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The big picture guide to local SEO: ranking in 2016 & beyond
Columnist Marcus Miller provides a comprehensive look into ranking factors for local search, including negative ranking factors and ways to differentiate yourself from the competition.
Local SEO is getting more difficult for many businesses. Google’s move from seven to three listings in the local pack, and the threat of various ads in the local space, has created a fiercely competitive environment for local businesses. Suffice it to say, if you wish to rank in that three pack in 2016 and beyond, your local SEO has to be 100 percent on point.
In this article, I want to take a look at the primary local SEO ranking factors, along with the major competitive difference-makers and negative ranking factors. I will break down each of these to ensure that you have a solid, strategic local SEO game plan.
Local SEO: the state of play
In a hotbed of organic search competition, the local results have been a source of salvation for many local businesses. They give users looking for local businesses an easy way to distinguish local from organic, and rankings are relatively straightforward. Having a physical address and proximity to the searcher as ranking factors gave every local business a potential shot at attracting customers from search engines.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Google has recently reduced the size of the local pack, so now only three businesses are shown in the SERPs (unless users click through to see expanded results).
And the bad news does not stop there. Ads are starting to creep into the local results, and we have the ever-looming threat of home service ads eating up standard AdWords text ads and local listings.
In 2016, local results are as fierce a battleground as the organic and paid listings. Results can change on what seems to be a daily basis — and to be in the running, you have to be paying close attention to the fine details.
Local SEO: ranking factors
Every year, Moz surveys the big names in the local SEO space and compiles the results into a comprehensive Local SEO Ranking Factors report. I am proud to say I contribute to this report, along with many others, and the results provide the best overview of exactly what you can do to improve your local visibility.
While this report is an asset to Local SEOs and small businesses, it is not terribly actionable on its own. My intention here is to clearly explain what each of these factors means and how you can use this information to rank your business in the local results (localized organic and the local pack).
And sure, we all know that Google My Business, citations and local specific optimization of your site are big, important factors here. But search engines use a multitude of signals to determine final positioning. So although these big signals are important, we want to delve deeper. We want to do the jobs our competitors won’t. We want to perfect the big, obvious factors but also really nail that last 10 percent.
The rest of this post will look at the ranking factors and detail what you need to do to optimize for a given factor. This draws on our experience with hundreds of local SEO clients at Bowler Hat. This should help you form a battle plan to identify your opportunities and weak spots in your current approach.
Ranking factors are categorized as follows:
- Overall ranking factors
- Local pack ranking factors
- Localized organic ranking factors
- Negative ranking factors
- Competitive ranking factors
We will look at the top 10 factors in each category so that you can improve your visibility and positioning, not only in the local pack, but also the localized organic. We will also cover the negative ranking factors so you can understand anything that is working against you.
Overall ranking factors
The image below shows the top eight local ranking factors. These are the general factors that will have a positive impact on both local and localized organic results, and this should represent your main areas of focus.
My goal in this column is to explain these in a little more detail, provide guidance where possible within the scope of a single article, and finally, provide some links to external resources where needed.
Let’s get started.
1. On-page signals (20.3 percent)
I often tell clients who are new to SEO that we can simplify SEO down to two key areas: relevance and authority.
On-page signals account for the relevance portion here — and in local SEO, relevance can also be broken down into two key areas: services and geography.
So in simple terms, we want to ensure we clearly indicate the services we provide and the locations in which we will provide them. If you are a dentist, then you only provide the service from your location; if you are a locksmith, you will travel farther afield.
We really don’t want to over-technologize this aspect — think of everything your potential customer needs to be sure that you provide the exact service they require, in the location they require it, and that you are very good at it and highly credible. Nail this, and then just make sure you piece it all together in the right way.
You are going to want to consider the following key on-page local SEO elements:
- Title tags
- Meta descriptions
- Header tags
- Page content
- Name, address and phone (NAP) on every page (with schema markup, ideally)
You are going to want to include some specific elements to illustrate credibility, too:
- External reviews
Page titles are critical here, so you will want to ensure you clearly indicate the service, location, and brand in the page titles. Be sure to weave in the keywords that help folks make a decision. Don’t be spammy — this can be done sensibly.
Consider a locksmith in Birmingham UK that provides a 24/7 service with emergency callout response within 60 minutes.
24/7 Emergency Locksmith - On site within 60 mins | Mr Locks
Site structure is critical here, so if you have multiple offices or locations, then ensure that it is simple for a user and a search engine to understand.
On-page really relates to how you structure your site and what you include on all the pages, so as the complexity of the business scales, so does what falls under this umbrella.
- Local SEO Landing Pages 2.0 — A detailed overview of location landing pages
- Anatomy of an Optimal Local Landing Page — A service/location page overview
2. Link signals (20.0 percent)
With our high-level look at relevance and authority, if on-page elements are the relevance part, then link signals are one of the key ways in which we build authority.
Removing local from the picture, domain-level and page-level link signals are still the key factors driving rank. Things are not always the same in local SEO land, as location trumps many traditional factors, but they can still play a part, and often an important one, in competitive niches.
Likewise, this is a particularly difficult area to talk about in general terms, as the right links are very specific to a given business. However, I can offer some general guidelines regarding what we have seen working for our local SEO clients around the world.
- No links. Seriously! For many small and hyper-local businesses, getting your Google My Business profile, citations and on-page optimization dialed in can be enough.
- Location-specific links. Any link from a credible source relevant for your location will likely be helpful.
- Industry-specific links. A link from any site that is relevant to your industry will tend to be advantageous. This can be a directory with an industry-specific section, industry-specific sites or directories, or anything that is relevant, real and topical. Competitor research of well-ranking sites can be useful here, as can the topical categories in Majestic.
- Authority sites. A link from an authority site rarely hurts, so long as it is done well. Try to create something deserving of links and get true editorial links from these sites.
When pursuing backlinks, the guiding rule should be quality. Is this a real site? Will it generate referral traffic? Is the link editorially placed? Does the link add value to the post in which it is placed? Is there something of real value on your site for people to link to?
There is some staggeringly bad advice out there about linking in general, so I want to tread very carefully with my recommendations here. I tend to believe that if you can get your link-building philosophy correct first, then it helps considerably.
- Ultimate Guide to Link Building — A book by Link Moses himself, Eric Ward
- Link Building Tactics — The Complete List — A comprehensive list of link building tactics by Point Blank SEO
- Ass Backwards Link Building — A primer on creating valuable, linkworthy content
3. My Business signals (14.7 percent)
Optimizing your Google My Business page is pretty much a wizard-driven process, but it’s critical to ensure you get the basics right:
- Verify or create your page.
- Use the correct name, address, phone number and web address (NAP+W).
- Assign the correct categories.*
- Create a standout cover photo.
- Upload any relevant photos.
- Create a description of your business that covers the important points.**
- Add your address or important elements of it to your description if it makes sense to do so.
- Add a special offer or call-to-action in your description if it makes sense to do so.
- Get a Google partner photographer to create a Google Virtual Tour of your business.
- Aim to get at least five reviews on your Google My Business page.
- Reply to any and all reviews — even bad ones.
*The categories point is important — not only is it a positive ranking factor, but it is also a negative one if done incorrectly. Google has a nasty habit of changing layouts, so I don’t want to give specific instructions here, other than to say that you should Google your search terms and look at the competition. The category is usually listed next to the business name, as it is for Bowler Hat in the image below with “Internet Marketing Service” as the category.
**Please, please don’t over-optimize your description! It won’t help, and it could hurt. Write it for your customers, and lightly optimize for search engines.
Don’t overcook this one. Do it right and do it well, but don’t obsess over it.
- Google My Business Guide — The small business guide to Google My Business, by Simply Business.
4. External location signals (13.6 percent)
Google wants to triangulate the address information on your website with the information on Google My Business, and then validate this with the information on your business from around the web. There are two key elements to consider here:
- NAP consistency. Your Name, Address and Phone number (+ your web address) is your location fingerprint. You need this to be consistent around the web.
- Citations. These are listings of your business around the web. They can range from business directories like the yellow pages through to mentions on social media platforms. Keep your information consistent so Google can trust it.
It’s easy to overcomplicate this stuff, so think of external location signals like this:
- Google crawls the web looking at address details for your business.
- Google finds four different addresses.
- Google finds two different phone numbers.
- Google finds three variations of the business name.
- Google finds duplicate listings on some yellow pages style sites.
Google then does not know if you have one company or many. One office or many. The algorithm simply can’t trust the data. And that is what we are talking about here: trust. Can Google use the information out there in the wider ecosystem to verify the information on your website and Google My Business page?
Write down all your historical addresses, phone numbers and any business name or website variations and start doing some searches. Locate any duplicate or out-of-date information and get it cleaned up.
If it helps, make use of local SEO tools (but I prefer to use Google itself for this task). If you do want to use a tool, BrightLocal is the one we use and the one that I believe has the best overall toolset for Local SEO.
5. Behavioral/mob signals (9.5 percent)
2015 saw an increase in the perceived value of click-through from the search results. Simply put, make sure you get the SEO basics sorted:
- Page titles
- Meta descriptions
- Schema review markup
Consider search engines, but write these for the very people you are hoping will click!
6. Personalization (8.5 percent)
The results are personalized for individual users based around what they search for. You can’t really influence this with local SEO alone, but any other advertising — PPC, display or, heaven forbid, offline advertisements — that influences how people search and see your site can be useful. Personalization hits home, more so in the (localized) organic results.
- Local SEO beyond the browser
- Local SEO Is Not An Island (Or At Least It Shouldn’t Be!)
- Printing your way to SEO success
7. Review signals (8.4 percent)
Reviews help. Whether they help with specific positioning or they help by driving engagement with your listing is up for debate. I think it can be a bit of both, but it also depends on the competition.
Long story short: Get reviews, and you will reap any potential (likely small) ranking benefits. But perhaps more importantly, you will certainly enjoy improved interaction from the search results, which itself can have a positive effect.
8. Social signals (5.0 percent)
Do social signals have an impact on your rankings? Who really knows? My take is that this is a brand signal that adds credibility, and you can even squeeze some unstructured citations and co-occurrence of brand + keywords out of each social profile, so it can contribute.
- Be active on social media.
- Brand your profiles.
- Link to and from your site.
- Mention your address or parts of it in your bio if practical.
- Mention your keywords in your bio if practical.
Do the basics, don’t overthink it, and move swiftly along.
Local pack factors
These factors directly influence whether you appear in the local map pack in Google SERPs. Given the placement of the local pack directly below the paid search ads, this can be the most valuable non-PPC real estate on the screen. As such, we want to ensure we do all we can to optimize our ranking on these sites.
1. Address in city of search
Okay, there’s not a ton you can do about this, but if you are targeting a given city and yet your address is on the edge of the city or not quite there, then you are fighting an uphill battle. The practical advice here is to consider moving or consider getting a small satellite office in the targeted location.
2. Citation consistency
This really mirrors what we covered with the external location signals. Your citations need to be consistent. We have seen an instance over in the UK where a client changed the name of the business by adding an extra classification to the end on Yell.com, which is a major citation over here. This knocked them from a constant position in the pack across all their major keywords to a 4th and 5th place. One citation change, and they fell off the front page. Fix that citation — just the name — and they pop back.
My thoughts here are that the top 10 percent of your citations (the ones returned when you actually Google your brand) often deliver 90 percent of the results, so get those 10 percent dialed in, and ensure they are aligned with the address on your website and Google My Business listing.
3. Google categories
Ensure your business has the correct category. Again, we have seen folks really scratching their heads on why they don’t rank, and fixing the categorization has simply popped them into the pack. If your categorization is incorrect, then you will struggle to rank. If that is your main problem, fixing this can have almost miraculous results.
As an additional tip here, I would tend to make sure that the categorization across your citations is also looked over. This has nowhere near the impact of the Google category, but again, if you are wrongly categorized, you are sending mixed messages to the search engine.
4. Address in relation to search location
Google factors the location you search from into the results. As an example, a search for “SEO Birmingham” shows Bowler Hat first in the local pack if I am in Birmingham, and for about a three-mile radius.
The same search from my home several miles away, but still on the very edge of Birmingham, shows us in 4th place (annoying). So, despite the desired location being stated in my search, my physical location is still factored in, and other companies that are closer to me are prioritized. You really can’t fight this one, but you should be aware of it, as local means local.
5. Quality/authority of structured citations
There are several well-known business listing sites and social sites where your business should have a presence. In the UK, it is yell.com, but the US and the world have citation sources that are important for all businesses. We also have citation sources that are specific to a given location or a specific business area.
You need to ensure that:
- you have a listing on all important citation sources (general, business category, location);
- you have a consistent NAP+W on these sites;
- you have correct categorization;
- you have a non-spammy but descriptive business description; and
- you have reviews on all important citations where possible.
Really this comes down to owning your brand. Make sure you are listed everywhere you should be listed and that these listings are correct, up to date and rich with the relevant information.
I typically like to use Google for my research, but the toolset at Bright Local can be super-useful for identifying citations that your well-ranking competitors have but you don’t.
6. Domain authority of website
Here we come back to links. In the general ranking factors undertaken by Moz, domain-level and page-level links are still the big factors here. This is still true to some extent in the local space and really kicks in when we have big cities and competitive packs.
7. Product/service keyword in Google My Business business title
This is a risky one. But it can work. Google has flip-flopped regarding classifiers, but if your business name includes the service keyword, then you can often get away with it. The trick here is to be consistent.
This is not exactly black-hat, but if you are struggling, then you can play around with this. In 90 percent of cases, we go with the legit business name, but this definitely factors for many service areas and is something you can experiment with.
8. City, state in GMB landing page title
Similar to the product or service keyword, we have seen this help, and in some cases, it is worth experimenting with. There is a lot of variability, though, and if you do this, it has to be consistent with all your citations. The only advice here is to experiment and look at this should all else fail.
9. HTML NAP matching GMB location NAP
Super-important. External location signals must match the address signals on the website. I like to see the address on every page for single-location businesses and on specific location pages for multi-location businesses.
10. Click-through rate from search results
It would seem daft for Google not to consider A) which listings get clicked and B) the engagement with a site after a user clicks. Google is all about user intent, and these are two strong signals with which to provide qualitative improvements to the results. If Google constantly returns a site #1 for a given query, but no one ever clicks on it, OR they click and bounce quickly back, well, that indicates they got things wrong and need to tweak the results.
The more traditional organic results are still heavily influenced by location factors; however, we are in much more traditional SEO waters here, and we see more traditional organic SEO ranking factors at play.
1. Domain authority of website
Domain authority is determined by the links that point to your site. It is likely that other brand signals factor in here, but links are the big differentiating factor. You must build a platform that can be used to earn and encourage linking from highly credible sources.
2. Quality/authority of inbound links to domain
The number of those links and the quality from external sources are co-factors in the overall domain authority. If you are in a competitive space, then a few of the right links can make all the difference.
3. City, state in GMB landing page title
The quality of the location landing page is critical here. These pages should be optimized with all best practices and linked through from the Google My Business (GMB) listing. Certainly, ensuring the big on-page hitters like page titles and meta descriptions are critical, as this ranking factor clearly indicates.
There is much you can do to optimize landing pages, and it all helps with localized organic.
4. Click-through rate from search results
Again, if a listing is never clicked, how relevant can it be? This is where we have to think beyond SEO and get our marketing hats on. What will make our customer click? What is our call-to-action? Get your marketing hat on here and integrate some guerilla marketing tactics into your page titles and meta descriptions to optimize click-through where possible.
5. Topical (product/service) keyword relevance of domain content
This is, to some extent, common sense. The service you are trying to rank for should be something you do and talk about and your site is highly relevant for. The Google Index > Content Keywords report in Search Console spells this out for us. If you want to rank for something without truckloads of authority, be highly relevant on that topic.
6. Diversity of inbound links to domain
Again we are back to links, and this one relates to the pattern of the links that point to your site. I really don’t see this being a huge issue for most local sites until we wade into dodgy SEO territories. Simply put, focus on real, relevant links from credible, authoritative sources, and you will be surprised how few are needed to move the dial.
7. Geographic (city/neighborhood) keyword relevance of domain content
If you focus on a given location, then it is only natural you would talk about this within your content. Don’t be tempted to spam, but look for ways to work the city/location into the content on the site. I am a big fan of an address on every page for single-location businesses with this marked up with Schema to ensure we at least have the full address on each page once. You can then just sprinkle over a few more mentions of the location when it’s natural to do so.
8. Physical address in city of search
This is where we see signals from maps creeping in. Consider a Venn diagram with the relevance of the page/domain closely followed by signals from Google maps. If I search for an SEO company in Birmingham, I want them to be in Birmingham, so address signals complement and verify the content on the optimized landing page.
9. Quality/authority of structured citations
As with address in the city of search, I see the citations as being a co-factor used to verify the physical address. We can see co-occurrence of keywords on your citations and some brand signals coming into play here, but what is good for the local pack also helps with the local organic.
10. City, state in most/all website title tags
This is a factor that can only be used for single-location businesses. Or, if a multi-location business has a landing page or microsite, we can use this approach. We tend to prefer to keep this to just city.
Plumbing Services - Bob the Plumber, Birmingham
Emergency Plumbing - Bob the Plumber, Birmingham
Negative ranking factors
Negative ranking factors are most often a mirror image of positive ranking factors. By concentrating on getting the positive ranking factors in place, negative factors are often not a huge issue. However, this does provide a mirror with which to look at your Local SEO and a way in which to identify any issues.
1. Incorrect business category
If your business is incorrectly categorized, in many cases it simply won’t rank. Fix this and watch the magic happen!
2. Listing detected at false business address
This one should be obvious. If you are not using a real business address, then you are playing a risky game. We have seen folks get away with this, but we have also seen people struggling to put the pieces back together for way too long after being caught out.
3. Mismatch NAP/tracking phone numbers across data ecosystem
We have seen this cause huge issues. It’s nice to know who called and where from, but this does not play nice with local SEO. Marketing insight and intelligence is a wondrous thing, but if the leads dry up due to intelligence platform, then you must question the approach.
4. Presence of malware on site
Obvious one. You must handle security and maintenance across your site in a proactive manner. From malware to reputation issues to black-hat SEO, or even stolen or redirected traffic, get your security dialed in or enlist someone to take care of it. For WordPress sites, I recommend wArmour.)
5. Reports of violations on your Google My Business location
Google My Business is a complicated affair. There are things we can’t or should not do that are listed as positive ranking factors. There are things you may try that could come in as a violation, such as listing your business category or location in the business name. In my experience, being compliant with the guidelines is always the best approach. Start 100 percent clean, and focus on the things you can change quickly.
If you have issues ranking or are starting up, then play by the rules. It makes life a whole lot easier.
6. Mismatch NAP/tracking phone number on GMB landing page
Again, this comes down to data inconsistencies, and unless you have a consistent NAP across your website, landing page, Google My Business and citations, you will struggle.
7. Mismatch address on GMB landing page
This again comes down to these foundational issues. The address on the GMB landing page must be the same as the address on GMB and on all citations.
8. Presence of multiple GMB locations with same phone number
Again we come back to this triangulation issue. If a location has a single local phone number and that is used across the website, citations and Google My Business, this is simple to understand. Where we have multiple locations, things get more difficult in many ways, but this is a simple way to draw a clear line between multiple locations.
If you are struggling to rank multiple locations, and they use the same number, certainly take this into consideration. For other tips for multi-location businesses, see “Top 5 Issues Wrecking Local SEO For Multi-Location Businesses.”
9. Absence of crawlable NAP on website
Another aspect that comes down to allowing Google to understand your address and use that in the triangulation between Google My Business and your citations.
10. Address includes suite number similar to UPS Mail Store or other false addresses
In most cases, this just comes down to having a legitimate business address. If you have a virtual office, and you don’t rank, then that’s because you have a virtual office. Google cares not about the size of your office, so get a broom cupboard in that location if it is important.
If you have everything dialed in and rank just outside of the visible pack, then you likely have an issue with overall competition. Focusing then on these factors will ensure you are doing all you can to usurp the current competition and earn your place in the pack or localized results.
We have covered most of these above, so I won’t dig in where that is the case:
- Consistency of structured citations.
- Domain authority of website.
- Quality/authority of inbound links to domain.
- Quality/authority of structured citations.
- Proper GMB category associations.
- Physical address in city of search.
- Quantity of native Google reviews (w/text). Implement a consistent review strategy to build these naturally over time, and keep them coming.
- Quality/authority of inbound links to GMB landing page URL. Build links to the location page from relevant and authoritative sources.
- Click-through rate from search results.
- Quality/authority of unstructured citations (newspaper articles, blog posts). Make PR part of your link-building strategy, and get mentions from the big press, big online blogs and news sites relevant to your business.
Really, when it gets competitive, you are always going to end up back at links. Think quality, not quantity, and build the kind of links that clearly differentiate you from your competition.
A strategic approach
Local SEO is getting more competitive, and that competition comes from many sides. From increased page space dedicated to ads, through to a smaller set of listings for local businesses. To get visible and stay visible in the local results, you have to prioritize your approach on the key areas, resolve any issues, and then dig into the competitive difference makers.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.