Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 1

MIHMORANDUM NO. 100 | June 17th, 2008Reader Comments (34)

Earlier today, I published the results of a survey of 20 leaders in the Local Search Marketing community which attempted to gauge the most significant factors to ranking well in the Google and Yahoo Local algorithms.

I’m thankful to all the contributors for taking the time to complete the survey and for responding so thoughtfully. I’d just like to give a few of my thoughts on the responses, and leave it to readers and contributors to comment on their own blogs.

In general, there was a surprisingly low level of agreement on most factors from the experts. This probably reflects:

  • The newness and/or the rapidly-changing nature of the Local algorithms
  • The variation in the importance of certain factors depending on the industry
  • An unclear pronouncement of what constitutes spam in Local from the engines themselves

But nearly everyone was in agreement that taking command of your Local Business Listing(s), and to a slightly lesser extent ensuring that the LBL information emphasizes your product or service industry, is the single-most important component of ranking well in Local.

I was also struck by the following:

  • The importance of traditional YellowPages data providers. InfoUSA, Acxiom, and SuperPages were rated as the three most important data providers with which to validate your business information.
  • The degree to which traditional SEO still matters. Participants felt that inbound links and anchor text are important for ranking well in the Local as well as traditional organic algorithms.
  • There are a lot of best practices that don’t necessarily influence rankings yet, but might in the near future, including hCard microformatting, video submission, and power reviewers.

I’ll leave the rest for discussion, and for the contributors to participate on their own blogs!

Update 1/5/09: The Local Search Ranking Factors survey has been named “Best of 2008” by Techipedia. Thanks to Tamar Weinberg, and once again to all the participants in this survey!

34 Responses to “Local Search Ranking Factors, Vol. 1”

  1. Alex McArthur says at

    Great work putting this together David.

  2. Sean Maguire says at

    *Standing and clapping*

    Bravo!

    What an exceptional and elegantly presented piece of work. Congratulations David – and to the entire, outstanding cast of SEO’s you assembled in preparing this piece.

    I smell a SEMMY award!

  3. Dan Perry says at

    Unbelievable. Easily the most thorough and valuable piece I’ve seen on the topic.

    Thanks for compiling.

  4. Sphinn It Here (Sean Maguire) says at

    I’m not one to gush over posts, but it would be a travesty to not Sphinn this story to help ensure as wide an audience as possible benefits from it. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t become one of Sphinn’s Greatest Hits.

    –Sean

  5. Dave Oremland says at

    Great work David. As a participant I can’t say for certain how strongly I feel about the importance of any particular factors. I take it from your review that there was not a lot of strong agreement on factors. If anything I believe that is a result of the following conditions:

    1. The general newness of Google Maps and Yahoo Local
    2. A general lack of significant and voluminous commentary on what seems to impact rankings
    3. The changing character of the structure and rankings of maps inserts into organic results; i.e. at times an authoritative one box, a 3 pack, and now a 10 pack.
    4. The lack of overall testing of the potential elements that might impact rankings in the 2 dominant versions of maps.
    5. I bet Google is still testing, experimenting, and working out kinks with regard to Google Maps in general and the data which shows.

    I still primarily rely on high organic rankings for as many variations of keyword phrases as I can find, aggressive use of pay per click, and especially buying them on a regional basis for the terms that don’t reflect a geographic area…..i.e. (buying ads in the Portland market/geography for phrases like Dentist, technical school etc. for my dentist, technical school clients in Portland, and of course on placement in Maps.

    I’ve got to read through the comments in depth. There are a lot of thoughtful perspectives.

    Dave

  6. MiriamEllis says at

    David –
    Thank you so much for the pleasure of participating in this survey. The end results are fascinating, aren’t they? Like you, I immediately noted how many of the questions didn’t meet with strong agreement amongst all of us. In many ways, Local is still so new and it keeps changing, so I expect we all feel like we’re in a permanent learning phase.

    I want to congratulate you on putting together such a beautiful, usable report!
    Miriam

  7. Aaron Weiche | Five says at

    I first marvel at the information and then crush on the fact it is designed as appealing as it is. Research and reporting with a creative flair makes it even better.

    There are some great take-aways and opportunities for small businesses here to have major traction in Google or Yahoo. Considering most searches for Restaurants and Chiropractors (just 2 examples) involve the location, these types of businesses need to pour over this info and leverage it. The 10 packs real estate is so valuable. Thanks David.

  8. Cari McGee says at

    David –
    Wow! Comprehensive and comprehensible! I am not in the search marketing industry, and almost all that I know of it comes from dinner table conversations. This report is easy-to-understand for even a novice, or for people like myself – who know just enough about search marketing to be dangerous! Excellent work.

  9. Tim Flint says at

    This is a great resource. Will you be releasing what others said about certain questions like they do at SEOmoz? They give you a brief overview of what others said and then you click on a link to see everyone’s comments. It would be a great addition to a later version. Thanks for the valuable resource.

  10. Don Campbell says at

    I was just reading an interview with Matt Cutts from Google today and he said the #1 way to get good quality links to your site is to produce “original research” – new information that is unique and provides value to others. This report is an excellent example David – well done and thank you for the great resource!

  11. Dylan Brent says at

    Great work David, easily the best piece of content I’ve read on this topic. Thanx to all the SEO’s that supplied their input making this truly an outstanding post.

  12. David Mihm says at

    @Tim Flint – I’ve actually published about 95% of what respondents said for each question. The other 5% I felt had already been said by another contributor or mentioned a specific circumstance which I didn’t feel was fair to draw attention from Google or Yahoo, if their engineers were reading. Some contributors explicitly asked me to keep their written responses confidential.

    I think perhaps folks are still hesitant to put written opinions out on Local because it’s so new and they do not want to be held to something that will seem silly if/when the algo changes two weeks later. Perhaps when things have stabilized, next year we will get even more written response to Volume 2 :).

  13. Tym says at

    Great survey and article David.

    I’m new to Local SEO and still learning what’s important for effective local ranking and “who knows what” in this market. Frankly, I’m surprised there is so little discussion about the importance of external links and page rank.

    My limited testing shows that the quantity and quality of external links is by far the overriding factor in achieving high local ranking.

  14. David Mihm says at

    Tym, thanks for stopping by. I’d say three things in response:

    1) Keep in mind this survey was not concerned with traditional organic rankings, but rather those found in the 3-pack, 10-pack, etc.

    2) Inbound link importance was well represented, I thought, with both quantity and quality (in the form of location keywords in anchor text) registering in the top 10.

    3) This one may depend on the industry a bit; in spaces with low competition, I’ve seen well-optimized LBL’s rank without even a single incoming link to that business’s website. That’s not likely to happen with something like hotels or restaurants, though.

  15. Tym says at

    My recent testing was in the local restaurant and hotel space on Google (10-pack).

    External links, and page rank of the external links were the overwhelming factors in almost all tests. It just may not be as obvious in less competitive markets.

    Logically, aside from the complexities of GEO location, we shouldn’t expect much difference from the organic algorithm.

  16. Matt McGee says at

    Tym, what you have to keep in mind is that many local/small businesses can and do rank highly in the Local SERPs without even having a web site. Setup a profile in the Google or Yahoo local business center, and you can sometimes get immediate visibility. And that’s with zero inbound links to that profile listing.

    This is the frustrating thing about local — for every theory/belief statement one of us can put forth about the algorithm, the next person can find an example in the SERPs to prove it wrong. It’s what makes local SEO much more challenging than traditional SEO.

  17. Dave Oremland says at

    Tym:

    I found evidence of what you’ve described…..and also evidence wherein w/ no competition, the least actions vault one to the top. So many different types of sites, so many different levels of competion, still much to be learned.

    Dave

  18. Rob Staff says at

    Seems to be a remarkable lack of consensus throughout much of the analysis. SEO is apparently still the realm of the Wild West where anything goes – if you can market it.

  19. Steve Espinosa says at

    Thanks for letting me be a part of this David, you really did a good job. And if there was an award for “Best Dressed Blog” I would give it to you :)

  20. David Pavlicko says at

    Wow David. I’ve assumed a lot of these, but it’s great to have some data to back up my assumptions for my clients.
    Really really nice work and organized very well.
    I’ve already bookmarked this great resource. Killer job.

  21. Will Scott says at

    David,

    Thanks for including me. This was both a great exercise and super-informative.

    I was particularly interested to see the consensus on a few items which we’ve been using to great effect ’round here.

    Great idea! Thanks again,
    Will

  22. Ben says at

    What a great summary. How about one more factor to throw in: outbound links from your website. I caught a very strange Google result recently:
    http://www.realfreewebsites.com/blog/google-totally-messes-up-country-specific-search/

  23. James says at

    There sure are a lot of variables to look at. It is obvious that I have a lot of studying and testing of my own before I get honed in on the best strategy. Its interesting to see the lack of consensus on some of the items. Thanks for doing the work and compiling the data.

  24. Ash Nallawalla says at

    Well done, David. I work at one of the larger IYPs that I am slowly making SEF, so it was great to read the views of others in this game. I found myself agreeing with the disputed factors, particularly reviews. Relatively few headings tend to attract reviews and whose reviews can Google trust more than others? Can reviews be rigged?

  25. David Mihm says at

    Thanks again for ALL of the supportive feedback, guys (and gals). Glad that so many found this study useful.

    @Rob Staff + @Ash – There certainly seem to be certain factors that can be ‘gamed’ and in that sense Local is indeed the Wild West. I don’t pursue these strategies for my clients, not because of some moral obligation to Google, but because it’s not a good long-term strategy: the search engines have a lot of money and a lot of smart people working for them and sooner or later will figure them out (in most cases, sooner!). But reviews would certainly seem to be one of those areas that is going to be a sticky one…

  26. CJM says at

    This is amazingly helpful, I’m just across the bridge from you in Vancouver WA, and have been beating my head against the wall trying to figure out why our organic SERPs don’t translate to good Local Search Results. This is an excellent roadmap for improvement.

    One question, do you feel the new “See User Created Content?” section in Google Maps is going to be a worthwhile factor in Local Search rankings, since anyone can assign any description and URL to any business in it?

  27. David Mihm says at

    CJM, thanks for stopping by. UGC is incredibly new, so it’s hard to know how much impact it’s going to have. Personally I think more permanent citations from identifiable sources are still going to carry more weight but the UGC tab is certainly something we’ll be taking into account on next year’s survey :)

  28. Rich Rosen, FastCall411 says at

    Hi David – I am just joining this conversation – great information. I’ve also written many times about the shortcomings of proximity in local search and the issues with base data. My company, FastCall411, uses the connection of a phone call to weight our relevance algorithm. Merchants who have working phones and who answer more frequently are ranked higher (among other factors) . In a recent blog post, I noted that 15% of results I found on MSN Live Search were disconnected numbers.
    http://blog.fastcall411.com/2008/08/left-in-dark-mobile-local-search-from.html

    I look forward to following your blog in the future.
    -Rich

  29. David Mihm says at

    Rich, better late than never! :) Thanks for adding to the discussion with your comment. Validity of data is going to be a tremendously important competitive advantage for the Local SE’s going forward.

  30. ram says at

    great compilation. it is a superb source of gyaan (knowledge) for us. thank you.there is so much that we have just managed to scratch the surface.Keep the good work up

  31. TMP Directional Marketing says at

    Very interesting article. Getting good local search placement is difficult because, unlike SEO, the factors aren’t as clear. This article definitely shed some light on some of the important factors to look at when trying to get a local business listing to a high position. Overall, this article was very helpful and insightful.

  32. Justin Lee says at

    Great work, thanks for sharing.
    My only question is why did 2 of the people feel that multiple businesses at the same address is spammy?

    We legitimate run 3 businesses from the same address.

    However, I also have other sites which are “sub divisions” of the 3 main businesses. Were the “spammy” accusations valid, or just conjecture?

  33. David Mihm says at

    Justin,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    There are of course many cases in large office buildings where this is the case. But if you’re running three businesses with the exact same phone number out of the exact same suite and you submit all three to Google with different Business Titles, I am certainly on the side of the fence that would say that looks like spam…

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