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A Closer Look At Local Search Ranking Factors

Written By: langdon on November 24, 2011 No Comment

A Closer Look At Local Search Ranking Factors

Does SEO make a difference?

Traditional on-page SEO typically ranks behind a verified Local Business Listing, off-page and off-listing criteria, and reviews.

Think about some of the leading businesses you see ranking in local search results, even in some of the more competitive industries.  In many cases, restaurants ranking at the top of the list have poorly-optimized or even all-Flash websites.  Large chain hotels frequently rank with location-page URLs that are buried within parent site architecture.

In both of these cases, and countless others, different factors seem to outweigh the strength of an individual website or web page.  For instance, restaurants may have powerful profiles on places like YP, Yelp or UrbanSpoon; hotels may have really great reviews on TripAdvisor.  Both are likely presenting a very strong signal among the traditional data providers (more on them below).

It remains critical to think about Local as its own entity within a broader SEO framework.

Location, Location, Location

Having a location in the city being searched for was identified as the single most important ranking factor. For moms-and-pops who have been around for years, there’s not a lot to do in “optimizing” a location. New businesses, however, may want to consider this as part of their decision on where to lease or buy space.  In a larger metro area, it’s likely that being inside the city limits of a major city will bring you more online traffic.

While distance from city centroid seems to be on the decline as a factor, the dominance of location in the algorithm presents a major problem for service-based businesses such as carpet cleaners, roofers, or even insurance agents who frequently visit their clients, rather than the other way around.

To date, the most popular way around this problem is a gray-hat tactic of reserving a PO Box or UPS Store address in the cities in which you want to rank, but the effectiveness of this technique seems to be on the decline.  All of the map spam we’ve seen in the Locksmith industry is closely tied to this facet of the algorithm, though they are taking it one step further by claiming listings of legitimate businesses and changing them to suit their needs.

Going forward, it would seem that Google would need to adjust its algorithm to account for businesses in certain service verticals if it truly wants to address some of these problems.  It’s less clear (to me, anyway), what Bing/Yahoo have up their sleeves in this area.

Clean data counts

The second most important ranking factor is that it’s essential to send the local search engines a strong signal about your business’ name, location, and contact information. This means a proactive effort to make sure that this information is consistent and prominent across as many of these portals as possible.

Know who you are

Proper categorization remained one of the most important factors.  The interaction of category with search phrase is important!

As we move more and more towards keyword-based directories, categories may matter less. However, this remains one of the key qualitative distinctions between Local search and traditional search.  Local is about businesses and locations whereas search is about websites.  Categories are still going to have relevance as a meta-indicator of the relevance of a business for quite awhile.  Custom categories may start to play more of a role, for those businesses that don’t fit neatly into traditional verticals.

It’s a solidly white hat tactic to place yourself in as many relevant categories as possible.  Google explicitly discourages irrelevant categories, however, perhaps because they recognize the contribution of marginal categories to their Locksmith map-jacking problem.  These nefarious companies often show up for hotels, restaurants, or other popular searches.

Word-of-mouth

Reviews continue to gain in importance, but are not used as a factor in the Google Maps algorithm.

Google has a long way to go here, and may be one of the reasons they are/were so interested in the technology behind Twitter as a measure of sentiment.  Bing Local has incorporated some of this technology in their recent rollout, but only in certain verticals with tons of UGC information, like restaurants. Going forward, we may see trusted sources like BBB and Judy’s Book start to protect their content to remain vital independent players in the Local search space.

The importance of a deep LBC profile seems to be on the rise.  Google wants a rich user experience to try to compete with the Yelps, UrbanSpoons, Judys Books, and other vertical portals which could take market share away from them in the future.

To that end, they’ve introduced an explicit percentage complete score within their recent LBC Analytics rollout.  I encourage people to click that link and see just what a dominant role photos and videos play in Google’s LBC score (greater than 25%!).  Local Search marketers were all over this one, even before the Analytics rollout-videos and photos were both two of the “more helpful than in 2008″ ranking factors.

 

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