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Revisiting A Local Landing Page Tactic in 2012

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I’ve commented on Twitter about how some old SEO tactics have become relevant again after the march of Penguins and Pandas.  In some regards, the SEO we’ve been resorting to feels retro. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

One old-school tactic that I’m having a lot of luck with again is dynamic local landing pages.  For most, I suspect this is an SEO 101 type tip, but for others it might inspire some new campaigns.

Before you continue with this post, you should have a quick read of Google’s (intentionally) vague definition of Doorway Pages. This tactic is specifically mentioned. We’ll come back to this later…

Take a look at these screenshots.  This isn’t my doing, but a good example of the local landing page tactic from my neighborhood. These custom local pages are getting pretty good placement for competitive terms.  Same website, different targeted local landing pages.

(click for larger images)

King of Prussia Local Search Example

Collegeville Local Search Example

What Are We Talking About?

Remember the days when it seemed like local queries pulled up loads of specific location-based local pages in the natural results?  They were often thin pages with tons of duplicate content (compared to the site’s other location pages).  There was also a ton of footer links connected to other dupe pages in hopes of providing more crawls and PR spreading.  There were several companies who sold a service of building these pages out and allowing you to host them in a directory or subdomain.

It got spammy.

But one day these pages started to fade in the SERPs; partially due to more Google Places listings pushing them down, but also seemingly due to an algorithm change as well.  At least, that was my impression.  I abandoned the tactic of building these local pages.

A few months ago I was looking at some competitor results and started to see a lot of these pages again (my client is in a medium-aggressive, though ripe with spam).  I started taking notes.  At about the same time I saw a note from John Mueller (from Google) answering a forum question about how much boilerplate text needs to be different to stand out and avoid duplicate content filters. His response (paraphrasing), “a few sentences should do it.”

Duplicate content has always been necessary on some sites, especially ecommerce, news sites, and dynamically generated location pages.  Google has always recognized that sometimes duplicate content is a good user experience, but struggled with tuning their algorithm to adjust for it.  They gave us functions, like the canonical tag, to help Google rank content properly (one of the few times they truly empowered SEOs).  But it seems to me, the algorithm is now in a state where it’s doing a reasonable good job of parsing duplicate content on its own.

The Experiment

With that hope, I created a couple old-school local landing pages by hand, and linked them off a folder called /local/ on my website.  Sorry, I’d love to show you some specific examples, but it’s client work.  Instead I’ll continue with the site I featured above.

Footer Local Links

I used Google Analytics’ keyword report to show any local based natural search keywords to inspire my first three local pages.  In this folder was a healthy Philadelphia, Houston, and Phoenix based landing page, beautifully optimized for all the terms I wanted to rank for, including useful content catered to the uniqueness of each region. This was content I knew my visitors would love.  Yet, 75% of the text was identical, including the title tags.

Under the fold, I linked these sites together like the screenshot above, but much less spammy. On the homepage of my website, I shot a local link to one of these pages.  The DA of the website is decent, but I was immediately impressed how well they ranked.

The Experiment Continues 

With these three pages now pulling traffic, but still feeling a little spammy, I was able to optimize and “keyword wash” them a little better, until I had a go-forward template.  From Salesforce I was able to pull a good list of cities who convert well for this business, and prioritize my remaining hundreds of local pages.  With the help of my team, we had a few hundred built in relatively few hours.  This time, instead of the homepage link pointing to one page, we created a hub local HTML sitemap.  Every page I checked was indexed within a day.

It’s interesting to see this working again (it’s been years), but today I was working on on a dynamic template that now pulls from a database of zip codes.  In my database I have enough unique content to push the 75% dupe content to 25%, just to make it more penalty proof and user-focused.  I’ll have hundreds of these pages by the end of the week. This next step of care is going to make a bigger difference.

Results So Far

Now with almost 200 pages since May, it’s great watching the traffic come in.  The local pages represent 22% of my total natural traffic in October.  My natural search conversion rate is 23% higher for these pages than all my other organic keywords.  I’m exciting to grow this with more pages.

This Will All Die If…

Hopefully for a few of you this will be actionable, and might drive a new strategy.  But I beg you. Don’t spam this like we did before.  I’m clearly admitting my first rollout above was actually a little spammy because it was really just about the keyword ranking.  If a hand editor or algorithm marked this, they might knock it a bit for over-optimization.  Based on the last 10 months, we have every reason to believe Google will come after it without prejudice (if it’s not already on the docket).  Do this right, and make it valuable for the searchers.  Because this is drawn to pretty specific queries, your conversion rate will likely be higher.

I’m confused.  Isn’t this against Google guidelines?

Maybe. If your intent is to “manipulate search engines and deceive users by directing them to sites other than the one they selected, and that provide content solely for the benefit of search engines.” But what if your local pages are actually unique to location? What if while hoping to win in SEO, you’re also providing unique value for the targeted region? If you’re a service provider in Philadelphia, you could write something on your Philly page about the average wait time for Philadelphia service, or a unique phone number for Philly residents, or maybe other local resources that align with your offering? Suddenly a doorway page seems more valuable.

I don’t know of any page like this being Panda’d out; the popular definition of a doorway page is a page that deceives users (usually living on microsites) that funnel traffic to a destination they didn’t originally want. I don’t condone spam, but I do urge you to draw your own conclusion and take care when implementing this tactic.

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    1. Kevin Bossons
      November 9, 2012

      Awesome post. I have also seen some examples of tactics from years ago being prevalent after the recent Google updates. One example would be more bang from directory links – at least based on my testing.

      Kudos for running a test that enters potential spammy territory and posting it for all to see. The recent updates have made people paranoid, and this sort of testing is healthy for practitioners like us, and SE’s who are trying to improve their results.