Few things grate on me more than hearing my fellow SEOs talk about how easy local SEO is. There’s less competition! The competition isn’t SEO savvy! Keyword choices are limited! It’s a piece of cake, they say. That’s about as accurate as me saying that traditional SEO is a piece of cake. Sweeping generalizations are often wrong, and below I’ll show why local SEO isn’t as easy as many think it is.
Have a look at the seven-pack results on Google for san francisco bakery:
(click for a larger version if you’d like) Ignore the blue check mark for now; I’ll get to that in a little bit. Let’s take a stab at deconstructing these search results, shall we? Here are some common and important things that are said to determine the rankings of these business listings:
Verified/Claimed Business Listing: Stella Pastries ranks at the top of the pack, but has not claimed its listing. In fact, the only business shown above with a claimed listing is the “C” listing. Would it rank lower with an unclaimed listing? Good question. In any case, despite being the only business with a claimed listing, there are other signals that are keeping two businesses ahead of it.
Address Matches Search Query: The search was for San Francisco bakeries, and all seven businesses have a San Francisco address. This one’s pretty obvious as a local SEO factor.
Proper Categories: It’s important to have your business listing categorized correctly. Even unclaimed listings are associated with categories. Here’s how these seven are categorized:
A: Wedding Bakery
C: Bakery, Bakery, Restaurant, Pizza Restaurant
The top-ranked business is the only one listed in a category that’s more specific than our search term. The other six match the search term perfectly. Go figure.
Keyword in Business Name: Five of the seven businesses have the “bakery” keyword in their name, yet the top-ranked listing doesn’t. Stella Pastries has overcome the power of this factor via other signals.
Location Near City “Centroid”: That blue marker I added to the screenshot? That’s Google’s centroid, as shown when doing a Maps search for San Francisco. It would appear that the three highest-ranked businesses are among the furthest away. D and E are certainly closer, and it looks like F is, too. Let me repeat the image right here so you don’t need to scroll up:
Reviews: You can look at the screenshot and see that there’s no exact correlation between how many reviews a business has and where it ranks. The “D” listing, Tartine Bakery, has more than 400% more reviews than the B and C listings. Stella Pastries has the third-highest number of reviews, but ranks in the “A” spot.
Ratings: Google doesn’t show star ratings on the seven-pack, but if you click to see the results in Google Maps, you’ll get ratings and reviews together. Do the star ratings correlate with rankings? Let’s look:
A: 4.5 stars
B: 4.5 stars
C: 4.5 stars
D: 4.5 stars
E: 3.5 stars
F: 4.5 stars
G: 4 stars
There’s a little correlation here, in that the top four businesses are all 4.5 stars and none of the seven are any higher. But it falls apart slightly with the lowest-rated business in the “E” spot.
Citations: Citations are the links of local SEO. They’re really important. (I could show you one business that recently lost all its citations and went from the “A” spot to being gone completely.) Here’s how our seven bakeries compare for citations:
Much like reviews, there’s no obvious correlation between quantity of citations and rankings. Hmmmph.
Inbound Links: Place Pages tend to not attract many links; those tend to point toward actual web sites. So, if one of these business’s Place Pages did get a juicy inbound link, that might push it way up the rankings, right? Maybe not. Last September, when Google announced Place Pages, the blog post linked to the Place Page of Tartine Bakery — a clean, followed link from a blog post that’s now PageRank=6. And yet Tartine Bakery only ranks in the “D” spot. Go figure.
User-Generated Content: Much like citations, Google Maps shows how often a business/address appears in user-generated content. This is mostly made up of “My Maps” content created by Google users, but can also include geo-tagged photos from Panoramio, Flickr, and other types of UGC. Let’s see how much user content Google counts for our seven bakeries.
Just like citations and reviews, there’s no obvious correlation in these search results between how often a business appears in user-generated content and where it ranks.
In this search for “san francisco bakery,” the highest-ranked business
- hasn’t claimed its listing
- doesn’t have a web site
- doesn’t have the keyword in its business name
- is in a seemingly too-specific category, at least compared to the other six
- is relatively far from the city center
- has substantially fewer reviews, citations, and user-generated content than many others below it
Meanwhile, the business in the “D” spot
- is close to the city center
- has a web site
- has the most reviews/citations/user-generated content
- has the keyword in its name, and
- even has a juicy link from a PR6 Google blog post
Local search is super-easy, isn’t it?
There are countless other factors that could be at play here, but the above pretty much covers the foundational elements of local SEO and maps optimization. Every search is different, and no doubt searches in other cities with a different keyword might be much easier to deconstruct. If someone else wants to pick up where I left off and dig deeper into more random and obscure factors, please let me know when you’ve posted your findings.
But, please, the next time you see someone talking about how easy local SEO is … show them this. And remind them that sweeping generalizations are often way off the mark. Local SEO is much like traditional SEO: sometimes easy, sometimes not.