Every business wants to rank high with Google, that’s a no brainer. But what are the top ranking factors that really matter, that will help to get you the top spots? Aside from the obvious things like links, mobile-friendliness and page speed, what are some other factors that rank most for SEO, and pass the ever-changing Google algorithm test?
Darren Shaw, Whitespark founder and local search guru, advises you to start with claiming and optimizing your Google My Business profile. Invest your time here and worry less about citations. These days it’s more about conversion optimization than it is about ranking optimization. And never underestimate the power of reviews.
Rich: My guest today is the founder of Whitespark, a company that specializes in local search software and services, and is one of the most respected and cited in the industry. He’s been working on the web for over 19 years and loves everything about local SEO.
He leads research initiatives, such as the local search ranking factors survey and the local search ecosystem. He’s a regular contributor to search marketing publications and speaks at conferences around the globe. He was also heavily involved with the local search ranking factors, and that’s a big part of what we’re going to be talking about today. I’m very excited to introduce Darren Shaw. Darren, welcome to the podcast.
Darren: Thanks a lot for having me, Rich. I’m looking forward to talking about the local search ranking factors.
Rich: Yeah. My guy, John, in the office was watching live for almost the entire thing and only had rave reviews for your presentation, so I want to talk about it. So Whitespark just held the Local Search Summit where a ton of new info about local SEO was released. But before we get to that, I’m curious what it is. What is it about local SEO that gets you so excited? Why did you go down this particular niche?
Darren: Yeah, there’s a couple things here. One, it is this area of SEO that often tends to be a focus for small businesses, and I do derive a lot of satisfaction from helping a small business, especially one that’s completely green. They’re trying their best to run their business, they don’t have time for any of this online marketing, and revolutionizing their business with local search. Because you can totally do that. Once you get it dialed in, I’ve heard so many stories from past clients, customers of ours, that once we turned on working with Whitespark, it absolutely quadrupled our business over the next two years. That’s what local search can do. So that for me is very satisfying.
And then also, the local search community, all of the people that work in local search, they’re just like the best people. So I I’ve always really felt at home in this space. I’ve really appreciated all of the leaders and all of my colleagues in this space. It’s just a truly wonderful group of people and it’s a truly wonderful industry, really. I love local search and all the people that I work with in local search.
Rich: I wonder if that’s partially – because it seems like everybody in local search comes from Canada – is it because Canadians are just nicer than the average human being that maybe that’s why the community feels so good? I know Andrew Shotland is pretty close to the top of the country, so he’s closer to Canada. Maybe it’s rubbing off on him.
Darren: Shotland’s in California.
Rich: Oh, I thought it was Seattle. Maybe I was mistaken there.
Darren: I think it’s probably like, if I think about the distribution of the local search community, it’s probably still like 70% U.S.-based. And then there’s quite a few in Canada, some in the UK, so yeah. But yeah, it’s pretty U.S.-based actually.
Rich: Ok. All right. Well, Andrew came out to speak at our Agents of Change Conference. A couple of years ago. I had the opportunity of meeting him that had a fun. Yeah. I’m with him.
Darren: He’s a great guy. Yeah, they’re all great. That’s the thing.
Rich: Good to know. So you, you had this big summit and you announced a number of things that seem to have changed since the last time you guys really did this deep dive. What were some of the biggest changes that you guys announced during the summit?
Darren: Yeah, so the big story for sure is that even though Google My Business signals grew in importance from the last time I did the survey. So in 2018 we saw a huge spike, and that was actually one of the big stories in 2018. GMB is really where a lot of local search practitioners are investing more time these days. We saw a similar increase again this year. So it went from like, okay, GMB signals are like 23% of the pie – I can’t remember the exact numbers – and then they jumped to like 33% of the pie in terms of what are the important things for you to be focusing on.
And so that’s a huge story. And one of the reasons for that is that Google has continued to invest in Google My Business, and adding new features and just continuing to dominate the landscape. So like sites like Yelp or Yellow Pages, or even TripAdvisor, they’re getting less and Google’s taking more. So Google becomes more and more important. That’s one big story for sure.
Another big story is the decline of citations. And so citations have typically been, like if you go back 10 years they were just, you want to rank in local search, you got to get all your business listings sorted out. They have to be perfectly accurate on every site. And you got to have hundreds of them and that’s what’s going to really help you rank. And so that was the story 10 years ago.
These days it’s reduced to like 7% of the overall local search. I hesitate to say the local search algorithm, because really we’re just dealing with opinions. It’s a survey, right? And so, when you aggregate the data, local search experts are investing much less time in citations because they’re seeing more value in other tactics.
Rich: So I just want to clarify that for people who don’t spend a lot of time in the local SEO world. This report that comes out annually is you basically doing a survey of some of the top local SEO experts and where they feel the important things are based on their day to day interactions with the algorithm and working with clients.
So when we say the GMB is up, that means is that more local search experts are putting even more emphasis on Google My Business. And when we say citations are down, it’s not that Google has come out and said this, it’s just that we’re seeing it. All these people are seeing that the citations seem to make less and less of a difference compared to where we were a year before. Is that correct?
Darren: That is exactly it. Yeah. So this is a survey of other top 40-some experts in local search people that are in the trenches day in, day out. Researching, working on stuff for clients, seeing what’s working and what’s not working. And so, yeah, the survey works like this. So this is.
Step one is score each of the sort of primary areas of local search. And then what I do is I take everyone’s scores and aggregate them together and I build that classic pie chart you may have seen, which is like, you know, what percent of local searches is your Google My Business listing, what percent of it is links, what percent of it is your website reviews, citations, behavioral signals, personalization? So those are the sort of main things. So that comes out with you’re just sort of general what is important in local search for me from a thematic perspective, each theme.
And then the other part of it is like, okay, now for local pack rankings. What are the individual factors that are most important? And so the way that works is the participants will drag them over from the list, I have a list of 122 potential ranking factors. They drag it over and then they sort their top 20 most important factors. And so what you end up seeing is they think that your primary category on Google my business is the number one thing. So many of the participants said that was the top thing for them that it rose to the top in aggregate. So then I aggregate everything and then I say, okay, these are the things that the experts are thinking are the most important.
Rich: That makes a lot of sense. And so right now if somebody were to not be able to listen to another minute of this, I think so far the takeaways are, invest your time in Google My Business, worry less about citations.
Darren: That would be a major takeaway. Now if you can just give me 30 more seconds, one quick thing.
Rich: Hopefully their commute is long enough.
Darren: Yeah. One quick thing is, Google My Business there’s actually not a lot of ranking optimization stuff you can do. There’s only a couple of signals.
One is your primary category. Two is your additional categories. And three is your business name. And so your business name, you’re not allowed to actually stuff keywords in there because you can get your listing suspended, it’s against the guidelines. But it still ranks extremely high as a ranking signal because it does absolutely impact ranking. And so there’s beyond your categories, really there’s not a lot you can do the GMB to optimize for rankings.
What ends up happening is yes, all the local search practitioners are investing in Google My Business, but it’s not necessarily for rankings, it’s actually for conversions. Because there’s this whole concept that Mike Blumenthal coined called “Google is your new homepage”. And then the idea there is that if someone’s searching for a local dentist, often they don’t even look at your website. They’re just looking at the search results because Google provides a very in depth, detailed directory of all the local dentists that are close to you. You can click through, you can read their reviews, you can see photos, you can see their offers in Google posts, you can see what products and services are offering. You can read a great description about the business, you can see what common questions and answers are happening. And so this is why all the practitioners are putting so much time into Google My Business, because they know that your website oftentimes isn’t even getting looked at. So the differentiating factor can often be, have you invested the time to fill out every field and Google My Business, are you thinking about it from a conversion perspective?
I actually just did a video about this on Monday where I show an example. I did a search for “drain cleaning Edmonton”. The number one result is this business called “All about Drain Cleaning”. So they’ve got drain cleaning in their business title. So that helps them rank number one, but their listing is garbage. It has their basic name, address, phone number. It doesn’t have a description. It has one five-star review, which looks questionable, and there’s no photos, there’s just a street view photo of the parking lot. And so I’m not going to call that business. I don’t trust that business.
Oh, but number four in the ranking results is this company “Mr. Rooter”, and wow, 628 reviews, 4.8 stars. I can read the reviews. I can see the owners responding to all their reviews. I can see a huge Q &A section that talks about all the different things I might want to know about drain cleaning. I can see they have all these special offers. I can see Google’s actually pulling in a new panel called ‘related to your search’, that’s being driven by their Google posts.
It’s like if I went to two websites, one website just had our name, address, and phone number, and yes, we do drain cleaning. And the other websites that said, of course we do drain cleaning. Here’s why we’re the best. This is how our approach is. This is how we’re dealing with sanitation with COVID concerns. It answers all of my questions. The same thing is happening, right in the Google results. And so conversion rate optimization for Google My Business listing is sort of the new thing. That’s hot in local search and people are really investing in that.
Rich: It’s interesting to hear that because you know, one of the questions I had is I noticed – I think it was even in your slides – you used an example of somebody who, I don’t know if they officially were keyword stuffing in the title tag for their company name or they were just lucky enough to have like the longest name with every single offering they had. I think it was Houston Real Estate or something.
Darren: Oh yeah, they were stuffing.
Rich: Ok, yeah. And they were ranking number one and I’m so pissed about that because first of all, our company name is flyte new media. Yeah. We got new media in there, but nobody’s searching for new media and we didn’t even spell “flyte” the right way, so that’s not going to help us either. So that was frustrating to see that.
And I do remember from 10-15 years back when I was doing SEO and I was trying to tell people don’t stuff your title tags, and yet they’d show me the search results page and all their competitors were doing it and beating them. And all I can say is, “Yes, one day this will come back and haunt them”. And it did. So if I’m hearing you correctly, there definitely should be a crackdown on… what do you call it? Business name spam within Google My Business. That’s the expectation?
Darren: Yeah, you would hope. So it’s interesting, one of the two thoughts. First thought on that is it’s very difficult for Google to fix this problem. If you do a branded search, if you do a search for flyte new media, obviously your business should come up. Right? And so Google wants to be able to surface, if someone’s searching for a specific business, they need to be able to surface that business. So if someone types in ‘drain cleaning Evanston’, Google’s algorithm is thinking, “Oh, maybe they’re looking for this business”. And so that’s why that business gets that boost because the name is important for people that are searching for specific brands. If you don’t do that, then a brand could get lost, and flyte new media is a perfect example of that. And so, this is why it exists as a problem. And so it’s really a tough one for Google to fix. And then the second thought I have is that this has given rise to a whole new industry within local search called “spam fighting”.
Rich: Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about that. So let’s dig into that.
Darren: Yeah. It’s really quite amazing. It’s like, well we know these businesses are not actually named that and that they’re just stuffing their keywords into their business name. And so our team, our Google My Business management team, they spend a lot of their time every month looking at the results for our clients and updating, suggesting an edit for all these businesses that are keyword stuffing. And so what ends up happening, which is kind of great, this is why it’s such a powerful tactic – it’s one of our top ranking tactics this year is when you take the keywords out of their business name and it gets approved by Google, that business falls off of the map completely. And your business who’s playing by the rules, they’re getting the rankings for all the right reasons because they have all the citations. They have a great website with good content, they have links. They’re there doing the right things. They tend to jump back up. And so you can actually knock out three of the top ranked businesses. And then if you were in position five, boom, now you’re in position two.
Rich: Assuming that they’re breaking the rules. So it sounds like Google, I don’t want to necessarily put it like this, but is rewarding tattletales.
Darren: They sure are. And you know, like I mentioned, it’s a tough problem for Google to solve but I do think that they’re working on it. There’s been rumors, but they’re trying to fix it. But I think it’s a challenging, one, because of branded search. And the thing that they’re doing now is just like, well, we’ll leave it to the community to try and solve. So everyone basically works for free to clean up Google’s results.
Rich: Yeah, but you know, there’s obviously some self-interests in there as well. Maybe “snitches win niches” could be the new slogan or something like that. I’ll work on that.
Darren: That’s right.
Rich: Alright. So let’s see, we talked a little bit about how keywords in the Google My Business name. Can you just explain, if we’re going to remove spam listings and we do see one of our competitors and we feel that they are coloring outside the lines, what exactly is a step that we can take to report them?
Darren: Yeah, so it’s pretty straightforward. You could just go suggest an edit on every listing. So you can do this either through Google maps or through the local finder. There’s a ‘suggest an edit’ for this business. I think you suggest that the name is not actually that, it’s actually this, and you submit it right.
With repeat offenses, you can do what’s called a ‘redressal form’. So if you just Google, like “Google My Business redressal form”, you’ll find it. And so you should submit that, that’s actually reviewed by a team at Google. And with repeat offenses, they can get what’s called a suspension. And so that’s really the goal. You want them to get suspended, feel the pain a little bit, get a black flag on their listing, and then they might not be so likely to put it back.
So just an edit, it’s almost just cat and mouse. It’s like, Oh, I suggested an edit, Google said, your edit is approved, and then two days later the business owner searches and is like, “Someone updated my business, I’m going to change it back”. And so it’s just like back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. So this is where you go to the redressal form and repeat offenses should get the listing suspended.
Rich: So what if we find that somebody is ratting us out, but not legitimately, they are going out of their way to hurt our business and you know, that’s our business name?
And I’m just wondering, because we had a time where it seemed like every time we turned our back, our Google main category would turn into telemarketers, which is definitely not what we do. And we would have to go in and continually change it. And so it was one of these things. It seems to have stopped, but there was like some thoughts in the back of my head that maybe one of our less ethical competitors was doing that to push us out of the top.
Darren: I would suspect that’s exactly what was happening and it is a problem in local search, because anyone can go and suggest an edit on any other listing. And so the solution there is to raise it on the GMB forum and try to get the attention of one of the Google My Business product experts, which can escalate it. In extreme cases where this is happening a lot, your listing can actually get locked, but it has to be escalated by one of the Google My Business product experts.
And so if you are the victim of ongoing sort of negative local SEO attacks on your Google listing, then that’s the route to take. I don’t hear very many cases about it, but it is always in the back of my mind is like, this is the potential, you could really knock your competitors out.
Rich: It’s a really competitive industry.
Darren: Don’t do it, anyone listening.
Rich: Right, exactly. So one of the things that I took away when I was looking through the slides is that it seemed that keywords in the GMB descriptions don’t seem to matter. And I found that surprising, especially because the words and the title was the number two result for most impactful. Any insights into why the keywords in the description wouldn’t matter?
Darren: Yeah. I love that I was able to address that in this year’s survey, because this has been an SEO myth since the earliest days of local SEO, that keywords in your Google My Business description have any impact at all. Think of it like your Meta tag. I think everyone in SEO knows that keywords in your Meta description on your website have no impact on local search. It’s the same thing on GMB. Basically, it’s as simple as the Google My Business local search algorithm doesn’t look at that field in the ranking algorithm. Just ignore it, it’s not part of it. What you need to do is you need to write that for conversion. It’s just like you do with your Meta descriptions on your website.
And so Google has never looked at it. And we’ve heard that from multiple sources that work at Google just saying, “We don’t look at that field. It’s not part of the ranking algorithm and it never has been”, but it’s been this propagated myth. You can find a ton of articles that say, “Oh, make sure that your optics using your Google My Business listing and getting your keywords in all these different places. Google looks at none of them, except for your category and your business title.
Rich: Again, you keep on coming back to this whole idea of conversions and it really sounds like that’s how we should be treating Google My Business anyways. It’s more about conversion optimization than it is about ranking optimization.
Darren: It really is. And actually we built the whole service specifically for that. It’s called our Google My Business Management Service, and it’s really geared around converting more people from your listing. It’s like that whole thing. It’s like if we could manage your website and make it look awesome and enhance it and get better calls to action in there. All of that stuff, that’s what we do on the listing. And there are some ranking benefits because we roll out a really good review strategy, which is placed huge into the conversions, but it also plays into rankings. More reviews will help you rank better.
Darren: We optimize the categories and then we do the spam planning. So all those things actually impact ranking, but our goal is focused on conversions. Because for a reasonable monthly price, if you can get one or two more leads that turn into customers, it’s more than paid for itself. And so it’s a smart way to look at how you’re managing your Google My Business.
Rich: So you briefly mentioned reviews, and I remember seeing that there was a big change in reviews this year. Can you kind of tell us about what the big change in reviews was that the experts were recommending or suggesting?
Darren: Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily call it change. M came up strong was keywords in reviews. So if you get keywords in your reviews, then that can have an impact. Google sees, and it makes perfect sense, Google says, “Wow for this company, a lot of people are mentioning ‘drain cleaning’ in their reviews”. And that has two benefits.
One has the ranking benefit. It makes you more relevant for the term ‘drain cleaning’. Two, it actually can help you trigger that special little carousel that appears on your listing called “related to your search”. So if someone searches ‘drain cleaning’, and then you have so many reviews saying ‘drain cleaning’, you get that awesome little extra panel, which helps sell the customer even more.
So the tip there that everyone should do is when you ask a customer for a review just say, “Hey, we’d really appreciate a review on Google. Here’s a link or a QR code to make it really easy. And we’d appreciate it if you mentioned the service that you had done, or you mentioned the product that you bought”, or whatever it is, right. So by doing that, you’re kind of seeding the concept in their mind that they’re going to mention drain cleaning, furnace repair, you know, Invisalign or crown, like whatever the service was. If they mentioned that, then that actually helps increase your relevance and your rank for those terms.
Rich: And this is very anecdotal, but I remember when COVID first hit and I started doing some searches to find the restaurants nearby that did curbside pickup. And in the local pack it said this website mentions a curbside pickup, but also underneath that said there’s a review that mentions curbside pickup as well. I don’t know that that had a huge impact on the algorithm, it’s just one data point, but it was interesting. And I immediately took notice of that. So, very cool.
Darren: Those are called ‘justifications’ and at the Whitespark Local Search Summit – which it’s still available, anyone can go and still get access to all the recordings – there was a great presentation by Joel Headley. Joel Headley talked about keywords in your website title tag, he talked about these justifications as well. And so they’re very interesting because that can definitely help drive conversion since its like, if you’re getting that little snippet and your competitors aren’t, that will help drive more clicks to your business listings.
So those justifications are super valuable, and that’s what we call the ’related to your search’ panel, as well as they’re also called ‘justifications’. And so getting those are really great. They’re driven by reviews, they’re driven by your Google posts, which is another important reason to invest into doing a weekly Google post. And they’re also driven by the Q&A, which is good justification for you to go and make sure you fill out your Google Q&A with all your frequently asked questions.
Rich: Awesome. So I don’t know if you can answer this question, but it got me thinking. How much of a local SEO is specific to your industry? And I guess what I’m thinking is, should an owner or a marketer for a company focus on local SEO in general, or should they really focus their niche on local SEO for lawyers, or local SEO for auto dealerships? Because it feels like the results and the way maybe even the algorithm works might be very different from industry to industry. Is that correct or completely off base?
Darren: Yeah, there are a few little industry specific things. Your primary category can trigger certain features within Google My Business that you get and other industries don’t get.
Hotels is a huge one. So hotels is actually, it’s a completely different algorithm that runs the hotel local results. And it’s because they monetize the heck out of it, they have a whole team that builds the hotel stuff separate from the local search team. The other ones, there’s actually a little bit interesting because they have some special things that they can do with departments. But for the most part, like a lawyer, a dentist, a plumber, it’s all very similar.
One other category that gets the slight difference is service area businesses. So businesses that you don’t go to them, the business goes to you. That would be another sort of category. But generally what drives local search rankings, what drives conversions, it’s mostly all the same across any industry.
And so you could specialize in a niche. I think if you were an agency, then being specialized in a niche helps you to sort of speak to that customer. Because the customer thinks that it’s, “Oh, well, you know, my industry and you know how to optimize it my industry.” Even though it actually is all the same, like we’re going on a dentist or a lawyer, it’s basically the same. But focusing on the niche could definitely help you to sort of stand out against your competition that are more generalists.
Rich: All right. And one of the things I was thinking, we’ve been talking a lot about things that seemingly impact the local pack, but then there’s local organic results that often appear below those. How much effort should we put into this? Does anybody actually scroll down below the map and start clicking on those links?
Darren: So I can answer that. Yes, they definitely do. And there is an important strategy for the local organic and that is so it ties into this concept of proximity, which you may have noticed in the results. I think it’s like number three in the local search ranking factors. You can’t do anything about proximity, it’s a non-actionable factor. Basically what that means is, in the local pack results, local finder results, you can only rank in about a 10 mile radius around your business location.
So. Okay. Well what about on the other side of the city? I want people on the other side of the city to still find me. Too bad. In the local pack results you are not going to rank, it’s extremely rare. You have to be like 10 times more SEO factors than your competition in order to expand your radius that far. And so then the local organic results become your play and it’s very valuable and very important to start working on that.
A classic example that we set up I think probably back in 2013, was for a lawyer, a Pringle law in Edmonton. And they’ve got this section on their website called “areas we serve”. We built a landing page for each of these sort of 15 major cities around our primary city that they want to do criminal law for. And so those “areas that we serve” pages, they can’t rank in the local pack, but they drive business. And I would guesstimate since 2013, those pages have driven millions of dollars of business for that law firm because they rank right underneath the pack. It’s like, you’re looking for a lawyer in Fort McMurray, boom, it’s right there. It’s because they have great domain authority. And so those pages are very important.
Phil Rosa gave a fantastic presentation at the Local Search Summit, where he talked about all that exact strategy. How do you detract business outside of that 10 miles radius? If you’re a service area business or even if you’re a lawyer where people come to you. And you do it with those area pages, or we’ll call them ‘neighborhood pages’, and you attract that traffic through the local organic results.
Rich: Nice. So I want you to look into your crystal ball here for a second. You’ve no doubt seen the news that Apple may be considering launching a search engine very soon. They obviously have Apple maps, which some lazy people use when they just want to talk to Siri. But this could be a big deal, especially because they do have a good market share. Do you think that people should start paying more attention to optimizing their local business for Apple maps and also start planning for the Apple search engine? Or is it just too soon to worry about it?
Darren: It’s a little soon to worry about it. I’m not seeing huge activity there yet. But, at the very least you need to claim your listing in Apple maps. And so definitely go and claim your listing. Make sure you’ve filled it all out as well as you can, every field that’s available like you would just do it in Google as well. And then you’re mostly done for now.
But another rumor that’s coming up is they’re showing that they’re starting to request reviews on Apple. That is interesting to me. I could really see Apple becoming one of the number two or three players in the review space, because it’s really easy. Like, okay, I used my Apple maps app in order to get to this location. And then after Apple maps prompts me, “Hey, do you want to leave a review for that business?” And so it makes it quite easy for Apple to generate a ton of reviews in a short space of time, and absolutely push out a site like Yelp.
You know, I think that there’s a great opportunity there and I would love to see Apple be a number two player in the local space and even in the organic space, because Google doesn’t really have a great competitor right now. And because of that, looking into my crystal ball, they are monetizing like crazy, especially in local. There’s so many things that they’re doing to start squeezing money out of all these businesses that have been using Google My Business for free.
Rich: This has been great. Darren, I’m sure a lot of people want to check out Whitespark and they want to learn more about you. Where can we send them online?
Darren: Whitespark.ca, we’re a Canadian company. So it’s funny thing, we’re a Canadian company, but like 80% of our business is in the U.S.
Rich: Awesome. Darren, thanks so much today. I really appreciate the time.
Darren: Thanks a lot for having me, it was fun.
Darren Shaw loves everything there is about local search and SEO. Check out his website, where he and his team excel in researching and implementing local search ranking factors to help businesses rank higher. Looking to convert searchers in customers? Then check out this link to Whitespark’s GMB Management service.
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.