Evolving Our Lens for Local Ranking Factors
Mike: As the year winds down, there is both a lot going on personally and professionally for me, and I assume you as well.
David: Yes, instead of winding down it’s been more like winding up in my first couple of months at ThriveHive. It’s been a ton of fun exploring how to productize the conversations you and I have been having for the last 2 years! I’m not sure if that qualifies as “personal” or “professional”—for guys like us, those lines are easily blurred.
Mike: My life is in fact very blurry.
One area that continues to interest me as the year closes out is the ongoing discussion about Google’s local ranking algorithm. Darren Shaw did a nice job pulling the Local Search Factors survey together, and it seems to be capturing more and more of the nuance of local search and how it differs from organic.
David: I continue to have zero regrets about handing that survey off to Darren and Moz to run—it’s in great hands.
The aggregate results this year mirrored my own answers in terms of the rising influence of Google My Business and reviews—though perhaps in a bit more nuanced way. I’ve been skeptical of the impact of Posts in particular on rankings, but multiple respondents spoke directly to their positive influence.
As with many of the factors Darren surveyed on, perhaps it’s not a 1:1 correlation, but a knock-on effect of the increased Knowledge Panel engagement that Posts, reviews, and other richer information can drive that ultimately leads to the higher rankings practitioners are seeing.
Mike: This aggregate view, though, has often hidden some of the more interesting parts of the local algorithm, like the role that location plays and the interplay it has with the other elements of the algo. Google has always said that the local algo has three components: proximity, relevance, and prominence. It’s one time where I believe them in their conversations about the algo.
David: Well, to be fair, proximity to searcher was the overall #1 ranking factor and address in city of search #2 for local pack rankings. So if the impact of location is hiding, it’s hiding in plain sight. It’s just not something you can necessarily influence through marketing.
Mike: Right, but viewing the factors in a list form creates odd arguments like: “are links more important than proximity?” If you go back to the original patent, you see that these factors each have their own score and are then normalized into a single list view.
David: It’s still valuable to advise a business on the facets of the algorithm they can impact, though. So even if “proximity is more important than links” in your example, identifying that links are important, and that at some tipping point, they can outweigh proximity, is still a useful exercise.
In some cases the addressable factors aren’t worthy tipping points, though, as Joe Youngblood’s recent article about the impact of name on the reach of a listing across a local area highlights.
Mike: But by presenting these factors in a single bucket, we and the client might be taken off task. It has always made more sense to me to report ranking factors in a way that aligns with Google’s basic logic. I.e. here are the factors that impact proximity (desktop & mobile), here are the factors that impact relevance, and here are the ones that impact prominence.
David: Seems like a great evolution for the survey to take in 2019.
Mike: I know Darren has worked on that idea and is moving in that direction. But with the understanding that one area of the algo can outweigh another, any business can pick and choose the things that they can do to improve their chances. For example:
Do they want to open up a new location? (proximity)
Can they write posts and get more reviews? (relevance)
Can they effectively get more links? (prominence)
I have worked with clients that had no ability to generate links and yet they have effectively competed by filling out the relevance check boxes.
David: This mode of thinking about the problem explains well—and more directly—the industry comments around the success of Posts, for example.
Mike: Absolutely. Although their impact might not be huge, they can benefit Google’s understanding of a business and increase reach. This is particularly true for long-tail queries where Google’s understanding of the business is weak.
But we have also have seen that relevance can impact rank on head terms as well. In fact, Joe Youngblood’s article can be viewed from two angles. The one that most interests me is that it shows that the relevance of a business name to a query can outweigh proximity in result.
David: That article suggested to me that Google’s ability to assess “relevance” is in dire need of a makeover.
Mike: Certainly the idea of “brand” as defined by a business name is easily gamed and all too many businesses are now naming themselves something like “Denver Signs Near Me” but clearly not enough for Google to remove it from the algo.
As a note, I have learned that enough other relevance & prominence factors, when taken together, can overcome name spam. But I digress.
David: OK, so beyond Posts, what are sustainable, legitimate ways that a business can increase relevance?
Mike: My Yelp research in 2016 showed that relevance was a cumulative effect of third-party category, Google category, review content plus name. Each could contribute to greater visibility of a listing and can be the sole reason that a listing is visible irrespective of links or proximity.
David: And also the increased organic prominence of the Yelp listing due to its increased internal rank on Yelp.
Mike: That speaks to how I think Google assigns prominence to an entity. It isn’t just the prominence of the authority page of the website that does (à la organic) but the prominence of ANY page that Google can effectively associate with the entity via NAP.
David: Which applies to both pack rankings and localized organic rankings. I actually rated high-quality citations as having a significant effect on organic rankings this year for this exact reason: Google is better able to assign brand mentions—and the authority of those brand mentions—to entities and the websites associated with that entity.
They’re moving well beyond just links in the local organic algorithm as well as local.
Mike: There is a linguistic theory that we are what we speak. That is, that our language defines how we see the world and the actions we take.
One of the bigger points I am trying to make in this discussion is that we in the Local Search industry are not served by relying so heavily on traditional SEO logic and tools—in our approach to the Local Pack, our understanding of the ranking factors, and even what we suggest to clients as appropriate activities.
David: We’ve highlighted in previous conversations that Local has been a different breed of search for a very long time. I’d love to explore with you in our next chat how local toolsets might better address the logic of this multi-modal local search universe we’ve outlined.
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 GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.