How Local Ranking Factors Changed in 2018

How Local Ranking Factors Changed in 2018

For the final webinar of 2018, we gathered a panel of SEO experts to discuss the findings of recent SEO research against the backdrop of this year’s Google algorithm updates.

So throw away those crystal balls and join Andrew Shotland (Local SEO Guide), Dana DiTomaso (Kick Point), and Darren Shaw (Whitespark) to find out what changed in local ranking factors in 2018 and, what might be around the corner for 2019.

This month’s webinar came to a slightly abrupt end, so unfortunately we weren’t able to share Darren and Andrew’s forecasts for 2019. If you’ve got any predictions, please let us know in the comments below.


Video – How Local Ranking Factors Changed in 2018



What Happened to Local SEO in 2018?

The Moz Local Ranking Factors Survey 2018

This year, Darren Shaw asked 35 local SEO experts to choose 20 ‘top ranking factors’ (out of a longlist of 130 potential factors) to find out what the top experts think makes businesses rank. Based on these opinions, the below key findings were outlined:


He discussed how Google My Business signals have grown: “Over the past two years, GMB has been pumping out all these awesome new features. Since they’ve been able to divorce themselves from Google+, they have a clear runway to develop all these features, and are heavily investing in local search.”

BrightLocal’s Myles queried if Google My Business ranking factors were as important as the survey suggests. Darren explained, “I’m a little skeptical that the survey is skewed a bit by excitement over all the new features. Google posts have been proven to actually impact rankings, so I think it’s worthwhile to invest in them. The other ones – it’s all speculation. If you give all the extra information to Google, they’ll probably use that and associate that information with my listing… It’s all speculation – it’s people’s perceptions and opinions on what they think is driving rankings. You have to test it for yourself.”

Andrew said, “I can’t remember if this was one of the factors in the survey, but one of the biggest things we’ve seen is how much we see Google playing around and testing different SERP intents. That outweighs everything in this survey. How have the results changed based on what Google’s deciding today or tomorrow is the intent, and then, how can you adapt?”

Spam in Business Names

The 4th and 5th most important Local Pack Finder Factors are product/service keywords, and location keywords, in GMB Business Title – which led to an interesting discussion around spammy business names.

Andrew Shotland said, “I’m not surprised at all. There’s a lot of bitching and moaning in SEO circles about it being easy to spam. If you think about the problem Google’s trying to solve at scale, which is, a lot of local businesses naturally have spammy keywords in their names by default. I don’t see a big incentive for them to really solve that, particularly when they want to push you into an ad product anyhow.”

Dana followed: “Think about Yellow Pages, and how it used to be AAAAA Towing Company. This is the same thing, but online now – where people are saying ‘Fine, I’ll just call myself Signs Near Me Denver’. If that’s legally your name, there’s nothing you can do to usurp that person.”

New and Improved GMB Features

Dana was one of the experts surveyed, and explained: “We have clients where the only SEO things they do is Google posts, and we’ve seen Pack increases beyond what you’d expect to see. I’m sure this will get dialed back, but what I do see is Google is pumping out all these new features. Why would they not introduce this, and at least for a little while, test it and say ‘Is this going to be a valuable ranking factor?’ I suspect that after they put out a new feature, they’re probably implementing it to have a higher rise in ranking factors, then dialing it back based on what is actually happening. It requires a lot of paying attention to new features.”

Andrew said, “We see GMB posts as the biggest gifts to agencies by Google in years. It enables you to manipulate the content on your Knowledge Panel, show your client you can do something of value on a weekly basis, and this mostly works for hijacking brand queries and clicks you might not normally get.”

Dana agreed, “It helps to show your business is alive. Actively updating your stuff is important, as it makes people concerned when they find your Facebook and you no longer use it. Regardless of ranking factors, this is a ‘customer choosing you’ factor, and that’s important.”

Darren said, “I think there’s value in continuing to upload photos and videos as another, ‘Hey this business is alive’ factor, and encourage your customers to do this too. Q&A might be lower on the list of priorities, but it doesn’t take long to do. All these new features aren’t a big investment, you can do them all. Fill out your GMB listing completely, if there’s a field, fill it out.”

Links: The Competitive Difference Makers

While links slightly dipped in perceived importance this year, they still remain very important for localized organic rankings. Darren called these a “competitive difference maker,” due in part to links being hard to get. “Lots of agencies and businesses aren’t putting in the effort to get them, so if you do, they’ll make the difference and you’ll definitely rank well. When you put in the effort, you’ll reap the rewards.” He recommended local sponsorships as a great link opportunity.

Andrew discussed link building for multi-location businesses. “Relying on location managers to do anything is a quick recipe for failure. Franchises, in particular, have a tense relationship with their locations, so asking them to do anything is heavy lifting.” He then explored his strategy for national link-building to help local pages.

Citations = Table stakes

Darren shared his opinion on citations: “Citations are still valuable and important, you still want to build them out, and they’re table stakes now. The algorithm was simpler five years ago, so citations played a bigger role. Now there are way more signals Google is considering, so citations have lost some of the power they once did. Now, it’s table stakes. Before you might have been the only person taking the time to that took the time to make sure you were built out on 100+ citation sites. Now almost everybody is doing it, so it seems like less of a competitive factor, which is why in the Survey, the perception of the value of citations is going down. I think if you don’t do citations, you’re hurting yourself a little bit. If you’re not accurate and listed on the important sites in your industry, you’re going to have a bad time.”

Myles then shared BrightLocal’s SEO Citations Study, which benchmarked 122,125 businesses across 26 different industries to find out how many citations the average businesses has, as well as the most popular sites for each industry.

Having Reviews Improves Rankings

In 2018, review signals have become slightly more important in local pack and finder results, and a little less important in localized organic. Darren said, “Reviews are a competitive difference maker in many markets. They can impact your rankings in a few ways: 1. Higher engagement rate; 2. Higher clickthrough rate; and 3. Keywords in reviews can theoretically improve rankings.”

For more on reviews moving into 2019, we’ve released the latest edition of our Local Consumer Review Survey.

Other Factors to Pay Attention to in 2019

Looking beyond the key quantitative findings of the Moz survey, the panel discussed further factors SEOs should focus on.

Dana discussed the importance of internal linking on rankings. “A quick and easy way to check for what Google thinks is important with internal links is to do a site search on Google, put it one of your keywords, and see what comes up first. This helps you figure out what Google thinks is most relevant for your keyword, and if it’s not what you want it to be, you should fix that. Look at your Search Console queries, and if lots of pages are coming back, you’ve got a problem where Google’s confused about which pages to rank, so it’s probably ranking all of them badly. By consolidating, fixing your internal linking, dumping old pages, it makes such a big difference.”

Andrew recommended doing the same thing using a Google Custom Search Engine. You can hear Andrew talk more about his de-crufting strategy on our October webinar.

Dana discussed her perfect strategy for 2019: “For a new business, make sure you cover these basics: Order citations; make sure the website works and is fast; can you add schema to the site so the address is marked up correctly; is the content on the site going to work for them; do they have service pages? Things like Google posts should start right away.

“For a company that’s been around a while, a lot more work is needed. Go through and tidy old blog posts… See where people start on the site – what are they doing? If you’re paying for this traffic, check that it is actually converting. I have a post-it note at my desk that says, ‘What is this page supposed to do? Is it doing this thing?’ That’s what you need to ask yourself about every page on the website.”

Useful Resources


A huge thank you to Sterling Sky‘s Colan Nielsen for his help on the Q&A. You can follow Colan on Twitter here.

We’ve also included answers below from within the chat – thanks to all of you for your excellent questions and insights. If you have any feedback on the latest webinar, please let us know on

Q. Have you noticed [at times] Google seems to focus solely on the business category of the GMB when returning local search results. For example, when I search ‘restaurant’ from my home the first listing is a home-based curtain making business in my neighborhood. They have no website and no reviews. Their business category is ‘restaurant’. Hey Google, is this the ‘best results for the searcher’?

A. GMB categories are a MAJOR ranking factor. Therefore it is often manipulated and can cause the type of scenario you describe. – Colan Nielsen

Q. How will the new Google Local Search Ads play into these factors?

A. Ads have no direct interaction with Local Search rankings: completely separate departments at Google. – Geoff Taylor

Q. For Map pack rankings, how important is it to have the keyword in URL?

A. Keyword in URL shouldn’t have any effect but Keyword in GMB name is a HUGE effect. – Geoff Taylor

Q. Isn’t putting the product/service keyword in the business title against Google’s guidelines?

A. Yes it is. Unless they are part of the real-world legal business name. – Colan Nielsen

Q. How would you advise your client to avoid these spammy keywords in the business title if they see the ranking increases from “doing it the wrong way”?

A. Tell them it’s better to follow Google’s rules rather than getting suspended and your business listing removed entirely. – Markella Haynes

Q. How do you all feel about using Service Area geos in GMB along with the business address when the business can deliver their product to the client but the user normally goes to the business to purchase?

A.  If you go to your customers’ location it makes sense to add your service areas even if you also see customers at your address. – Colan Nielsen

Q. What can you do when a local competitor is using spammy/dodgy techniques to outrank you?

A. It depends on the nature of the spam. GMB related spam can be reported on Google Maps or escalated to Google via their various support channels. – Colan Nielsen

Q. What is the best channel to report spam?

A. GMB Twitter Support or at the GMB Forum. – Colan Nielsen

Q. What do you mean…sponsorship links?

A. Find a local group that could use some financial help for a good cause. An Article will likely be published – get a backlink from that article. – Cliff Diseker

Q. What is the Panel’s thoughts on using a service like Yext for citation building vs traditional manual citation building?

A. Yext reverts your data to how it was pre-Yext if you leave their services. – Markella Haynes

Q. How important is responding to reviews?

A. I’d say VERY. Especially now that Google notifies the reviewer with an email when you respond. Can be a solid customer retention tactic. – Colan Nielsen [We also asked this question in the 2018 Local Consumer Review Survey – results here]

Our Expert Webinar Panelists

Darren Shaw
Darren Shaw

Darren is the founder of Whitespark, a local search software and services company that is one of the most respected and cited in the industry. He has been working on the web for over two decades and loves everything about local SEO. Darren leads research initiatives such as the annual Local Search Ranking Factors survey and the Local Search Ecosystem.

Andrew Shotland
Andrew Shotland

Andrew is the Founder and CEO of Local SEO Guide, a leading search consultancy with a speciality in SEO for multi-location brands, enterprise-level search marketing and corporate training. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, author of the definitive Google News Ranking Factors survey and, a blog focused on helping businesses navigate Apple Maps and SIRI.

Dana DiTomaso
Dana DiTomaso

Dana is President and Partner at Kick Point, where she applies marketing strategies to grow clients’ businesses, ensuring that digital and traditional play well together. With her deep experience in digital, Dana can separate real solutions from wastes of time (and budget). In her spare time, Dana is the past-president of the Advertising Club of Edmonton and is the weekly technology columnist on CBC Edmonton AM.

Host: Myles Anderson

Myles is Founder and CEO of BrightLocal. He has worked in the local search industry since 2009 and has been a major contributor to the Local Search Ranking Factors Study in the past. Myles also writes a regular column for Search Engine Land and talks at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).

Rosie Murphy
About the author
Rosie managed BrightLocal's delivery of research and survey pieces. She headed up data-driven content such as regular polls, webinars and whitepapers, including the Local Consumer Review Survey.

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