Annual Trends in Local Search Ranking Factors Analyzed
Just like regular SEO, local SEO is an ever-changing game, with search engines moving the goalposts all the time.
The myriad factors that can affect rankings in the local pack and localized organic search results are some of the most critical to local businesses, so it’s no surprise that shifts in importance are closely monitored.
See below for what’s meant by Local Pack and Localized Organic results.
Moz’s Local Ranking Factors Study is a survey-based report published annually (well, almost annually, apart from 2016) that originated as a study by David Mihm around a decade ago.
The study is based on responses from around 40 local search experts about which individual factors and ranking signal groups contribute most to higher rankings in the local pack and localized organic search.
For the last two years running this study has been helmed by Darren Shaw of Whitespark, who has helpfully provided us with some of this unblended data.
Every year there are a few interesting (though not always necessarily surprising) shifts that are worth paying attention to, and 2018 is no exception.
Want to hear more about how these trends could affect your strategy? Check out the recap and recording of our webinar with Darren Shaw, Andrew Shotland, and Dana DiTomaso, ‘How Local Ranking Factors Changed in 2018’.
Local Pack / Local Finder Winners and Losers
Localized Organic Winners and Losers
While that data is in of itself very useful, this study has been running for a few years now and as it has generally presented results in a comparable way, I thought it would be interesting to look at the movements of the key signals over the years to see if there were any emergent trends that could help us decipher where local SEO is headed in 2019.
In the charts below you’ll see how signals for the local pack and localized results have shifted in terms of importance (according to the survey panel, anyway) through the last few years.
Click a chart to open a larger version in a new tab.
Local Search Ranking Factors Trends Analysis
(N.b. in 2013, data was split between Desktop and Mobile – for the purposes of this study, we used data from mobile)
While there’s obviously a lot to unpack here, I thought it would be most useful to dive into some of the biggest noticeable shifts and talk about why they may be occurring.
Google My Business Signals
|Local Pack / Local Finder||23%||20%||22%||19%||25%|
|Localized Organic Results||10%||10%||8%||7%||9%|
For local pack rankings, Google My Business signals (such as proximity to searcher, categories, keyword in business title, etc.) have stayed on top throughout, but had a marked increased between 2017 and 2018 (from 19% to 25%).
Google can learn a lot about a business from these new features, and uses them not only to improve the quality of knowledge panels and GMB listings, but also to reliably return better results for long-tail searches.
Attributes and categories, in particular, do a lot to boost the relevance (one of the three key groups of ranking factors) of a business to a searcher, so it’s no surprise to see Google My Business signals growing in importance as its feature set does.
There is, of course, also the question of bias, and whether Google has a financial interest in making signals from its own local business product more critical to local search performance. I don’t want to provide too much conjecture here, though, so I’ll let you fight that one out in the comments below!
|Local Pack / Local Finder||12%||12%||11%||13%||15%|
|Localized Organic Results||6%||7%||6%||7%||6%|
The other big story this year is the growing power of review signals (such as quantity, velocity, and diversity or reviews) – especially in the algo that determines local pack rankings.
The importance of review signals in local pack rankings has risen from 11% in 2015 to 15% in 2018; this proves that search engines are relying more on more on reviews to determine the quality of a business.
With positive reviews making 73% of consumers trust a business more, and business awareness of the importance of reputation management becoming more commonplace, it feels natural that search engines would come to rely on these signals more and more.
As time goes on, more businesses will ask for reviews, and (as upcoming BrightLocal research shows), younger generations of reviewers growing up with this as standard practice will be more savvy to the process.
This all leads to more effort around reviews, more reviews left for businesses, and more investment in reputation management, so this increase in importance to rankings is something I would certainly expect to continue.
On-page Signals and Link Signals
|Local Pack / Local Finder||18%/12%||15%/12%||14%/15%||14%/17%||14%/17%|
|Localized Organic Results||27%/24%||27%/25%||26%/25%||24%/29%||26%/28%|
I’ve grouped these two sets of signals together as they represent to me what I’d call more ‘traditional SEO’; that is, the stuff that every website, local business or no, has to pay attention to.
As you can see above, these signals trump all others by some margin in influence on localized organic results, and they’re certainly no slouches when it comes to the local pack.
This shows that optimizing your local business website and ensuring you get good numbers of quality links back to it remain crucial practices, as they maximize performance both organically and locally.
The trend to take note of here, though, is that in recent years on-page signals have dropped in importance while link signals have flourished. To me, this shows the growing important of prominence as a factor. While link signals boost both relevance and prominence (provided the links come from reputable industry or location-relevant sources), on-page signals only boost relevance.
Google is today able to learn more about your business from off-page sources (which one could argue are less biased), and it also seems to be attributing these sources more power than on-page signals.
While optimizing your website is still very, very important, the trends above suggest that investment in building natural links back to it may well be a little more worthwhile in 2019.
|Local Pack / Local Finder||18%||20%||17%||13%||11%|
|Localized Organic Results||11%||11%||10%||8%||9%|
The humble citation 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 fifth-most important this year.
It’s true that citation signals (such as NAP consistency, citation volume, etc.) have decreased in their ability to influence rankings in competitive markets, but they still have an important role to play in optimizing a local business. The key factor driving this change is that many more businesses have sorted out their citations, leveling the playing field and reducing the scope for citations to impact local rankings.
But if you don’t have any/many citations or have wrong or duplicate citations this will cause your business a lot of ranking problems. You don’t need a ton of accurate listings but getting accurate citations for your business on big sites like Google and Yelp and relevant industry and location-specific directories is still just as important as ever.
Today citations are seen as a fundamental element of local SEO. If you don’t have them you can’t compete locally, and awareness of this is high.
Because of this, a greater percentage of businesses are getting this right first time, and so these signals don’t make as much competitive difference as they used to.
When every local SEO expert knows that, well, obviously they need to get their clients’ businesses on key directories, Google can’t usefully take this data and evaluate rankings based on citations. This, of course, doesn’t mean citations aren’t important. If anything, they’re so important that everyone knows they need them!
To illustrate my point, take a look at the Top 10 Foundational Factors as reported in the latest Moz study. You’ll note that three of these (four if you’re counting GMB as a citation) revolve around citations:
|Local Pack / Local Finder||5%||7%||9%||10%||10%|
|Localized Organic Results||5%||7%||10%||11%||12%|
While behavioral signals (such as click-through rate, mobile clicks to call, check-ins, etc.) are plateauing in local pack performance, they are increasing in importance for localized organic search results.
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 away from classic signals such as links, citations and on-site content which are easier for businesses and SEOs to influence.
Personalization and Social Signals
|Local Pack / Local Finder||7%||8%||8%||10%||6%|
|Localized Organic Results||9%||9%||9%||9%||7%|
It’s perhaps a surprise to some to see personalization drop off a not-particularly-steep cliff edge this year (in both charts), but the drop in importance of social signals is continuing a trend starting five years ago, if not before.
It could be argued that Google My Business, with its promotional post features and new “Follow” button, is now attempting to take up the slack of social signals here, but equally we could be seeing an erosion in trust in social media not just on the part of the public but on the part of search engines, too.
It seems as if Google likes to have faith in information gathered from unbiased users and customers (in the form of GMB interactions and reviews), but only if these occur on its own platform.
The trends seen above suggest that social media signals might end up dropping out entirely, as search engines can find better and more reliable ways of pooling customer opinion about businesses.
As I mentioned above, I’ve tried to simply report on the trends this study shows, and without much conjecture.
On-page signals and link signals are still critical for localized organic rankings, but Google My Business signals and reviews signals are clearly on the up for the local pack. Those are my key takeaways, but I’d love to hear what you folks think about these trends in the comments below.
Thanks again to Darren Shaw for putting this gargantuan study together, to Moz for publishing, and to the survey respondents for providing their expert opinions. I’ll be interested to see how much has changed come next December!