10 Likely Ranking Factors of Google’s Local Search Algorithm

This is my current read on the state of the algorithm used within the Maps product. Matt has posted a valuable summary of factors that seem to influence Google Maps standings.

I want to supplement that list and organize it in a slightly different way to clarify my understanding of the situation.

Relevance Is the business listing considered in the pool of candidates for the search in question? This data is gathered both off and on-line
1. Address Located within City of Search See Bill Slawski’s post on local sensitivity.
2. Confirmed listing by virtue of entry in Local Business Center or trusted Google partner Only one seems to be required and there seems to be no ranking difference between them. Local Business Center, BBC, Talking Phone book, SuperPages are examples. However, using the Local Business Center is the preferred way as it avoids any ambiguity particularly about the authoritative website.
3. Categories of business relates to search phrase Again from Google Local Business Center or one of its partners (which means that sometimes the categories don’t come from Local Business Center ). How Google cross references these is of interest.
4. Business Name relates to search phrase This works like a title tag in organic search
5. Confirmation of address by authoritative website and referring websites This is why your website needs your address and the sites you are listed on do as well .
6. Link phrase relevance I have not yet tested but it stands to reason that this is the case
————————————————— —————————————————
Rank When compared to other businesses in the search pool what is relative standing of this business listing across various web resources
1. Score of Authoritative Website This appears to be pagerank related. In a brief analysis that I performed this was born out. See Bill Slawski’s patent review
2. Number of Reviews Quantity seems to trump quality. This speaks directly to Matt’s point about being in local directories and getting reviews in those directories.
3. Number of Web References
4. Quality of Web References
Since not all of these are available on all businesses, Google will use whatever is available.

The results with the Local OneBox are different than those in Google Maps roughly 50% of the time. Half of the time they are exactly like the Google Maps results and half the time they are not. This has shifted within a single search over the past 3-4 months.This implies that Google is testing additional factors in those results. In the set of results that don’t match the Google Maps results, I have noticed that Google will not list “unverified” results in the OneBox and it appears that in the past there is additional weighting review scores.

Given the flux in the OneBox, it appears that focusing your efforts on the Maps product is the only reasonable thing to do as of today. I assume that over time, as more data is gathered and updated more frequently, the Maps results will improve and that there will be consistency between the two. Once the OneBox algorithm has gelled it makes sense to revisit it. As I and others have pointed out, it makes little sense for them to be different but Google may decide otherwise.

There are a number of unanswered questions about the Google Maps rankings as well. This is true particularly on searches that don’t have locally prominent results. So this list should be viewed as a first stab and an effort with the help and cooperation of others to achieve understanding.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
10 Likely Ranking Factors of Google's Local Search Algorithm by

29 thoughts on “10 Likely Ranking Factors of Google’s Local Search Algorithm”

  1. Nice review, Mike. I think you’ve hit a lot of the important points.

    Relevancy and ranking may be subject to changes as this implementation is so new. Clearly, there are many mistakes w/in the G maps info as documented by the stream of comments and complaints being made. Also G maps has adjusted its relevancy and rankings methodology several times since early December, and prior to this latest method.

  2. Dave

    I think that they are playing with the relative importance of these things particularly with regards to the OneBox (which really is what has the most impact) but I get the sense that the things that they are looking at are not changing that fast.

    Thus doing the basic stuff…building a good website with address, getting a listing in LBC, categorizing carefully are all relevant and important to do…

    How it all ranks in the end (if there is an end) remains to be seen…

  3. Good replies, Mike. Thanks for discussing this, and I agree with most of the points you list. A couple I’d debate would be:

    1. Address Located within City of Search

    I would argue that’s not completely relevant across the board. In my testing, a number of “Top 3″ results came up from nearby towns. I believe it depends in large part on the availability of matches to the location searched.

    3. Categories of business relates to search phrase

    Sorry to repeat what I said in private email, but the categorization of local businesses seems way too “messy” right now to have great impact. It’s a mystery to me where Google Maps is even getting some of their category data, i.e. — a business that hasn’t submitted to the LBC, but still has an associated category … yet it’s a different category than what they have for their Superpages/IYP listing. Very odd. I don’t see how this can be very helpful yet. The data is too scattered.

    2. Number of Reviews

    “Seems,” but not always. The problem we have with what we’re doing is that, for just about any declarative statement we make, it would be easy to find an exception to what we’re proposing. There are SERPs that have sites with fewer reviews listed above sites with more reviews.

    …..

    Anyway, fun stuff. Good to see so much chat about the issue. If we keep chopping wood, maybe we’ll knock this tree over at some point. :-)

  4. Mike, Matt:

    IMHO, some of the obscure listings within categories come from obscure references that the G maps algo is identifying. For instance there might be a reference to a list of businesses w/in a town in some directory and G Maps will identify this page….so that you’ll see a page that references ice cream shops, motorcycle repairs, and cowboy boots all showing for some aspect of one of those businesses.

    Not too authoritative. LOL

    I worked hard on G’s algo’s for local organic search for a long time. I’m sure it went into effect in February ’05. I’d still strongly suggest local business websites utilize this for organic long tail searches. Many searches won’t fall into a type where maps will appear at the top of the page. For instance, a query with a state name, a portion of a state ie (Western New York State) or a county name don’t show in maps.

    The key element of the patent, as reviewed by Bill Slawski at cre8asite forum in summer ’05 was to apply address and phone number to a site…and to reference it within the site w/certain identifiers. That works extremely well.

    I don’t think that would hurt for G maps algos. Then of course one needs to try and figure how G maps algo’s work, how the onebox and maps listings differ, why the scale of a map may be dramatically different for synonyms, and a host of other questions.

    (keeps chopping wood) LOL

    Dave

  5. One other observation. I was looking at this back in December following some of Mike’s observations and Bill’s patent writings and noted that my business had something like 70-90 references (web pages) associated with it.

    Now it has in excess of 600. Some of them are not remotely tied to my business or web site. Most of them are related to the site. Many of them are off of documents/not web sites with name address information on them.

    It appears that in inputting maps into serps and inputting it with expanded #’s of businesses for a category/query G scraped every source it could to build its data.

    Consequently, not G maps is populated w/ lots more data then organic G and g maps comes out w/ a plethora of potential places to contact for a local query.

    Its sort of “instant” print yellow pages in terms of quantity of places.

    BUT…..the old YP is an annual directory with a lot of money spent behind it…and thereby a lot more accuracy. The print YP has huge #’s of personnel (sales people) and support accumulating and updating information…and it has real businesses spending money to get into the directories.

    This process is anything but that. Its instant data provided without any effort to cleanse or verify data.

    So with this much data aggregated and processed in the last 2 months and some kinds of new algo’s applied to it…who knows how it will sort itself out.

    hmmmm……garbage in……garbage out!

  6. Matt/Dave

    I apologize if my comments seemed declaritive. My intent is to form a testable hypothesis that is falsifiable. IE we create a model (like the above), we gather data. If the data generally confirms the main points great. If not we then either revise the hypothesis or scrap it.

    for example on the “city” issue. I would agree that if a service is not available in the city search then relevance seems to move to proximity (within certain limits) and that then the rankings seem to shift from the ones I mentioned to distance being the primary ranking factor. That doesn’t change the value to the hypothesis of “city” as a key relevance item but it does refine the theory….

    On the issue of category, I would posit the same…Is it an element of relevance? If it is determined to be so then it belongs in the model (hypothesis/theory) and it become our job to develop an understanding of it..

    So the question I would post to you/bill/dave is: Does the above structure provide a testable and reasonable foundation as a basis of a hypothesis…and how can we either falsify any of the above or refine them to provide a better model…

    Is relevance/rank a good starting point? Are the 10 items I mentioned worthy of placement in their respective categories? What are the exceptions and how do we account for them?

    From my point of view, even though it is less relevant in the real world, this effort needs to start in the Maps arena and then once that this process/hypothesis has been generally agreed upon then move on to the Onebox which is both new and obviously in flux….

    Mike

  7. Mike:

    Your comments and outline seem fine and establish a nice framework for discussion.

    Research takes time though, and I’m sure many of us struggle with that.

    I’m going to do some research this weekend along the lines you suggest…and I’m also going to search for errors in the data.

    In my opinion the volume of errors is a serious flaw and one that can turn up bad results across the board for site owners and visitors alike. A startling error occurred with regard to Duke Medical centers which G seems to have fixed in a day.

    In my case, I can say that this week we received 2 calls from visitors to our site who commented that they made 3 calls which went unanswered before they got to our business. Prior to the insertion of maps we hadn’t heard that in over 3 years.

    I wonder how many of those examples are floating around now?

  8. I agree that research takes a long time. But as we are at the very beginning (similar to understanding SEO in 1999) we have but little choice but to build the understanding piece by piece and together. (Unless of course you want to pay me to spend my days doing nothing but this. :))

    That being said we can’t fix how Google indexes data or whom it buys it from.

    I am still undecided about the issues of quality on an overall basis. Google is attempting to do something that has never really been done before. In a global sense the quality of data has to “be good enough” but not perfect…(that is of no consolation to the poor schmuck who suffers the imperfection)..

    In the past I asked “Will Google Maps (Local) data become more accurate & useful over time?” and answered that I thought it would…there are powerful incentives for it to happen.

    As I review the current set of problems I see several things:
    1-The weakest link in maintaining the data, the business owner, is getting involved and at least getting their record squared away (ie Duke Medical).

    2-There are problems like the “dead business” issue that are not getting cleared up quickly and have no easy fix or submission option.

    Google has been slow to facilitate the correction of the data by the motivated user and offers very few formal/easy ways to make the kinds of corrections that need to be made. As Map Guid Jen pointed out she was going to have Google go back and look the sources to see if they are at fault. They are trying….

    While specific problems point out failings in the system they do not necessarily mean that the whole system is failing (although they could mean that).

    It is, however a long game. Google has money, they understand the problems (I think), they seem to be willing to listen, they are obviously tweaking their algorithms and I assume they will continue to improve. Whether it is enough, soon enough, will be decided by the market….

    I am betting that they will fix what ails it over time (how much time is anyone’s guess and during that time many people will be frustated)…if they don’t, the cost of failure will be incredibly expensive to them as they loose market share.

  9. Very nice. Of course with many of the folks I work with in workshops one of the things we do is check our Google Local Listings…. incredibly, up to 50% of tourism related businesses attending have serious listing errors and everyone takes the time to edit the description and other details of their listing. Do you think the relative weight of this business generated data can be optimized beyond keywords? Does using coupons or adding images help?

  10. Todd

    Yes I do. Any of the above that improves relevancy or rank will help. The obvious controllable items are having more reviews and having more local web links.

    Coupons seem to have a small positive impact currently. Since Google now offers a coupon search capability and that will at some point become more prominent they will help there as well.

    Mike

  11. Thanks for the post Mike as local search is something I haven’t paid much attention to. However, I know that it continues to increase in popularity.

    I’m wondering if the address located within city of search is actually all that relevant across the board. When I search, I see a number of the top placement coming from nearby communities. Could it depend on the availability of matches to the location searched?

    Thanks again!

  12. It does depend of availability of matches and if there are not enough within the defined geo area then Google will move to a centroid based ranking rather than a location prominence calculation. This type of search result will often show up in rural searches or low competitive arenas.

    However, where there is adequate inventory, location with the the zip codes defined by the city geo search is absolutely critical. What zips that are included with the city search are determined by Google so often you will see things like Scottsdale included within the greater Phoenix search area.

    Mike

  13. Hey Mike,

    Given your blog has some new comments, would appreciate your input as to how you believe onebox is evolving compared to maps?

    We were ranking in pos1 for ‘graphic design melbourne’ and slipped off onebox and shortly after the same happened on maps.
    I have also found if you search for “graphic design melbourne” we show organically but for “graphic design south melbourne” not shown organically or in onebox.

    Thanks and look forward to your thoughts.
    Paul.

  14. I am not sure that I can answer your question which if I understand it is “why did this happen to us?”.

    Sometimes a change in ranking is just a temporary aberration that subsides once all of the indices have realigned. In general my sense is that the OneBox rankings which correlate very highly with Maps can viewed in terms of the above or SMX Local presentation model.

    If you have a specific listing you would like me to look at, I would be glad to.

    Mike

  15. Hey Mike,

    Thanks for your comments and offer to have a look.

    Yes got to hate how sites drop off for days as google amends its indexing.
    A few days later the onebox listing is back but down 1-2 spots, It is annoying given that pos1 & 2 are keyword stuffing “Provided by the business owner?” entries for “graphic design melbourne”. lets hope google picks this up sooner rather than later.

    One of the things that still stumps me is that we are shown in onebox for “website design south melbourne”. http://www.google.com.au/search?hl=en&rlz=1T4HPNN_enAU310AU301&q=website+design+south+melbourne&btnG=Search&meta=cr%3DcountryAU

    however although we have more reviews and our entry appear ok it is nowhere near even making the first 10 for variants such as “web design melbourne”, “web site design melbourne” in onebox local results.

    look forward to your thoughts.
    Cheers,
    Paul

  16. I am a little confused here (nothing new). You haven’t given me your business name but in looking at your email address I presume that it is Simple ID.

    It appears to me that your business title is keyword stuffed to the gills (Web Design South Melbourne, Brand, Corporate Identity, Graphic …), so I am not sure that you should be hoping for action any too quickly by Google on the keyword stuffing issue. When I searched on “graphic designer Melbourne“, your listing shows up at #2 for me this morning.

    It appears to me that every web/graphic designer in Melbourne has not done due diligence on Local Optimization and nor have they taken the time to understand the primary ranking factors. Fortunately it appears to be a congenial crowd and they have not turned each other in for keyword spamming.

    There are a number of obtainable factors that influence ranking beyond Business Title….the most important are geo phrased in bound links, citations, geo rss/kml citations and total number of reviews. It appears that neither you nor any of your peers have put forth much effort in those arenas.

    You need to have your business name and address mentioned on locally prominent websites, in IYP directories and every other location that you can find it. On the search “Simple ID” “level 4″ Melbourne you show only 139 results in Google worldwide and 117 in Australia proper. Part of the problem with having your business name listed in Maps the way it is, is that Maps could have trouble “clustering” results it does find with your listing.

    You should return your business name to some semblance of reality or change the name legally. Then you should embark on an ongoing local citation/geo link campaign. With a modicum of effort you will easily pull ahead of your competitors and it will stand you in good stead going forward.

    You’ve been lucky up this point. Its time to get down to it and do it right. So there’s might advice. Hopefully it is not indigestion inducing.

    Mike

  17. According to Google’s patent, domain name is a contributor to the score for the authoritative site

  18. Thanks for your feedback Mike regarding our sites ranking in Googles local maps search results, do you know if anyone that could assist with the task of looking more appealing to this Algorithm?

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