Video Deep Dive: Local Ranking Factors, Making Sense Of It All
Mike Blumenthal


Deep Dive Into Local series from March 27, 2017. In our Deep Dive series, we take a closer look at one thing in local that caught our attention and deserves a longer discussion.

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Mike: Hi, welcome to the DeepDive for the week ending March 27th. It is the month to discuss local ranking factors. We’ve discussed previously my thinking on authority. And Darren has released his local search ranking factors, and Dan and Andrew have, once again, raised their study in local search ranking factors. So, that’s a lot of information on the table. How do we make sense of it all? With that, I’ll let you take a shot at that question.

Mary: All right. Well that’s the big question, how do we make sense of it all? Because when you look at each of these studies, they all look like they have good information in them, that we’ve learned something from each of them. But where does that really leave us? I know your thinking is that we shouldn’t be thinking about ranking factors individually, that we should be thinking of them more as … what’s the sum total of all the ranking factors?

Mike: It’s not that we shouldn’t be thinking about them individually. I think that the local ranking algorithm is at least bimodal if not trimodal. In other words, there are at least two different ranking algorithms in the context of a local search. Each entity is scored within those ranking algorithms, then between those two modes — let’s assume one is proximity and the other is relevance and prominence. Although there may be three modes. It may be proximity, relevance and prominence — each entity achieves a score within the context of those modes. Those scores are then normalized into a single ranking factor.

So if you’ve got a bimodal or trimodal, in other words — these are ranked this way, and these are ranked this way — so you get two ranking algorithms that then get normalized into a single ranking scale. If you try to analyze point ranking factor A versus ranking factor B, it becomes an impossible task that’s going to result in an illogical answer. And the answer is … we’re all right.

Mary: Right.

Mike: In other words, if you understand the ranking algorithms slightly differently … I really like the model that Google put forward a number of years ago, three elements, proximity, relevance, and prominence. When you look in a local search result you might see a pack where relevance, i.e. business name matching, is the strongest element. You might see a pack where proximity is the strongest element, and you might see a pack where prominence is the strongest element.

For example, in areas like authority of your website, or authority of your Yelp page, etc, the idea of prominence needs to be expanded beyond links into other authority pages. Plus I think the idea of relevance needs to be expanded into the idea of a cumulative ranking score about relevance. There’s more nuance needed in the understanding of the ranking algorithm. The results folks are seeing is real, but when they try to explain it in the context of 200 ranking factors, A to Z, or whatever, A to Z squared, whatever the number is, then they run into problems and arguments about whether proximity is more important than relevance, and I that forces people to look in the wrong direction. Your thoughts?

Mary: I agree with you. I was talking with a client a few days ago, and we were talking how the local algorithm has always been intended to model the real world, and that now it is so close to modeling the real world that we almost have to think backwards.

Mike: Proximity is a good example of that. If 60% of the searches occur in mobile, and Google is returning results within, say, a mile or two miles of the searcher, then business location becomes a critical issue. Location, location, location. This is what Google is trying to emulate with their mobile search results.

Mary: Exactly. So this particular guy, he kinda explained it as almost anti-SEO. So this is the strategy we came up with after talking: “Let’s not think about things that we do online. Let’s think what we can do in our own community to help build our business,” and that when they translated online, help us with rankings. And with the most important thing being gaining new leads in your own market area and not just rankings.

Mike: Although without rankings…

Mary: There’s no visibility, I know.

Mike: There’s no visibility, it is a dynamic. But the question people often ask — I just ran through a response at the Google My Business forums where someone said: “I just verified my business. I don’t rank for a keyword plus city, why? And what is the point of verifying if I don’t get that benefit?” And the first answer to that is, “how do you know you’re not showing on mobile search results for people within one, two or three miles of your location for that particular query?” You don’t know that because you haven’t looked. You’re sitting at a desktop computer so, you’re asking the wrong question! The real question is, “is your business in a location where you’re going to get a reasonable number of mobile searches from people in your area that are looking for your service?” So, it’s not so much that it’s anti-SEO, but you have to ask the right questions. The right question isn’t “Why am I not ranking for x plus y?” The right question is, “Am I achieving enough visibility to increase my leads, and am I doing the things online and offline that are going to lead to the benefits you’re talking about?”

Customer service is a good example. Reviews shouldn’t be the goal. They should be the outcome of great customer service. If you’re providing great customer service and then ask for a review, the likelihood of you getting more reviews skyrockets. It’s the same with the idea of prominence and authority. If you’re doing the things in your community that generate PR, whether you’ve made a conscious decision to perform that actively or not, as long as that PR is being republished online, you’re going to get benefit from it and that’s going to lead to higher authority.

Mary: And it’s going to lead to people in your market area saying your brand name and places, and possibly searching for you online.

Mike: Exactly. In fact, that relates to that other study we did, a correlation study at Moz which is that rankings correlate more with brand query-type totals than with domain prominence. So it’s conceivable that if you did something offline that increased your brand searches, it could impact your rank across the board and those give Google additional signals about your business. So going forward there may be other ways to skin this cat. But I think reversing the model as we’ve been talking about for the last year, in terms of what’s good for my business in the community, and just being sure that the activities I do offline get mirrored online somehow, then I think it won’t matter what Google does with the algorithm.

Mary: Agreed. And I think we also have to remember that it’s quite possible, in fact, quite probable that proximity is different for different types of businesses, that prominence is measured differently for different types of businesses.

Mike: I think what happens with prominence is that the web is a constant signal, which is why links continually show up as one of the benefit. In other words, I think the other sites that confer prominence and authority vary by industry. I believe that, in every industry, Google has one or two sites that they look at as the most trusted sites. In doctors, I think it’s HealthGrades. In restaurants, I think it’s Yelp. In hotels, I think it’s TripAdvisor. And if you can achieve success at those sites, that authority then transfers to your local listing. That to me is quite clear, and it’s not just your website, that’s just one of many authority sites Google looks at. To me, that explains why links still work and also why a high-ranking Yelp page could be driving local results.

Mary: Yes, and customers.

Mike: And customers, but not so much through Yelp. In interviews that Barbara did last quarter, she asked every new customer why they came to her. We were looking at the key performance indicators, click-to-calls, driving directions, etc. She was asking how they come to find her. And most people that said, “Oh, I read about you on the web.” And she would say to them, “Where did you read about us on the web?” And they’d say, “Well, we read the reviews. We looked at the reviews and we were really satisfied.” And she’d say, “But where?” And they couldn’t tell her. They literally could not say where they read the review. So in their mind, it was just the Internet, right?

Mary: Right.

Mike: And to me, that comes from Google summarizing. When I looked at her KPIs, 70% of her new KPIs were coming directly from Google My Business. Some 20% from the website, and the balance from other places. I would suggest that when people say, “Oh, I read about her reviews on the internet,” what they’re really saying is they scanned the Google brand page, brand search results, and they saw a bunch of reviews and a bunch of stars, and that’s as far as they went, and then they called her!

Mary: Yes.

Mike: I think one of the implications of all this is that the page you own on Google reflects your business. Google populates that page and you should be paying a tremendous amount of attention to this Google page because it’s where people are actually taking action these days.

Mary: Do you mean the local knowledge panel when it shows up in the search results?

Mike: Yes, but not just the knowledge panel. If you do a branded search for a business there will be three or four elements on that page. One element is a knowledge panel. The other element will be the results from your site. The other element are results from third party sites. Google has consistently given preference on the left side to sites with reviews. It’s not just Yelp or Facebook anymore, it’s Yellow Pages, Foursquare, Superpages or the Better Business Bureau. Those are all sites that show up on the left side of that search result. Some of those show up in the reviews in the web, reviews from your site, or reviews from might show up there, but Yelp and TripAdvisor don’t.

So it’s content. It’s the way your site presents what you call your ads, the meta description and the title tags, as well as the use of rich snippets. Reviews on your sites might show up as well as reviews from a range of third party sites, plus the photos and the other stuff in the knowledge panel. So it’s the whole package on that Google page consumers are looking at these days.

Mary: I agree, most definitely. If i’m not familiar with a company, I’ll search for the brand name and say, “Okay, what is the internet telling me about this company?” And that’s what Google is presenting to you with the brand search, what the internet knows about this company.

Mike: With a strong emphasis on reviews and photos, and snippets of text that you have some influence over.

Mary: Correct.

Mike: We talked about this a little earlier, if you can create a compelling result on your branded search results, knowledge panel plus organic, people then interact with it more. That could very well, in the future or now, be a ranking signal that conversion optimization is occurring. So in other words, the things you did offline, great service, good reviews, a lot of different sites, the photographs you took that you got published there, the articles that are showing in the other news about you — those things then can create this positive cycle in terms of your rank and your visibility, and more importantly, your conversion to leads. Although the scary thought about that is if 70% of the conversions are occurring at Google, you are deeply in their pocket.

Mary: Oh we are all very deeply in their pocket.

Mike: Right. So what is your conclusion about the ranking algorithms? Then we probably should wrap this up. I got a little carried away and went a little far afield, but…

Mary: You know, I’ve been pretty boring with ranking algorithms for however many years I’ve been at this. And I’ve always felt like you just need to put the complete package out there. Just do a good job with everything, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and when the algorithm changes, you’re not going to be one of those guys standing there holding the bag. You’re going to say, “Oh, there was a little update.”

Mike: There you go. Be real, I guess, is the advice.

Mary: Yeah, be real.

Mike: All right. With that, we’ll say goodbye and thank you for joining Deep Dive with Mike and Mary. Take care.

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