If I was to take a crack at Google's local search algorithm and reduce it to a Layman's equation, it would perhaps look something like this:
Ranking = Location + Information + Corroboration + Input + X
Understanding these variables is a critical part of successfully marketing your business online. SMB's have just two meaningful representations in the local search space: a website and a business listing or "LBL". I'm dismissing social media presence because it is primarily a representation of a single user rather than what we conceive as a traditional brick and mortar business -- functioning as more of compliment to website SEO anyway. The latter of the two local search presences is worth discussing in detail.
Business listing optimization and improving your "findability" in the local search space is the hot market right now. Local search is mainstream. And If you're not already convinced of this, all you have to do is measure the real estate Google allots to their Map-packs (listings that appear adjacent to the large map of business locations) in the universal results - on many screens almost pushing the index-based results below the fold -- the 7-pack being the most frequently seen. Last year, the major engines saw a whopping 2.6 billion local searches conducted per month1.
But surprisingly, only about 11% of SMB's have even claimed their business listings. And roughly 25% of the existing NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) representations floating around online are incorrect. These NAP's appear primarily in local results. To be more specific, local results are the product of online consumers looking to find qualified local businesses, by entering "top of mind" keywords, phrases and geographic modifiers on major search engines, IYP's (Internet Yellow Pages) and other online directories.
Let's take a look at the anatomy of a local search results page and see where local business listings fit in. For this example I did a Google search for "cleaners boston ma"...
With this kind of first-page exposure for local listings, there is a reason they call it the Lucky 7. For any local search, the major search engines (e.g., Google Maps, Yahoo! Local, Bing Local) all use their own "black box" algorithms to deliver results they determine are most-to-least relevant. From what I can tell, the 7-Pack algorithm is mostly based on the Maps algo, but also has a layer of Universal on top of it. From extensive research in local search optimization, I've found a handful of factors that influence rankings.
Ranking Factors: What Determines the Ranking Results in Local Search?
Back to my equation: Ranking = Location + Information + Corroboration + Input + X; X being defined as the consistent unknown and ever-evolving factor contributing to the unpredictability we see in results. The definition of X might as well be stored in the same vault as the Coca-Cola recipe. The other criteria of the local search equation are better understood.
1. Location: Distance from "Centroid" (the geographic center of the area searched) - the closer your business is, the higher you rank -- well kind of. This factor has been reduced in weight recently as in many cases relevancy has been proven arbitrary to fixed geographic center points. However new geolocation tools based on user IP addresses and mobile apps delivering hyper-local results could have future implications on this location factor. At a minimum, claim your basic listing and make sure business name, address and telephone numbers are accurate and complete to take advantage of this location factor. Only a few days ago Google updated their Maps and Local Business Center to include expanded areas served and location settings - this being particularly important for service-orientated businesses targeting customers outside their established locale.
2. Information: Listings containing more robust information and links rank higher in results (e.g., a website link, keyword-rich content, media, etc). Enhance your listing with keyword-rich content targeting the top keyword phrases prospective consumers may use to find you. Consider using variations of the most popular terms like "painters" and "painting". Listing "brands carried" is a good way to target popular keywords. Businesses with product/service keywords in their LBL title get an extra boost (some businesses actually change their name specifically for this reason). Run some tests using Google Analytics available in the GLBC (Google Local Business Center) to narrow down your keyword focus. Be sure to add media to your listing: a company logo and multiple store/product photos go a long way - video is a bonus. I also suggest supplementing your listing with as many "extras" as possible. One example would be adding a custom coupon, which is available on many IYP sites. Many of these "extras" may not directly influence ranking, however if they can successfully draw clicks/conversions they are certainly worth adding.
3. Corroboration: How many other local search engines or directories have your same listing published? Each time the information contained in your listing matches the NAP and description on other "relevant" sites, your listing gets a "citation" (award) -- the more citations you have, the higher your business ranks. This corroboration between relevant sites builds trust, and the trust factor is critical to high-ranking. Build out your LBL with enhanced content on at least one site, and use this as a template to manually distribute your information to as many relevant sites as possible (see my list of notable sites below). Remember, o
nline local consumers are fragmented -- the use of robust, broad content distribution will maximize reach. Here's an example of a business with multiple citations.
4. "Objective" Consumer Input: How many consumer reviews/ratings or other sources of user input does your business have on "relevant" sites? How many are positive/negative? To maximize citations and achieve the highest possible ranking you need to get as much positive feedback as possible. Encourage your happy customers to go online and give you a positive review on multiple sites. Here are four easy tips on how to get more reviews. Be aware that Google favors citations differently across various industries so it is important to solicit reviews on sites specific to your vertical. The top three review sites for restaurants (based on Google citations as of today) are Citysearch, TripAdvisor and Zagat, while businesses in the service industry are benefiting mostly from Citysearch, InsiderPages and Kudzu. And yes, Google recognizes unique and non-unique URL's within the review section - so don't think you can get carried away with rating your own business.
Negative ranking factors: Avoid using an 800# or multiple phone numbers across listings for tracking purposes (consistency in NAP is key); non-local area code; use of a P.O. Box; multiple LBLs with same phone number and/or DBA and/or address; stuffing geo-targeted keywords into non-related categories or fields; high percentage of bad reviews.
To avoid getting bogged down with explaining the step-by-step process of claiming your business, I'll point you to a recent blog on that very topic: How To Claim Your Google Maps Listing. You can start with your Google Maps listing and in a similar fashion work your way through the roughly 100 other search engines, IYP directories, maps, mobile sites and niche local/social sites. And yes, this is a laborious process which requires time and some web expertise - prior SEO knowledge a plus.
April 5, 2010
Below is a list of the more notable sites to submit your business to. I gave link juice to the sites I particularly like.
Local Listings Sites:
Citysearch, InsiderPages, MerchantCircle, Yelp, Cityvoter, EZlocal, Yellowpages, YellowBot, Yellowbook, Manta, Best of the Web, Superpages, Hotfrog, DexKnows, CitySquares, Kudzu, Brownbook, OpenList, GetFave, Judy's Book, Angieslist, Switchboard, AnyWho, InfoSpace, ServiceMagic, TripAdvisor, UrbanSpoon, Zagat, VirtualTourist, Praized, Local, Tupalo, DiscoverOurTown, Tyloon, Mojopages, Genieknows, Wcities, Metrobot, Magic Yellow, Whitepages , 411, AssistGuide, Topix, Menu Network, Decidio, Go2
Mobile Check-in Apps:
Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter Places, Loopt, MyTown, BrightKite, Facebook (soon to be released 'place' feature)
Passive Submission Sites:
Tip: Create a spreadsheet to keep track of usernames and passwords used with each respective site. Comes handy when the time comes to update your information.
Even after you have built out a robust business profile and painstakenly gone through the manual submission process, page one ranking is never a lock. Unlike more traditional local advertising methods (TV, radio, yellow pages), guaranteeing placement in local search is nearly impossible. Local search engines hold their proprietary search logic "close to the vest" so businesses cannot easily game the system. For the very same reason they also change the rules often. And just like us, their logic isn't perfect.
In short, local search engines are a prominent, and increasingly popular component of the local search landscape. And factors like regency, accuracy, "certificate of trust" and depth of content are the critical elements to supporting a business' image, increasing "findability" and generating qualified, ready-to-buy local customers.
If I've missed any notable submission sites or any specific local SEO tricks of the trade, feel free to add your thoughts. Thanks :)
1 comScore/Yellow Pages Association 2009