Ranking for local searches requires focus on a combination of different local SEO ranking factors. With Google’s local algorithm relying on so many different signals, it can be hard to know where to spend your time to maximize your chances of ranking highly.
Getting a local business to rank highly on search engines is becoming much more difficult. Local SEO has become increasingly competitive as more and more businesses recognize that they need to optimize for local searches – both for the local pack, and for localized organic rankings.
At Whitespark’s Local Search Summit in September 2020, Darren Shaw announced the initial findings of his latest Local Search Ranking Factors survey. This near-annual survey was first created by David Mihm over a decade ago, and polls around 50 local SEO experts, asking for their opinions on which activities and factors impact local business rankings. The previous edition was published on Moz in 2018.
In this article, we’ll explore the most important ranking factors for local pack and localized organic rankings in 2020, based on the expert opinions collated in Whitespark’s report. We’ll explore how these have changed over time, looking at which tasks the experts think you should focus on over the coming year.
|Local Pack||Local Organic|
|1. Google My Business (33%)||1. On-page (32%)|
|2. Reviews (16%)||2. Links (31%)|
|3.= On-page (15%)||3. Behavioral (10%)|
|3.= Links (15%)||4. = Personalization (7%)|
|5. Behavioral (8%)||4.= GMB (7%)|
|6. Citations (7%)||6.= Citations (6%)|
|7. Personalization (6%)||6.= Reviews (6%)|
In the table above, you can see what Whitespark’s expert survey respondents said they believed were the most important ranking factors to local pack and localized organic results.
See below for what’s meant by Local Pack and Localized Organic results.
We’ll go into the individual factors in more detail below, after looking at how trends have changed over time. It’s my hope that this won’t just give you a snapshot of what impacts rankings in 2020, but where things might be headed, too.
If you’re looking to improve both types of local rankings, it may be useful to see how local pack and local organic factors look when combined as an average:
1. On-page optimization (24%)
2. Links (23%)
3. GMB (20%)
4. Reviews (11%)
5. Behavioral (9%)
6.= Citations (7%)
6.= Personalization (7%)
When planning your local SEO strategy, always bear in mind that different factors will require very different time investments, so it’s not as simple as reading these results and saying, “Okay, I’ll spend X% of my time on X”.
Link building, for example, is a time-intensive and ongoing task, whereas a lot of work with reviews or citations can be automated or outsourced, freeing you up to focus on other factors.
Over time, Google’s local algorithm has changed significantly. Ensuring you’re doing the right thing for your clients requires ongoing attention and vigilance. If you work with local businesses, understanding this changing local environment is crucial.
The many factors that can affect rankings in the local pack (AKA local finder) are some of the most critical to local businesses, so any shifts in importance must be closely monitored.
Google My Business has shot up in importance in local pack rankings ever since 2017, taking up more space proportionally as time has gone on, while links, citations, and behavioral signals all saw dips over time.
It’s worth noting that this year’s survey, unlike its predecessors, doesn’t track the impact of social signals on local rankings. Social signals have always been seen as having a very minor impact on local rankings, so it’s no surprise to see these dropped from the survey, but please note that this removal has allowed the experts to shift their voting power elsewhere.
How these areas are ordered in importance has remained broadly similar to previous years, meaning every discipline should still be accounted for in your strategy.
When looking at localized organic ranking factors, on-page signals and link signals are the clear leaders – taking up more than half of ranking signal impact. Other factors have far less influence on localized organic rankings, though this doesn’t mean you should count them out – they could be the difference between you and your competitors!
|Local Pack / Finder||Local Organic|
|Primary GMB category||Quality / authority of inbound links to domain|
|Keywords in GMB business title||Volume of quality content on entire website|
|Proximity of address to the point of search||Keywords in anchor text of inbound links to domain|
|Physical address in city of search||Topical (Product / Service) keyword relevance across entire website|
|Additional GMB categories||Geographic (city / neighborhood) keyword relevance of domain content|
|Quality / authority of inbound links to domain||Mobile-friendly / responsive website|
|Keywords in native Google reviews||Domain Authority of website|
|High numerical Google ratings (e.g. 4-5)||Keywords in GMB landing page title|
|Removal of spam listings through spam fighting||Diversity of inbound links to domain|
|Completeness of GMB listing||Quantity of inbound links to domain|
|Verified GMB listing||Quantity of inbound links to domain from industry-relevant domains|
|Quantity of native Google reviews (with text)||Volume of quality content on service pages|
|Keywords in GMB landing page title||Keywords in domain|
|Quality / authority of inbound links to GMB landing page URL||Quantity of inbound links to domain from locally-relevant domains|
|Topical (Product / Service) keyword relevance across entire website||Click-through rate from search results|
Understanding the individual factors that are most likely to move the needle is far more useful than looking at improving a whole group.
Focusing on the factors in the table above should help provide a useful starting point for the tasks needed to optimize for local searches. Though, with more than 100 individual factors to choose from, it’s highly advised to focus on a broader set of tasks – with some improvements necessary in most of the grouped factors.
Once the full data is available, we’ll update this article to include more of the local SEO ranking factors that matter most for each group.
Google My Business individual factors include the primary GMB category, keywords in the business title, and additional GMB categories.
The impact of activities related to Google My Business has grown significantly since 2018. As a grouping of ranking factors, Google My Business has jumped from 25% in 2018 to 33% in 2020.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||23%||20%||22%||19%||25%||33%|
|Localized Organic Results||10%||10%||8%||7%||9%||7%|
This growth mirrors the evolution of Google My Business as a tool. Google is adding new features to Google My Business all the time, so it’s no wonder that the experts are seeing this have even more of an impact for their clients. If anything, it’s a surprise that more of Google’s local ranking factors aren’t based on GMB information!
This is borne out in what the experts perceive to be the key individual local pack ranking factors in 2020. Looking at the list of Top 15 individual local ranking factors in earlier table, you can see that many are directly related to Google My Business: setting the most relevant primary category, having keywords in the business title on GMB, fighting GMB spam, and choosing the best additional GMB categories all play important roles in whether or not a business shows up in local searches.
Beyond ensuring you have the most relevant and up-to-date category set for the business, and adding your business’s name, there isn’t much you can legitimately do to “optimize” these. In fact, ensuring the “completeness” of your Google My Business listing has become even more important this year.
But that’s not to say that you need to utilize every aspect of GMB if you’re only looking to boost your rankings. Elsewhere in Whitespark’s survey, the experts agree that many GMB-related factors do not impact rankings:
Obviously there is more to Google My Business than rankings, with many of the above having a big impact on conversions from GMB, but if you’re looking to solely inflate your rankings, there are other things you can focus on, too.
This is the first year that ‘spam fighting’ was included as a potential factor in the survey, and it’s an interesting one because traditionally we’d see ‘ranking factors’ as ‘what we think Google considers when ranking’. But in this case, the benefit from spam fighting doesn’t come from Google rewarding you for playing sheriff, but from you seeing competing, spammy listings removed from the results.
The sad fact that GMB name spam unfortunately still works is shown by ‘keywords in the business name’ being such a highly-rated individual factor, so it’s no wonder that spam-fighting is considered the 9th most important factor in local pack rankings. While more of a tactic to lower unfair competitor rankings than a factor that improves your own, many experts are seeing great successes from investing their time into spam fighting.
Research finds that 64% of agencies and 23% of local businesses spend time fighting GMB spam – meaning that those that do so have a definitive edge.
To learn more about Google My Business, check out these resources:
Review individual factors include keywords in Google reviews, high numerical Google ratings, and the quantity of Google reviews with text.
Reviews have grown a little in importance over the last few years – taking up 16% of ranking factors in 2020, compared to 12% back in 2018. This small increase reflects the ongoing rise in the importance of reviews among consumers. Now, reviews are the second biggest influencer of local rankings, overtaking links back in 2018.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||12%||12%||11%||13%||15%||16%|
|Localized Organic Results||6%||7%||6%||7%||6%||6%|
In our annual Local Consumer Review Survey, we’ve seen significant increases in the perception of reviews among consumers over the last decade, so it makes sense for Google to also be seeing these as useful factors for rankings.
Within the top 15 local pack ranking factors, we can see ‘keywords in Google reviews’, ‘high Google ratings’, and ‘quantity of Google reviews with text’ all being important.
The experts also said they were focusing more on Google review quantity in 2020 – making it even more crucial to ensure you’re collecting a steady stream of fresh reviews, that at the very least equals the velocity of your competitors. But how do you get reviews from your happy customers? Just ask! It was found that 67% of consumers that are asked to leave reviews go on to do so!
With online reviews more important than ever to local rankings, setting processes to monitor, grow, and show off reviews can help save time, and ensure potential customers are seeing your business in the best possible light. Review management software such as BrightLocal’s Reputation Manager can automate review monitoring to ensure you never miss important feedback, and help you grow the quantity of reviews.
Remember, reviews aren’t only important for rankings! Elsewhere in the survey, the experts posited the factors with the most impact on conversions through GMB. The top three are all based on Google reviews:
They also agree that negative review sentiment and a low overall star rating can both negatively affect your rankings.
Please remember that Google isn’t the only review site that matters. Historically, third-party review sites have also affected local rankings – and have a strong influence on conversions from customers.
To learn more about online reviews, check out these resources:
Individual on-page factors include presence of NAP, keywords in titles, and domain authority.
On-page signals are, of course, incredibly important for SEO – both traditional, and local. As you can see below, these signals trump all others by some margin in their influence on localized organic results, and they’re certainly no slouches when it comes to the local pack – on-page accounts for 15% of local pack ranking factors.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||18%||15%||14%||14%||14%||15%|
|Localized Organic Results||27%||27%||26%||24%||26%||32%|
In particular, having keywords in the titles of landing pages, and keyword relevance across the entire site make a difference to your local rankings.
Optimizing your local business website for search engines remains an important practice, as this maximizes performance both organically and locally. On-page SEO will never become unimportant for rankings, so it’s vitally important to upskill in this area.
When you plan your keyword strategy, think about what questions your customers would ask when they look for the types of products or services you offer. Don’t use jargon or industry terms that your consumers are not familiar with. Think like they do.
Try also to use your city’s name in approximately two spots on your website pages, and be sure to use relevant keywords in your site’s Title and Description metadata/tags.
If you want to compete locally in search rankings, focus on creating some content about your city or local area on the pages of your website. Try and tie what’s going on in your local area to your business. (Regularly writing content for your website or blog is not optional if you’re a local business – these days it’s mandatory.)
If your business has more than one location, create a separate, localized web page for each one, including name, address, phone number, office hours, contact details, etc. Not only will this make it easier for the people visiting your site to find the specific location they’re looking for, but it could also affect local rankings for each of the locations your locations are in.
To learn more about on-page optimization, check out these resources:
Individual link factors include inbound anchor text, linking domain authority, and linking domain quantity.
Link-related signals are incredibly important for your local organic rankings – as links make up 31% of the localized organic ranking factors in 2020. This continues to rise (up from 24% in 2013), meaning that quality links are only becoming more critical to quality rankings.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||12%||12%||15%||17%||17%||15%|
|Localized Organic Results||24%||25%||25%||29%||28%||31%|
Whitespark’s survey sees the authority of inbound links to the domain being the 6th most important ranking factor affecting local pack results. The quality of links to the landing page URL named on the Google My Business listing is also important.
Getting backlinks to your site can be a difficult task, but links improve the authority of a website in the eyes of search engines, so they’re worth the effort.
One thing you want to be careful of is bad backlinks. One way you can check to see a site’s “quality” to determine if they’re a link-worthy partner, is to download the MozBar Chrome extension. When you visit a site, check the MozBar and see what the site’s Page Authority and Domain Authority are. The higher the numbers, the better the quality of the site. Also, look at the Spam Score. If you see a high Spam Score, chances are high that the site is bad news and you should not try and get a backlink from the site.
When looking at local organic factors, the quality of links is by far the most valuable factor affecting rankings. Keywords in the anchor text of links is also very important, while diversity, and quantity of links from industry-specific or local sites also sit in the top 15 local organic factors.
As Darren Shaw said in his presentation of the initial results, “in summary – build links”.
To learn more about local link building, check out these resources:
Individual behavioral factors include click-through rate, mobile clicks to call, and check-ins.
Behavioral signals remain broadly static in local pack importance (8%, down from 9% in 2018), and also remain important for localized organic search results (10%, down from 11%) – being the 3rd most important local organic signal group.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||5%||7%||9%||10%||10%||8%|
|Localized Organic Results||5%||7%||10%||11%||12%||10%|
As ranking signals become more complex and reliant on user-submitted information, it makes sense that behavioral signals are made more important as they cannot be nearly as easily manipulated. It’s as if behavioral signals are now used as a bellwether against which to determine business quality quite apart from classic signals such as links, citations, and on-site content, which are easier for businesses and SEOs to influence.
There’s little you can do to affect user behavior – paying people to click your listings all day is not a good SEO strategy. Instead, spend your time optimizing your titles, meta descriptions, and GMB details to be as enticing as possible for searchers. And, of course, getting your site in the top rankings to begin with.
In Darren’s excellent talk on the 2020 Local Search Ranking Factors, he also shared the most important GMB conversion factors that the experts believe are most likely to affect user behavior.
It’s vital to remember that SEO isn’t only about improving rankings – it’s a wider strategy that focuses on attracting the right sort of customer to your business. And with more and more decisions being made right there in the SERP, there are even more levers you can pull that impact users before they hit your site.
To learn more about influencing user behavior, check out these resources:
Individual citations factors include IYP/aggregator NAP consistency, and citation quantity.
The humble citation (or business listing, or directory listing) has had a rough time of it these past few years, going from tied second-most important to the local pack in 2013, down to sixth-most important this year. As Google My Business relies more and more on the data in its own business database, external sources are getting less of a look-in for local rankings.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||18%||20%||17%||13%||11%||7%|
|Localized Organic Results||11%||11%||10%||8%||9%||6%|
Examples of online directories include Yelp, YP.com, Foursquare, and Citysearch. Directories are a quick and simple way to get backlinks to a business’s website. Since Google considers many of these citation sites as quality, trustworthy websites, they provide useful sources of links for local businesses to either get started with, or put them on an even playing field with local competitors.
A local business’s listing on a high-quality directory can often show in top search results – which is a huge bonus! Take a look at the example shown below. These are the SERP results when the keywords “restaurants in Tulsa” are searched for on Google. You’ll see that the first page of Google is almost exclusively filled with online business directories.
While it’s true that citation signals (such as NAP consistency, citation volume, etc.) have decreased in their importance in influencing rankings in competitive markets, they still have an important role to play in reaching customers in the right places and ensuring that they’re presented with accurate data. In fact, 80% of consumers lose trust in local businesses if they see incorrect or inconsistent contact details or business names online – meaning that having errors in your listings could be putting off potential customers before they’ve even had the chance to call you or walk in your door.
They may have lost a little of their sparkle in affecting rankings, but having an accurate listing on the right citations can help you get in front of high-intent customers that are looking for a business like yours. If you don’t have a listing on sites such as Facebook, Yelp, or Nextdoor, or don’t invest in the local or industry-specific sites that your potential customers are using, you could be missing out on a vital source of leads.
To learn more about citations, check out these resources:
Local ranking factors related to personalization have remained steady since 2018, after peaking in perceived importance in 2017. It’s important to remember that these factors are all in proportion to each other, so a drop doesn’t necessarily mean that this is no longer important – it could be that another factor has grown instead.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||7%||8%||8%||10%||6%||6%|
|Localized Organic Results||9%||9%||9%||9%||7%||7%|
Personalization of search results is mostly down to language, location, device, and browsing history of the user. For example, I may be more likely to see results in search from BrightLocal than if a person that had never heard of BrightLocal would (if such a person even exists!) This means that rank tracking software can play an important role in performing a more ‘independent’ search for your rankings – unfettered by personalization to represent a more realistic view of rankings.
But personalization doesn’t play much of a role in either local pack or local organic rankings – and there’s very little you can do to optimize for this. If you serve locations with multiple languages, creating content in different languages can help access searchers using these languages, but this is unlikely to apply to many locally-focused businesses.
To learn more about personalization in search, check out these resources:
In short, there are a great many local search ranking factors that influence how well a business ranks, and there’s no magic bullet that will get you to the top of local search results. Local SEO takes time, knowledge, and ongoing effort to get right – it should never be a case of “set it and forget it”.
We recommend that you use the Local Search Ranking Factors survey as a guide to what the experts are doing, and test as many of the high-rated factors as you can to see what sticks for your business.
Darren is due to release the full results over the next few weeks, and we’ll update this article to include more of the individual factors that are recommended by the experts. We hope this article proves a useful starting point in determining how you spend your time over the next year, and helps you understand which signals matter most for ranking locally.
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Darren Shaw and the Whitespark team for creating another excellent Local Search Ranking Factors survey, and to the survey respondents for providing their expert opinions!
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