What is the difference between local SEO and traditional SEO?

Updated March 22, 2016

Estimated read time – 7 minutes 

Prior to Google’s Venice update, local SEO and traditional SEO were distinct fields. There were the “local” search results, and there were the universal search results. Things have changed. Through Venice, Google effectively localized all search results. Queries that used to be uniform nationwide, now vary based on the location of the searcher. For example, a few days ago, my friend Gyi Tsakalakis expressed frustration about a piece of spam that was appearing highly for local personal injury searches in Chicago. When I did a search here in New York City, I didn’t find it. When I set my browser to “Chicago, IL,” I did.

The lesson is simple. Regardless of whether we’re talking about “traditional organic search,” or local search, geography factors into what the user will see. Having said that, and Venice notwithstanding, there are still important differences between traditional SEO and local SEO.

Local SEO: Trusted Locations

Local SEO is the practice of building signals of reliability around a location, or series of locations. By contrast, traditional organic SEO involves marketing content that isn’t tied to a brick and mortar office, but that still may target a location.

I’m in San Diego today as I update this post, so rather than NYC, consider this search for “San Diego law firms.”

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The search returns a number of local results (as well as a sponsored ad on top), but pages returned for the search appear for different reasons.

First, in the traditional local results, is Ballard Spahr, LLP. We see that listing because Google has determined it is a reliable result for users. How did they reach this conclusion? There are over 100 local SEO ranking factors, but many center around something called a “web citation.” Web citations are mentions of your business on the internet. For example, when Citysearch lists your office address, and phone number, that’s a citation. Unlike links, which derive their value from the authority of the site linking to you, citation value goes beyond links. In fact, many of the links given through citations are of little value. What has value is the mention of your business address on a page that Google has come to associate with reliable local information.

See also: Organization is crucial to local SEO success

Your Business Has a Digital File

In order to corroborate Ballard Spahr, LLP’s assertion that it is where it says it is, Google crawls the web, and assembles citation data. You can think of Google as storing data about a business in a “digital file.” Consistent information from a diverse number of citation sources is positive, it tends to show a reliable location.

Consistent Information is Important

By contrast, when Google scours the internet and finds conflicting information about a businesses’ name, address, and phone number, the location is viewed as less reliable. For example, let’s say you recently moved offices. You update your Google Plus local page, but neglect all of the other directories around the web. Google starts to get conflicting signals as to your true location. Since they don’t know exactly where you’re located, they hold your listing back from appearing prominently in local search. They want their users to have the best possible experience, and don’t want to risk serving up a business with conflicting location information. Of course, consistent citations aren’t the entire local SEO story. Other issues like, HTML markup, reviews, content, the local nature of the link profile, and domain authority, all factor into the success of local SEO campaigns. However, local SEO is unique because most of the strategy involves corroborating location signals from a diverse number of sources.

SEO for multiple locations – what now?

When businesses have multiple locations, the trick is to keep each office in a silo with it’s own citation data backing up that office. So, the Los Angeles office of a law firm would have it’s own set of  listings, and the San Francisco office would have another, both with distinct address and phone number.

Managing multiple office locations becomes easier once you have a feel for how data flows through the local eco-system. Take a look at this chart.

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This resource from Moz shows how a handful of “feeder” sites populate the rest of the web with local data. Especially for multiple location businesses, it’s crucial to organize the feeder data for each office. This way, information will flow more smoothly through the eco-system.

Organic SEO: Trusted Content

Traditional organic SEO is also influenced by location, but it’s not tied to a brick and mortar. Pure organic search results are a mix of businesses, magazines, articles, social media profiles, and more. For an example of the organic search result on this page, take a look at the “Best Law Firms” result from U.S. News. U.S. News isn’t a San Diego law firm, it’s a publishing company. There is no Google Plus local page, or corroborating citations, for San Diego. Yet, Google returns the Best Lawyers Page page for the localized query “San Diego law firms,” because:

a.) It is a landing page geared towards San Diego lawyers. The page title targets San Diego. The on-page content targets San Diego. U.S. News has assembled a huge directory of lawyers, many of whom practice in the Southern California.

b.) U.S. News is an authoritative website. According to Open Site Explorer, the subdomain bestlawfirms.usnews.com has 648 linking root domains, and a domain authority of 92. Although the actual San Diego page has almost no outside linking domains, the domain authority of the subdomain, and it’s famous root domain, carries the day, and pushes the page to the top of the organic queue.

In sum, Google uses its search algorithm to read linking signals. More links equal more votes. U.S. News has received enough votes from the web, that it is viewed as a trusted source of legal information.


In addition to some shared organic ranking factors, local SEO is influenced by citations, which are snippets of information Google gathers in order to get a read on your business location. Links play a part in local rankings as well, but the best links for local are also used to further corroborate location. For example, a link from your local food bank gives search engines valuable information about your location, and status. Google wants to know that the businesses it lists in local search results are a part of the community, and are a good fit for its users.

By contrast, organic search results aren’t tied to brick and mortar signals. Citations in the traditional sense, don’t influence organic rankings as much. Organic pages can rank independent of the underlying location of the publisher, by creating localized content. In traditional organic SEO, Google is looking for trusted content, rather than a trusted location. Links are one way Google measures trust. The more high quality links pointing to a given domain, at the page and domain level, the better the content performs in search.

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