Google continues to pour more resources into local, with multiple ads innovations and Google My Business feature enhancements in the past six months. Google’s introduction of GMB video conferencing and the recent move to auction-based pricing for Local Services Ads are examples.
Despite all the attention on ads, it’s worth noting that organic rankings still drive roughly 20x more clicks, according to data from Moz. Thus the continued and growing focus on local SEO and ranking factors. A couple of years ago Google took the unusual step of specifying some the variables it considers in ranking local search results.
Relevance, Distance & Prominence
Google’s discussion of “relevance, distance and prominence” is instructive but still relatively opaque. Here’s the explanation of prominence, for example:
Prominence refers to how well known a business is. Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking. For example, famous museums, landmark hotels, or well-known store brands are also likely to be prominent in local search results.
Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business, from across the web, like links, articles, and directories. Google review count and review score factor into local search ranking. More reviews and positive ratings can improve your business’ local ranking. Your position in web results is also a factor, so search engine optimization (SEO) best practices apply.
In other words, Google takes into account SEO best practices, links and citations as well as reviews in calculating prominence. Enter the Local Search Ranking Factors, a 12-year old annual survey of leading local SEOs, created by David Mihm and administered by him for years. Later Moz ran the survey and now Whitespark has taken it over.
Whitespark founder Darren Shaw unveiled the results of the 2020 survey at a conference two weeks ago and has promised a deep dive in the near future. For the present, I’ll share some of the top-level findings of the survey of leading local SEO practitioners.
Local SEO practitioner survey respondents
The Big Buckets
The survey explored seven “thematic” areas:
- Google My Business (GMB)
- On-page factors
- Behavioral Signals
The findings are broken out into two broad categories: influences on the Map/Local Pack and Local Finder and local organic results. The Local Finder is the page of supplemental map listings you get when you click on “view all” at the bottom of the Map Pack.
Changes in Local Pack/Finder ranking variables
According to the 2020 findings, GMB and reviews are the variables that have grown the most in their perceived impact. On-page signals, local links and citations are seen to have declined in relative influence to varying degrees.
Things shift fairly dramatically when considering organic local results outside the Map Pack or Local Finder — in other words further down on the SERP. For example, the influence of GMB in local organic rankings is perceived to be minimal. Reviews are also seen as having little influence on local SEO rankings.
Comparing local SEO vs. Map Pack/Local Finder ranking factors
Among the local SEO variables considered were link quality, content, domain authority, mobile friendliness and keyword usage. Authority of inbound links is not surprisingly the top local organic SEO ranking factor by a considerable margin. That was followed by “volume of quality content on entire website.” After that the scoring gaps were less significant.
This suggests a large number of variables that local SEOs believe contribute to organic rankings.
Top local organic ranking factors
The survey also broke out more detailed GMB Local Pack ranking variables: business categories, keywords in the business title, proximity, reviews and spam fighting, among others.
Primary business category was identified as the most influential ranking factor (going to relevance). But that barely beat out keyword usage in the business name, which Google publicly advises against but which apparently remains a successful local tactic.
After business category and keyword stuffing the business name, proximity (or distance) is a major factor. However, marketers effectively can’t do anything to influence it. Local rankings change as users move around a city or neighborhood based on the distance between users and businesses.
Map Pack/Local Finder ranking factors
Some surprises here include the apparently more modest influence of reviews, as well as GMB profile completeness.
One would assume more complete profiles have more content and would rank better accordingly. (As a side note, the influence of reviews reflected in the “top 15 Local Pack” chart immediately above appears to contradict the earlier “changes over time” chart, which argues reviews are second only in ranking influence to GMB itself.)
In addition, “keywords in native Google reviews” are seen as more influential than review scores or quantity of reviews, which also seems strange and counterintuitive.
Rankings vs. Conversion Factors
I asked the study’s author, Darren Shaw, to reflect on the survey findings. He cautioned that rankings are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.
Shaw observed, “For me, the biggest takeaway is the growing importance of focusing on conversions from your Google listing instead of just obsessing about rankings.”
He added, “A #1 ranking isn’t going to drive any leads to your business if your profile doesn’t have any information on it. A complete GMB listing ranking in the #5 spot with products, photos, descriptions, special offers, and tons of positive reviews will always beat an empty GMB listing ranking first.”
One of the final survey questions was, “Which individual factors do you think have the biggest impact on conversions from GMB?” This speaks to the real-world impact of GMB content on user engagement and response rates.
In this case reviews come out on top. The top three answers all pertain to review quality and quantity. Then comes proximity (“near me”). Messaging follows after that, then hours information and completeness of the GMB listing. Booking capabilities, Posts and Q&A re seen as relatively weak conversion influences by comparison.
Google My Business conversion factors
Clearly, higher visibility and rankings do drive clicks, calls, directions and ultimately conversions. But while there’s broad alignment, it’s interesting to note that the areas of focus that might bring marketers higher local rankings aren’t always these same as those that bring actual sales.
You can see the full presentation and some additional information here.