I am continually amazed by, and thankful for, the efforts of the Local Search Ranking Factors panelists. The survey remains one of the most visited pages on my website (right up there with my blog’s homepage) despite being static for 364 days a year. I receive weekly or even semi-weekly emails or comments thanking me for putting the study together; credit really should go to the participants!
It’s clearly a lot to digest in one sitting, so in this month’s SEL column, I thought I would take a little deeper look at a few of the responses that I found most interesting. While these responses represent the collective wisdom of the panelists, in general, they’re pretty closely aligned with my personal opinions as well.
Does SEO make a difference?
Traditional on-page SEO ranked last among general signals, 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 webpage. For instance, restaurants may have powerful profiles on places like 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 (or even like pay-per-click, as I suggested a couple of months ago).
Location, Location, Location
Having a location in the city being searched for was identified as the single most important ranking factor this year. 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 spammers 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
Citations from major data providers shot up the 2009 list to the second most important ranking factor. If you haven’t figured it out yet, 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.
To that end, the Internet Yellow Pages need to figure out how to monetize the value they provide in concert with Google, rather than trying to sell exclusively their own products. To serve their customers, the Yellow Pages also need to place much more of an emphasis on consolidating minor business name variations among their print customers, and introduce more stringent standards as to who can create a listing in their online versions.
For more about data providers and Local Search, tune into the Search Marketing Now webcast coming up next week with Gib Olander of Localeze, Jonathan Cohn of Acxiom, and Pankaj Mathur of infoUSA.
Know who you are
Proper categorization remained one of this year’s most important factors, as Hanan Lifshitz identified in his recent column. The interaction of category with search phrase remains a bit of a black box to Local Search marketers…we just know that it seems to be important!
Hanan may be right that as we move more and more towards keyword-based directories, categories may matter less. However, I still contend that 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, in my opinion. 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.
Nonetheless, marginal categorization was this year’s “most improved” factor, signifying that it’s working for many marketers in the trenches.
Reviews gained in importance this year, at least as a general signal. I’m somewhat amazed that Positive Customer Ratings were only ranked #35 out of 41 helpful factors, although I don’t disagree with my fellow panelists. I’m just amazed that they don’t seem to matter more 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.
I’ll be presenting more Local Search nuggets in tandem with Mike Blumenthal at SMX East in October, so if you haven’t registered yet, now’s the time.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.