Google’s marketshare and success at fighting spam in rankings continues to create pressure in the local search ecosystem as businesses vie to rank higher than one another in various markets. Some businesses are now resorting to relocating under the assumption that this will give them an advantage in rankings. Will it? Read on to find out.
In larger markets such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and New York, the competition to achieve top rankings in highly contested business categories (such as hotels, restaurants, florists, attorneys, dentists, chiropractors, real estate agents, etc.) can be very fierce.
Many of the companies in the top slots “get it” to some degree or another — they know that they have to engage fairly aggressively in online promotions to achieve and hold their positions on the first pages of search results for their ideal keyword combinations.
Unfortunately, they can sometimes rise and fall abruptly and alarmingly, causing consternation. Google makes hundreds of changes to its algorithms and design of the search results pages each year, and many of these changes can affect the local search rankings to one degree or another. Local search results in Google arguably can involve more variables than nearly any other type of Web content, and they can involve a number of interlocking processes or the combined influence of multiple algorithms.
Just consider that Google incorporates hundreds of business data sources — from Internet yellow pages to business review sites to mapping sites and hyper-local blogs — and all of these various business information sites are on different update cycles that can be absorbed on different days of the month for Google Places updates.
Why Shortcuts Are Never The Answer
When businesses abruptly experience a drop in rankings, they sometimes cast about for an explanation or a solution and end up following red herrings. They’re not alone. New businesses — or businesses newly attempting to compete on the Internet — also will try to come up with shortcuts to ranking quickly.
Anyone who has been a search marketer for any length of time will probably have heard of some of these fictitious shortcuts or quick fixes to achieve top rankings in local results. They can include: deployment of dozens of microsites; keyword spamming of the business website pages; inflation of user reviews of the business or infliction of negative reviews against competitors; and purchasing of cheap link-building services from offshore companies.
Unfortunately, the way Google’s local search has worked historically, and a number of coincidental rankings of businesses in many categories have combined with people’s poor understanding of local rankings have resulted in a whole new optimization tactic when none of the other shortcuts pan out: relocation of the business premises.
It’s possible that these businesses have read past analyses and recommendations on local search which described how Google showed preferential ranking evaluations for businesses nearest to city centroids. Some of us began noting this tendency toward displaying businesses nearest the city in roughly 2006-2007. In fact, I even joked back then about how businesses could relocate to be closer to city centroids as an extreme optimization tactic. Unfortunately, what was once a joke is now being seriously considered as a viable ranking tactic.
However, Google has changed how geographic proximity functions in the algorithm, and they’ve also changed the relative weighting of this factor multiple times at this point. So, strictly speaking, proximity to the centroid of the city is no longer a factor at all.
When users perform a search for a business for a particular city, Google does give preference to businesses located within that city’s border, but it doesn’t matter if the business is closest to the geographic center of the polygon formed by the city outline.
As an example of this, you can look at Scottsdale, Arizona, which has a long, narrow north-south shape, and compare with how businesses in a competitive category are plotted on the map:
As you can see, the top attorneys in Scottsdale are spread out along that north-south axis, within the outline of the city limits. There are quite a few attorneys located just outside the outline of the city, including in nearby downtown Phoenix and Tempe, which I’d argue might otherwise be more popular.
Also, the actual centroid of Scottsdale is about ten miles north of the downtown area — so, if the geographic center was a stronger factor, some of these would almost certainly be ranking in the first seven search results for attorneys in Scottsdale. (And, yes, there are definitely a number of law firms which are in the area closer to the true centroid which are not ranking high.)
Now, a number of marketers are using the word “centroid,” even though they know that the polygonal centerpoint is no longer really influencing location rankings in Google. For them, it’s just a shorthand for saying “area where businesses cluster inside city limits.” But, this reiteration is adding to the confusion that businesses have about what is and isn’t influential in local rankings.
When Proximity Matters More
There are a number of additional factors that are also involved in determining the influence of location proximity on local searches. For one, the location of the searcher seems to be increasing as a determining factor for which businesses might be ranked highest — the location of the user’s IP address, particularly for wireless devices, is now influencing local search results more heavily. Also, personalization factors, such as previous local searches, can also influence what’s likely to be displayed tops.
But, one big factor involves how Google PlaceRank assesses the relative popularity of locations. Simply put, the popularity of the neighborhood or district where your business is located may be strongly influencing whether your business is going to be displayed near the top of the search results for that city. The algorithmic assumption is that businesses located in more popular areas within a metro area may be more important/popular than businesses located in a less-traveled, less-popular location.
The old “location, location, location” adage that implies that a local business’s success is determined by where it is located has taken on a whole new reality in Google’s local search algorithm.
This helps to further explain why business in Scottsdale are more likely to rank when they’re located in the downtown area of that city, as opposed to those which are located within the city near the geographic centroid. It appears that proximity assessments give beneficial weighting to businesses that are (1) located within the city limits, and (2) those located in more popular districts.
But, all of the other factors involved in local rankings are also coming into play, so merely being located in the more popular districts is not going to give a business an automatic advantage over others in a hotly contested vertical. Being an established, well-ranking business in a category carries with it some level of “incumbent advantage,” making it harder to depose.
Having a preponderance of citations reinforcing the business’s existence at that location, along with numbers of name searches, numbers of reviews, clicks for driving directions, clicks to view their site or their Place Page, numbers of links from quality sources — all these other factors further define which business will get top dog status.
Is Relocation The Answer?
In Dallas, I’ve recently heard of impatient attorneys in some cheaper-rent districts in North Dallas who are planning to relocate closer to downtown, merely because they have gotten the mistaken impression that this will rapidly solve their ranking problems. I’ve also heard similar rumblings from other major cities in the US and for other business types.
Relocation, in fact, could cause a business a great deal more problems in rankings than it will provide advantage. Google doesn’t handle business relocations very well — you immediately can lose citation value as you must update all the references to your business in various online business directories, Internet yellow pages, blogs, news stories, press releases — anywhere your address is mentioned. That’s a daunting task, unless you’re using the service of a business listing management company.
Further, Google’s internal systems typically will disconnect the reviews associated with your business already, and they may never come back. Just changing the address reduces their trust assessment of the business, even if everything else appears to be changing in sync. I’ve heard of businesses moving just a few blocks and decimating their previously excellent rankings!
So, if you’re casting about for a way of beefing up your chances for rankings, hesitate before you attempt any sort of quick, cheap fixes, particularly relocation. If you understand the risks, also understand that you don’t need to be chasing after a centroid. If your business is within city limits, you already have an excellent chance of ranking, and if you’re in a well-traveled, popular business district, that’s even better.
But before you move to a popular neighborhood, review whether you’ve truly done all the other things necessary to promote yourself as a good business — online and offline. As I’ve suggested throughout this year, you can also take steps to promote your business’s district as well — so, consider bringing locational popularity to you, instead of chasing after it.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.