Two weeks ago, the 2018 edition of Local Search Ranking Factors was released by Darren Shaw and Moz. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the report, first produced by David Mihm back in 2008 and updated just about every year since, first by Mihm and then by Shaw, who took the reins in 2017. The report’s methodology has undergone numerous smaller and larger adjustments over the years, but the basic approach remains the same today as when it started. The report surveys several highly respected local SEOs about the tactics that work best for local ranking, aggregates the results, and then ranks those tactics according to their popularity.
As some have pointed out in the past, this approach has its strengths and weaknesses. It could be argued, for instance, that relying on expert opinion, rather than objective criteria such as test results, might tend to bias the results in favor of tactics the experts prefer for reasons other than their effectiveness, such as ease of implementation, familiarity, or the fact that an expert happens to specialize in one tactic or another.
With that caveat in mind, the survey should be valued for what it is: a distillation of the practical knowledge and opinions of some of the brightest and most attentive minds in our industry. As a directional document, the report has helped to track shifts in the importance of social signals, citations, and numerous other components whose stock has risen or fallen over time.
This year’s report, perhaps not surprisingly, suggests that many of the newer Google features that once seemed experimental have solidified into important competitive differentiators. Overall, Google My Business optimization saw the biggest gain this year in perceived influence on both local pack/finder ranking and localized organic ranking. Within that broad category, the search experts focus a great deal of attention on Google Posts, many claiming in the comments section of the report that they’ve seen significant traffic gains and increased ability to rank for new keywords.
In addition to Posts, the report suggests that optimization efforts should focus on all content opportunities GMB now makes available, such as business descriptions and photos.
Reviews are also heavily emphasized, with Phil Rozek writing, “Reviews are the one part of local SEO you can never exhaust or see diminishing returns on.” The reviews category includes strength and quality of Google reviews for your GMB listing, but also reviews on other sites like Yelp—in fact, diversity of review sources is one factor that continues to be important. When asked what they would do if they could choose only one strategy to improve a client’s ranking, most respondents chose either GMB or reviews.
Just as we saw in last year’s report, the importance of citations is not what it used to be in the minds of the survey participants. Building citations—consistent, accurate listings of your business on third-party sites—is still an important component of local ranking, but it’s no longer worthwhile to spend energy creating dozens of citations on low-traffic sites. A smaller number of higher-authority citations is sufficient these days to bolster your domain and your GMB listing in Google’s eyes. So too, social signals such as Twitter and Facebook engagement, once an important ranking factor, are seeing decreased emphasis.
As usual, the commentary section is one of the most interesting parts of the report and gives the respondents an opportunity to describe in detail the tactics that work as well as those that don’t. Many commenters in this year’s report mentioned that spammy tactics, such as keyword stuffing in the GMB business name field, still work frustratingly well as ranking signals, but that they can be combatted by editing the listing or reporting spam to the Google My Business team. As Casey Meraz writes, “When spammers are beating you or ranking for keywords they shouldn’t you can really have a positive impact on local pack rankings just by reporting spam.”
As far as on-site SEO tactics, traditional link building is still the dominant recommendation. Cori Graft writes, “Good, old-fashioned link building seems to have improved local pack performance even more this year than in recent memory, which supports the theory that Google continues to bring the local and traditional algorithms / ranking signals more closely together.”
In addition, the respondents have many recommendations about creating an effective content strategy on your website and suggest that doing so helps with multiple ranking factors. Discussing behavioral factors like click-through rate and time on site, for example, Conrad Saam writes, “Our main strategy towards influencing behavioral factors is providing legitimate, thought-out, well-researched content. When users sense what they’re reading is genuine, they tend to stick around.”
This is a complex report that must be read carefully in order to absorb its full impact. But its main takeaways are clear: to rank competitively for local searches today, you must focus your attention on three areas: one, providing Google with as much relevant local content as possible; two, pleasing your customers, pointing them to where they can review your business, and responding to their reviews; and three, creating a useful, relevant local landing page or website with authoritative backlinks.
One final comment. At this stage I think it’s possible to read the trend of increasing content opportunities in GMB as one that is gradually encroaching on the importance of business websites. As Google makes more and more content types available in its business profiles, from photos and videos to descriptions, FAQs, menus, appointment booking tools, coupons, events, and more, some businesses—especially those that do not engage in e-commerce—may find themselves increasingly challenged to justify the need for a website that merely replicates these features. In the near future, we may wake up and find that many small business websites have suddenly become obsolete.