SEO basics

The vast majority of local businesses out there – even those heavily invested in digital and mobile marketing – are constantly looking for insights on how they can improve their placements in Google’s search engine results.

While there’s plenty of advice available on specific tactics ranging from leveraging keywords and linking to boosting reviews and Facebook likes, most business owners struggle with how to prioritize their local marketing budgets to improve their rankings, while avoiding unintentional negative hits to their search visibility.

David Mihm at Moz, a marketing analytics firm, pulls together the valuable “Local Search Ranking Factors” survey each year to help to demystify local SEO rankings by honing in on the insights of 35 local marketing experts. Participants evaluate the influence of key ranking factors and prioritize specific ones that they believe contribute to local SEO rankings.

Released earlier this month, this year’s results provide a strong blueprint for businesses – both new entrants and those already established in the local search space – on how to allocate their limited marketing budgets to generate greater visibility for their brand and one-up their competitors.

Where To Prioritize Local Marketing Efforts

The first section of the survey asked participants to identify the importance of eight thematic clusters of ranking factors across three primary types of local search results – localized organic search, pack/carousel search and maps search – for both desktop and mobile searches.

Participants were asked to assign a percentage of influence to all eight clusters, adding up to 100%, to measure those areas with the greatest impact for local businesses planning their digital and mobile efforts.

Image courtesy of used with permission

Image courtesy of used with permission

The overall ranking results were as follows:

Place Page Signals: Experts said that factors related to Google Places listings including accurate and optimized categories, notable keywords in business titles, and the proximity of a business’ address to where the search is being conducted demonstrated 19.6% influence in determining local search performance.On-Page Signals: Participants noted that the authority of local businesses’ domain, keywords in titles on their own websites, and the presence of key NAP (name, address and phone number) contact information on their websites played an 18.8% influence in determining performance.

External Location Signals: Participants said that factors such as the availability and consistency of NAP in third-party local business directories including Yelp, Zagat and Internet Yellow Pages (YP, DexMedia, hibu etc.) provided 16% influence in determining performance.

Link Signals: Experts said that the quantity and quality of links to local businesses’ websites from external sites resulted in 14.4% influence in determining performance.

Review Signals: Participants noted that the quality, velocity and diversity of online reviews and rankings resulted in 10.3% influence in determining performance.

Personalization: Experts stated that personalization, such as results provided to users based on what is most relevant to their interests or located closest to them, provides 8.3% influence in determining performance.

Social Signals: Experts said that social signals such as Google+ authority, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers provided 6.3% influence in determining performance.

Behavioral & Mobile Signals: Participants determined that behavioral and mobile signals such as how often search users click through to a business’ page, check-in or call a business, etc. provide 6.1% influence in determining performance.

These results are extremely informative and provide important takeaways that local businesses should consider when evaluating priorities for their local marketing strategy:

  • Does the business maintain consistent NAP and other key listing information across the web, on external sites like Google, Yelp, CitySearch, and Internet Yellow Pages? This is a basic task, and one that can’t be overlooked. In addition to claiming listings on these sites, the business can leverage services from Localeze and Axiom to manage their business listings across dozens of the most influential sites and partners.
  • Does the business leverage the most appropriate category associations in its Google Maps listing and elsewhere that best describe their products and services? It’s important for local businesses to be as specific as possible. That said, businesses should also pursue minor but still valid associations that they believe might also yield new business.
  • Is NAP information clearly featured on the business’ own website? Does the website include the location of the business in title tags and headlines? These are also basic tasks that should be included in the first or follow-up iterations of the business’ website.
  • Is the business listed on as many local websites as possible? Simply put, if a business learns of a new local listings website, it should join it. In nearly all cases, it’s free and easy to sign-up.
  • Has the local business developed relationships with authoritative and legitimate media, bloggers and customers that will influence them to link to the business’ website? Several solid stories on local news websites, local foodie and customers’ blogs can go a long way in boosting the business’ local search visibility.
  • Has the local business properly maintained its ratings and reviews reputation by encouraging positive reviews and responding correctly to negative ones? Has the business boosted its social media presence by actively engaging followers? While the survey found that those factors play more minor roles in influencing local SEO at the moment, they still influence the rankings outcome. And outside of major search engines like Google, popular local sites like Yelp place a significant amount of influence on ratings and reviews in determining search results.

Checklist Of Positive Ranking Factors

The next phase of the survey asked experts to get into specifics regarding which individual factors related to local search are most important for businesses to consider. First, it asked experts to pretend they were working with a brick-and-mortar business just getting started in local search and to rank the top 20 individual ranking factors (out of 104) that would most benefit the client. The survey then asked experts to pretend they were working with a company established in local search and complete the same task.

The full results are available on Moz’s website and serve as a good running checklist for local businesses at either the beginning or intermediate stages of involvement in local search to gauge their progress.

Avoiding Negative Ranking Factors

The final phase of the survey asked experts to rank the 30 most negative factors for local SEO rankings. Some of these negative factors seem like common sense, yet mistakes are made by businesses all the time.

Those ranked highest included:

Listing detected at false business location: Providing a false address for a business will alert search engines that the business may not be legitimate. This should be avoided regardless!

Keyword stuffing in business name: Adding unnecessary keywords to a business name (e.g., instead of “Dallas Cleaners,” including “Dallas Cleaners Tailors Washing Drying Clothing”) will lower a business’ ranking in search results. So even though keywords are important in driving search, don’t try to game the system or there will be penalties.

Mismatched NAP information across Web: Having different business names, addresses and phone numbers across the web will damage the business’ credibility in local search, so be sure to ensure consistency on business websites, local sites, etc.

Incorrect business category: Listing a business in categories where it does not provide a service will negatively impact a business’ placement in search, so be sure to stick to what the business actually does. 

Presence of multiple Google Places landing pages with similar business title & address: Having multiple Google Places landing pages for the same location will impact a business’ visibility in search, so be sure to consolidate and remove additional pages.

Reports of violations on a business’s Google Places landing page: Violating Google’s content policy can lead to the de-listing of a business’ page. Be sure to avoid inappropriate material, bullying, impersonating, illegal activities, and posting of false reviews.

Absence of NAP information on website: Not including the business’ NAP information on its own website can negatively impact its local ranking. Make sure to include NAP information as text on the business’ website – not just within graphics.

As I think you’ll agree, the Moz study provides important guidance for local businesses at any stage of development who are working to improve their SEO presence.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.