Understanding Google’s Local Search Algorithm
Ranking in local search is becoming more difficult every day. Why? Competition. The Google local algorithm is constantly updating to ensure that search results best match the intent behind a user’s query.
As SEO specialists and digital marketers, we need to be aware of these updates and be able to pivot or make changes in strategy accordingly. If we don’t, we can lose our local search presence in the blink of an eye. This advanced guide designed to help you understand the local search algorithm will break down the three major ranking pillars, so that you, like myself, can stay ahead of the competition and know what to look out for.
The three major ranking pillars that I will discuss are relevance, proximity, and prominence. By understanding each core pillar, you can set yourself (and your clients) up for success in local search and conquer Google’s local algorithm.
So, without further ado, let’s unpack what makes up the Google local algorithm!
Relevance is a key component of Google’s local algorithm. To ensure that search engines such as Google view your business as relevant enough to surface, you’ll want to ensure you’re targeting keywords or topics that potential customers would be searching for. For example, if you ran a pizza place in New York, you’d want make sure that Google relates your business to keywords such as “pizza New York”.
In this next section, I’ll explain just how you can inform Google’s local algorithm that your business is relevant to the right search queries:
Local Listing Signals
Whether you’re optimizing your Google Business Profile (formerly known as Google My Business), Bing Places listing, or Yahoo Local listing, there are several key components you need to pay attention to. Aside from making sure that all your business’s NAP (name, address, phone number) is correct and that you have just one claimed listing, make sure you have properly filled out the below two features.
1. Local Category Selection
One of the most important factors in ranking locally is selecting relevant categories for your listing. These categories are essentially tags that you associate with your business. You want to ensure that you only select categories that define your business — the more relevant or specific the better. For Google Business Profile, head here for a full list of categories; for Bing Places, click here.
2. Add a Business Description
By adding a description of your business, you allow users to know exactly what you do (as well as search engines). This shouldn’t be salesy, or an attempt to market your business. Instead, it should give users (and search engines) the info they require to determine if your business matches their needs or intent.
Optimizing your web pages for given keywords will increase relevance and enhance your chances of being favored by the Google local algorithm. By performing basic competitor research and analyzing results you can determine what a search engine likes for a given search query or keyword.
Below I have made a list of on-page attributes that should be considered when trying to increase relevance for a given keyword or topic. You can also check out the on-page checklist I have put together.
How you write your content will determine if it deserves to rank or not. Google rolled out a core algorithm update in 2018 that focused on content with relevance. This means that it is not necessarily how long your content is or the quality of it that matters. In fact, all that matters is if your content is relevant to a user’s search query. Web pages that had strong relevance for a keyword or topic were rewarded with an increase in rankings.
Search engines are looking for whether or not your content matches the intent of the user’s original search query. Does it give the user the answer they are looking for? Here are two tips to increase relevance when writing your content:
- LSI Keywords: By including keywords that are semantically related to each other you increase relevance to your target keyword or query. Search engines are very smart; they are capable of drawing connections between keywords and rewarding pages that do so properly. Tip: Use Google’s search predictor or a tool like this to help.
- Long Tail Keywords: These keywords differ from LSI keywords but also add relevance. Although these keywords are longer, they do tend to convert higher. This is because they are usually more specific and descriptive. Long-tail keywords help add context to your content which helps search engines determine if your page matches the context of a user’s search query.
50% of search queries are four words or longer – Hubspot
2. Title Tag
First impressions count! A title tag is a great way to incorporate your page’s target keyword, as well as draw a click from a user. Not only is it great to incorporate your keyword for search engine purposes, it allows the user to know what to expect upon clicking.
3. Meta Description
Your meta description allows you to expand on your title tag and add more context to what your page is about. Again, be sure to include your target keyword.
4. Body Tags (H1, H2, etc.)
Within your content, you can create headings to capture users and encourage them to read on. This is another great way to increase your relevance. Your heading tags should be descriptive and explain the content they precede. Especially your H1, as it stands out the most on a webpage. Search engines detect these tags and give higher importance to what they contain. (Hint Hint, try to include your keywords.)
H1s are usually the most visually notable content on the page – Neil Patel
5. Alt Text
Every user consumes information differently, and some people are very visual. As such it’s best to try to include images with your content wherever possible. These assets will help increase user engagement, which helps with ranking.
Whenever you add images to a page you have the option to add alt text, which is a way for search engines to easily crawl and understand what the media is. This is another great place to incorporate keywords. If you have an image that showcases a service your business offers, you want that alt text to include the service keyword. It’s also a really important aspect for accessible reasons, to ensure your content can reach as many people as possible.
6. Internal Linking
Creating internal links helps users navigate to relevant pages on your website. They help establish hierarchy and spread link equity throughout a website. You can use internal linking to increase relevance for a page by creating a navigation path to similar pages or pages that help strengthen your topic or keyword.
7. Outbound Links
An outbound link is an external link from your website to another website. Very similar to internal links, these links allow users to navigate to external websites for additional information on a related topic. Outbound links will help the Google local algorithm identify your chosen niche — so be sure to focus on giving relevant links, as well as getting them.
Schema helps you organize and provide search engines like Google with the information they need to understand your content. It helps ensure the best search results possible and improves the way your page is displayed in search results. By adding schema to a page, you can increase the relevance for a given topic or keyword. Search engines can easily find schema and make sense of the content that it represents, helping to ensure that you show up when you should.
Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Local SEO – Free Online Course
9. Relevant Reviews
We all know how important reviews are to a business and rankings, but how important are relevant reviews? For example, if you have a product page or a location page you want to make sure that any reviews on that given page reflect the topic. All reviews or testimonials on a given page should be relevant to that page and refer to the product or service described on the page. If you have reviews that mention specific locations, showcase them on the relevant areas of your site.
10. URL Structure
Setting up your website’s hierarchy and site architecture is very important. It essentially allows you to tell search engine algorithms how they should prioritize and crawl your website. The URL slug that you use should reflect the topic of the page — this is another quick way to increase relevance.
Treat these on-page signals as a checklist. You should be able to go through your target page and check off every one of the above attributes. Once you get through this checklist, you should be able to confidently say that your page is relevant to your target keyword or topic, and so your site is more likely to be favored by the Google local algorithm.
Trust and credibility are two major ranking signals. Off-page signals are external links from one website pointing to yours (also known as backlinks). The more good backlinks you have, the higher your website/page authority will be. This shows search engines that you are trustworthy and credible. Before you ask, a ‘good’ backlink is a link from a credible website (usually with good Page or Domain Authority) that is relevant to the page it is linking to.
If you have a service page on “car insurance”, for example, you would want links from insurance-related pages, and even better, car insurance-related pages. You would not want a link from a “home insurance” page pointing to your “car insurance” page because the topics are different. Below are two great examples of off-page link building strategies.
1. Guest Posting
By using the right set of Google search strings you can find guest posting opportunities. These opportunities are great because you get to create and share your own content. Most of the time these opportunities will be relevant and help increase your website authority (as well as relevance) as well.
When you are reaching out to websites, you want to stand out from the rest. Remember, you’re not the only one reaching out. Your initial message should sell yourself or your business and contain more than one topic idea (options are always good).
2. Creating 10x Content Pieces
What better way to build links to your website than leveraging your own great content? A lot of research and planning goes into creating great 10x content pieces, but the payoff is always very rewarding.
Your content needs to be captivating and needs to knock readers off their feet (so to speak). Once you have your 10x content you will find that promoting it is fairly easy. Experts (external site owners) love linking to high quality, relevant content. The better your content, the easier it is to attain links!
For one of my clients at Powered By Search (where I worked previously), we built this cigar pairing guide. After we performed our research, we found that users were searching for “cigars + drinks,” etc. We used this information to create an interactive piece of content that users can engage with. As a result, experts wanted to link to it. This piece, in particular, has acquired 2.26K links to date!
Think of prominence as how well your brand stands out from the rest (in a positive way). This can come in several forms: links; articles; directories; mentions; reviews; etc. It is the trust and credibility your brand has built up with search engines.
Brands that have a stronger online prominence seem more credible and trustworthy to the Google local algorithm. We know that search engines (especially Google) pull data from all across the web. So essentially, if your brand is out there on the web, search engines will find this data and give you a prominence score. Let’s take a look at some important ways you can build up, maintain your brand prominence, and grow your economic position.
Online reviews for a business not only have the power to increase ranking signals, but the power to push a consumer to a decision. You can never have enough reviews!
Ask yourself, would you trust a business with 100 reviews or 10? Chances are it’s the former. That’s because (like the Google local algorithm) users need to gain trust from a brand before purchasing or clicking. So, similar to users, search engines have the ability to analyze the type of review, how many reviews a business has, and how they interact with reviews (respond to them or not). All these factors can increase a brand’s online prominence. Below you will find some tips to help gain stronger signals from online reviews.
1. Develop a Review Strategy
In order for a business to gain more reviews, they need to develop a strategy. This is very important. If you want to have a great online brand prominence you need to first find a way to get more reviews. There are lots of tools available to help you generate more reviews.
2. Respond to Reviews
Once you have a strategy in place, you need to find a way to monitor and manage your reviews. This is just as important as getting reviews. Search engines are able to tell if you engage with customers and reply to their comments. It shows that you’re active and willing to interact.
A great tool to use is Brightlocal’s Reputation Manager tool. You can monitor all your reviews and highlight the ones you need to respond to. This is especially important for negative reviews. Yes, negative reviews aren’t great but you can respond to them in a positive, proactive way that can turn that negative review around.
Remember that you want to stand out from competitors, and you want your brand prominence to look good in the eyes of users and Google’s local algorithm.
A citation is a reference to your business’s name, address, and phone number (NAP) online. Unlike external links, citations do not need to link back to your website. Just having your business name, address and phone number mentioned gets you credit for a citation.
Businesses that are mentioned a lot online are viewed as more credible to search engine algorithms. A great place to start is Brightlocal’s Citation Tracker. Here you can uncover any existing citations, incorrect citations, and citation opportunities. From there you can determine which citations hold the most weight and fix/create them.
Inbound Links (Backlinks)
I mentioned backlinks in the relevance section but it’s important that I mention it again in the prominence section. What is another very big way that a business can build its online reputation? You’re right, gaining relevant backlinks.
If you are ever trying to figure out why a competitor may be outranking you, always look at how many backlinks their page has vs yours. The more good links you have pointing to your page the more trust and authority your page will hold.
Now that we know your business is relevant to the user’s search query and has a strong prominence, let’s look at our last ranking factor, proximity. Local algorithms are constantly being updated to ensure that search results contain the most relevant searches for a user. I’m sure you have all heard that proximity to the searcher is the #1 ranking factor? Well, that hasn’t changed.
Unfortunately, while it’s the most integral to local search, proximity is also the factor most out of your control. Your business is where your business is.
What’s important here, then, is to show Google where your business is so that it surfaces you for nearby search queries.
You can track your current status of local rankings using a tool like Local Search Results Checker. Enter the zip code from one road over, two roads over, three roads over and see how your rankings change based on the searcher’s location.
Just take a look at how much the local results for ‘Pizza’ change when you search from a different zip code:
Types of Local Search
There are three ways a user can perform a local search; non-geo-modified, geo-modified, and “near me.” You should always consider optimizing for the different ways users are searching. Let’s look at the difference:
Non-Geo Modified Searches
This search behavior is typical of a user that is looking for something around them. For example, I’m located in Toronto and I perform a local search for “pubs.” The local search results will most likely contain pubs that are closest to me. This is because search engines are relying more heavily on proximity (not to say they aren’t considering prominence and relevance).
Although this isn’t always the case, users typically perform these local searches when they are looking to go somewhere or traveling to a different city. For example, if I’m searching in Toronto for a pub in a nearby city, my search query might be “Pubs in Oakville.” These search results will be different then if I searched for “pubs” while physically being in Oakville. Geo-modified searches will rely heavier on the other two pillars (relevance and prominence) over proximity if they detect that you are not within the city you included. Often, search results will contain listings that are close to the city centroid and have strong relevance and prominence.
30% of mobile searches are related to a location. – Google, 2016
“Near Me” Searches
A few years back, “near me” searches were very popular. These are searches where a user performs a query like “pubs near me.” Fast forward to 2018 and we see this trend in decline.
Why, you ask? It’s because “near me” is now implied when someone performs a local search. Users are expecting to get the most relevant results “near them” upon searching. Nevertheless, it is still a variation that some users still search and I figured I should add it.
Remember These Three Core Pillars: Relevance, Prominence, and Proximity
These pillars will help you drive the results you need to reach a new level of success for your business. Take the lead on your competition today, stay ahead of Google’s ever-changing local algorithm, and focus on the three core pillars!
Say it again with me:
- Relevance: How Can You Increase Your Relevance?
- Prominence: How Well Known Is Your Brand Online?
- Proximity: The Distance Between the Searcher and What They Are Looking For