read and how they move through your site).

Option 2: Geo-location

You can also get a visual overview of where your site visitors are located through Google Analytics’ Geo-location.
1. From Audience, click the Geo drop down menu then click Location
2. Choose the Organic Traffic segment
3. Begin clicking on the map on the area you want to focus on. The more concentrated the color, the more visitors to your site from that area.

Google Search Console

There is not an easy, straightforward way to track local search performance in Google Search Console, but there are a few hacks we can recommend.

1. In the Performance > search results report, you can filter for queries that you know are local, like “near me” or “” to see how those are performing. You may be able to identify other queries that have “local intent” as well and track performance on those.

2. You can use UTM parameters on the website URL you enter in your GMB profile. This will track when your GMB listing shows up and when it is clicked. Follow these tips so as not to mess up your search listing or other traffic reports:

  • Use lowercase parameters
  • Maintain source=google and medium=organic (because UTMs overwrite the source/medium, and this maintains the existing tracking happening without UTMs)
  • Make sure you are using a canonical tag because the UTMs create another URL for the same page of content (a duplicate page).
  • Example: www.website.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=gmb
  • You can now track in GSC when your GMB URL is shown and when it is clicked on (also tracks traffic in your web analytics software, like Google Analytics.

How local SEO and organic SEO affect each other

Think of SEO as encompassing many areas of improvement that all relate to improving search visibility and organic search traffic to your website. Local SEO is one part of SEO, and efforts to improve local visibility can improve overall search visibility all over the world.

By improving local visibility you can start to build your expertise or authority at the smaller local level. When people find out more about you and your incredible business, it will naturally lead to links and more people talking about your business on various other sites on the Internet. Think about how word is spread on different websites like business review sites, best companies lists, mentions by other companies or individuals who use your service, local news, recommendation sites, etc.

One of the biggest factors for search ranking is the quantity and quality of links (from external sources) pointing to your site. When you run a great business, people will talk about it. This kind of recognition, especially in the form of linking to your website will grow your overall search value to a search engine. Your local SEO can start to grow your overall world-wide search value as well.

This works both ways, so if you already have a successful SEO program with links and great rankings globally, then it’s going to be easy to translate that into success in the local market. This probably isn’t going to be the case for most businesses, but you can see how this works with a big brand that has local stores. Take Home Deport for example, a huge brand in home improvement. Home Depot ranks very high in global search for millions of queries. Their .com domain has so many links to it because of their prolific brand. When they want to build a new local store, they will have an easy time jumping into great rankings for local search because they are already a recognized authority.

If you run a local business, start with local SEO

If you do rely on a local customer base, you are going to want to start building your authority with local SEO, and bolster that with more global SEO efforts when you are ready to serve a nation-wide or world-wide market.

If your business operates solely online—you don’t have a physical storefront to attract customers to—you probably don’t need to focus on local SEO.

When you grow larger than Local SEO

If you are targeting a larger market than just your local area, you need to rank for keywords that bring in a large, broader audience to your site rather than customers from your local area.

It’s going to take a big effort to grow traffic for a nation-wide or global market. You will need to invest money in advertising, content marketing, social media, and have a solid strategy to become a thought leader or expert in your area of business. Help people solve their problems, answer their questions, and be a resource that everyone can trust and depend on. Surprise and delight your potential customers. Provide a place for them to gather as an online community. It’s not easy, and it’s going to take a long time to build a website that does all of this better than what’s already out there.

Say you sell shoes out of a storefront in Cincinnati, and you have an online store. Of course, you want customers from your neighborhood to walk in and purchase shoes at your store. They will help grow your business locally and boost brand awareness at home. But customers all over the country might like your shoes, too. You want to attract customers from all over the country because you have the best online shoe store that can service a wide audience.

To make sure everyone can find what you sell, you need to combine local and general SEO efforts.