Use Universal Search To Leapfrog Local Rankings

Most locally-oriented sites focus their natural search optimization efforts on the big cities of the world — metros like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Yet there is a lot of traffic to be found in the long tail of search queries involving the many tens of thousands of smaller towns in the world. Only problem is, Google’s local ranking methods seem to particularly prefer specific types of local sites for small town name queries. Here’s one approach that can jump you past the competition and into the desired first page of results for small town searches.

Google has focused a lot of time and work on improvement of their local search results as seen in the more dramatically-apparent graphic treatments of the ten local business links seen for many local biz searches, and in the "plus box" treatment for some local search listings. Much more subtle things have been going on as well, in terms of how rankings of sites and pages are handled for local queries, and one case in point is how Google handles searches for city names, particularly for many small towns.

For instance, doing a search in Google for "Zanesville", a small town in Ohio, gives us:

Zanesville SERP

The first link below the map is to the City of Zanesville government webpage. The second is to the Wikipedia article about the city. The third link is to the "Zanesville Times Recorder" site, the webpage for the local newspaper. Interestingly, you can note that the Google Toolbar PageRank for these pages is in reverse of their ranking order: the City of Zaneville page is PR=4, the Wikipedia article is PR=5, and the newspaper is PR=6.

The search for Zanesville shows some pretty typical results for small town name searches. Whether due to some sort of specialized ranking method employed only when city names are invoked, or due to Google’s normal ranking methods, the sorts of sites which most commonly appear at the top rankings for these types of city-name searches are really very consistent:

  • Official City Government Websites
  • Local Chambers of Commerce
  • State/City Tourism Sites & Conventions, & Visitors Bureau Sites
  • Wikipedia City articles
  • Local Town Newspapers
  • Yahoo! Travel pages
  • Local Weather – (particularly by
  • Profiles of Cities (
  • .EDUs – Local Universities
  • .ORGs (such as for events, local museums, and such)
  • Local Events Venues sites
  • Local Real Estate guides
  • Local School Websites
  • Local Sports Teams

For city-name-only local queries, most other commercial sites or pages appear to be operating at more of a disadvantage in terms of ranking ability, and this seems somewhat independent of their overall PageRank and keyword signal values. For these local town queries, it would appear that the type of site is figuring in heavily for whether or not the link will appear on the first page.

One method Google could be using for this purpose would be Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) — identifying the geographic themes of the websites and associating them with other related sites about the local area. (I’ve written before on how things like the keywords Google identifies within a site could be used by them to create semantic/thematic associations.)

The types of sites Google is predisposed towards in local town name rankings seems somewhat arbitrary. Conventional wisdom would have it that most users would probably be seeking city guide types of content, local entertainment, and city business information way before they’d be seeking articles about the history of the city or pages full of census data. With the extensive focus Google has placed on local search in recent years, one can’t help but wonder whether Google wouldn’t be planning to perhaps further customize their search results for small towns.

More robust layouts like Ask’s local search results pages for small town searches (see Zanesville on Ask) would likely provide a lot better comparative user experience in most cases.

If you have a site or page that’s targeted to a particular small town, but you’re completely edged off of page one by all these other apparently-preferred sites, one way to trump the bias might be to create and post a YouTube video with that city name. For instance, when I do a search for "Snook, Tx" in Google, the third link down is to this YouTube video posted by the Texas Country Reporter. In this case, Google’s Universal Search process appears to have kicked in to interject the video link into the top of the search results.

The Texas Country Reporter might never rank on page one for "Snook" searches, but their video does, and the YouTube entry has been built to include a number of references to the website. If you followed the approach that they did, you could create a little video about the small town, and then provide links back to your local page from the YouTube video.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Local Search Column | SEO: Local


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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