Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 3

MIHMORANDUM NO. 614 | June 7th, 2010Reader Comments (50)

Earlier this morning, I published the results of the 2010 Local Search Ranking Factors survey.  Some of you may recognize the 2008 and 2009 editions, and as I said in my intro to this year’s version, it’s getting harder and harder even for the Local SEO experts, to keep up with all the developments in our industry.  I actually added 20 questions to this year’s survey to try to assess some of these new considerations–a daunting 30% increase in the workload for our panelists.

We had 34 experts take part, including a handful of gurus from Canada and Europe and one from Australia.  Their insights are truly remarkable, and although it’s a lengthy piece, I’d recommend getting into the full depth of the responses as soon as you have time.

I was particularly struck by the following responses this year:

  • Two practices which explicitly violate Google Places’ guidelines (or at least CAN violate them–thanks, Matt) received opposite responses from panelists–keywords in business title still came in as the #8 overall positive factor–though this was down almost half a point from last year.  Many folks thought this practice clearly still worked well, however, but hoped that it would further decrease in importance in the coming year.  The other particularly interesting question for me was use of location keywords in categories.  This was a major factor for ranking well a year ago, in my opinion, but many panelists reported seeing listings drop from the index altogether as a result of this practice today.  Google seems to be enforcing this guideline quite strictly.
  • The effectiveness of MyMaps received a noticeable boost according to the panel this year, and similar to reviews, quantity seems to be more important than quality.
  • The new-for-2010 questions about location service check-ins yielded a lot of discussion, but on the whole, the panel didn’t feel they were a strong ranking factor (at least yet).
  • Despite the dramatic increase in the number of searches for coupons–and the popularity of new social discount sites like Groupon and Yipit, the panel felt that adding coupons to your local listings only yielded a very slight increase in rankings.  I happen to agree with the wisdom of the crowd, which seems a bit strange that Google would not reward behavior that searchers are clearly interested in.  Adding photos and videos garnered a largely similar ho-hum response from panelists.
  • While KML files and microformatted addresses and reviews are certainly a “best practice,” none seems to be a major ranking factor, at least yet.
  • Overall, the panel was fairly nonplussed about Google Places’ new service area features but felt that the option to hide address would signficantly, and adversely, affect rankings.

Thanks again to all the experts for participating & I look forward to the upcoming discussion.

50 Responses to “Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 3”

  1. Mike Belasco says at

    David,
    Thanks a once again for putting this together. Fantastic job! Thanks also for asking Mary and I to participate once again! Very interesting results this year that should help many people quickly gain a deeper understanding on what is happening with local search.

  2. Linda Buquet says at

    Great job once again David! I had so many other priorities this AM but saw this and had to stop to read every word. Confirmed a lot of what I’m seeing with my clients.

    Thanks so much for putting all the time and effort into doing this for the industry!

    Linda

  3. steveplunkett says at

    great article , thanks.

  4. Todd Mintz says at

    This made my head hurt…in a really good way. An awesome piece of research and you’ve even exceeded your most excellent 1st 2 efforts with this one.

  5. Michael D says at

    What I’ll be reading and researching during the next month. Really was interesting to see varied opinions on what’s working and what’s not. Location keywords are no doubt on the chopping block, at least from what I see in the industry I focus on.

  6. Matt McGee says at

    When you say:

    “Two practices which explicitly violate Google Places’ guidelines received opposite responses from panelists–keywords in business title still came in as the #8 overall positive factor” –

    I think it needs to be clarified that many businesses have the keyword in their business title legally and by default, and Google can’t/shouldn’t punish them for that. My wife works at Windermere Real Estate. Having that in their business name helps them rank for “real estate” searches. There are lots of hotels that have “hotel” as part of their official name. Plumbers have “plumbing” in their name, etc.

    I voted that very highly as a positive factor, not to encourage people to spam or violate Google’s (sometimes silly) guidelines, but because if your business name already has the keyword, it’s a Good Thing for your rankings. :-)

  7. Jim Rudnick says at

    Hello David…and again, an “annual” thanks for this Report! Will digest it over the next few days and learn more, too…as usual!

    One thing tho I’ve noticed right away, eh….is #12 on the list. Just about all of the various experts have commented that yes, closeness-to-centroid matters…my own Local client serps no longer have much “weight” in that area. I dont’ know if that’s because we use google.ca only for this, or what the rationale might be….but for our canuck clients, the distance to our city centroid appears to matter hardly at all, any more. Six to eight months ago, yes…but not hardly at all now….

    So…back to the drawing board to learn more, eh?

    :-)

    Jim

  8. tienda says at

    This information is very appreciated. A very useful resource for local businesses.

  9. Julie Gallaher says at

    Thank You – Thank You – Thank You!

    I just spent the last hour engrossed in your report. As usual, superb insight.

    My predictions for 2011 – check-ins will be very important. They are much more difficult to be gamed and show actual popularity of a business, not merely your success in getting your customers to write a review.

    I’m also going to start a big geo-tagging campaign. I think that’s something that could provide a little bump.

    My question – how does G handle businesses with same address because they’re in an office park or office building? Will the suite # protect them or are they penalized?

    Julie

  10. Julie Gallaher says at

    Oh, one more thing.

    I very, very rarely see yellowpages.com (now yp.com) as a citation. Many times superpages.com, insiderpages, judysbook, citysearch, tripadvisor, angieslist etc. I’m from Northern California, where AT&T/SBC/PacBell should make yellowpages.com strong, but it does not seem to be favored by Google.

  11. Dave Oremland says at

    David: Nice job. I’m looking forward to scrutinizing the information. That is a lot of “eyes” on the topics and categories. Its certainly better than just one person’s perspective.

    Nice work. Thanks for including me in this list.

  12. Todd Bryson says at

    David: Again, this is awesome. I use this as my “bible” for conducting local search services.

    I am always conflicted with the “use keywords in the business name” issue. I constantly see competitors ranking highly with obviously keyword stuffed business names. Its hard to resist adding an extra keyword or 2. (i.e. Ecotech Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning Repair Service as opposed to Ecotech Plumbing).

    The keyword stuffed business titles rank very well and continue to do so. And then creating similar citations with the keyword stuffed business name further validates this business name…I’m guessing.

    So, what to do???? Until I see more penalties being handed out I don’t see any issue with advising my clients to change their online business name. Furthermore, I have had businesses legally change their name purely to get higher ranking in google. They are using the city name + services as their new business name. I only see this trend to increase.

    Anyway, David, this is GREAT resource and I appreciate all the work that has gone into getting it published.

    Best,

    Todd Bryson

  13. David Mihm says at

    Wow, bad morning for a long conference call! Thanks for all of the comments, guys.

    Mike, Matt, Dave…thank YOU guys for participating. I’m always amazed at the generosity of our little Local community.

    Jim, I think that a lot of us felt that Centroid continued to decline this year but it seems like it still matters a great deal in certain low-signal markets. I think the point about the Centroid now being any random pedestrian’s mobile device was particularly insightful, though…which means accurate data is going to be even more critical going forward.

    Julie, typically if the individual businesses within an office park each have a strong enough signal they will be just fine–it’s a scenario Google is aware of. By strong enough signal I mean a uniquely claimed listing, with plenty of citations, and a unique phone number. However, there have been any number of cases reported where listings at the same address have been caught in a “clusterf***” as Matt likes to say :), meaning they merge with one another.

    Todd, I agree with you that the business name thing continues to “work” and along with most of those surveyed, I’d like to see it decline in importance–particularly if a keyword matches one of Google’s default categories, which seems like a fairly trivial algorithmic throttle to me…then again, I’m not a tech guy!

  14. Jozef Foerch says at

    Bravo David! Thanks so much for taking the time to create something so valuable to so many.

    Cheers,

    Joe

  15. Jason Lander says at

    This research is truly invaluable. Thanks for putting it out there.

  16. Mike Ramsey says at

    David,

    I find it amazing how much has really changed over this past year. It is also very interesting to look back and and see how much development the space has seen and how many new players are moving into local.

    Thanks a ton for the opportunity to participate and for introducing me to some of these great individuals that consider local their playing grounds. It’s been a great year and I really am looking forward to the years to come.

  17. Sebastian says at

    What Matt said is totally true…
    If your business name consists of a location AND/OR business category keyword, than i would never advise to delete these items, if you are the rightful owner of this business title. This implies also the fact, that a SMB usally used this business title on a plethora of IYPs and review plattforms – if you now change your business title, Google Maps could get problems to list all your corresponding reviews exaxtly… and another positive factor, the business title citation itself, could also be destroyed by that…

  18. David Mihm says at

    Sebastian, I agree 100%. I think I probably rated KW in business title as something around a 3.5 or 4 myself. It still works amazingly well, especially if you can back it up with references from other IYPs. I think the examples that all of us would like to see gone from the 7-pack are things like these, which as I’ve suggested to Google before could largely be solved by a trigger related to # of characters in the business title.

  19. Rob Metras says at

    As a marketer not involved in a SEO agency but interested in helping small business and non-profit clients with their marketing this report is a godsend. Thank you to you and your colleagues for sharing and letting others make use of its valuable content.

  20. Randy Kirk says at

    I have been waiting with anticipation for the new release. Google Places is the core of my internet marketing business and I see Places as a game changer long term. The issue of the day, above, seems to be Business Name/keywords/cityname. Companies are actively changing their actual business name in order to legitimately have the important keyword and geographic name. We are backing this up with name and address blocks on every page of the website, urls that reflect the same either before or after the .com, plus massive uploading to directories, LSE’s, press releases, ezines, etc. with the same name. (Not to mention corporate identity and/or DBA’s.)

    For your amusement. . . I had created a blog immediately after the name change, and put up massive amounts of content at http://www.GooglePlacesHelp.blogspot.com Google let me get away with that name for about a week and then abruptly stopped crawling it. lol

  21. Dan Linden says at

    This is an excellent article. The 2009 and 2008 have been close to me personally for a long time. This is truly “the” guide to LBL.
    I wrote a little Google Place help forum discussion that might help out some people regarding duplicated and merged listings (and more). We see the same questions time and time again. Unfortunately Googles “fix a problem” rarely works.

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Places/thread?tid=30869083cb774e70&hl=en

    Hope this helps some people.

  22. Local Lad says at

    An excellent insight into local search. A big thank you to David and all the contributors.

    It’s very interesting to see how using a ‘location keyword in the category section’ can go from a benficial factor last year to potentially getting your listing dropped altogether.
    It just goes to show how important it is to keep on top of things and to be aware of the guidelines in place.

  23. Dino says at

    David:

    Great post as I have just now stumbled upon your site. Great stuff, really great stuff, dude. I haven’t finished reading it or the other comments. Nor have I gone through your other posts so please forgive me if my next two points have been addressed elsewhere. I just wanted to get them out while they are fresh in my head.

    Couple of suggestions, 1) some of the jargon is a bit over the heads of local business owners who want to read and understand this stuff. Would like a synopsis perhaps after each heading describing what you mean by the title. 2) Would like to see the same survey done for organic searches and websites.

    Again, love what you’re doing here. Will pass this along for sure.

  24. Andrea Wilson says at

    Hi, David,

    I have just started to offer Google Places local listings services to my clients and wasn’t really sure where to turn for real advice on how to best optimize a listing without ticking off Google. I am so happy that I found your blog and your survey. Now I know I can do the best job possible for my clients with what I discovered here. Thank you for providing a great service to small businesses and to online marketing consultants like myself.

  25. Todd says at

    You, my friend, are the local seo guru. Very nice work as always.

  26. Taylor Cimala says at

    One interesting note on the coupons bullet point is the fact that I’ve seen the Google Places coupon show up as a citation. So looking strictly at garnering more citations, this does provide value – how much is still the obvious question at hand.

  27. Cindy says at

    Thank you for all the work in organizing this and printing the results. Great info!

  28. Chris Wheeler says at

    This is a very interesting artcle. I was wondering whether there are any actual statistics to show how many people in the UK would use the map reseults instead of natural search. After all, the natual listings have a description whichgives more information about the business. I have seen sites which list on Google Zones/Local but are not in the top ten for the term they are on the map for. What are your thoughts on this David?
    Chris Wheeler

  29. Cy says at

    Very insightful, never would of thought Google would of slapped people for using their business category, Its a description of what that company does. Amazing they would actually consider that as almost spam..

  30. Aaron says at

    This is incredible!! Thank you so much for putting this together!

    I was curious to get some insight on one issue I’d not seen addressed:

    Is there a best practice on how to notate both a PO Box AND a physical address on a website, for local search purposes?

    Many thanks and keep up the good work!

  31. David Mihm says at

    Aaron, you could always put the PO Box #### in an image without any alt text so that it would be readable for humans but not search engines.

  32. Matt Hughes says at

    I’ve noticed that mymaps feature increases rankings for keywords with low competition.

    I agree that listings mentioning locations have been penalized by Google. Removing locations still doesn’t boost rankings. I guess once you’re penalized, you get flagged for a while even though everything else in the listing looks fine. Any thoughts on that?
    Also, does any of you know how to get the rankings back once you’ve been penalized due to the location mention?

    Thanks!

  33. Fabie says at

    Hi David – Awesome work.
    I am always dubious about the keywords in the page title. If we don’t do it for clients they then realise their competitors are ranking better than them which could be a factor (Australia is a little behind with Maps it seems).

    Thanks David :)

  34. John Nagle says at

    Good summary.

    Is anyone seeing evidence that Google is finding street addresses within the text of web sites? Not microformats, tags, or other information formatted for programs, but human readable postal addresses.

    Is anyone seeing evidence that Google is looking at incorporation records, D/B/A records, Dun and Bradstreet ratings, SEC filings, or similar non-web sources? Any sign of Google using sources that don’t contain a URL and have to be matched by street address?

    Thanks.

  35. David Mihm says at

    John,

    - The first item is what is meant by ‘unstructured citations,’ so, yes, it sounds like quite a bit of us are seeing those.
    - Many of us have speculated that Google will be in the near future, if they are not already, looking at some of those offline business records.

  36. Bill P says at

    I think you are full of it David Mihm.

    If you look at the spammers that are successfully beating authentic companies, they are stuffing the city name and keyword info everywhere they can. So I think that if you actually took the time to look at spam listings all over the US and in multiple verticals you will CLEARLY SEE that spammers have won the battle.

    If you have actually done this, and you still say that stuffing is bad, I am half tempted to believe you are a spammer, and you are discouraging other spammers from competing…. So how does it work David?

  37. David Mihm says at

    Bill, I think if you actually took the time to read the comments of the experts I surveyed (as well as other posts on my blog), you’d realize that almost all of us agree that keyword stuffing the business title still works for some companies. Most of us feel it should be given significantly less weight by Google’s Local algorithm.

    However, we’ve also seen some companies who do this get dinged and/or suspended by spam filters. Pursue it as a tactic at your own risk.

    By the way, none of us works for Google, so your outrage is a bit misdirected.

  38. Bradley J says at

    Thank you,

    impressive article one question I had that didn’t seem to get addressed was why for some industries like plumbing or landscaping you get automatic local results that appear above the organic search. But for other industries like mine web development you don’t get that and you would have to click on maps to display local results? why is this because web development is a category from google and we are a legitimate local business and we filled out all the google places info. Your comments would be appreciated

  39. Christopher Skyi says at

    Hi,
    I was aware that putting keywords in business title was a violation (http://www.google.com/support/places/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=107528). However, the consensus among the experts is that if those keywords are part of the “official business name,” then you’re OK.

    QUESTION: HOW DOES GOOGLE KNOW WHAT THE “OFFICIAL BUSINESS NAME” IS?

    If you go to a business’s site, does Google consider the what’s in the title tag of the home page to be the official business name? Or conversely, if the title tag of the home page contains the business name along with keywords, and if the home page is optimized for the business name and those keywords, then if the business title in Google places has just about the same description as the site’s home page title tag, is that good enough for Google?

  40. Bradley J says at

    to christopher I believe he covered this in a different post – i believe he said they would occasionally do spot check calling and also the whois from your website (who your registered domain belongs to) the article is archived under (google) and it is the 2nd article down

  41. Jackson Lo says at

    Hi David,

    Thank you for this valuable research! I’ve see you occasionally on SEOmoz and other SEO forums/blogs, really fascinated with your theory and findings.

    I am located in Canada. I’m helping a couple of my clients rank in high in the Google Places for their business, in their local areas. What I noticed is that the results come up differently when you search ‘city + targeted term’ in the Google.ca search bar vs. searching from the Google Maps page. Results show up higher on the Google Maps page than just off of Google.ca. Any reason for this?

    In an effort to rank high, I’ve created a number of business listings in local directories but they aren’t coming up on the business profile, how long does it typically take? Will it not show up if the NAP is not on the company website?

    Would be happy to hear from you or anyone in this thread, thanks!

    Jackson

  42. ABaker says at

    This article was very helpful. I feel that it will be a great reference and starting point for large marketing companies as well as small businesses looking to gain more traffic. After reading through the questions and responses there was one question stood out to me, as I recently had a conversation about the exact topic.

    The question was the one referring to location check-ins, which I saw was just added this year. I was interested in the fact the many of the panelists did not feel that was a strong ranking factor for their business, as I projected that would be the case. I personally never use check-ins simply for that fact that I do not want everyone to know where I am. What stood out to me even more was that they felt it was not a strong factor, at least yet. I was curious why they thought this was something that would get bigger, so to speak, or become a necessity for their business. Is there a real benefit for a company to have people check-in to their location. From a search engine perspective, how can location check-in help/benefit a company?

  43. ABliss says at

    I was really thrown off by the lack of unanimity in the importance of Quality of Inbound Links to a Website. Through all the reading and talks I’ve attended on the topic, I was under the impression links were gold and the more you had, the better. Obviously search engines will not look as grandly on spammy links, but overall there was nothing about links that could deter your rankings. I would like to know if anyone has done any studies or investigations on this?

  44. DRauth says at

    Clearly local search results are becoming more and more relevant, but it doesn’t seem like Google has addressed the Spamming opportunities it presents. I can think of a number of instances where the search results present locations, offices, companies that clearly don’t exist there. As marketers what actions do you feel Google will take to make their local search more relevant? I feel Yelp and the likes actually present a much more accurate representation of the local landscape.

  45. Vinny La Barbera says at

    As search engine users become more and more savvy with the proper operators, hyper-local results will become increasingly more valuable. As a result, businesses that are properly listening to and following the best practices listed throughout this survey will be able to get a huge leg up on their competition that continue to ignore or procrastinate on their local search optimization.

    In regards to the survey specifically, all of these factor breakdowns are extremely helpful, but I have found that just sticking to methods that are natural, organic and simple seem to yield the best long term results. Completing a business listing should be as simple as providing the true, necessary information about your business and making sure that it is filled out 100%. KML files, hCard microformats, etc may be supplemental methods to aid ranking (or not according to some experts), but when it comes down to it I find it hard to believe that Google cares about anything other than having all of the correct, natural and unique information for each business listing.

    All in all a fantastic article and even better insight on local search. I have been following these surveys for a few years now and they are some of the most in-depth and helpful forms of research and analysis that I have found online to date. Nice work! Please keep them going.

  46. Megan Rozo says at

    Great read.
    We can all agree that most small businesses have (or should have) a local strategy to drive success. The importance of competing within the local online sphere is becoming increasingly important as well as necessary for this success. As creating a Google Places account is an obvious winner and prerequisite, I think that business owners need to remember that just as important as actually creating these online profiles is what information you provide in addition to the overall completeness/cohesiveness of this information.

    From what I have read in response to the panel and common marketing knowledge/sense, it is not so important about how heavily you brand your business using location as a differentiating factor (within your branding message), but how you differentiate yourself from other like businesses within your local sphere. Instead of focusing on what location specific keywords to include, where and when to jam them in; for increased effectiveness and long term strategy, it is best to provide a complete profile with precise/accurate information about your business.

    Once you have mastered a precise ‘branding theme’ for your business it is important to carry this over to all over marketing mediums, whether online or elsewhere. This brand cohesiveness will carry over and will be recognized by the search engines, users, and prospective clients over time.

    It is all about relevancy, precise/accurate information and value/uniqueness of services/branding across all spheres of marketing to garnish a positive and effective online presence.

  47. Joe says at

    It may take me a while to finish this, but as early as now I’m learning a lot.

    I agree…

    “Two practices which explicitly violate Google Places’ guidelines (or at least CAN violate them–thanks, Matt) received opposite responses from panelists–keywords in business title still came in as the #8 overall positive factor”

    Thanks for all the commenters..equally informative

  48. Ray Cassidy says at

    Like one of the previous commentators I have just given myself another sore head trying to digest the implications of all the separate factors that you have pulled out of your work with search and businesses. One aspect I am particularly interested in is the way local search functions in areas such as Cumbria in the UK where we have a very rural, spread out county and the population centres such as Carlisle, with about 70 – 100k residents rarely seem to trigger map results in the SERPs. Would you advise a company in (say ) Carlisle, focus on the city itself, North Cumbria or Cumbria on its website and promotional listings?

    A second question that clarified itself to me the other day is that when you are searching in Google (I haven’t tried this for the other SEs yet), the results you get vary hugely depending on whether you are searching from: a) your logged in normal igoogle page with location set to where you actually are; b) as above but with your location unset as I have picked up on many doing or c) searching from the classical Google interface. For several weeks, I was puzzled as to why Carlisle builder was giving top rank to a western australian firm when I was searching from Carlisle in the UK. When I was showing this to a colleague, I was unable to duplicate the result. The penny finally dropped the other day when I reverted back to the classic google view on signing out from one of my google accounts. Is there any data source that would give an indication of how many people are searching from those different Google (and other SE) interfaces?

    Finally I would like to thank you for offering this work to the community. I am at the beginning of my road and this is an incredibly valuable source of knowledge. All the very best.
    Ray

  49. Sagive says at

    i still can’t see the reason as to why Google would target (in search results) all fields of expertise while it is clearly suitable only for some line of services such as plumbers, locksmith etc..

    a web marketing company isn’t really limited by its address..so.. a 500 miles limitation
    on the area of service is not logical.. i got clients in china and some in the united states.

  50. Letovanje says at

    Hey! I’ve saved your website because you have so cool posts here and I would like to read some more

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