How have local ranking factors changed?
This year we looked at 200+ factors over 100,000 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:
Is Google shifting away from traditional local signals?
Does GMB spam still work?
What’s the deal with reviews?
This year we greatly expanded the number of factors, and number of SERPs we looked at. We took the data set from 100 cities to 150, and increased the number of keywords, and verticals, we were looking at. We also included full API data from Majestic, AHREFs & Moz, so can definitely tell you which link tool is best for looking at local businesses. As always I would like to thank Mark Kabana and the PlacesScout team 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 (9th best public university in the country!).
An important point, the local and organic search algorithms are still highly interconnected. If you are winning in local organic search, you are most likely winning in local pack searches also. In fact, ranking in local organic searches was the #1 high correlating factor with ranking in packs. This is unsurprising, as the organic search algorithm has had much more investment over the years, and is likely a much superior piece of technology. Like comparing the Death Star to a Star Destroyer.
“The data suggests that Google, while attempting to shift to more engagement-based and locally relevant factors for its Local algorithm, is still susceptible to the traditional organic SEO tactics. The immaturity of the Local algorithm combined with the power of a focused SEO effort can yield outsized benefits for smart location-marketers. This study illustrates the foundational building blocks of a Local SEO campaign with the goal of helping marketers prioritize their investments in tactics that will move the needle.”
– Andrew Shotland
In Conjunction With
Reviews are the new link alternative?
Reviews are obviously a driving factor of ranking in Google My Business pack results. The prominence of reviews isn’t particularly shocking, as it’s a way for Google to crowdsource ranking factors, it’s hard to spam, and the most problematic type of abuse is illegal. It’s also something that let’s Google approximate online to offline ranking factors, as hot/trendy businesses are likely to skyrocket in terms of reviews before they are likely to kill it with traditional ranking factors. All of this means it’s something that is easier for them to trust then say, links. At a high level, having a keyword you are trying to rank for, and a mention of a city you are working to rank in, in reviews has a high correlation with high ranking Google My Business results. Keep your eyes peeled as we have some exciting research in the pipeline to try to understand more about how Google uses reviews to rank businesses.
Another thing that seems to matter with Google My Business is engagement. Google clearly uses engagement to order search results, and local packs are no different. So, things like photos are content for your users to engage with. Same with reviews, which means they are likely valuable in several different ranking contexts.
SMBs have crappy link profiles, news at 11
What I think is most interesting about this data, is that websites that rank tend to have low quality and low authority links. I mean, how else would having low citation flow and trust flow correlate with positive results? Because most business that tend to rank in packs are low in trust themselves, and as such, have links from other low trust and low-value websites. There are obviously significant exceptions to this rule, e.g., brands, but this could also be why brands tend to clean up in local search results.
Another relevant point, it looks like winners in local packs have likely invested in SEO services at some point. Otherwise, they would probably have fewer keywords in their anchor text 😉 While it’s only correlation, Google still seems to be rewarding some level of optimized anchor text, around both keyword and city. At the very least, they are more lenient when it comes to slapping local websites with Penguin. All of this is more evidence of the organic algo’s substantial involvement in ordering local packs.
Off-Site Local Signals
Are we still paying attention to these?
There is even less correlation with these types of factors than last year, which tells me that while they are table stakes, they aren’t going to differentiate you among even the top 10 local search results. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, we live in a world where the organic algo is a significant driver of the local algo.
There are a couple of exceptions where they could likely provide competitive value and that is through the reviews and links on the citation sites. Pay attention to places that drive you leads, fix your local data if it’s a trainwreck, and if you are a multi-location brand make sure you capitalize on the potential for local citation links. Other then that, yawn.
You own this asset, why is it under optimized?
To be successful in local SEO, you have to have a holistic SEO strategy, with a heavy emphasis on your website. While some businesses do rank without a website, after all, that is why the Google Local Business Center and local algo came about, having a site, ranking organically and links are features that HEAVILY correlate with positive pack performance. If you want to be in local packs, the best thing you can do is crush it in organic search. Because if you are ranking in local organic search, you are much more likely to be ranking in packs. You know what SMB’s are bad at? Websites. Also, some of the first SEO advice I learned is just as valuable now as it was then:
If you want to rank for a term, make sure it’s on the page you want to rank.
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).
What you will see here is that basic SEO “blocking and tackling” was something that most businesses who performed well in packs had done. Things like optimizing their meta tags, making sure their website is mobile friendly etc. Things that are part and parcel of spending any time of SEO. That, combined with strong correlation of ranking in local organic results, should be enough to convince anyone that they need to get their website in order.
Finally, engagement signals continue to show strong correlation to positive local pack ranking. Having GMB Photos and hours are avenues for users to engage with your profiles while responding to reviews and claiming your profiles are ways to engage with your potential customers and Google’s platform and show them you have invested.
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 think it’s important to look at what the features are of businesses/profiles/websites that rank well in Google’s local pack results. It lets us see what people are doing, and what Google appears to be rewarding in an empirical and data-driven way, and it’s something we are going to continue to do.
However, along with that comes a little cruft, we show “low value” links from the lower levels of the web correlate with positive search performance because that’s what SMB link profiles tend to look like. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Google is rewarding these features, just that they are features that these search winners possess. Going forward, we are going to work on an approach based on predictive modeling that will see to use all the factors in the data set we have gathered to be able to pair them in ways that accurately predict search results. Again, this won’t tell us how Google is using these features to order SERPs, but hopefully, it will take us one step closer.