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:
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.
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).
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:
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).
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.
The keyword searches used in the study were segmented into 2 main business categories:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
This came in as the 9th highest correlating ranking factor
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.
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):
Businesses that ranked in the organic search results for the given keyword search tended to rank higher in the local search results
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
If it is, you have a better chance at ranking higher in the local search results
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.
Business that do tend to rank higher.
If it is, you have a better chance of ranking higher in the local search results.
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:
What are your thoughts on the results of this study?
Do you agree or disagree?
Where you surprised at the findings?
Will you change any of your local SEO strategies as a result of this study?
We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment below and join in on the conversation!
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