David Mihm just did a great Whiteboard Friday on the evolution of the local ranking algo. In the article he speculated about the future of local signals:
And just to speculate a little bit, because I love to speculate, going forward I also think we’re going to see Google potentially integrating some offline information into the local rankings. So what do I mean by that? As we get more and more comfortable, we as a society get more and more comfortable with things like Foursquare check-ins or Facebook check-ins, using our phones to make mobile payments, using Google Wallet, or companies like Square or LevelUp, these types of things, loyalty programs, Google has acquired a company several years ago that focused on digital loyalty cards, these types of offline signals about how we’re actually engaging with businesses in the real world, I think there’s no reason that they wouldn’t try to incorporate those into their local rankings going forward.
I would suggest that the future is now and that Google is currently using some mobile signals in their current ranking algo. Certainly, as David points out, Google has invested in a number of technologies (Coupons, Wallet, Offers, PunchD, Talkbing, check-ins) that will give Google on the ground signals as to whether a consumer actually visited a location and consummated a sale. Most of these have not achieved any sort of scale and are forward facing investments that attempt to close the “search to sale” loop for analytics. All could also provide popularity signals to Google when they do achieve some scale.
But Google has two very widespread highly trusted technologies, Driving Directions and Android, that function at huge scale and could be providing signals now.
He worked with 5 local clients ranking in the lower spots on front page Google 7-Pack results. Over a two week period he had his 40 research participants do a keyword + city search on their mobile phones and click to call the specific businesses. Two clients were scheduled to receive 40 calls over that period, two were to receive 20 calls over that period and one was used as a control. His conclusion:
To our surprise it turned out to be a major ranking signal often improving the position of a local business by several spots.
Discussion: This is a small scale study and as is always the case in such situations it is hard to know that correlation is in fact causation. It is also the case that correlation studies are problematic in studying search results. There are a lot of moving parts in the local algo that we can not see and that could have influenced these results. Obviously it is worth carrying out this experiment in several markets over several time frames to see if their is similar impact on rank. Correlation if it happens enough and is consistent enough can then be assumed, with greater confidence, to have some causal relationship.
If it is causal, and the click to calls do in fact improve rank, is the effect permanent? Clearly these results need to be tracked over time as well. And similar work would need to be done in more competitive markets to see if the effective impact is similar i.e. if there are other strong signals maybe this one just doesn’t have much impact.
That being said there is every reason to think that Google might now be using mobile signals in ranking results. Continue reading Google Local: Are Mobile Signals Actively used in Ranking Local Results?