Relocation, Relocation, Relocation – A “New” Local Ranking Tactic?

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:

Attorneys in Scottsdale, Arizona

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.

Related Topics: Channel: Local | Local Search Column

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • http://localsearchforum.catalystemarketing.com/ Linda Buquet

    Excellent points Chris!

    Businesses that DO move (hopefully for legit reasons, not to game Google) also should be aware, you can’t just edit your existing G+ Local listing. You need to mark the old location closed and start a new listing. This creates a new CID so you essentially start over in the ranking cycle, as well as losing previous reviews and citations as Chris mentioned.

  • David Burdon

    Yup the centroid can be a real locational problem. However, in the UK this is also
    affected by postcode. I worked for a hotel in city of 200,000 people that had the “wrong”
    postcode, despite it being the second nearest hotel to the centroid in strict distance terms.
    Hotels, with the “right” postcode, a mile further out of the city, found
    it easier to get ranked. The hotel was 500 years old, so relocating it was out of the question!

  • Silver Smith

    David, postal code errors can be nightmarish in the US as well. In a number of local directories, when you try to enter a business address, the directory system may not even allow you to do so if they have an incorrect city/postal-code association in their database. If Google determines your post code is outside of the city outline, it could indeed affect your likelihood of ranking.
    Were you tempted to change the postcode to an incorrect one, just to see if that would help enable your hotel’s likely-deserved rankings in Google?

  • http://twitter.com/seocharlie Carlos Chacón l SEO

    Great post Chris!
    I do believe Google can´t understand the relocation quickly and it can be
    confusing and frustrating if you have some SERP´s already. We don´t have this
    issue in small countries or cities like mine (San Jose, Costa Rica), but local
    signs are more important for ranking purposes now than ever. Maybe the ccTLD
    should be useful in cases like that.

  • http://twitter.com/SEOPRO4U SEOPRO4U

    Because SEO is about doing many things well, relocation to a more “relevant” or geo-centric area could be a positive factor in rankings. If you’re already considering relocation, it couldn’t hurt to use this metric as one of many factors in selecting a location. I would not base relocation on this alone, but it could fit into an overall strategy. It’s all about the edge.

  • http://twitter.com/winlocal WinLocal GmbH

    Great post! Thx

    Relocation can cause real problems, particularly with Google+ Local. It’s important to keep track of local citations and take the time to update them. Otherwise Google might create dublicate listings on Plus Local again and again. We’ve also seen clients whose new and old address was being mixed up as a result of local citations, which was very frustrating for business owners.

  • http://twitter.com/MySweetiQ Sweet IQ

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Chris.
    I agree with you when you say “consider bringing locational popularity to you, instead of chasing after it” This is what I call a “Pull” strategy and I think it would definitely bring better results.

  • http://twitter.com/N0LAJoe Joseph Henson

    Awesome post, Chris! To add another level of issue with relocation, a good deal of businesses don’t even REALLY relocate. They purchase a virtual office address (>.<) smack dab in the middle of the "centroid" and end up using the same exact address (often the same suite number) as other businesses that are already using that virtual office service.

  • Silver Smith

    True. Google has contributed to this, unfortunately, since they have pushed addressless businesses to suppress their location and select “service areas”, which will not rank as effectively.

  • Silver Smith

    I should have also quoted what many others recommended in search marketing: “Focus on quality, and stop trying to chase the algorithm.” But, I also think that if people had better understanding of the algorithmic processes and trends, they’d be more likely to choose sustainable, longterm strategies instead of chasing the algo.

  • Silver Smith

    Exactly. People should be aware that relocation brings with it significant risks to search rankings. Best to avoid for mere ranking goals — relocate to satisfy other business needs.

  • Silver Smith

    I agree that location is definitely a factor, but there are so many other factors which don’t incur similar risks that it very nearly cancels any potential advantage. It’s about like starting anew!

  • Silver Smith

    Thanks, Carlos. Google local algorithms sometimes seem to lag behind in updating for non-US and non-European countries. So, it’s possible that Costa Rican algorithms might be still on an older version. Also, I know that Google has special teams devoted to specific regions, and I’ve seen UI and algorithms operate differently in other countries than in the US — it’s unclear to me how Google decides what will be standard for each country’s local search system. Undoubtedly, the PlaceRank popularity signals are the same or very similar in many cases, but I know it’s also complicated by how robust (or not) the data is in countries such as in Central America.

  • Silver Smith

    Yes, it does not seem an ideal way for them to handle it.

  • Jason Lancaster

    Centroid or no, the fact remains that businesses operating outside the city center are less likely to show up in search results than businesses operating in a nearby suburb. While I’m sure you’re technically correct when you say centroid doesn’t matter, the larger point hasn’t changed. If your metro area is small enough to be referred to with a single city name, but large enough to have multiple suburbs, it’s wise to open an office in the main city.

    In other words, you can’t rank in the local results pack for “Denver career counselor” without moving into Denver, even if most people in the Denver metro would be willing to travel to Aurora, Lakewood, Littleton, or half a dozen other suburbs.

    SO, to sum up, we should remove the word “centroid” from our vocabulary but keep talking about being in the middle of whatever metro area are clients are marketing to, as that’s basically what you’re saying. Correct?

  • http://www.facebook.com/albanylawyer Warren Redlich

    One strategy would be to stay in your present location but open a new office in the desired location, even if it’s a satellite office.

  • http://twitter.com/TorusCopywriter Torus Copywriter

    No point selling plumbing to New Delhi when you live in New York

  • http://twitter.com/BrewSEO BrewSEO

    Did you know that business in the centroid of America rank higher than companies on the coasts? That is why Omniture ranks higher than it’s competitors ;)

  • Thomas Zickell

    I do some investing and I partnered with a company that is national however the services we provide are ones that are looked at primarily for people that don’t believe that they can be handled by a national company but only done by local people for workers if I may say. For us to have virtual offices everywhere represents the truth unfortunately Google might not see it that way so we use our people will give you X off your then have to legally make a make them nothing less than a official office of our company. I believe Google’s algorithm checks publicly available information about where one lives or has a office. They should allow a company like ours to simply prove ourselves to be real operators in that area there are many ways of doing it I’m sure Google has thought of a lot of them however I do know from personal experience virtual offices to work Google does catch on the penalty was not so bad. To Google it appears we look like we are changing or adding I should say because that is the truth offices constantly. It is been a year of refinement to find out what the sweet spot is only to know cool play with the numbers again and the arithmetic with different however what a lot of you gentlemen have said is correct I believe Google wants what their people want and for you to have strong strong brand. Think our users would handle somebody misleading them in business if you do that you will not fare well most likely if you do farewell you most likely don’t deserve it. We all know after panda and Penguin there’s no more free lunch were not even allowed to beat up a kid for lunch money anymore in some ways it’s good in others it’s bad. I will stop babbling and leave you with this I truly believe that Google checks the local records how do I believe this we are ranking for very competitive keywords in every major city.

  • Thomas Zickell

    How do you rank on the U.S. Postal Service they are extremely sane organization with no history of crazy or odd behavior. I’m so mad I may go postal just kidding of course kinda

  • Thomas Zickell

    did you do it On the website as well? and directories? many many buildings are used by more than company or subsidiary of the company they are tied together maybe but legally they are separate entities Google understands this and I believe you should have had no trouble doing exactly what you explained.

  • http://twitter.com/jamesatbuzz James @ Buzz Online

    Centroid, as I understand it, totally matters! There’s no doubt about it, and it’s kind of horrendous i.e the results are not as good as they could be (read; lame!). Look at seafood restaurants Seattle. Those for the most part do not give “as good a rendition or impression of Seattle seafood restaurants as is possible” – for the most part they do exist on the waterfront smack in the middle of downtown Seattle, or in downtown Seattle proper (Blueacre) or in the Pike Place Market – about a 1 mile radius. No problem w/ the results as far as the restaurants are concerned minus the Crab Pot (come on!). And they’r'e big, clunky looking results – just the design – and it looks awful. Is that the absolute BEST Google and it’s 10k employees can do? Honestly? Really? Anyway, these results don’t showcase other – more popular Seattle neighborhoods. Downtown Seattle is not “as” popular on any metric as Capitol Hill, Ballard, and surrounding Seattle neighborhoods, both as far as restaurants are concerned, and great Seafood spots as well – again, for the most part, great Seafood results as far as the individual businesses are concerned. As far as Seattle restaurant search results are concerned, these examples go on all day long. Frustrating.

  • http://twitter.com/eadamquinn E Adam Quinn

    Great read; seems like businesses who are willing to move to change rankings should really be focusing on their core business. One thing I have been considering is the effect of mobile search on local results, where the user is actually the centroid – effectively eliminating any sort of control you can have over proximity (unless you figured out a way to stalk mobile users).

    Local search still seems to be the wild west. I am excited to see how things shake down.

 

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