The 3 Variables of Google Local Search

Sometimes organic search seems straight forward, type in a keyword and returned is a list of 10 recommended websites. Of course, getting to the top isn't so simple, but the notion that once you arrive at the top, traffic will ensue is a hypothesis hard to deny. Local search results don't play into this scheme. They have variables such as size of the map, and definition of a region's center that combine with trust, a citation, or sometimes what I call "sureness factors" to determine what businesses should be recommended. This post isn't a blueprint for better local rankings, but it certainly may provoke some thought as to the variables Google uses when providing local results. Here are the 3 variables of local search.

  • The size of the area as defined by the keyword search, or map space being viewed.
  • Google's sureness that in fact there is a business at the listed address doing what it says.
  • How Google defines the region's center, either by keyword or map parameters like zoom level.

Here is an example that will help explain the variables. Take a look at the results for "Pittsburgh Dry Cleaner," don't search this on the /maps, do a typical web search. Google returns a map very broadly defining Pittsburgh. It doesn't just show downtown, it shows an entire region. Google is classifying Pittsburgh as a large region, and not just a downtown area. This is the first variable taken into consideration when delivering local results. That is the size of the map which is signaled either by the map viewing size and zoom, or the keyword searched.

Within these results are dry cleaners from the city, suburbs, and a few in between. The reason I believe these results are picked out of all the possible dry cleaners around Pittsburgh is because Google is either a) trying to show there are dry cleaners randomly everywhere in Pittsburgh (possible, but I think not as likely), or b) Google is only showing the dry cleaners it feels the strongest about. In other words, it is most sure these dry cleaners are at the location specified, and of course that dry cleaning is actually going on there (it could all be a front:). Thanks to the handy work of David Mihm, Andrew Shortland, and Mike Blumenthal there are methods to let Google and other mapping search engines know where you're located, and in fact you do what you do. Some of these aspects include:

  • Having your address listed with major data providers.
  • Claiming your listing at the local business center.
  • Having reviews either at Google or elsewhere.
  • Listing your business in the proper categories once it's been claimed.

The third variable I believe that goes into play is the center of the region as defined either by the keyword searched, or by how Google is interpreting the center of a metro region. This is tricky to explain, and I hope to do it through an example below. My belief is that the center of a metro area is the weakest of the three variables.

Examples of the Variables at Work

google-maps.jpgNow let's take a look at some more examples, and how results change with searches. Here are the results for the web search "Pittsburgh Dry Cleaner"

  • A. Galardi's 30 Minute Cleaners
  • B. Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaning
  • C. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs
  • D. Owen's Dry Cleaners
  • E. Four Seasons Dry Cleaners
  • F. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs
  • G. Suburban Dry Cleaners

Here are the results for the same search, "Pittsburgh Dry Cleaners," but this time searched at /maps.

  • A. Galardi's 30 Minute Cleaners
  • B. Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaning
  • C. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs
  • D. Four Seasons Dry Cleaners
  • E. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs
  • F. Strong Dry Cleaners
  • G. Excel Dry Cleaners

Notice the result vary from D - G. This I believe is because the map on the web results page is at a slightly different zoom level than the /maps results. Since the maps vary in size as defined by the viewing space and zoom level, results are different. And again since Google is defining Pittsburgh as a large region, it's not just showing dry cleaners downtown. If you zoom in you'll find more than one dry cleaner downtown.

Now let's look at a smaller region example within Pittsburgh. Search "Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaner" on the web search. No map. Okay, now search "Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaner" on /maps. Google redefines the map by zoom, and determines a new center. This is where ambiguity comes in for Google. It understands that Squirrel Hill is a specific region in Pittsburgh, but how it defines the center is probably debatable, and again it is showing the dry cleaners based on elements of sureness. Here are the listings for the /maps search "Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaner"

  • A. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs
  • B. Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaning
  • C. Four Seasons Dry Cleaners
  • D. Colonial Cleaners
  • E. Runner's Cleaners
  • F. Lord Duncan Cleaners
  • G. Hohman Cleaners?

Now on the map begin dragging the map toward the right, after a few drags toward Frick Park the listing all reorganize. A new center is defined, here are the results based on the new parameters of the map. C and B switch. E is new, F and G are new.

  • A. Footer's Dry Cleaners & Tlrs?
  • B. Four Seasons Dry Cleaners
  • C. Squirrel Hill Dry Cleaning
  • D. Colonial Cleaners
  • E. Lord Duncan Cleaners?
  • F. Pittsburgh Gown Cleaners
  • G. Dry Cleaning & Laundry

For a final demonstration, zoom in all the way down to the second to last notch, and go to the corner of Murray Ave. and Pocusset Street (here is the link). Notice the previous results that were C and E have now become A and B, and there are only two results.

  • A. Lord Duncan Cleaners
  • B. Colonial Cleaners

These are the variables at work which are size of the map either defined by zoom and screen space, Google sureness, and finally how the center is defined, a weaker variable.

November 16, 2009

Jeff Howard

November 17, 2009

Jeff, one thing I've noticed is the map being centered more on the geographic location of the computer or IP address. I also think this is going to be more important as mobile platforms and netbooks/laptops connecting via wireless networks become more widely used. Posted by: Chris

November 17, 2009

Good article yet I have never heard of Coupled with the fact that their domain was created June 2007 makes me wonder just how serious and legitimate they are. Most of my local business rank quite well in google local and NONE of have paid the $30 fee. I would hate to think that this article was merely to hawk their $30 service. Posted by: Andrew Kaplan

November 17, 2009

Hi Andrew, You're right, listings can perform quite well without the help of a third party listing organization such as, UBL. My own website ranks very well for local searches and I don't use the service. I'm no an affiliate, but I have heard good things about this service, I think the reason they are new is because this SEO tactic is pretty new. Having your business address consistent across the web, and with data providers was ranked as an important factor in a 2009 by David Mihm survey of local search providers. I am basing the recommendation off that. - Jeff Posted by: Jeff Howard

November 18, 2009

The geo-tagheting in google isn't so exact as it should be, i really like your analisis but it think a good orientation could be done alo in adwords to see how the other half looks like. In the same time keep in mind the mobile parte of the thing with more and more people using iphone and blackberry where is hard to exact point the results. drunk girls Posted by: drewz

November 19, 2009

Great article, it makes you think. I do not believe that the zoom on the map is defined by Google and then the local search results are applied to the map, it probably the other way around. Google will rank listings for the given term and then create a map the borders the results. Take a look at

real estate agents Pittsburgh
used cars Pittsburgh
pizza Pittsburgh
locksmith Pittsburgh

there are a couple of different zoom levels for the same geographic area. It would probably depend on the level of competition which zoom level of the map you are given. Much of the same way when you are given a one box result for your business name, which is zoomed down to street level. Andy Posted by: Andy C

November 23, 2009

This is some interesting information that I have not heard before. I have been trying hard to get on page one of google maps for my Portland carpet cleaning business. I will have to think about what you said. I have read somewhere recently that you need to have a separate strategy to promote the google maps listing, but I am not sure how to do this except put a link in my blog posts. Posted by: Sean Mecham

November 24, 2009

Based on my experience with SMBs SEO and Google Maps, I would agree that Google determines the zoom level based on the category. The goal is likely mixing the need of the user (won't drive 10 miles to a dry cleaner), the need of the SMB owner (don't want to favor only those who happen to be located downtown like all the local sites use to) and the need of to sell advertising (increasing competition through greater complexity of SEO, thus driving businesses such as Sean's carpet care (comment above) to pay for adwords or soon, local listing ads). Posted by: Collin Holmes

December 6, 2009

Informative article Jeff. Looks as if you've done some speculating and investigating. Your article provides a very focused view on local search variables taken into account of Google's local search results. I would however suggest this could be used to further inquire Google's other local search variables. Posted by: Google Local SEO