The Top 10 Ranking Factors for Local Search
If you own a local business or manage the website of one, you've probably noticed that getting to the top of local searches requires a very different approach than trying to rank nationally. Let's take a look at the most influential ranking factors as well as how they have changed in the last few years.
A while back we published an article about the top 20 ranking factors for local search on Google. It was a hugely popular article, and using it as a guideline helped many SEO practitioners and small business owners get their sites boosted to the top of local search results. While we've covered some of the big changes to the ranking algorithms (like Mobilegeddon), it's been a while since we've really dived deep into the whole list.
Local SEO Guide, in an effort with Places Scout, performed an in-depth quantitative analysis of ranking factors by looking at a huge number of businesses and tracking the statistical correlation between various factors and the rankings each business achieved. If you want the nitty gritty details, you can find that here. Rather than regurgitate their analysis, we are going to cover the important points and discuss each in relation to what we have seen on our own clients' listings. So without further ado...
Top 10 Local Search Ranking Factors
Google has stated that local business listings would start relying more heavily on traditional organic ranking factors, and now the data clearly shows this. These are listed SOMEWHAT in order of importance, and we will mark each one as "Local" or "Organic," so you can see the relative prevalence of organic website ranking.
1. Google Reviews - Yes, Google still gives reviews on their platform more weight than others. Important things to note here are that 1) the number of reviews is MORE important than the actual rating, assuming that rating is above average, and 2) reviews from 3rd party sites are still important but don't have quite the impact that reviews on Google itself do.
2. Backlinks - This could be a topic all by itself, but we'll cut to the chase. Get as many QUALITY backlinks as possible. Quality over quantity. This can't be stressed enough.
3. Google My Business Profile - Visits to your profile, number of pictures uploaded by you AND guests, and overall engagement are what matter here. Get those pictures up!
4. Keywords - Keywords are still vitally important, both in quantity and in density. Having a keyword show up so many times that it looks unnatural is bad. Having the right proportion of keywords/text is called keyword density. Some SEO "gurus" argue that there is an optimum density, but our experience is that you should work in the keywords as many times as you can without being obvious about it. This rule of thumb will leave you in good shape and not waste time. And since you DO want more quanity of keywords, that just means you have to have more content in which to place them (see number 8).
5. Citations / NAP (Name Address Phone) - You business is identified across the web primarily by its Name, Address, and Phone number. This information is found in directory listings, your Google My Business page, on your social channels, etc. Having a huge number of these "citation listings" is not quite as important as it used to be, but what is CRITICALLY important is that the ones that do exist have matching information. We constantly run into situations where businesses hit ranking plateaus because they have a bunch of outdated/incorrect listings published. Tracking all of your listings down can be a challenge, and correcting them all can be a costly nightmare... but it is 100% worth it. Once you have accurate listings in the top 30-50 directories though, you are fully optimized. Spending more on additional citations is not cost effective at that point.
6. Keyword in Business Name - Ok, so this one is a bit infuriating. Having the keyword as part of your business name still makes a huge difference. We have had more than one client who, despite blowing away their competition in every possible way, cannot get to the top spot because of some business with a cheap, spammy name, like "Downtown Steakhouse." That's not a real example, but you get the idea. Why Google still rewards this kind of tactic is beyond comprehension. We do still expect this to eventually die off, but we have no clue when that might happen. The sooner the better.
7. Mobile Friendly - Initially this was only important to searches on mobile devices (which SHOULD still matter to you, as over 50% of searches are on mobile devices), but now this factors in to all searches, despite the user's platform. You simply have no excuse not to have a mobile friendly website in 2017. Search results aside, why would you want to immediately allienate over half of your visitors right off the bat? Responsive website designs mean you no longer have to have separate desktop and mobile sites, at least in most cases. If you're not mobile friendly, give us a shout. We'll get you up to speed.
8. Content - We have been preaching this for a while, even though most SEO companies weren't stressing it. Content is king, and an abundance of content on each page is equally important. "Thin" pages are not treated as having any real value. A good target is about 1000 words of original content per page. This is quickly becoming a performance differentiator as it requires more effort to achieve than many of the other factors. (To give you a rough idea, this article is just over 1000 words...)
9. Social Media Engagement - Followers, likes, shares... All of these provide very valuable signals. The trick here is that they also all require you to be active on social media. Provide engaging posts that people will want to share, but keep self promotional posts at or below 10% of the total. You don't have to create the next viral sensation, but if you do, even better.
10. City and State in Title Tags - We're listing this one because of it's relative UNimportance. This has been a mainstay of local SEO optimization for as long as we can remember, but the data shows that it simply does not matter at all. We're still a little hesitant to remove it completely from sites, but if we run into a situation where we have to choose between a great sounding title and including it, we'll choose the great title.
The study confirmed a lot of the suspicions we have had about the current algorithm. For a company who specializes in SEO like we do, this is good news and bad news. On the one hand, it's great because it means the tactics we have been employing are correct. On the other hand, it also means that local ranking is becoming much harder, which means it will require more time and/or money for our clients to get the same results compared to years passed. SEO is still has the best ROI of any marketing tactic available, but many small businesses are going to struggle to get over the first hurdle.