In this post, I’m going to be covering Google’s Local SEO ranking factors in-depth.
Not only am I going to cover what exactly those factors are, but I’m also going to show you exactly how you can influence those ranking factors to drive inbound leads.
These are the exact same factors I focused on for a recent multi-location franchise client that netted a 3x increase in their inbound leads generated from Google’s local listings:
This one might seem obvious, but by knowing the ranking factors, we can then understand how we can influence the rankings in our favor.
Local search engine optimization is all about optimizing both our website and our Google My Business listing to outperform the competition.
Google’s ranking factors have changed slightly over time, but in the end, merely more weight has been given to particular aspects of the algorithm.
If you’re already a seasoned SEO, some of these concepts and ideas will already seem familiar to you for the most part.
The best way to understand Google’s local ranking factors is by breaking them down into individual categories.
There are three ways that those can be categorized, which includes:
When we understand which components fall into each of these sections, we can then understand what we can do to exert our influence over each factor.
In my opinion, understanding these factors is a core component in having success driving inbound leads for your business.
I’ve created a mini-series on these factors along with some visual examples in this (free) local lead generation series.
Feel free to check it out if you want more context, and prefer to follow along.
Proximity refers to the physical location of a searcher at the time of their search, in relation to the physical address of your business.
Google is then going to determine based on the user’s location, and other factors, whether your business is listed in the search results, or not.
This is one of the three core ranking factors which generally we can’t influence.
Think about it – we can’t influence where a user is located when they conduct their search, and we can’t pick up and move the physical address of our business.
So what can we do to influence proximity?
Well, at a high level we should be focused on:
Remember – which listings that are being shown are going to drastically be different in most cases both dependant on the number of local businesses offering your service, as well as the nature of your business.
Google knows and understands in most cases, how far a user on average is willing to travel for a particular service.
Someone looking for “dry cleaner near me” is not in most cases going to travel 30-40+ miles from their physical destination.
Google’s serving up relevant, nearby local listings.
This is something to keep in mind and build your expectations around accordingly.
Again, proximity is one of the three core ranking factors we have the least amount of influence over.
We want to put our focus on the remaining two.
Relevance is all about ensuring that our online presence is relevant to the core search terms our users are searching for in Google – this includes both your website, as well as your Google My Business profile.
We can easily influence relevance, and it’s the one factor that we have the most possible influence over.
When we think about relevance, we’re thinking about:
All of these are items that we’re in full control of.
Think about it:
Knowing the above, you can strategically build out an action plan which reaches to influence the relevance ranking factor which will have an impact on your local search rankings.
Authority is all about how authoritative your business is in the eyes of Google.
This comes in two flavors:
You can demonstrate your expertise in the core service area(s) which your business operates through content.
This isn’t just about listing out the services your business offers.
This is about demonstrating through content that your business is truly an expert within the industry.
Businesses that understand the value of content are creating the best content assets in their industry.
They’re creating video content for YouTube and other social channels which demonstrate their expertise.
This is how you become both an authority within your industry to not only Google but your target audience as well.
When we look towards backlinks, we understand their meaning at the highest level as follows:
Links are known to be a top-ranking factor with search engines and are a necessity for driving inbound leads.
Now that we’ve got everything compartmentalized, let’s look at the most important local search ranking factors at a granular level, and how you can start optimizing around those.
These are in no particular order, as I don’t fully believe in other metrics and percentages that are out there.
I’m in the mindset that if you’re doing SEO, you’re optimizing around all factors which we know will have a positive outcome to allow us to reach our desired goals.
Citations are business directories where you can publish your business and drive additional referral traffic.
Think of things like Apple Maps, Better Business Bureau, or even Yelp:
Citations are social signals which are important because they prove to Google that your business is a legitimate business.
Google is scanning listings across the web, including the name, address, and phone number of your business as it’s listed on third-party citations.
This is driving relevance to Google about your GMB listing, and although these overall have less impact than they did years ago in the local SEO algorithm, for less competitive industries and locations, we can see citations being a core driver of positions and inbound leads.
There are two things you want to be looking at when it comes to citations.
I’d first suggested running a citation audit using a tool like Loganix or BrightLocal that will give you the output of all of your current citations across the web.
From here, you want to be looking at:
At the minimum, you want to have the “core” citations across applications like Apple Maps, Yelp, Better Business Bureau, etc.
On top of that, you want to be building both local and niche/industry-specific citations.
These are the ones that are more difficult to secure, as it tasks to research and time to dig these up for your location or industry.
If you’re not familiar, I’d suggest taking a look at how to run a local SEO audit for more details on digging these out.
Behavioral signals include all of the ways in which users interact with your GMB listing, as well as your pages listed in the local organic results.
All of these behavior signals send a message to Google, as it’s constantly testing and placing businesses and pages in different positions to see which is receiving the most clicks and interactions.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Behavior Signals
A common argument is that we can’t directly impact how users interact with our listing and ranking pages.
And although that’s true, we can’t force a user to do anything, we can compel them to click our listing.
That comes through:
All of these things are going to influence the user’s behavior.
Online reviews, and more specifically, Google reviews are one area that can be a sticking point for many businesses.
In the best-case scenario, you want to be collecting as many possible positive reviews on Google My Business as possible.
This is one of the key ways you can help your listing to stand out – by creating a moat around your reviews.
Imagine for a second:
Your closest competitors all, on average, have 15 total reviews and an average 4.4-star rating.
Your business has over 300+ reviews and a 4.9-star rating.
Which listing do you think potential customers are more likely to click on?
Here’s a prime example from the local listings:
This is why although the position is important, and is situated in the three-pack is a necessity, reviews are a driving factor here whether you actually can get traffic to your listing, and conversions through calls or inquiries from your website.
All businesses here are on an equal playing field, as all businesses show an aggregate review rating. This is no longer the case in the local organic results as it was in the past.
You can use reviews as a lever that you pull to create a moat around your online presence, and truly stand out in the local listings – exactly as shown in the example above.
Even if this business is not completely dominating their local area and in the three-pack 10 miles NESW from their physical location, I can guarantee they’re driving a ton of traffic and conversions for users making it to the “View All” page simply due to their steller rating and review count.
Outside of driving clicks and views, reviews are important for the local ranking algorithm as reviews naturally speak about the services and related keywords which your business provided.
This is going to act as a signal for Google even further to solidify what your business does – and to help you to rank and drive traffic over time for said keywords.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Reviews
Always respond to negative reviews, and leave feedback. This is less from a ranking perspective and more from a prospect perspective as they will read your reviews, and vet you against other companies.
How your actual website appears on mobile devices is another factor that’s becoming more important with time.
Your website should be mobile-friendly and display properly on all types of devices.
User experience is a poor part of Google’s algorithm, and if users are coming to your website for information and you’re presenting it in a terrible fashion or it’s not visible/neatly formatted on their mobile, you’re going to lose them.
They’ll bounce back to the search results past, and land on a competitor’s website.
You can’t be operating in the organic game in 2021 and beyond without having a mobile-optimized website.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Mobile Friendliness
First things first, you can find out if your website is mobile optimized using Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test.
Drop in your business’s URL, and out comes a result:
If your website is not mobile-friendly, I’d say the first point of evaluation is looking at it from a holistic perspective:
If you’re lacking any of these, just having a mobile-friendly site isn’t going to save you.
A developer can help to optimize a site and make it user-friendly, but a lot of times, the root problem here is the website cries out “welcome to 2011” all over again, and isn’t built to convert.
You want to get the house in order, before proceeding on to heavier marching orders around optimization.
Your website is everything in your online presence, and that should be clear to any user that visits.
The searcher’s proximity in relation to the physical address listed on your Google My Business profile is going to be a strong factor as to whether your business shows for a given search query, or not.
Remember – Google’s primary goal is to serve up the best possible results for every search query.
Depending on your type of business, you might have the chance to be shown 20-30+ miles outwards from your physical address, dependant again on the business type and industry.
A good way to check this is to see just how “clustered” the map pack is for the relevant keywords for which you want to rank.
Now again – this exercise is to give you a rough feel for how competitive the local listings are based on the search results.
It’s a given that larger metro locations, for example, San Francisco, New York City, Miami, and so forth are going to be more competitive to rank than smaller-sized cities.
More business listings, more competition.
But, nonetheless to get a rough idea for your core services:
If the results are very clustered and close to each other, i.e. blocks away from each other, then it’s going to be rather competitive and your physical address is going to be very important if you wish to rank in that location:
If the business listings are more spread out, meaning a mile or a few miles away, this gives you an idea that breaking into the local listings is going to be easier compared to a clustered map pack:
Again – this is just going to give a very rough idea of how competitive it is to truly dominate the local areas within your city.
If you want to get very granular and understand exactly where you’re currently ranking in each area of the city where your business is located, I’d highly suggest taking a look at Local Viking:
You’ll be able to run detailed reports to understand how you’re ranking locally for any given query and within each specific area of the city where you operate.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Proximity
The best thing you can do to optimize for proximity is to ensure that you have a physical address listed on your Google My Business profile:
One strategy that many businesses take is to set up multiple office locations in their target market in more competitive locations so they have multiple locations they can attempt to rank using their Google My Business listing.
The one thing to keep in mind here – never use a virtual office service to create
The primary category that you set on your Google My Business is a very strong indicator to Google for how to rank your business.
The secondary categories are also important, but not as important as the primary category.
You want to be very selective in choosing the best primary category, and including other relevant secondary categories which are based on the services which your business offers.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve GMB Categories
Take a look at your close competition in Google Maps, and note their primary category.
Take a look at your secondary categories, and see what you’ve selected and if it truly pertains to your business.
You want to be mapping these back as close to the services that your business provides, as possible.
Ok – this one isn’t for the faint of heart – but it’s a sad reality.
In many markets, you’ll find that competitors are including their primary service and core primary keyword within the title of their business:
I mean, come on – even the Salvation Army is doing it – what’s the world coming to?
I can’t say I condone this activity, but I will tell you that this is a direct ranking factor and influences rankings.
I’ll also tell you that this is generally against Google’s TOCs.
But – if you look at the map pack and see the majority of your competitors are using this method, I can tell you that it does have a positive impact on your positioning in the search results.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve GMB Business Name
There’s not much to say on this one.
You need to make a judgment call whether this tactic makes sense for you – but do keep in mind that this is effective in driving search rankings.
Links are important, and they’re a factor that proves to Google that you’re an authority.
We want to be building a consistent flow of quality links to your business and website:
This is typically done through creating great value-add resources that others are likely to link to, better known as linkable assets.
If you’re creating and promoting quality content, it will get linked to overtime.
Hang tight for the last item on our list – I’m going to explain the importance and how this can be done.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Your Link Profile
The best way to understand the competitive landscape is to drop your business into a tool like Ahrefs or SEMRush and to check your domain authority and link profile.
You can also grab your top 5-10 competitors, and also have a better look at their link profile as well.
This will give you an idea if there’s a gap between your businesses’ link profile and the competition.
There are a few core elements that make up the quality of a backlink:
This is why quality links are so important.
When you build links naturally, you normally can’t pick and choose on the above items – but you can be selective about how you build your link profile.
The number one suggestion that I have for small-business owners and single-location businesses is to use your own internal professional network to build links.
You know other business owners.
You know other businesses in your community.
You can get creative and first make deposits to the bank (aka your connections) before requesting a link to your business.
For businesses of all sizes, I’d suggest also utilizing tools like HARO where you pitch your business and story to journalists who are doing write-ups.
Some of the most successful young businesses I’ve worked with have used these two exact strategies to build massively impressive link profiles – and that’s why they dominate the local search results and have to turn away leads at this point.
Optimizing your link profile takes time and a lot of effort.
If you can’t handle this in-house properly, you’ll want to bring on a PR firm, or a quality link-building firm.
There’s no cheaping out on links – you can’t spend a few hundred dollars here and see results – you’ll end up with less money in the marketing bank, and you’ll see no results from it – trust me on this.
➡️ How to Optimize & Improve Local Landing Pages
First things first, you should have an overall strategy and structure behind how you create local landing pages, and also how you’re mapping back keywords to each page based on the services which your business offers.
When we look at a local landing page, we’re expecting to see the following items included when it comes to best practice:
If you have local landing pages set up, the best thing you can do to further optimize those includes:
Local landing pages are one of my favorite ways to generate local inbound leads.
They drive both local map pack and local organic rankings and have to be a tool in your arsenal.
Yes, I saved the best one for last.
I get asked this question all the time – how is top-funnel (value-add) content so important for our local campaign?
There are a few reasons why that’s true:
➡️ Top-funnel content is scalable. You can only create so many service pages and rank those for so many keywords. Content lets you build on top of that.
➡️ Content generates links naturally. You now have linkable assets to build your link profile and authority.
➡️ It allows us to become a topical authority in our space for both Google, as well as our potential customers.
And when I say value-add content, I’m not only talking about written content.
Local businesses that are highly effective at dominating the search results all-around have an omnichannel presence.
They’re creating engaging content on LinkedIn.
They’re building a YouTube channel and filling it with relevant, value-add information around their services.
This isn’t as unknown as it was a few years ago – but think about your business, and think about your competitors – how many of them are using video to market themselves?
Video is so extremely powerful – and this is truly a way you can stand out from your competition and show your actual expertise to your potential customers.
Words are just words written on a page – but video is a whole new level, which builds confidence and trust in your audience.
All of this content is important for getting in front of your target audience, but also for building topical authority in the eyes of Google.
If you’re not already familiar, topical authority is a perceived authority over a niche or industry. By becoming the authority in your space, you can then begin to dominate Google’s search results.
So – how do we achieve topical authority?
Working toward topical authority can provide a broader set of keywords, generating large volumes of quality content around a specific topic.
Striving for topical authority ensures that your business has more content capturing more relevant keywords, attracting more links, and improving rankings over time.
To drive even more impact, we want to be building content in silos:
The silo approach is so powerful because not only are you linking to relevant content and helping Google to serve those pages up over time, but you’re passing link equity among the pages in the silo through internal linking.
As these pages start to generate natural links, they’re going to pass those links to each of the pages in the silo – which means driving quicker rankings and traffic to the website.
Those are the exact factors we examine before starting a campaign, or during a local SEO audit.
If you work towards optimizing for proximity, relevance, and authority, you’ll be on the path towards driving big increases to inbound leads and inquiries.
Want to take a deeper dive into the three local ranking factors and explore a bit further? Check out the guide to local lead generation for more tips.
Questions on ranking locally or if you’re taking the right approach in your local SEO strategy? Leave them in the comments below.
Justin is the Founder of Rock The Rankings and has over 13 years of experience in the realm of SEO across multiple business ventures and agencies.
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