How Does the Local Algorithm Work? – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by JoyHawkins

When it comes to Google’s algorithms, there’s quite a difference between how they treat local and organic. Get the scoop on which factors drive the local algorithm and how it works from local SEO extraordinaire, Joy Hawkins, as she offers a taste of her full talk from MozCon 2019.

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Video Transcription

Hello, Moz fans. I’m Joy Hawkins. I run a local SEO agency from Toronto, Canada, and a search forum known as the Local Search Forum, which basically is devoted to anything related to local SEO or local search. Today I’m going to be talking to you about Google’s local algorithm and the three main factors that drive it. 

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about when I say the local algorithm, this is the algorithm that fuels what we call the three-pack here. When you do a local search or a search that Google thinks has local intents, like plumbers let’s say, you traditionally will get three results at the top with the map, and then everything below it I refer to as organic. This algorithm I’ll be kind of breaking down is what fuels this three-pack, also known as Google My Business listings or Google Maps listings.

They’re all talking about the exact same thing. If you search Google’s Help Center on what they look at with ranking these entities, they tell you that there are three main things that fuel this algorithm. The three things that they talk about are proximity, prominence, and relevance. I’m going to basically be breaking down each one and explaining how the factors work.

1. Proximity

I’ll kind of start here with proximity. Proximity is basically defined as your location when you are searching on your phone or your computer and you type something in. It’s where Google thinks you are located. If you’re not really sure, often you can scroll down to the bottom of your page, and at the bottom of your page it will often list a zip code that Google thinks you’re in.

Zip code (desktop)

The other way to tell is if you’re on a phone, sometimes you can also see a little blue dot on the map, which is exactly where Google thinks you’re located. On a high level, we often think that Google thinks we’re located in a city, but this is actually pretty false, which I know that there’s been actually a lot of talk at MozCon about how Google pretty much always knows a little deeper than that as far as where users are located.

Generally speaking, if you’re on a computer, they know what zip code you’re in, and they’ll list that at the bottom. There are a variety of tools that can help you check ranking based on zip codes, some of which would be Moz Check Your Presence Tool, BrightLocal, Whitespark, or Places Scout. All of these tools have the ability to track at the zip code level. 

Geo coordinates (mobile)

However, when you’re on a phone, usually Google knows your location even more detailed, and they actually generally know the geo coordinates of your actual location, and they pinpoint this using that little blue dot.

It knows even more about the zip code. It knows where you’re actually located. It’s a bit creepy. But there are a couple of tools that will actually let you see results based on geo coordinates, which is really cool and very accurate. Those tools include the Local Falcon, and there is a Chrome extension which is 100% free, that you can put in your browser, called GS Location Changer.

I use this all the time in an incognito browser if I want to just see what search results look like from a very, very specific location. Now these two levels, depending on what industry you are working in, it’s really important to know which level you need to be looking at. If you work with lawyers, for example, zip code level is usually good enough.

There aren’t enough lawyers to make a huge difference at certain like little points inside a given zip code. However, if you work with dentists or restaurants, let’s say, you really need to be looking at geo coordinate levels. We have seen lots of cases where we will scan a specific keyword using these two tools, and depending on where in that zip code we are, we see completely different three-packs.

It’s very, very key to know that this factor here for proximity really influences the results that you see. This can be challenging, because when you’re trying to explain this to clients or business owners, they search from their home, and they’re like, “Why am I not there?” It’s because their proximity or their location is different than where their office is located.

I realize this is a challenging problem to solve for a lot of agencies on how to represent this, but that’s kind of the tools that you need to look at and use. 

2. Prominence

Moving to the next factor, so prominence, this is basically how important Google thinks you are. Like Is this business a big deal, or are they just some random, crappy business or a new business that we don’t know much about?

  • This looks at things like links, for example. 
  • Store visits, if you are a brick-and-mortar business and you get no foot traffic, Google likely won’t think you’re very prominent. 
  • Reviews, the number of reviews often factors in here. We often see in cases where businesses have a lot of reviews and a lot of old reviews, they generally have a lot of prominence.
  • Citations can also factor in here due to the number of citations. That can also factor into prominence. 

3. Relevance

Moving into the relevance factor, relevance is basically, does Google think you are related to the query that is typed in? You can be as prominent as anyone else, but if you do not have content on your page that is structured well, that covers the topic the user is searching about, your relevance will be very low, and you will run into issues.

It’s very important to know that these three things all kind of work together, and it’s really important to make sure you are looking at all three. On the relevance end, it looks at things like:

  • content
  • onsite SEO, so your title tags, your meta tags, all that nice SEO stuff
  • Citations also factor in here, because it looks at things like your address. Like are you actually in this city? Are you relevant to the city that the user is trying to get locations from? 
  • Categories are huge here, your Google My Business categories. Google currently has just under 4,000 different Google My Business categories, and they add an insane amount every year and they also remove ones. It’s very important to keep on top of that and make sure that you have the correct categories on your listing or you won’t rank well.
  • The business name is unfortunately a huge factor as well in here. Merely having keywords in your business name can often give you relevance to rank. It shouldn’t, but it does. 
  • Then review content. I know Mike Blumenthal did a really cool experiment on this a couple years ago, where he actually had a bunch of people write a bunch of fake reviews on Yelp mentioning certain terms to see if it would influence ranking on Google in the local results, and it did. Google is definitely looking at the content inside the reviews to see what words people are using so they can see how that impacts relevance. 

How to rank without proximity, prominence, or relevance

Obviously you want all three of these things. It is possible to rank if you don’t have all three, and I’ll give a couple examples. If you’re looking to expand your radius, you service a lot of people.

You don’t just service people on your block. You’re like, “I serve the whole city of Chicago,” for example. You are not likely going to rank in all of Chicago for very common terms, things like dentist or personal injury attorney. However, if you have a lot of prominence and you have a really relevant page or content related to really niche terms, we often see that it is possible to really expand your radius for long tail keywords, which is great.

Prominence is probably the number one thing that will expand your radius inside competitive terms. We’ll often see Google bringing in a business that is slightly outside of the same area as other businesses, just because they have an astronomical number of reviews, or maybe their domain authority is ridiculously high and they have all these linking domains.

Those two factors are definitely what influences the amount of area you cover with your local exposure. 

Spam and fake listings

On the flip side, spam is something I talk a lot about. Fake listings are a big problem in the local search space. Fake listings, these lead gen providers create these listings, and they rank with zero prominence.

They have no prominence. They have no citations. They have no authority. They often don’t even have websites, and they still rank because of these two factors. You create 100 listings in a city, you are going to be close to someone searching. Then if you stuff a bunch of keywords in your business name, you will have some relevance, and by somehow eliminating the prominence factor, they are able to get these listings to rank, which is very frustrating.

Obviously, Google is kind of trying to evolve this algorithm over time. We are hoping that maybe the prominence factor will increase over time to kind of eliminate that problem, but ultimately we’ll have to see what Google does. We also did a study recently to test to see which of these two factors kind of carries more weight.

An experiment: Linking to your site within GMB

One thing I’ve kind of highlighted here is when you link to a website inside your Google My Business listing, there’s often a debate. Should I link to my homepage, or should I link to my location page if I’ve got three or four or five offices? We did an experiment to see what happens when we switch a client’s Google My Business listing from their location page to their homepage, and we’ve pretty much almost always seen a positive impact by switching to the homepage, even if that homepage is not relevant at all.

In one example, we had a client that was in Houston, and they opened up a location in Dallas. Their homepage was optimized for Houston, but their location page was optimized for Dallas. I had a conversation with a couple of other SEOs, and they were like, “Oh, well, obviously link to the Dallas page on the Dallas listing. That makes perfect sense.”

But we were wondering what would happen if we linked to the homepage, which is optimized for Houston. We saw a lift in rankings and a lift in the number of search queries that this business showed for when we switched to the homepage, even though the homepage didn’t really mention Dallas at all. Something to think about. Make sure you’re always testing these different factors and chasing the right ones when you’re coming up with your local SEO strategy. Finally, something I’ll mention at the top here.

Local algorithm vs organic algorithm

As far as the local algorithm versus the organic algorithm, some of you might be thinking, okay, these things really look at the same factors. They really kind of, sort of work the same way. Honestly, if that is your thinking, I would really strongly recommend you change it. I’ll quote this. This is from a Moz whitepaper that they did recently, where they found that only 8% of local pack listings had their website also appearing in the organic search results below.

I feel like the overlap between these two is definitely shrinking, which is kind of why I’m a bit obsessed with figuring out how the local algorithm works to make sure that we can have clients successful in both spaces. Hopefully you learned something. If you have any questions, please hit me up in the comments. Thanks for listening.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com


If you liked this episode of Whiteboard Friday, you’ll love all the SEO thought leadership goodness you’ll get from our newly released MozCon 2019 video bundle. Catch Joy’s full talk on the differences between the local and organic algorithm, plus 26 additional future-focused topics from our top-notch speakers:

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