Understanding the 98 Google Local Ranking Factors

Local Search Ranking Factors 2011

David Mihm has released his annual Local Search Ranking Factors list, which compiles feedback from 33 local optimization experts. The 98 resulting local ranking factors can, however, be overwhelming. This article walks you through the key takeaways

The LSRF: History & Methodology

David Mihm, a highly respected local SEO expert, first released a comprehensive list of local search ranking factors in 2008. Inspired by SEOMoz’s search engine ranking factor list, and prompted by changes to Google’s approach to local in January 2008, Mihm concluded “it was time to undertake a similar enterprise specific to Local Search.” At that time he received survey feedback from 20 industry experts.

Around the middle of the year each year since, Mihm has released an updated version of the LSRF. Each version has included new ranking factors, taken into account major changes in Google’s local search ranking, and added new industry experts to the list of those surveyed. Mihm also collects open-ended written feedback from the experts.

In previous years, the surveyed industry experts provided a number between -5 and +5 for each factor. However, “this year featured a drag-and-drop numerical ranking system in an effort to make the survey results both more precise and easier for the participants to complete.” Participants were also asked to give separate feedback response for pure local listings (such as those found in the three-box or five-box at the top of search) and “blended listings” (which integrate Google Places directly into the SERP).

In total, 98 factors were examined, with 79 being positive and 19 being negative. We won’t bother replicating all 98 local ranking factors here, but you can check them out on Mihm’s site.

The Basics: Immediately Actionable Items

There are two different ways to look at the top local ranking factors: what matters and what you should work on. Several of the key factors to ranking well are out of the typical company’s grasp, so a list of top 10 recommended action-ready factors were compiled in addition to an evaluation of the ranking factor list itself. Those actionable factors are:

  1. Your physical address matching/listing the city where you’re located.
  2. Manually verifying your ownership of the company’s Google Places page.
  3. Having proper category associations for your page and citations.
  4. Having a large number of “traditional structured citations” for your business (on sites like Internet yellow pages and local place aggregators).
  5. Having your address listed on your company website, and make sure that address is crawlable.
  6. Having a well-ranked (PR) company website.
  7. Having high-quality inbound links to your company website.
  8. Having your phone number listed on your company website, and making sure that phone number is crawlable.
  9. Having an accurate local area code listed on your Google Places page.
  10. Having your city and state listed in the page title for your Google Places landing page.

The items listed above can be treated as a checklist for establishing bare minimums for local search optimization.

Key Takeaways

The top factors overall may not be items you can immediately tackle, but it’s important to have a good sense of a long-term game plan. Here are some key items to take note of (including a couple minor repeats from the actionable list above), including both positive and negative factors.

Helpful Things

  • Be thorough, accurate, and complete on your local listings. Include your full address (including ZIP code), phone number, relevant business categories, and relevant service / product keywords in your Places page description.
  • Include your service or product name in your business name listing. If at all possible, include your relevant keywords in your business listing title (e.g., “Bob Smith’s Tire Service Center” will do much better than “Bob Smith’s Supermart” when it comes to searches for tire-related companies).
  • Build a presence on local listing sites. Make sure you’re present on Google Places, manually verify your page, and build citations on other local sites. It’s also very useful to be cited on blogs, articles, and other web properties.
  • Build a website. Include your phone number and address on a crawlable website that is properly optimized.
  • Get reviews. Note that I didn’t say “good reviews.” Items 6, 14, 15, and 16 from the list of 79 positive ranking factors are all about reviews – but none of them look at whether the review is good. A high volume of reviews (and especially reviews native to Google Places) help a lot more than a lower volume of top-notch reviews. Whenever you can influence review content, try to have those reviews include category and location keywords.

Harmful Factors

  • Being inconsistent. It hurts to have phone number or address mismatches across your citations or when comparing your Places page to your website.
  • Being invisible. Not listing your address or phone number on your Places page, or not having a crawlable address or phone number on your company website, hurts.
  • Duplicate or inaccurate content. Listing the same phone number for multiple Google Places pages, having multiple listings with very similar titles, using inaccurate categories, or stuffing keywords into your business title will harm you.
  • Using an 800 number. The experts agree that, while it’s less harmful than it has been in the past, listing an 800 number on your Places page hurts your local ranking.
  • Bad ratings. While volume is the key to ranking when it comes to reviews, having a low average rating (especially on native Google Places reviews) or negative statements in the reviews will harm your rank.

A Few Final Thoughts

I haven’t personally seen this study in years past, which is honestly a shame: it’s one of the most comprehensive sets of data on local information, and especially current trends, that you can get. The sheer complexity of the study, as well as some divergent opinions, also makes it clear that local optimization is gaining the sort of industry position that SEO has long had.

The two (SEO and LSO) are also very tied together, with the blended search results overtaking many standard SERP listings and highly optimized company sites having an evident impact on local ranking; it’s a synergy, and one that shouldn’t be ignored by any local business.

I was hoping to discuss the overall trends with David Mihm himself, but when approached, he declined to comment (at least as of yet). That leaves the rest of us to banter and speculate as we see fit. So, what are your thoughts on local search in the 2010s?

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