Online store locators are critical for bricks and mortar brands, so why are so many making fundamental errors that significantly hamper their performance in local search?
Online locator services (store or branch finders), are extremely important elements for any brand that operates over multiple locations.
They’re found on the sites of most High Street retailers, hotel chains and any other brand that has some sort of ‘bricks and mortar’ distribution channel across one or more location.
Store locators are also an important aid for local search.
A significant proportion of users, particularly those that are further down the purchasing cycle, append or prefix their searches with a geographic term, such as a town, city, region or country.
For example, a search for ‘hotels’ can easily expand into searches such as:
- “hotels in New York” / “New York hotels”
- “hotels in Manhattan” / “Manhattan hotels”
- “hotels in Times Square” / “Times Square hotels”
- “hotels in USA” / “USA hotels”
This search behaviour puts the spotlight on how brands structure and deliver their location pages.
There are many brands that are making some fundamental errors when it comes to ensuring that their location pages are able to serve these location-appended searches.
The store locator process
The structure for store location pages typically follows a relatively simple customer path.
The homepage is the first customer touchpoint for the location finder. It is crucial in driving traffic, SEO authority and facilitating the start of a seamless consumer experience.
Store search page
The search page allows visitors to select their criteria for a specific location. Search pages are typically broken down into two types of pages: quick search or advanced search.
On some location finders, this could be as simple as finding the nearest location to a particular town, city or postcode. However, some brands allow users to define particular criteria, such as in-store facilities (free parking or additional services particular to that location).
In the case of Asda, below, users can filter results based on facilities such as petrol stations, 24 hour opening, currency exchange, pharmacies and photo processing.
Store results page
The results page displays a list of relevant store locations with the following information:
⦁ Map location.
⦁ Store name.
⦁ Address details / directions.
⦁ Postcode proximity.
The store page is a page specifically designed for each individual store. The store page sits at the heart of the SEO strategy and is used to drive rankings on local terms and phrases.
This is a very typical approach for a location finder service, but it is the implementation of the technical elements behind this structure that is preventing many brands from optimising their presence in localised search.
The SEO authority flow
One of the most important SEO considerations for local search is in ensuring that individual location pages are indexable. However, this shouldn’t come at the expense of user functionality or usability.
Usually this is generated based on postcode and, as no two postcodes will generate the same result, the pages are unique to that one single user query.
However, this format hinders SEO authority flow and indexing, with search engine algorithms unable to display these dynamically generated pages.
To overcome this, many brands have created manual directories, with specific pages created for each and every store/branch location.
These pages are fully indexable, ensuring that they are visible in search.
This puts those brands in a much stronger position to rank for keyword searches that are appended with a geographic term (city, town, etc).
Creating indexable location pages
Having the correct domain strategy and URL structure is extremely important for successful indexing by Google.
Generally, store locators should be kept on a subdirectory within the main domain, rather than on a subdomain. For example:
www.YOURURL.com/store-locator rather than http://stores.YOURURL.com
This is because in a directory structure, the maximum authority possible will be directed to the pages, whilst maintaining the site structure.
It is also recommended that a URL structure makes use of location related phrases and terms. For example:
These approaches provide a uniformed structure and allow for multiple locations within one city or region.
There are a number of examples where brands have successfully implemented a solid URL structure with indexable location pages. These include:
Hertz. Search Phrase = Hertz Leeds
In this scenario we see a multi-location, multi-national car hire provider has categorised pages firstly by country (/uk/) followed by city (leeds).
Argos. Search Phrase = Argos Headrow
In this example, Argos has removed the city directory and instead opted to list stores by name (in this case, Leeds Headrow) under the /stores/ directory.
Using this structure, Argos also provides a manual A-Z directory of stores.
Not only does this allow users to search for locations manually, it also follows best practice guidance for search.
Conversely, there are a number of prominent examples where brands have not implemented a logical and indexable location URL structure.
In this case, the search phrase ‘Homebase Leeds’ provided a result that was not even indexed by Google. This has serious implications for both local search and customer experience.
This search phrase would be indicative of a consumer that is strongly considering a purchase in-store, and the website is failing to fulfil that request due to some basic URL structuring problems.
Whilst the Google search result for this page does return data from Google My Business, there is no page on the Homebase website with the store’s information.
However, Argos does rank for the phrase “Homebase Leeds” due to Argos’ concession within that Homebase branch.
This highlights the relative weakness of Homebase’s URL structure and local search strategy.
BHS provides another example of a poorly considered store locator directory.
In a search for “BHS Bristol”, the first result delivered directs users to BHS’ home page and it’s not until the second result where we see information in organic search that actually pertains to Bristol.
We can see that the URL structure contains a string of numbers which appear to relate to a particular city or region.
This results in an extremely inconsistent user experience and this is reflected in organic search results.
Best practice for location search placement
Placement of the store locator is also a very important factor in providing a positive customer experience.
Generally, a user looking for a store locator should be considered as an engaged user, in the sense that enough interest has been generated for the customer to be interested in finding out more about the product or brand, or to make a purchase in store.
Therefore, it is important to make the store locator prominent.
Many brands still place their location finders at the footer of a website, where it is often difficult to find.
This poor practice has been phased out somewhat, as brands become more sophisticated at integrating online and offline (through initiatives such as click and collect), but it is still in use.
Typically, store locators are found at the top of a page, but there are a number of different approaches being adopted.
One such approach is a ‘rollover’ or ‘hover’ store finder. This provides a postcode search, but only when the user moves their mouse cursor to the store finder.
Marks and Spencer
This approach has the advantage that it is not intrusive on the design, and it provides easy access to the search facility.
However, it is typically limited on the number of filter options available and it also passes limited authority through to the locator pages, which has SEO implications.
One way around the latter is to create a rollover option that contains a static link to the main store locator. This approach is adopted by Greggs.
The anatomy of a good store page
Ensuring that users can find a location is one part of the challenge, but providing them with the content that they need is the ultimate aim.
Many users may just be looking for a store telephone number of opening hours, whilst others may be looking for more detailed information.
Of course, with search engines also rewarding the latter, it is important to optimise your location pages to provide a quality user experience.
Hertz is one example of a brand that optimises its location pages well.
The car hire sector is one where geographic search is extremely important, and locations are a key customer touchpoint (ultimately, this is where the transaction is completed), so quality location pages are a key part of Hertz’s search strategy.
Hertz provides a number of user-friendly elements that aid the customer experience and support conversion. These include details of specific services offered at that location, USPs, optimised local content, interactive maps and social integration.
We see similar strategies adopted by Asda, another brand to which the location is a significant customer touchpoint and, in most cases, the point at which the transaction is completed.
We see similar levels of localised content, although in this case it is much more focused around the local community.
We also see specific services, opening times and an embedded map appear prominently.
Location pages are an important component of the customer journey for any multi-location brand, but many are still failing to ensure that they are delivering the experience and the results that their users expect.
We have written up a guide for optimising store location pages on our website, but our key findings are:
Ensure that your URL structure is logical and consistent
Adopt a logical and consistent directory structure for your pages and, where possible, avoid dynamic URLs.
These cannot be indexed by search engines and this potentially hampers your search marketing strategy.
Make your store locator easy to find
Your store locator is a way to easily serve an audience that is already engaged with the brand or product, so why hide it?
We’ve gone well past the point where online and offline were competing sales channels so make it easy for your online visitors to visit you offline.
Don’t hide your store locator in the footer. Make it prominent.
Make your location page useful
Your location page isn’t just about delivering directions and opening times. Try to add useful content to really engage your users.
For many brands, the store or branch is the key sales touchpoint, so sell your store as much as you sell your brand or product.