Why does one business rank higher than another in Google search results & how can you improve search rankings? This is the million dollar question for thousands of small business owners in all types of industries. Knowing the answer to Local Ranking Factors and being able to execute a plan to improve rankings can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for a small business.
In this article you will learn:
- Why Local Search is so Important
- Understanding Google’s Local Search Algorithm
- Organic, Local, & Blended Search Results
- The Prophets of Local Search
- The 10 Commandments of Local Search
- Understanding the Local Search Commandments
Why Local Search is so Important
Every month there are 14 billion online searches. 20% of those searches are for products and services with queries that have a local intent according to Comscore. That’s over 2 billion unique local searches each month.
9 out of 10 people use search engines to find local businesses to shop for products and services and 97% of those people will click on the 1st page of the search results.
Why switch from Traditional Marketing to Local Search Marketing?
Search marketing places your business in front of a demographic that is looking to buy a specific product or service. Searchers can be a very hot lead that is ready to buy. Its the act of attraction, or attracting a demographic actively looking for your product or service.
Traditional Marketing (yellow pages, newspaper, radio, direct mailers etc.) on the other hand is like throwing mud against the wall, casting a wide net in hopes of finding an interested demographic, an impulse buyer, or someone shopping for a bargain.
Tracking which marketing medium is generating new customers and the acquisition cost for each new customer is essential for small business, yet most only have a vague idea of the actual numbers.
SEMPO’s “State of Search Marketing Report” revealed what companies measure to gauge the success of their online marketing campaigns. The top 3 metrics are; site traffic, conversion rate, and number of sales/leads. This information gives SMB’s the ability to tweak their campaigns if needed, and to prove their success – something traditional marketing is not able to provide.
Return on Investment
Return on investment lays at the heart of all marketing endeavors. Hubspot’s “2010 State of Inbound Marketing” report stated that spending on lead generation is 60% less among companies that devote at least half of their budget online inbound marketing compared with companies spending one-half of the lead generation dollars on out bound tactics.
Understanding Google’s Local Search algorithm
What are Google’s objectives?
Do you remember Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves, or Aliweb? Yeah, I don’t either. Why have other search engines failed while Google continues to grow to the point where it has 65% of the search market? Other search engines failed because they did not provide a good search experience. The search results were full of pop ads and information that wasn’t relevant to the search query. The companies in the results weren’t the most credible or trustworthy sources to gather information or to purchase products and services from.
A good search experience provides relevant information from the most credible sources available. Providing users a search experience with relevant info from credible sources has helped Google grow to its dominant position. Protecting the search experience lays at the heart of Google’s primary objective. Reliable search experience = a large audience. A large audience = large revenues. Google sells ad space to companies that provide products and services for those specific searches. Cause and effect, egg and the chicken, reliable search experience then revenue.
Why Google uses Algorithms & How they Work
To provide a the most relevant information from the most credible sources requires tracking and rating/ranking incomprehensible amounts of data. Tracking all the data (companies, authors, websites, blogs, links, social signals, articles, widgets, apps etc.) available on the internet is a daunting task.
In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list of well defined instructions for calculating a function. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning. In simple words an algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for calculations according to Wikipedia.
Indexing (storing) all the data available online requires enormous buildings filled with servers, scattered all over the world. Sifting through and weighing what is relevant and most credible is where Google’s algorithms come into play.
3 Types of Search Results & 3 Different Algorithms
Initially Google generated one type of search result referred to as organic search results.
Local – Maps or Places Results
In 2006 Google introduced Google Maps or local search results. Google Maps used a new algorithm that included calculations for searches that where local in nature or intent. Over the years the local algorithm and organic algorithm have continued to evolve. Google maps became Google Places and now approx 20% of all searches have local intent.
In Oct 2010 Google introduced a 3rd algorithm and search result type. The 3rd type of search results are called blended results. Blended search results are a combination of local search results and organic results.
Prophets of Local Search
Google does not print a how to guide or tutorial on the algorithms. Google is actually very guarded about the ranking factors in the algorithms so that businesses or SEO professionals cannot manipulate the results.
We can make assumptions after careful analysis, comparing common characteristics of top ranking websites for each industry and/or targeted keywords and phrases. Software is also available, using linear regression or machine learning we can calculate/compare various factors (citations, links, pages indexed, domain age, etc.) for the top ranking sites.
We can also learn by those that have gone before us. I consider the following individuals to be Prophets for following “Google’s Commandments for Local Search”. There is no substitute for experience and these Prophets of Search have walked with the Local Search God (Google) since the beginning and understand what pleases him and what will incur his wrath.
Much of what I share I have acquired by reading their works religiously, attending their sermons (or conferences) as well as personal experience optimizing my sites and our client’s sites. So before I move on to the 10 Commandments of Local Search let me give thanks and credit where it is due.
Let me also suggest that if you plan to tackle local search on your own that you spend time catching up on the Prophet’s “Local Search Scripture”. The Local Search God/Google isn’t as consistent as we would like. The basic principals (relevance, credibility/trust) stay the same but the algorithms go through as many as 500 changes each year. I recommend that you subscribe to RSS feeds & visit their blogs often to catch current revelation/algorithm changes.
David Mihm, Local Search Consultant – Portland OR
Mike Blumenthal, bluementals.com – Olean NY
Chris Silver Smith, KeyRelevance – Dallas TX
Matt McGee, Small Business SEM Consultant – Tri-Cities WA
Mike Ramsey, Nifty Marketing – Burley ID
Ed Reese, Six Man Marketing – Spokane WA
Mary Bowling, Optimized – Colorado
Andrew Shortland, Local SEO Guide, Plesanton CA
Dev Basu, Powered by Search – Toronto ON
The 10 Commandments of Local Search
The Local Search Commandments represent the top 10 local search factors to consider. I consider these factors the “Pareto” factors, or the 20% that will give you 80% of the results. In this section I will try to give you an understanding of each Local Search Commandment through definitions, images, and examples.
I. Thou shalt have only one NAP before me.
II. Thou shalt have a physical address in the city of search.
III. Thou shalt manually verify thy Place Page & Citation Profiles.
IV. Thou shalt choose proper category associations.
V. Thou shalt have volume of Traditional Structured Citations.
VI. Thou shalt have crawlable address and local phone on website that matches thy Places Page.
VII. Thou shalt have Page Rank and Domain Rank.
VIII. Thou shalt acquire quality links to thy website.
IX. Thou shalt have city and state in Places landing page title.
X. Thou shalt have product/service & location keyword in business title legally.
Understanding the Local Search Commandments
Understanding Why one Business Ranks higher than another
I. Thou shalt have only one NAP before me
NAP stands for Name, Address, Phone. NAP is like the social security number for your business. Google and the other search engines do not track your business by its EIN (employer identification number) like the government. Google uses NAP to distinguish one business entity from another. You must give your NAP the same attention you give your social security number and your credit score.
Earlier I discussed how Google has spiders or bots that constantly crawl the web and gather information about businesses, industries, websites, etc. with the purpose of finding relevant, credible, & trustworthy sources.
As the spiders crawl the Local Search Ecosytem they will collect your NAP/business listing info from a variety of online sources (directories, data aggregators, internet yellow pages, state records, chambers of commerce) and off line sources (traditional media, yellow pages). These mentions of your business name, address, and phone number are called citations.
After crawling the web Google indexes which websites mention/cite your business. The local algorithm then calculates where your business is cited (quality & quantity of citations) as well as discrepancies in the citations. Thanks to David Mihm and a “sermon” that I attended I will share a slide from his presentation that shows part of the local search ecosystem. These are also some of the more important citations that your business should have. I listed the Top 100 Local Citations in another post.
In addition to gathering data about where your business is cited/mentioned, Google also gathers the exact details of each citation(s). It is very common for there to be discrepancies and duplicates in the data. I have multiple experiences where clients had 4 + variations of their NAP at various directories and IYPs (internet yellow pages). You will need to monitor your business citations to assure that duplicates or listing errors are removed or deleted. Listing errors can cause trust issues and may negatively effect your local search rankings. In the example below you will see something I see often with many of my new clients.
Duplicates occur for many reasons. Sometimes a business my have multiple Trade Names or DBA’s. Maybe your Groupon ad this year listed Redfearn Dental but your Yellow Pages ad was listed as Redfearn Family Dental. Not to mention your bank records and the Chamber of Commerce list your business as Trent Redfearn DDS. It is common for a portion these citations use the phone number 555-0505 and the other citations to list the additional line for your business which is 555-0532 for example.
Duplicate addresses are also very common when the business moves to a new location. When a business changes locations they will keep the old business number so they don’t lose the previous customer base or cause confusion to loyal clients. It’s the right move for your customers but now Google has 2 addresses for the same phone number. Notice in the example that Superpages.com has both old and new address and both listings have the same phone.
Dentists, Doctors, and Legal Professionals often have a business name (Redfearn Dental) and their title (Trent Redfearn DDS). It is also common to be listed as one or the other, or sometimes both.
Is your head spinning yet? Well the Google algorithm is spinning because all these errors cause confusion and trust issues. These trust issues will most certainly effect your rankings for search queries that have local intent.
Clean correct NAP listings across the Local Search Ecosystem is the foundation of your local search optimization efforts. Mike Blumenthal created the Web Equity infographic that illustrates this point.
II. Thou shalt have a physical address in the city of search
The core purpose of the Local Algorithm is to provide local results for search queries with local intent. Logically, someone searching for a dentist in Denver does not want to see results for dentists in Colorado Springs. Google can tell by the IP address of the searcher where they are located and will provide results accordingly. A searcher typing dentist from a Denver IP address will see results for dentists that have a physical address in Denver. A business in Provo, UT will more than likely not rank for a local term in Orem, UT even though it is a connected or neighboring city .
Proximity to the centriod is factor number #8 for Pure Local Rankings. The centriod is the civic center of a neighborhood or metropolitan area as determined by a local search engine. The centriod is usually, though not always, close to the geographical center of a city or a neighborhood. To find the centriod of your city, simply type its name in the search box an see where the push pin shows up. In the example we can see the centroid for Denver.
All other factors being equal, a business that is located closer to the centroid will usually rank higher than another business that is a longer distance from the centriod. In the rare instances when I see a business rank in maps for an adjoining city it is typically because the business address is very close to the boundaries of that city of the search results.
In the example below we see the search results for the query “dentist” with the location setting for “Englewood, CO”. Notice that River Point Dental Group, “F”, which is the 6th result, is actually located in Sheridan, CO. Sheridan is right on the city limits of Englewood.
III. Thou shalt manually verify thy Place page & citation profiles
The citation sources listed here allow you to verify your listing info. Verified listings are viewed as a more credible or trusted citation than those that are not by Google and other search engines.
All search engines, data aggregators, internet yellow pages, & directories use spiders or bots as one of the methods to gather information. This method of scraping data by crawling the web can cause errors or gather erroneous data. The verification process is a way to legitimize the listing or the citation. Doing so adds credibility and trust to the listing. As Google crawls these important citation sites and sees your listing verified and without duplicates your rankings should improve as you will appear a more trusted and credible source.
The verification process in some instances is completed by email, or mailing a pin in a post card to the business address, but usually is achieved by an automated call that is placed to the business. The verification process depends on the guidelines of each citation source. Some citation sources will require that you pay fee to be verified. I have created a step by step guide for the citations that I believe are the most credible and that carry the most ranking weight for Google Places, Yahoo Local and Bing Local. You can find links to those posts below.
In this example the Google Places page has been verified
In this example the Google Places page has not been claimed or verified.
In this example we see a verified Superpages.com Profile
In this example we see a unclaimed Superpages.com Profile.
IV. Thou shalt choose proper category associations
Categories are a key piece of information that the spiders gather to the index. The categories that you choose are an important factor for how the local algorithm ranks your business. You can choose up to 5 categories for your Goolge Places page. The number of categories varies for other citation sources.
You will need to clean up your category information for all citations just as you have corrected your NAP information. Miss matching categories can also cause confusion with the local algorithm and may effect your local search rankings.
I recommend using the Google Places Category Tool that Mike Blumenthal created to assure that you categorize your business properly.
Here are the results for “Dentist” for example
Choosing or entering the wrong/incorrect category can incur a penalty with your Google Places page. For example entering Denver Dentist instead of Dentist, Cosmetic Dentist or another proper category as shown above using Mike’s Tool.
V. Thou shalt have volume of traditional structured citations
Not all citations are equal. When it comes to citations the local algorithm is factoring quality and quantity. The purpose of the algorithm calculating or weighing citations is to measure which businesses are more credible and/or trustworthy.
The first step for citations is to do an inventory to find out where your business is already listed. It is very common for new business or new locations for a business to have a very limited number of citations. Businesses that are more seasoned will often have thousands of citations. Overtime a seasoned business can acquire more citations because data aggregators, search engines, data providers, and many digital portals all sharing information and all using spiders to index data.
Go to Google and use the following query (“business name” + “location” + “business phone”) to see how many citations Google has indexed for your business. In the example we can see that Google has indexed 9,050 results/citations for Redfearn Dental.
State & City Municipality Citations
Citations at a government level are considered very credible so listings for your business in the State records, City Records, County Tax Records, member lists at the local Chamber of Commerce are clear signals to Google that your business is a trustworthy entity.
The Big 3 Local Data Aggregators
A data aggregator is an organization involved in compiling business information (name, address, phone number, website, and product/service category) into a database. These companies compile or “aggregate” information from various online and offline sources including phone records, public records, business registration, county records, tax records, bank records, chamber of commerce membership, and many other sources.
The 3 major Local Data Aggregators are Infogroup, Localeze, and Acxiom. If your business is already registered with your City & State then there is a very good chance that data aggregators already have your information.
It can take up to 6 months for the aggregators to add your listing to their database so I recommend new businesses or businesses with new locations do not wait for their information to be gathered. A proactive approach of listing your business manually should help improve your search results in a shorter time frame. It is also important to verify your listing with those sources that allow verification.
Secondary Portals, Search Engines & Data Sources
There are many secondary portals/search engines and data sources that pull listing information from these data aggregators. Superpages.com, yellowpages.com, insiderpages.com and the list goes on. Getlisted.org provides a list of some of these secondary portals that are fed by the data aggregators or you can see who do the big 3 share their data with in my post Local Search Directory Monsters.
Manually Reviewed Directory Citations
Citations at directories that have a manual review process are also considered very credible. Some examples are the Better Business Bureau, the Yahoo Directory, Business.com, Dmoz Directory, or Best of the Web. There are also many industry specific directories that have a manual review process and having your business listed there are send strong signals to Google and the other search engines that your business is legitimate and trustworthy.
Note that most of these directories have annual or one time review fees that can range from $40 – $300. I list costs and details about many of them in my Top 50 Local Citations post or provide links to other posts with additional information.
VI. Thou shalt have crawlable address & local phone on website that matches Places page
Here again we see the importance of consistency of information. Displaying a different number on your Google Places page than the number on your website creates confusion and may have a negative effect your on your rankings. The same holds true for the company address.
Call tracking numbers can wreck havoc on your local rankings. Some businesses use a multiple phone numbers and call tracking software to track which marketing mediums generate leads or new customers. For example, a business places ads in the local yellow pages with number “X”, another ad on their Google Places page “Y”, and another ad with Superpages.com “Z”.
The advantage of call tracking is the ability to track customer aquisition costs and return on investment for each marketing medium. The disadvantage is confusion with your NAP which will lead to trust issues in the local algorithms of the search engines an ultimately have a negative impact on the local search results for the business. I imagine Mr Mackey, South Park Counselor would give the following advise, “umm, call tracking is baaad, um kay”.
Crawlable means the the text on your site is accessible to the Google Bots. Sites created in flash or phone numbers that are in an image instead of text will not be recognized or indexed. I recommend using micro formats or hcards so that you don’t encounter these issues. Never use flash to create your website which is a topic for another day. You should spend some time reading schema.org for more information about micro formats.
800 numbers are another issue for local search. Having a local address and a local phone number in the footer or somewhere on the landing page/home page sends a clear signal to Google about the location of your business. If your business uses or you customers require an 800 number make sure that you still list your local phone.
VII. Thou shalt have Page Rank and Domain Rank
Google’s algorithm scores or ranks every website/domain and every page on the internet. These scores are based on an aggregate of metrics (link profile, citation profile, pages indexed, social signals etc.) Google does not make a domains rank or trust available to the public and the Page Rank score that Google does provide about your website can be misleading but this is a topic for another day.
The guru’s at SEOmoz generate the closest predictions about these scores. They employ machine learning against Google’s algorithm to best model how search engine results are generated. They include 150 signals in their calculation for Domain Authority and similar calculations on a page level for Page Authority.
All other local factors being equal, a website with higher domain authority & page authority will rank higher in the local search results than a competitor site with lower scores.
Follow best practices as described in this post to improve your domain authority and page authority.
You will not be able to see the the Domain Authority or Page Authority for your site unless you pay to use the SEOmoz software. If all other local factors were equal, ProSmile would rank higher in the local results because they have the highest Page Authority and Domain Authority.
VIII. Thou shalt acquire quality links to thy website
Not all links are equal. When it comes to links the local algorithm is factoring quality and quantity. Once again the algorithm calculates and weighs links to measure which businesses are more credible and/or trustworthy.
You should also know that Google pays more attention to how many domains link to you than how many links you have. Sometimes a website may have many links to different parts of your site. 10 links from 1 site does not carry the same weight as 10 links from 10 sites. This is the difference between links and linking root domains.
You should also know that a link from a site with a Domain Authority score of 90 will carry more weight than 20 links from sites with Domain Authority scores averaging 5 for example. Bottom line, you need links from many other websites and hopefully many sites with high Domain Authority.
Creating a link building strategy is essential for even small business today. There are very few industries that can get by in today online without a consistent, long-term focused effort to network and acquire links.
Link building is not about paid directory submissions, it is not about software, link building is about adding true value to your visitors, to your community, and to your industry. You must add value through thought leadership, through valuable content, tools, videos, and resources that educates, that inspires, that answers questions and provides solutions.
IX. Thou shalt have city & state in Places landing page title
Google’s algorithm is going to look to see if you list the city & state in the Title Tag on the landing page/website in your Google Places page. City/State in the page title is a clear signal to the local algorithm of your location. It may be difficult for you to find out if your site has city/state in the page title. You can do it by viewing the source code on the page.
There are also software tools that do it quickly.
X. Thou shalt have product/service & location keywords in business title
This Local Search Factor is very frustrating. Mike Ramsey explains why perfectly in his post “5 Things Google is Doing Wrong”
A Business with the product/service keyword in their official business title/name is more likely to rank better in the search results than a business that does not, all other factors being equal. This is also the case for a business that has their location in the title. For example: Houston Plumbing will most likely rank better than Drain Doctors for plumbing terms.
This can be incredibly frustrating because what helps you improve rankings, wrecks havoc on the branding of your company. Take milkmen.com for example. I love the uniqueness of the name. It is memorable. It allows me to have a unique slogans like “Online Strategy that Delivers”. However, the search engines instantly try and place my business with milk products. For Google, my business name should be SEO Inc, or Local Search Optimization Inc, etc.
Notice in this example that the business that does not include plumbing in its title is in the last position at “G”.
You should also know that Google’s own guidelines state:
Business Name: Represent your business exactly as it appears in the offline world.
- Do not include marketing taglines in your business name.
- Do not include phone numbers or URLs in the business name field, unless they are part of your business name.
- Do not attempt to manipulate search results by adding extraneous keywords or a description of your business in the business name field.
Ultimately you will have to make a decision about what is more important when naming the business; generic names that include product/service & location in the title or a non-generic name/title. Generic names (product/service keywords) will rank better all other factors equal. Non generic titles will have to work harder in other areas to improve rankings but the name will probably be more memorable and easier to brand.
There are many other factors that the algorithms consider in calculating search results, however, following and implementing these 10 Local Search Commandments should help improve local rankings the most. I wish you the best in your quest to keep the Local Search Commandments!
Tags: Business Listing, Duplicates in Google Places, Google Places, Local Search, Local Search Optimization, LSO, Online Brand Strategy