Charting Google’s Shifting Priorities in the New Local Search Survey

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For nearly ten years, the Local Search Ranking Factors report, created by David Mihm, has been recognized as the authoritative source of tactics that cause local businesses to rank highly in Google local results. Rather than attempting a statistical study or some other empirical method, Mihm decided to survey local SEO experts in order to garner feedback about which tactics worked best for them in the field, when performing work for actual clients. It was a clever and pragmatic approach, in that the survey effectively distilled the experience of seasoned practitioners into a master to-do list for others to follow. Though it’s possible that confirmation bias played a hand in the results, for the most part, the popularity of the survey year after year attests to the fact that the tactics in Local Search Ranking Factors really do work.

From 2008 to 2015, new editions of the survey were released each year by Mihm, who compiled the results and wrote commentary on the findings. Looking back on editions from previous years serves as a real time capsule of changes in local search over the past decade, though for the most part the story is one of reinforcement of fundamental techniques in an atmosphere of significant growth in the industry and constant changes in the Google landscape.

This year, after a hiatus in 2016, the survey returns under new management. Mihm has handed the reins over to Darren Shaw, founder and president of Whitespark, himself a well-known name in the industry and regular contributor to previous editions of the survey. Shaw’s 2017 results have been released, followed by a very well-attended LSA webinar. While results remain largely consistent with previous years, there are a few notable changes.

First, there’s a new top ranking factor. For many years, Physical Address in City of Search held the top position, but it has now been overtaken by Proximity of Address to the Point of Search (Searcher-Business Distance). This is as good a way as any of memorializing the fact that the canonical local search use case has become a mobile user searching for a business nearby his or her current location. Even in desktop searches, Google now tries to infer user location as precisely as possible in order to determine proximity.

Shaw points out in the LSA webinar that proximity may make a lot of sense for restaurants but is next to meaningless for plumbers, where the user is likely interested not in the nearest but the best. It’s an interesting observation that likely points out the need for some course correction on Google’s part. Where it was safe a year or two ago to presume that mobile searchers were more likely to be conducting on-the-go searches for businesses nearby, that presumption is just not accurate today. Many users now treat the smartphone as an all-purpose device, and are just as likely to search for businesses that require research and consideration as they are to want quick nearby results.

In another notable shift, this year’s report sees an increase in the importance of link building, the oldest ranking factor in existence. Somewhat surprisingly, link building saw the biggest overall gains of any factor in 2017. Of course, in a post-Penguin world, links must be high quality and legitimately earned, so perhaps this resurgence merely reinforces a basic tenet of Google’s approach to search: authority is a function of interconnectedness within relevant communities. In the case of local, links should be from entities in your region or industry to provide the greatest benefit, and should be focused on the website or landing page in your Google listing.

In this year’s report, Shaw distinguishes for the first time between “foundational” and “competitive” factors, by which he means that some factors are necessary in order to rank at all, but won’t make you stand out; whereas others are important specifically because they can differentiate you from the competition. Link building is a great example of a competitive factor, one that only increases your ranking power the more you do it, as long as links are earned.

Among the foundational factors is one that made Shaw’s reputation: citation building. Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder has been a popular tool for years, designed to help users find opportunities to build structured listings, or citations, on third party sites. The rationale for this is the well-known fact that Google looks at breadth and consistency of citations to help determine the authority of its own listings.

However, citation building has dipped somewhat in importance as of this year’s report. Testament to Shaw’s objectivity, he doesn’t insist that citations are more important than the survey results suggest; rather, he concedes the point that citation building is less of a differentiator than a competitive factor and therefore unlikely to move the needle for most businesses. For this reason and due to Google’s gradual demotion of low quality sites, citation building is most effective on high traffic sites and aggregators. Though it used to be a common practice, listing your business on every site you can find now has diminishing returns.

The survey, as usual, represents a significant milestone in the evolution of local search, though I think that its methodology does miss out on a key point. It’s always been interesting to me that the survey focuses nearly all of its attention on Google. Of course, there’s no better choice if you have to pick the one site that matters most for local, and over much of its history, one could safely claim that to focus attention on ranking in Google local meant, by default, building effective presence on other consumer destination sites like Yelp, Citysearch, YP and Superpages.

But many of these “Google feeder” sites have lost significance over the years, and in their place we’ve seen the rise of sites and apps that offer Google-free local search environments of their own, such as Facebook and Apple Maps. A strong listing in Apple Maps is not a Google ranking factor, yet it means more customers at your door. At the end of the day, high Google local ranking is only a proxy for actual store visits and business transactions, which also happen by other routes outside Google’s purview. To be truly optimized for local search, businesses need to take actions outside those recommended by the survey.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.