The poet Burns once observed that the best laid plans “gang aft agley.” At Moz, we were about to publish our State of Local SEO industry report, based on our local search marketing survey to which hundreds of you generously replied. Then the public health emergency unexpectedly arose, and we decided to pause in our planning.
The findings of the survey, as they currently stand, contain valuable and surprising insights which are as relevant today as they were pre-COVID-19. Yet, in order to reflect the substantial changes the local business community is currently weathering, we are reaching out to you with a timely additional request.
If you market local businesses in any capacity, whether in-house or for an agency, please take our quick, supplementary six-question survey. Your answers will help everyone gauge the impacts of the past few weeks on our industry, and hopefully help in planning for the future. We would be so grateful for just a few minutes of your time to be sure the final report reflects the full picture of local business marketing.
While Google’s mission has always been to surface high-quality content, over the past few years the company has worked especially hard to ensure that its search results are also consistently accurate, credible, and trustworthy.
Reducing false and misleading information has been a top priority for Google since concerns over misinformation surfaced during the 2016 US presidential election. The search giant is investing huge sums of money and brain power into organizing the ever-increasing amounts of content on the web in a way that prioritizes accuracy and credibility.
In a 30-page whitepaper published last year, Google delineates specifically how it fights against bad actors and misinformation across Google Search, News, Youtube, Ads, and other Google products.
In this whitepaper, Google explains how Knowledge Panels — a common organic search feature — are part of its initiative to show “context and diversity of perspectives to form their own views.” With Knowledge Panel results, Google provides answers to queries with content displayed directly in its organic search results (often without including a link to a corresponding organic result), potentially eliminating the need for users to click through to a website to find an answer to their query. While this feature benefits users by answering their questions even more quickly, it brings with it the danger of providing quick answers that might be misleading or incorrect.
Another feature with this issue is Featured Snippets, where Google pulls website content directly into the search results. Google maintains specific policies for Featured Snippets, prohibiting the display of content that is sexually explicit, hateful, violent, dangerous, or in violation of expert consensus on civic, medical, scientific, or historical topics. However, this doesn’t mean the content included in Featured Snippets is always entirely accurate.
According to data pulled by Dr. Pete Meyers, based on a sample set of 10,000 keywords, Google has increased the frequency with which it displays Featured Snippets as part of the search results. In the beginning of 2018, Google displayed Featured Snippets in approximately 12% of search results; in early 2020, that number hovers around 16%.
Google has also rolled out several core algorithm updates in the past two years, with the stated goal of “delivering on [their] mission to present relevant and authoritative content to searchers.” What makes these recent algorithm updates particularly interesting is how much E-A-T (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness) appears to be playing a role in website performance, particularly for YMYL (your money, your life) websites.
As a result of Google’s dedication to combating misinformation and fake news, we could reasonably expect searchers to agree that Google has improved in its ability to surface credible and trusted content. But does the average searcher actually feel that way? At Path Interactive, we conducted a survey to find out how users feel about the information they encounter in Google’s organic results.
About our survey respondents and methodology
Out of 1,100 respondents, 70% of live in the United States, 21% in India, and 5% in Europe. 63% of respondents are between the ages of 18 and 35, and 17% are over the age of 46. All respondent data is self-reported.
For all questions involving specific search results or types of SERP features, respondents were provided with screenshots of those features. For questions related to levels of trustworthiness or the extent to which the respondent agreed with the statement, respondents were presented with answers on a scale of 1-5.
Trustworthiness in the medical, political, financial, and legal categories
Given how much fluctuation we’ve seen in the YMYL category of Google with recent algorithm updates, we thought it would be interesting to ask respondents how much they trust the medical, political, financial, and legal information they find on Google.
We started by asking respondents about the extent to which they have made important financial, legal, or medical decisions based on information they found in organic search. The majority (51%) of respondents indicated that they “very frequently” or “often” make important life decisions based on Google information, while 39% make important legal decisions, and 46% make important medical decisions. Only 10-13% of respondents indicated that they never make these types of important life decisions based on the information they’ve found on Google.
As it relates to medical searches, 72% of users agree or strongly agree that Google has improved at showing accurate medical results over time.
Breaking down these responses by age, a few interesting patterns emerge:
The youngest searchers (ages 18-25) are 94% more likely than the oldest searchers (65+) to strongly believe that Google’s medical results have improved over time.
75% of the youngest searchers (ages 18-25) agree or strongly agree that Google has improved in showing accurate medical searches over time, whereas only 54% of the oldest searchers (65+) feel the same way.
Searchers ages 46-64 are the most likely to disagree that Google’s medical results are improving over time.
Next, we wanted to know if Google’s emphasis on surfacing medical content from trusted medical publications — such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic — is resonating with its users. One outcome of recent core algorithm updates is that Google’s algorithms appear to be deprioritizing content that contradicts scientific and medical consensus (consistently described as a negative quality indicator throughout their Search Quality Guidelines).
The majority (66%) of respondents agree that it is very important to them that Google surfaces content from highly trusted medical websites. However, 14% indicated they would rather not see these results, and another 14% indicated they’d rather see more diverse results, such as content from natural medicine websites. These numbers suggest that more than a quarter of respondents may be unsatisfied with Google’s current health initiatives aimed at surfacing medical content from a set of acclaimed partners who support the scientific consensus.
We asked survey respondents about Symptom Cards, in which information related to medical symptoms or specific medical conditions is surfaced directly within the search results.
Our question aimed to gather how much searchers felt the content within Symptom Cards can be trusted.
The vast majority (76%) of respondents indicated they trust or strongly trust the content within Symptom Cards.
When looking at the responses by age, younger searchers once again reveal that they are much more likely than older searchers to strongly trust the medical content found within Google. In fact, the youngest bracket of searchers (ages 18-25) are 138% more likely than the oldest searchers (65+) to strongly trust the medical content found in Symptom Cards.
News and political searches
The majority of respondents (61%) agree or strongly agree that Google has improved at showing high-quality, trustworthy news and political content over time. Only 13% disagree or strongly disagree with this statement.
Breaking the same question down by age reveals interesting trends:
The majority (67%) of the youngest searchers (ages 18-25) agree that the quality of Google’s news and political content has improved over time, whereas the majority (61%) of the oldest age group (65+) only somewhat agrees or disagrees.
The youngest searchers (ages 18-25) are 250% more likely than the oldest searchers to strongly agree that the quality of news and political content on Google is improving over time.
Given Google’s emphasis on combating misinformation in its search results, we also wanted to ask respondents about the extent to which they feel they still encounter dangerous or highly untrustworthy information on Google.
Interestingly, the vast majority of respondents (70%) feel that they have encountered misinformation on Google at least sometimes, although 29% indicate they rarely or never see misinformation in the results.
Segmenting the responses by age groups reveals a clear pattern that the older the searcher, the more likely they are to indicate that they have seen misinformation in Google’s search results. In fact, the oldest searchers (65+) are 138% more likely than the youngest searchers (18-25) to say they’ve encountered misinformation on Google either often or very frequently.
Throughout the responses to all questions related to YMYL topics such as health, politics, and news, a consistent pattern emerged that the youngest searchers appear to have more trust in the content Google displays for these queries, and that older searchers are more skeptical.
This aligns with our findings from a similar survey we conducted last year, which found that younger searchers were more likely to take much of the content displayed directly in the SERP at face value, whereas older searchers were more likely to browse deeper into the organic results to find answers to their queries.
This information is alarming, especially given another question we posed asking about the extent to which searchers believe the information they find on Google influences their political opinions and outlook on the world.
The question revealed some interesting trends related to the oldest searchers: according to the results, the oldest searchers (65+) are 450% more likely than the youngest searchers to strongly disagree that information they find on Google influences their worldview.
However, the oldest searchers are also most likely to agree with this statement; 11% of respondents ages 65+ strongly agree that Google information influences their worldview. On both ends of the spectrum, the oldest searchers appear to hold stronger opinions about the extent to which Google influences their political opinions and outlook than respondents from other age brackets.
Featured Snippets and the Knowledge Graph
We also wanted to understand the extent to which respondents found the content contained within Featured Snippets to be trustworthy, and to segment those responses by age brackets. As with the other scale-based questions, respondents were asked to indicate how much they trusted these features on a scale of 1-5 (Likert scale).
According to the results, the youngest searchers (ages 18-25) are 100% more likely than the oldest searchers (ages 65+) to find the content within Featured Snippets to be very trustworthy. This aligns with a similar discovery we found in our survey from last year: “The youngest searchers (13–18) are 220 percent more likely than the oldest searchers (70–100) to consider their question answered without clicking on the snippet (or any) result.”
For Knowledge Graph results, the results are less conclusive when segmented by age. 95% of respondents across all age groups find the Knowledge Panel results to be at least “trustworthy.”
Conclusion: Young users trust search results more than older users
In general, the majority of survey respondents appear to trust the information they find on Google — both in terms of the results themselves, as well as the content they find within SERP features such as the Knowledge Panel and Featured Snippets. However, there still appears to be a small subset of searchers who are dissatisfied with Google’s results. This subset consists of mostly older searchers who appear to be more skeptical about taking Google’s information at face value, especially for YMYL queries.
Across almost all survey questions, there is a clear pattern that the youngest searchers tend to trust the information they find on Google more so than the older respondents. This aligns with a similar survey we conducted last year, which indicated that younger searchers were more likely to accept the content in Featured Snippets and Knowledge Panels without needing to click on additional results on Google.
It is unclear whether younger searchers trust information from Google more because the information itself has improved, or because they are generally more trusting of information they find online. These results may also be due to older searchers not having grown up with the ability to rely on internet search engines to answer their questions. Either way, the results raise an interesting question about the future of information online: will searchers become less skeptical of online information over time?
I’ve always considered the most challenging part about digital marketing to be prioritizing.
There are hundreds of tactics available to you, and it can be overwhelming to determine which of them are most appropriate for your marketing goals and your target audience. (And we all know what happens when you try to do too much — you do it all poorly.)
It’s critical to analyze the attitudes and behaviors of your current and potential clients/customers in order to best communicate with them in the methods they prefer.
But every now and then, it’s also helpful to zoom out and see how different marketing tactics are faring in general.
That’s why we surveyed 500+ Americans, asking them their thoughts on a variety of inbound and outbound marketing tactics.
Our objective was to better understand which tactics might be most effective on a broad scale and how people might feel about the various tactics they encounter.
Here are the biggest insights.
1. Very few channels “die”
Here’s the thing: The marketing industry experiences a constant ebb and flow. A tactic like email marketing becomes popular, everyone does it, the space becomes diluted, and then other tactics start to gain traction as people seek out “quieter” channels.
That doesn’t mean those tactics no longer work. It just means it becomes harder for your message to be seen because the volume of content out there for people to read is expansive. You have to work harder for it, have an intimate understanding of the information your audience wants, and test relentlessly.
The prime example of this revealed in this survey is that when asked what people think is the best way to attract their business, they picked snail mail (53.31%) over email (38.37%).
A couple of years ago, I’d never have thought to consider direct mail over email. It’s costly and people tend to find mail cumbersome, sending a lot of it straight to the trash.
But over time, some have started to feel that way about email. It’s hard to filter out all of the spam, discern between good pitches and bad ones, and just sort through what feels like an endless stream of messages. Direct mail has started to feel more like a novelty. In fact, 28% of our respondents said they’ve never clicked on the “Promotions” Gmail tab.
The takeaway: Don’t let anyone tell you a channel is dead (except for maybe MySpace and other sites that are abandoned.) Take advantage of “quiet” channels but only if it makes sense for your audience. Focus on them, and the appropriate channel for you will become more obvious.
Privacy has certainly been a hot topic these days, but we shouldn’t be focusing solely on GDPR and other regulations (that’s where don’t be intrusive comes in). It’s not just about what’s legal — it’s also about what’s off-putting. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel like they’re being oddly approached or “followed” online (or anywhere).
That probably explains why our survey found that of the 78% of people who said they notice retargeted ads, 56% have negative feelings toward them. That’s a pretty large amount of negativity for a tactic. In a separate question, 53% said they have ad blockers, choosing to bypass ads altogether.
Outbound marketing is about reaching out to people cold, but there’s an art to this.
Traditional advertising achieves No. 2 on the sentiment scale, and my interpretation of this is that people are so used to seeing advertisements on television and hearing them on the radio that it no longer has an intrusive vibe.
Email, sponsored social media posts, and ads still can carry that feeling, though.
Does that mean you shouldn’t utilize these tactics? Of course not. It does mean you have to be very strategy in applying them, though, or you’ll turn off your audience almost immediately.
The takeaway: When utilizing outbound strategies, make sure the recipients understand why they’re receiving the information and ensure what you’re providing speaks to a want or need of theirs. Make the value you’re providing immediately clear.
For example, I made a reservation at an Italian restaurant called Osteria Morini about a year ago. I received an email from them with the subject line “Fall Pasta Classes are Here!” Even though I didn’t remember signing up for their updates, I opened the email because I knew exactly what they were trying to tell me and I was interested. I also just went back and checked; they’ve only emailed me once since the reservation. That’s an extreme — I don’t advocate you sending one email a year — but only send emails with real value.
3. Prioritize search
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that search engine optimization won out as one of the strongest strategies out there.
Notice in the first graph in the article that appearing in search results was listed as the best way to earn respondents’ business, and in the second graph, you’ll see that reading the type of content you’d find on those results carries the best sentiment.
Not only is it effective, but it’s also a common practice.
Using search engines to find answers is essentially an inherent online experience; nearly everyone does it, and if you’re not showing up in the SERPs, you can be missing out on massive opportunities to increase your brand awareness, connect with potential clients/customers, and build authority in your space.
I’d say authority is a huge piece of why search is so important to people. When you rank highly, it’s almost like the online equivalent of being published — “people” (other sites and Google) — vouch for you.
The authority piece is greater represented in the graph above. Reading customer reviews comes in right behind performing searches for how people learn more about a company or product, because people are constantly looking for authority and quality indicators in order to make the best decisions possible. (This is why E-A-T has been such a hot topic lately.)
The takeaway: SEO should always be a primary objective of your marketing team. If you’re in a competitive space and finding it difficult to rank for your target keywords, focus on the long-tail for queries that are directly relevant to your business. That way, you’re building authority with people who are already close to becoming customers/clients.
For example, when searching for daily planners, I noticed there are a few related keywords regarding daily planners that start as early as 5 a.m. The Better Dayplanner has an article that ranks for these types of keywords, meaning that people looking for something very specific will see them first. Sure, the search volume is low, but the traffic is as relevant as you can get.
After reading through this article (and reviewing the full inbound and outbound marketing survey), you can get a sense of which of your tactics may need modifying and which opportunities may be present. There’s no universally right or wrong answer; it’s highly dependent on the specifics of your brand and your target audience. But knowing general trends and preferences can help you shape your strategy so it’s as effective as possible.
We couldn’t do it without you! In 2018, over 1,400 marketers responded to our State of the Local SEO industry survey. We all learned so much from your responses about the day-to-day realities of marketing local businesses. This year, we can do even better because your answers will give us all valuable comparative data to analyze, YoY.
Who can take the survey?
Anyone who markets local businesses in any way is eagerly invited. Whether you market a single location, work for an agency with some local business clients, or are an in-house SEO for a brand with thousands of locations, we would love your participation! Whether you do just a little local search marketing or a lot, are a novice or an adept, your insights have value.
What is the survey about?
Unlike a typical local ranking factors poll, The State of the Local SEO Industry Survey digs deep into marketers’ experiences with tactics, challenges, clients, Google, and the working environment. For example, we learned last year that:
90% of respondents felt Google’s emphasis on proximity was detrimental to SERP quality
62% felt there aren’t enough quality local search marketing training materials available
60% lacked a comprehensive review management strategy
49% felt utilization of Google Business Profile features were impacting local rank
35% had no link building strategy in place
17% of enterprises had no in-house SEO staff
With your help, we’ll see what’s changed and what hasn’t. There are fresh questions, too, which we hope will uncover new stories to spark new strategies for local brands and their marketers.
There will be four lucky winners!
Everyone is a winner with access to the data we’ll be sharing from this large survey. But we’d like to offer a little extra thank-you for your time and knowledge.
Every respondent who completes the full survey will be automatically entered for a chance to win one of four $50 Visa gift cards. Winners will be selected at random, and we hope they will use these gift cards to shop someplace local and awesome this holiday season!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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: