Announcing the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey

Posted by Whitespark

It has been another year (and a half) since the last publication
of the Local Search Ranking Factors, and local search continues to
see significant growth and change. The biggest shift this year is
happening in Google My Business signals, but we’re also seeing an
increase in the importance of reviews and continued decreases in
the importance of citations.

Check out
the full survey!

Huge growth in Google My Business

Google has been adding features to GMB at an accelerated rate.
They see the revenue potential in local, and now that they have
properly divorced Google My Business from Google+, they have a
clear runway to develop (and monetize) local. Here are just some of
the major GMB features that have been released since the
publication of the 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors:

  • Google Posts available to all GMB users
  • Google Q&A
  • Website builder
  • Services
  • Messaging
  • Videos
  • Videos in Google Posts

These features are creating shifts in the importance of factors
that are driving local search today. This year has seen the most
explosive growth in GMB specific factors in the history of the
survey. GMB signals now make up 25% the local pack/finder pie
chart.

GMB-specific features like Google Posts, Google Q&A, and
image/video uploads are frequently mentioned as ranking drivers in
the commentary. Many businesses are not yet investing in these
aspects of local search, so these features are currently a
competitive advantage. You should get on these before everyone is
doing it.

Here’s your to do list:

  1. Start using Google posts NOW. At least once per week, but
    preferably a few times per week. Are you already pushing out posts
    to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? Just use the same, lightly
    edited, content on Google Posts. Also, use
    calls to action in your posts to drive direct conversions
    .
  2. Seed the Google Q&A with your own questions and answers.
    Feed that hyper-relevant, semantically rich content to Google.
    Relevance FTW.
  3. Regularly upload photos and videos. (Did
    you know that you can upload videos to GMB now?
    )
  4. Make sure your profile is 100% complete. If there is an empty
    field in GMB, fill it. If you haven’t logged into your GMB
    account in a while, you might be surprised to see all the new data
    points you can add to your listing.

Why spend your time on these activities? Besides the potential
relevance boost you’ll get from the additional content, you’re
also sending valuable engagement signals. Regularly logging into
your listing and providing content shows Google that you’re an
active and engaged business owner that cares about your listing,
and the local search experts are speculating that this is also
providing ranking benefits. There’s another engagement angle here
too: user engagement. Provide more content for users to engage with
and they’ll spend more time on your listing clicking around and
sending those helpful behavioral signals to Google.

Reviews on the rise

Review signals have also seen continued growth in importance
over last year.

Review signals were 10.8% in 2015, so over the past 3 years,
we’ve seen a 43% increase in the importance of review
signals:

Many practitioners talked about the benefits they’re seeing
from investing in reviews. I found David Mihm’s comments on
reviews particularly noteworthy. When asked “What are some
strategies/tactics that are working particularly well for you at
the moment?”, he responded with:

“In the search results I look at regularly, I
continue to see reviews playing a larger and larger role. Much as
citations became table stakes over the last couple of years,
reviews now appear to be on their way to becoming table stakes as
well. In mid-to-large metro areas, even industries where ranking in
the 3-pack used to be possible with a handful of reviews or no
reviews, now feature businesses with dozens of reviews at a minimum
— and many within the last few months, which speaks to the
importance of a steady stream of feedback.

Whether the increased ranking is due to review volume,
keywords in review content, or the increased clickthrough rate
those gold stars yield, I doubt we’ll ever know for sure. I just
know that for most businesses, it’s the area of local SEO I’d
invest the most time and effort into getting right — and done
well, should also have a much more important flywheel effect of
helping you build a better business, as the guys at GatherUp have been talking about for
years.”

Getting keywords in your reviews is a factor that has also
risen. In the 2017 survey, this factor ranked #26 in the local
pack/finder factors. It is now coming in at #14.

I know this is the Local Search Ranking Factors, and we’re
talking about what drives rankings, but you know what’s better
than rankings? Conversions. Yes, reviews will boost your rankings,
but reviews are so much more valuable than that because a ton of
positive reviews will get people to pick up the phone and call your
business, and really, that’s the goal. So, if you’re not making
the most of reviews yet, get on it!

A quick to do list for reviews would be:

  1. Work on getting more Google reviews (obviously). Ask every
    customer.
  2. Encourage keywords in the reviews by asking customers to
    mention the specific service or product in their review.
  3. Respond to every review. (Did
    you know that Google now notifies the reviewer when the owner
    responds?
    )
  4. Don’t only focus on reviews. Actively solicit direct customer
    feedback as well so you can
    mark it up in schema/JSON and get stars in the search
    results
    .
  5. Once you’re killing it on Google, diversify and get reviews
    on the other important review sites for your industry (but also
    continue to send customers to Google).

For a more in-depth discussion of review strategy, please see
the blog post version of my 2018 MozCon presentation, “How
to Convert Local Searchers Into Customers with Reviews
.”

Meh, links

To quote Gyi Tsakalakis: “Meh, links.” All other things
being equal, links continue to be a key differentiator in local
search. It makes sense. Once you have a complete and active GMB
listing, your citations squared away, a steady stream of reviews
coming in, and solid content on your website, the next step is
links. The trouble is, links are hard, but that’s also what makes
them such a valuable competitive differentiator. They ARE hard, so
when you get quality links they can really help to move the
needle.

When asked, “What are some strategies/tactics that are working
particularly well for you at the moment?” Gyi responded with:

“Meh, links. In other words, topically and locally
relevant links continue to work particularly well. Not only do
these links tend to improve visibility in both local packs and
traditional results, they’re also particularly effective for
improving targeted traffic, leads, and customers. Find ways to earn
links on the sites your local audience uses. These typically
include local news, community, and blog sites.”

Citations?

Let’s make something clear: citations are still very valuable
and very important.

Ok, with that out of the way, let’s look at what’s been
happening with citations over the past few surveys:

I think this decline is related to two things:

  1. As local search gets more complex, additional signals are being
    factored into the algorithm and this dilutes the value that
    citations used to provide. There are just more things to optimize
    for in local search these days.
  2. As local search gains more widespread adoption, more businesses
    are getting their citations consistent and built out, and so
    citations become less of a competitive difference maker than they
    were in the past.

Yes, we are seeing citations dropping in significance year after
year, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need
them.
Quite the opposite, really. If you don’t get them,
you’re going to have a bad time. Google looks to your citations
to help understand how prominent your business is. A well
established and popular business should be present on the most
important business directories in their industry, and if it’s
not, that can be a signal of lower prominence to Google.

The good news is that citations are one of the easiest items to
check off your local search to do list. There are dozens of
services and tools out there to help you get your business listed
and accurate for only a few hundred dollars. Here’s what I
recommend:

  1. Ensure your business is listed, accurate, complete, and
    duplicate-free on the top 10-15 most important sites in your
    industry (including the primary data aggregators and
    industry/city-specific sites).
  2. Build citations (but don’t worry about duplicates and
    inconsistencies) on the next top 30 to 50 sites.

Google has gotten much smarter about citation consistency than
they were in the past. People worry about it much more than they
need to. An incorrect or duplicate listing on an insignificant
business listing site is not going to negatively impact your
ability to rank.

You could keep building more citations beyond the top 50, and it
won’t hurt, but the law of diminishing returns applies here. As
you get deeper into the available pool of citation sites, the
quality of these sites decreases, and the impact they have on your
local search decreases with it. That said, I have heard from dozens
of agencies that swear that “maxing out” all available citation
opportunities seems to have a positive impact on their local
search, so your mileage may vary. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

The future of local search

One of my favorite questions in the commentary section is
“Comments about where you see Google is headed in the future?”
The answers here, from some of the best minds in local search, are
illuminating. The three common themes I pulled from the responses
are:

  1. Google will continue providing features and content so that
    they can provide the answers to most queries right in the search
    results and send less clicks to websites. Expect to see your
    traffic from local results to your website decline, but don’t
    fret. You want those calls, messages, and driving directions more
    than you want website traffic anyway.
  2. Google will increase their focus on behavioral signals for
    rankings. What better way is there to assess the real-world
    popularity of a business than by using signals sent by people in
    the real world. We can speculate that Google is using some of the
    following signals right now, and will continue to emphasize and
    evolve behavioral ranking methods:

    1. Searches for your brand name.
    2. Clicks to call your business.
    3. Requests for driving directions.
    4. Engagement with your listing.
    5. Engagement with your website.
    6. Credit card transactions.
    7. Actual human foot traffic in brick-and-mortar businesses.
  3. Google will continue monetizing local in new ways. Local
    Services Ads are rolling out to more and more industries and
    cities
    ,
    ads are appearing right in local panels
    , and
    you can book appointments right from local packs
    . Google
    isn’t investing so many resources into local out of the goodness
    of their hearts. They want to build the ultimate resource for
    instant information on local services and products, and they want
    to use their dominant market position to take a cut of the
    sales.

And that does it for my summary of the survey results. A huge
thank you to each of the brilliant contributors for giving their
time and sharing their knowledge. Our understanding of local search
is what it is because of your excellent work and contributions to
our industry.

There is much more to read and learn in the actual resource
itself, especially in all the comments from the contributors, so go
dig into it:

Click
here for the full results!

Sign up for The Moz Top
10
, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest
pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team.
Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time
to hunt down but want to read!

Source: Marketing Blogs
Announcing the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey