Proximity to Searcher is the New #1 Local Search Ranking Factor
Posted by Whitespark
Have you noticed that a lot of local pack results don’t seem to make sense these days? Almost every time I search Google for a local search term, the pack results leave me wondering, “Why are these businesses ranking?”
For example, take a look at the results I get for “plumbers”:
Here’s a quick summary of the basic local ranking factors for the businesses in this local pack:
- None of the businesses have claimed/verified their Google listing.
- None of the businesses have any Google reviews.
- Only one of the businesses even has a website!
Surely, Google, there are more prominent businesses in Edmonton that deserve to rank for this term?
Here’s the data table again with one additional point added: proximity to the searcher.
These business are all so close to me that I could walk to them in about 8 to 15 minutes. Here’s a map of Edmonton with pins for my location and these 3 businesses. Just look at how close they are to my location:
After analyzing dozens of queries that my colleagues and I searched for, I am going to make a bold statement:
“Proximity to searcher is the new #1 ranking factor in local search results today.” – Darren Shaw
For most local searches these days, proximity appears to be weighted more than links, website content, citations, and reviews in the local pack rankings. Google doesn’t seem to value the traditional local search ranking factors when determining which businesses to rank in the local pack. The main consideration seems to be: “Which businesses are closest to the searcher?” I have been noticing this trend for at least the last 8 months or so, and it seems to have intensified since the Possum update.
Evidence of proximity-based local rankings
Whitespark has team members that are scattered throughout Edmonton, so four of us ran a series of searches from our home offices to see how the results differ across the city.
Here is a map showing where we are physically located in Edmonton:
On desktop, Google doesn’t actually know exactly where we are. It guesstimates it based on IP, WiFi, and mobile data. You can figure out where Google thinks you’re located by doing the following:
- Open an incognito browser in Chrome.
- Go to maps.google.com.
- Search for a local business in your city.
- Click the “Directions” button.
- Enter “my location” into the top field.
In order to give you directions, Maps will drop a circle on the spot that it thinks you’re located at.
Here’s where Google thinks I am located:
As a team, at approximately the same time of day, all four of us searched the same 9 local queries in incognito browser windows and saved screenshots of our results.
The search terms:
Non-geo-modified terms (keyword):
Geo-modified terms (keyword + city):
coffee shops edmonton
edmonton coffee shops
Below are the mapped results for 9 local queries that we each searched in incognito browsers. Rather than dumping 24 maps on the page, here they are in a Slideshare that you can click through:
As you click through, you’ll see that each of us get completely different results, and that these results are generally clustered around our location.
You can also see that proximity impacted non-geo-modified terms (“plumbers”) more than the results for geo-modified terms (“edmonton plumbers”). The differences we’re seeing are likely due to relevancy for the geo-modified term. So for instance, the websites may have more anchor text targeting the term “Edmonton plumbers,” or the overall content on the site has more references to Edmonton plumbers.
How does proximity impact local organic results?
Localized organic results are the blue links that list businesses, directories, etc, under the local pack. We’re seeing some very minor differences in the results, but relatively consistent local organic rankings across the city.
Generally, localized organic results are consistent no matter where you’re located in a city — which is a strong indication of traditional ranking signals (links, reviews, citations, content, etc) that outweigh proximity when it comes to local organic results.
Here are screenshots of the local organic results:
- Non geo-modified searches (keyword only) can pull results from neighboring cities. In the new local packs, proximity to searcher is not affected by the city you are in, but by the radius of the searcher. This does not appear to be the same for a geo-modified term — when you add a city to the search. This tells us that the #1 local search ranking factor from the Local Search Ranking Factors survey, “Physical address in city of search,” may no longer be as important as it once was.
- Results sometimes cluster together. Even though there may be businesses closer to the searcher, it seems like Google prefers to show you a group of businesses that are clustered together.
- Google would rather show a smaller pack than a 3-pack when there is a business that’s too far away from the searcher. For example: I only get a 2-pack of nearby businesses here, but I know there are at least 5 other businesses that match this search term:
- Probably obvious, but if there aren’t many businesses in the category, then Google will return a wider set of results from all over the city:
Why is Google doing this?
Why is Google giving so much ranking strength to proximity and reducing the impact of traditional local search ranking factors?
To sell more ads, of course.
I can think of three ways that this will increase ad revenue for Google:
- If it’s harder to get into the organically driven local packs, then businesses will need to pay to get into their fancy new paid local packs.
- Back in the day, there was one local pack per city/keyword combo (example: “edmonton plumbers”). Now there are thousands of local packs across the city. When they create a new pack every mile, they drastically increase their available “inventory” to sell ads on.
- When the results in the 3-pack aren’t giving you what you want, then a click into “more places” will bring up the Local Finder, where Google is already displaying ads:
- (Bonus) And have you noticed that the new local ad packs focus on “nearby”? The local ads and the local pack results are increasingly focused on how close the businesses are to your physical location.
Though I don’t think it’s only for the additional ad revenue. I think they truly believe that returning closer businesses is a better user experience, and they have been working on improving their technology around this for quite some time.
Way back in 2012, Whitespark’s Director of Local Search, Nyagoslav Zhekov, noted in the 2012 Local Search Ranking Factors survey that proximity of business location to the point of the searcher was his top local ranking factor. He says:
“What really matters, is where the searcher is physically located and how close the potentially relevant search results are. This ranking factor is getting further boost by the importance of local-mobile search, where it is undoubtedly #1. For desktop search the factor might not be as important (or not have any significance) if searcher’s location and the location for which the search is intended differ.”
It is interesting to note that in today’s results, as we can see in the examples in this post, proximity is now a huge ranking factor on desktop as well. Google has been going “mobile-first” for years, and I’m starting to think that there is no difference in how they process mobile and desktop local results. You just see different results because Google can get a more precise location on mobile.
Furthermore, Bill Slawski just published a post about a recently approved Google patent for determining the quality of locations based on travel time investment. The patent talks about using quality measures like reviews (both user and professional) AND travel time and distance from the searcher (time investment) to rank local businesses in search results.
One excerpt from the patent:
“The present disclosure is directed to methods and apparatus for determining the quality measure of a given location. In some implementations, the quality measure of a given location may be determined based on the time investment a user is willing to make to visit the given location. For example, the time investment for a given location may be based on comparison of one or more actual distance values to reach the given location to one or more anticipated distance values to reach the given location. The actual distance values are indicative of actual time of one or more users to reach the given location and the anticipated distance values are indicative of anticipated time to reach the given location.”
The patent was filed in May 2013, so we can assume that Google may have been experimenting with this and incorporating it into local search for at least the past 3 to 4 years. In the past year, the dial seems to have been cranked up on this factor as Google gets more distance and travel data from Android users and from users of the Google Maps app on other mobile platforms.
These results suck
It seems to me that in most business categories, putting so much emphasis on proximity is a pretty poor way to rank results. I don’t care if a lawyer is close to me. I am looking to hire a lawyer that’s reputable, prominent in my city, and does good work. I’m perfectly happy to drive an extra 20 minutes to go to the office of a good lawyer. I’m also looking for the best pizza in town, not the cardboard they serve at the place down the street. The same applies for every business category I can think of, outside of maybe gas stations, emergency plumbers, or emergency locksmiths.
In my opinion, this emphasis on proximity by Google seriously downgrades the quality of their local results. People are looking for the best businesses, not the closest businesses. If this is the new normal in Google’s local results, I expect that people will start turning to sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Avvo, Angie’s List, etc. when searching for businesses. I already have.
So what about local rank tracking?
Most local rank trackers set the location to the city, which is the equivalent of setting it to the centroid. It is very likely that the local pack and local finder results reported in your rank tracker will be different from what the business or client sees when they search. To get more accurate results, you should use a rank tracker that lets you set the location by zip/postal code (hint hint, Whitespark’s Local Rank Tracker).
You should also realize that you’re never going to get local rank tracking reports that perfectly match with what the person sitting in the city sees. There are just too many variables to control for. The precise proximity to the searcher is one thing a rank tracker can’t exactly match, but you’ll also see differences based on device used, browser version, personalization, and even time of day as results can and do change by the hour.
Use your rank tracking reports as a measure of general increases and decreases in local visibility, not as an exact match with what you would see if you were searching from within city.
How does this affect local SEO strategies?
Local SEO is not dead. Far from it. It’s just more competitive now. The reach your business can have in local results is smaller than it used to be, which means you need to step up your local organic and optimization efforts.
- Local search practitioners, if you’re seeing traffic and rankings going down in your local SEO reporting and you need to answer to your clients on this, you’re now armed with more info on how to answer these questions. It’s not you, it’s Google. They have reduced the radius that your business will be shown in the search results, so you’re going to be driving less traffic and leads from local pack results.
- If you want your business to rank in the pack or local finder, you will need to crank up the dial on your optimization efforts.
- Get on those local organic opportunities (content and links). There is less pack real estate for you now, but the localized organic results are still great city-wide opportunities. The local organic results are currently localized to the city, not the searcher location. We can see this in all the terms.
- Look for outliers. Study the businesses that are getting pulled into the local rankings from a far distance from the searcher. What are they doing in terms of content, links, reviews, and mentions that helps them appear in a wider radius than other businesses?
- Diversify your local optimization efforts beyond Google. Make sure you’re on Yelp, BBB, TripAdvisor, Avvo, Angie’s List, etc, and that your profiles are claimed, optimized, and enhanced with as much information as possible. Then, make sure you’re driving reviews on THESE sites rather than just Google. If the local pack results are crap, a lot of people will click Yelp’s 10 Best XYZ list, for example. You want to be on that list. The more reviews you get on these sites, the better you will rank in their internal search results, and as people desert Google for local business recommendations because of their low-quality results, you’ll be ready and waiting for them on the other sites.
The tighter radius might mean less local search pie for the more dominant businesses in the city, but don’t despair. This opens up opportunities for more businesses to attract local search business from their local neighborhood, and there is still plenty of business to drive through local search if you step up your game.
Have you also noticed hyper-localized local pack results? I would love to hear about your examples and thoughts in the comments.
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