The 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors, a survey of Local SEO professionals on what they think it takes to rank in local search, was just released at MozCon Local/Local U. Andrew and I both love participating in the survey, as it’s a chance to see what the Local SEO hive mind is thinking. I highly recommend checking it out to see how people are thinking about local search rankings.
Coming out of the 2017 version, the talk of the town is on Proximity (the distance between a user and a business) as the ‘#1 ranking factor’. Given the way local packs look, I totally get this. Proximity is massive. Just look at these Local Packs:
Let’s all shut it down, folks. Local SEO is dead! Just keep moving your biz and you will be #1 for all customers!
Calm down, I promise we are going to be okay. I’m not going to tell you your own eyes are wrong, Packs look like they are almost exclusively ordered by user proximity (with some occasional tie-breaking factors like reviews).
But, remember, those aren’t the only available businesses to show in a pack. Check out the same SERP with other businesses and my location annotated:
The green arrow & text is where I’m located and the purple arrows are all locations that are physically closer than the locations that are showing up in the Local Pack. This means that Proximity can’t be an overriding factor in terms of ordering businesses.
This makes perfect sense to me.
Often, there are more relevant and prominent businesses then Google can display in a Pack/Local Finder, and if they were to just rank by Proximity then the results could very well be bad businesses near you. Google knows this, which is why it isn’t happening this way.
So to me, Proximity is the #1 local ranking factor like RankBrain is the #1 organic ranking factor. Yes, it plays a role in almost all searches, but I don’t think it’s usually the main thing getting you into most local packs.
Here is a great example where proximity is clearly not the deciding factor:
As you can see, Starbucks is easily the closest coffee business near me. It is specifically closer than Coffee Nature (the top result) and yet it doesn’t even crack the top 5. Clearly, there are other factors at play here.
Let’s come at this from a different way. I did a search for tacos, then went to “more places” in the pack. Check out these results:
These results are not in order of closest to furthest. The top results are, but what determines which business are in those are the top results? It’s certainly not just proximity, just check out the case of poor Cabo Grill. The are totally left out of the top results even though, looking at proximity, it should be # 4 (it even has a good review profile!):
You know what it doesn’t have? A website. Pretty hard to have dominating prominence and relevance without a website in 2017. But wait, there is more. Check out Fresca’s Mexican Grill. Should be #2 by proximity, but it doesn’t even crack the top 12:
Likely because unlike all the other examples it doesn’t have “taco” in the business name. That means relevance can override proximity.
One last piece, the weight of something like proximity is also dependent on the type of query. For local searches there are 2 types of queries:
Implicit Geo Location – “tacos”
Explicit Geo Location – “tacos costa mesa” & “costa mesa tacos”
All the example I have shown have been with implicit geo-location. Check out the ordering of explicit geo-location queries on a desktop for “tacos costa mesa”:
It’s radically different from the implicit geo-location searches, and the proximity from my location matters much much less.
But Dan, maybe Costa Mesa is some weird vortex. Also, what about mobile?
I’m so glad you asked:
This search was conducted from Pleasanton CA, on an iPhone.
I feel pretty confident saying that Proximity matters much more with implicit geo-location searches. This is what we saw in our own ranking factor data as well.
I’ve been talking through this with lots of others in the Local SEO space. Darren Shaw is one of those people. I asked him to weigh in on this post and here are his thoughts:
“While Proximity to Searcher is one of the strongest factors in local pack results today (if not the strongest), it’s far from the only factor. There is still plenty of opportunity to improve your rankings by increasing relevancy and prominence through traditional local search work.”
I agree with what Darren is saying here. While I feel like I have made the case that Proximity is not the #1 ranking factor, it clearly plays a large role in how local search functions. That doesn’t mean you have to give up, traditional prominence and relevance signals matter just as much, if not more, then proximity. Speaking of…
The #1 Local SEO Ranking Factors are Relevance, Prominence & Proximity
I think there is only one conclusion; there are other factors that determine what businesses are in which buckets, or even better that there are factors that determine which sub-set of results that Google is then going to order by proximity. Those are things like traditional relevance and prominence signals. Things such as keywords in the business name, links, reviews, and others that you would typically expect to influence search results. If you are in for a refresher course, check out the 2016 Local SEO Ranking Factors to see what the data says.
So maybe we should stop talking about internal position within a local Pack for a bit because that is more about the user and less about the business. Instead, we should talk about “PackRank(™)”, because if you are in a Local Pack then you are probably showing up #1 to some users (based on proximity).
Remember, there are numerous business categories where users aren’t looking to find service half a mile closer (like attorneys, doctors, CPA’s, car dealers etc.). In the Proximity Mine Pack this is where things like reviews can drive a higher CTR. Though this could be a pretty big negative to the foodservice industry. Most people aren’t always looking to drive a couple miles for that single origin flat white or a truly excellent taco.
One final thing before I go. When it comes to prominence, relevance, and proximity what do you think is the most important type of local search ranking factor. Please fill out this quick survey and let me know!