Top 20 Local SEO Ranking Factors
First published in 2008 by David Mihm, the Local Search Ranking Factors survey of Local SEOs around the globe has become a high point in the year in local search. This guide is for marketers who are new to the field of local SEO and for local business owners who are flying solo in their efforts to market their companies on the web.
Local Search Ranking Factors 2013 identified 83 foundational ranking factors. This guide takes the top 20 most important factors and offers an example of each.
By reading this guide, you will understand both the lingo and the concept of each local search ranking factor. Use this information and you will be on the road to promoting local businesses on the web from an educated foundation. Sound good? Start reading!
1. Proper Category Associations
Proper category associations are important enough to be ranked #1 in the survey. During the process of creating your Google+ Local page, you will be choosing categories at two distinct points.
When you enter your initial details, you must select a primary category for the business. This is the most important category you will choose.
Then, once inside the dashboard, you will be allowed to select up to five other categories for your business.
All categories must be chosen from Google’s pre-set category taxonomy.
The concept here is simple. If you wish to appear in the local results for a search like “plumbers in santa barbara”, your business must be categorized as a plumber. If it is categorized as a dentist, you have no hope of appearing for your important search terms.
You will be building listings for your business in a variety of other local business directories. These platforms will not necessarily offer categories that are identical to those in Google’s system. You must take time to discover the most relevant categories on each platform as you build each listing.
2. Physical address in city of search
Your business is most likely to appear in Google’s pack of local results for searches that either:
- Contain the name of the city in which it is physically located, or
- Stem from devices based in that cityIf you are a chiropractor in Santa Barbara, you are most likely to appear in the local pack of results for a search like “Santa Barbara chiropractor”, or if someone searches for “chiropractor” from a computer or cell phone based in Santa Barbara.
In the above screenshot, you will note that there are no chiropractors in neighboring cities included in these results. It’s safe to say that Google has a very definite bias towards physical location in the city of search. This is a simple concept, but it represents a major stumbling block for two distinct business models.
- Service area businesses (SABs) with employees who might travel to a city like Santa Barbara to do plumbing, management consulting, or dog walking, but who are physically based in another city or town. In other words, the SAB does not have a physical address in Santa Barbara.
- Brick-and-mortar businesses located just outside the borders of a major city like San Francisco, Dallas, or Denver. An example of this might be a locally-heralded acupuncturist who is located in Mill Valley, California, but who has numerous clients who are happy to travel a few miles outside of Santa Barbara to visit him.
In both cases, the business owner understandably wants these major city audiences to know his services are available, but because of Google’s bias toward physical location, these businesses are unlikely to ever appear in the local pack of results. As things presently stand with Google, the best hope for these types of business owners is to begin developing city landing that showcase their professional association with these other cities, whether this involves windows they wash on the skyscrapers of Dallas or lectures they give at a Denver hospital. The goal here is to gain additional visibility in the organic results for these other geographic terms.
There are some exceptions that may overcome Google’s bias. If you search for a niche business model in or around a major city, or search for any business model in a rural location, you may see listings in the local pack of results that stem from several cities. For example, if there is only one gas station serving a large radius in a rural area, it may pop up as a local result for any of the towns in that region. This scenario, however, tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
In sum, it is generally wise for local business owners to set the goal of earning local pack rankings for searches related to their city of location, and organic rankings for any other geographic terms they feel are important.
3. Consistency of structured citations
A citation is any web-based mention of your company’s partial or complete name, address, and phone number (NAP). A “structured citation” refers to a listing of your business in an online local business directory such as YP.com, HotFrog, or Best of the Web.
Inconsistent citations might involve:
- A difference in the business name (i.e. Smile Dentistry vs. Smile Dental Clinic)
- A wrong street address, a typo in street address numbers, or a missing suite number
- A wrong or different phone number, a toll free or call tracking number
- A different or wrong website URL
Citation inconsistencies may arise from simple carelessness during the citation-building process and these mistakes may then be duplicated across the local search ecosystem. Inconsistencies also commonly arise if a business has moved at any time in the past decade or so. Apart from causing confusion for humans, these discrepancies hinder Google’s ability to trust the data they have gathered from around the web about a given business. A lack of trust on Google’s part can spell ranking difficulties for the business.
Here is an illustration of a randomly-chosen dental practice in Sacramento, California which recently moved. The new location of the practice is on Riverside Blvd., but a search in Google reveals that many structured citations for the business still list its old location on Freeport Blvd. As can be seen in the Google+ area of the results, the business currently has two listings that reflect this inconsistency, meaning that their authority is being split up instead of consolidated into one correct listing.
If you have to move locations, it’s a given that you’ll need to put in some hours editing your old citations so that they reflect your new address. You’ll see this being referred to as “citation cleanup.” However, many businesses that haven’t moved will discover that they have inconsistent NAP data out there on the web, too.
An easy way to begin searching for this is to simply type your business name into Google’s main search engine and see what comes up. Go through the results by hand and make sure that each part of your NAP is identical across all listings of your business. Edit where necessary.
4. Quality/authority of structured citations
It’s just good horse sense that having your business listed on high-quality websites is going to help you more than being listed on sites of low quality. As a rule of thumb, businesses should initially concentrate on getting listed on a handful of really authoritative local business indexes and directories. Use the tool at Moz Local to be sure that you have a listing in the dozen or so basic, authoritative directories highlighted there.
Once you have all your ducks in a row with these basic citations, you want to continue down the citation building path to further enhance your company’s visibility and authority. Perform searches for category terms, service terms, and geographic terms to see what comes up in the search engine results. The websites that come up may be places you would like to list your business, if possible.
5. HTML NAP matching place page NAP
Google will be looking at the website page you’ve linked to from your Google+ Local page to cross reference the name, address and phone number of your business. If all elements match, as shown in this screenshot, you’re good to go:
However, if there is a discrepancy in the NAP you have on your +Local page and the NAP on the website page your +Local page links to, then Google will become “confused” about the data they have about your business. Small discrepancies like Ste. vs Suite or Hwy. vs Highway do not matter. Reference Point 3 in this guide for a list of discrepancies that do matter. Your task is to ensure that your NAP is cohesive in both places.
6. Quantity of structured citations
Again, a structured citation is a listing of your business name, address, and phone number (NAP) on an online local business directory. While the quality of these structured citations counts most, quantity is definitely important, too.
Each unique local business owner will find he needs to build a different number of citations in order to be competitive. Typically, the more competitive your market is, the more citations you will need to build.
A simple way to find new structured citations for your business is to type your business category terms into Google’s main search engine to see what comes up. For example, a Boston-based search for “doctors” highlights these two directories where it may be smart for any doctor to get listed.
For businesses in less competitive markets, an initial session of citation building followed up by a very modest, occasional effort to build new citations may be all that’s needed to become dominant in the search engine results. If you’re in a tough market, however, ongoing citation building will likely need to be an integral part of your local search marketing strategy.
7. Domain authority of website
At present, the overall strength of a local business’ website plays a major role in how it ranks both locally and organically. Simply stated, “Domain Authority” is a metric used to predict how well a website may perform in search results compared to other websites. Moz offers a Domain Authority toolbar called the MozBar that makes it easy to see the DA of any website in the search engine results. See the bottom of this screenshot, below:
In general, every local business will want to publish the strongest possible website. This means having a user-friendly, optimized site with excellent content that earns links and social mentions over time. You will always be working to build your domain authority, and the higher it is, the better your chances of ranking well for your most important terms.
8. Individually owner-verified local Plus page
Creating your Google+ Local page for your local business is your first step to being included in Google’s index. Your second step is to verify your ownership of the listing. These days, this typically involves receiving a postcard/letter from Google containing a pin number which you must enter in order to complete verification.
Avoid letting anyone else act as a go-between for your company, putting your Google+ Local page into some master Google account of their own. It’s fine to have a Local SEO help you with the steps of verification, but this should be done with your own Google account and not the account of any third party. You need to be in direct control of your Google+ Local page, and while you will find unverified listings managing to rank in some local packs, it is always wiser for any local business owner to take the time to verify his or her listing. It’s easy to do!
9. City, state in Places landing page title
Your Google+ Local page should link to a page on your website. This page on your site will have an element in its code called a “Title Tag.” This is typically located in the section of the code and the words contained in it send a very important signal to both search engine bots and human users regarding the topic of the page in question. The title tag of a page typically displays in the upper left hand corner of your browser window:
In the above screenshot, you can see that the title tag of the page contains both the city and state name. Local Search Ranking Factors 2013 cites the inclusion of these geographic terms as being especially important on the landing page to which your Google+ Local page links. For many local businesses, the landing page will simply be the homepage of the website. However, for multi-location or multi-practitioner business models, specific landing pages may have been developed on the website to reflect this diversity, and the Google+ Local pages created for these locations or practitioners will often link to these landing pages instead of the homepage.
By including your city and state names in your landing page title tag, you will be letting both search engine bots and human visitors know that your business is local to a specific geographic locale.
10. Proximity of address to centroid
Traditionally, the centroid in Local Search has been defined as the city center identified by Google in its Maps product. You can go to maps.google.com, type in a city and state and get a result that looks like this, with Google putting a red pin on the presumed city centroid:
Proximity of address to centroid is one of those factors over which your business will have little control. Some businesses located outside this centroid/center of business radius may discover that they are at a disadvantage in comparison to competitors who are within the radius. Short of moving to a new location, (not a realistic suggestion) your proximity to Google’s designated center of business for your industry isn’t something you can change.
11. Quality/authority of inbound links to domain
Because organic signals play a big part in local rankings, earning high quality links from authoritative sources will help your business to improve its visibility in the search engine results. A tool like the Open Site Explorer can help you to begin understanding both the number and quality of links currently pointing to your website:
For a local business, high quality, authoritative links may come from a variety of places, including local and national newspapers, local business indexes, high profile bloggers and professional industry associations.
These days, strategies surrounding the acquisition of links have evolved from link building (the process of actively seeking web pages on which links can be placed) to link earning (the process of generating links without having to build or request them due to some outstanding aspect of the website).
Local businesses can both build links, as in the case of having their domain linked to from their local business listings, and earn links via forms of marketing like content development and social sharing. The more authoritative the sources that link to your website, the better your chances of gaining visibility for your important search terms.
12. Quantity of native Google Places reviews (w/text)
This is a simple one! It is currently felt that the number of reviews your business earns on its Google+ Local page influences rank more than reviews you might earn on other review platforms. You can easily see how many reviews you have by clicking either on the “reviews” link on your Google+ Local link in the main search engine results, or by visiting your + Local page directly. You’ll see something that looks like this:
No local business needs to earn a ton of Google-based reviews at once. In fact, if you earn reviews at too great a velocity, you may find that some of them get filtered out. Rather, best practices for this revolve around slowly acquiring positive reviews from happy customers, one by one, over time. You want to earn more reviews than your direct competitors have, but you don’t need 10 times as many reviews to see the benefits. In fact, if you’ve got many more reviews that your competitors, it may look suspicious to Google and human users.
Google allows you to ask for reviews, but not to offer money or incentives in exchange for explicitly-required positive reviews. Reviews must come directly from your customers’ Google accounts. Never hire a third party marketer to pose as a customer and post fake reviews or post reviews on behalf of real customers. Create an internal process in your company for requesting reviews either at the time of service or shortly thereafter. Remember, a slow, steady acquisition of reviews is the goal here, so that you are gradually building a great online reputation, over time.
You will note that this ranking factor relates to the quantity of Google Places reviews rather than the quality or rating of them. At this point in the evolution of Local Search, sheer numbers seem to matter most.
13. Product/service keyword in business title
The business title of your business is its legal name or DBA. It is believed that having the name of a core product or service in your business name may give you some advantage over competitors who lack this. Here’s an example of some auto body shops in Santa Barbara with the full or partial keyword phase “auto body” in their business names:
If your business name currently doesn’t contain a product or service term, don’t take a wrong turn by simply adding keywords to the business title field on your Google+ Local page or other citations. This is not allowed!
14. Quantity of citations from locally relevant domains
Having your business NAP (name, address, phone number) mentioned on a website that relates specifically to your geographic community acts as a locally-relevant citation. This type of citation reinforces Google’s trust in your relevance to your locale. Here’s an example of a locally-relevant citation for an accounting firm, listed on the Santa Barbara, California Chamber of Commerce website:
Apart from Chamber of Commerce websites, other locally-relevant domains on which you might earn citations could include local news sites, local professional association sites and local blogs that publish content about businesses or happenings in your community.
Remember, a citation does not necessarily have to link to your website, but that’s always nice, too!
15. Proximity of physical location to the point of search (searcher-business distance)
For many searches, it is no longer necessary to include a geographic term in your search in order to be shown local results. If Google feels that your search term has a local intent, they will automatically detect your physical location and show local results. For example, a user located in Santa Barbara, California can simply search for “electric company” in order to be shown a local pack of results containing businesses near him.
This phenomenon of proximity demonstrates Google’s bias towards businesses with a physical location within a specific geographic area. If your business is physically near to the searcher, your chances are good of showing up in the local results, but if it’s too far away, it is unlikely to be included in the results.
For Google Maps app users looking for local businesses on their cell phones, this concept of proximity is especially sensitive. If you run a local auto body shop on the north side of your city, your chances are good that you will be shown to searches who are driving around that part of town, but if you are on the south side, there is a chance you won’t appear as a result for that specific searcher at that time. He’d need to drive or walk closer to you to see you as a result.
Obviously, local business owners have no control over where a particular searcher is physically located at the time he performs a search, but it’s important to understand that the closer a searcher is to you, the better your chances of being shown as a result for his search.
16. Quantity of citations from industry-relevant domains
Just as it can be helpful to earn to have your name, address and phone number listed on locally-relevant websites, being included on industry-relevant sites can improve your authority and rankings, too.
An industry-relevant website can be defined as one that is widely recognized to be authoritative within a particularly category of industry, be that automobiles, hospitality or health care. Here’s an example of the data you’ll find on this page:
Definitely check that resource out if you are looking for citation sources that are relevant to your industry. You can also perform manual searches for your industry category and create a list of the authoritative websites that come up most frequently for your terms. Once you have created this list, you can visit each of the sites to see if they allow local businesses to be listed in a directory-type feature, or if there are other opportunities for earning a citation, such as guest blogging.
17. Local area code on local Plus page
Using your local area code phone number as your primary phone number on your Google+ Local page is considered a best practice. The area code of the phone number should match the area code/codes traditionally associated with your city of location. This may seem obvious, but the local search engine results reveal that some businesses take a wrong turn here and publish a toll free number, instead. Alternatively, they might publish a cell phone number or call tracking number with a different area code.
Here is a screenshot of a business which has done this correctly, publishing a 805 area code phone number consistent with the city of Santa Barbara, California.
Google allows you to enter a secondary number (such as a toll free number) when creating your listing. This is especially important for businesses like hotels who receive calls from all over the world and want their guests to be able to make a charge-free phone call to book a room. Just be sure that, when you create your listing, you are putting the local area code number in the primary number field.
18. City, state in most/all website title tags
As referenced in point #9 of this guide, the title tag is an extremely important element of any website page. Local Search Ranking Factors 2013 posits that inclusion of your city/state name in most or all of your title tags can have a positive impact on how your local business ranks. Here’s a screenshot from Open Site Explorer showing how these geo terms have been included in many of the title tags for a carpet cleaning company in Livermore, California:
While it isn’t necessary to include your city/state in every single title tag of your website, it makes sense to include it on major pages such as the home page, contact page, service description pages and bio pages. You want to send the clearest possible signals to search engine bots and human users that you are a local business and the title tag really helps transmit that message.
19. Quantity of third-party traditional reviews
In point #12 of this guide, we discussed the importance of earning customer reviews on your Google+ Local page. Beyond this, there are many third-party platforms on which it can be useful to get reviews. In ranking your local business, Google takes into account the quantity of reviews you have earned around the web. Take a look at how the famed Santa Barbara Shellfish Company, is the recipient of reviews on a variety of sites:
When trying to decide where it would be best for your local business to win reviews, it can help to look at the +Local pages of your direct competitors to see which third party platforms, if any, are being highlighted, as in the above screenshot.
You should also research which review sites appear to be most active in your locale. For example, in California, Yelp is an incredibly active website, but it may be less so in other parts of the country. Your state or city may even have locally-relevant review sites that your community is using. The idea is to get your business profiled anywhere that your potential customers might leave a review so that you are building a broad, web-based portfolio of positive reviews over time.
20. Page authority of Places landing page URL
Similar to the concept of Domain Authority of a whole website described in point #7 of this guide, this ranking factor relates to the authority of the specific website page linked to from your Google+ page. For many companies, this will simply be the homepage of the website, but for businesses with multiple locations or practitioners, other pages on the website may have been designated as the landing pages. You can get a sense of your landing page’s Page Authority using www.opensiteexplorer.org.
Open Site Explorer uses Page Authority to predict a specific page’s ability to rank well, based on an algorithmic combination of link metrics, MozRank, MozTrust and other factors. Because of the influence organic factors have on local rankings, the higher your landing page’s Page Authority, the better your chances of becoming dominant in the local search results.
You made it!
Now you’re off to a good start! You understand the top twenty most important local search ranking factors. Your next task is to move on to the rest of the eighty-three foundational factors, and from there to the competitive difference maker factors and then the negative factors. I consider the study of Local Search Ranking Factors to be essential and exciting homework for every Local SEO and local business owner on the planet. Taking the time to understand the concepts represented by each factor can spell success for any local business you own or market.