The Changing Role of Local Search Ranking

Share this:

For years, the most important performance indicator for local business websites and business listings has been rank position in Google search. Getting found near the top of the Google SERP for your chosen keywords has been the focus of all SEO effort and attention, and the key selling point of many an agency and consultant.

But local ranking isn’t what it used to be. Back in May 2015, Google finally announced the tipping point that had been inevitable for some time: mobile searches had outpaced desktop searches. At around the same time, comScore released a study showing that 21% of millenials go online exclusively with their mobile phones, and that 60% of all digital media time is now spent on phones and tablets.

What does this mean for local ranking? Google’s local ranking algorithm has traditionally worked by means of explicit or implicit local signals in a desktop browser environment. An example of an explicit local signal is when I type “plumber san antonio tx” into the Google search bar. Google understands that I’m searching for a local business in the vicinity of San Antonio, and tries to find local listings and organic results matching that localized query.

If I just type “plumber,” on the other hand, it’s possible that I’m looking for general information about what a plumber does or how to choose the right one. But Google knows enough about the probable intent behind common keywords to understand that I most likely want a plumber in my local area. So the keyword “plumber” is an implicit signal that tells Google to return local results, in this case based on my location as identified by the IP address of my browser.

Google’s relevance algorithm is sophisticated enough to know, however, that some small percentage of searchers for a keyword with high local intent like “plumber” are in fact searching for general information about plumbers, for which reason, when I searched for “plumber” just now, the last result on the first search page was a Wikipedia entry for the term.

All searches aren’t created equal, in other words, and this fact has kept the SEO industry busy. Ranking well for “plumber san antonio tx” doesn’t guarantee strong ranking for “plumber,” let alone “san antonio plumber,” “plumbing services in san antonio,” “clogged drain,” or any of a hundred other variations a user might think to type. For Google’s data-driven algorithm, each of these searches implies a slightly different intent.

Still, it’s been possible, through hard work and a laser-like focus on Google’s frequent algorithm adjustments, to help local businesses compete in organic search in a desktop-focused world. But with so much traffic shifting to mobile, the question of ranking has become much more complicated, to the point where the accepted definition of the concept may be close to obsolete.

The reason for this is simple enough. Location is far more powerful as an indicator of relevance on a mobile device than it could ever be on the desktop. For desktop searches, proximity is a key ranking factor, but the searcher’s location is approximated in a way that now seems quite primitive. Once Google has determined your location via your desktop’s IP address, it associates that location with a city, then ranks local search results based on the assumption that you are standing in the center of that city. Because desktop computers have no GPS, that’s the best Google can do.(True, Apple can locate your Macbook with a fair degree of precision using Wi-Fi, and Google could conceivably engineer something similar. But I’d guess that even if that technology existed, Google would consider proximity to your laptop to be a relatively poor indicator of relevance, compared with your phone where it’s safe to assume you want something that is nearby now.)

But on a mobile device with location services enabled, Google knows exactly where you’re standing, and will offer local results ranked primarily by how close they are to you. So if I search for “tacos” in the Google Maps app or on Google in a mobile browser, the ranking of those results may have little in common with the same search conducted by a mobile phone user on the other side of town.

Taken literally, this shift toward precise location-based relevance would mean that ranking in mobile is a meaningless notion, or a game that could only be won by a company like Starbucks with a store on every other corner.

Of course, the real world not that simple. In order for the traditional concept of local ranking to no longer have any bearing, you’d have to imagine a circumstance where every conceivable local query could be fulfilled by stores equally distributed across the map. Because that will never be the case, some local queries on mobile will be largely indistinguishable from desktop queries. If Google only knows about three florists in a mid-sized town, all of them are likely to appear for any mobile search regardless of the searcher’s precise location.

Still, mobile proximity throws a wrench in the works of traditional ranking, and mobile’s increasing dominance over desktop is especially pertinent for local search, given that by Google’s own admission, searches with local intent are much more common in mobile than desktop.

Various figures as high as 50% have been floated by various Google spokespeople as to how many mobile queries are local in nature, but the question was probably best summed up by Google Director of Engineering Chandu Thota at last week’s Local Search Association conference in San Francisco. Thota said local intent is hard to measure definitively – the “plumber” problem again – but because of the nature of the mobile user, all mobile searches should be considered “here and now” searches.

The growth in mobile does not necessarily sound the death knell for ranking, but it does change its meaning. Ranking in desktop becomes a kind of proxy for overall success in local optimization, indicating the likelihood that your location will surface in hyperlocal searches where the combination of proximity and other relevance factors favors you over other businesses.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.