In this chapter, we focus our attention by detailing the three core signals that Google uses to determine local rankings.
There are three core driving factors that Google looks at when determining local rankings: relevance, distance and prominence.
Together, these factors combine to help Google decide what the best match for your search query is.
This is why if you search for ‘italian restaurant west london’, Google will display search results that are within this location.
However, as you can see above, it might decide that a restaurant that is farther away from your actual location is more likely to offer what you’re looking for – i.e. it might have better reviews or a stronger GMB profile and therefore rank it higher in local results.
When it comes to relevance, Google is simply asking: “is this business relevant to what the searcher is looking for?”.
From our example above, Bocca di Lupo was ranked above Chianti London despite the fact that both are quite far apart. This shows that even though Chianti London for instance may have been closer to our location, the content on the website perhaps wasn’t as relevant.
Coming from Google: “Adding complete and detailed business information can help Google better understand your business and match your listing to relevant searches”.
Here are the things that Google looks at for relevancy:
- Content – more on how to optimise your content for local SEO later on in the module.
- Onsite SEO: title tags, headings, images etc.
- Citations – Google wants to see that you are actually based where you say you are and whether or not you’re relevant to the city/location of the user’s search query.
- Google My Business Categories & Subcategories – with 4,000 different categories to choose from, Google naturally uses these to see if your business fits what the user is searching for, so it’s absolutely vital that you fill these out correctly when creating/optimising your GMB page.
- Review Content – if Google can see that other users saw value in your business, then it’ll increase your relevance for the search queries that are most relevant to your service.
Again, the distance (or proximity as it’s sometimes referred to as in the SEO community) is simply how far each potential search result is from the location specified in the user’s search query.
For cases where the user does not include a specific location, Google will use the data it has collected for that particular user (i.e. location history, previous searches) to calculate the distance.
Helpful Tip: if you’re unsure what Google is using to determine your location, you can find it at the bottom of the search results, in the example below, it’s “E1, London”.
For mobile users, this location is even more accurate as Google is able to use the geographical coordinates of your actual location.
If you ever want to see what search results look like from specific locations, we recommend the GS Location Changer chrome extension.
Local Significance vs Global Significance
With proximity, Google is essentially asking: “Is the business close enough to the searcher to be considered a good answer to their query?”.
For example, if you search for “italian restaurants near me”, Google will estimate your location and display the results that are closest to you.
This can be inferred from a patent that has been granted to Google titled “Distance based search ranking demotion” which specifically looks at how businesses that have a “local significance” to the user’s search query are prioritised in the search results.
The patent goes onto explain how places that have a global significance (i.e. they have what is referred to as a high “location independent score”) may be demoted in the search results. This means that although Google gives preference to results that are close to the user (based on their location), results that are not location specific may still be ranked, but are demoted.
The reason Google still displays such results is because these results may still be of interest to searchers outside of the region due to their popularity. The amount by which these pages may be demoted is determined by applying a formula which is outlined in the patent.
It’s worth noting that “local results for distant locations are not demoted if the local result has relatively high location independent search score” or “if there are no nearby local results, or if there are no other results having a relatively high location independent search score”.
The key takeaway from this patent, is to optimise your pages with local intent in mind.
In addition to relevance and proximity, Google also looks at how well-known or important a business is; prominence. Google understands and acknowledges that some places are more prominent in the “offline world” and therefore tries to reflect this in the search results. For instance, famous landmarks or popular brands are likely to be prominent in local search results.
When it comes to prominence, Google looks at the following:
- Links – Google specifically tells its quality evaluators to “Look for reviews, references, recommendations by experts, news articles, and other credible information created/written by individuals about the website.”
- Reviews – as per Google’s Quality Raters Guidelines, we can see that Google treats “a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation.” However, it’s not just about the number, the “content of the reviews matter” too.
- Web Results – your position in the organic search results is also a factor, so it’s recommended that you continue to follow SEO best practices as they also apply to local search optimisation.
Local Prominence Score
Let’s take a closer look at how Google’s algorithm in particular, may determine the prominence of a website. For this, we refer to another Google patent titled “Scoring local search results based on location prominence” which was granted in 2011.
Another (older) patent titled “Indexing documents according to geographical relevance” discusses how Google returns results within a certain radius from the user’s search query. However, using the geographical distance from the searcher’s location doesn’t always yield the best results.
The method of using a “local prominence” is more effective as it looks at additional factors that may allow for more meaningful search results for the user.
For example, if distance alone was used and a user searches for “sushi restaurant”, then it may be the case that all sushi restaurants within the radius that Google looks at have extremely poor reviews, or are shut.
Before we look at how this system works, let’s first highlight what Google means by “local prominence”.
According to the patent, local prominence refers to “factors that are intended to convey the “best” documents for the geographical area rather than documents based solely on their distance from a particular location within the geographical area”.
Factors such as the postal codes or the latitude and longitude of the map window during the user’s search may be used to associate the search query with a set of geographical locations.
Additional factors are also considered, these include:
- “A score associated with an authoritative document” – this refers to websites “identified as being authoritative for the business associated with the document”.
- “The total number of documents referring to a business associated with a document” – this refers to the number of websites that simply mentioned your business name on their website, as opposed to “linking” to you.
- “The highest score of documents referring to the business” – this refers to the “quality” of the websites referring to you.
- “The number of documents with reviews of the business” – these are reviews that may appear in “newspapers, magazines, web pages, and blogs”.
- “The number of information documents that mention the business” – this refers to web directories and other websites that list information about your business such as the address, telephone number, operating hours etc.
One thing to note, is that distance is still a valuable factor that the system considers. In fact, the patent states that these factors may be considered in conjunction with a distance core to “provide a better user experience by presenting the user with documents associated with businesses that are closer together rather than scattered apart”.
Importantly, this patent gives an insight into what we as SEOs should be focusing on when it comes to optimising websites for local search.
Local Ranking Signals
1. Google My Business – the cornerstone of local SEO, claiming/creating your Google My Business listing is one of the simplest ways to improve your local search rankings. Below is an example of a GMB listing for Japanese Canteen, one of our team’s favourite restaurants.
2. Online Directories & Citations – listing your website on online directors like Apple Maps or Yelp (just to name a few) is the equivalent of listing your business in the old fashioned YellowBook back in the day. If you do a local search like “restaurants near oxford circus”, you’ll see that these directories dominate the SERPs – you don’t want to be the only website not to have claimed these listings!
3. Listings on Review Sites – getting listed on review sites like TripAdvisor, Glassdoor and more help improve your rankings as they also serve as trust signals. Reviews that are directly on Google (which we highlight later on in this section) carry the most weight.
4. Reviews Containing Keywords and Location – apart from simply getting positive reviews, the language used by reviewers is also important. When a reviewer includes the keywords and locations that you’re targeting it serves as another trust signal to Google.
5. Responding to Reviews – The number of reviews with a response also contributes to local SEO; it shows Google that you care about what customers have to say about your business.
6. Amount of Negative Reviews Not Responded To – in addition to the above, the number of negative reviews with no responses is also something that Google looks at.
7. Social Profiles – Google collects business information from a variety of sources and looks to include it to give customers a more detailed overview of your business. In fact, it automatically adds social profile information to listings for eligible businesses.
8. NAP (Name, Address, Phone Number) Consistency – Google wants to provide users with the most accurate information, so ensure that your name, address, and phone number are consistent across any listing on the Internet.
9. Mobile Friendliness – Google has rolled out mobile-first indexing, which means that it now gives precedence to how your website is optimised for mobile over desktop. You can see how mobile-friendly your website is here.
10. Structured Data Markup – there is an entire category of Schema markup for local businesses. Marking up your phone number, operating hours, address etc all make it easier for Google to understand your website and business.
11. Localised Content – publish content that allows you to organically include the core keywords and locations that you want to target.
12. Optimise For Location Specific Keywords – optimise your content, page titles, headings and meta descriptions to target location specific keywords. I.e. “italian restaurant north london” instead of “italian restaurant”.
13. In-Bound Links – having high quality and diverse incoming links from sites Google trusts are beneficial to local SEO. Having links from relevant local sites (i.e. local news sites or community blogs) or links from websites using your keyword and target location in the anchor text is an added bonus!