What Do You Do if “Local” is Too Small?

I don’t live in a small town. Although Folsom is a suburb of Sacramento and has “only” 100k people, there is still a fairly thriving business community. If our only clients here at Great Leap Studios were local, Folsom based businesses, we could still be a successful marketing company and we would feel secure about the future.

But there are other cities not far from here that don’t have the same size business community. Shingle Springs, Cameron Park, even El Dorado Hills to a lesser extent. These are all great cities, but they’re also almost entirely residential areas with a limited business presence. If you’re based in one of these cities and offer something that requires a greater business presence, such as a B2B service, there are much fewer opportunities.

Yet they also have less competition. If you’re an accountant in Cameron Park, for example, you’re competing with far fewer accountants. If you’re a video advertising agency, you’re competing with fewer video advertisers. There are advantages to being a small business in a small town.

But if you’re trying to grow, the big city is where the big money is. Yes, the competition is fierce, but so is the payoff if you come out ahead. It is for that reason that Google can be intensely problematic.

Google Adores Local Too Much

Google’s Local Listings – as well as its search engine results – strongly prefer that local means “in the city.”

Let’s use this map for example:

Thorton, CO is a town of about 100k residents only about 10 miles from downtown Denver – a very short drive for most businesses. It may as well be considered Denver for all intents and purposes.

Now, say you have a business based in Thornton, but because Denver is so close, of course you would take on clients from the Denver area. So let’s say you are a fantastic recruiter based on Thornton that has a website that talks about both Denver and Thornton. Where will you show up in search?

95% of the time, you’ll show up only in Thornton for at least Google’s local listings. Although you can SEO optimize for Denver, Google will always give Denver based businesses preference, especially in Google Local which shows businesses based on physical address. Getting listed in the main search results is more possible, but you’re still stuck with an uphill battle. It doesn’t matter how great your website is or how great you are as a recruiter. You’re unlikely to show up easily in any Denver search. There are too many Denver based companies to compete with that have an address there.

That’s challenging. It’s something I face with my own marketing. Do I focus on Folsom, where it’s easier to compete but there are fewer businesses, or do I focus only on Sacramento and give up on Google Local knowing that that is where most of the businesses are?

On my end, I’ve decided Folsom, because there are enough businesses here and because I love the area and want it to succeed. Strangely enough, most of my local clients are in El Dorado Hills and Rancho Cordova – so it is not as though targeting Folsom has explicitly limited me to Folsom nor is it the only place I find clients, but in general I want Great Leap Studios to grow in Folsom first because it is where we’re based.

But what if you’re based somewhere with far fewer businesses? Like a Cameron Park company (Population 18,000 and fewer business), or Shingle Springs (population 5,000)?

The ultimate choice will be up to you. But in those cases, you’ll have some tough questions to consider:

  • Are You Able to Invest in 2 Websites? One strategy that may work is opening up a PO Box in the big city, and creating essentially two websites to market your business in two separate locations. Because the small town has less competition, it will take less to rank well there, and you can focus your attention on a larger nearby city.
  • Will the Big City Be Possible? It may be in your best interests to simply forgo focusing on the small city and just focus on the big city. There is more opportunity, and if you’re successful it means that you can leverage that into marketing for the small city later by adding location pages and engaging in a social media presence. But before doing that, see how well you are able to compete with the competitors of the big city. If they’re likely to have more investment dollars and competing will be difficult, starting small in your local area then may be the better option.
  • What Happens if You Are Unsuccessful? Does your business depend on Google for growth or survival? If it is for growth, but otherwise your business could maintain itself via other means (word of mouth, other advertising, etc.), then taking the risk on the big city makes more sense. If you need immediate clients to survive, it may be worth taking the risk on the smaller areas.
  • How Small is Small? In a city like Shingle Springs, 5,000 people with few businesses is just not enough for survival for most non-home service or personal businesses. But the larger the city and the more businesses are present, the more the local area turns into a place of opportunity.

Finally, you also need to ask yourself where they’ll be searching and why. For example, El Dorado Hills is small, but there are businesses and it is an affluent community with many business leaders. If you rank in EDH, you can try to get local businesses while hoping CEOs from other companies find you during their spare time, even though you miss out on the larger Sacramento area.

There’s a lot to consider, and not always an easy answer. I worked with a psychologist on their marketing tactics, and we targeted Long Island (big) and Garden City (small). At first, they ranked extremely well for both, but after a Google algorithm update that prioritized directories and review sites, suddenly it made more sense to work on Garden City as ranking there was easy and there were just enough people to keep the business growing.

In other areas that may not be the case.

SEO is 60% work, 20% smart decisions, and the other 20% is a combination of luck and trial/error. When choosing the location to target, especially if the business is in a smaller town, all 100% of SEO will be used to thrive.