Understanding the algorithm behind Google My Business (formerly “Google Places” & “Google+ Local”) is, by some accounts, even more difficult than understanding Google’s search algorithm. The local business community’s fixation on it is understandable, given how much Google My Business matters to local businesses: by some accounts, 1 out of every 5 searches on Google are location-based.
Local search listings are, of course, the search results that show up amidst the normal listings when you perform a Google search that has a local focus to it. Typically, they will be accompanied by a lettered balloon, as well as an address and phone number. A map pointing out where each business is located will also be present. For some local searches, a vertical row of listings will appear at the top of the screen allowing you to filter them by factors such as Rating, Price, and Hours.
A variation of the local search results. This variation allows you to filter Google My Business listings by Rating, Price, and Hours. This widget usually appears when you search using a superlative such as “top” or “best.”
Although the Google My Business algorithm has evolved near-constantly since its inception in 2004, I’ve had the privilege of watching it through the lens of hundreds of client accounts and can say with confidence which factors actually determine the results that appear on the first page. Here they are:
Local Directory References. Google has a small number of local directories it trusts, pulling publicly available data from these sources to use in its algorithm. These directories are the ones you’d expect – Yelp, Tripadvisor, Citysearch – but also some smaller, high quality sites. Your presence on these other sites signals to Google that your business is an active member of its local community. And so, while creating a listing directly on Google My Business is imperative if you want to rank highly in the local search results, creating a listing on all the other directories in your space is also very important. One key aspect to this strategy is that you should always list the exact same business information – phone number, address, business name, hours, and to a lesser degree, business description. Doing so assures Google that your business is consistent and stable on all platforms. At one point, listings on directories were as important as links, but today, they’re merely one of several important factors.
Links. Speaking of links, they’re not just essential to Google’s organic search algorithm. When your website (the same one listed on your Google My Business profile) has a lot of high quality links pointing to it, it gains favor in the local search rankings.
Location. As well-optimized as your website may be, let’s always keep in mind that the purpose of Google’s local search results are to help people find businesses that are near them. So if you’re, say, a plastic surgeon in Orange County that would love to get business from tony Beverly Hills clients (hey, it’s only a 50 mile drive…) don’t expect an easy time of it from Google. In fact, the closer to the searcher you are, the more favor you curry with this component of Google’s local search algorithm. But it is more like a pre-requisite than an advantage; even if you are next door to a searcher, if you aren’t strong in the other components listed here, you probably won’t rank that highly.
Business Name. A lesser known piece of Google’s local algorithm is the actual name of the business. Watch out with this one, as Google My Business’s reps are trained to look out for keyword-stuffed business names, but if your company happens to have keywords in its name, you’re in for more favorable local rankings. As the example below shows, if you’re a bankruptcy attorney and your firm isn’t just called “Burton & Goff,” but rather “Burton & Goff Bankruptcy Attorneys” you’ll be in better shape, rankings-wise.
Google My Business gives a lot of value to businesses whose names match the keyword being searched. In a search for “san francisco bankruptcy attorney,” 3 of the first 4 local listings have the keyword “bankruptcy” in their business name.
Proper Categorization and Tagging. Whereas your website is meant to show up in Google’s organic search results without having to submit anything to Google, the My Business algorithm requires a bit more work from local business owners. You will need to manually verify your business, categorize it properly, and fully fill out all the information requested on the Google My Business website. Occasionally, you might even be called to re-submit your information when Google converts old local pages to new ones as we saw in Decemeber 2014 and August 2016.
Reviews. While the number and quality of your business’ reviews on Google is not a large ranking factor, it still matters. We’ve found that having at least 7 reviews that are 4 stars or higher helps your chances of ranking highly in the local listings. Getting reviews should be fairly straightforward: just ask your most satisfied customers if they’d be willing to write a review for you on Google. (Make sure you don’t ask them for a positive review specifically, as that’s frowned upon.)
Social Media Activity. When people you know “star” a business on their Google local map, rate, review, or even just visit a local business website, it is likely to show up higher in the local results. Obviously, Google gives special preference to the star button over other social signals, such as Facebook likes, since they own Google Maps; and to date, there is no evidence that social signals from other platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, etc.) impact your local search results. If you want more social interaction with your website—as every local business should—a good strategy to follow is asking your customers to follow, rate, review, star, or generally just advocate for your business in any way that works for them. It would be smart to help them do so by placing widgets which allow them to easily rate/review it on Google on every page. For example: “Love us? Tell us about it on Google My Business.” Personally, if I owned a restaurant or hotel, I’d give extra special treatment to a small group of tech-savvy customers, allowing them to form the foundation of my business’ social media fandom. It’s invaluable to have even a small group of die-hard enthusiasts.
Clicks and User Engagement. In late 2015, some folks in the local SEO industry noticed that Google had quietly incorporated user engagement into the local search algorithm. Although the Big G has denied using clicks, time on site, or any other engagement metric as a ranking factor for many years, it has always seemed logical to judge the quality of a site based on how engaged its visitors are, and it appears Google now agrees. (Edit from June 2017: Google has confirmed user activity as a signal in their algorithm.) The reason they’ve stayed away from this ranking factor has always been that it’s too easy to manipulate it using bots, crowd-sourcing, or even just a group of motivated proprietors. But Google is excellent at filtering out unnatural behavior at this point.
I sincerely hope this guide is useful to you. While Google My Business likely uses dozens of factors to determine which results to place at the top of the local results, the ones I’ve listed here are the most important. If you’ve noticed other ranking factors that seem to impact local results, please tell us about them in the comments. In the meantime, let’s stay vigilant in making customers happy so that they spread the news of their happiness far and wide. In the end, happy customers are the catalyst to nearly all of the important ranking factors in the Google My Business local search algorithm.
If you need help managing your Google My Business Account, that’s one of the things that we do best. You can contact us here.