Google is notorious about not publicizing their ranking methods. Google Places, formerly Google Local or Google Maps, is certainly no exception. However, when you’ve optimized nearly 1000 Google Places listings for local businesses in various industries certain trends become apparent.
Keep in mind as you read this that dissecting anything based on a complex formula that uses multiple algorithms is tantamount to making a series of educated guesses. We do not claim to have cracked the Google Local algorithm. For every hypothesis made you can certainly find examples to refute it. In the absence of the actual formula (which Google wouldn’t publish under a court order), we’re left with analyzing trends. Now on with the analyzing…
To start to understand how Google Local Business Listings work, you have to understand Google’s intent in having the service in the first place. The overall goal of anything Google does is to get people to use their services. Google Places is no different. People use Google because they provide relevant results to virtually any search – globally, nationally or locally. So how does Google determine which businesses are the most relevant for a particular local search? The million dollar question.
Ask a hundred SEO experts the key to first page Google results and you’ll get a hundred variations on a theme depending upon each expert’s own agenda. To over-simplify, Google is a popularity contest. The more popular a site, topic or listing is seen to be by Google, the more relevant Google considers it to be…and the higher it ranks in search results.
So how does Google measure popularity when ranking Google Places? Here’s what we know:
1. Citations: Citations are the Google Places equivalent to backlinks. Google considers various third-party sites to be creditable enough to include automatically on a Google Places Business Listing. Examples include: Superpages.com, Insiderpages.com, HotFrog.com, etc. Google appears to rely on references to a company’s phone number, address and website among other factors when determining whether a third-party reference is applicable. Make sure your address is listed consistently across the entire Internet for best performance.
Example of Citations shown on a Google Places listing as “More about this place”
2. Customer Reviews: Google allows any user to leave a review directly on a Google Places listing and also imports reviews from trusted third-party sites such as Urbanspoon.com and Insiderpages.com. The quality of the individual review appears to have little impact versus the quantity of reviews.
3. Overall Web Presence: Though this aspect apparently carries less weight, it does appear to be a factor. Companies with websites and at least some measure of online presence appear to generally rank better than businesses with nothing more than a Google Places listing.
What does Google look at in addition to popularity when ranking Google Places?
Keyword relevance: Search for your actual company name and you’re likely to be first. In a Google Places listing, Google appears to rely on keywords from the following:
- Company Name
- Domain Name
- City Name and Address
- Google Places Categories
- Use and frequency of Keywords in Citations
- Google Places 200 Character Description
- Proximity to IP address on computer where search originated (A component of Google’s new Personalized Search)
- Google Places Content in Additional Details
Let’s look at all of this in the real world. My computer is searching from Lewisville near the border between Lewisville and Flower Mound, Texas.
The Google Places results:
A few things become immediately apparent. The first business, Lifetime Fence Company, has two of the three keywords in their title and the third keyword, Lewisville, is in their address. In addition, the business is tied for the most reviews of the top three ranked. A-1 NorTex Fence & Deck has more reviews, but they are the furthest from my location. The number of reviews is likely the primary reason they are even ranked for this search at all.
Changing the search keywords allows us to look further into how Google ranks businesses on Google Places.
The results are different including the inclusion of two businesses ranked 2 and 3 that were not on the previous search, but it is the similarities that help us decipher how Google Places works.
Lifetime Fence Company remains first. The reviews and proximity components are still in play, but the limited choice of keywords would intuitively have opened the field. Time to dig deeper.
Lifetime Fence Company has 4 reviews, each of which include the keyword fence, and 34 citations.
CWS Fence Company has 3 reviews and one citation, but shows three categories that use the keyword fence. The word fence is in their company title, their web domain and multiple times in the 200 character description. Also, their location in Flower Mound is the closest to my physical location of any on this list.
PY Services has 2 reviews and 19 citations.
Huck Finn Fence and Deck has 4 reviews (three of which are bad) and 12 citations.
Modern Vinyl Fence Company has 2 reviews and 8 citations.
J&J Landscape has 2 reviews and 4 citations.
A-1 NorTex Fence & Deck has 6 reviews and 5 citations, but again is the furthest distance from the my physical location.
All of the listings are owner verified. It is not entirely clear whether owner verified listing are weighted any differently, but certainly only owner verified listings have the benefit of potentially being optimized in at least some fashion.
What does all this have to do with getting a local business showing first in Google Places?
It means that there is a lot more to it than simply claiming a listing and filling in the blanks on the online forms. The process of optimizing a Google Places listing is actually holistic by nature and involves several key areas that must be continued concurrently on an on-going basis. As a business owner, you must strive to obtain new reviews each and every month. In addition, you should continue to grow your online presence in any way possible including but not limited to business directories, blog entries, organizational memberships (i.e. – Chambers of Commerce, BBB, etc.), and at least periodic changes and additions to your own company site.
Do not forget that Google in many ways equates “relevant” with “current”. Just because your listing is #1 today does not mean it will stay there indefinitely. However, once you reach the top it is actually quite easy to remain there with just a little bit of effort and know-how.
Don’t know where to start? The most cost-effective way to make an immediate impact in local search is to hire a professional to create and optimize the most powerful listings available to you as a business owner. And yes, that is precisely what we do here at Optimized Local Search Services.