If David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors left you longing for more local fare, Mike Blumenthal takes the cake by Cracking Google's Local Algo. Visit Mike's site for the presentation he just gave at SMX Local, and stay tuned there for a more in-depth report on our findings.

Have We Cracked The Code?

No, not yet. But we're working on it.

Over the past couple of months, my husband and I have been working with Mike, David, Dave Oremland, Will Scott and Tim Coleman on a project which basically involved collecting and analyzing oodles of data about local businesses and their standings within Google Maps.

Our purpose in this work has been to improve our understanding of the multiple factors that influence Maps rankings. By increasing our knowledge, we increase our ability to offer the very best local search advice to our clients. It's helpful for our own private projects as well, of course!

Local Search is still relatively new, but with experts opining that some 40% of searches are local in intent, the importance of understanding local search best practices is clear. This is truly the most exciting collaborative project I've had the pleasure of participating in, and through the course of the work, a picture is beginning to come clear.

As Mike's slideshow illustrates, we are dealing with a variety of apparent factors in Google's Local Algo, including:

  • Distance from city centroid
  • Business name
  • Business category
  • Trust
  • Citations from other websites
  • Explicit anchor text
  • Traditional SEO factors

We feel that there are many unknown factors pulling rankings this way and that, as well, but we've made what I believe is a very good start in identifying some of the most important signals here. There is still so much to study and learn, but we've begun to crack the code.

Local Search - Wagons, Ho!

Back in the day, it took a bunch of SEOs working independently and together to realize just how much title tags count in Google's organic algorithm. Meta tags became the subject of heated debate, and forum wars were waged over pagerank. The permanent documentation of these fascinating discussions and findings is available for all to see - the fruits of ingenious labor that now enable a new SEO to progress quickly from total novice to reasonably educated, if he or she has a taste for reading.

An oft-voiced refrain one encounters these days wherever SEOs congregate is that the pioneer days are over. No one really needs to have another discussion about links or content being king, queen or what have you. SEOs have grown with the evolution of the Internet - in fact, I don't think it's putting it too strongly to say that they have pulled the Internet their way in some cases.

There's a little bit of irony somewhere in the fact that while the need for SEO basics is far from over, (yes, scary websites continue to multiply unabated) the SEOs themselves seem to have discovered they need more. Search Marketing has expanded to encompass a tremendous variety of areas of specialization from social media to video production.

Take a glance at Sphinn any day of the week and it quickly becomes apparent that so many of the hot topics have nothing to do with the optimization of web pages. The bright ones are talking about marketing - traditional marketing sprouting in new, interesting ways in the 'new' medium of the web. It's engrossing, it's au courant, but I don't think it can really be called SEO, and I sense a sort of repetitive motion fatigue in the industry whenever someone new shows up to ask about meta tags, don't you?

And then, there's Local Search. No one is yawning here. I sense in my Local colleagues an enthusiasm, a hunger for information, a yearning to experiment, test and study. There is the kind of camaraderie and generosity that has always been the hallmark of the best SEO circles. It's the kind of frontier living that the first SEOs throve on and there is still so much to be learned. Right now, I'm finding that I literally can't wait for my Local colleagues to post on their blogs. I get really excited when they send me emails. Working with them is stimulating, rewarding.

If it's been awhile since you've felt like that about the industry you work in, maybe now is the time to expand your interests. Maybe you'll get really into Social Media, or maybe offline conversions hold special charms for you. Or, maybe, Local Search is just waiting for you to discover it. With groundbreaking documents like Mihm's and Blumenthal's hot off the presses in this virtually uncharted new territory of SEO, it's getting pretty exciting around here.

August 4, 2008

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


Great post Miriam!

Please stop writing about this now. The more you let the secret out the harder you make it for the rest of us :)

I kid. I have had so much fun working with you, David, Mike, Tim and the rest of the gang.

Au courant or not, what we've been working on has real potential to help small businesses compete effectively with the big guys without sacrificing their brand.

/* Rant Ends */

Thank you for the mention!

All the best,

Heh heh - I know, Will, but hey, we could use a few bright folks still, right? I think there's lots of room. Everyone has different abilities. But I do empathize with the spirit of your comment!


Thanks Miriam... strangely it is thrilling. The many different hats one gets to where when working with small business.

Today, we talked about video, optimization, permission marketing, direct mail & improving a yellow page ad.

So much to learn and do and getter at... this post summed it up well.

Thanks, Tim! That's really nice to hear.

I know you truly share my enthusiasm!

No doubt about it--these are exciting times for Local Search! Something new is happening every day (today it might have been Merchant Circle's announcement that they were launching a scalable profile solution for SMBs) and things are changing fast. It's hard enough to keep on top of READING all the news let alone blog about it, but hopefully I'll do a better job of that in the next few months :)

Thanks for such a great read, Miriam!

Hey David!
I've been following the Yelp scandal all day, myself. Like you, I hardly know which way to look. Thank you so much for your kind comment!

Hi Miriam,

As a copywriter, mostly for the web these days, of course, I've known for a while that learning more about local search should be high on my priority list. Thanks for the great article. You've inspired me!


At SES Local in LA, n 2007, I asked what I thought was a pretty straight forward question of John Hanke, the Director Google Earth and Maps.

I pointed out that proximity to the center of the ZIP code seemed to be dropping in ranking importance., and asked if there were any guidelines for local optimization - like... does a title tag even matter?

Instead of giving me an answer, he told the audience that he wasn't "there to give away the secrets of the Google algorithm" and just sort of blew it off.

I tried to persist just a little bit, but I was stunned. My how things have changed, and I'm glad there's this growing resouce called "the SEO community" ;)

Great Info Miriam. I run a lot of big budget PPC campaigns and have noticed how much better the results are when Local Search tactics can be used. I think that this is a great core variant list for determining where ads and listings show on local searches. Thanks for the post!

Also, the completeness and richness of the listing also can have a big effect on the conversion rate of the listing. This factor may not have a lot to do with where you show up, but it will have everything to do with the listing being effective.

Here's a Local Search question that I haven't seen addressed: What can we do about one bad Review? We know it was written by an employee of a competitor down the street - as relayed to us by a current customer. What can we do about erasing it?

Dear Jill -
Thanks for your kind comment! Writing copy for local search is by far one of my own favorite tasks. Greg Sterling did an interesting piece yesterday citing that the greatest percentage of local search users may be women...apparently because they tend to be the decision-makers in the home. I found that to be useful information to consider, especially for the purpose of writing copy. Good luck in your pursuit of Local Search education, It's completely fun!

Hi Scott -
Yes, it's kind of going to be up to you, me, other local search practitioners to get the best idea of the algo that we can. That's why I think projects like Blumenthal's and Mihm's are so needed. Your example of the centroid questions is a perfect one. At this point, we seem to have discovered that proximity to centroid decreases in importance as abundance of data about a business or industry increases. We need to do more research about this and other factors.

Google is like a nut. We're like hungry birds trying to crack that nut open. And that's part of the fun of it.

(Writing this looking out the window at my birdfeeder right now, by the way).

Thanks for stopping by, Scott!

Hi Randall -
I really admire you PPC folks. Yes, I'm sure what you're saying is true - the ability to target a campaign locally must allow for very specific wording, traffic, conversions. And, there is the added bonus of less competition! Thanks for your comment.


Hi Steve -
What you can do about negative reviews depends upon the venue they occur in. Google, Yahoo, Yelp?

Unfortunately, your choices for action are generally limited. Yelp is currently in the spotlight for allegedly having extorted money from local business owners in order to push negative reviews down. Merchant Circle was in a similar position last year.

Generally, the best thing you can do is to work to get a bunch of positive reviews to push the negative ones down - a form of reputation management, but I have yet to hear of any major success stories in appealing to Google Maps, Yahoo Local, etc. to get reviews removed.

It's absolutely un-cool if your competitor is leaving you negative reviews. My advice would be to resist the urge to retaliate by leaving a bad review of his business and focus on trying to get many more positive reviews. A couple of bad reviews in a myriad of good ones don't count for much in my eyes.

Of interest - BooRah is offering business owners the chance to selectively publish positive comments from customers so that they can control which reviews appear in connection with their business through BooRah's loyalty program. You might want to look into that.

Good luck!

I think the future of local is user generated and social as this will help keep the content fresh and up to date.

Jippidy.com - Internet Yellow Pages

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