The 2020 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey Analysis
Back in September I presented the results of the 2020 Local Search Ranking Factors at Whitespark’s inaugural Local Search Summit, and today, finally, I am pleased to release the written analysis and full survey results. Sorry for the long delay!
It has been a couple of years since I published the last Local Search Ranking Factors Survey results, and much has changed since then. Google continues to add new features to GMB, tactics and strategies are shifting, and Google is getting serious about monetizing local.
Before I dive into my analysis, here’s the iconic pie chart that you’ve all been waiting for. This is how the local search experts think local pack/finder rankings are weighted in 2020:
Side note: Particularly observant readers may have noticed that social signals have been removed from the survey. They were always a very minor slice of the pie, and most local search experts agree that they don’t have any impact on local search. We just don’t think Google cares about how many followers or likes you have on Facebook, Twitter, Etc. That’s not to say that there isn’t great value in investing in a social media marketing strategy, it’s just that we don’t think social signals directly impact your local rankings.
I will summarize some of the main takeaways below, but if you’re eager to get into the full survey results, you can dive into the full resource here.
What is the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey?
For the uninitiated, here’s a primer:
The Local Search Ranking Factors is an annual survey that was first started by David Mihm back in 2008, and I have been running it since 2017. We survey the top experts in local search on a number of different questions to determine what is driving local rankings for them. These are the people that are doing local SEO day in and day out and are researching and testing what works to improve rankings, and what doesn’t work.
Your 2020 Local Search Experts:
The 2020 Survey Questions
Here are the questions I asked the local search experts this year:
SECTION 1A: THEMATIC PACK/FINDER SIGNALS
For Local/Pack rankings, to what extent do each of the following thematic areas of local search contribute to rankings at Google?
SECTION 1B: THEMATIC LOCAL ORGANIC SIGNALS
For Local Organic rankings, to what extent do each of the following areas of local search contribute to rankings at Google?
SECTION 2A: LOCAL PACK/FINDER
Which individual factors do you think have the biggest impact on Local Pack/Finder rankings?
SECTION 2B: LOCAL ORGANIC
Which individual factors do you think have the biggest impact on Local Organic rankings?
SECTION 3A: FOCUSING ON MORE
For local pack results, what factors have you been focusing on MORE in the past year?
SECTION 3B: FOCUSING ON LESS
For local pack results, what factors have you been focusing on LESS in the past year?
SECTION 4: NOT-RANKING FACTORS (MYTH-BUSTING)
Which individual factors do you think absolutely do NOT impact rankings?
SECTION 5: GMB CONVERSION FACTORS
Which individual factors do you think have the biggest impact on conversions from GMB?
SECTION 6: NEGATIVE FACTORS
Which individual factors do you think are the most HARMFUL to your rankings?
SECTION 7: COMMENTARY
Survey responses are stored to a database, then I run queries to aggregate the data. The results are the combined output from all of the local search experts on what they see driving rankings (and conversions) in local search.
Notable Changes in Local Search Since the 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey
While the fundamentals of local search are generally the same as they were 10 years ago, we tend to see shifts every year in the strategies and tactics that local SEOs are focusing on. Here’s how priorities have been shifting over the past 4 surveys:
This chart captures the changing sentiment in local search over the past 7 years. The most striking things to note are the growth of GMB, and the decline of citations, which I will discuss below.
Continued Growth in Google My Business Signals
The last time I ran the survey in 2018, there was a significant increase in GMB signals (take a look at the pink and green GMB bars in the chart above). The importance of GMB signals jumped 10 percentage points from 15% in 2015 to 25% in 2018. It was the big shift that everyone was talking about and it spawned a whole new sub-industry of conversion rate optimization for your Google My Business listing.
Somewhat surprisingly, the trend continues this year with GMB signals growing to 33% of the total pie.
It’s important for you to understand that there isn’t much you can optimize for rankings in GMB though. There are many strong ranking factors in the GMB category that you can’t specifically optimize for.
Here are the top ranked GMB-specific local ranking factors:
Three of the most heavily weighted factors are factors that you technically have no control over. They aren’t actionable.
- Keywords in the business name are an extremely strong ranking signal, but your business name needs to be your actual business name and shouldn’t be stuffed with keywords or you risk getting your listing suspended. (Though, a strong case could be made for actually changing your official business name since this factor is given so much weight in the local ranking algorithm. In fact, at the moment, this might be the #1 thing any business can do if they want to improve their local search rankings).
- Being close to the searcher is also a strong ranking signal, but you can’t change your business address to be close to searchers all over the city. You can generally only rank in about a maximum of 10 miles around your business’ physical location.
- And of course, your address needs to be in the city that you want to rank in, but unless you’re willing to move your business, or open a new physical office that is staffed (no virtual offices), then there isn’t really anything you can do with this factor either.
The remaining GMB factors will definitely have a positive impact on your local search rankings, and most of them are relatively quick and easy to optimize:
- Make sure your primary GMB category is the one that closest matches the most valuable search term you want to rank for.
- Make sure you’ve filled out every other available additional category that is relevant to your business (but be careful to not cause category confusion).
- Verify your listing (obviously).
- Fill out EVERY field in GMB to ensure your listing is as complete as possible. This will help with conversions too!
Conversion Rate Optimization for GMB
So why are the experts putting such emphasis on GMB if there isn’t much to optimize and the things that you can optimize are quick and easy? It’s because people are realizing that there is much more to local search than just rankings. A #1 ranking for an incomplete Google listing isn’t nearly as valuable as a #5 ranking for a comprehensive listing that’s optimized for both rankings and conversions.
As Mike Blumenthal famously said, “Google is your new homepage”. What this means is that people don’t even need to go to your website anymore to determine if you business is the one they want to contact. With all of the features Google has been adding to GMB, the information that searchers need to evaluate your business is available right on your Google My Business listing.
This realization has given rise to a whole new sub-industry of local search: Conversion Rate Optimization for GMB. Services like the Whitespark Google My Business Management Service and others have this concept at their core. Rankings are great, but conversions are even better, and this is reflected in the growth of GMB signals in this year’s local search ranking factors.
This shift felt important enough to me to add a new question to the survey this year:
And here’s how the local search experts responded:
If you’ve only been thinking about how to rank your business (or your clients’ businesses) higher in local search, then it is time for you to take action on the list of factors above. The benefits cannot be overstated.
Review signals lead the pack here, and that makes sense. Think about your own local business browsing habits. Which businesses are you drawn to? Which factors on their listing have the greatest impact on your decision to contact them? Having a ton of glowing Google reviews will drive both conversions and rankings, which is why we put a strong emphasis on them in our Google My Business Management Service.
The #2 factor, Keywords in the Business Name, really frustrates me. It’s a huge problem for local search practitioners, and for Google (though they don’t seem care too much). Want to increase your rankings by 10 positions overnight? Easy: just stuff keywords into your business name.
Why does this work so well? It’s because of branded search. There might actually be a business that is officially named “Best Moving Company Denver”, and so just in case the searcher might be looking for that specific business, Google makes sure to rank it highly to satisfy the search intent.
Ok, even though it works to increase your rankings, PLEASE DO NOT KEYWORD STUFF YOUR BUSINESS NAME. Doing so puts you at risk of getting your listing suspended, and that means your business is out of the results, which I’m sure you don’t want.
Still, many many many businesses don’t care. Spammers are happy to take the risk for the short-term gains, and this is driving another new area of focus for local search practitioners: spam fighting. If you report a keyword stuffed business and their listing is dropped from the results, your business moves up in the rankings. EZ-PZ ranking wins. Removal of spam listings was a new ranking factor that I just introduced this year and it has already broken into the top 10 most important ranking factors.
Decline in Citations
Another trend we see in the survey results is the continued decline of citations as ranking factors. The chart below illustrates how this factor has dropped in overall importance over the past three surveys.
What’s driving this drop in perceived value of citations? Do citations still matter?
David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal, two of the most respected experts in local search, have published their thoughts that Google doesn’t really care if you’re listed on less known business directories and that Google has gotten much better and figuring out how to sort our discrepancies in your name, address, and phone number information across the local search ecosystem. In their estimation, building out a ton of citations on business directories no one has ever heard of, and worrying about cleaning those citations up, is no longer worth the effort.
When asked “What factors are you focusing on less?”, the survey contributors mostly listed citation factors:
This sentiment was also echoed in the comments. When asked “What are some strategies/tactics that used to work well, but don’t seem to work anymore?” many of the survey participants mentioned citations. A few quotes:
“Citations. They’re almost a non-factor. The only times we even worry about them are a) brand new businesses or b) a business that’s moved recently”
“Building large numbers of citations across irrelevant sites, continues to matter less and less.”
“We continue to see diminishing returns on cleaning up the long tail of citation sites. When we look at metrics like GMB Impressions and Actions for locations within an enterprise business that have cleaned up their citations on sites like 2FindLocal or EZLocal vs those locations that haven’t we are unable to find any correlation between citation cleanliness and performance.“
So that’s it? Citations are dead?
I’m not convinced, and I honestly don’t just say that because I run a company that offers citation software and services. There are a few things that have me pausing on declaring citations a non-factor:
- We continue to regularly receive comments from customers that tell us that they built citations with us and it had a positive impact on their rankings.
- In a case study I did for my 2019 Mozcon presentation, we stopped doing SEO work, but their rankings continued to double, and then triple over the course of the next year with zero additional SEO work being completed. While it’s impossible to be certain about what caused these additional gains, one potential theory is that the impact of citations take time. It takes months for the sites to publish all the listings we submitted, and then it takes many more months for Google to crawl and index these citations. So, it might be that it’s hard to measure the value of citations since their value comes in at such a slow burn and they’re difficult to isolate from other factors. Many people build/order citations, look at their rankings in a month, don’t see much change, and conclude they didn’t have much impact. I think you may need to consider the impact of citations over a much larger time horizon: about one year. I’ll be publishing a video with more details about this case study soon.
- I have heard many opinions, but have yet to see any compelling data that proves that citation building and citation cleanup has less value than it used to. I think there is an understandable perceived drop in value, because citations used to be something that only the few local search savvy businesses invested in, but these days, so many more businesses have gotten savvy so the local search results are much more competitive. In the past, you could build a ton of citations and it would set you apart from the competition so you would see the ranking gains more clearly. These days, since so many businesses have a good citation profile now, they’re just not the competitive difference maker they used to be, so the impact is less obvious.
- I have seen some compelling research from Uberall on the value of citations that they will be publishing in the new year. Keep an eye out for it.
To be clear, I’m not saying that citations are amazing and everyone is wrong about the drop in their value. It does make logical sense that Google would rely on them less as their technology gets more sophisticated. But, I think we sometimes give Google too much credit for advancing their technology. Just look at their “advanced technology” for dealing with GMB spam if you want a good laugh. The fundamentals of the local search ranking algorithm really haven’t changed much since 2008.
What I am saying is that I’m not ready to rule them out as a factor and I would not exclude them as a tactic to include in your overall local SEO strategy. If citation building provides some ranking benefits, and I think there is evidence that they do, then they are a low cost, easy win, that are worth doing.
Local SEO Myth Busting
It’s 2020 and I still often hear people giving out advice about things that have no impact on local search. Since the Local Search Ranking Factors survey is so widely read and distributed, I figured it was time to try and set the record straight on some of these things. I asked the contributors:
“Which individual factors do you think absolutely do NOT impact rankings?”
And here are the top 10 “factors”, as ranked by the contributors, that do NOT help your rankings.
I would like to be very clear that just because these activities don’t impact your local rankings, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still value in working on them. Everything on this list has benefits beyond rankings.
For example, keywords in your GMB description, GMB services, GMB Products, and GMB Posts ARE helpful. They won’t help you rank better, but when searchers see the keyword they searched for on your listing, they are drawn to your listing and it can help you drive more conversions from Google My Business.
Also, keywords in Google posts can help make your listing stand out when they trigger “justifications” in the search results like these self-proclaimed “SEO Experts”:
I mean, this justification IS pretty nice. Perhaps they really are the SEO Experts they claim to be…
The Future of Local SEO
It’s always fun to try to predict what the future of local search will look like. I asked the contributors to provide their comments on where they think Google is headed in the future, and to summarize their thoughts:
The predominant sentiment is that we can expect Google to continue to monetize local everywhere they can. Here’s a list of things we already see happening, and some things that we predict will be coming soon:
- Rolling out Local Services Ads to more categories and more cities.
- The new Google Guaranteed Badge.
- Taking a cut from bookings that happen directly through Google My Business.
- Taking a cut from product sales that happen directly through Google My Business.
The comments section of the Local Search Ranking Factors survey is packed with takeaways. Be sure to head over and read through all the amazing comments from the experts.
Your 2021 Local SEO To Do List
People read the Local Search Ranking Factors to guide them on what they should focus on (and what they shouldn’t) to help them increase their visibility in Google’s local results. So to make your life easier and keep your work organized, we’ve created a free local seo checklist tool for you based on the top local search ranking factors.
Simply add a business then get to work checking off those tasks. The tasks are already sorted by priority for you, based on their ranking within the Local Search Ranking Factors survey.
And Now, For The Main Event
This post just scratches the surface of all the insights in this year’s Local Search Ranking Factors. There’s so much more to learn and discover over on the full resource. Get yourself a fresh coffee, then head on over there to take your local search skills to the next level.
This is going to be you: