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Are you a small business who thinks Google and all the other search engines have left you standing on the platform at the station? You are not alone. But now the word is getting out about some changes that have occurred in the SE world.

Recently Google quietly changed the way it ranks search results on certain keywords, according to Scott Wilson, president of online marketing firm RankHigher.ca. By taking into account the IP address the search originated from (the users location), Google now gives higher placement to local businesses, rather than global sites, even if no one entered a specific location.

“Up until last month, people became frustrated when typing in ‘pizza’ or other search terms when it wouldn’t get them the local results they were looking for,” said Wilson. “They were either being forced to refine their search by typing in an exact city or abandon Google altogether to search the Yellow Pages.” So while Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut still get the top spots when you Google “pizza”-having spent untold sums in search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing to garner those positions-the next set of results focus on local business results.

This is a clear opportunity for small businesses to carve out new market share online. “Now small players don’t have to beat out the giants for top placement, they just have to top local competitors,” he noted. “It has leveled the playing field for small businesses.”

Wilson’s firm, RankHigher was formed in 2004 and identifies Internet opportunities, builds SEO-optimized Web sites, writes and shoots Web videos and provides other Internet services for clients like Apple, Pepsi and Gerber. The company has now turned its attention to helping small companies with Internet marketing and SEO. He offered some tips for small business owners looking to take advantage of Google’s newfound local focus.

What is first? How can you get started? Well you need to add or claim your Google business listing. Visit the Google Local Business Center Web site to add your business. You may find that your business already exists in the database; if that’s the case, you must claim the listing by following the steps on the page.

Next make sure the company address and phone number for your Google business profile is written in the exact same format as your company’s “contact us” Web page. This helps Google recognize that this is the same company. You can also maximize your listing by using all of the Google options available to you, including adding videos from YouTube, photos and even coupons. “This will help to supercharge your listing and get it to the top,” noted Wilson.

Wilson also divulged three secrets of SEO to help small businesses rank higher in Google results. “First, you have to build Google trust,” he said. Google ranks trusted sites higher, and bases that trust on the length of time a site has been in existence and the number of links to the site from other, preferably trusted, sites. “So get your site up as soon as possible, and build links from other sites,” advised Wilson. Second, you also must ensure that Google can read your site, he stressed. That means not building the entire site in Flash, which Google can’t index, but rather in good old HTML.

Finally, you need to focus on long keywords, rather than single words. “A single keyword in a multi-billion-dollar industry-golf, for example-is hard to win for a small business,” he noted. “But if your company focuses on something in particular, like left-handed golf clubs, you might be able to rank higher in a search for that particular term.” Wilson says to dedicate a Web page of at least 300 words to the particular long key phrase that fits your business, and be sure to mention the phrase verbatim at least eight times on that page.

“Maximizing the Google local business listing is an easy and free way for small businesses to stand out in a search,” said Wilson. “It presents an opportunity to gain new customers and grow your business.”

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