It has been another year (and a half) since the last publication of the Local Search Ranking Factors, and local search continues to see significant growth and change. The biggest shift this year is happening in Google My Business signals, but we’re also seeing an increase in the importance of reviews and continued decreases in the importance of citations.
Huge growth in Google My Business
Google has been adding features to GMB at an accelerated rate. They see the revenue potential in local, and now that they have properly divorced Google My Business from Google+, they have a clear runway to develop (and monetize) local. Here are just some of the major GMB features that have been released since the publication of the 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors:
- Google Posts available to all GMB users
- Google Q&A
- Website builder
- Videos in Google Posts
These features are creating shifts in the importance of factors that are driving local search today. This year has seen the most explosive growth in GMB specific factors in the history of the survey. GMB signals now make up 25% the local pack/finder pie chart.
GMB-specific features like Google Posts, Google Q&A, and image/video uploads are frequently mentioned as ranking drivers in the commentary. Many businesses are not yet investing in these aspects of local search, so these features are currently a competitive advantage. You should get on these before everyone is doing it.
Here’s your to do list:
- Start using Google posts NOW. At least once per week, but preferably a few times per week. Are you already pushing out posts to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? Just use the same, lightly edited, content on Google Posts. Also, use calls to action in your posts to drive direct conversions.
- Seed the Google Q&A with your own questions and answers. Feed that hyper-relevant, semantically rich content to Google. Relevance FTW.
- Regularly upload photos and videos. (Did you know that you can upload videos to GMB now?)
- Make sure your profile is 100% complete. If there is an empty field in GMB, fill it. If you haven’t logged into your GMB account in a while, you might be surprised to see all the new data points you can add to your listing.
Why spend your time on these activities? Besides the potential relevance boost you’ll get from the additional content, you’re also sending valuable engagement signals. Regularly logging into your listing and providing content shows Google that you’re an active and engaged business owner that cares about your listing, and the local search experts are speculating that this is also providing ranking benefits. There’s another engagement angle here too: user engagement. Provide more content for users to engage with and they’ll spend more time on your listing clicking around and sending those helpful behavioral signals to Google.
Reviews on the rise
Review signals have also seen continued growth in importance over last year.
Review signals were 10.8% in 2015, so over the past 3 years, we’ve seen a 43% increase in the importance of review signals:
Many practitioners talked about the benefits they’re seeing from investing in reviews. I found David Mihm’s comments on reviews particularly noteworthy. When asked “What are some strategies/tactics that are working particularly well for you at the moment?”, he responded with:
“In the search results I look at regularly, I continue to see reviews playing a larger and larger role. Much as citations became table stakes over the last couple of years, reviews now appear to be on their way to becoming table stakes as well. In mid-to-large metro areas, even industries where ranking in the 3-pack used to be possible with a handful of reviews or no reviews, now feature businesses with dozens of reviews at a minimum — and many within the last few months, which speaks to the importance of a steady stream of feedback.
Whether the increased ranking is due to review volume, keywords in review content, or the increased clickthrough rate those gold stars yield, I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. I just know that for most businesses, it’s the area of local SEO I’d invest the most time and effort into getting right — and done well, should also have a much more important flywheel effect of helping you build a better business, as the guys at GatherUp have been talking about for years.”
Getting keywords in your reviews is a factor that has also risen. In the 2017 survey, this factor ranked #26 in the local pack/finder factors. It is now coming in at #14.
I know this is the Local Search Ranking Factors, and we’re talking about what drives rankings, but you know what’s better than rankings? Conversions. Yes, reviews will boost your rankings, but reviews are so much more valuable than that because a ton of positive reviews will get people to pick up the phone and call your business, and really, that’s the goal. So, if you’re not making the most of reviews yet, get on it!
A quick to do list for reviews would be:
- Work on getting more Google reviews (obviously). Ask every customer.
- Encourage keywords in the reviews by asking customers to mention the specific service or product in their review.
- Respond to every review. (Did you know that Google now notifies the reviewer when the owner responds?)
- Don’t only focus on reviews. Actively solicit direct customer feedback as well so you can mark it up in schema/JSON and get stars in the search results.
- Once you’re killing it on Google, diversify and get reviews on the other important review sites for your industry (but also continue to send customers to Google).
For a more in-depth discussion of review strategy, please see the blog post version of my 2018 MozCon presentation, “How to Convert Local Searchers Into Customers with Reviews.”
To quote Gyi Tsakalakis: “Meh, links.” All other things being equal, links continue to be a key differentiator in local search. It makes sense. Once you have a complete and active GMB listing, your citations squared away, a steady stream of reviews coming in, and solid content on your website, the next step is links. The trouble is, links are hard, but that’s also what makes them such a valuable competitive differentiator. They ARE hard, so when you get quality links they can really help to move the needle.
When asked, “What are some strategies/tactics that are working particularly well for you at the moment?” Gyi responded with:
“Meh, links. In other words, topically and locally relevant links continue to work particularly well. Not only do these links tend to improve visibility in both local packs and traditional results, they’re also particularly effective for improving targeted traffic, leads, and customers. Find ways to earn links on the sites your local audience uses. These typically include local news, community, and blog sites.”
Let’s make something clear: citations are still very valuable and very important.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s look at what’s been happening with citations over the past few surveys:
I think this decline is related to two things:
- As local search gets more complex, additional signals are being factored into the algorithm and this dilutes the value that citations used to provide. There are just more things to optimize for in local search these days.
- As local search gains more widespread adoption, more businesses are getting their citations consistent and built out, and so citations become less of a competitive difference maker than they were in the past.
Yes, we are seeing citations dropping in significance year after year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need them. Quite the opposite, really. If you don’t get them, you’re going to have a bad time. Google looks to your citations to help understand how prominent your business is. A well established and popular business should be present on the most important business directories in their industry, and if it’s not, that can be a signal of lower prominence to Google.
The good news is that citations are one of the easiest items to check off your local search to do list. There are dozens of services and tools out there to help you get your business listed and accurate for only a few hundred dollars. Here’s what I recommend:
- Ensure your business is listed, accurate, complete, and duplicate-free on the top 10-15 most important sites in your industry (including the primary data aggregators and industry/city-specific sites).
- Build citations (but don’t worry about duplicates and inconsistencies) on the next top 30 to 50 sites.
Google has gotten much smarter about citation consistency than they were in the past. People worry about it much more than they need to. An incorrect or duplicate listing on an insignificant business listing site is not going to negatively impact your ability to rank.
You could keep building more citations beyond the top 50, and it won’t hurt, but the law of diminishing returns applies here. As you get deeper into the available pool of citation sites, the quality of these sites decreases, and the impact they have on your local search decreases with it. That said, I have heard from dozens of agencies that swear that “maxing out” all available citation opportunities seems to have a positive impact on their local search, so your mileage may vary. ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The future of local search
One of my favorite questions in the commentary section is “Comments about where you see Google is headed in the future?” The answers here, from some of the best minds in local search, are illuminating. The three common themes I pulled from the responses are:
- Google will continue providing features and content so that they can provide the answers to most queries right in the search results and send less clicks to websites. Expect to see your traffic from local results to your website decline, but don’t fret. You want those calls, messages, and driving directions more than you want website traffic anyway.
- Google will increase their focus on behavioral signals for rankings. What better way is there to assess the real-world popularity of a business than by using signals sent by people in the real world. We can speculate that Google is using some of the following signals right now, and will continue to emphasize and evolve behavioral ranking methods:
- Searches for your brand name.
- Clicks to call your business.
- Requests for driving directions.
- Engagement with your listing.
- Engagement with your website.
- Credit card transactions.
- Actual human foot traffic in brick-and-mortar businesses.
- Google will continue monetizing local in new ways. Local Services Ads are rolling out to more and more industries and cities, ads are appearing right in local panels, and you can book appointments right from local packs. Google isn’t investing so many resources into local out of the goodness of their hearts. They want to build the ultimate resource for instant information on local services and products, and they want to use their dominant market position to take a cut of the sales.
And that does it for my summary of the survey results. A huge thank you to each of the brilliant contributors for giving their time and sharing their knowledge. Our understanding of local search is what it is because of your excellent work and contributions to our industry.
There is much more to read and learn in the actual resource itself, especially in all the comments from the contributors, so go dig into it: