Since Google rolled out its 3-pack local SERP listings, a significant number of local businesses have experienced less visibility and steep drop in their website traffic. While Google is constantly changing the way it gathers and displays local search data, there are certain factors that now play a prominent role in local ranking. We’ve put together a short list to help you make sense of recent local search ranking changes and adjust your local SEO strategy.
Search is shifting and with “mobile first” approach, Google has been making changes to address changing behavior. In addition, Google drives revenue through its AdWords platform and limiting local SERP results to 3-pack is an opportunity to sell more ads. Given the recent changes, it will get harder to get into the organically driven local packs, so businesses will need to pay to get into local packs.
For businesses relying on local foot traffic, local SEO has always been an important factor. With recent changes, real time date captured from users’ devices has started to play a bigger role in local search ranking. Local SEO is much more competitive now since it uses data that can’t be easily manipulated. For example, request for driving directions is now a ranking factor. With Google shifting to device footprint rather than IP identifier, it is critical that driving directions should come from unique machines and unique users. Driving directions should also be from a mix of mobile and desktop searches.
Real world data capture is also an attempt by Google to improve search ranking for places such as landmarks and museums that otherwise do not invest in SEO work. Google clearly understands that even though government-run entities such as Smithsonian Institution Museums don’t care about local SEO optimization, they still belong at the top when it comes to “points-of-interest” searches in Washington D.C. The only way to deliver this is either manual adjustment in local search algorithm or factor real user device data in search ranking.
Device data can also be used to address local SEO spam such as disproportional number of fake reviews for a business. For example, if driving directions logs signals contradict review-based signals, it is a clear indication that a significant number of reviews are fake and Google can take action to penalize a business for “Review Spam.”
Given the nature of recent changes, local SEO is going to be much more competitive. It also offers more opportunities for small businesses to get in the 3-pack since device location now plays an important part in local search ranking. Any business that is serious about local search visibility needs to step up its local optimization efforts. If your business manages local SEO in-house, it is still possible to do well, but hiring a professional will provide a bigger boost.
By adding more weight to proximity, Google has done a good thing for the little guys. Before, the biggest players with very-well optimized listings dominated the local results everywhere in the city. Now, smaller local businesses are given the chance to rank in the local pack within the smaller radius around their business location. A business can still show up in local searches everywhere in the city but now they will have to pay to do so.
Like before, links still matter but quality of links and their local flavor plays a bigger role in ranking. A business with a small number of highly localized quality backlinks now has a potential of outranking a business with a large number of generic backlinks. In addition, local citations as well as consistency of local citations are important link signals, but quality is more important than quantity.
User action after searching is a factor in search ranking. For example, a local business that may not be the nearest to the point of search may see a boost in search ranking if people actually request directions to their address and choose to visit. Please keep in mind that driving directions should be requested from different locations and distances. In addition, driving directions should have a natural distribution of timing, product or service, and distance that matches typical customer’s search patterns.
User feedback such as Google reviews and other third party reviews (Yelp, Angie’s List, BBB) reflects user experience with a business. Positive reviews should boost local search ranking provided they can get pass “review spam” filters. Google also captures click-through rates and phone calls if they are triggered from a mobile device. For those who are interested, these data points are available in Google Search Console and GMB Insight.
A first class user experience with Google Search matters. Google can capture device GPS data and use it for ranking and personalized local search results to improve user preference. For example, Google has a local history setting in Google Map app. When turned on, Google will create a private map by tracking your movement through logged-in devices. In order to create this map, Google will regularly obtain location data from devices where you have enabled Location History, including when you’re not using a specific Google product such as Google Maps.
Google Location History feature can be turned off whenever a user like, but this doesn’t delete any previous activity. If certain businesses are reflected in your Google Location History, they will rank higher in your device specific searches since Google wants to personalize your search experience.
Google My Business (GMB) listing now offers expanded data points. For example, images attached to a GMB listing should visualize outside, inside, and overall “look-and-feel” of the business location. In addition, there are attributes such as holiday hours and accessibility for the disabled that can be added to a GMB listing. GMB category has also become more relevant in local search ranking. Gone are the days when you could add 10 categories for your business and hope to rank for each one of them.