On February 7th, InsideLocal host Myles Anderson and a panel of local search experts covered one of the most critical aspects of local search, those all-important ranking factors. Featuring an introduction to the most important factors, real-world examples, and tactical advice that you and your clients can start using straight away, ‘Local Ranking Factors Explored & Explained’ has something for everyone, from the small business owner just getting started on local SEO to the in-house agent working for multi-location businesses.

Video: Local Ranking Factors Explained & Explored

‘Local Ranking Factors Explained & Explored’ InsideLocal Webinar Recap

What are local ranking factors and why is it important to understand them?

Mary Bowling, Ignitor Digital: The goal of local search, from Google’s point of view, has always been to try to model the real world. Google wants to show us what we’re asking for online. The three major aspects of those local search algorithms are relevance, prominence and proximity. For relevance, you want to ask yourself ‘Do I do or sell what this user is asking for?’ and ‘Am I relevant for this query?’ For prominence you want to ask yourself ‘Do I stand out, in a good way, from other businesses of my type in my area?’ For proximity, you want to ask ‘Am I close enough to the searcher to be a good answer to that particular query?’

These three major aspects of local search have not changed over time. What has changed over time is that Google has continued to improve its understanding of the world and it’s much better able to model it in a more realistic way. So what we’re really striving for in local SEO is relevance, prominence, and proximity, and these things we tend to think about as ranking factors are things like reviews, on-page content and optimizations, citations, links, Google My Business listings, and so on.

We want to pay attention continually to how these factors are being applied to the algorithms, so we can try to satisfy them and get our business to be displayed in the search results. One thing we have to keep in mind is that our rankings are relative to those of our competitors. You might be able to do something in one market, and rank number one, that wouldn’t get you anywhere in another market.

One thing that’s changed that a lot of people haven’t kept up with is that proximity is now measured as the business’ closeness to the searcher’s location. We have to remember that Google is trying to answer each individual search or query as best as it possible can with what it knows about the business.

Ranking factors aren’t set in stone; they’re things to help guide us toward achieving that relevance, prominence, and proximity, and letting Google know that we have those assets.

2017 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey (Moz)

Darren Shaw, Whitespark: For this study, we surveyed 40 practioners of local search who are prominent in the space. It’s opinion-based; it’s a lot of people saying ‘this is what we see moving the needle for our clients or our local business’. The survey is constructed of five main questions. What we do is we typically say ‘Here are 200 factors broken down into different categories, like your citation-related factors, your Google My Business-related factors, your website-related factors, your link factors, your behavioral factors, personalization, social, and so on.

What participants need to do is pick and rate them from 1 to 20 on what they think is most important to answer each question. So if we’re talking about local pack or finder rankings, or local organic rankings, you sort them and say ‘I think this is the most important thing’. Out of the 150 of the left hand side, they drag 20 out and say ‘these are the things that we think are moving the needle’. Then, in aggregate, you take that from 40 participants and organize it, and you say, ‘of the 40 people, they think that these are the factors that are really making an impact.’

It’s very interesting to see the difference, year after year, as things change. You go back enough years and you’ll see, for example, quantity of citations being seen as really valuable and important, whereas now that factor is decreasing in importance. It just kind of gauges the pulse of the industry, gives us a sense of what they think is driving rankings. It gets aggregated and quantified, and published on Moz.

In terms of what’s changed over the years, in 2015-2017 we saw a big lift in link-related factors, so SEOs are seeing that links are really driving rankings more than they had in the past. Same thing with review factors, which have really increased. We also saw a big increase in behavioral signals last time around. We saw that people were saying that number of clicks on your listing, clicks on driving directions; that kind of stuff people are theorizing are driving more rankings than they used to.

We saw some declines, too. We saw a decline of citation-related factors and some of the Google My Business factors, and also on-page factors. This doesn’t mean these things aren’t important anymore, it’s basically just a shifting of importance. We’re seeing more value in links and reviews as factors than on-page and citation signals.

One big thing that happened is that the ranking factor of proximity to the searcher has increased to be the number one factor, rated by all the people that participated in the survey. Other proximity factors, like proximity to the centroid, totally tanked. People are aware now that that’s not important any more.

Local SEO Ranking Factors Study 2017 (Local SEO Guide)

Andrew Shotland, Local SEO Guide: We’ve always participated in that survey, but we thought: ‘Well, there’s got to be more than just a bunch of gurus sharing notes on what they see; maybe there’s a way to complement that study with something that’s a little more data-intensive.’

We decided we could take a crack at pretending we’re like Google, and look at a big set of data and try to draw some conclusions from that, to draw conclusions from that and share them with the community. Our VP of search, Dan Leibson spearheaded this about two years ago, where we looked at 35,000 local business and 100+ factors. We worked with the University of California, Irvine’s Statistics Dept to get someone who could interpret the data. We also worked with Places Scout to get the data, and sucked data in from Majestic, and Moz’s link graph.

We published the first one about two years ago, and published the latest one in November, 2017. For the latest one, we basically doubled the amount of data, and looked at 100,000 and 100+ factors. It pretty much mirrors what Darren has said: when we started, links were pretty much coin of the realm. That’s partly because they were really effective and partly because we looked at a lot of link data. Then, this year, we added a lot more review data in, and they now seem pretty prominent in, at least their correlation with, local ranking factors.

The other thing we’ve seen is that the organic algorithm seems to be taking over the local algorithm. We’ve often argued that the local algorithm is a lousy, low-invested algorithm by Google, whereas the organic algorithm has 20 years of investment and is far more superior and stronger than the local algorithm. So what that translates into reality as it that things like links and updating your title tags, and doing the stuff you would normally do for SEO would be something you would do for local SEO, too.

To explain the large green bar on the left, that’s ‘Total Additional Organic Rankings’. Basically, that means if you’re ranking well in non-local search, you’re going to rank well in local the local pack. What that means is that if you have a strong domain, you’re doing normal SEO well, there’s higher odds that you’ll show up in the local pack.

Mary, you’ve read both studies. Do you agree with all the findings or do you think that too much or too little value is attributed to certain factors?

Mary Bowling: I think that what happens is that some people give too much value to what they see in these surveys and studies. Darren’s is really a ‘gut check’ for people in the industry: what they think and feel has happened in the last year. Not that that doesn’t have value; it has a lot of value. One of the values it has is that it makes us sit down and really think about these things at least once a year. Andrew and Dan’s study is based on data, and that’s right, too; there’s no right or wrong.

I think we need to use these as a basis for making decisions, and not sit there and say ‘well, links are the best thing so all I’m going to do is build links now’ or ‘proximity’s the new thing so I’m going to set up new offices all over the place’. They’re both based on trying to help us understand what affects rankings, and the reality is that hundreds and hundreds of things affect rankings, and we’re trying to figure out what things are more important to pay attention to than others at any given time. I would not look at them as absolutes.

The ‘Tri-Modal Algorithm’: What is it, why is it important to understand, and which part of it has the most influence on rankings?

Andrew Shotland: What Mary said previously is pretty much the explanation: there’s prominence, proximity, and relevance. Proximity is ‘Are you close to me?’, relevance is ‘Do you serve burritos? I’m looking for burritos,’ and prominence is ‘Are you a great burrito restaurant? Do you have reviews that say you’re the best burrito?’.

These things are always shifting. We did a quick little survey and asked people what they thought was most important, and of course, they’re all equally as important. There’s not a significant difference.

Mary Bowling: I almost think that people fail to remember that every single search result is query-dependent. If somebody searches for the best burrito restaurant, they’re going to see different results than if they searched for a ‘restaurant near me’. All of these aspects are incredibly important, but I think the importance probably shifts according to the query.

Darren Shaw: We certainly see, on a regular basis, that when you run a search, most of the results in the local pack are pretty close to you: within five or ten miles, sometimes within a much tighter radius, but, speaking of the Tri-Modal algorithm, it doesn’t mean it’s the only factor. There might be 50 coffee shops within that radius, but only three of them rank, and that’s because of other factors that are included here. You must have all three factors in order to rank. Because you see a small radius, it doesn’t mean that’s the only factor. Those other factors are equally important. You have to be in the radius to have a chance to rank, but you have to have the other factors to really be able to beat the competition in this space.

In the good old days, there used to be one pack for the city, so if you typed in ‘Denver lawyers’, you would get a pack of Denver lawyers. Google assessed all of the lawyers in that city and you’d get results around the city. Now you take a ten-minute walk, you’re going to get different results. Everywhere in the city, you’ll get a completely different local pack. That shift towards proximity being important? Business owners need to realize, especially if you’re a service area business, you’re not going to rank around the whole city. You’re mostly going to rank tightly around your location.

Proximity: What can local businesses do to influence ‘proximity’ and reach more customers?

Darren Shaw: You’ve got three options. Firstly, you can open another office in the other city. That would give you the proximity to get you into the local pack. The second option is to do some AdWords; you can actually pay to rank there. The Local Pack ads are kind of amazing. You should be looking at that; it’s great value right now. Local Pack ads are the smart way to broaden your scope and attract business through local search from other cities.

The other one is organic. This is the play that we usually do. If you’re a service area business located in a suburb, and you want to get rankings in the big city, you get a page on your site and you optimize the hell out of it for that particular city. You talk about the services you provide in that city, you build case studies for that city, you build up your team bios. You build up that page with a ton of content very localized to that city. You can’t get into the pack unless you have a physical location within the local radius of the searcher, but you can get in the blue links down below. We’ve used this tactic successfully, and it drives a ton of traffic. You’re looking to drive organic traffic through the organic link you can get in the search result, by building a great page and building links to that page both internally and externally.

Also, just because you’re proximate to the searchers, it doesn’t mean you’re going to rank. You still need the other factors. You still need to have your citations in order. You must have good reviews coming in. You must have the proper category set in Google My Business. You still need the traditional local ranking factors in order to be able to be one of the prominent businesses that has a chance of rankings. If you’re outside of ten miles, you probably don’t have much of a chance at all in the local pack, but even if you’re right next door, you might not rank if you’re other signals aren’t strong enough. It’s a matter of optimizing all of that stuff in order to be able to rank.

If we’re talking about multi-city, organic or paid is pretty much your play there. You’re not going to rank in another city in the local pack unless you’re right on the edge of the city, and you’ll rank for people who are just barely on the inside. Proximity doesn’t really distinguish between city, it’s about radius around the searchers and the businesses.

Regarding how these tactics might work for non-service area businesses, one case we find is with lawyers: they want to rank all over the province, basically the entire state, so we made these great service pages. You don’t want to overdo it; you don’t want over 100 service pages with all this templated content. We pick the top 10 to 15 most important markets, the larger cities around the area, and we built up these service pages, and they drive a ton of traffic because in many cases they rank number one right under the local pack. We call them ‘city pages’, rather than ‘service pages’.

Mary Bowling: I’d like to add that if you’re going to use this tactic, you really need to do a good job of it. I can’t tell you how many websites I’ve looked at where they have over 100 pages of just total garbage: they don’t say anything, they’re not going to attract people to call the business or visit them. You really need to put in the work to do this well in order for it to be successful for you.

Darren Shaw: You can spread yourself too thin. You can either build five pages really well, or you can build 100 pages pretty poorly. It doesn’t scale too well, but it doesn’t need to. Pick the cities that matter, and the services that matter. I wouldn’t suggest building a page per service and city; I’d build one page per city, and talk about all the services on that page.

Andrew Shotland: It also depends on your domain strength as well: are you a multi-location company or are you a single-location company? There are so many factors. We’ve had a lot of success with doing 100 or 1,000 great pages, so it’s super-dependent on what type of business you are and how aggressive you want to be.

Everything Darren said tactically is right on the money. The two things I’ll add, that we’ve seen work and that’s been suggested by the dataset that we got from our study is that if you’re on the edge of a city and you get more links with the city and your anchor text that you’re not in, you have a better chance at moving into the pack. And if you get more reviews that have words that correlate with that city, same thing. So it’s not an impossible task, but it’s a lot harder than ranking in the organic results for sure.

Darren Shaw: A business is like a tiny little dot, and Google knows you as this presence. It has only a little bit of information about it. So if you’re really close to the searcher, you might have a chance of ranking. But as you increase the number of people talking about your business, the number of people linking to your business, the number of citations you have, your dot grows.

And as your dot grows, your proximity grows. Your ability to attract business from a larger area will grow because you’re widening your prominence and relevance, which will, by proxy, improve your ability to attract from a larger proximity.

Mary Bowling: I quite often have clients arguing with me, thinking that I’m Google and I can change the things Google does, saying ‘Why does it matter to Google if they’re two hours away when my customer is willing to drive to my location?’ Well, I don’t know why it matters to Google, but it does.

This particular study, done by Juris Digital, was for a couple of queries for ‘car accident lawyers’, a very, very competitive term, done in Houston, a very competitive market, very large market. And what they did is they actually used the BrightLocal tool that emulates location for you. They searched for these same car accident terms in 138 zip codes in and around Houston, and this was the result. Each one of these little pieces of the pie represents a law firm, a personal injury law firm in Houston. The biggest pieces of the pie are only 3-5% percent. Those particularly dominant lawyers and law firms only showed up 3-5% of the time as these searches and queries were made in and around Houston.

So I think that it’s just kind of crazy for anybody these days to think that proximity doesn’t matter for everything, including service area businesses. And Google’s the one that gets to determine what that radius is, even though, as Andrew and Darren said, you can try to influence that proximity by increasing your relevance and prominence. You are where you are and your searchers are where they are and that’s really not going to change. And apparently, from this study here, you can see that it matters a lot to Google, even if you think that it doesn’t matter to Google or it shouldn’t matter it to Google.

Darren Shaw: In Google My Business, you can set that service area. And I think a lot of small businesses that are just getting into local search have this mindset: ‘Oh, well, I specify the service area in Google My Business. I serve this whole area, so I should be ranking in the local packs within that area’. That’s not accurate. You probably aren’t going to rank too far outside of your radius. You can increase it a little bit, but generally, when you get further, Google wants to display businesses that are close and they don’t really have a good concept of ‘well, this is a service area business’.

And I hope that they fix it, really, because it’s a problem, especially for service area businesses. Let’s say I’m looking for a plumber that comes to my house. I don’t care if he’s down the street. I just want the best plumber in all of Edmonton to come to my house. I want to look at the results that reflect the best, not the closest.

In some industries, I would like the closest. Maybe I’m looking for a coffee shop and I want it to be close by. Or I’m looking for tacos, whatever, I want that to be close by. But if I’m looking for a service area business, I don’t want it to be close by. And so I really hope that Google incorporates that into the algorithm in the future so that businesses are ranked, so that businesses that serve the entire city are ranked more on relevancy and prominence factors then proximity. But right now when you set that surface area, it does not mean you’re going to rank in that service area.

Andrew Shotland: Does having a cluster of small businesses in the same industry close together rule out proximity? If you’re in the radius and the size of that radius is relevant to the query from the searcher, those businesses stand a better chance of showing up. But now they’ve all been put in that bucket, now they’re competing on the other two factors: prominence and relevance. So the proximity thing is like the air – it’s there. You can’t really do much about it unless you’re willing to move your company every 10 seconds to, you know, wherever the searcher is, which I think most people aren’t. Stop worrying about proximity! There’s nothing you can do about it unless you want to set up an office on every block.

Relevance: How can a business increase its relevance in Google’s eyes?

Mary Bowling: In non-jargon terms it’s: ‘do you do or sell or have what the searcher is looking for?’ And a lot of this is determined first by what category and sub-category you put yourself in in Google My Business. The content that people have in reviews: are they saying that you’re good at doing this thing that somebody is asking about? Does your website content talk about those things? Is the content about you that shows up in other places on the internet doing those things? When people find you in the search results and they click through to your website, do they stay there? Are they finding the answer to their question on your pages?

Link text is another, as Andrew says. If you have a lot of links pointing to you saying that you’re an Atlanta lawyer and Google says ‘Oh, this guy isn’t an Atlanta lawyer’ – that’s a factor. Um, so relevance is a combination of a lot of things that tell Google if you’re a good answer to this particular query or not.

ThIs could be really powerful with long-tail searches. For example, if you’re a Chinese restaurant and people say you have the best egg rolls in their reviews, then the chances are that when people ask for the best egg rolls near them, you’re going to show up in those results, provided you’re near them. So just about everything you do can contribute to your relevance.

Darren Shaw: There’s a few places that you can inject some relevance into your business’s visibility in Google’s eyes. First and foremost, whatever page you’re linking to in your Google My Business listing. So that’s the page where you control the direct relevancy signals you’re giving Google. So on that page you obviously you want to optimize the title tag you want, and topical relevance. You want to use a keyword topic, but you’re not going to stuff the same keyword a number of times. Instead, you want to talk about related topics. Make sure that that page has a lot of content that you’ve really built out, and that you really talk about your services in detail. That really goes a long way to, amplifying the relevancy signal.

Another one is reviews. Mary mentioned that and I think that’s a really big one. It’s a huge factor on Yelp as well. So let’s say you had a review that mentioned best egg rolls, you’re going to rank. And the same thing happens at Google. So you can actually massage that a little bit when you ask for reviews. If you are asking for reviews, you could put in a little bit of wording saying ‘It would be great if you mentioned the specific service that we did for you’. So if you can get people to mention the service or what they liked best about the place, you can kind of guide the review text a little bit. That’s very helpful because those signals really do help.

A great way to get review signals is: most businesses are doing work for their friends and family. To those people, you could directly say: ‘Listen, just write a review that mentions these words, please’, because you can usually get away with that. You’re not going to ask all your customers that, but when you’re getting reviews from people that you directly know, then it’s nice to pass on the information that those keywords in the reviews really help.

If you want to rank for a particular service that you don’t mention in your standard citation description that you spread around the web, that’s an opportunity to update your citations or build new ones that are mentioning all those keywords, having a really long description and making sure that you cover all of your topics. These are more direct signals where your business is mentioned close to this particular phrase; that’s always helpful.

Anchor text is awesome. It’s hard to manipulate anchor text. It’s hard to get someone to link to you with that with a very specific key phrase. You certainly don’t want to overdo that or it looks spammy and you can get in trouble. But I can tell you that if you do get one or two of them, they can really give you a huge relevancy boost.

Andrew Shotland: One of the other tactics we’ve used quite successfully over the last couple of years is what SEO gurus will call ‘semantic relevance’. It’s basically a fancy word for figuring out what related keywords that a machine might expect to see on a page that’s about a certain topic. So the example I always use is: imagine you’re Google and you’re crawling a trillion web pages and you’re looking for a page about Manhattan. There’s high odds that a lot of the pages that you find that have the word ‘Manhattan’ on them will also have the words ‘New York City’. And so having ‘New York City’ is probably a relevancy signal to being about Manhattan.

So you can think about your keywords and what concepts you are trying to target and then research the SERP. We typically look at the top URLs that are ranking for any given query and basically yank out all the key phrases there, and figure out which ones are the most relevant, and then apply them to a client’s page. That tactic works almost every time, and it’s something you can do without having to build links, without having to mess with citations, without having to do really much of anything except add a couple of words to a page.

If we wanted to coin a new phrase, we’d say “relevance is the new link”, right? In fact, most companies can’t get wrapped their head around link building. They don’t want to invest in it, don’t believe in it, hate it, got burned. If you’re one of those companies, the best thing you can do, assuming all the rest of your SEO is kind of stable, is invest in this kind of ‘manipulation’, for lack of a better word.

I’ll give you some real world data. We have a client that wanted to rank for plus-sized swimwear keywords last year. And you can imagine that when we did this exercise, we looked at what pages rank for plus-sized swimwear and plus-sized bathing suits. One of the phrases that stood out was ‘flattering’. And you could imagine anybody who’s looking for a bathing suit probably wants a flattering one, especially a plus-sized bathing suit. And all we did was add the word ‘flattering’ and a couple of other words: ‘Designer’ and ‘Tankini’.

Within 24 hours it was ranking for many more keywords that were relevant to that. It didn’t necessarily increase in rankings for plus-sized swimwear. It just broadens the number of keywords that it was kind of relevant for. Over a month the organic traffic to that page was up 27% versus the rest of the site, which was down because it was out of season.

We’ve done this over and over again for clients, and although it’s not 100% reliable, we get fairly similar results. We’ve done it on our own website and it works. So I think the way to get out of the ‘I can’t get enough links’ trap is to figure out how to increase relevance, or prominence by getting a lot more reviews.

Darren actually inspired this in me at least a million years ago when he published how he got a lawyer in Canada to rank well in a city they weren’t in by adding the location of the courthouse to their location page. I think that’s a really good example of how primitive Google’s algorithms can be and how just being kind of clever about how you boost your relevance can work.

Mary Bowling: You mentioned earlier that getting a link from inside the city if you’re outside the city can help. I think that gaining decent links is probably the single most neglected tactic in search and mobile search. So many people got scared away by Penguin that they just don’t even touch links anymore. And links can add a lot of location relevance, by joining the local Chamber of Commerce or the Better Business Bureau, sponsoring local events and local non-profits, getting mentioned in the local media – that sort of thing. Those all really help to boost your relevance for that particular location.

Darren Shaw: One thing a lot of people don’t think about local link building is, forget about the SEO side, sometimes it drives a lot of business on its own. So you sponsor a local five-kilometer run or you sponsor a little league sports team or you are a member of the Chamber. That stuff can drive business directly. It doesn’t necessarily have to influence your ranking. So there’s the secondary benefit that it influences your ranking, but there’s huge value in doing it.

Yet, as Mary mentioned, it’s very neglected. It’s often neglected because people don’t know what to do. But if you just take that sponsorship angle or the local Chamber angle: you know how to do those. If you type in ‘in title+sponsors+city’, you’re going to find all of the results that you need to find sponsorship opportunities and then you can look up the local Chambers. It’s actually a great thing for those service area businesses that want to attract more business from other cities. And getting involved with sponsorships and Chambers can drive business direct from those areas as well as improve your local rankings.

I’ve started a new video series called Whitespark Weekly, and the last one I did was about linking and which page you link to in your Google My Business profile. In the video, my recommendation is if you have one location, definitely link it to the home page because you’re trying to amplify both your prominence and your relevancy signals. So your homepage is where most of the links go to. For most small businesse,s or even any business, the homepage is the page that gets all the links. So you’re really amplifying your prominence signal with your link factors if you link to your homepage, So your Google My Business is now pointing at the homepage, you’re getting the benefit of the links, and you can make that really relevant for the city and the key phrases.

If you have two to five locations, you can probably still get away with the home page, as you still get that bonus benefit of the link equity that the homepage has and still make the page relevant for all the different cities. Once you get beyond five locations, then it starts getting hard to amplify your relevancy signals on the home page. You can’t really make one page relevant for 50 different cities. And so in that case, you’re probably going to shift to more of a local page strategy.

One thing that I while discovered doing some research is that if you go to Google My Business and you update the website URL that Google My Business is pointed at, Googlebot crawls your page almost instantly. If you’re watching server logs, you’ll see Googlebot will visit that exact page almost 10 seconds after you click save. So Googlebot will crawl that page and re-index all of your relevancy signals and say ‘Okay, do you have something new to say?’

Joel Headley pointed out the obvious thing that I didn’t think of, which is that Googlebot wants to make sure that whatever you put in there doesn’t 404. They don’t want to be sending people to incorrect pages.

So my recommendation is, for businesses with 1-5 locations, point Google My Business to your homepage, but businesses with more than five locations should probably switch to location pages.

Andrew Shotland: We did pretty extensive testing on this about two or three years ago. It absolutely does change rankings. In the case of a single location site, depending on the site, you actually may not want to link to the homepage if it’s not as relevant to the location or the service as a deeper page. So we’ve tested that it, but it’s totally case dependent.

Darren Shaw: Then wouldn’t you want to make your homepage more relevant? You can certainly do that; you can add more location signals to the homepage.

Andrew Shotland: 100%. But it’s not like a catch-all; it’s case dependent. So you might have a service page that has a lot of backlinks that is more relevant than the homepage. We’ve just seen situations like that where we switched it from the homepage to the service page and they boosted the rankings.

This is the best tactic: If you have a local business where people are just going to call from GMB and not click on your website, you can actually link to a stronger domain than yours and boost your rankings. We’ve done that over and over again and it totally works.

Darren Shaw: That’s pretty spammy, though. What are you going to do? Link to your Yelp listing?

Andrew Shotland: It’s like “Hey, it was an accident! I didn’t know what it was typing!”. But it works, and it shows how spammy GMB is.

Darren Shaw: I think that one’s technically against the guidelines.

Mary Bowling: I think so too, but that doesn’t mean the guidelines are being enforced!

Andrew Shotland: There’s a listing, that we’ve been monitoring for now three years, and it uses this tactic, and anybody could see it, but it works and they’re number one. They’ve been number one for three years.

Darren Shaw: Yeah, well, Joy Hawkins is gonna get them!

Andrew Shotland: Haha, well, there are only so many hours in the day, even in Canada.

Prominence: How can a business increase its prominence to boost its rankings?

Mary Bowling: Like everything else in Google’s algorithms, especially the local algorithms, quality keeps becoming more and more important. There was a time a few years ago when a guy obtained prominence by having a ton of bad reviews, so Google had to step in and do something about that little piece of the algorithm. But Google wants to show the best businesses rather than just any old businesses, and prominence is one way that they try to measure that.

Some of the proxies that they use for that are reviews. If a lot of people are reviewing you and saying good things about you, then that probably gives you some prominence points. Also if you’re being talked about on social media, if you’re being talked about in your own local newspapers, or on the sites of radio stations or TV, if they find you in directories about your town – all those things contribute to prominence.

If people are searching for you by brand name, that shows that you’re kind of prominent in your area, that you’re well known. If your reviews are from people that are actually in your area and not in India or the Philippines. I have to hope that the authority of reviewers adds to your location prominence or your local prominence. If your restaurant is reviewed in the local newspaper by the restaurant reviewer, that’s probably worth more than me reviewing your restaurant.

Then, of course, some of the things that contribute to relevance also contribute to prominence. If people are clicking through to your website, if you’re converting people, if people are asking directions to your business, that sort of thing.

Andrew Shotland: Anecdotally, I’d say big brands have an advantage for a couple of reasons. One is if you have multiple locations. Let’s say you’re a thousand-location company and you have your citations all set up correctly: you now have thousands of low-quality links going to thousands of pages, but that’s still a lot more than your average SMB has.

You also probably have a lot more people querying your brand on Google and clicking on results, which, as Mary implied, might be a factor. So you have all these inherent advantages that a smaller business may not have, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

If you have a brand that someone’s heard of and a large set of locations, your SEO is a lot more about fixing up internal stuff and optimizing internal stuff than it is going out and competing head-to-head with reviews and links and things like that.

Mary Bowling: I’d like to add that if you’re a small business, there are some things you can do that big businesses can’t do. For example, ideally a big company with a thousand locations should have local-specific links going to each one of those location pages. That’s really hard for a big company to do. Whereas, if you are a small business, you live in your community, you work in your community, you’re already networking, you’re already doing things to build up your community karma and you can really a surge ahead of a particular location that you’re trying to compete with.

Darren Shaw: One of the best examples of this is Starbucks. Starbucks hardly ever ranked in the local pack wherever I searched. There are Starbucks all over the place, but when I run a search in the local results, I never really see Starbucks in there. You would think, as pretty much the most prominent coffee brand in the world, that they would destroy it in the local pack rankings, but it seems to me that Google favors these local boutique groceries that are really prominent within the city.

So I think, to Mary’s point, that these particular local coffee roasters tend to rise in prominence and relevancy specifically within the city. And I think that the local algorithm has gotten smarter about that and it’s picking that up.

How much can citations affect your prominence?

Darren Shaw: I don’t know, but it adds something. You’ll get some links out of it. You’ll get some mentions out of it and that certainly contributes to your prominence. It’s an easy, table-stakes tactic that anyone can execute on. It’s a no-brainer. Get your citations sorted out, get them in order. They are not the factor that is going to move the needle.

We see a lot of businesses in our Whitespark citation-building service that we max out. So eventually people are ordering citations and we’re like ‘We can’t build any more for you; there are no more websites to build your citations on’. And so we stop when we reach a certain threshold because you’re going to get diminishing returns from that.

Citations certainly contribute to prominence; you want to be basically on par with your competitors. So once you get into, like, 50, 80, 100 citations, you’re pretty much done. Then you’re going to start working on other tactics such as the links, the reviews, the behavioral factors, getting people to Google your brand, that kind of stuff. And I always think that brands should put up a billboard and, rather than putting their URL on the board, they should be like ‘Google us’, just to get more of those behavioral signals where people are searching for the specific brand.

Andrew Shotland: We did a study on this about two or three years ago and it still holds up with our work. What we typically see is if your citations are screwed up or you don’t have any, fixing them or adding them can help you be more eligible to rank in the pack. But if you already ranked in the pack, fixing your citations does zero.

Darren Shaw: I like that concept: ‘being eligible to rank’. A lot of this stuff is table stakes: having your citations in order; being proximate to the searcher. Those are things that just kind of make you eligible, but they’re not really the needle movers.

Mary Bowling: Also, citations can really help with your relevance if you can get them from industry sites. If you’re an electrician, if you’ve got a citation from the State, County, City building departments that you have a license to operate in. Those places that you belong to, those can really make it relevant for those types of things, even for brands.

Which factors do you see growing in influence over the next 12 months, and beyond that, the next 3-5 years? And why?

Andrew Shotland: Besides doing the basics, we think Google’s native reviews and native Google stuff is where you want to pay attention. As an example, this Google My Business Q&A product that rolled out a few months ago doesn’t seem to be a factor now in any kind of rankings, but if they keep it going, we’ll probably end up with it becoming a factor.

Certainly, trying to figure out how to use these native Google My Business things, like ‘store-within-a-store’ to expand your footprint. Those are the things that we think are going to be the kind of game-changers for the next 12 months to 18 months.

Mary Bowling: Google pretty much neglected and did bad things to local search for a while there and they just seem to have turned it around in the past year or so. They’re actually starting to pay more attention to local search in a way that’s meaningful, and not just meaningful to them, but meaningful to small businesses and marketers. I agree with Andrew that right now we should all be keeping an eye on all these new features, these new opportunities that Google is presenting to us, and figuring out which types of things are going to work best for which types of businesses and how we can take advantage of those things. And I think that you’d better be paying attention to your mobile website. I have a couple of clients that really don’t pay any attention to their desktop website at all. It’s just mobile, depending on the amount of traffic you’re getting from mobile users. That might be what you should be paying attention to as well.

Darren Shaw: I think behavioral factors are going to continue to grow in importance, and not just the traditional ones that we already think about, like driving directions, clicks to your website, clicks to call, clicks on your organic listings, branded search. All of those factors really help Google to understand which are the most popular, prominent businesses in a city.

But I see that as an area for Google’s continued research to grow, where they’re getting data sources that we don’t really have any influence over. They’re getting data from credit card companies now, so they can see which of these local restaurants has more transactions than others? They’re getting OpenTable data. They can see which restaurants are getting more reservations. They’re getting tons of different data sources that they are now incorporating into how they rank businesses, because you can’t manipulate that. You can’t pretend that you actually have more customers than you do. Google has the direct data that shows that you’re actually not serving that many customers. So they can see who the prominent businesses are in many new ways. So the ranking factor in five years is just being an awesome business and you’ll rank better.

Another one that I really think is growing in importance, which I wouldn’t call a ranking factor, but it is something that all local SEO practitioners and agencies need to be aware of, is an increasing squeeze on the available organic inventory. The squeeze has already happened on proximity; that squeeze is now happening via ads. So they’re going to continue to add more and more advertising into the local space.

If you’re a practitioner and you’re not up on AdWords, it’s time to start looking into that. Right now it’s like a golden age for local pack ads. You should be getting your clients into those local pack ads. Research it, spend a day reading the latest articles on it and start offering local pack ads to your clients. I think there’s huge benefit there because you’re not necessarily selling rankings, you’re selling more business. If you’re not getting into the ad space, it’s time to start.

Our Expert Panelists

Darren Shaw, Whitespark

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 19 years 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, Local SEO Guide

Andrew Shotland

Andrew is the Founder & 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 SearchEngineLand.com, author of the definitive Google News Ranking Factors survey and AppleMapsMarketing.com, a blog focused on helping businesses navigate Apple Maps and SIRI.

Mary Bowling, Ignitor Digital

Mary Bowling

Mary is the co-founder of Ignitor Digital, has been involved in all aspects of SEO since 2003, and has always been intrigued by Local Search. With a background as a serial entrepreneur, she always tries to approach Local Search and Internet Marketing in a practical way and from a small business owner’s perspective. As an expert in Local SEO services as well as a long time practitioner and consultant, Mary frequently speaks about Local Search at industry conferences and teaches Local SEO to others.

Myles Anderson, BrightLocal

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. Myles also writes a regular column for Search Engine Land and talks at SEO conferences such as BrightonSEO and Inboundcon (Toronto).