SEO: Targeting Multiple Cities While Not Looking Like a Doorway Page
Doorway pages, city pages, location pages…there are many names for these pages on a website but they all aim to achieve the same thing. They want to target keywords for a specific location. While these pages worked for targeting local cities for several decades, Google has recently put the kibosh on them and even announced an effort to go after websites that have them specifically.
In addition to announcing this last year, they’ve also added the term “doorway page” to the official help site, and included doorway pages as part of the official Google Webmaster Guidelines.
Before we go any further, we need to do a harsh reality check. Please try to internalize this part, because its very important. If your business does not have an address within the city you are trying to rank for, you probably won’t rank there. You simple cannot get rankings in all cities. Yes, there are some exceptions to this rule such as “clowns in Mississippi” etc, but overall I wouldn’t bother. Let me further drive home this point with a tweet / quote from a friend of mine Gregg Gifford who spoke at Search Love SEO conference in Boston recently:
This is coming from a guy that does local SEO for a major corporation, and speaks about local SEO all over the country. So you might want to heed that advice.
Don’t get me wrong, there are 1000’s of websites that use spammy doorway pages, that get tons of traffic and ranks very nice. Some of them have been around for years. But there is a magic threshold. I don’t know if that threshold is a certain # of keywords / page or a certain number of pages per domain. Either way, once you trip that digital wire, you could get an action (aka penalty) applied to your site that could cause irreparable damage to your site and to your brand.
Like most SEO tactics, there are blackhat methods, whitehat methods, and large gaps of grey areas. Today we are going to focus on a few methods that will hopefully achieve the best results for your client without violating any of Google’s Webmaster policies.
How Google determines local ranking:
Wanna know something cool? A lot of people might not have realized this, but Google has “come out” and said exactly how they determine local ranking. I’m not even joking, here is the exact recipe on how to rank locally that comes straight from the horses mouth. Overall it comes down to:
- Relevance – how well your search term matches the query
- Distance – how far your query is from the business
- Prominence – how well known they are plus stuff like (links, reviews, articles, and directories)
While there may be a few secret tricks of the trade, there really isn’t anything that advanced to know when it comes to local ranking these days. It used to be like walking a tight rope trying to get ranked locally. These days it is much easier with how well Google has fine tuned their algorithm.
More cold hard truths
You probably will not rank in the Google Maps / local listings for cities outside of your general vicinity, we know that much. That is, in local / maps anyway. It is totally possible to rank within the organic / normal results which is good news i.e. the results below the maps listings.
I remember the days when business owners would send me a huge list of cities & states they want to rank for (multiplied by 10-100’s of keywords of course) totaling into the thousands. I actually went into my old backups and found some evidence of this for those of you that are interested:
Funny right? And these people were only paying $300 / month to rank for 6 cities and about 10 keywords in each.
Those days are long over, and while there are still a few tricks, its hard to fool the Google algorithm these days. So if you can’t beat em, join em.
A realistic audit of your goals
Let’s start out by doing a realistic audit of your goals. How many actual locations do you have? This doesn’t include shady mailboxes, your friends aunts office that you snuck a Google verification in or anything like that.
My advice for anyone new or just starting out: start slow. Stick to owning one city. If you are an SEO reading this for a client, you have to manage your clients expectations. 5-10 years ago there were some tricks to get you ranked in a ton of cities, these days it isn’t possible without hiring a bunch of scary Russian guys.
If you want to rank on Google Maps you really need a physical address for your business, and that business really need to be commercially zoned. For businesses with multiple addresses such as franchises or other businesses that might just have several locations, you are in a different category than most. You have a thriving business so you have earned more attention from Google.
A brief word on NAP
In any local SEO campaign I’m involved in, I treat the N.A.P. (Name, Address, Phone) kind of like my social security number: it has to be accurate. It is the holy grail of local SEO. Pay hard attention to detail in NAP consistency. Even the slightest variances in N.A.P. can cause ranking issues, or at the very least “mixed signals” to Google.
Do yourself a favor and run a NAP audit on your website. You can do this yourself by just Google-ing your address, or use a service such as Whitespark, there are a few others out there as well.
Targeting multiple cities / keywords
So, if you want to get visibility in multiple cities but don’t have an address in each one, there is one method that will still deliver results in 2016. If you can’t have an address in every city, and you need it to rank in the maps listings, what else is there to do? Your best bet is to focus on the organic listings. There is still hope to rank in the organic listings if you don’t have an address there. It is perfectly “legal” to do this but you are going to have to find your comfort level. What some consider perfectly white hat SEO, others raise an eyebrow to. My best advice for this is to follow Google’s definition of what a doorway page is:
- having multiple pages or domains that target a specific city
- pages made to funnel visitors into one portion of your site
- “Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browseable hierarchy”
If you are just starting out, start by trying to rank in one city. If you are in a super competitive local niche like car dealerships or restaurants, you are going to have your work cut out for you anyway.
Before you go any farther, I’d start by killing off any empty / unimportant pages. You can follow Moz’s advice on cleaning up content cruft which is one of my favorite topics as of recently. Get rid of any empty pages or ones that lack quality. This might be a 300 word post that you wrote 3 years ago that never got any visitors, or just one that you aren’t very proud of. If there are 2 “kind of good” articles, maybe combine them together. I’d also kill off any duplicate content while you are at it.
Next, take a holistic look at your navigation. When was the time you really looked at your sitemap from a user perspective? Make sure that the pages are organized so that customers can find information easily.
Make sure to come up with a number in your head of what your cutoff is going to be in terms of targeting. If you have a massive website with 1000’s of products, you can get away with much more than a smb site.
Quality, quality, quality
Do the “mom” check. Ask your mom to look at your landing page and ask if she things it is of quality. If she starts to make a face, its probably no good. I hate to sound like a broken record, but you must design your pages for your users, not search engines.
For this, I’ve come up with a brief doorway page quality questionnaire to help determine quality:
- Do you feel as though this pages provides actual value to your visitor?
- Has this page earned any social proof be it social signals, reviews, testimonials, comments etc?
- Is the keyword density for this page higher than normal?
- Was the page designed specifically to rank as opposed to provide some sort of value?
- Is the page on its own subdomain or domain?
- Would you classify this page as thin content?
- If you are a local company, where do you normal get your customers from?
- Are your titles all the same such as “boca raton SEO | delray beach SEO | boynton beach SEO“
Answer those questions honestly, and you will start to get a good idea about the quality of your pages. I’m not going to post it here, because everyone will just copy it and replicate it but if anyone wants a really good example of a local company ranking for multiple cities send me an email to patrickfl at gmail.com.
I could really go on and on about this topic. I suppose this blog turned out to be much more of a “how to not” than a “how to.” If you want even more examples or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us via contact form. I also wrote up a post on how to stay away from the doorway page algo last year, if you are interested.