If high page position is the goal, what factors affect where your business comes up in a local search query? The answer to that question is a matter of fierce debate among local search marketers. Search engines guard their algorithms closely, and marketers can only guess at which factors carry the most weight. That said, many industry experts have studied rankings over time and developed some very educated guesses on what counts, and what marketing techniques actually hurt a listing’s ranking.
The five ranking factors below are based on Local Search Traffic’s research along with an annual survey of industry experts. All the ranking factors are important; the order does not indicate precedence.
All industry experts can agree that claiming your listing is the very first step a business must take before starting to work on improving ranking. If you don’t claim the listing, you can’t control it. Just like the lotto: you’ve got to be in it to win it. Claiming your listing does two things. First, it lets the engine know it has accurate and updated information. Secondly, it gives you control of the listing and the ability to optimize it.
The Top 5 Ranking Factors
1. Proximity of business address to the city centriod.
Unfortunately, a very important factor is one that you cannot change. Experts agree that search engines look at the address of a business listing first to determine if it fits search criteria. Engines will define a “centroid” or exact center of the city, and base local ranking on proximity to that point. If your business is outside the imaginary line drawn around the city limits, your listing will not rank well, especially in highly competitive situations. The exception to this is when extremely low competition is found in a rural area, in which case listings for a niche business may include surrounding areas. Researchers have seen that crowded listings (e.g., “bathing suit shop, Miami”) rely on proximity more than less competitive listings (e.g., “bathing suit shop, Fargo”). However, the rise of mobile use seems to be lessening the importance. It is still possible to achieve a high ranking without close proximity to the centroid by playing up the other factors.
2. Associating listing with proper categories.
Most major search engines provide categories to identify the basic purpose of your business. Using the pre-defined categories provides the engine with information it wants to utilize, so filling these out is highly recommended. It is important to research the most popular categories for your business; assigning your listing a commonly-used business category can improve search ranking. A good strategy is to use at least one default category, and then also create a custom category using your keywords.
3. Product/service keyword in business listing title.
It is generally agreed upon that having the product keyword in your business title is a heavy ranking factor. Obviously, it is a major advantage if your keyword already exists in your business name. For example, if an effective keyword for the floral industry is “flowers,” Lehrer’s Flowers has a local search ranking advantage over FTD. Artificially placing a keyword in the title of your business for a local search listing is a controversial practice. It has been shown to increase search ranking, but may ultimately result in ranking penalties from search engines. Google and other engines enforce these guidelines and regulations with the intent of providing the best user experience possible.
4. Customer reviews.
Local search listings with customer reviews gain more traction in results than those without them. Search engines value user interaction and having user reviews on the listing can help improve ranking. For ranking purposes, it does not matter if the reviews are positive or negative (review monitoring and responses will be addressed later in this paper). By all means encourage customer reviews, but do not post your own reviews, as this is a violation of search engine guidelines.
5. Product/service keywords in listing description.
The description form for your listing is an excellent place to include your keywords, especially if they are not in your business title. Be sure to take advantage of this form to give potential customers more information and utilize the opportunity to include keywords that help your search ranking results. As with most optimization techniques, do not overstuff the keywords into the listing, as the engines can penalize the listing for trying to game the system.