Google’s algorithm to rank local search results relies on a wide variety of different signals, so it can be difficult to know where you should dedicate your efforts. To ensure a local business ranks well for relevant search terms, it’s important to pay attention to a number of different local SEO ranking factors.
Update: In December 2021, Google updated the local search algorithm to place more prominence than ever before on proximity as a ranking factor. Aptly nicknamed the Vicinity Update, this algorithm change also decreased the value of adding keywords into the business name within Google Business Profile.
As more and more local businesses grasp the importance of SEO, ranking well in the search engine results pages (SERPs) will naturally become harder. As striving towards search success becomes more competitive, understanding how to dominate the SERPs becomes all the more valuable.
In this article, we’ll explore the most important factors for ranking—in both the Local Pack and the localized organic results—based on the data from this 2021’s Local Search Ranking Factors survey from Whitespark. We’ll also highlight how these results have changed over time, and discuss which tasks you should focus your energy on in the year ahead.
Where does this data come from? The Local Search Ranking Factors survey has been conducted near-annually since David Mihm kicked it off in 2008, with Whitespark taking over in 2017. The survey polls around 50 local SEO experts for their opinions on the most important actions and factors for local business rankings.
The Top Local SEO Ranking Factors in 2021
|Local Pack||Local Organic|
|1. Google Business Profile (36%)||1. On-page (34%)|
|2. Reviews (17%)||2. Links (31%)|
|3. On-page (16%)||3. Behavioral (11%)|
|4. Links (13%)||4. Citations (7%)|
|5. =Behavioral (7%)||5. =Personalization (6%)|
|5. =Citations (7%)||5. =GBP (6%)|
|7. Personalization (4%)||7. Reviews (5%)|
This table shows what the expert survey respondents believed were the most important local search engine ranking factors throughout 2021. As you can see, they’re separated into Local Pack and localized organic.
What’s the difference between the Local Pack and localized organic results?
These two sets of results are treated differently in this survey because the underlying algorithms Google uses to surface them are different. The Local Pack is made up of Google Business Profiles, while the localized organic results are the traditional ‘blue links’ that lead to websites.
We’ll go into the individual factors in more detail shortly, but first let’s look at how the Local Ranking Factors survey has documented ranking trends over time. This should help to give you a snapshot of what impacted local search rankings in 2021 and where things are likely headed next year.
If you’re working towards improving Local Pack and localized organic rankings at the same time, then it can be helpful to see the average importance of the local SEO ranking factors when combined:
1. On-page optimization (25%)
2. Links (22%)
3. GBP (21%)
4. Reviews (12%)
5. Behavioral (9%)
6. Citations (7%)
7. Personalization (5%)
It’s important to remember that each of these factors will require different amounts of time to be invested; the percentage does not correlate with the amount of time that should be allocated to each.
For example, link building is an ongoing task that is quite time-intensive, whereas Google Business Profile (GBP) setup and management should not take too much of your time.
Local SEO Ranking Factors 2013-2021
As with Google’s regular search algorithm, the local algorithm is often updated by Google. This ongoing fluctuation means that doing the best job for your clients will require you to pay ongoing attention to what’s happening in the SERPs. This is a task you can stay on top of by using Local RankFlux—the only ranking fluctuation monitoring tool for local search.
If you’re an agency working specifically with local businesses, being vigilant to the changing local environment can be critical to success. The factors that have the biggest impact on local search engine rankings can make a huge difference to customer conversions, so changes in importance should be monitored closely.
As with the 2020 Local Search Ranking Factors survey, social signals aren’t included in the 2021 results. Social signals have been decreasing in importance in relation to local search rankings for a while, so it makes sense to exclude them entirely from the survey.
It’s worth noting that the exclusion of social signals has shifted voting power to other factors, which may account for slight inflations in the past two years.
Local Pack / Local Finder Ranking Factors Over Time
Since 2015, Google Business Profile has continued to increase in importance for Local Pack/Finder ranking importance, leaping from 15% in 2015 to 36% in 2021. Links, citations, behavioral signals, and personalization have all seen drops in importance during this time.
Local Organic Ranking Factors Over Time
The Local Search Ranking Factors survey has revealed that on-page optimization and links are the most significant factors for localized organic rankings, accounting for a combined 65% of ranking importance.
Although the remaining factors reportedly carry less weight, they’re still important to give some attention to, and doing so could give you the final push you need to outrank your competitors.
Interestingly, citations have begun to increase in importance again, after being on a downward trend since 2018.
The Top 15 Individual Local Search Ranking Factors
|Local Pack/Finder||Local Organic|
|Primary GBP category||Quality/authority of inbound links to domain|
|Keywords in GBP business title||Volume of quality content on entire website|
|Proximity of address to the point of search||Internal linking across entire website|
|Physical address in city of search||Topical (product/service) keyword relevance across entire website|
|Additional GBP categories||Geographic (city/neighborhood) keyword relevance of domain content|
|High numerical Google ratings||Keywords in GBP landing page title|
|Completeness of GBP listing||Website’s degree of focus on a specific niche|
|Quality/authority of inbound links||Keywords in anchor text of inbound links to domain|
|Keywords in native Google reviews||Quantity of inbound links to domain from locally-relevant domains|
|Removal of spam listings||Domain authority of website|
|Keywords in GBP landing page title||Quantity of inbound links to domain from industry-relevant domains|
|Quantity of native Google reviews (with text)||Mobile-friendly/responsive website|
|Verified GBP listing||Volume of quality content on service pages|
|Quality/authority of inbound links to GBP landing page URL||Diversity of inbound links to domain|
|Proper placement of map pin||Keywords in GBP landing page H1/H2 tags|
Concentrating your efforts on the individual factors from the table above is a great way to move forwards when optimizing for local search. However, don’t overlook the fact that there are many more contributing factors beyond those featured here, therefore it’s important to give your attention to a wide range of optimization tasks.
Google Business Profile Signals
Important individual ranking factors within Google Business Profile include the primary category, the use of keywords in the business name, and the use of additional relevant categories.
The impact and value of GBP for Local Pack/Finder rankings has been on an upward trajectory since 2018. However, it has fluctuated slightly in importance for the localized organic results.
|Localized Organic Results||10%||10%||8%||7%||9%||7%||6%|
This overall increased significance of GBP for local rankings correlates with how Google continues to evolve and improve this tool. New features are often being added to enhance the user experience, so it makes sense that GBP is becoming even more valuable to local business owners.
If we look back at the two lists for the top 15 individual local search ranking factors, we can see that many are directly related to Google Business Profile. This includes actions such as setting the primary GBP category, completing and verifying the GBP, using keywords on the GBP landing page, and more.
It’s clear that there are certain actions on these lists that are great for rankings, but that you don’t have much control over or potential to optimize.
For example, the primary GBP category is the most important ranking factor for the Local Pack/Finder, but as soon as you’ve set the relevant category, there’s no more work to be done here.
Similarly, having keywords in the business name listed on GBP can boost rankings, but if the business in question doesn’t have keywords in its name, then there’s not much you can do (without violating Google’s guidelines). Once you’ve entered the name into the listing, this task won’t require any ongoing attention.
What you can do, however, is ensure the ‘completeness’ of your Google Business Profile. This means making sure you’ve filled out all of the relevant sections and that you continue to add photos and make new Posts.
Data from Google highlights how important this is, stating that, “Customers are 70% more likely to visit and 50% more likely to consider purchasing from businesses with a complete Business Profile.”
Google Business Profile Factors That Don’t Impact Rankings
It’s worth noting that you don’t need to take advantage of every aspect of GBP if you’re only focusing on improving your rankings.
The 2021 Local Search Ranking Factors survey experts are in agreement that several GBP-related factors don’t impact rankings.
- Geo-tagged photos uploaded to GBP
- Keywords in GBP description
- Keywords in GBP products
- Keywords in Google Posts
- Keywords in GBP services
- GBP messaging feature enabled
- Frequency of Google Posts
- Setting service areas
Remember, there’s more to Google Business Profile than just rankings. The actions that don’t influence rankings could still contribute to conversions, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the bigger picture.
A Note on Google Business Profile Name Spam
2020 was the first time that GBP spam fighting was included as a possible ranking factor in the Whitespark survey, and this task has remained relevant throughout 2021.
Although this is an action that doesn’t improve your own listing, it can still give you a boost if higher-ranking competitor listings are penalized for spam violations.
Fighting spam has been the third top action that the experts have given more focus to this past year when working towards Local Pack/Finder rankings. This task is behind completeness of profiles in second place, and keywords in the business title in at number one. Arguably, as long as keywords in the business title remains a top ranking factor, some listings managers will continue to try to violate the guidelines by inappropriately including keywords.
In 2020, only 23% of local businesses were investing time in actively fighting GBP spam, which means that vast numbers of Google Business Profiles could still be winning with spammy tactics.
Tools that show Google Business Profiles and business names on a map as part of a grid tracker can make the process of combating spam a lot easier. This is because all of the appropriate information can be easily seen on a map display.
To learn more about Google Business Profile, check out these resources:
Individual review signal factors include first- and third-party reviews, review quantity, review velocity, and review diversity.
Reviews have grown slightly in importance for Local Pack/Finder rankings over the last few years, moving from 12% in 2018 to 17% in 2021. Although this increase is small, it reflects the ongoing value of reviews among consumers. Reviews have consistently been the second most important Local Pack/Finder ranking factor since 2018, when links were knocked out of this spot.
|Localized Organic Results||6%||7%||6%||7%||6%||6%||5%|
If we look at the top 15 Local Pack/Finder ranking factors, we can see high numerical Google ratings, keywords in native Google reviews, and quantity of native Google reviews all to be of high importance.
The experts also revealed that a high Google rating from reviews is the leading factor driving conversions in GBP. So as well as helping local businesses to rank, reviews can also increase sales.
Wondering how to get more reviews from your customers? You might be surprised to learn that, generally, all you have to do is ask. Figures show that 67% of consumers who are asked to leave a review will go on to do so!
As online reviews continue to grow in value for local rankings, developing processes to monitor, grow, and display reviews can be extremely beneficial. This helps save time while also enhancing a local business’s online reputation and rankings.
Review management software, such as BrightLocal’s Reputation Manager, can automate review monitoring. This helps to ensure that you don’t miss important feedback. This tool can also help you to grow the quantity of your reviews.
It’s easy to believe that consistently getting five-star ratings is the only way to dominate reviews, however, this isn’t the case. In November 2021, Google shared that a mix of positive and negative reviews actually makes a business appear more trustworthy.
Remember, Google isn’t the only place that you should be getting reviews. Third-party review sites can also impact rankings and encourage conversions.
To learn more about online reviews, check out these resources:
Individual on-page optimization factors include NAP data, keywords in titles, and domain authority.
On-page signals are incredibly important for both traditional and local SEO. As we can see from the table below, on-page optimization has been consistently important for rankings since 2013, and especially so for the localized organic results.
|Localized Organic Results||27%||27%||26%||24%||26%||32%||34%|
In particular, the volume of quality content on a site, the topical keyword relevance across the entire site, and domain authority can make a difference to local rankings.
The importance of optimizing your local business website for the search engines shouldn’t be overlooked. Optimizing increases your chances of being discovered in both general organic and localized searches. On-page optimization is always going to be essential, so it’s wise to master this aspect of SEO.
Keyword research is a huge part of on-page SEO, and you should always be thorough with this when building your strategy. Be sure to get into the mindset of your target audience and tailor your content towards the words and phrases you know these people use. Essentially, you need to think like your customers in order to better appeal to them.
To be a serious competitor in the local search results, you’ll need to feature the name of your location (city, town, state etc.) in multiple places across your website. You’ll also want to use location-specific keywords in the metadata for titles and descriptions across your site.
To further boost your local authority in the eyes of Google, create dedicated pages on your website for local content. You’ll also want to make frequent mentions to your location within your blog posts—and if you’re not writing blog posts, then you’ll need to start!
What about multi-location businesses? In this case, you’ll need to create separate pages on your website for each location. Be sure to include all of the relevant NAP data on each page, as well as your opening hours, and any additional relevant information.
Not only is this helpful from a customer perspective, as they can easily find the information they’re looking for, but it can also impact local rankings for each of the locations listed.
If you’re working to boost the SEO efforts of a business with multiple locations, then enrolling in BrightLocal Academy’s How to Perform Local SEO Audits for Multi-location Businesses course is a great place to start. This course will equip you with the knowledge you need to comprehensively audit a business with two locations or 200!
To learn more about on-page optimization, check out these resources:
Individual link factors include inbound anchor text, linking domain authority, and linking domain quantity.
Link signals have long been known to be very valuable for boosting organic search rankings, and the same is true of localized results.
Links make up 31% of the localized organic ranking factors in 2021, having risen up from 24% since 2013.
|Localized Organic Results||24%||25%||25%||29%||28%||31%||31%|
The Whitespark survey placed the authority of inbound links to a website as the eighth most important factor affecting Local Pack/Finder results. The authority of the links to the landing page named on the GBP listing is also ranked as important.
Earning quality backlinks can be a difficult and time-consuming task, but they go a long way to improving the authority of a site, and are a worthwhile investment of your resources.
A word of caution: Bad backlinks can actually be harmful to your site overall, so it’s critical to assess the quality of the websites you’re getting links from. A simple way to do this is to download the MozBar Chrome extension.
The MozBar tool will show you the domain authority of the website you’re visiting, as well as the page authority of the individual page you’re on. The higher both of these numbers are, the better the quality of the site.
You can also use this tool to check the spam score of a website. If the spam score is high, then it’s probably best to avoid this website as a link could be detrimental to your SEO efforts.
In terms of the localized organic ranking factors, the quality of inbound links is the most important consideration, with internal links across the entire site also being of high importance.
Use of relevant keywords in the anchor text of inbound links is the eighth most important ranking factor for localized organic results, with quantity of inbound links to domain from locally-relevant domains coming in ninth.
To learn more about local link building, check out these resources:
The individual behavioral ranking factors include click-through rate, mobile clicks to call, and dwell time.
In terms of importance as a Local Pack/Finder ranking factor, behavioral signals have been in steady decline for three years, dropping from 10% in 2018 down to 7% this year.
Behavioral signals saw a slight increase in importance for localized organic search, jumping back up to 11% this year after a previous decline.
|Localized Organic Results||5%||7%||10%||11%||12%||10%||11%|
Behavioral signals are a reliable source of information for Google because they’re much harder to manipulate than other factors. These actions are taken by the searcher, and therefore can only be influenced to a certain degree.
Instead of thinking up innovative new ways to influence user behaviour, why not spend this time optimizing your GBP to give the user the best possible experience. This involves creating optimized copy for titles, meta descriptions, Posts, and more. Make your listing as valuable and coherent as possible, and you’ll move closer to winning at rankings and conversions.
Try to remember that the end goal of SEO isn’t just to improve rankings, the focus must also be to attract the right customers to a business for those all-important sales. When you start getting seen by the right customers—those who want to learn more about your business—these users will naturally help to enhance the behavioral signals towards your site.
To learn more about influencing user behavior, check out this resource:
Individual citation ranking factors include location data, IYP/aggregator NAP consistency, and citation volume.
Citations have decreased in ranking importance over the years, dropping from joint second for Local Pack rankings in 2013, down to joint sixth place this year.
We can see from the results of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey that citations began to decrease in value as a ranking signal in 2015.
In relation to Local Pack/Finder importance, citations dropped from 17% in 2015 to 7% in 2020, and held steady at 7% this year.
In terms of importance in localized organic search results, citations have decreased from 10% in 2015 down to 6% in 2020, and back up slightly to 7% this year. Although the percentage amount only improved slightly, its position in this list has gone up, moving from joint-sixth important in 2020, up to position four in 2021.
Even though citations have gradually decreased in overall importance, they’re still valuable for visibility and for building trust with consumers. When a potential customer can observe that a business’s information is correct and consistent across the web, then this helps to establish credibility.
|Localized Oranic Results||11%||11%||10%||8%||9%||6%||7%|
There are two different types of citations—structured and unstructured.
Structured citations, which are listings made by a business on relevant directories and third-party websites, are the most common type. These citations provide a quick and easy way for a business to earn backlinks.
Many of the websites that structured citations appear on are seen as trustworthy and authoritative by Google, which makes these backlinks valuable to the business in question. This can help a business to begin building the authority of its website, as well as to give an established website a boost.
Take a look at the example below of a recent Google search for ‘Cafe in Sacramento’. You can see that there are several results from business directories, including the top three spots!
To learn more about citations, check out these resources:
Individual personalization ranking factors include search history, search location, and device.
Personalization essentially boils down to how you’re more likely to see results from websites that you’re already familiar with and have visited frequently. However, it’s also influenced by the location a user searches from and the language that they use, among other factors.
In relation to Local Pack/Finder ranking importance, personalization peaked at 10% in 2017, and has held at 6% since 2018. For the localized organic results, personalization was rated consistently at 9% throughout 2013 to 2017, and has been at 7% since 2018.
|Localized Organic Results||9%||9%||9%||9%||7%||7%||6%|
Although personalization can have an impact on general search results, this is much less likely to impact local search results. This means there’s not much you can do from an SEO perspective to optimize a website for personalization considerations.
Businesses that serve customers in countries with different native languages can translate—and therefore personalize—their content to reach the relevant audiences. Multilingual SEO is a largely underutilized resource that local businesses can tap into where appropriate.
It’s worth noting that in the US, 60 million people—almost a quarter of the population—aren’t native English speakers. So if you operate a business in a multicultural city, then it’s likely worth targeting your website at the languages besides English that are commonly spoken.
To learn more about personalization in search, check out these resources:
As you likely already know, there are no guarantees on the path to SEO success. This is a process that requires ongoing research, effort, and a willingness to adjust your strategy as you go.
Although there are a number of different factors influencing search rankings, some of the associated tasks require much more ongoing effort than others. Understanding where your priorities should lie—and being able to adjust your focus accordingly—will be key to staying one step ahead of your competitors.
The insights provided in the latest Local Search Ranking Factors survey should serve as your guide as you assess your local search strategy for the year ahead. This expert advice helps to take the guesswork out of local SEO so that you can dedicate your time and energy in all the right places.
Finally, we’d like to send our gratitude and appreciation to Darren Shaw, the Whitespark team, and everyone who contributed their expertise to the survey!