Brief change suggests local SEO ranking factors are different for branded queries


I had a unique experience a couple months ago that confirmed that Google weights local ranking factors differently for branded search terms than they do for non-branded ones.

Before I explain what happened, I need to first clarify that there are currently two different kinds of local 3-packs (branded vs. non-branded), and my conclusion is that the ranking factors for these are not the same.

Branded vs. non-branded 3-pack

The branded 3-pack is generally what you get when you search things like “sears dallas” or “starbucks seattle” or “state farm chicago.” (However, I frequently see Google showing branded 3-packs for non-branded queries. I’ve always concluded this means that Google somehow “thinks” the query is a branded search when it’s really not.)

You’ll get a non-branded 3-pack when you search generic categories like “shopping mall chicago” or “auto insurance baltimore.”

What’s different?

There are some notable differences between the branded and non-branded 3-packs, which are as follows:

  1. The branded 3-pack has an ABC labeling on it; the non-branded 3-pack does not.
  2. The non-branded 3-pack shows reviews/rating stars; the branded 3-pack does not.
  3. The non-branded 3-pack shows the primary category for the listing (e.g., “Insurance Agency”); the branded 3-pack does not.

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I honestly have no idea why Google decided to remove reviews for branded queries. I think it’s kind of dumb, but it happened when they rolled out the 3-pack in August of 2015.

Ranking factors for the two types are weighted differently

I came to this conclusion when, one day, a client of mine popped into the 3-pack suddenly. He had previously not even been in the top seven for this query due to his physical address not being within the city limits. So when the ranking tracker suddenly showed that he was now second in the 3-pack, it was something I definitely had to investigate.

Imprezzio Marketing (my company) has a subscription to BrightLocal‘s tools, which frankly is the only reason why I was able to catch this. We have a ranking tracker that scans daily for each client and also takes screen shots of the SERPs. I went and looked at the screen shot for that day and compared it to the screen shot for the previous day, and here is what I found.

Previously, “Handyman Tampa” had always returned a branded 3-pack (even though this isn’t a branded search). My client, The Handyman Company, was nowhere in this 3-pack. However, the day he started ranking, Google changed the search results to show a non-branded 3-pack for this search term. Suddenly, he was in the second position.

Handyman Tampa Non-Branded

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I double-checked the organic results. Nothing had changed in that section that could have impacted the local ranking change.

The businesses that ranked in the new non-branded local 3-pack were very different from the businesses that had previously been ranking. About a week later, the 3-pack flipped back to being branded, so this period of several days allowed me to collect information about the new businesses that were ranking, which I stored in a spreadsheet you can download here.

Based on the differences, these were the main things I noticed:

  1. Keywords in the domain matter more for non-branded 3-packs. The top 3 listings for the non-branded pack all contained the word “handyman” in the domain.
  2. Organic ranking factors matter more for non-branded 3-packs. When clicking through for more results on the branded 3-pack, three of the top seven listings didn’t even link to a website, so organic factors couldn’t have come into play for them.
  3. Hidden addresses may hinder ranking for a branded 3-pack. This was a really small sample size, but I did notice that all top five listings for the branded 3-pack didn’t have hidden addresses, whereas the non-branded pack included many. If this is true, it would make sense, since brands often are not service-area businesses. A simple way to test this would be to unhide the business address to see what the impact is. I have done this for a client in the past and noticed a ranking spike (only once).
  4. Location mattered more for branded 3-packs. For the non-branded 3-pack, many of the top listings were not within the Tampa city limits. The map was also zoomed in more for the branded 3-pack. This is typical of brand searches; I often see they have tighter centroids, especially in big cities.
  5. Keywords in the business name mattered more for non-branded 3-packs. This was the opposite of what I was expecting; there were many businesses that ranked in the branded 3-pack which didn’t contain the word “handyman” in their business title, whereas all the listings in the non-branded 3-pack included it.
  6. Using the proper primary category mattered more for branded 3-packs. For the non-branded 3-pack, there was one listing without the category “handyman” and one listing that had it, but not as their primary category. For the branded results, every listing in the top seven had “handyman” as the primary category. I believe the idea here is that Google most likely associates one (or multiple) categories with a specific brand/keyword, and if your business doesn’t contain it, it could hurt ranking.

In summary, I realize this is a small sample size but wanted to report the findings based on the accuracy of the data. Other than this example, I’ve never seen Google do this before where every other factor remained exactly the same. I have also never seen them flip from a branded to non-branded 3-pack for a given query.

See any patterns I missed? I’d love to hear about it!

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