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Search engine optimization (SEO) has become synonymous with many aspects of digital marketing. Optimizing websites and blogs for search engines is critical for success. However, search itself has changed over the past few years.

In an era of convenience, being found is more than just a webpage showing up on the first page of Google.

I recently found myself in a bit of a dilemma. A family member needed a family doctor, and finding one in the early days of COVID was next to impossible. My search started with looking for “clinics near me” on Google to create a short call list. Instead of relying on a government matching service, I wanted choice and the ability to pick based on merits and other patient experiences.

While I had tools like RateMDs.com to learn more about the doctors I was finding and IAmSick.ca to find clinics, I relied heavily on Google business listings and their reviews. After two days and about four dozen calls, I finally found an appropriate, experienced and delightful family doctor. The first visit also reaffirmed the extremely positive Google reviews, and that made the search results even more valuable.

“…search interest for terms like house for sale, mortgage loans, mortgage calculators and mortgage rates are at a five-year high.”
– Marshall Self, Google Canada

This whole experience got me thinking: without Google Maps, digital business listings and an abundance of customer reviews, I wouldn’t have had the appropriate tools required to start my search, analyze the information I was finding and come to a satisfactory conclusion.

All of this is the result of effective and well-implemented local search engine optimization (local SEO).

Local SEO is a very powerful marketing strategy. Implemented correctly, mortgage brokers can positively position their businesses to be found in the way in which today’s consumers are searching for their products and services.

How consumers engage online is changing

COVID-19 accelerated the shift we’ve been observing in how consumers use digital tools to engage with brands, products and services, and the homebuying process is no exception.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made Canadians re-evaluate many things, one of which is their home,” said Marshall Self, director of finance industry at Google Canada. “We’ve seen upward trends in searches, especially as Canadians went online to begin their homebuying journey and to learn more about homeownership requirements. On Google Search, we saw housing and mortgage-related searches reach record highs over the last year. In fact, search interest for terms like house for sale, mortgage loans, mortgage calculators and mortgage rates are at a five-year high.”

Digital research helps consumers navigate their choices, an activity once achieved predominantly in person.

“Search is how audiences discover and decide which brands they want to engage with,” said Jono Alderson, special operations at Yoast BV, an SEO company based in the Netherlands. “Even when users don’t ultimately ‘convert’ online, the chances are that they use a search engine at some part of their research process to evaluate options, to build a consideration set and to rule out bad fits. There’s a huge potential audience of people searching, but you have to prove to them and to search engines that you’re the most trustworthy, helpful, available and expert resource before those people ever visit your site or see your messaging.”

With “43% of mortgage consumers solely [researching] online for information about mortgage options,” according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) 2021 Mortgage Consumer Survey, the digital space has become more important than ever to capture potential mortgage consumers.

But how do you differentiate yourself from everyone else? That is where local SEO comes into play.

We’ve all typed use the “something near me” when searching on Google. And while people are willing to travel to find the best service, most people start with their local community.

Google's local business search for mortgage brokers

Optimizing your local presence: Google My Business

There are many things you can do to optimize your local presence, but core to any good local SEO strategy is having a) complete, accurate and consistent business profiles, b) high-quality and searchable digital websites and c) engaging content to build brand reputation.

Business listings have many forms: online directories like YellowPages.ca and Yelp, social media profiles like a Facebook Business Page, or search-engine profiles like Bing Places for Business. With Google accounting for over 92 percent of searches in Canada (Statista, June 2021), your priority should be your Google My Business account. Google My Business allows local businesses to create free feature-rich business listings to manage their brands on Google Search and Maps, letting consumers (especially those in your community) find you.

“Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance and prominence,” said Self. “While you can’t control all of these factors, mortgage brokers and other businesses can improve their visibility by ensuring that their business information is accurate, complete and engaging.”

Go beyond the basics, like having a logo and business hours, and maximize the value from the platform by sharing pictures of your business, office facade and team members. You can also consider writing posts to keep the profile active, listing products and services, and using the question-and-answer functionality to help answer questions users may have.

As a business owner, engaging with your customers to build reputation is probably the most important thing you can do, especially those customers with whom you have established relationships.

“Make sure you have business processes that ask happy customers to leave reviews, and make sure that you’re responding to and learning from those reviews,” said Alderson. “Your star ratings, tone of voice and the way in which you handle criticism in these environments can have a huge direct impact on your visibility, click-through rate and user preference.”

Google My Business has core elements that should be considered to improve both your searchability, ranking on Google and how you engage with potential customers.

“Location verification is a way to improve your local ranking. This tells Google you’re the confirmed owner of the business and that your profile includes up-to-date, accurate information,” explained Self. “Reserve with Google is another element mortgage brokers can benefit from. Customers can book an appointment directly to their profile for a consultation.”

Your mobile experience matters

While tools like Google My Business, Bing Places for Business and other directories are helpful, we can’t forget the most important digital tool you already own: your website. Especially how it functions on mobile.

“The phrase ‘mobile is local’ gets used a lot in the SEO space,” said Alderson. “This makes sense when you consider that search results are almost always localized based on the user’s device location, and that a vast proportion of searches happen on mobile devices.”

Tools like Google My Business are already mobile optimized. However, if you want people to flow through these platforms in to your website, then having a mobile-ready website is necessary.

“People use their mobile phones to research options, look up opening hours, navigate maps, find phone numbers, and interact at every point of the research and buying process. And with limited screen space and heavy competition, that means it is even more important that you deliver a stunning mobile experience,” Alderson added. “You need a great technical foundation, but you also need to consider the kinds of needs, questions and challenges that mobile searchers might have. How easy is it to fill in your contact form on a mobile device? How easy is it to check your opening hours? Does your content assume I already know the area? These are the kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself. Delivering a great mobile user experience is a critical part of an effective local SEO strategy.”

While ensuring that your content is accessible on mobile, find a balance with the information.

“I regularly see service businesses creating hundreds of cookie-cutter pages for every specific location they serve. These are almost always low-quality, generic, repetitive thin pages. And they provide a terrible user experience,” said Alderson when discussing the many common mistakes made with local SEO. “Conversely, I still see many businesses with physical outlets not creating rich, useful pages for each location where they have a presence. There’s loads of opportunity to provide more value than just a map and opening hours, like adding parking details and route recommendations. That kind of content can provide an opportunity to convince your audience that you’re trustworthy, friendly and a good fit.”

millennials prefer mobile apps as financial advisors

Local SEO is an ever-changing journey

When you are done setting it all up, be sure to remind yourself that you aren’t really done. Like all things technology, local SEO is always changing. Google and other search engines are constantly improving their platforms and tools, which is an opportunity for companies to evolve with the technology around them.

“Over the last five years, we’ve made more than a thousand improvements to Business Profiles, making it easier for merchants to connect with customers and share updates online,” said Self when asked about development updates. “For example, last year we rolled out updated performance insights on Search and Maps that give you a detailed report of your customer interactions, including total interactions over a period of time and a breakdown of calls and messages initiated from customers on Google. This year, we added updates to show whether customers saw your business via Google Maps or Search, and if they saw it from a computer or mobile device.”

Google My Business itself has had an exciting journey. Google once had various platforms that supported businesses and their local listings, including Google Places for Business, Google Listings and Google+ Business Pages. These have since been retired, and their various components are now encompassed within Google My Business’ Business Profiles.

Local SEO is a smaller, focused sub-component of SEO, but one that comes with many rewards. As service-based businesses, mortgage professionals across the country can take advantage of developing a local presence and building their search reputation. This way, customers can rely on the power of community insights to power their decision-making.

This piece was originally published in Mortgage Professionals Canada’s Perspectives magazine (Issue #3, 2021).

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