Each year, research initiatives from the likes of David Mihm and Andrew Shotland from localseoguide.com, try to give of us a better picture of how local ranking factors change in comparison to previous years. We talked about this in a previous blogpost, which you can access here: in which we summarized David Mihm’s local ranking study. The conclusion of the story was that reviews, links, accurate NAP and on-page business signals best determine if and how high businesses rank in the local packages.
Today, we are going to review a similar study, performed by Andrew Shotland, who took the research to another level by researching over 200+ factors from 100.000 local businesses.
This year, Shotland expanded the research by looking at 150 cities instead of the previous 50 and doubled the amount of Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and verticals.
In short, they tried to give an answer to the following research questions:
Is Google shifting away from traditional local signals?
Does GMB spam still work?
What’s the deal with reviews?
Shotland starts with ordinal variables (values that were measured by a number) in which he summarizes all the ranking factors in one big summarizing graph.
As a quick overview of what happened with the variable and their correlation, the graph below shows the correlating factors that were found by Shotland. Reminder, over 200+ variables were looked at so only the ones shown in the graph showed some correlation.
What is clearly visible is the big green candle that sits at the start of the graph, showing the score for ‘total additional organic rankings.’ As Shotland explains, this means that businesses who invested in organic searches are more likely to do well in ranking in the local packs. This suggests that clearly, the two search algorithms influence each other.
Reviews instead of links?
In the introduction, the question
Shotland finds that Reviews, much more than last year’s investigation, have gained in importance. As the chart above indicates, many factors that show a significant correlation have something to do with reviews. In the graph below, the review factors that were used in this study are aggregated:
The graph points out that reviews are omni -important in the local search game and that reviews with keywords lead this space. Shotland comments that reviews are ‘obviously a driving factor of ranking in Google My Business pack results’. Why does Shotland mention this?
Well, reviews, in his view, are a wealth of information for Google for numerous reasons. This is very likely one of the reasons why Google has been doing their best in promoting them with their Local guides Program. According to Shotland, Google uses reviews to crowdsource ranking factors – which he thinks are very effective as they are hard to spam and abuse of reviews is illegal.
Also, Google uses reviews to approximate the online to offline ranking factors as reviews are an indicator of popularity. For example, businesses with bad ratings have a lower chance of being popular amongst the crowd. Reviews also are more trustable ranking factors for Google since most businesses that are trendy are more likely to do well in reviews first before they will grow in any other type of ranking factor, such as links. Shotland mentions that
“At a high level, having a keyword you are trying to rank for, and a mention of a city you are working to rank in, in reviews has a high correlation with high ranking Google My Business results”
Reviews, thus, have the capacity of acting as a group variable for many other ranking factors and eventually has a larger chance of success.
Continuing, Shotland adds that Google My Business ranking does well on engagement. Thus, a brand with much engagement on its GMB page usually can expect a higher ranking than businesses that lack any engagement. Think of photo’s that people can interact with, video’s, video reviews or Google Posts.
The case for links is even so revealing as for reviews.
According to the study, Shotland suggests that many businesses who rank in the local pack actually have a lot of low quality or low volume backlinks. This is a direct result of the exchange of low trust backlinks between businesses that already lack trust in the first place. Shotland reveals that therefore, big brands usually try to clean up in local search results so they are not affiliated with them.
A very important point to note in this regard is what Shotland comments on the relevancy and the linkage between SEO and Local SEO. Shotland mentions that:
“it looks like winners in local packs have likely invested in SEO services at some point.”
Basically, businesses which already invested in SEO, probably have their keywords set up in the right spaces, such as anchor texts, which are known to fuel the local SEO algorithm as well.
What has been emphasized a lot in this article is the fact that organic SEO improves the likelihood of ranking in the local packs.
This becomes paramount in the next graph in which website-related factors are evaluated.
It is possible to rank without a corporate website, after all, the Google Local Business Center came about to tackle this issue.
But still, as the graph shows clearly, website-related signals such as having your top words on your page do have a significant influence on the total outcome of your local pack ranking. Shotland names a very practical example and highlights that often SMB’s are very bad at websites. They lack time to properly manage and maintain their websites and therefore their ranking drops. He thus gives the advice to think from a SEO standpoint first: make sure all your optimizations for organic ranking are in place and then move on to local SEO optimization.
These variables one again confirm the already established factors that influence local rankings, look for example at the top 10.
They suggest that websites should be fully optimized for search, that businesses should invest time and money into mechanisms that influence their engagement and that a proper GMB profile directly influences the outcome of the local pack score.