Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 4

MIHMORANDUM NO. 984 | May 31st, 2011Reader Comments (36)

Well, it’s hard to believe this is already the fourth time I’ve had the privilege to compile the opinions of the world’s top experts in Local Search Marketing. This year’s survey was a little more difficult both to put together, and for the participants to muddle through, due to a big increase in the number of factors I asked about and the introduction of Google’s Blended Local results last October.  I want to give special thanks (even more so than previous years) to the experts for their time and thoughtfulness in completing the survey. It’s always a huge thrill for me to be the very first one to see the resutls of all of this accumulated knowledge.

And now, on to my initial comments about the results:

Once again, I think the panelists this year pretty much “nailed it,” based on the local search results I’ve personally analyzed in the last year.  Note how much more important the authority of a local business’s website was judged to be this year in comparison to last year–for both Blended Search and in terms of the experts’ overall advice.  Other factors which made a strong jump included a crawlable physical address and local phone number on your website, speaking to the importance of Google being able to “match up” a Place Page with a website in order to return a Blended result.

Some aspects of reviews dropped considerably this year, including the weight Google places on structured reviews for ranking, and especially the idea of a steady velocity contributing to rankings. In the collective opinion of the panel,  the degree to which a review is positive or negative still seems not to matter much for ranking, but continues to be important for clickthrough rate. One review factor that increased this year was volume of unstructured reviews, speaking to the fact that Google seems to be incorporating a wider and wider number of websites into its review corpus and is getting much more sophisticated about pulling review sentiments from regular old webpages.

The importance of MyMaps–both volume and popularity–was judged to take a hit, which correlates with Google’s (in my opinion misguided) decision no longer to allow public searches for user-generated maps in the maps.google.com interface, as well as removing them from the sidebars of Places which are mentioned on these maps.

And finally, despite all of the hype around the influence of both social signals and landing page loadtime in organic search results in the first part of this year, very few panelists think that these factors have been incorporated into Google’s Place Search algorithm yet.

One factor that came up again and again in the comments, which I have somehow neglected to ask about in previous years as well as in 2011, is “consistency of NAP information,” that is, your business name, address, and phone number across the local search ecosystem.  The importance of this concept for ranking in Local Search was also borne out by the #1 NEGATIVE factor, as voted on by the experts: use of mis-matched or call-tracking phone numbers by local businesses.  I’ll surely be asking for respondents to rank the positive impact of this factor explicitly in 2012. Thanks to everyone who suggested it this year.

Once again, thanks to everyone who participated this year & I look forward to getting a conversation going about the results below in the comments.

36 Responses to “Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 4”

  1. Linda Buquet says at

    Sincere thanks David for the incredible amount of time and effort you put into this massive project . It not only helps SMB’s but the entire industry.

    Thank you for inviting me to be a contributor this year. It was an honor to be included with so many leading local experts.

    Looking forward to reading the comments as the word spreads and folks try to digest everything that’s included in the data and all the expert comments this year. Off to do my follow up post to let everyone know the ranking factors just went live and will also be sure to highlight the news at the top of my Google Places Scoop.it channel.

  2. Vince Lin says at

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the analysis. “Google wants what the user wants” was the quote in last year’s Google IO. To this extent, the rankings an factors are more and more reflecting this. Who wants to find a service that’s not located close to them anyway?

  3. Dave Oremland says at

    David:

    Thank you once again for including me in the survey. I find it takes time and a significant amount of thought. Its well worth it though as I learn a lot from the aggregate results comprised from several dozen people who are reviewing this data all the time, and the opinions and comments. I’ve only just scanned them, but as with other years I’ll be scrutinizing them in detail to try and pick up suggestions and comments that I could be missing.

    Very interesting and very insightful….exactly as it has been for 4 straight years. Good work in producing, digesting, analyzing and assembling this survey.

    Dave

  4. Matthew Hunt says at

    Hey David,

    Nice work gathering up all the usual suspects to weigh in their opinions on local search ranking factors. I saw a few new names, I’ll have to check them out.

    I like that you broke it up into two different ranking factors from blended (or integrated) VS. the old traditional 1,2,3,7 pack (or what you called the “pure” listings).

    I wish you (maybe I missed it) addressed why everyone thinks what causes a “blended” VS. a “pure” listing in the SERPs on local searches. I have a theory it’s based on signals that are determined by searcher’s searching patterns. I think it works just kinda like the way universal search works. Google serves up different variations of SERPs results and in local, a variation between “pure” and “blended” then based on what searchers are doing with those results pages, changes how Google will display future results.

    I kinda discovered this with when i was experimenting with how to get images and videos show up universal search. I don’t know if anyone knows this trick…. if you can get your local video or image to rank well in their video and image result’s section in Google, then you can get them to also display in the regular SERPs.

    What you can do is run a campaign on mechanical turk and ask turkers to do a search on a particular keyword phrase, then ask them go over to the video or image side bar in the SERPs and to click on “video” or “image”. If you do enough times, Google’s algo is educated that “images” or “videos” are important to them, thus then causing Google to start showing videos or images into the regular SERPS. Now if your video or image is optimized and ranking in those verticals already, then often it will be your video or image that will be included the universal SERPs if you can convince their algo that it’s important to searchers.

    I think the same thing applies to local “pure” and “blended” results. I think searchers search patterns educate the algo on what to type of SERP to display. And I think is why often you see on cities or metros that have smaller populations that don’t get enough searches for Google to collect enough user data still often display the “pure” search results pages instead of the new “blend” SERPs.

    I also wished you had a section that dealt with local ranking factors for Yahoo/Bing. There is so little good information about how that works and I think it’s too often over looked. They still get traffic and it’s worth while address, I think… no..?

    I have a some opinions I’d like to weigh in too… I manage over 100 local websites and so I have a few insights (not that they are much different then what your experts had to say) but nonetheless, I feel compelled to share too.

    Some other opinions I have is about what works for local rankings. For the “pure” rankings… it used to be all about: citations, reviews & my maps. Well…. My maps is out. So we can put that factor to bed.

    Citations have very little weight anymore (in my opinion), but they can have a HUGE negative ranking factor if data is not clean across the web or if there are double, triple Google Places listings for the same business, etc. A new change with citations too, it used to work well to get lots of citation from the same directory.

    For example you used to be able to leverage a directory like HotFrog that creates a new page every time you add a tag, so you could tag you listing with like 50 tags and it would create 50 citations for you, thus improving our Google Places rankings. Well not anymore, now citations are more like links. You only need one citation per domain. Just like how you want link diversity towards your website SEO, you also want citation diversity for your Google Places listing. You can leverage things like doc sharing sites and press release to secure more citations outside the typical top 100 directories we all use. Also don’t only submit to UBL and call a day, you have to hand submit and claim this stuff. Then make sure you ping and build a few back links to each citation so Google finds them all.

    Reviews are still one of the best ways to improve your rankings and conversions. I say reviews are one of the most important ranking factors, particularly from a conversion factor. Who in the world is going to contact your business if it has no reviews and your all your competitors have half a dozen or more. The reviews HAVE TO come from a diversified review sites, not just Google Places. It essential to get 5 or more reviews so you get the rich snippet of those 5 golden stars next to your GP listing. And I believe dates of your reviews matter too. If your reviews are 6 months or older, it’s time to get some new fresh ones.

    Now for the “blended” ranking factors (just my opinion). It’s comes down to traditional SEO. If fact, I believe 90-90% of the “blended” SERP’s ranking is based on the traditional SEO factors, and then if Google can find and/or associate your Places Page listing, they will tag it under your website’s ranking (should it rank on the first page). If your listing on not on the first page then they don’t even bother tagging your site with your places page.

    If anyone doesn’t know the basics to traditional SEO, it breaks down into two major sections:

    On-page SEO -> 20-25% of ranking factor
    Off-page SEO -> 75-80% of ranking factor

    On-page SEO – get that content to be compelling and to have some length (400 words or more), have proper optimized Title Tags, Meta Descriptions, & H1′s. Have your main keyword in the 1st sentence and last sentence. Overall write for humans.

    Off-page: Links, links, links. Get them as editorial links whenever possible. Don’t over optimize on anchor text. Get them from as many different class C domains as possible. Get social signals going with Twitter, Facebook and social bookmarking. Run regular press releases. Build backlinks to your backlinks.

    Your syndicated content doesn’t stay indexed (usually) unless there backlinks to it. If it doesn’t stay indexed then it doesn’t pass any link luv.

    Try to write interesting and compelling content that is of value, so people will want to link or bookmark it. Then also leverage your written content into other mediums like: videos, podcasts, etc to get more traffic, links, virtual ranking real estate.

    Don’t be afraid to also leverage other site’s pages that contain your content. One of my favourite things to do is get clients Yelp page or Brownbook page ranking too, as a secondary ranking on Google by building backlinks to those pages too. All the link luv will flow to the main web property.

    that’s my 2 cents :)

  5. MiriamEllis says at

    David,
    I think 2011′s survey was the best yet. Your work on this is inspiring and worthy of major applause from all of us who participated, as well as anyone who loves Local.

    I have a question for the other participants. Did anyone besides me list Demand Force as a top review source? It seems to me like I’m seeing them more and more, but this may have something to do with recent clients I’ve taken on.

    Thanks again, David, for the opportunity of participating!

  6. David Mihm says at

    Well, since every single participant said it was OK to make their comments public, I can answer that question, Miriam :) Don Campbell and John Shehata also included them in their top 10 review sources.

  7. Nyagoslav says at

    This is definitely the best source of information and best practices for local search and Google Places. The data is so much that it will take some time until I manage to fully analyze it, but I have a first impression note I would like to mention. There seem to be a few factors missing out and I am not sure if that was purposeful and if yes – why. Some of them were mentioned by Matthew in the above comment, and I’d add a few more:

    - consistency of NAP data – probably one of the top 10 factors especially in the “pure” results
    - diversity of citation domains
    - location keyword/address in citation URL
    - product/service keywords in citation URL
    - business name as appearing on Place page in citation URL
    - title tag of landing page specified in Places
    - click-through rate
    - diversity of review sources
    - meta description of landing page specified in Places – minor importance, but probably higher value than most of the factors after position 70

    Thanks,
    Nyagoslav

  8. David Mihm says at

    Hi Nyagoslav,
    As I said in this post, I totally agreed with the suggestions to add NAP consistency as an explicit factor to be ranked next year. Most of the other factors you mention are already included, though perhaps using slightly different vocabulary. Meta Description on Places Landing Page would be an interesting additional factor to ask about, however. Speaking only for myself, I haven’t found it to matter a whole lot, as you speculate…

  9. Yam Regev _ PureSheer says at

    Awesome survey (again), David!
    “Wish i were here” :-(

  10. Mary Bowling says at

    David, Thanks for doing all the hard work to put this survey together. It’s an awesome resource for internet marketers and one that we refer to throughout the year!

  11. MiriamEllis says at

    Thanks, David! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who mentioned DF. It’s not just the frequency with which I’m seeing them come up…it’s the huge volume of reviews one sees they have acquired for a given business. Maybe next year they will make it into LSRF’s top 10.

  12. Dino Maiolo says at

    David:
    Been anticipating this. So glad it’s here. Was such a real joy reading your previous reports and can’t wait to dive into this one. It’s printing now so I can mark it up with all my comments and thoughts as usual. Will check back soon to the blog with my thoughts. Thanks for your hard work. I’m sure it is very rewarding for you.

    Regards,
    Dino

  13. Tim Williams says at

    I have been trying very hard to learn the new factors in local search. What I don’t get is the other businesses in my local area have basically no exposure whatsoever! They have no links, no blogs, no social marketing exposure, etc. I have all of these things and me and my staff spend time on a weekly basis gaining online exposure. We also are one of the only businesses with reviews in my local area. But for some reason one day I will rank #1 and then the next day wont even be on the top 6 or 7! If anyone has any suggestions please let me know I would really appreciate the help.
    Thanks,
    Tim Williams

  14. Dave Oremland says at

    David:
    I’ve had a chance to review the comments in detail. One thing that’s interesting is the dominance of comments about NAP (name, address, phone number).

    I find that compelling for several reasons, the chief one being that an overwhelming number of people who focus on this topic repeatedly, and review and assess results keep emphasizing the same thing. Like the rest of the participants I spend a lot of time working on these issues and observing results. The fact that many others who do engage in the same process while reviewing in the aggregate thousands of websites within the local arena emphasize NAP is powerful incentive to focus on that aspect.

    I believe in the deep power of links, from my own experiences, but thoroughly acknowledge the critical importance of wide consistent application of NAP into citation sources. My own experiences include seeing the damaging impact of inconsistent NAP and how it leads to both duplicate maps listings, and the concomitant devaluation of the critical and accurate Map Record. That can be a disaster.

    On the other hand I’ve seen the incredible power within a Maps Record accompanied by an unusually strong link profile to the home site relative to its competitors. Those situations existed several years ago and continue to exist. Those phenomena always amaze me.

    In any case I’m reviewing the comments and the rankings in detail, both looking for both the most common acknowledgement of what seems to work, and additionally for the hidden gems from comments from some of the participants.

    Good job.

  15. David Ewing says at

    You hit on two great points. 1) I hate that Google no longer allows public searches for the user maps in maps and 2) how important it is to be consistent in the NAP.

  16. Ray Cassidy says at

    I take my hat off to you again David. This is an awfully complex analysis and it is going to take a lot of study to fully grasp the import of it all. With the knowledge that you guys possess, could you advise me on this little frustration? Google discovered a minor website of mine and allocated a placws listing to it, which used my home address and home phone number – I work from home. I was unaware of this.

    I set up my own business listing and website and both completely failed to appear in search results relating to Internet marketing in Carlisle where I am based. When I discovered that I had inconsistent data in my places listing compared with the main website, I deleted the newer Places listing. I waited weeks for it to finally disappear before reinstating it with a new Google account and a second alternative geographical number – but linked to the same address.

    A few weeks later, after verifying by postcard!! the places listing steadfastly refused to show except for specific named searches. It was then that I discovered G had assigned my address to the older less important website and its undiscovered places listing. I have since claimed the nuisance listing and asked Google to delete it as it isn’t really a current project, though the website remains online awaiting time for some TLC.

    Have I adopted a sensible strategy for dealing with this problem – or have I missed something blindingly and embarrassingly obvious in the light of the new results. This will obviously be a valuable answer to myself and prospective clients. I hope this was an appropriate thread in which to post the question.

    All the best

  17. Niki Torrance says at

    Great stuff, David, thank you. Any update on the important citation sources and review engines for the UK?

  18. David Mihm says at

    Niki,

    In my experience, the ones on this page are probably still as good as ever: http://uk.getlisted.org/enhanced_business_listings

    (in addition to the ones we query via our tool, of course!)

    Ray, your strategy is basically what Google would recommend…although claiming and merging is another alternative: http://blumenthals.com/blog/2009/05/08/google-maps-how-to-remove-duplicate-records-in-the-local-business-center/

  19. patrick swan says at

    David,
    As a startup agency specializing in local search,I use your blog like a compass;I need to stay informed and navigate my way to find the best way to serve my clients.
    keep up the good direction
    Patrick M Swan [agency]

  20. Dino Maiolo says at

    I’ve noted a few things in particular about the report that several have already mentioned so I won’t go into those further. I did notice that this report is much more user friendly to the individual business owner than previous reports. I’m glad you structured it that way. There is still a bit of jargon that some will not understand, but all in all, congratulations on a wonderful job again. This report is a must read for all local search nerds – myself included.

  21. Shawn says at

    David, great information. I agree that the NAP consistency is very vital. It has to be identical and even a misplaced comma can have a negative impact. Also having a rich snippet so Google can crawl your address is so often overlooked by small business owners, but it truly is a simple fix that can make a difference. I appreciate you and all the other panelists taking the time to compile all this great information.

  22. Adam C says at

    This is the good stuff right here. Thank you David for your dedication to this project and to all the survey participants. It is fascinating to see the responses from this research. Thanks for a job well done.

  23. Perry Stevens says at

    This is a really great report to help keep up to speed with all things in the world of Local Search Marketing.

    I found the NAP’s part particularly interesting and will be monitoring more closely in the future.

    Thanks and again.

  24. Gavin Smith says at

    Great report, and long overdue from last years after all the changes that have occured in the last 12 months.

    I have to say that over here in the UK I have to disagree with how far verified listings have fallen since the last report….they haven’t fallen far enough.

    For verified listings which the experts have viewed as the 3rd most important ranking factor, I don’t see unclaimed listings being held back in any sense of the word.

    If I search for ‘restaurants in manchester’ in Google.co.uk I get a 7 pack at the top of the page with the 1st, 4th, 5th and 6th listings being unclaimed.

    This pattern is seen when I search for other other terms, and even when I do a search that brings up blended search results.

    Each of the unverified listings are still complete with contact details, photos and reviews pulled from around the web.

    It is still very important to claim your listing so that nobody else is able to but it doesn’t appear to count against a site like it did 12 months ago.

  25. Kendall Oberto says at

    Thank you David and all as always for your work and insights. With all the discussion about NAP consistency, I am wondering about logistics of getting there. Obviously, if you have identifiable differences (tracking numbers, different addresses, keyword stuffing in company name), these are easy to spot. What I am more concerned about is the more subtle differences like format, spelling, etc. For example, I understand that it is a best practice to use your exact business name (i.e. Best Heating and Air Conditioning, LLC) but how do you handle businesses with long names where certain services (like Localeze and InfoUSA) require shortening due to character limitations, or automatically shorten a word (like Services is always Svc in InfoUSA). Does this type of difference count as NAP inconsistency? Similarly, I have found that in some smaller towns, some of the big hitters will actually not recognize the town name and will use the next larger town only (for example the town of Churchville, PA does not exist in many services so the next town, Southampton, PA is used instead). Again, I would assume this would be considered inconsistent. Do all of you experts work from a set of lowest common denominators (like shortening all business names to the 27 characters that are allowed by Localeze) and if so, do you think the NAP consistency gain is worth the loss of the keywords in the name (like shortening Heating to Htg) for the listings that don’t have such restrictions. Thanks for any advice anyone may have.

  26. Kevin T says at

    This is valuable information. However is this ‘formula’ consistent worldwide? I recently did a search for Melbourne SEO. Here’s the result. http://tinyurl.com/62r76oy

    Here the top maps placement went to a small central Melbourne company that had an incomplete, unverified maps entry. And no url shown either. They had a listing in just three directories. But plenty of reviews. Their onsite SEO was poor and their organic listing at http://www.seomelbourne.me was beyond page 4 as I would expect.

    So, what did this company do (by design or accident) that provided them a top places entry? First impression was the simple fact they had good reviews. Cannot see any other contributing factors…

    Comments appreciated.

  27. David Mihm says at

    Hi Kevin,

    Most of us feel that Google’s PlaceRank algorithm is pretty consistent worldwide & there has not been much diversion in comparing the responses of non-US participants, other than specific citation sources of course.

    Keep in mind that Google treats Local results for SEO and web design related queries completely differently. There are a number of posts about this on Mike Blumenthal’s blog & indeed another one just came out on Search Engine Roundtable yesterday.

    Best,
    David

  28. Tereza says at

    It is agreed that consistency of NAP information is important, but what about consistency of other information (e.g. offered services etc.)? Does it go against the fact we need to avoid duplicate content? Does it hurt my website to have the exactly same content both on a website and mobile site? Does it hurt my business if I put the exactly same 3 sentences to my Google places listing as I have on my website?

  29. Boruch Fishman says at

    This is a very good analysis this year. I agree that NAP consistency plus website – Google Places matchup is essential. I discovered earlier last year, that after 6 months companies were ranking high on Google Places searches for less important keywords that appear casually on the first page of their website. Later in the year, I was working with a company that developed an unverified duplicate listing on Google Places for an incorrect version of their name. I kept asking Google to remove it and it kept sticking. One day I noticed that I was using that incorrect version of the company name (“A-1 Plumbing” instead of “A-1 Plumbing of Baltimore”) on the first page of the company website. I corrected the wording and within several weeks Google had removed the unverified listing. I also discovered this year how sensitive Google has become to company listings in directories, not only to NAP data, which everyone talked about, but also to numbers of listings. One company listed themselves twice on Superpages. Subsequently two unverified listings for the company appeared on Google Places. I asked Google to remove the duplcate listings, however, they kept sticking. Then while reviewing the company’s listings in various directories I found the duplicate listing. I ask Superpages to remove it and voilah, within a few weeks the duplicate listings in Google Places went away.

  30. Adam Chronister says at

    I have noticed that both citations, and reviews are needed to really get a good local ranking. Ignore one over the other and its difficult. I’m not sure what the exact ratio is but not being to myopic on one over the other has worked in my favor.

  31. Jay Killeen says at

    Hi David

    Just wanted to say thank you for all this info! I have found it to be the best source of advice for Google Places optimisation on the web. I have been researching for years now and always come back to your Local Search Ranking Factors document (http://www.davidmihm.com/local-search-ranking-factors.shtml) to ensure I am doing things correctly.

  32. Mark says at

    David, awesome study as usual. You seem to outdo yourself every year!

    If a business has say four locations, with different phone numbers/addresses, but one website, will that work against the consistency of the NAP issue?

    If a page is created on the website showing the “locations” with associated phone numbers and addresses, do you think that would solve the NAP consistency problem?

    Already looking forward to next year!

  33. Chris Gregory says at

    I know it’s 2012 but I keep coming back to this guide whenever I get stuck with a client. I always learn something new and often times it’s the “Oh Yeah…I forgot about that” moment that occurs. There is so much information in here that makes it useful. I appreciate the scientific approach to your data.

    Looking forward to the 2012 edition.

    Chris

  34. Mark says at

    I just found this after a conference call on Local SEO factors. It may be March of 2012 but this is still some of the most current information out there.

    Thanks.

    Mark

  35. Kelly Marsh says at

    Like everyone else looking forward to the 2012 addition also.

    It seems like links to the web site that is attached to the Google places account is one of the most important factors now.

  36. Barney Bates says at

    The problem with Google places, are that there are so many fake reviews written from the site owners themselves. Which should give the customer little or no confidence in what they are reading. Not only that, many plumbers in London are using fake locations to drum up business when in fact they are a million miles from where they are located on the map.

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