Every year since records began (well, 2008) the SEO industry has waited with anticipation for the release of the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey Results.  This year the results have been even more keenly anticipated due to the survey’s absence in 2016.  The handing over of reigns from David Mihm of Tidings, to Darren Shaw of Whitespark, resulted in the survey being delayed a year, but now it’s back, and it makes for a very interesting read.

Before we delve into this year’s results let’s understand why the survey is so significant. 

First, it’s important to understand the place of local search within the overall organic search sphere.  There is a different set of ranking factors that are applied to searches with a local intent (i.e. “cafe near Piccadilly”) to ones that show no local intent (“what is the difference between a café and a restaurant”).  This means for companies with bricks and mortar locations, for whom the location is a specific marketing concern, there are a number of additional SEO considerations.  There is also a separate set of ranking factors for the local map pack, so what works for ranking your site highly in the organic SERPs, might not guarantee a number one spot in the Google map results.   

The purpose of the survey is to rank the signals Google uses in response to a local search query in order of their impact.  37 SEO experts, including heavyweights Mike Blumenthal, Greg Gifford and Susan Hallam, were asked for their opinions regarding a variety of potential local search ranking factors. 

What does the survey cover?

The survey looks at all aspects of ranking for local search queries, for both the local organic search results and the local map pack results.

In particular, the survey covers:

  1. General ranking factors
  2. Specific ranking factors
  3. Foundational versus competitive ranking factors
  4. Impact of the Possum update
  5. Negative ranking factors

What’s changed this year?

This year, like every other, has seen massive changes in the way the Google search algorithm ranks websites both for local and non-local search queries.  The advent of “Possum”, the increase in mobile “near me” searches and Google’s general tinkering with the SERPs, has meant the landscape has changed again.  The survey itself has seen some change compared to previous years, and not just Shaw taking charge. 

Changes to the survey included:

  1. The addition of questions regarding foundational factors versus competitive difference-maker factors
  2. Questions added regarding the changes to local search optimisation following the Possum update
  3. Expanding breadth of the citation questions
  4. Changes to the comment questions
  5. Some factors were added, some were dropped

What are the key takeaways from the survey?

Full details of the survey can be found on Moz’s website, but as a quick summary, the most important ranking factors for local search are listed below. 

Top 5 local map pack ranking factors

  1. Proximity of Address to the Point of Search
  2. Physical Address in City of Search
  3. Proper GMB Category Associations
  4. Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Domain
  5. Consistency of Citations on the Primary Data Sources

Top 5 local organic ranking factors

  1. Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Domain
  2. Domain Authority of Website
  3. Diversity of Inbound Links to Domain
  4. Topical (Product/Service) Keyword Relevance of Domain Content
  5. Quantity of Inbound Links to Domain

Backlink Quality and Authority

As you can see, quality and authority of backlinks is considered to be very important for both local map pack and local organic ranking.  This is not news.  Backlinks have long been touted as one of the most influential ranking factors.  Google has constantly been refining the way it weights backlinks, most recently with the Penguin 4.0 algorithm update. 

Optimise Google My Business Listings

As always, having correct information on your Google My Business listing is important.  The categories you associate your business with are highly relevant according to the surveyed experts.  Google My Business guidelines specify using “as few categories as possible to describe your overall core business from the provided list”.  The recommendation from Google to only use one or two categories coupled with these recent survey results means you should be choosing your categories very carefully.  However, this year’s survey has revealed having a location keyword in the GMB business title to be considered more important than it was in 2015, and the association of photos with the GMB listing has risen 14 places in the top 50 results compared with the previous survey. 

Consistant use of NAP details

“Local citations”, or the mentions of your business that occur online but aren’t on your website, have become less important in the eyes of the experts.  They are still in agreement, however, that making sure your “NAP” (name, address, phone number) details are consistent across the main citation sources and in alignment with your website is key. 

The importance of click-through rate

Click-through from the SERPs also ranks highly for both search result types.  This is a source of contention amongst SEOs.  Many swear that the more people who click through to your site from the SERPs, the higher Google will rank your website next time it is served for that query.  Others will attest to the fact they have experimented and seen no improvement in ranking regardless of how much traffic has arrived at their site from their SERP result.  It is notable, although not definitive, that CTR is considered so important by these selected industry experts. 

Possum's impact on map pack rankings

The recent Possum algorithm update meant the proximity of the business to the centroid of the search location (i.e. the town or city it’s located in) is no longer as important for ranking in the map pack.  Instead, the surveyed experts now consider the number one ranking factor for the map pack results to be the proximity of the business to the searcher.  So, if you are searching for a café in your local town, the highest ranking map results are going to be your closest cafés instead of the ones located closest to the town centre.

The results of this survey are to be taken with a pinch of salt.  They are only opinions, albeit ones from professionals with years of experience, and Google is a fickle beast.  One size does not fit all with SEO and local search always needs to be taken into account as part of a wider strategy.  Make sure you are taking a holistic approach to your on-page, off-site and technical optimisation for a well-rounded attack on the SERPs. 



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