As first noted by Mike Blumenthal last week, Google has significantly updated its help page on the topic of local ranking to include, for the first time, specific common-sense guidelines showing businesses how they can increase the likelihood that online searchers will find them in Google Maps on desktop and mobile. Along with recent news like the release of the Google My Business API, this move on Google’s part underscores the company’s notable recent focus on providing business owners with the tools and encouragement they need to manage listings effectively.
Google’s recommendations are more or less in line with the criteria outlined in David Mihm’s oft-cited Local Search Ranking Factors study, the most recent version of which came out in 2015. The study, however, is designed by and for an audience of experts, and is therefore not intended to provide straightforward tips for business owners in the manner of Google’s new guidelines. In addition, this is the first time we’ve heard straight from the source about what Google considers to be the most important ranking factors. For these reasons it’s worth paying close attention to what Google has to say.
The new help page begins with the example of a local search result for an Italian restaurant (right).
Note the recent addition of filter buttons like “Open Now,” “Top Rated,” “Cheap,” and “Upscale.” As the help text implies, this is an example of Google using the content of local listings to suggest options to the searcher. Google needs accurate, detailed local content from businesses and consumers in order to provide these customized experiences. The goal appears to be what Blumenthal has recently termed “immersive search,” where the searcher is led on custom paths through Google’s structured data until they get the result they want, often without needing to leave Google’s local ecosystem to visit the business website or a third-party booking site.
As the help page outlines, Google wants businesses to focus on five areas of activity.
Enter complete data
From the help page: “Local results favor the most relevant results for each search, and businesses with complete and accurate information are easier to match with the right searches. Make sure that you’ve entered all of your business information in Google My Business, so customers know more about what you do, where you are, and when they can visit you. Provide information like (but not limited to) your physical address, phone number, and category. Make sure to keep this information updated as your business changes.”
As we’ve long suspected, Google considers core data to be the most critical aspect of a local business listing. After all, if your address or phone number are inaccurate, Google can’t deliver an accurate search result to the consumer, and if your categories are missing or wrong, your listing will not appear in the correct keyword searches. Because Google has been historically unable to gather a critical mass of core listing information directly from businesses, the company has had to rely on a complex indexing mechanism where it looks for structured citations for a business that corroborate its own local data. For this reason, local search consultants create dozens of listings on infrequently visited directory sites, merely for the purpose of bolstering Google’s confidence in the authority of its listing data for a particular business. If Google gets enough business to provide accurate, current information directly into Google My Business, this laborious activity would become irrelevant.
Verify your location(s)
“Verify your business locations to give them the best opportunity to appear for users across Google products, like Maps and Search.”
Here Google is confirming that listings verified by the owner are more likely to rank well in search. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s an important confirmation nonetheless, and it underlines Google’s desire to source business data directly from businesses. Owner-verified listings are far more likely in Google’s eyes to contain accurate and complete data.
Keep your hours accurate
“Entering and updating your opening hours, including special hours for holidays and special events, lets potential customers know when you’re available and gives them confidence that when they travel to your location, it will be open.”
Hours of operation are especially important on mobile devices, where most local searches are occurring today. Hours are crucial to search relevance in a mobile context, where searchers are likely to be deciding which store to visit here and now. Google’s emphasis on hours again corroborates what we’ve suspected as to the importance of this data point, but the company is acknowledging for the first time that the presence and accuracy of hours, including the recently announced special hours feature, counts as a key ranking factor. What’s not clear at this stage is how Google assesses the accuracy of business hours.
Manage and respond to reviews
“Interact with customers by responding to reviews that they leave about your business. Responding to reviews shows that you value your customers and the feedback that they leave about your business. High-quality, positive reviews from your customers will improve your business’s visibility and increase the likelihood that a potential customer will visit your location.”
Once again, this is an activity local search consultants have long recommended, now officially endorsed as a ranking factor. Google clearly points out that “high-quality, positive reviews from your customers” have the biggest influence on ranking, and of course the quality and sentiment of reviews is outside the business owner’s control. Still, Google seems to feel that business owners who engage with customers by responding to reviews are more likely to create a positive brand image.
“Adding photos to your listings shows people your goods and services, and can help you tell the story of your business. Accurate and appealing pictures may also show potential customers that your business offers what they’re searching for.”
Google makes prominent use of photos in local Knowledge Graph cards, Maps listings, Snack Pack listings, and in the Google Maps app. When it has no photos from the business, Google will make use of street view photos or sometimes just a pin showing your location on the map. Clearly, these are less desirable options both for Google and the business owner. Here Google is acknowledging that photos have a greater marketing impact than any other aspect of a business listing except perhaps reviews. In encouraging businesses to provide photos, Google is effectively crowdsourcing the enhancement of its listings beyond basic street view imagery.
It’s worth noting that Google permits businesses to provide photos in thirteen different categories, including profile photos, logos, photos of the interior and exterior of the business, photos of food for restaurants or rooms for hotels, and so on. Businesses are well advised to provide as much high-quality photo content as they can across multiple photo categories.
Google’s reported ranking factors may or may not correspond with reality in the field. There’s no doubt that future local SEO studies will be dedicated to assessing the actual performance of listings that follow Google’s new guidelines.