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Local Search Q&A with Moz

What specific factors help businesses rank higher than others for queries with local intent?

Over the years, many of those responsible for the search engine optimization efforts within their local enterprise have turned to Moz's Local Search Ranking Factors survey to find out. In such a dynamic industry, however, it will prove beneficial to review the company's 2017 version and learn all one can from the results. 

Website Magazine caught up with Miriam Ellis, who is part of the Moz Local team, to learn more about the findings and get her thoughts on the local search landscape.

The findings indicate that “proximity of address to the point of search is now the #1 local factor,” why has it grown in significance since 2014 (#8) and 2015 (#4)? 

Miriam Ellis, Moz Local: Since its inception, the Local Search Ranking Factors (LSRF) survey has been based largely on three things: what we’ve documented from our own observations of Google’s behavior when we search, what we’ve learned from marketing our clients and what the findings our industry colleagues regularly publish appear to indicate.

What we’ve seen over the past year, from all of these resources, is that Google is currently viewing the user as the “centroid” of search. Wherever he is at the time he searches on his computer or mobile device, Google is increasingly likely to show him the businesses nearest to him in the local packs, instead of something like the best businesses in his town. This is something we imagine Google will seek balance for as we all know what’s closest isn’t always most reputable.
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Knowing this is a rising local factor, what are a few steps a local business should be taking to improve its visibility for relevant queries in its proximity?

Ellis: While a business obviously can’t alter its physical address unless it moves, it’s a best practice to make the most of your location marketing wherever your company happens to be located. Particularly in larger cities with well-known neighborhoods, districts or boroughs, the business should utilize these geographic terms in their content development, social outreach and link acquisition strategies as proofs of hyper-local relevance. Basically, you’re trying to help both consumers and Google understand that you have a strong relationship to a certain area of a city. The idea is that if you operate one of the ten Mexican restaurants within walking distance of a searcher, you want to do everything you can to convince Google that you deserve to be one of the three results they feature in the local pack.  

That said, what level of importance do other factors like reviews, Google My Business completeness, etc., play in ranking a trusted site over the closest site?

Ellis: Bearing in mind that we believe there are several hundred factors that make up Google’s local algorithm, no one should read this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors survey and conclude that everything but proximity-to-searcher has been thrown out the window. All of these factors still matter. Real world example: I search on my phone for “Mexican Food” and Google shows me three businesses around town but fails to show me the newest Mexican restaurant that just opened down the street from me last year. I conclude from this that the new business hasn’t yet earned Google’s confidence in a variety of ways (maybe they have few or inconsistent citations, their Google My Business listing or website hasn’t accrued age yet, or they have very few links). There are countless examples like this that prove that Google is considering a wide variety of factors in ordering results, even if they appear to be pushing the proximity pedal to the floor right now.

It’s also really important to remember that a “local search” isn’t one type of search performed by one type of searcher. Different results are delivered to the searcher who adds a city name to his query, the one who uses modifiers like “near me”, or the one who is searching for something in another state prior to taking a trip. Identical desktop and mobile queries yield moderately or radically different 3-packs. There’s a great deal of variety in both search language and search circumstances…and the subsequent ordering of results.

Although it’s #1, “proximity of address to the point of search” wasn’t the factor that saw the most significant change in ranking.

“Quantity of structured citations (IYPs, Data Aggregators)” moved down 33 spots (from #14 in 2015 to #47 in 2017) for instance; (1) what can be attributed to that significant change and (2) what do businesses need to know about directory management as it relates to ranking today?

Ellis: I’d attribute this to two phenomena:

  1. When, in participating in the survey, we move factors up (like proximity-to-searcher or links) based on changes we’ve perceived in how Google is weighting them, the other factors necessarily slip down. Any time a new factor becomes dominant, all others move further down the list.
  2. The emphasis on citation quality over quantity in this year’s LSRF survey mirrors the industry’s observations of Google’s growing sophistication. This is analogous to what the traditional SEO world experienced a decade ago when the practice of faking relevance with a massive spammy link profile became less and less effective. In modern organic SEO, links still matter very much, but your organic rankings will see more positive impact from earning a few links from highly authoritative sources than they will from paying for inclusion in a thousand low-level link directories.

Local SEO is going through similar growing pains; getting your listings on the majors in perfect shape is fundamentally important both for rankings and for consumers, but few good practitioners these days are going to emphasize getting listed on tons of lower level local business directories that see little human usage. I’d warn against signing up for any service that bases its model on getting you listed on a large number of local directories of little importance. It won’t get you very far these days.

Speaking of, what do we now know about the impact Google My Business (GMB) has on local search and what are key optimization steps to take?

Ellis: When it comes to local search, Google is the dominant player, and their guidelines have codified best practices for much of local SEO. It’s fundamental to have a Google My Business listing for each of your company's locations or you’ll be missing out on what has become a key source of rankings, reputation and revenue for the majority of local businesses. Some tips:

  1. Study Google’s guidelines until you know them backwards and forwards.
  2. Verify your listing so that you have as much control over it as possible.
  3. Fill out all fields accurately and fully.
  4. Know that the URL on your website that you point a GMB listing to will influence that listing’s rankings, so be sure your homepage or location landing pages are as informative, well-optimized and well-linked-to as possible.
  5. Be sure your map marker is in the right place and your driving directions are accurate.
  6. Spare no effort in earning reviews and responding to them.
  7. Regularly check for duplicate listings, which can misdirect your customers and undermine your rankings.
  8. Know that you don’t own your GMB listing. It is subject to edits, both by Google and the public (including negative edits made by your competitors). Ongoing monitoring is essential.

Based on some of the findings, what would you encourage local search marketers to prioritize in 2017?

Ellis: The topic of one of my most recent Moz blog posts is the vital role of reviews and owner responses. Surveys indicate that 91 percent of consumers now read online reviews and that 84 percent of people trust online sentiment as much as they do personal word-of-mouth recommendations. This ongoing public conversation about your business is incredibly influential - be sure it’s not taking place without you. Not only can you build your reputation with an active review acquisition campaign, but you can significantly influence public perception of your brand by the way you respond to both praise and blame via the owner response function. If I could emphasize one aspect of local SEO to “get right” in 2017 and beyond, it would be mastering the world of consumer sentiment.
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What should local search marketers prioritize last/if at all in 2017?

Ellis: I’d say determining least-focus areas would be a case-by-case decision. We’ve talked about shifting focus away from low level directories, but in addition to that, we’ve got to look at each business as being unique, based on its model and its market. What moves the needle for a boutique art gallery in Taos, NM vs. a medical enterprise with 600 locations in California is going to be significantly different. All local businesses need to get the basics right: an authoritative website and actively managed listings on the majors, including managed reviews. But where you go from there should be based on each business. Will higher rankings and more conversions stem from offline sponsorships, linkbuilding, image SEO, video marketing, social marketing, content publication, radio? This is what marketers have to discover.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Ellis: Local search marketers who want to continue offering relevant services in the future should dedicate themselves to delving deep into the worlds their clients inhabit. Local SEO seeks to build the online mirror image of the real world, and so the marketer has to understand as much as possible about the offline realities of a business in order to promote it well on the web. Modern local SEOs must be prepared to confront clients whose online reputations indicate that there are offline structural issues surrounding poor customer service, inadequate staffing, neglect of consumer rights or needs. The marketer needs to understand both the successes and failings of clients, as well as the psychology of clients’ customers. Local SEO is gradually maturing into an amazingly diverse and deep form of digital marketing. The more you’re willing to learn, the better your chances of future success.  

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