How Does Google Local Order Its Results?
February 2015 Update:
We originally published this post in July of 2008. Since then, ranking in Google Local is more elusive, and a more complex algorithm is applied to local rankings. So, the team at our little Austin-based digital marketing agency updated this post as noted.
I believe deeply in Google Local. I believe that Google Local will, in a few short years from now, overcome and eclipse yellowbook, yellowpages.com, superpages, citysearch, or any other local business directory in print form or on the web (I wrote that when this post was first published in 2008 and yep, it came true -Michael David). Remember searching with InfoSeek? Google Local is a major shift in local business search; it’s coming hard, and it’s coming fast.
With Google’s foray into 411 directory information (800-GOOG-411) and it’s imminent consumer telephone service, it’s quite clear that Google Local is going to be much more than a small local directory. We commented on this paradigm shift in our post on Google’s 411 Directory Assistance service, when those outside the SEO community barely noticed.
The Increasing Value of Google Local Entries
Certainly, Google Local entries are becoming more valuable; Google has for a while inserted its local results–with obvious prominence–within its traditional natural results. Google Local is certainly a facet of SEO that is growing in importance week-by-week. And, once Google launches its telephone service, then Google Local may become more important than the traditional natural results for some businesses. And don’t forget that Google is busy perfecting its voice recognition system in conjunction with its 411 service.
Cell phones, voice recognition, geo-location, and location-sensitive search retrieval–all these factors are now conjoining. Google is obviously posturing for the inevitable day when a majority of searches are made by voice command rather than the pitter-patter of a computer keyboard.
And, just as optimizers have struggled to learn the secrets of Google’s natural results, so in the future may SEO’ers fight for top position in the Google Local results.
And so, we analyzed how the listing order for Google Local results is determined with an eye toward improving our results and the results of our clients. Here’s a hint: it’s not alphabetic.
Location Sensitivity in Google Local Results
Google Local entries do appear to be “location sensitive”, with increasing accuracy and importance. Obviously, the entire point of a local search is to deliver local results. And, zip code-based searches appear to be more “strict” than city name searches–Google has a patent to do with this that is so technical, I don’t even want to learn about it. Business locations near a city center may appear first in Local entries–but location is not the only factor, and location can easily be outweighed by both keywords and depth of the listing and reviews.
Keywords in the business name and title yield favorable Google Local results, as well as the use of keywords in the business description. That presents a clear opportunity to optimize through the development of a keyword-focused profile.
Local Results: The Effect of Customer Reviews
Finally, the local business results are certainly impacted by the number of reviews. A search for “austin restaurants” (from an Austin IP address) returns a prominent and inviting map with 10 local entries. The first two entries are Chuy’s (drool) and Stubb’s BBQ (drool, again), with 102 and 46 reviews, respectively. Scroll down, and the number of reviews drops.
Business owners with local listings would be wise to invite their happy customers to write reviews in the Google Local section. I am sure I will…
February 2015 Update: The effect of customer reviews is still felt, certainly, but is no longer such a sure bet. Customer reviews create a “trust factor”–Google wants to be assured that businesses are open for business, and reviews can confirm this. But with expanded criteria (read on for recent developments) customer reviews as a ranking factor are largely thought to be diluted. Coupled with that, Google’s algorithm for detecting reviews posted by the owner themselves has grown more sophisticated (thankfully). We observed a few companies in our local market of Austin TX with falsified reviews completely disappear from the map listing in the mid- to latter- part of 2009.
Feb. 2015 Update: How Does Google Local Order Its Results?, Part II
Google Maps/Local’s ranking factors have grown more complex, and frankly, we’ve learned a lot more about it in the past 20 months. So, we decided to expand and update this article with greater scope and depth.
Claiming Your Listing
Google provides a verification/claim process for “grabbing” a listing, or if one doesn’t exist, for claiming a listing. Ask yourself, does verification of a listing tend to corroborate that the underlying business’s contact information is correct and that the business is open?
Absolutely, and Google treats verification as a trust factor–claiming the listing establishes that your business is open and the information is current.
Use of Proper Categories
A well-used secret of the pros: select the categories wisely and based on the proper relevant keyword groups. Google’s category selection has gone through many phases: In early 2008, the system forced you to select pre-existing categories–even if those categories did not describe your business accurately. Then, in early 2009, Google went to a free-form category system: Submitters were allowed to create any category name desired. This led to some keyword stuffing, and when the dust finally settled (at least for the time being) Google now requires you to select one pre-existing category, but then allows up to 4 free-form categories.
Best practice? Pick the pre-existing category for your main line of business, and choose your free-form categories based on some secondary keywords that identify your products.
Use of Product/Service Keyword in Local Business Listing Title
If your business is gutter cleaning, and your business listing title is “Austin Gutter Cleaning”–you’ll likely rank well for searches for gutter cleaning in Austin. This factor is necessary, but has led to rampant abuse. Some categories are dominated by companies that have stuffed their title with search terms. There is a fine art to incorporating keywords in a natural way without appearing as blatant spam. I would expect Google to algorithmically improve its detection of keyword stuffing in the future. Perhaps the best approach to this factor is to use keywords in your business name from the get-go and not try to keyword stuff your way into the rankings.
Keywords in Description (and Even Having a Description)
I remain amazed that companies with ongoing, expensive SEO campaigns have incomplete or poorly written descriptions in their listings. Google gives you the space to describe your product/service–use it. If you sell recumbent bikes–make sure that term appears in your local business description.
Phone Numbers: Local, Exclusive, and Consistent
Use local area codes/numbers, not 800 numbers unless you are a national brand. Also, don’t share phone numbers between local listings like two locations or two different business names: that erodes trust. Also, the phone number that you use in your local listing should also appear on the destination page (your website referenced in the local listing)–that way Google can corroborate the number in it’s directory as current and accurate.
Master Ranking Factor: KML File and Geo-Sitemap
For skilled programmers and web designers, an integrated Geo-Sitemap and associated KML file on the business’s website for Google and Yahoo to spider establishes trust and authenticity. The Geo-Sitemap/KML protocol is a standard by which you can identify the physical location of your business in a standard file format. We’ve seen this technique work quite well in competitive markets. The how-to, however, does require some coding skill as well as use of Google’s Webmaster tool, and thus is beyond the scope of this article.
Master Ranking Factor: hCard Microformat/Schema
Another factor available to skilled programmers is the inclusion of the hCard microformat on the destination website. The hCard format is a standardized protocol for displaying contact information. Google and Yahoo have both announced their support for this format. This factor enjoys less weight than the major ranking factors. We implement this in competitive markets for that extra push.
Master Ranking Factor: Corroboration in Other Local Directories
Think like a search engine for a moment: If you had a local listing for a business, and (since you are a search engine and crawl other sites) you find that business listed on other local directories/internet yellow pages with the same phone number/address/etc. That would tend to mean the business in your directory was 1) Popular, and 2) Still open for business, right? Absolutely yes.
Now imagine the converse: no corroboration in other popular internet directories, or worse: conflicting information–what would that say? It’s obvious: when Google finds corroborative information from other sources, it rewards those listings as trustworthy.
But to implement this important ranking factor, you’ll need to get busy: the number of relevant, high-value local directories and internet yellow pages sources is growing rapidly, while at the same time the number of low-value, worthless directories (and even some scams surrounding directory listings) is also growing rapidly. Among the scams we’ve run into (because we’ve worked on hundreds of local listings) are:
- The Yellow Pages Renewal Scam. You’ll want to search the ‘net for information on this one if you are interested, but it’s essentially a “do you wish to continue your existing listing?” pitch. If you say yes, you are invoiced for 600 or 700 dollars.
- The Google Local Scam. This scam is an inbound call claiming that either 1) your Google local listing is subject to deletion or 2) offering paid position in Google Maps. Google Maps is free, and any threat of removal is fraudulent.
Lightweight Ranking Factors: Videos and Pictures
I typically try to use all the spaces for photos and include a video if one exists. I see that more robust profiles tend to outrank more incomplete profiles. But this is a factor with less weight: you aren’t going to rocket to position #1 in a competitive market simply by adding pictures.
Lightweight Ranking Factor: The Recent Claim Bump
Some pros describe a slight effect to the recent claiming of a listing–the listing bumps up but then perhaps dissipates with time. But since you’ll be claiming your listing anyway, you’ll cover this base.
Lightweight Ranking Factor: Pagerank of Destination Homepage
Remember that you’ll identify your business’s website in the Google local profile. The Google Pagerank (PR) value of your destination page is widely regarded to be a factor in the ranking of the corresponding local listing. After all, Google’s natural ranking algorithm rewards high-Pagerank sites with great placement in natural search–why not in local listings as well?
Negative Google Local Ranking Factors
The following are widely regarding as negative ranking factors:
- Using an 800 number with no local phone number.
- Multiple locations can confuse the search engines, and handling several locations without the help of an experienced pro can lead to merged and buried listings.
- Post Office boxes without any physical address.
The Other Factors
Yes, there are other factors–though more moderate in weight and effect.