2021 Ranking Factors Report Underscores Importance of Google Profiles and Reviews

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Darren Shaw unveiled the 2021 edition of the Local Search Ranking Factors (LSRF) report from Whitespark a few days ago. It’s clear that a lot of work went into refreshing the look and feel of the report. Always rich with information, the LSRF is now organized in a way that makes its findings easier to access and absorb.

What is the Local Search Ranking Factors report?

For those unfamiliar with its history, the LSRF was developed in 2008 by David Mihm as a survey of experts in local search about the factors that matter in local and organic ranking on Google — in other words, the ranking of your Google listing and your business website in Google local searches. Rather than assessing these factors by means of data, the report asks contributors to rate their relative importance, tallies those opinions, and presents the findings such that factors receiving the greatest number of votes rank the highest. Traditionally and again this year, the report also contains numerous quotes from contributors about useful tactics and recent trends.

One might argue that the factors themselves — 132 of them in the current report, running the gamut from “Physical Address in City of Search” to “Proper Placement of Map Pin” to “Diversity of Inbound Links to Domain” — may not be entirely comprehensive, since they are developed, as far as I’m aware, not by means of data analysis but by simply including everything that experience dictates may be important to pay attention to. Again, the report is really trying to aggregate the perspective of experts rather than directly measuring actual results.

But the report has many strengths, not least of which is the caliber of its 42 contributors, many of whose opinions are in fact backed up by extensive research they have separately conducted. Joy Hawkins’ team at Sterling Sky, well represented in the group, is especially well known for testing the impact of numerous actual and purported ranking factors. So, even though the LSRF is not itself a research report, the research and experience of its participants lends authority to the results. 

Major local search trends

Another strength of the LSRF report is its longevity. Produced on a semi-annual basis for the last 13 years and counting, the report represents a fascinating gauge of the changes in local search almost since that industry’s inception. 

Three of the most notable trends — the ever-increasing importance of native Google My Business (now Google Business Profile) factors and, in particular, of reviews, as well as the diminished impact of citation building — are reinforced this year, with Google profile optimization accounting for 36% of local ranking, up from 33% last year, and reviews inching up from 16% to 17%, while citations continue at 7%, down significantly in importance compared to their prominent role in earlier years.

Notable changes in this year’s report:

  • Secondary categories, introduced for the first time as a ranking factor in the 2020 edition, have now been enshrined as one of the top areas of influence for ranking. (This factor’s relatively new importance derives from a local search algorithm update in the fall of 2019.) Shaw notes, in fact, that proper selection of primary and secondary Google categories has a bigger influence on ranking than any other activity.
  • Spam fighting, which also made its first appearance as a factor in 2020, still ranks highly, though it has dropped from factor #6 to factor #10 in the Top Local Pack/Finder Factors list. At least one contributor, Whitespark’s Allie Margeson, suggests the tactic has become less effective due to lack of action on Google’s part to address spam reports. 
  • Surprisingly, some contributors report that they are actually advising businesses to change their legal names to include keywords, a ranking factor that has often been associated with spam. In the words of contributor Gyi Tsakalakis, “Sadly, officially changing your business name to include category keywords still works really well. In fact, in legal, in competitive practice areas and locations, it’s almost table stakes to have an official name that includes keywords.”

I was pleased to see that this year’s LSRF expands upon the notion of conversion factors, first introduced in the 2020 version. As Shaw pointed out correctly in the 2020 report, it’s all well and good if your Google listing ranks highly, but you’ll never convert customers if the listing doesn’t offer the information consumers are looking for and fails to portray your business in a good light. This year, the list of top conversion factors has been expanded from 10 to 20, with some important new additions such as “Presence of Owner Response to Most Reviews” and “Quality/Relevance of Photos.”  

A caveat about local search channels

It’s another perennial truth about the LSRF report that it assumes Google is the beginning and the end of the local search universe. Of course, Google is the dominant player, and its influence has certainly increased in the last decade. But as a marketing tool, I often find the LSRF report needs a caveat: Don’t forget that at least some of your customers, at least some of the time, are using other platforms like Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Apple Maps. 

Whatever you can learn from Google and apply to those other sites, you should. Conversely, some things (like audience engagement via social posting) are far less important in a Google context than they are elsewhere. A comprehensive local marketing strategy may still place Google at its center but must include other sites as well. That said, no report can match the LSRF for its effectiveness in telling the story of the evolution of local search over time. 

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.