Local SEO Ranking Factors
By Kevin Getch
“What are the most important factors when it comes to ranking locally in search engines?”
Business owners and marketers across the world are desperately searching for the right answer to this question. That’s because they know online search is still the biggest game in town. And they know if they can find out how to dominate Local Search they’ll be rewarded with new customers month after month.
But if you Google, “What are the most important factors when it comes to ranking locally in search engines?” you’ll quickly discover the answers are varied and debated (intensely sometimes). So today I want to “de-mystify” Local SEO Ranking Factors once and for all (or at least until Google’s next update!). After working with Local SEO clients for over 8 years I’ve seen what works in the real world. Granted, the following is my “opinion,” but remember, it’s grounded in reality. Not theory.
Note: In the chart above I’m specifically referring to ranking for localized organic results from Google.com. Google’s algorithm for maps.google.com and carousel results weights the website lower and citations, reviews and your Google listing much higher. This is my unscientific take based on my experience of working with hundreds of local businesses on their SEO campaigns.
Before we get started I want to take a step back and remind you of Google’s primary objective: to provide the best user experience possible so users continue to come back and use their service. Remembering this will help effectively guide your Local SEO strategy.
Instead take the time to understand what it is Google and the people that use Google want and work with them instead of against them. Okay, enough “big picture” stuff… let’s explore the four most important Local SEO Ranking factors.
Your website is rightfully the most important of all the factors when trying to rank in local organic search.
Over the last year and a half Google has released a number of major algorithm updates (Panda, Penguin, etc.) proving their renewed focus in on-site SEO factors. All these algorithm updates clearly indicate that Google is committed to balancing off-site factors with on-site factors like great content, site design and architecture.
This once again puts your website back on the forefront of the Local Ranking Factors. While these are all important areas they’re not the only on-site factors to consider. Here’s a list of other important website factors that impact your Local Search Rankings (This isn’t an exhaustive list and each one of these have thousands of blogs written on each individual topic):
- Title tags
- Header tags
- URL structure
- Meta tags
- Website architecture
- XML sitemap
- KML sitemap
- Internal linking strategy
- Crawlability of your site
- Body copy
- Quality of content
- Quantity of content
- Keyword, phrase & related keywords in text
- Topical relevance to the site in general
- Image alt text
- Image file name (i.e., macadamia-nut-cookie.jpg)
- Image meta data
- Image sitemap
- Where you host the video (i.e., Locally, YouTube, Vimeo, Wistia, etc.)
- Video marked up with Schema
- Video sitemap
Markup (While these don’t directly affect rankings. They can greatly increase your click through rate)
- Open graph markup
- Schema markup
- Semantic markup
- Website load time (Google announced April 9, 2010 that they would include a websites load time as a ranking factor)
- Website layout
- Website design
- Mobile friendly layout
- Engagement level (i.e., time on site, bounce rate, etc.)
Negative On-Site Ranking Factors
There are many on-site factors that can have a negative effect on your website’s ability to be indexed and rank well in search engines. Here are just a few: duplicate content, incorrect meta robots tag (i.e., noindex), unfriendly URL structure, cloaking, hacked site, keyword stuffing, slow load time, bad design and user experience that negatively affect engagement metrics and content/topic cannibalization.
Another key ingredient to Local Search success is links to your website. “Why are links so important?” you may ask. They’re important because Google places a lot of weight in what others say about you. Think of a link as an electronic vote for your site. It’s a trust factor. If someone links to you they’re essentially “voting” for you.
When Google’s algorithm first started it was very heavily weighted on links. While links are still one of the top four SEO factors it’s no longer the most vital one in Local Search. Google’s algorithms have evolved over the years in order to minimize spammy link schemes and overly optimized anchor texts. With that said, attracting links from high quality sites is still an important strategy. Plus, links can also help drive highly targeted traffic to your site.
It’s important to remember that not all links are created equal. When it comes to earning links, quality is more important than quantity. Think about it this way, if you sold a sports drink, whose endorsement would carry more weight: LeBron James or some random basketball player at the YMCA? Well, the same goes for the quality of the link.
There are many factors that affect the value of a link, including where it’s placed on the page, the anchor text, the content on that page, the relevance of the site to your topic, the sites that link to the site linking to you, the number of links on that page, the authority of that site and the authority of the page that is linking to you.
When it comes to ranking locally in search engines there are literally hundreds of factors to consider around your link building/earning strategy. Here are a few of the main factors to remember:
- Quantity of external links
- Quality of external links
- The Domain and page authority of the site/page that’s linking to you
- Anchor text of external links
- Topic and keywords in the content surrounding the link
- Related topic of the site
- Localness of the site linking to you
- Location of the link on the website linking to you
- Naturally earned links (natural contextual links carry more weight than a site-wide footer link or a link submitted to a directory)
- Deep links/link spread (links to your site’s inner pages help Google discover your content and signal that you create worthy/popular content across your site)
- Link velocity (the speed at which a site gains/loses links)
- Link profile (overly optimized anchor text is bad)
Negative Ranking Factors for Links
Your websites link profile can also have a negative impact on your website’s ability to rank well in search engines. One of the main ways links can affect your website negatively is by having an unnatural looking link profile or links from low quality/spammy sites.
Google not only wants to connect users with high quality content they also want to connect users with high quality local businesses. So they had to find a way to do this algorithmically. This is why citations and the location of your business are so critical if you want to rank well in Local Search.
At the core of Google’s citation algorithm is the consistent accuracy of the businesses information: name, address and phone number. Having multiple listings across hundreds of sites with incorrect data tells Google that the business could have moved, may have changed or may not exist anymore.
No matter how much you want to scream and shout about it, Google will continue to use the location of a business as a key component to their algorithm. If your business address is in Hillsboro and you want to rank in Portland it’s going to be difficult. It’s not impossible. In fact, we have several clients in that situation who rank well. But it is more challenging.
Important Note: Citation and Location signals increase in importance when trying to rank in maps/carousel results (See David Mihm’s 2013 Local Search Ranking Factors)
Here are some other citation/location factors to consider if you want to dominate Local Search:
- Citation factors:
- Accuracy of your business listing information
- Quantity of citations
- Citations from highly respected sites (quality)
- Length of time at address (This is one that could easily be correlated to other things)
- Proximity to the center of the search (location)
- Completeness of each profile
- Google Local Listing:
- Owner verified listing
- Correct category usage
- Quality and quantity of links to Google listing
- Keyword usage in business description
- Usage of local phone number
- Activity on your Google page (Favorites, Check-ins, Photos Posted, Directions, etc.)
- History of your Google page
- Location Info:
- Business address located in the city of search
- Distance from city of search
Negative Ranking Factors for Citations and Location Info
Having inaccuracies in your business name, address and phone number across numerous sites will definitely hurt your ability to rank, especially in maps/carousel results. Other negative factors include:
- If you have duplicate listings on Google for the same phone number.
- Having numerous people check “Business is not here” when getting driving directions to your business.
- Google flagging your listing as invalid.
- Doing things that are against Google+/Places guidelines.
- Not having an address in the city of the search.
Reviews: Google demonstrated its commitment to reviews when it purchased Zagat, one of the largest review companies, back in 2011. What’s interesting is that Google gave Zagat back their brand name and just kept the review data. This move by the search giant tells you they find review data extremely valuable.
While it’s foolish to try to manipulate reviews (Google’s algorithm for filtering reviews is very strong, so don’t even try), it’s equally foolish to ignore them. There’s nothing wrong with launching a “Reviews Campaign” where you ask satisfied customers to leave a positive review of your company online. In fact, Google recommends you ask your customers to review you at the time or shortly after they do business with you.
Important Note: Review signals increase in importance when trying to rank in maps/carousel results.
Social: There has been much debate about social’s influence on rankings. In Dr. Matt’s 2013 Search Engine Ranking Factors Study, he found a very strong correlation between social signals and ranking, but in the survey part most SEO’s didn’t feel it was even close to as important as the study suggested.
Personally, I agree that social signals aren’t weighted as high as the correlation suggested, but I do believe Google and other search engines are using social data as an added layer of their algorithm to provide another validation of trust/popularity.
- Your reviews on Google+ Local
- Your reviews on other sites
- The quantity of reviews
- The frequency and recency of reviews
- Reviews from power users
- +1’s on your website from Google+
- Facebook Likes for your url
- Check-ins on your Google+ Listing
- Age of Domain
- Location of host/server (in your country)
Negative Ranking Factors for Reviews, Social & Misc.
While there are not a lot of negative factors currently with reviews and social if you try to manipulate either of these areas you can have manual action taken against your website. If the majority of your reviews are negative this can have a negative impact on your rankings. If you just purchased your domain it may take you longer to rank than another site that has had their domain/website for 10 years. Also, if you’re trying to rank in the US and your website is hosted in another country this can negatively impact your ability to rank.
You now have a much better understanding of the most important Local Search factors: your website, links, citations and reviews. If you focus at least 80 percent of your time in these four areas you’ll succeed at Local Search.
And remember, Google constantly tweaks their algorithm so they can provide the best user experience possible when people search. This means two things for you: First, you must continually adapt your Local Search strategies and techniques as Google evolves and optimizes their algorithm (which consists of over 200 factors).
Secondly, and more importantly, it means you need to remember why Google invests so much time and money in these algorithm updates. It’s because their primary goal is to provide the best user experience possible to people who use their search engine. When you understand that and can work with Google, instead of against them, you will be rewarded accordingly.
Search Engine Ranking Factors 2013
Moz recently updated their 2013 version of their Search Engine Ranking Factors survey. I’ve included the correlation data below. Please keep in mind that this isn’t directly targeted towards local search ranking factors.
Please let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment below.