The 2016 Quantitative Local Search Ranking Factors Study


  • Mark Kabana, Founder and CEO of Places Scout
  • Andrew Shotland, Founder and President of Local SEO Guide
  • Dan Lebison, Vice President of Local & Product at Local SEO Guide


  • Megan Smith and Marija Pejcinovska, University of California, Irvine

Also be sure to check out LocalSEOGuide’s Writeup on the 2016 Local Search Factors Study, they have some additional findings and takeaways on the results!


Welcome to the first edition of the 2016 Quantitative Local Search Ranking Factors Study!

In this series of publications, we will release the results of our first local search study that is based on real data gathered from Google and over 40 other data sources. The results of our study were calculated and determined by a 3rd party team of statisticians at a major university, providing an unbiased basis for understanding the findings of our study.

In the first part of this series, we will answer some important and interesting questions such as:

  • Are reviews the new backlink?
  • Do backlinks still matter?
  • How important is having a mobile friendly website?

Additional series of this article will be released in the near future and reveal some even more interesting findings of our study, including whether or not citations are as important for ranking in Google Local results as most SEO’s think they are.

We hope that this study will help local businesses understand where they need to prioritize their marketing efforts based on the results of this study and learn techniques that should be avoided to get the most return out of SEO efforts.

We also hope to inspire others to provide feedback and recommendations for ways this study can be improved for future editions of the study.

Please Note:

This is a correlational study that focused on which factors / features are associated with higher search engine rankings in Google Local results. It is important to understand that correlation does not imply causation, and there is no way to determine or prove causation from a correlational study.

The results of the ranking factors outlined in this study are not meant to be exact evidence or proof of what Google uses to rank websites, but rather demonstrate the characteristics of businesses and websites that tend to rank higher in Google using correlational p-values (more in this below).

Study Goals

The goal of this study was to determine the most important factors for ranking in the Google Organic Local 3-Pack and Maps search results using real data and provide actionable tips to businesses looking to improve their search visibility.

To meet the goals of our study, we designed our research with the following principals in mind:

  1. Use real data gathered from Google and multiple other data source (using Places Scout’s Keyword Competitive Analysis tool) across multiple keyword variations and segments to determine ranking factor correlations
  2. Have an independent team of university statisticians analyze the data and calculate the proper correlation values of ranking factors for a more scientific based approach in concluding the results of the data
  3. Think and work like Google – our thoughts were if we want to know how Google ranks local businesses in the search results, we have to think like Google and understand what Google does in order to create its ranking algorithm.

    This means understanding that Google scrapes data from billions of websites daily, and uses their magical algorithms to match this data together and determine which results are most relevant for a given search query.

    With this in mind, our efforts focused on an attempt to reverse engineer Google’s ranking algorithm to the best of our abilities by understanding how we think Google works and using all available data that we can gather for businesses that rank in Google (similar to what Google does, but on a smaller scale).

Study Methodology

In our quest to meet the goals of the study, we gathered 282 unique points of SEO-orientated data for businesses that rank in Google across 3000 common search terms. We then took this data to a team of statisticians at the University of California, Irvine for analysis and calculations of correlations for ranking factors.

The first step in the study was to determine what keywords we would analyze for gathering ranking data.

Keyword Searches

The keyword searches used in the study were segmented into 2 main business categories:

  • Small Business Keywords
  • Multi-Location Business Keywords (for Big Brand Ranking Analysis)

For each of the above keyword groups, we chose 5 specific keywords that signal local intent and produce a Local 3-Pack in the Google Organic search results:

  • Small Business Keywords
    • dentist
    • lawyer
    • cpa
    • hair salon
    • restaurants

  • Multi-Location Business Keywords (for Big Brand Ranking Analysis)
    • hardware store
    • auto parts store
    • pharmacy
    • grocery store
    • furniture stores

Location Analysis

For location analysis, we took the top 50 US cities based on population to analyze highly competitive markets, and the top 100-150 US cities based on population to analyze normally competitive markets, giving us a total of 100 different cities used for keyword location analysis.

To mimic these searches coming from specific geo-locations, we set each location as the Google Location Setting for its respective keyword search and also included the city name in the keyword search itself for certain keyword variation types below.

Keyword Search Variation Types

For the Small Business and Multi-Location Business Keyword groups, we generated 3 different keyword search variation types that are common ways people search in Google, each of which was searched in Google using specific location settings for all cities in the study:

  • keyword only – ex: dentist
  • keyword + location – ex: dentist chicago
  • location + keyword – ex: chicago dentist

Using these 3 search variation types allowed us to analyze any differences in the correlation of ranking factors for each of these keyword variation types (i.e. how do ranking factors change if I search using keyword only vs. keyword + location vs. location + keyword).

After combining the above keywords and variation types across all 100 locations, we ended up with 3000 unique keyword searches that we used for analysis in the study.

We then analyzed the top 10 businesses that ranked for each keyword search by taking the top 3 results in the Google Organic Local 3-Pack as well as results 4-10 in the Google Maps search results, giving us a total of 10 businesses for each keyword search.

Data Points Analyzed for Each Business

We gathered a total of 282 data points for each business that ranked in the Google Search Results for each keyword search.

These data points were selected based on ideas of ranking factors from other studies in the past as well as using our creative thinking to create additional data points based what we thought might be other ranking factors of interest to include in the study.

We will release the full list of data points analyzed in the study in the near future.

The 2016 Local Search Ranking Factors

And now, on to the good stuff, the full list of the 2016 local search ranking factors!

Below you will find charts of all the local search ranking factors (courtesy of LocalSEOGuide) listed in order of the highest to lowest correlating ranking factors.

The charts are segmented into two different types of ranking factors:

  • Ordinal Variables – these are numeric based factors. Businesses that had higher values for these factors tended to rank higher in Google Local Search Results
  • Categorical Variables – These are Yes / No binary factors – businesses that had these characteristics tended to rank higher in Google Local Search Results

Key Takeaways – Ordinal Numerical Factors
It’s All About the Numbers

For ordinal numerical based ranking factors, the more of the following metrics you have, the better.

If you want your business to rank better in local search results, focus on building popularity for your business, as the results of the study indicate that business popularity seems to outweigh all other factors, most importantly in the form of reviews and quality backlinks to your site.

Reviews Might be a New Backlink 2.0

Google Reviews came in as the #1 positive correlating ranking factor. Businesses that have more reviews tend to rank higher in the local search results.

This makes sense because times have changed. In the past, Google would determine popularity of a website mainly by the number and authority of backlinks pointing to a given website. With the increasing influence of social media, Google now seems to consider a review (whether good or bad) as a signal of popularity for a given business.

It is important to understand that reviews don’t replace backlinks, they are rather a new signaling metric that Google uses to determine popularity of a business. Think of them as Backlinks 2.0.

Backlinks are still as important as they always have been

With 52 of the top 81 ranking factors (64%) placed in the backlink signals category, we can still see the emphasis and importance Google places on backlinks as a ranking factor. Backlinks always have and probably forever will signal popularity for your business, and popularity is key for ranking in Google.

We found that many of Majestic’s proprietary metrics had a strong positive correlation in higher rankings. These metrics are computed by analyzing both the strength and quantity of the backlinks to your website.

Key points here include building backlinks from high authority websites that relate to industry of your business as well as spreading these backlinks out across unique referring subnets, IP addresses, and domains.

The following is a more detailed breakdown of correlating backlink factors in order of importance (the higher these numbers, the better):

  • Majestic AC Rank
  • Number of Referring Backlink Subnets
  • Number of Referring Backlink IP Addresses
  • Number of Referring Backlink Domains
  • Majestic Citation Flow
  • Majestic Trust Flow
  • Majestic Trust Metric
  • Percentage of Backlinks with City in Anchor Text – when building backlinks, try to include the city name in the anchor text of the backlink – this will help you rank for geo-specific searches

Add photos to your Google My Business Page

This came in as the 9th highest correlating ranking factor

Add quality content to your website’s homepage

And don’t skimp on the text! Businesses with a higher number of non-stop words and total words on their website’s homepage tended to rank higher in the local search results.

Key Takeaways – Categorical Yes / No Factors
Either you have it or you don’t

The binary yes / no ranking factors are things that you have or you don’t. If your business doesn’t have these characteristics or your answer to any of the following questions below is No, then you should focus on changing that, as businesses who have these things going for them tend to rank higher in the Google Search Results (listed in order of highest to lowest correlation):

Do you have Organic Ranking(s) for your Core Keyword?

Businesses that ranked in the organic search results for the given keyword search tended to rank higher in the local search results

Keyword in Business Name

Don’t sweat this one if you don’t have the main keyword you are optimizing for in your business name, but if you are a new business or in the process of changing your business name for a reason outside of this ranking factor, consider including your core keyword in your business name, it will help you rank for that keyword

Is your website is mobile friendly?

If it is, you have a better chance at ranking higher in the local search results

Do you have any Google Reviews?

Does Google display a rating on your Google My Business page (i.e. do you have at least 5 Google Reviews)?

Do you have any photos added to your Google My Business page?

Does your Google My Business Page have any followers?

If your answer to any of the above questions is No, Google won’t see you as being popular, so you’ll want to make sure that you have at least 5 Google reviews at a bare minimum, some photos uploaded, and a couple of followers. Businesses that do tend to rank higher in Google.

Do you have at least one backlink with your core keyword in the anchor text?

Do you have at least one backlink with your city name in the anchor text?

Business that do tend to rank higher.

Is your core keyword in your Title Tag?

Is it in your meta description tag?

If it is, you have a better chance of ranking higher in the local search results.

Do you have any .GOV or .EDU backlinks?

Have you claimed your Google My Business Page?

Have you added business hours to your Google My Business page?

Is your Website using secure HTTPS instead of HTTP?

Does your website have the same phone number your Google My Business page has listed on it?

Again, if the answer to any of the above questions is no, you should take action and focus on strategies that will change your answers to Yes’s for these above binary Yes / No factors.


The findings released today in the first part of this series of our local search study are just a taste of what’s to come in the additional publications of this study that will be released in the very near future.

We hope that this study will help influence and shape the future of local SEO tactics and strategies, and serve as a starting point for learning and improved analysis of future editions of this study.

Lastly, we would like to thank everyone involved in making this study a reality, including:

  • Dan Lebison at Local SEO Guide, who came up with the initial idea of the study after looking at all the data the Places Scout is able to offer and setup a lunch meeting to run the idea by us. Not only did Dan help us come up with ideas on new data points to add for analysis, but he was also responsible for coordinating the team of statisticians who analyzed the data gathered in the study.
  • Majestic – For allowing us to use a TON of their amazing backlink data for analyzing every business in the study. Thanks Majestic!
  • The Software Engineers at Places Scout – These guys put in countless hours of hard work at engineering a platform that could gather a massive wealth of data for any business that ranks in Google, making tons of changes that were needed to pull this study off.
  • Andrew Shotland – Because he’s the head honcho at Local SEO Guide and everyone knows what a genius he is. Andrew was the “father” of this study who we went to for guidance and support for all the technical questions we had when designing the study.
  • Statisticians Megan Smith and Marija Pejcinovska from the University of California, Irvine – their mathematical insight on the massive amount of data we provided them gave us the correlations of the ranking factors in the study, great work!


Abdulwali Yahaya Says:

This article is an eye opener…… Going back to the drawing board.

about 6 years ago

Marketing Land Says:

Each chapter comes to an end with a guidelines area which has easy-to-comprehend points
concerning the written content to quickly refresh your memory.

about 6 years ago

Rajesh Says:

A line in the article says:
“We will release the full list of data points analyzed in the study in the near future.”

Can we get the link to the list of 282 factors considered.

Thanks in Advance.

about 6 years ago

Andy Kuiper Says:

Thanks Mark, Andrew, and Dan 🙂

about 6 years ago

Mark Kabana Says:

@Mike chrest – In regards to your comment to reviews having no actual ranking factor to them, this may be true. Again this was a correctional study, so there is no way to prove causation, but we did find it interesting that this was the top correlating factor. And as you suggested more reviews may increase click-through rates and thus improve rankings, so higher review counts may have an indirect impact on rankings via other factors they influence. Interesting findings nonetheless!

@D. Roger Maves – GMB Video counts were not included as part of the analysis of this study. Also, as far as photos go, we only took into consideration the photo count on their GMB page, not any photo meta data analysis. For future studies we would like to analyze the number of photos uploaded by the business vs the number of photos uploaded by users to see if there are any correlational differences between the two.

@Jacob maslow – Yes, you have been right all along focusing on backlinks. We did analyze citations and consistency, though we didn’t find a big correlation between the total number of citations and higher rankings, so again you are correct that the value of citation building isn’t what it has been hyped up to be all along. We will be releasing more on this in future series of this article, so stay tuned, but as far as citations go, build them on the major sites, make sure they are consistent, and move on – your time is better spent on building quality backlinks vs. citations.

about 6 years ago

Mike chrest Says:

Reviews have no actual ranking factor to them , they may however give you a better click through rate which as a reuslt give you better rankings, Also just because top ranked business have many reviews doesn’t mean thats what go them there

about 6 years ago

Steven Vargas Says:

Very helpful info. will have to go back over in more detail.


about 6 years ago

Jacob maslow Says:

Interesting study. I’ve always focused on back links.

It would be great if you guys can run a study on citations and nap consistency.

As more and more directories charge for corrections and Google is getting better with its own data, it seems that the payoff for citation building is decreasing.

about 6 years ago


We don’t do hard sales. We’d rather just present you with the facts. So, let’s chat…

Simply head over to our package request form page and fill out the form with your questions and someone will get back to you shortly.

If you prefer to speak with someone over the phone, you can call us directly at (714) 604-1604. We’re here to help from 8AM-5PM PST.