How Does Google Determine the Authority of Local Entities?

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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: Hey Mike, sorry for the longer-than-usual hiatus between our conversations. I was traveling abroad last week and didn’t think a 3am Skype conversation would fit your schedule very well.

Mike: You are now a man of leisure. It’s okay! You are right about that though. I am not ready to interrupt my 3am bourbon session for this! I assume that it was the calm before the storm for your new enterprise?

David: Yep, Tidings will be launching imminently, so I’m excited about that. But our conversations are a nice break from bug-bashing and help documentation! 

This week I thought we might discuss a trend you and I have both been sensing for the past couple years — Google’s gradual algorithmic transition away from links as the dominant ranking signal, towards something much more nebulous. 

Mike: It might actually go back further than that in Local…but certainly at least since Hummingbird, there have been strong indications that Google was looking for alternatives to links. Hummingbird signaled the shift to some of these alternative mechanisms across all entities, not just Local.

David: Funny, thinking back on that Hummingbird update now, what I remember most was the dramatic increase in the number of results featuring big brands, which I always associated with inbound link authority. But in reality, it was a jumping-off point for Google’s use of non-link brand signals as an indication of both relevance and prominence.

Initially, that update favored directories in organic results. But over time, as Google has moved “from strings to things” with RankBrain and the Knowledge Graph, they’ve learned how to use those directories to surface quality Knowledge Graph results. Much to Yelp and others’ extremely vocal chagrin.

Mike: I think originally directories ranked well because of their more sophisticated SEO but Google now seems to be favoring the brand website and only directories with really fresh relevant content (like a TripAdvisor or Yelp).

David: Well, and they’re clearly using a local business’s prominence on those sites, or lack thereof, as a major ranking signal these days. They explicitly tip their hand to that logic in certain categories like restaurants by displaying the critical lists on which a business (entity) is included right in their Knowledge Panel.

Barnacle SEO is (or should be) making a comeback in a big, big way.

Mike: I agree but Barnacle with a difference. You now need to leverage the authority of that prominent site, not just be there. And places like have really taken advantage of that.

Each of these sites that Google trusts might calculate authority in a different way, but if Google can verify the relationship to the local entity, they can apply that authority to the ranking of the local listing.

David: OK, so what’s your theory on how Google is defining a local entity these days? 

Mike: The entity that Google is actually ranking is the virtual one in their Knowledge Graph, not necessarily the website as a proxy for that entity, as we previously thought. The website is merely one of many trusted sites that Google can look at to add authority to the listing.

David: Right. And critically, for verified Google My Business listings, it’s the single web presence that Google can 100% trust is explicitly connected to the entity. They have a high degree of confidence that a matching Yelp listing or TripAdvisor profile is connected, but not the same level.

Mike: That is why links still matter…the links can elevate that highly-trusted website that then confers additional authority on the listing. (Although we also know that Google is exploring “Knowledge Based Trust” as well as an alternative to the link graph for that sort of thing and seeing some success.)

David: Well, yes. Regardless of the survey or study you look at, it’s pretty clear that links do still matter for local rankings.

But it appears that 9 years after I wrote the original article, citations are still the new link. It’s just our definition of citation that needs to evolve dramatically beyond the cliche Name, Address, Phone.

Mike: Yes the concept of a citation has to evolve to require contextual authority. That is, to provide ranking value to the local entity it needs to be have ranking value at its source….i.e. a Google Plus profile has to have content that is shared, a Yelp page needs reviews and to hit their Top 10 list, a HealthGrades page has to achieve prominence based on whatever criteria HealthGrades uses.

David: All of those examples still involve Name Address Phone at their core. But Google has gotten far more sophisticated in its ability to associate mentions of an entity with that virtual Knowledge Graph entry you spoke about earlier.

You and I have both been using the tragicomic example of Dr. Palmer, who still ranks #1 for “lion killer” in a nationwide Google Maps search years after his slaughter of Cecil.

Mike: That certainly isn’t based on his link profile! But rather on the many news articles including NPR, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the NY Daily News and even Al Jazeera… He is “killing it” on the PR front.

A good reason to double down on your PR efforts in local. And take a deeper look at the ranking factors WITHIN the important sites that Google is looking at in your industry.

As we move even further into a world with fewer and fewer webpage results and more and more entity results, I guess we need to be thinking about words and facts being the new “links.”

Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either [email protected] or [email protected], or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider. He’s the former founder of, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike Blumenthal, he’s a co-founder of Local University. Mike Blumenthal is the co-founder and analyst at Near Media where he researches and reports on reputation, reviews and local search. Mike has been involved in local search and local marketing strategy for almost 20 years. He explores the online to offline local ecosystem and helps businesses understand it and benefit from it through writing, speaking and education.