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Local SEO Bible: The 2014 Local Search Ranking Factors

David Mihm and his cabal of local SEO professionals have been reverse engineering Google’s local algorithm since 2008. Today the 2014 edition of the now widely anticipated “Local Search Ranking Factors” (LSRF) was formally published.

It contains a goldmine of practical advice and data against which to benchmark your own local SEO tactics and approach. The criteria and variables apply equally to SMBs and to national brands with franchises or local stores — everyone from the independently owned Cole Hardware in San Francisco to the largest Lowe’s superstore in North Carolina.

Roughly 40 local SEOs weighed in on both positive and negative ranking factors, with special attention to the impact of the Pigeon update that hit in July.

Among other things LSRF lays out what the group agreed were the top 50 variables for organic local results as well as the somewhat different factors driving Carousel placement.

Local search ranking factors

LSRF also examines the considerations that are now more or now less influential in a post-Pigeon world. According to the group, proximity to searcher has grown in importance (as it arguably should) while proximity to the geographic centroid has declined. Quantity of reviews is another positive variable according to LSRF.

Pigeon ranking variables LSRF

Beyond the charts and lists, most of the participating local SEOs provide commentary on different issues and considerations. The comments lend color and depth to the charts and lists. Here are a few comments on the issues:

On the importance of reviews: Phil Rozek, Local Visibility System

Google is obsessed with reviews. Last year (2013) they relaxed the filter, put reviews front-and-center in the carousel, launched the “City Experts” program, started telling reviewers when their reviews have been filtered, and rolled out the “reviews dashboard” in the Google My Business interface – to name just a few highlights.

In 2014 so far, Google has pushed reviews in the SERPs even more. They’ve started showing snippets of reviews in the Knowledge Graph panel. Reviews pop out even more in the layout that Google has been testing as a possible replacement for the carousel, where even basic info like phone numbers and website URLs have been stripped out of the SERPs, but Google still shows those golden review stars.

On social signals in ranking: Joy Hawkins, Imprezzio Marketing

I know many people discuss Twitter and Facebook signals as possibly being ranking factors. I would be really shocked if Google ever made them ranking factors because they have no ability to control the massive amounts of activity on those platforms to keep users from manipulating the search results. Unless Facebook or Twitter struck some kind of agreement with Google that gave them access to user’s information, I think things like “likes” and “shares” will have little impact on ranking. I also think people often assume social media signals impact ranking because there tends to be a correlation between businesses with active profiles and businesses who rank well on Google search. I think this is more because businesses who focus on digital efforts most often include both social media and SEO and not because one causes or influences the other. Correlation is not causation.

On mobile: Nick Neels, Location3 Media

The proximity of the business to the searcher continues to be a leading factor, especially for mobile searches, and the rapid growth of mobile adoption will keep this one of the leading factors.

Websites that don’t incorporate responsive design or mobile site best practices are at a competitive disadvantage. There are still websites out there that don’t redirect mobile users to the corresponding mobile page – they simply redirect users to the mobile home page. Sites with mobile and desktop versions should adhere to best practices for mobile direct mapping, canonical tags and alternate media tags. Mobile site usage metrics are going to become increasingly important as mobile use continues to increase and Google finds additional ways to reward sites that offer strong mobile user experiences.

On Pigeon’s impact: Conrad Saam, Mockingbird Marketing

At least within the legal industry, Pigeon (and other recent algo updates) seems to have heavily favored the large aggregators and domain heavy directories like Avvo. The way Pigeon was rolled out – opening up old spammy techniques in local and really negatively impacting the small businesses who, by and large, had followed Google dictated best practices is very concerning.

I keep anticipating a huge algo adjustment to send traffic back to the small businesses, but consecutive algo adjustments seem to have hurt the smaller players to the benefit of the big guys.

Even if you’re not an SEO practitioner it’s very helpful to read this study carefully and become sensitized to the various ranking variables. I’m sure it’s not totally perfect as a mirror of the Google algorithm. Indeed, it’s a little like particle physicists inferring the presence of Higgs boson through indirect evidence.

However I suspect it’s an extremely good representation of the local SEO reality even if it’s not 100% accurate. You can see the full discussion of LSRF 2014 here.

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