10 Likely Elements of Google’s Local Search Algorithm

Filed in Featured, Google, Local Search, MY BEST POSTS by Matt McGee on July 22, 2010

google-maps_logoWhen it comes to local search optimization and, in particular, the Google Maps algorithm, you’re likely to get 10 different answers if you ask 10 local SEOs, What are the most important local search ranking factors? The answer to that question, like just about every other SEO question, is, It depends. It depends on your location, the industry you’re in, the keywords you’re targeting, and many other things. Local SEO is harder than many SEOs think.

This is an updated version of a post that I first wrote on this blog in February, 2007. It represents a summary of my contributions to David Mihm’s 2010 Local Search Ranking Factors survey, which includes the thoughts of a couple dozen local search marketers. I highly recommend reading that for wider perspectives on the issues I discuss below.

Based on my experiences with local clients, here’s my best educated guess about what matters the most today for ranking in Google Maps.

1. Your address. If you want to rank for keywords related to a particular city, you better be located in that city. My wife ranks highly for “richland wa real estate agent” because that’s where her address is; she’s nowhere to be found for “kennewick” or “pasco” (the other main local cities) keywords. An exception: She also ranks highly for “west richland wa real estate agent”, primarily because there’s only one real estate agent with an office in West Richland (Tri-Star).

Google maps screenshot

2. Your business categories. I’m sort of torn over this and the next factor as to which matters more. But I think it’s slightly more important to have your business be categorized correctly than to have the right keyword in your business name. When I dug into the “san francisco bakery” 7-pack, all seven businesses were categorized as a bakery. I often see similar results on other searches.

3. Keyword in business name. I’m ranking this highly mostly based on what I’ve seen lately while watching real estate keywords. The agents who have modified their listings to say “real estate” as part of their business name are doing very well these days.

Google maps screenshot

I thought it was a shame that, in the LSRF replies on this factor so many folks focused on the potential spammy aspect. But there are a ton of businesses that legitimately have a keyword in their business name — I ate breakfast at Henry’s Restaurant yesterday, for example — and I’m sure this helps them rank better.

4. Citation quantity. As David Mihm famously wrote, local citations are the “new” links. Google relies heavily on citations — mentions of your business elsewhere on the web — to validate your business name, address, and phone information. The more validation via citations, the more trust Google has to show you in its local/maps results. Quick story: Earlier this year, my wife’s Place Page lost all of its citations; every one. Her listing vanished immediately from the 7-pack.

Be sure to read Why Citations Are Important to Your Local Business Listings from GetListed.org for more on this.

5. Completing your business profile/Place page. I don’t think that just claiming your listing really matters jack-squat on its own; there are plenty of unclaimed listings that rank very highly in Google Maps. (Only one of the seven San Francisco bakeries had claimed its listing.) But what does matter, a lot I think, is completing your profile. I’m talking extra information like hours, payment options, a well-written and complete business description, and especially adding photos and videos to your listing. Google is directing more users to Place Pages, so it’s logical that pages with a lot of good information would rank higher.

6. Business data consistency. I ranked this very highly in 2007 when the original article was written, and it’s still hugely important as a general local search ranking factor. Your business name, address, and phone number need to be consistent across the many sources of local business information.

local search data providers

But since this article focuses strictly on Google Maps rankings, I say this isn’t as important. A local insurance agency is doing just fine with its claimed Place Page at its current address … meanwhile, an unclaimed listing associated with its old address is also in Google Maps’ database and ranking right below the claimed one. Duplicate listings with inconsistent addresses or phone numbers are not uncommon inside of Google Maps. (In fact, Google has gone to great pains to explain how to handle duplicate listings and the general advice is to be careful.)

7. Reviews and ratings. Google Maps is, at its core, a recommendation engine. It recommends Italian restaurants, dry cleaners in Dallas, and hotels in Manhattan. If Google made a habit of recommending local businesses that offered poor products and customer service, how long do you think people would keep using Google Maps? Right. Not long. Having (positive) reviews and ratings gives Google more confidence to recommend a local business. Google is extracting what reviewers say about local businesses and showing the sentiment analysis right on Place Pages.

8. Proximity to location. We tend to talk about “proximity to city center,” but I think “proximity to location” is more accurate to think about because a lot of searches are about a specific location: hotels near the Space Needle, restaurant near art museum, and so forth. To me, proximity to city center is much less important than proximity to the location being searched. The city center/centroid factor seems to be decreasing in importance, for what it’s worth. So don’t worry as much if you’re business isn’t located right near your city’s red marker.


9. My Maps and other User Content/Data. At the very bottom of a Place Page, Google shows the user-generated content associated with a business. This is typically in the form of people using Google “My Maps” tool to create their own maps and add important locations/businesses to those maps. I believe this is becoming a more important signal recently, in part thanks to what seems to be more people using My Maps. But there are other forms of user content, too, such as geotagged photos of a business. I believe all of this adds to a local business’s Place Rank. In the bold heading for this item, I have “Data” at the very end because I also believe that user data, such as how often a Place Page is clicked/viewed, plays a part.

10. Certain traditional SEO factors. I don’t think most traditional SEO factors play a huge role in Google Maps rankings; this is a different ball game than regular organic listings. But I think some SEO-related elements do come into play. In that list, I’d include things like age of the Place Page and/or age of the domain associated with the business; the business URL that’s included in the Place Page — i.e., a domain with “real estate” in the URL may get a slight benefit — and so forth.

Google’s View on Ranking Factors

In a recent video about local search rankings, Jeremy Sussman of Google Maps described Google’s local algorithm as having three main pieces: location, relevance, and prominence.

“How do we decide the order of which museum to show you? Some of it’s the distance; some of it’s the relevance of the query; and some of it is the prominence of the actual business.”

So, let’s look at my ten ranking factors in terms of Google’s terminology.

Location/Distance: Two of my factors fit directly — your address (#1) and proximity to location (#8). Two others also fit: No. 5, completing your business profile, plays a role because you need to provide a location. No. 6, business data consistency, also involves defining your location.

Relevance: The ones that fit this are business categories (#2), keyword in business name (#3), and some traditional SEO factors (#10).

Prominence: From my list, No. 4 (citations), No. 7 (reviews and ratings), and No. 9 (My Maps and user content) are all about determining the prominence of a local business.

Final Thoughts

I really can’t emphasize enough that the actual factors that will determine your rankings in Google Maps and the 7-pack are dependent on the industry you’re in, where you’re located, what keywords are involved, and other things. The things that decide why “san francisco bakeries” are ranked as they are are different from the factors that will determine the rankings for, say, sprinkler repair companies in Tulsa.

The above is my list of what’s currently most likely to play a role in a lot of local searches, but you should use this information — and the wider set of opinions in the Local Search Ranking Factors study — to study and decide for yourself what matters to your business in your location.