How have local ranking factors changed?
This year we looked at 300+ factors over 200,000 local business to figure out what is similar to the businesses that are ranking in Google’s local pack. Some of the questions we answer:
How much do traditional organic signals matter?
Are reviews important to local businesses?
How DO you rank in Google My Business?
This year we basically doubled the amount of businesses we looked at. We expanded how deep into local results we went (20 versus 10), while still covering the top 150 US cities. This allowed us to better model the difference in features from winners (top results) to losers (all the new bottom results we are now gathering.) As always, I would like to thank Mark Kabana and the PlacesScout team (a great local SEO tool) for being a great partner in this research as well as Megan Smith and the Center for Statistical Consulting at the University of California, Irvine (7th best public university in the country!).
An important point as always is that correlation does not equal causation. Nothing in this research will tell you how Google orders local search results. It will however tell you what the observable characteristics are that are shared by high ranking local GMB profiles. This should let you prioritize your own SEO roadmap based on your own competitive gaps and knowledge about SEO,
– Andrew Shotland
In Conjunction With
This chart represents all the factors that we looked at where the data fits into natural ordered categories (distance from center) but where the distance of the measured factor (ranking) is unknown. This is actually one of the most important thing to understand when it comes to understanding ranking models. Even though you can code ranking in SERPs are 1-10 or Local Packs 1-3, you have no idea what the distance between those numbers are. The distance between ranking points are different, contextual and represented by a myriad of different variables (ranking factors). If this makes you go WTF, always feel free to ask 🙂
As you can see looking at this data and comparing it the last study we released, not much is changing in terms of ranking factors mattering. Being proximate, ranking highly in organic results, having rich review and link profiles robust with category and geographic keywords are still the things you need to rank in local pack results. What are you still reading for? Just go do it already!
The following chart showed how a factor, that fit into one of two categories (primarily yes and no), correlated to Google pack performance. For example, a Google My Business profile either had the keyword in the business name, (yes), or it didn’t (no).
Again, just like with the ordinal variables, basic SEO b locking and tackling is still necessary. Just having reviews, making sure you are optimizing you profile etc are all features of business ranking high in local packs. More continued correlation with organic rankings driving GMB rankings should be more than enough to convince anyone to invest in their web presence. One of the main things that has changed as keyword in business name no longer correlates highly to pack rankings. Whether this is because the GMB product and support team have fixed the issue (color me skeptical) or because everyone is spamming their business name to keep up with the Joneses, well, I will let you decide 🙂
Also, as you would expect with a Google product, engagement metrics correlate very highly to positive rankings. If your profile lacks a strong cover photo it would reason that, all things being equal, you would get less clicks.
What Does All This Mean To Me?
As mentioned before, a critical question that people often ask us is:
How do you prioritize not just your Local SEO operations but your investment in Local SEO?
We think the data presented in this study offers a good starting point. There are some clear tactical implications:
1) Make sure your owned assets, like your website, are killing it. Lots of factors like links, organic ranking etc show very high correlation with positive local pack performance. Invest there.
2) Even though GMB doesn’t have a lot of levers a business owner/marketer can pull, reviews are a huge one. If you aren’t focusing on a review program and working on testing how to get keywords, cities etc in reviews you are gonna be far behind. Like getting involved in your link profile years late kinda behind.
3) Off-Site local signals continue their decline. These types of traditional factors are table stakes at best. Don’t spend to much time here unless you really need to.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I would highly recommend checking out my blog post on the subject. When I first started doing this, there was relatively little scale research going on in local SEO. Now there are lots of other large scale website feature and correlation research projects, and I don’t think any of them (ours included) are honestly driving that much strategic value. I’m really looking to change this in 2020. There is gonna be deeper slices of analysis in addition to web/profile feature analysis that I think will be really helpful. I also think there is a lot of interesting descriptive statistics (83% of domains we looked at were https) that could yield some insights. We are going to continue to dive into those as we move into 2020. Also, some really exciting research partners announcements coming next year!