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For the 6th year on the trot David Mihm has marshalled the brains of a group of the most experienced local Internet marketers, who actually deal with clients, to reflect on what’s happened over the past year with Google’s many changes and tweaks. Although the vast majority of the participants are from the US and Canada, their experience of last year’s changes is pretty much what’s coming up in the UK as I write. This year there was only one contributor from the UK – and a guy from Malaysia so there’s a little bit of our voice in there.

In some respects the complexity of local search marketing has increased, and yet the overall picture remains quite similar to last year’s conclusions. Although Google + launched, almost as the ink dried on last year’s ranking factors report, it doesn’t seem to have affected the listings as savagely as feared. What is notable is the way Google has varied the presentation of results – so far just in the USA. As well as the familiar organic results, there is now a carousel display for some markets which replaces the more familiar local pack with map. Google Maps themselves have been given a completely new look, but it is only being released in preview mode here in the UK at present.

The consensus seems to be that the only really significant changes are the more localised organic search results and the increased percentage of search carried out from mobile devices. From my own study of SEO’s experiences, it seems as if the available evidence points to there being no separate local algorithm in the Google box of tricks: just an incredibly complex process that decides what search and what content has local intent.

It’s worth harking back to the original goal of this survey and report, over 5 years ago. David says

…to help small business owners, confused by local search or strapped for time to prioritise their marketing efforts.

Personally I found last year’s summaries really difficult to digest whereas this year the information is much more actionable.

Results have been divided into 4 sections which really do address different local business personas. We’ll look at the data first and then at the thinking behind it.

General Ranking factors for Local SEO

a) When the opinions of the team were aggregated, it was pretty clear that this year, there hadn’t been a tectonic shift in results. The top 5 most important factors remain virtually identical in importance to last year… (I thought someone said SEO was dead? Hmmm!) Overall Local Search Ranking Factors For Business Websites 1. Places Page 2. External location signals – i.e. listings and citations. 3. On page optimisation – the geeky technical stuff about writing your content! 4. Inbound links: yup that’s backlinks … another dead activity I believe. Not! 5. Reviews: The most important social signal for local businesses bar none! It’s interesting that the social, mobile and visitor behaviour factors still haven’t taken over the roost. And that’s based on a lot of client work!

Overall search ranking factors compared between mobile and desktop devices

b) When the data and anecdotal evidence from the team were put together, the same pattern emerged whether the viewing device was a desktop PC or swish smartphone “tablety thing”!

Overall Local Search Ranking Factors by result type and device c) Even when the gang broke their results down into a fine grained distinction between the 3 types of local results described above, by device type; the pattern held true with just minor differences and the on page factors being a stronger signal when Google displays localised organic results without the map or carousel.

Specific Ranking Factors

This data addressed 2 separate cases. Firstly:

a) Foundational Local Ranking Factors

For a business with no website, no ranking or a very poor presence in local search these were the 10 most important factors that had to be addressed. Without these in place, unless your competitors are dead, you won’t have a website that gets business: period!

  1. Your Google Places / Google Plus Local Page is associated with the correct categories.
  2. The physical address of the business is in the area you are trying to get customers to.
  3. Consistent data in the structured citations (directories and business listings.)
  4. Quality of structured citations. (You did do more than just fill in the first page of data?)
  5. HTML Name, Address and Phone number (NAP) on the website match the NAP data on your Places /+local listing.
  6. QUANTITY of structured citations. (You didn’t stop filling them in because it was boring? Oh you did… sad face!)
  7. Domain authority of your website. (A heady mix of is it any good and does anybody link to it from other decent websites)
  8. Owner verification of Local Plus Page / Places listing (You did claim your Google listing didn’t you! 40% or so of businesses haven’t!)
  9. City (town over here) and state (mmm that’d be Cumbria then) are readable in the Title tag of the landing page for your Google Listing. (Kind of makes sense doesn’t it?)
  10. Your business’ proximity to the “Centroid” of the location.

and secondly:

b) Ranking Factors in a Competitive Local Search Market

For many businesses, the list above will already be pretty much in place, they’ve got some presence locally but they want to take their marketing to the next level of effectiveness and start hovering up a lot more of the business leads and revenue. In those circumstances, the following ranking factors are believed to be the most important.

  1. High quality “Authority” structured citations (fill in your listings in detail in the most important directories and business listings that show up in your market.)
  2. High quality and Authority inbound links.
  3. QUANTITY of reviews by high authority reviewers. (A newer ranking factor that Google is rolling out in bigger cities in the USA at the moment and in the largest UK conurbations.
  4. Consistency of data in structured citations. (Is your data the same in all of your listings? Did you update ALL of your listings when your business moved?)
  5. Quality of citations from industry relevant domains. (Where does your business get mentioned by other players and observers in your niche?)
  6. Quantity of native reviews on Google listing. (That’s what Google Plus Local will eventually be about)
  7. Domain authority of your website. (Keep adding good useful content that is of value to your customers and get backlinks and mentions in social media with a website link!)
  8. Quality of unstructured citations. (Where your business is mentioned in a news report or press release, is it on a good website or do they give all of the NAP details of your business?)
  9. Quantity of citations from relevant local domains.
  10. Page authority of Places Landing Page on your website. (Is it a good page or something you just threw together?)

Negative Ranking factors: The No Nos!

As always there are multiple ways to mess up, commit local search suicide or walk on the wild side; for Google’s Gorilla to slap you down! Don’t do the following things and if you have; “un-done” them sharpish! There are lots of opportunities for unscrupulous competitors to try and game the system and unfortunately, in a backwater like Carlisle, we are not the highest priority for search engine scrutiny. Some local traders are still getting away with appallingly obvious crap tactics. Don’t hesitate to rat them out to Big G! It might take several goes before the G takes notice but why should your business suffer at the hands of someone, who Google hasn’t picked up on, doing the dirty? So the things to avoid like the plague are:

  1. Listing your business at a false address
  2. Keyword Stuffing the business name. (Google can read Companies House info about business names!)
  3. Mismatching NAP data and using multiple tracking phone numbers on different listings and advertising pieces.
  4. Incorrect business category in Google listings.
  5. Multiple Places / +Local pages with same business information at the same address.
  6. Mismatches in the NAP data and tracking phone numbers that don’t tie up between Google listings and the website.
  7. Mismatches in the NAP data and phone numbers that don’t tie up between Google listings and the landing page from Google on your website.
  8. Reports of violations on your Places / +Local page
  9. Malware (real or mistaken) on your website.
  10. No crawlable NAP data on your website.

General Ranking Factors for Local SEO

Before I conclude this run through of the survey results, it is important just to be aware of the approach and ethos of this survey. If you’d like to know more about how the survey is conducted just pop the rollup open!

Click here to learn more

First the respondents looked at overall ranking factors for local online marketing. This overview tackled 8 themes (or clusters) of features that could affect a business’ ability to be found. This was applied to the 3 obviously different types of local search results, namely; the localised organic searches; searches that generate a carousel or local listing pack; and the separate map search results. This was further assessed as to how they appeared to mobile users and desktop users. Phew! The thinking here was to give insights that would help businesses who always find themselves lagging behind competitors to pick the real priorities to address in their marketing.

Specific Ranking Factors

In the second section of survey results, the brains of the operation were asked to consider 2 scenarios. i) A brick and mortar business just getting to grips with optimising an existing website or about to build their first. ii) A similar business that has already managed to address maybe half to 3 quarters of the necessary features and who needed a little bit of edge to make them more competitive. The team had to pick from a list of 104 possible factors that were important and then score them inversely. Anything outside of a respondent’s top 20 got “null-points!” from that person.

Negative Ranking factors: The No Nos!

The final section of the survey addressed the actions and features that had damaged clients’ position in the search results. Some of these are such obvious cock ups or spam tactics that you really should give yourself a good slap if you have any going on with your site or listings.

Conclusions about How Local Search Ranking Factors Information Applies to Cumbrian Business Websites

  • In many places around the relatively un-competitive Cumbrian web, many business websites continue to rank and get seen by the customers and prospects that businesses need. This is true despite some appalling design and zero attention to the SEO factors that count.
  • The playing field will not remain like this for long. As more businesses start to go after the crucial space at the top of page 1 for new customers, the sites that have turned away from an optimised presence will start dropping out of the listings rapidly.
  • Google has been making huge efforts to understand at the processing level, what pages are about and what people’s search intent is about … ENORMOUS investment! Google Plus is pretty much about getting an understanding of people and what really makes them tick!
  • Additionally, Google has taken a slight hit on its PPC Adwords growth and the effectiveness of their local ads. Subtly – by degrees- they are squeezing search results down the page. Have you noticed that there are often 3 ads at the top of the search results instead of the 2 we had grown used to?  They are tweaking their service to make it generate more revenue by making the top of the results page theirs – with Adwords and G+ local products.
  • If you want your business to be seen quickly, in the first few seconds of a searcher’s scan of the results, then you will need to chase those top 3 organic positions.
  • You’ll also need to start seriously considering paid ads as they will take up such a significant chunk of what people see. And funnily enough, those ads perform best with well optimised pages.

The survey respondents didn’t think that G+ had made much difference over the last year, but to a man or woman most of them think that next year will be different but for the moment the need is to focus on the priorities identified above if you want more customers coming to you from the Internet. The local search ranking factors report really is your “go to” resource for working out what you need to do with your website to get more customers!