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The inspiration for this project came from SEOmoz's biennially-published Search Engine Ranking Factors, developed by Rand Fishkin as a gauge of the most important elements considered by Google's organic ranking algorithm.
It is my hope that this study will help small business owners confused by Local Search, or those strapped for time, to prioritize their marketing efforts.
With the advent of the Local 10-pack in January 2008, as well as Google's recent ZIP code targeting innovation, I felt it was time to undertake a similar enterprise specific to Local Search. It seems like Local has been rumored to be "the next big thing" in Search as many times as Cubs fans have said "this is the year" for their team, but both of these recent innovations suggest 2008 finally could be the year where the prediction, at least for Local, comes true.
I invited 20 experts active in the Local Search Marketing community to participate in this study, with the goal of identifying the factors that would be most helpful for ranking well in the Google and Yahoo Local Search algorithms, as well as techniques to be avoided.
If you are new to Local search, you may want to read some or all of the following articles to familiarize yourself with Local Search terminology:
+ Chris Silver Smith's Anatomy of a Local Search Listing
+ Bill Slawski's Local Search Glossary
+ Matt McGee's Guide to Google Local Search
+ Matt McGee's Guide to Yahoo Local Search
+ Mike Blumenthal's Summary of the Local 10-Pack, 3-Pack, and Authoritative OneBox
+ Chris Silver Smith's Extreme Local Optimization Tactics
+ Matt McGee's 10 Likely Elements of Google's Local Search Algorithm
+ The Local Search SEMMYs
Participants were asked to rate the importance of 47 criteria with respect to their influence on rankings in the Google and Yahoo Local "Universal" search algorithms (those that drive the 3-pack, 10-pack, and authoritative onebox search results; NOT the standard organic algorithms) using the following scale:
Though the survey attempted to aggregate factors applicable to both the Google AND Yahoo Local algorithms, in some cases respondents felt that these factors were treated differently depending on the engine. These factors are marked by a (*); you may want to read the written responses for a deeper understanding of these factors.
The first number listed to the right of each factor indicates the importance of that factor. The higher that number, the more important the panel considered it to be in ranking well. Negative numbers indicate factors that could lead to penalties or lower rankings, depending on how they are used.
The second number listed to the right indicates the standard deviation of the responses. The lower that number, the higher the agreement of the panel. The higher the number, the more the experts' responses varied.
There's enough content here for several months' worth of blog posts, but my initial reaction to the results of this survey can be found here on my blog. If you would like to comment on this project, please join the discussion here.
June 15 2008
Bill Slawski - Local search information for businesses at locations is extracted from telecom information, semi-structured directory information, and information extracted from unstructured Web sites. The web site that is the homepage for the business may be more likely to be determined to be the authoritative site for the business if it seems to be the source of the most complete information about that business, if it has been verified by the business owner, and possibly if it has some links to it from other sites that include geographic information about the business.
Ian Lurie - On-page factors are still the one thing we can 100% control. And a change to these can have a profound impact on your local results.
David Klein - In a very competitive local space, Google is also using its regular search algorithm or something similar as a heavy factor.
Mary Bowling - Anything that Maps can corroborate on your own website pages helps build their trust in the information they have about you. When your web pages substantiate the information that is in your Maps Local Business Listing, it adds trust to that information.
Matt McGee - If you have a web site, it's a 5. But since you don't need a web site to get local search visibility, I'd have to say a 0.
Mike Blumenthal - It appears to have an impact but exactly how is not clear.
Tim Coleman - I think of the on-page as a factor that you have to be careful about because it might hurt you. Does the address and phone number on your site match what the local directories like superpages.com et al. are listing? You really want everything to agree.
Michael Jensen - Optimizing on-page factors is definitely helpful, particularly in a less competitive region and/or industry, where your content can stand out from the competition. This follows the lines of a regular search where you can rank for content with few links as long as the term is less competitive (long tail).
Mary Bowling - While it can't hurt to associate all of your pages with a geographic location ( when that location is essential to your business) I don't think it needs to be in all of your page titles, unless you are specifically trying to rank for a term that includes the city and state. For example, you may want to optimize one page on your site for Denver Hotel, another for Denver Colorado Hotel, another for LoDo Hotel and another for Hotel Near Coors Field. They are all location specific and apply to the same location, but do not all contain the city and state.
Ian Lurie - It seems like it should but the search engines are definitely hip to this tactic now.
Mike Blumenthal - Provides signals to the engines but more likely guarantees correct association rather than rank.
Matt McGee - If the address and phone are on the home page, that's probably adequate. But since it's easy to put it on every page, why wouldn't you?
Brad Geddes - Just need it on home and one other page for smaller sites.
Gab Goldenberg - It's pretty well known that having your address there is going to affect your listings/ranking, but I can't see it helping more than just putting it on the contact page or a 'location' page.
Ian Lurie - This can also help your trustrank, so it's a must-have.
Mary Bowling - This one is so easy to do that there's no reason not to do it. It allows both the SEs and your human visitors to tell where you are from any page they may land on.
Brad Geddes - [Matters for] Yahoo more than Google.
Chris Silver Smith - As I stated late last year, hCard microformatting doesn't improve rankings. However, I see developments such as Yahoo!'s SearchMonkey are increasing the importance of microformatting, and SearchMonkey is clearly built with the intention of spidering and identifying microformat content. If adoption rates increase, hCard microformat is poised to join the set of signals which could benefit rankings
Gab Goldenberg - Don't think this is in use for the practical reason that there aren't enough sites and designers familiar with microformats for that to be worthwhile.
Ian Lurie - As much as I'd like to say the search engines are all over microformats, I've seen at best lipservice at this point. Do it because the search engines will eventually start using this standard, but don't expect it to help your rankings much just yet.
Mary Bowling - This microformat makes it absolutely clear to the Search Engines where you're located. A YahooLocal rep has stated that they are already using the hCard. It will become more important in the future, so why not start using it now?
Matt McGee - 999 out of 1,000 webmasters and small business owners have no idea what this is, so it can't be a huge factor.
Stephen Espinosa - Maybe not ranking but from what I have seen directly impacts getting that plus box with the map next to your listing in the natural results.
David Mihm - As others have stated earlier, it's most important to list your contact information on a page like "contact.html" or "location.html," but why not list it on your entire website?
Mike Blumenthal - Provides signals to the engines but more likely guarantees correct association rather than rank.
Chris Silver Smith - This depends upon how it is done, I believe. Having a separate "profile" page for each of your business locations can work quite well (such as if you have a store locator section of your site). However, lumping all location info onto a single page sends a less-distinct message to the search engines and doesn't perform as well as it could for precise-match queries.
Gab Goldenberg - Gives you more chances to compete. It's like the Hilton having multiple listings through Hilton.com because it has multiple hotel pages there.
Ian Lurie - This can definitely cause confusion.
Mary Bowling - This can really confuse the SE's. Instead of placing multiple addresses on one page, create a separate page for each location you'd like to be found for and optimize it for that location. Only put the address you use in your Maps listing on your home page.
Miriam Ellis - It depends on how this is done. If a business with multiple locations is devoting a single page to each address, there are benefits of going this route. However, where things can get very mixed up is if Google doesn't understand the data and is mixing up addresses in Maps, as we have all seen numerous times.
Mary Bowling - This is one more way the SE's can associate your business with a geographic location.
Stephen Espinosa - We have done an extensive test on this and have not seen much variation at all, positive or negative
Gab Goldenberg - We know that PO boxes suffice to get you Google local listings; this can potentially be used to increase your number of listings in a given city in a spammy way. If you have multiple people working from home though, this may be a legit way of doing local in the event they don't want to share home addresses.
Mary Bowling - Using a Post Office Box address used to give you a considerable boost when the results were driven by proximity to the center of a geographic location. The algorithms have become much more sophisticated and this only gives a slight advantage in Yahoo Local and none in Maps. The advantage that it gives is offset by the disadvantage of not appearing in the correct location on online maps. In the long run, this will hurt more than help because it does not give humans the accurate location information they need.
Tim Coleman - Strangely, Google has recommended this for businesses without a location, so for those businesses it may be the only way in for them.
Tim Coleman - I think this is more of a factor in the organic.
Matt McGee - In the regular Google.com/Yahoo.com SERPS, this is a 4 or 5. In the local onebox, 10-pack or whatever, it's a 0 based on my experience.
Gab Goldenberg - Excellent. Same as for non-local ranking. You get better anchor text, plus possibilities for boosts on exact match.
Michael Jensen - Not huge, but definitely one the search engines consider and give association of your website/business with the location. Search engines will use as much content as they can to associate and categorize your site, so location keywords in the URL will at least be considered by the search engines. Think of Google as trying to be like a human, and one of the pieces of content humans use to evaluate a page includes the whole URL.
Ian Lurie - The search engines care about keywords everywhere, including in the URL. If you can work keywords naturally into the URL, it'll help you across the board.
Michael Jensen - Again, search engines will consider the URL as a piece of content, and use it to associate and categorize. Product/service keywords may have an exact match that competitors don't, particularly in less competitive landscapes.
Gab Goldenberg - Excellent. Same as for non-local ranking. You get better anchor text, plus possibilities for boosts on exact match.
Matt McGee - Same comments as on microformats. Regular people have no clue what this is.
Gab Goldenberg - Have yet to do it, and we rank great. Probably in the same class as the microformats; too little adoption to use consistently.
Mary Bowling - A KML file uploaded to Google Earth allows Google to pinpoint your location across everything Google.
Tim Coleman - This is kind of new and I don't think we know yet; hopefully we will have an opportunity to test soon. In the meanwhile, I would analogize this to a site map. Perhaps, very important in getting indexed but less so in getting ranked.
Matt McGee - The problem is that many local, small business sites don't attract links. So the local algo has to take that into account. It's much more important in the regular SERPs.
Gab Goldenberg - About time this got brought up. Huge factor; local SEO nowadays is largely the same as regular SEO except that you have city keywords, addresses and some things like that; you're still ranking off links etc, at least in Google. Yahoo's more mysterious to me since I'm based in Canada as are most of my clients, and Yahoo is US-only.
Ian Lurie - Authority matters. Links = authority. So links matter.
Mary Bowling - True PR is still a very powerful ranking factor and carries over into Local rankings.
Miriam Ellis - As is the case with all SERPs, the more competitive the industry, the more crucial link count will be.
Tim Coleman - Google and Yahoo both care what other people are saying about you. So, Links and reviews are critical.
Miriam Ellis - If the anchor text is simply referencing 'product', I do believe it would have a positive effect on ranking for 'product/location', but not as much of a good effect as if the anchor text specifically stated both product + location.
Ian Lurie - URL keyword-stuffing has really diluted the value of this across the board in the last few years, but it's still influential.
Matt McGee - I think this is more important than quantity of links.
David Mihm - I think this factor is of critical importance, but citations which reference your business with full address information are more valuable even than anchor text, at least for the Local algorithm.
Matt McGee - I think the algo probably takes into account for the fact that very few search queries involve an exact address, so the more generic city/town name is better for being in anchor text.
David Mihm - Maybe not important that your phone number is in anchor text, but again, a phone number in close proximity to your business name counts as a citation / web reference.
Ian Lurie - These kinds of social votes are definitely influencing rankings more and more.
Mary Bowling - I think that in Maps, web references (the pages on the web that talk about you) from trusted sources (like Google's own pages) can really boost your ranking. Think of them the way you think of links from trusted websites. That's why it's important to get listings on websites like Yelp, Merchant Circle, Insider Pages, etc.
Matt McGee - When I interviewed Brian Gil of Yahoo, he said they look at star ratings, but not text reviews, to determine rankings: "...the rating is then taken into account when we determine the sort order." So I think it depends on the type of reference, and might differ from one engine to the next.
Tim Coleman - A true 0, absolutely no effect.
Miriam Ellis - I think that local PPC may have an effect in Yahoo. There was a reference some months back to a Google Maps guide advising a disgruntled local business owner to invest in AdWords, but I saw that as an irregular suggestion, and am not convinced that PPC affects local rankings in Google.
Brad Geddes - Matters more for Yahoo than Google.
Ian Lurie - This gives you control over your reviews and business information, and prevents competitors from hijacking your results. It's a critical defensive measure that can also lend more legitimacy to the information you have in those providers' directories.
Matt McGee - Google struggles with this. For whatever reason, they seem to allow 3rd-party data to be more trusted than data given by the business owner in the Local Business Center. Yahoo, on the other hand, makes Yahoo Local data the authoritative source if the business provides it directly. I think it's imperative that your basic business data be consistent from source to source.
Miriam Ellis - It is especially crucial to do this, if not even for the sake of rankings, but simply to eliminate the possibility of incorrect information adversely affecting rankings.
Gab Goldenberg - Validation might affect indexing, but not get you any preferential ranking treatment (unless maybe you have no competition in your city).
Other providers receiving mention: Yahoo Directory, DMOZ Regional Directories, DexKnows, Yellowbook.
Michael Jensen - For small businesses competing with national chains, online reviews can be one of the best ways to gain an advantage over multiple location national chains.
David Klein - I have found that reviews made directly to Google have a very positive benefit. They show up first!
Gab Goldenberg - The effect is significant. You'll notice that more reviews gets you ranked higher. Probably also a threshold issue, where you have to be above the median for your industry or something like that. When all the hotels in your city have 100 reviews, and you have 20, you're not likely to get anywhere.
Matt McGee - It must depend on the industry. There are so many hotel and restaurant reviews that it makes sense for those to have some kind of impact. But in so many other industries, there's not going to be enough review data to make it an important part of the algorithm.
Mike Belasco - It depends on the industry.
Miriam Ellis - From what I understand, neither Yahoo nor Google is citing reviews as a ranking factor at this time. However, I believe they are vital for other reasons, such as CTR and trust.
Mary Bowling - Having any reviews at all gives you a boost in the Maps rankings, regardless of whether they are good or bad. Yahoo Local tells us there is a threshold number of reviews and that once you cross that threshold, the reviews you have kick into the algorithm with good reviews helping and poor reviews hurting.
Michael Jensen - A certain number of reviews (5 or more) starts showing stars in Google Maps, which can also have an impact on catching more eyes, not just better rankings.
Tim Coleman - The number of reviews is a critical factor for both ranking and conversion.
Matt McGee - I'm not sure the engines are doing analysis on the sentiments expressed by reviewers. There are a lot of reviews that include both positive and negative text. To me, the rating is the engines' way of determining sentiment, not analysis of text.
Ian Lurie - I haven't seen much difference, actually. Quantity seems to matter as much as quality.
Matt McGee - Technically speaking, there's no such thing as a negative rating. You can't give a business -3 stars. You get to choose between 0-5 or 1-5 stars, so all ratings are positive - it's just a matter of how positive. I think consistently low rating scores would be factored into the algorithm, but not the occasional low rating.
Mary Bowling - I think all the reviews that are placed on Google Maps and Yahoo Local listings count the same in their algorithms. However, the SEs select different websites as the best sources from which to pull reviews for different industries and this selection seems to change somewhat randomly.
Gab Goldenberg - The stars matter, but the reviews don't. It's interesting, since I was just looking at a proposal today from a company that specializes in text analysis and mining of customer feedback. If the engines acquire one of these specialized companies, it could become a factor.
Matt McGee - I think it's good to have people talking about you on 3rd-party sites; it shows interest, activity, citation, or whatever you want to call it. But I doubt the engines trust these as much as ratings and reviews from their own users.
Tim Coleman - The evidence I found [to support this theory] was largely anecdotal...But I think it just makes too much sense as to the credibility of the review for it never to be a factor.
Matt McGee - I only have the quote from Brian Gil, where he said Yahoo doesn't take this idea into account for organic rankings. He only specified that Yahoo eliminated the ability to leave anonymous reviews. Otherwise, a review is a review is a review, etc.
Brad Geddes - One of my theories is that sites with more reviews end up with more links and a higher relevancy in the sorting options, therefore, I don't think it's the review that is always causing the ranking as opposed to synergistic factors.
Ian Lurie - Power reviewers have more leverage by an order of magnitude than one-time reviewers.
Other sources receiving mention: Zagat's, Guidespot, YahooTravel, Panoramio, Yahoo Yellow Pages, YellowBook
Mary Bowling - Huge! One of the most important factors. The merchant is the most trusted source of data about their business. Yahoo Local tells you if a listing is Merchant verifed and Google tells you the source for some of the info they display in the listings is the business owner.
David Klein - A friend of mine got a site to rank number one, for a medium size town in the U.S. for local internet marketing and SEO, and he did not even have content on the site yet. He simply owned the domain, no content, and registered it with Google Local.
Matt McGee - The fact that there are businesses with no web site who are ranking highly for local queries simply because they own a listing at the search engine speaks volumes.
Tim Coleman - It is very important from the perspective that you are able to give the engines and potential customers more information about what you do. From the perspective of the engines that can make you part of the initial recall, again referring to the interview Matt did with Brian Gil. But I do still many number one ranking businesses that have never claimed their listing.
Will Scott - With Google in particular, the dance is pretty quick these days. When one kind of spam is cleaned up another pushes right in. Many of the spammy techniques which were very effective as recently as Feb / Mar are no longer working.
Matt McGee - Age can be a positive (it's trusted) or negative (the business may not exist anymore), so I'd think it's a wash. Plus, you can create a new listing and get visibility almost immediately after it goes live, which implies age isn't a big deal.
Tim Coleman - I think age is a big factor but I don't think it is restricted to the age of a claimed listing. I think Google will look at the age of anything it can find as signals of trust including the age of the telephone number and the age of reviews.
Gab Goldenberg - Mike Blumenthal's done a great series of posts on spam featuring generic names. I think it tells you how important the factor has been, and continues to be.
Matt McGee - This probably depends a lot on how competitive things are.
Miriam Ellis - It's working great for spammers, but leads to some pretty ridiculous results.
Tim Coleman - Because, I work with service businesses out in the suburbs with large service areas, listing a city in the title would be restrictive and I would consider it a negative.
David Mihm - I see this technique working well right now for a TON of searches in moderately-competitive industries.
Gab Goldenberg - Gives you a big boost as with product / service keywords.
Gab Goldenberg - I don't know. If it is working, I'd say it's probably got another year or three before the search engines wise up and/or local SEO gains wide enough adoption.
David Mihm - I haven't seen any particular evidence that this helps, but unless you're just keyword stuffing the hell out of your description, I can't see how it would hurt...
Tim Coleman - Obviously location is the biggest factor in any local algorithm.
Gab Goldenberg - It beats having one explicitly outside your city :D.
Matt McGee - The problem is that, with some queries, there aren't enough matches in the city. So a matching address is important, but not for some queries.
David Klein - This used to be the entire algorithm in Google for local, and now appears to account for 20 to 40 percent.
Tim Coleman - All things being equal...the closer to the "centroid" (as defined by the particular engine) the higher you will rank.
Matt McGee - Probably even more important when there's a lack of other signals.
Brad Geddes - This one has changed many times.
Gab Goldenberg - Looking at the maps in Universal SERPs it's remarkable how tightly bunched the locations are...
Gab Goldenberg - From reading Mike Blumenthal's blog, it seems pretty important. I haven't had a problem with this, though, and that's where it seems to come up most - as a negative ranking factor keeping some people out of the right SERPs. Just calling yourself a hotel doesn't mean you should rank, right?
Mary Bowling - It's hard for them to rank you in a category if they no basis for it. If you don't place yourself in categories, they will pull them from another source, such as the IYPS. You know how messed up some of the Yellow Pages categories can be, so do it yourself. Now, Maps will even let you create your own category. If they don't have categories for your best keyword terms, create your own.
Tim Coleman - If you're in the wrong category...you're done.
David Mihm - Some may consider this a spam technique, but it hasn't seemed to hurt, as long as you're not stretching the association TOO far. Besides, you can only list a maximum of five categories in Google, so it's hard to go overboard.
Stephen Espinosa - Long tail always brings lots of traffic; Y! in particular tends to narrow down by category for long tail phrases.
Gab Goldenberg - Might get you more business, but I don't see it as a ranking factor. If you can control it, you can spam it, and like I said above, I think this is one factor that you can control.
David Mihm - I doubt this one has a big effect either way, but you're always better off with a local number than an 800 number (except perhaps for tracking purposes).
David Mihm - I've seen this have a nice effect for "longer tail" queries where the categories recommended by Google don't capture the full breadth of what your business does.
Matt McGee - I can speak to this with authority where my wife is concerned. I listed her as a real estate agent covering a couple outlying cities that don't have real estate agents -- and she has zero visibility on those outlying cities.
Brad Geddes - [Can hurt] in normal SERPs if done improperly (duplicate content is often an issue here); no effect in the local SERPs.
Chris Silver Smith - If this is for multiple, real locations in the same city, I think this would be beneficial.
Gab Goldenberg - You can get multiple rankings if your domain strength is good enough to carry them (like the Hilton hotels). If you're faking it, though, prepare to get your sorry, broken butt booted.
Tim Coleman - It sounds like something that Google will address in time and could be a huge negative factor. Like, out of the index bad. Tread very carefully with this one.
Miriam Ellis - This is a somewhat problematic situation, as in the case where different businesses share the same address. Using this as a spam tactic may have short-term benefits, but for legitimate businesses sharing an address, special steps may need to be taken.
Matt McGee - 0, unless it's obvious spam. There are currently four different real estate agents with listings at the same address where my wife's office is. And if all the agents were to follow their lead, there'd be 20+ agents at the same address.
Mary Bowling - Ideally, each business location should have its own Local Business listing with a unique address and phone number. While this is time consuming, it is effective.
Miriam Ellis - This is classic spam.
Stephen Espinosa - They will get merged eventually.
Gab Goldenberg - [No Effect], IMHO. Would allow price discrimination and anticompetitive behaviour by big companies.
David Mihm - Seems like Google would want to encourage businesses to offer coupons in combination with a PPC account, but I haven't seen this have any effect on rankings one way or the other...yet...
David Mihm - You definitely get more bang for your rankings "buck" with videos than photos; but if you've got a few photos you can feature, it might help your click-through rate.
Mary Bowling - Using attributes can get your info pulled into other verticals, like Google Base. Research that vertical first so that you can choose valuable attributes and use them the way that will help you the most.
Stephen Espinosa - Helpful because it gets you a web reference.
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A small business web site design firm and affordable SEO company accepting clients in Portland, Salem, Eugene, Vancouver WA and throughout the Western United States.