2013 was a big year for changes in the SEO algorithm for Google. So with all of these changes, how does a local, small business owner continue to survive and move forward with their organic SEO?
Google suggests that there are about 200 different SEO ranking factors. Of that 200, I’ve identified about 80 that are relevant to local search. Of those 80, here are the top 20 local ranking factors that you must do if you want to rank.
1. Proper category associations
2. Physical address in city of search
3. Consistency of structured citations
4. Quality/authority of structured citations
5. HTML NAP matching place page NAP
6. Quantity of structured citations
7. Domain authority of website
8. Individually owner-verified local plus page
9. City, state in Places landing page title
10. Proximity of address to centroid
11. Quality/authority of inbound links to domain
12. Quantity of native Google Places reviews (w/text)
13. Product/service keyword in business title
14. Quantity of citations from locally relevant domains
15. Proximity of physical location to the point of search
16. Quantity of citations from industry-relevant domains
17. Local area code on local Plus page
18. City, state in most/all website title tags
19. Quantity of third-party traditional reviews
20. Page authority of Places landing page URL
By reading this guide, my goal is to help you understand both the lingo and the concept of each local search ranking factor. Use this information and you will be on the road to promoting your local business on the web from a firm and educated foundation. Sound good? Let’s dig in!
1. Proper Category Associations
Proper category associations are important enough to be ranked #1 in the survey. During the process of creating your Google+ Local page, you will be choosing categories at two distinct points.
When you enter your initial details, you will be selecting a primary category for the business. This is the most important category you will choose.
Then, once inside the dashboard, you will be allowed to select up to nine other categories for your business.
All categories must be chosen from Google’s pre-set category taxonomy. Earlier versions of Google’s dashboard allowed the business owner to custom create categories, but this feature is being phased out.
The concept here is simple. If you wish to appear in the local results for a search like “dentists in denver”, your business must be categorized as a dentist. If it is categorized as a certified public accountant, you have no hope of appearing for your important search terms.
2. Physical Address in City of Search
Your business is most likely to appear in Google’s pack of local results for searches that either:
1. Contain the name of the city in which it is physically located, or
2. Stem from devices based in that city
If you are a chiropractor in Indianapolis, you are most likely to appear in the local pack of results for a search like “Indianapolis chiropractor”, or if someone searches for “chiropractor” from a computer or cell phone based in Indy.
This search for “Chirporactors Indianapolis” illustrates this phenomenon, in that all of the results Google is returning in its local pack are for practitioners physically located in that city:
In the above screenshot, you will note that there are no chiropractors in neighboring cities included in these results. It’s safe to say that Google has a very definite bias towards physical location in the city of search. This is a simple concept, but it represents a major stumbling block for businesses that serve customers outside of just that one city or for brick-and-mortar stores whose address may be just outside of the city limits, but still cater to those clients.
In this event, it’s smart to focus your local search pack efforts on the city within your address, and then target the surrounding cities organically by creating city-focused landing pages to show your association with those areas.
3. Consistency of Structured Citations
A citation is any web-based mention of your company’s partial or complete name, address, and phone number (NAP). A “structured citation” refers to a listing of your business in an online local business directory such as YP.com, Citysearch or HotFrog.
Inconsistent citations might involve:
– A difference in the business name (i.e. Smile Dentistry vs. Smile Dental Clinic)
– A wrong street address, a typo in street address numbers, or a missing suite number
– A wrong or different phone number, a toll free or call tracking number
– A different or wrong website URL
Citation inconsistencies may arise from simple carelessness during the citation-building process and these mistakes may then be duplicated across the local search ecosystem. Inconsistencies also commonly arise if a business has moved at any time in the past decade or so. Apart from causing confusion for humans, these discrepancies hinder Google’s ability to trust the data they have gathered from around the web about a given business. A lack of trust on Google’s part can spell ranking difficulties for the business.
4. Quality or Authority of Structured Citations
It’s just good sense that having your business listed on high-quality websites is going to help you more than being listed on sites of low quality. As a rule of thumb, businesses should initially concentrate on getting listed on a handful of really authoritative local business indexes and directories. Use the tool at GetListed.org to be sure that you have a listing in the dozen or so basic, authoritative directories highlighted there.
Once you have all your ducks in a row with these basic citations, you want to continue down the citation building path to further enhance your company’s visibility and authority. Perform searches for category terms, service terms, and geographic terms to see what comes up in the search engine results. The websites that come up may be places you would like to list your business, if possible.
There is no standard process for judging the quality of a citation source. Metrics you might consider could include domain authority, domain age, link profile quality, and even simpler quality signals such as whether the website looks fresh or neglected.
5. HTML NAP Matching Place Page NAP
Google will be looking at the website page you’ve linked to from your Google Places/Google+ Local page to cross reference the name, address and phone number of your business. If all elements match, you’re good to go.
However, if there is a discrepancy in the NAP you have on your +Local page and the NAP on the website page your +Local page links to, then Google will become “confused” about the data they have about your business. Small discrepancies like Ste. vs Suite or Hwy. vs Highway do not matter. Reference Point 3 in this guide for a list of discrepancies that do matter. Your task is to ensure that your NAP is cohesive in both places.
There is a specific scenario in which Google may not be able to cross reference the complete NAP in the +Local Page dashboard with the NAP published on a website. This relates to home-based businesses which, for reasons of privacy, do not publish their street address on their website. It is speculated that this decision may put the business at some disadvantage, given what an authoritative source the website is, but to date, I am unaware of any in-depth studies that have been conducted surrounding this interesting topic. One might guess that if there are five home-based seamstresses in a town and only one of them publishes her home address on her website, she might have an edge over the other four, because Google is able to confirm that the Google+ Local page dashboard address matches the one found on the website.
6. Quantity of Structured Citations
Just as the quality of your citations is important, quantity is important too. Each unique local business owner will find he needs to build a different number of citations in order to be competitive. Typically, the more competitive your market is, the more citations you will need to build.
You might use a tool like Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder which will not only help you find new citations to build, but will also keep track of the numeric quantity of citations you have earned.
7. Domain Authority of Website
At present, the overall strength of a local business’ website plays a major role in how it ranks both locally and organically. Simply stated, “Domain Authority” is a metric used to predict how well a website may perform in search results compared to other websites.
There are many factors that make up the domain authority of a website. Some of these include the age of a website and the number and quality of links pointing to it. In general, every local business will want to publish the strongest possible website. This means having a user-friendly, optimized site with excellent content that earns links and social mentions over time. You will always be working to build your domain authority, and the higher it is, the better your chances of ranking well for your most important terms.
8. Owner-Verified Local Google+ Page
Creating your Google+ Local page for your local business is your first step to being included in Google’s index. Your second step is to verify your ownership of the listing. These days, this typically involves receiving a postcard/letter from Google containing a pin number which you must enter in order to complete verification.
Avoid letting anyone else act as a go-between for your company, putting your Google+ Local page into some master Google account of their own. It’s fine to have a Local SEO help you with the steps of verification, but this should be done with your own Google account and not the account of any third party. You need to be in direct control of your Google+ Local page. I can’t tell you how many business owners I’ve met with who need help fixing problems in their Google listing but can’t get ahold of the person who set it up (and still controls it).
9. City and State in Places Landing Page Title
Your Google+ Local page should link to a page on your website. This page on your site will have an element in its code called a “Title Tag.” This is typically located in thesection of the code and the words contained in it send a very important signal to both search engine bots and human users regarding the topic of the page in question. The title tag of a page typically displays in the upper left hand corner of your browser window:
In the above screenshot, you can see that the title tag of the page contains both the city and state name. Local search tanking factors cite the inclusion of these geographic terms as being especially important on the landing page to which your Google+ Local page links. For many local businesses, the landing page will simply be the homepage of the website.
10. Proximity of Address to Centroid
Traditionally, the centroid in Local Search has been defined as the city center identified by Google in its Maps product. You can go to maps.google.com, type in a city and state and get a result that looks like this, with Google putting a red pin on the presumed city centroid:
However, the centroid can change position relative to different industries and may often have nothing to do with the the designated center of a city. In other words, Google can decide that the center of business for auto dealers is different than the center of business for chiropractors. This is a somewhat complex topic and I recommend you read Linda Buquet’s forum thread, Google+ Local Centroid – Not City Center! to see illustrations of this concept of the shifting center of business.
Proximity of address to centroid is one of those factors over which your business will have little control. Some businesses located outside this centroid/center of business radius may discover that they are at a disadvantage in comparison to competitors who are within the radius. Short of moving to a new location, (not a realistic suggestion) your proximity to Google’s designated center of business for your industry isn’t something you can change.
11. Quality/Authority of Inbound Links
Because organic signals play a big part in local rankings, earning high quality links from authoritative sources will help your business to improve its visibility in the search engine results. A tool like the Open Site Explorer can help you to begin understanding both the number and quality of links currently pointing to your website.
For a local business, high quality, authoritative links may come from a variety of places, including local and national newspapers, local business indexes, high profile bloggers and professional industry associations.
12. Quantity of Native Google Plus Reviews with Text
This is a simple one! It is currently felt that the number of reviews your business earns on its Google+ Local page influences rank more than reviews you might earn on other review platforms. You can easily see how many reviews you have by clicking either on the “reviews” link on your Google+ Local link in the main search engine results, or by visiting your + Local page directly.
No local business needs to earn a ton of Google-based reviews at once. In fact, if you earn reviews at too great a velocity, you may find that some of them get filtered out. Rather, best practices for this revolve around slowly acquiring positive reviews from happy customers, one by one, over time. You want to earn more reviews than your direct competitors have, but you don’t need 10 times as many reviews to see the benefits. In fact, if you’ve got many more reviews that your competitors, it may look suspicious to Google and human users.
Google allows you to ask for reviews, but not to offer money or incentives in exchange for explicitly-required positive reviews. Reviews must come directly from your customers’ Google accounts. Never hire a third party marketer to pose as a customer and post fake reviews or post reviews on behalf of real customers. Create an internal process in your company for requesting reviews either at the time of service or shortly thereafter. Remember, a slow, steady acquisition of reviews is the goal here, so that you are gradually building a great online reputation, over time.
13. Product/Service Keyword in Business Title
The business title of your business is its legal name or DBA. It is believed that having the name of a core product or service in your business name may give you some advantage over competitors who lack this. So if you are a mechanic and your business is called Zionsville Auto Body, then you may have an advantage over another mechanic called Joe’s Services.
This is one that isn’t easy to adjust unless you’re willing to change your business’ name. Don’t worry, it’s not make or break – there are still a ton of other factors. This is one really to consider if you are a new business brainstorming a name.
14. Quantity of Citations from Locally Relevant Domains
Having your business NAP (name, address, phone number) mentioned on a website that relates specifically to your geographic community acts as a locally-relevant citation. This type of citation reinforces Google’s trust in your relevance to your locale.
One great example would be on your local Chamber of Commerce website. Other locally-relevant domains on which you might earn citations could include local news sites, local professional association sites and local blogs that publish content about businesses or happenings in your community.
A citation does not necessarily have to link to your website, but that’s always nice, too!
15. Proximity of Physical Location to the Point of Search
For many searches, it is no longer necessary to include a geographic term in your search in order to be shown local results. If Google feels that your search term has a local intent, they will automatically detect your physical location and show you local results. For example, I am writing this from the north side of Indy. I can simply search for “wood stoves” in order to be shown a local pack of results containing businesses near me:
This demonstrates Google’s bias towards businesses with a physical location within a specific geographic area. If your business is physically near to the searcher, your chances are good of showing up in the local results, but if it’s too far away, it is unlikely to be included in the results.
16. Quantity of Citations from Industry-Relevant Domains
Just as it can be helpful to earn to have your name, address and phone number listed on locally-relevant websites, being included on industry-relevant sites can improve your authority and rankings, too.
An industry-relevant website can be defined as one that is widely recognized to be authoritative within a particularly category of industry, be that automobiles, hospitality or health care. GetListed.org partnered with Whitespark.ca to create a great data set highlighting The Best U.S. Citation Sources By Category. Here’s an example of the data you’ll find on this page:
Definitely check that resource out if you are looking for citation sources that are relevant to your industry. You can also perform manual searches for your industry category and create a list of the authoritative websites that come up most frequently for your terms. Once you have created this list, you can visit each of the sites to see if they allow local businesses to be listed in a directory-type feature, or if there are other opportunities for earning a citation, such as guest blogging.
17. Local Area Code on Local Plus Page
Using your local area code phone number as your primary phone number on your Google+ Local page is considered a best practice. The area code of the phone number should match the area code/codes traditionally associated with your city of location. This may seem obvious, but the local search engine results reveal that some businesses take a wrong turn here and publish a toll free number, instead. Alternatively, they might publish a cell phone number or call tracking number with a different area code.
Google allows you to enter a secondary number (such as a toll free number) when creating your listing. This is especially important for businesses like hotels who receive calls from all over the world and want their guests to be able to make a charge-free phone call to book a room. Just be sure that, when you create your listing, you are putting the local area code number in the primary number field.
18. City/State in Most Webpage Title Tags
As referenced in point #9 of this post, the title tag is an extremely important element of any website page. Inclusion of your city/state name in most or all of your title tags can have a positive impact on how your local business ranks.
While it isn’t necessary to include your city/state in every single title tag of your website, it makes sense to include it on major pages such as the home page, contact page, service description pages and bio pages. You want to send the clearest possible signals to search engine bots and human users that you are a local business and the title tag really helps transmit that message.
19. Quantity of Third-Party Traditional Reviews
In point #12 of this post, I discussed the importance of earning customer reviews on your Google+ Local page. Beyond this, there are many third-party platforms on which it can be useful to get reviews. In ranking your local business, Google takes into account the quantity of reviews you have earned around the web.
How do we know that Google takes this third party data into account? For one thing, they link out to third party review sites right on the Google+ Local page. When trying to decide where it would be best for your local business to win reviews, it can help to look at the +Local pages of your direct competitors to see which third party platforms, if any, are being highlighted.
The idea is to get your business profiled anywhere that your potential customers might leave a review so that you are building a broad, web-based portfolio of positive reviews over time.
20. Page Authority of Places Landing Page URL
Similar to the concept of Domain Authority of a whole website described in point #7 of this guide, this ranking factor relates to the authority of the specific website page linked to from your Google+Local page. For many companies, this will simply be the homepage of the website, but for businesses with multiple locations or practitioners, other pages on the website may have been designated as the landing pages.
Because of the influence organic factors have on local rankings, the higher your landing page’s Page Authority, the better your chances of becoming dominant in the local search results.
I consider the study of local search ranking factors to be essential and exciting homework for every Local SEO and local business owner on the planet. The smartest Local SEOs I know are the ones who study hardest. Taking the time to understand the concepts represented by each factor can spell success for any local business you own or market.