Using The Past To Predict The Future For Local Search

Historical Analysis: Local Search Ranking Factors 2008-2014

I was excited to see the results of Moz’s 2014 Local Search Ranking Factors survey published last week. The timing of this year’s survey was particularly useful given Google’s Pigeon update in July (2014), which resulted in major ranking changes for both local pack and localized organic results.

As ever, it’s nice to see the observations and comments of so many leading local experts distilled into an easily digestible form.

I’m not going to dig too deeply into the 2014 results here, as a ton of good analysis and commentary is already out there. For those who are interested, the following posts are must-reads in addition to the survey results themselves:

Here, I’m going to look at the changing composition of the Local Search Ranking Factors study since it was first conducted in 2008.

Can We Predict The Future By Looking At The Past?

Historians, politicians, scientists, economists, gamblers, and meteorologists all use events in the past to predict the likely outcome of future events.

So can we in the local search industry do the same? Yes, I think we can.

It’s not guaranteed that the past predicts the future, but it certainly shines a light on the likely direction and outcomes we’re heading toward. And when we complement this analysis with a practical understanding of Google’s objectives, I believe these predictions hold water.

So, Just What Is Google’s Objective?

Ignoring the obvious commercial and non-search related objectives, Google’s desire is to provide the most relevant and genuine content and search results that best meet the needs of an individual user at an exact location and point in time.

We’ll also see from this historical analysis the growing complexity of local search – but also that there is underlying consistency and simplicity in it. (See, I said it was complex!)

Local Search Ranking Factors: 2008 To 2014

The two charts below plot the changing composition and findings of the survey over the 7 years since it was first compiled.

Each year, the survey has evolved to keep pace with the changing nature of local search and what we understand about it. To enable a year-on-year comparison, I have taken a few liberties with the data:

  1. Looked only at “overall” ranking factors from each survey (not result-type specific factors)
  2. Only reviewed “Positive” factors, not “Negative” factors
  3. Retro fitted the current ranking factor categories to the older survey results
  4. Applied scores to older survey results and categories
  5. Tweaked some of the category names to make them more user friendly for less knowledgeable readers

About Result Scoring

I’m not privy to the exact scoring system used in each iteration of the survey.

The aggregate scores for 2013 and 2014 are published. But, for surveys between 2008-2012, I have applied a simple scoring system which takes the rank of each factor and applied a reverse score. So the top ranked factor has the highest score and vice versa. These scores are then added up to give each category an aggregate score.

Chart 1: % Influence of Ranking Factor Categories

Chart 2: Number Of Factors Examined In The Survey

Number of factors examined in the survey

Key Takeaways & Analysis

  • From 2008 to 2014, the number of factors examined has risen by 2.5x (41 to 107)
  • Each category of factors has splintered to become more granular
  • 3 new categories have been added since start (social, behavioural, personalization)
  • Traditional, organic factors carry more weight than pure-local factors

Increasing Complexity Of Local Search

As our understanding of local search has deepened and Google’s local ranking algorithm has become more sophisticated, it now means that many more factors play a part in determining local ranking, and no single factor dominates.

Back in 2008 and 2009, the impact of a well-optimized Google Local/Places page was enormous — but not anymore. Why is this?

  • In 2008/09, there were far fewer businesses with well-optimized Google Local/Places pages; thus, basic optimization was enough to achieve good rankings.
  • Now, there is much more competition in the local space. Good optimization remains important; but it’s a foundational factor, not a differentiator.

(Note: Back in May, I did a hangout interview with David Mihm, the survey’s curator, in which he gives his take on this change.)

Things have moved on so much since the first ranking factors survey that some categories weren’t even considered in the early surveys – e.g., social, user behavior, personalization, etc. Even the word “citation,” which is regularly used in today’s local search lexicon, wasn’t used back in 2008.

Simplified, But Also More Competitive

The closer alignment of organic and local algorithms means that key factors such as website (on-page) optimization and links now have a big impact on both organic and local rankings. In earlier years, the factors which influenced local and organic were much more distinct and separate.

This change is a double-edged sword for local SEOs and business owners. On one hand, it simplifies things because on-site optimization and link building efforts pay off on both fronts.

But, it also means that local businesses are competing more directly with bigger businesses that have big budgets — including well-known brands. Google likes brands. It equates brand to trust, and this stacks the odds firmly in favor of the bigger players.

Traditional Organic Factors Have Stood The Test Of Time

Pure local factors such as Google Places optimization, reviews, and citations have seen a decline in impact in recent years. But, website optimization and links have endured as factors and seen steady growth. Both are now considered to have greater impact than pure local factors.

Social Media Has Plateaued

The impact of social signals on local results wasn’t measured until 2010; and in the last three years, it has remained at a consistent but low level.

Google doesn’t entirely trust social signals as it can be easily gamed; therefore, its impact remains low. Even Google’s support of its own Google+ platform has wavered this year.

Behavioural & Personalization Signals

These categories represent the biggest unknowns for local search observers, but the general consensus is that their influence has grown and will continue to grow.

Behavioural Factors include things such as:

  • Click-through rate to a website
  • Time spent on a website
  • Bounce-back to search results
  • Click-to-call actions
  • Check-ins

These all give an indication of user engagement with a business (and its website). Google wants to serve the best results to its users, so signals like this are important. The more engaged users are, the more Google trusts that business and the more prominently it will appear in search results.

(Note: It’s supposedly harder to manipulate these signals than social or link signals, although there’s some interesting evidence that “faking clicks” can increase ranking in the short term. See this thread for more on this.)

Personalization is all about relevancy. It is the tailoring of search results based on a searcher’s personal situation, such as:

  • User location
  • User search history
  • Regular sites users visit

The more information Google holds about a user, the more tailored and relevant the results that can be served.

More About Location. A big change witnessed since the Pigeon update is how Google determines the “location” for a search. Previously, it used a physical, fixed location within a city to act as the center point around which results are served.

Now, it uses the actual location of the searcher (determined by IP address, GPS location, etc.) at that point in time to determine the truest local results.

Location is now more important than ever; but. I believe that Google has gone too far in this change. Location often trumps quality and reputation factors, which is wrong. For most (not all) local businesses types, people would prefer to use a better businesses even if it’s slightly further away.

So, What Does The Past Teach Us About The Future?

Here are the 6 main things that I have gleaned from this historical review:

1. Diversity, Consistency & Genuineness Will Win Out

No single optimization tactic will deliver success on its own. You need to review and optimize in multiple areas at the same time. But don’t stop there.

You need to push your brand and message onto as many channels as you can handle. You don’t know where your next customer may come from or how they may interact with you, so make use of the abundant social, video, photo and networking sites out there. Spread the net as wide as you can.

You also need to be consistent in your approach. The obvious area is getting an accurate and consistent name, address and phone number (NAP) in all the key places (Google My Business, website, citations, etc).

But you also need consistency in your dealings with customers (so they leave good reviews) and in your content and branding (so you build up authority and brand recognition).

Finally, you need to be genuine. Don’t focus on tactics which attempt to manipulate rankings because, in the end, you’ll be found out. Don’t buy links; earn them through great content that your network wants to read. Don’t fake reviews; deliver great service which rewards you with reviews that boost your reputation.

Improve your website so that customers can easily find what they want, stay longer and make contact with you – this will show Google that you’re a high quality business.

2. Having A Well-Optimized Website Will Always Be Important

It’s the oldest concept in SEO, but it still applies today. Having a well optimized site is a huge factor in earning good rankings in both organic and local results. The factors that contribute to a well optimized site have changed greatly, but the principle is the same.

Today, the focus is on unique, high quality content served on fast-loading, conversion-optimised pages which are great for your customers. As behavioural factors continue to impact the ranking algorithm, the importance of this is only going to increase.

3. Links Are Not Dead

Google would like to do away with links as a factor because of relentless manipulation by link builders. But they can’t.

Google hasn’t found a suitable replacement, and it’s clear that social signals aren’t the answer it hoped for. So links remain an enduring factor, and it’s likely to stay that way for years to come.

4. With Reviews, Look Beyond Ranking Power

The survey results show a dropping off in impact of reviews (although a number of participants claimed they see much higher influence coming from reviews) but this doesn’t show the whole picture.

Reviews and ratings play a big role in determining which results are clicked on. A business may rank in 4th place, but if it has a better star rating and more reviews than those above it, it’s going to get disproportionately more clicks.

So, if you focus all your efforts on other factors which get you to rank #1 but you don’t have a good reputation, then you won’t earn the clicks and customers you expect.

Additionally, remember that click-through is itself a ranking factor. So, if more reviews/ratings gets you more clicks, then it’s working doubly hard to boost your ranking.

5. Don’t Think You’ve Ever Done Enough!

If you ranked in 1st position with a well-optimised Google Places profile in 2008 but have done nothing since, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be ranking well there now. The world has moved on, and your competitors have surpassed you.

The same goes for today. If you’ve done a solid job optimizing your site, claimed your Google My Business profile, built accurate citations, garnered some reviews and earned yourself some good links, then well done! But if you stop now, you’ll slip back; certain factors may lose impact, and your competitors are hungry for your customers.

6. Finally, Don’t Rely On Google

Google is a huge fish in the pond, but it’s not the only fish. It’s also highly changeable, unpredictable, and self-serving — so don’t rely on it. There are plenty of other channels that will bring you customers.

  • Claim and optimize your Yahoo Local and Bing Places profiles.
  • Make sure you optimize your profiles on other high traffic sites like Yelp, Foursquare, Citysearch, BBB.org, etc. (And learn how barnacle SEO can help you get more from these listings.)
  • Build a strong reputation, online and in your local community.
  • Leverage your relationships with existing customers to win new customers.
  • Build your network on social platforms, and deepen your relationships with your customers.
  • Grow your email list so you can deliver timely offers and promotions to keep customers returning to you.

The post Using The Past To Predict The Future For Local Search appeared first on Search Engine Land.