High Streets Initiative · 10 April 2017

Why local SEO strategies can hold the key to survival for independent retailers 

bike shop
Cycle shops are among those independent businesses performing well in local searches

In conversation with Business Advice, digital director at web hosting platform 123 Reg, Nick Leech, reveals the first steps independent retailers can take to implement an effective local SEO strategy, to increase footfall and boost brand recognition.

When customers search online for local shops and services on the so-called “digital high street”, it is well-known that larger retailers tend to have the upper hand over smaller, independent businesses.

Past research has highlighted the extent to which local independent business owners are outdone online. Last year, one study revealed that when searching online for a local shop or service, three in five UK consumers said their search results placed large retailers above smaller independents.

According to Nick Leech, the digital director at web hosting platform 123 Reg, the statistics reflect a desperate need for small independent firms to improve visibility and deepen their digital footprint to remain relevant, and compete against larger local counterparts.

He told Business Advice that boosting local search was becoming increasingly vital to the future of independent stores. “The online digital high street has become all too like the modern UK bricks and mortar high street, largely because bigger businesses outperform small independents in local SEO,” he said.

Despite being at a disadvantage, Leech explained that, increasingly, independent retail owners could give themselves a digital boost. He noted some types of small business that have already struck gold by getting local SEO strategy in order, and outshining larger stores.

Winning local search battles and gaining visibility is first about knowing the SEO trends in your given market, then it’s about developing a multi-channel approach to gain traction. According to Leech, there are certain types of high street businesses that already do this in the UK, which retailers in other markets could learn valuable lessons from.

“Independent DIY stores, bike shops and coffee shops often trump the bigger chains in local online searches, however some other small businesses that are often found on high street  pharmacies or book shops, for example – are struggling to cut through.”

Independent bike shops, for example, are proving successful at local search because national brand leaders haven’t got their act together, and have been able to take advantage.

Nick Leech
Nick Leech

“The likes of Halfords or Evans Cycles – the big bike shop chains – they’re focusing on general ecommerce rather than local online search. They’re encouraging customers to shop online, and don’t push local footfall.”

Leech cited some straightforward ways independent retail owners could improve their local online visibility, and get the most important search engines, like Google, recognising their business in local searches.

“Consistency of information, everywhere your business is listed, is one of the most important things you can do to make Google notice you,” said Leech.

“High street firms will no doubt already be listed in several business directories, and the more accurate each listing is – at providing the correct address and business contact details, for example – the more likely it’ll achieve a higher ranking online.”

As well as ambiguous directory listings, another potentially damaging factor for local retail businesses looking to improve their online visibility is inactivity on a website.

Many small business owners believe that simply creating a fancy website will be enough to get their product or service noticed, but Google requires sites to be updated regularly with fresh content for it to rank highly in its search results.

“At the local level, blogs can be a vital online tool for business owners,” explained Leech. “Google loves them. A well-curated blog, with relevant content and key words, is a big signal to Google that it needs to rank the blog’s host website highly.

“Including links back to the sites of other local businesses is also something Google likes – it shows a business is active in its community and is important to people close by. Having a ‘customer review’ section, that makes it easy for users to leave comments and suggestions, will also be picked up.”

Above all, it’s important local high street businesses consider mobile optimisation. More so than with larger retail chains, small independent retailers are often well-placed to attract customers that are already nearby, on the move and looking for a product or service immediately.

Leech told Business Advice that for local independent businesses, having a mobile-optimised site continues to make the difference between firms that see footfall levels improve, and those that remain stagnant.

“When people search for a product or service on their mobile, they want to act,” he confirmed. “It’s the single biggest thing to remember when considering your local SEO strategy – make sure your site works on mobile, and that the user experience is good.”

Read more from our High Streets Initiative. 

This article is part of a wider campaign called the High Streets Initiative, a new section of Business Advice championing independent and small retailers by identifying the issues that put Britain’s high streets under pressure. Visit our High Streets Initiative section to find out more.

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Fred Heritage was previously deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London.