A Night of SEO in Portland: Virtual Locations

Illustrated graphic of a map with Google's pin, representing virtual locationsThis month’s SEMpdx event was titled SEO for 2017 & Beyond, and was truly chock-full of helpful data, insights, and predictions, not to mention an exceptional list of 291 keyword tools curated by speaker David Portney. The other exceptional speaker for the night, Kevin Chow, focused on local SEO. He talked about the importance of keeping accurate business listings across all directories, and how P.O. boxes and virtual locations can muddy these waters. In this recap post, we’ll delve deeper into virtual locations and how to employ SEO best practices without a physical office.

Local vs. Global SEO

Before we dive into the problems associated with virtual locations, let’s back up a bit and talk about what we mean by local rankings. Essentially, Google has different rules for ranking well in an overall search than for attracting people looking for local companies. This is because people complete search queries for lots of different reasons.

For example, if I need basic information regarding a particular practice area in which my client works, I don’t care if the author of that content is based here in Portland or in faraway Florida. If, however, I am looking for a delicious veggie burger to eat in the next fifteen minutes, restaurant suggestions in New York are not a viable option and I would likely never ask Google again where I should go for lunch.

With that distinction made, we’ll only be looking at ranking well in local searches in this post, because it’s an entirely different ballgame (and algorithm) when you’re trying to rank nationally or internationally for something.

What is a Virtual Location?

Virtual locations are, of course, not really locations at all. Businesses that operate without a storefront that clients or customers can visit are virtual locations only. You may wonder why it would matter for these companies to rank locally if no one can come to them, but it’s not so cut and dried as that. Coworking spaces are a great example of how things can get messy. Say you’re a brand consulting entrepreneur with one other employee, and you rent a desk at WeWork, whereas your copywriter works from her house. Can you include the WeWork address in your contact information? The short answer is, not if you want to rank well locally.

Note: If you have a dedicated suite within a coworking space and can receive mail there, you should be fine listing it.

Why Your Business Address Has to Be Yours & Yours Alone

Google is a little bit like Big Brother in that it knows WeWork is a coworking space and P.O. boxes aren’t physical places in which you can conduct business. If you list either of these kinds of spaces, Google will straight-up penalize you. This is because it’s not right or fair to have people show up at places that don’t address their needs.

If someone shows up at WeWork and you’re not there, even though it’s within your posted operating hours, no one else there knows who you are, and there’s no way for them to leave you any sort of message, do you think they’ll want to keep trying to get in touch with you? Generally speaking, no way. And now this person is irritated with Google for sending them on a wild goose chase, to which Google says “nuh uh.”

How to Get Around Not Having an Office

Now that you know what not to do, we’ll look at two methods for avoiding peeved clients and the wrath of Google.

1. Use your home address.

We know what you’re thinking: you must be crazy if you think I’ll publish my home address online for anyone to see! This is understandable, but there are ways to mitigate risk while simultaneously reaping the benefits of having a verified physical address.

First, you must identify yourself as a “Service-Area Business” (SAB) when you set up or claim your Google My Business (GMB) page. This will allow you to choose the “do not show my business address on my Maps listing” option in your GMB dashboard, which hides both the address and Google streetview photos of the location. While you’ll still reap Google’s ranking benefits, there is one big downside to this approach. Many other directory management services won’t be able to verify your business and therefore may choose to exclude your business from their listings. This is not good if users are using search engines other than Google.

2. Purchase a virtual office (but maybe don’t.)

This won’t last forever, considering Google is notoriously good at cracking down on workarounds people try to use to get around their guidelines, but for now it’ll work. Also, please be cautioned that using this method is in violation of Google’s rules for local addresses, so don’t say we didn’t warn you if you get called on this at some point.

With all that said, there are tons of services that allow you to “purchase” an address for professional use. Some are probably more credible than others (read: better at hiding from Google) but you’ll have to research them on your own. When vetting services, make sure the street address you purchase:

  • Is in the actual city in which you claim to work.
  • Is not claimed by any other business.
  • Doesn’t betray you with Google Street View photos. For example, if the address you use has some other company’s signage all over it, Google will figure that out real quick. Stay on the safe side and choose an address in an office park or building that doesn’t immediately give you away.

The Wrap Up

Simply put, you need a physical address to rank well locally. We highly recommend creating a Google My Business page and choosing to be listed as a SAB, then doing the hard work of optimizing all of your content so you begin to generate a strong online presence. Optimizing your content is another post entirely, but we’ll address that later. For more SEO tips, visit LegalRev on Facebook or Twitter. You can also always drop us a line at (800) 893-2590.

February 10, 2017