The Increasing Impact of Reviews and Google+ (?!) on Local SEO
In this regular Street Fight feature, local marketing gurus David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal kick around some of the biggest ideas affecting the local search ecosystem and the broader industry. Send an email or leave a comment if you have specific topics that you’d like them to touch on in future columns!
David: Great to see you in Bend a couple weeks ago, Mike! Carrying over from our last conversation, I’d love to get your review of the speakers’ mixer venue: Crux Fermentation Project. One of my favorite places in Oregon — I’d give it a sixth star if Yelp would let me.
Mike: Well nothing like it exists in Allegany, NY, that’s for sure. And lucky for me they had something other than IPAs to drink! I loved that they ranked the beers by IBU (which I learned from my taxi cab driver was a measure of bitterness). I am NOT an IPA sort of guy.
David: Not sure you’d last very long as an Oregonian, then… but let me pick up on your comment about the IBU and ABV rankings. Those metrics are as close to structured data as we beer lovers typically get.
It strikes me that Google is doing a similar thing in the review space these days by placing numeric callouts from top review platforms front and center in Local Knowledge Panels. And the addition of the critic/top-ten-list callouts has also given us some bigtime insight into how Google is using authoritative local sites to inform local search rankings.
Mike: My recent research for LocalU Advanced that is published in the LocalU forum would indicate that at least in the case of Yelp, and likely in the case of many of the other major review sources, that the prominence of these local review pages and the “top ten” pages is then transferring prominence directly to the local entity in a way that is totally independent of links.
David: I suspected several years ago (SMX Advanced in 2011) that inclusion on lists like CityVoter’s Top 10, Best of Citysearch, and so on, had an outsized impact on rankings above and beyond the simple value of the third-party reviews on those sites. Seems like Google might finally be showing some transparency around this as a ranking factor.
Mike: Absolutely. One way this works at Yelp is that the Top Ten pages pick up significant internal page strength that is then passed on to the local business page. Also I think that Google takes special note of those Top 10 pages and assigns value to the listings in and of themselves. I haven’t done that research yet but it’s on my horizon.
David: But those “Top Ten” pages on Yelp are just a shameless SEO play on their part. You rarely if ever see them in browsing Yelp.
I’m convinced they’re auto-generated for a given keyword when Yelp detects a high enough keyword frequency in the review corpus of a given category of businesses. They assume if customers mention a certain phrase enough times in a review that people are probably also searching for businesses with that phrase on Google, and they want to capture those search eyeballs with a perfectly targeted page.
The more interesting thing to me is that somehow Google’s “no search results within search results” filter doesn’t bounce them out of the index. But I digress.
Mike: Regardless, all of these review sites and pages that are appearing on mobile local results and in the Knowledge Panel seem to be having an impact on local search ranking. Certainly an argument for getting reviews everywhere, and not just Google and Yelp.
David: Agreed. Regardless of the mechanics, reviews increase both authority and relevance, at Google and beyond. And seemingly at an increasing rate.
So what’s your read on social signals these days? How, if at all, do you see those signals playing into Google’s local algorithm?
Mike: This June, Gary Illyes was asked that same question. He pointed folks to the 2014 Matt Cutts video and was widely quoted as saying that there is no impact of social on search. But if you parse the video you will hear that they are not using social signals from Twitter and Facebook in ranking because they don’t have reliable access to the data and can’t have complete trust in the entities.
That being said, I just completed a research project that showed very strong indications that having an active, engaged audience at Google+ was impacting local rank.
David: So there’s a use for it after all? Wonders never cease.
Mike: Yes, hard to believe after I had pretty much given up on G+ as well. What I found in cooperation with Ben Fisher of SteadyDemand was that if you properly categorized posts in a collection, created sharable content and had engaged followers you not only found success at Google+ but it had somewhat dramatic results on local ranking.
The hard part on Google+, which has many fewer users than other social networks, is finding the ones that will share and comment on your content. But with some hard work even that is possible.
David: I’m not at all skeptical of your well-documented impact of Google+ activity on local rankings. I am highly skeptical, however, of the veracity of the “followers” and “commenters” whose activity has led to these rankings.
Mike: Obviously there are bots and spammers out there but many are real and seem to have a strong affinity for the posts that we have generated. They are not local customers but those that do contribute constructively to G+ seem to transfer a fair bit of prominence to her local entity. Her ranking and local traffic has improved significantly.
This study was correlational but I have seen the same impact on a number of these cases so I think that there is a stronger causal relationship in local results than anyone has so far identified.
David: Pretty interesting — certainly stronger than the relationship found by Stone Temple with respect to organic results. Your theory as to why?
Mike: I have to explore this more, but one reason could be that Stone Temple was looking at broader organic results, while I focused strictly on local. And while social posts in and of themselves don’t confer benefit, the trusted Google+ page for the entity does seem to. Similar to what we spoke of earlier in regards to Yelp benefitting the entity, if not its website.
David: Given Google’s all-out shift to a Knowledge Card-driven environment, I suppose it’s possible that Google+ might influence all semantic results, not just local.
But if I’m a local business, I’m still focused on reviews from real customers as my primary means of increasing authority and relevance.
Talk to you next week, Mike!