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December 29, 2010

Social Goes Local: Tips for Local Rankings

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In the past couple weeks, I’ve talked about factors that affect local rankings. I first spoke about keyword selection and PPC campaigns for local search. Then, I talked about some of the factors that Google says affects local search rankings. Next, I covered how business listings in important online directories play a role. Now, I’m going to talk about other factors we’ve seen that affect local rankings and why they are important. No surprise, social is becoming a key player.

In my post about local rankings and business listings and directories, I talked about how making sure your business listings are correct across important sources on the Web is key. Google not only pulls from information on a Google Places page, but also from other trusted resources online. These include places like Yelp – a review community. This is one social aspect that we believe plays a role. So it’s a good idea to make sure you have reviews on your business in the places that matter.

I even talked about how Google Hotpot has hit the scene, competing with the likes of Yelp as a local merchant review community. It’s offering some unique ways customers and businesses can interact, and allows users to reap the rewards of custom SERP tailored to users based on their reviews and the reviews of those in their social circle.

We believe that the social factor is going to continue to influence rankings across the board. This includes things like user reviews, Facebook “likes” and anything else that includes information from your trusted community.

If you haven’t already checked out Bruce Clay’s article from November on “likes” being the new links, I suggest you give it a read. You can also watch Bruce’s interview on the topic with WebProNews in November as well. And what do you know? Just last week, Matt Cutts from Google confirmed social cues do play into ranking.

It’s sometimes a guessing game with Google and its rankings, but Google always gives us clues on what’s important. We just need to learn how to pick up on them.

I spoke with Scott Fowles, an SEO analyst here at Bruce Clay, Inc., who provided a good analogy on how to read cues from Google. “Google doesn’t ever do anything on accident,” he says. “Think of it like a movie; every scene is put there for a reason, whether you understand it at that moment or not. It’s the same with Google. If Google is showing reviews under a top-ranked local listing from Yelp, you might want to consider making sure your business is reviewed on Yelp.”

Scott suggests doing some research by searching for the keywords your business wants to target, then data mine the top-ranked local listings to see where those businesses are reviewed.

To further capitalize on the sociable aspects of your site, another element we’ve found that improves local ranking is the Rich Snippets. This markup from Google can be embedded in a site and it will generate a snippet that looks similar to a regular snippet on a SERP, which is generated from Meta information — except with Rich Snippets, Google’s algorithms are applied to highlight certain data embedded in Web pages.

You can see this in the form of “stars” underneath the business’ name, indicating reviews about the business. Again, this ties the social aspect into a business’ Web presence. Its also supports social networking information. Two examples of this are below. These images are from the Google blog; click on the image to be taken to the post.

Google Rich Snippet Example

Google Rich Snippet Example Social

BCI research suggests that other factors might be affecting local search rankings include:

  • Traffic to Place page or Google map. For example, we’ve seen results for a query such as “restaurants in (city name)” that seem to favor popular new restaurants or restaurants that are difficult to find. The hypothesis here is that both these types of restaurants would drive more traffic to Google Maps or the Place page.
  • Traffic to Google Maps. This might be due to Google wanting to present businesses that people want to go to. Webmasters could potentially buy links and fake reviews, but if someone clicks on a map to get directions, that shows the user is likely going to that place of business. Remember, sites like Yelp and InsiderPages link to the Google Maps and Google Places page for a business, thus driving traffic to them.

Why This Is Important

If you’re not knee-deep in industry news on a daily basis, it might be difficult to understand the impact that local and social are having on Internet marketing. Google is fast becoming a local-focused search engine with social being integrated heavily. So, my suggestion? Start focusing your efforts on optimizing for local and social. First, approach keyword selection and PPC campaigns with a local focus.

Next, start building your social network communities, especially Facebook. You know the buzz surrounding Facebook, but you might not know just how much this company is impacting the way we experience the Web. In some instances, if you’re a small business, you might even want to focus on nothing more than a Facebook Fan page versus a website if you’re on a tight budget.

If you haven’t yet claimed your Google Places page, that’s a No. 1 priority. In my next blog post on local, I’m going to start talking about how to optimize your Places page to cater to the new local results we are seeing.

Social Way

If you already have a Places page and a Yelp presence, start making a push for more reviews. While Yelp says it actually discourages direct solicitation for reviews (unlike Google Hotpot), it does gives tips on how to promote your business on Yelp.

You’ll want to think about using the Rich Snippets I talked about, so some of those ratings and reviews will start showing up in the SERP. This will help your business to be more attractive. And, the more information you can present to a potential customer before they have to click-through, the better.

The things that some of us believe are driving these local and social changes to the SERP are relevance and profit to Google. In a discussion at ad:tech last November between Bruce and Didit CEO, Kevin Lee, Bruce talks about how the focus on local now has the potential to increase profits for Google through PPC. In a report by Bloomberg, it said more than 90 percent of Google’s revenue comes from online ads.

If Google makes it easier for local businesses to have a presence and compete online, as it is doing with the new local focus, that equates more revenue in Google’s pocket. This also helps make the SERPs more relevant for users. Google has said 20 percent of all searches are local, but that number could certainly increase with the changes Google is making to its search engine.

And, once users have found a handful of local business that match their query, who would they trust more than the people in their immediate social circle to help make a decision about a business? This is where the importance of reviews come into play, and why it’s affecting rankings.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all this information, don’t worry. Even the experts are still trying to figure out how to tackle local and social. The best next step is to start small now, so you are ahead of the curve later. Bruce made a prediction not too long ago that Google will be predominantly a local search engine in two years. So, you have some time — but start focusing on it now, or your competition will beat you to the punch.

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7 responses to “Social Goes Local: Tips for Local Rankings”

  1. Jeff writes:

    Great Article Jessica. Keep ‘em coming.

  2. Jessica Lee writes:

    Thank you, Jeff! Happy to hear you found it valuable!

  3. Rob Metras writes:

    Best New Years wishes to you Jessica another useful and helpful contribution from one of the best search bloggers

  4. Jessica Lee writes:

    Well, thank you, Rob! Hope 2011 is a success for you and don’t be a stranger!

  5. Cheree Dohmann writes:

    Hi Jessica,

    I really enjoyed your article. I have a question. You said – “For example, we’ve seen results for a query such as “restaurants in (city name)” that seem to favor popular new restaurants or restaurants that are difficult to find.”

    When you say a “restaurant that is difficult to find”, how does this relate to “proximity to the city center”?? Is it difficult to find because it’s on the outskirts of town? I enjoy watching “Drive-Ins, Diners and Dives” on the Food Channel because he features so many obscure dining locations AWAY from the big cities. I wonder if Google is considering this when deciding local search for restaurants. Or, do you mean “difficult to find” because it’s tucked away in the city behind a dark alley. ha!

    Can you shed some light on that?

    Also, BTW, in my research, on comparing local results for plastic surgeons, dentists, chiropractors, etc. – I am noticing a very consistent trend. Seems Google is giving top listings to those doctors who are older, and have more seniority – that is, for example, those doctors who registered their website back in 1999!!! I compared the Domain Creation Date for all the top results – and discovered this across the board. Secondly, after Domain Creation Date, it seems Google gave priority to the QUANTITY of reviews a doctor had. Not the Quality of reviews. Big difference.

    When I consider your research on local restaurants and my research on doctor verticals, BCI is right. Google is giving priority to those suspecting sites that get ALOT of traffic. More traffic for Google means more opportunity for ad revenue.

    Anyhow, thanks for letting me share. I look forward to your reply.

    – Cheree

  6. Jessica Lee writes:

    Hi, Cheree — good to hear from you and great comment! Excited to hear you liked this piece. The questions you have for me can be best answered by someone on our SEO analyst team, since much of what I wrote concerning that is based on research they did. Hang tight and we will have someone get back to you soon. And thanks for the added insight with your research, love it when people share stuff like that on the blog! Hope to see you around here again.

  7. Nasim Jafarzadeh writes:

    Hello Cheree,
    Our research on local search shows that traffic to Google Maps and driving direction might be influencing local ranking. That said, when a restaurant is “difficult to find”, regardless of its proximity to the city center, the restaurant’s map in Google would get more hits. And as it was mentioned in the article, traffic to Google Maps may be playing a role when it comes to local ranking.

    You brought up an interesting question about how this relates to proximity to the city center. It has been known that proximity to the city center plays an important role in the local algorithm. The farther a business is from the city center, the less chance it has to show up in the results when its targeted keywords are coupled with a city name.

    So theoretically, a restaurant that is closer to the city center, and is difficult to find, may result in more traffic to the map and therefore, would have an advantage over other restaurants that are easy to find. This is because those restaurants wouldn’t garner many points for map traffic due to the fact that they are easy to locate. This analogy seems to be correct in theory; however, I would like to mention that we, at BCI, haven’t conducted any specific research or study on this topic to see how proximity to the city center and “being difficult to find” correlate and influences the ranking results.

    This would be a nice topic for our next research and development meeting. :) Thanks for the idea.



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