Google retains a dominant share of all internet searches throughout both the U.S. and the world. In the growing niche of local search, Google has a near monopoly position. Integration of Google’s local search with its Android operating system is a major factor, but the search engine giant has also moved aggressively to differentiate its local search results from its competition.
Years of data from Android users’ search behavior has allowed Google to tailor results for local searchers in a manner which is entirely different from the results of non-local searches. Understanding how local search is different is crucial to competing in the local SEO marketplace.
Local Search is Different Than Regular Search
Google treats a local search query differently than a regular search query. The difference is so stark that most experienced SEOs consider local search to rely on an entirely different search engine. Many of the search engine optimization strategies that work for a regular search query are ineffective when dealing with local search.
As such, it is critical for SEOs and their clients to differentiate between targeting users coming through the local algorithm versus the regular algorithm. Unfortunately, differentiating between the two is not a simple as analyzing keywords.
The specific text of a query is not the only factor in determining whether a search is sent to the local search algorithm or regular search algorithm. Three common methods to access the local algorithm are:
1) A searcher in Honolulu, Hawaii, types “Italian restaurant” into Google. The search engine automatically localizes the query and delivers exclusively local results about Italian restaurants in the surrounding area.
2) A searcher in Honolulu, Hawaii, types “Italian restaurant in Chicago” into Google. The search engine localizes the query to Chicago, Illinois (the most-likely Chicago reference) and delivers local results about Italian restaurants in Chicago.
3) A searcher in Honolulu, Hawaii, types “San Francisco attractions” into Google. Immediately after, the user searches for “Italian restaurants”. For the second query, Google provides a mix of Italian restaurants in Honolulu (the city where the search user is physically located) and in San Francisco (the city which matches the most recent previous search).
Google tries to analyze user intent before sending local versus regular results. For queries where location is highly likely to matter — such as restaurants, bars, or movie theaters — all results are dicated by the local search algorithm. For queries where location is unlikely to matter — such as search engine optimization companies or national news — results are based on the regular algorithm.
Local Search Relies on a Physical Location
To be included in a local search result, a business must have a physical location. More precisely, if a website is not linked (in Google’s determination) to a real-world business with a physical location, that website will not appear in local results. Google’s understanding of a business’ location is the sole determinant of whether the business information shows up for any local search.
Since inclusion in local search results is critically important for local businesses, it is imperative that business owners and their SEOs get into the local algorithm. Unfortunately, there are no guaranteed ways to make Google view your company as a local business with a physical location.
However, there is one factor which appears to be the primary determinant for inclusion in local search. Name / Address / Phone, or NAP, seems to be the most relevant signal used by Google. Google analyzes the name, address, and phone number of every mention of every business. If NAP online references consistently match information from other sources, then the search engine is more certain that a business is legitimate and deserves to be included in local search results.
Thus consistent application of NAP across every online marketing channel is the most important factor in determining whether a firm can get into the lucrative local search results.
The Local Carousel is Critical
One major difference between local and regular search results is that local results often include a “carousel” at the top of the page. This local carousel provides a quick, visual display of relevant businesses close to the searcher.
In the example at left — an anonymized search with no previous search history — searching for “Italian restaurant” results in a local carousel with nine Italian restaurants within a few miles of the user’s location.
The local carousel always appears at the very top of the results, above organic results and above the map. Because of its prime location, the carousel now drives more traffic and attention than other results.
Just being in the carousel is important, but position in the carousel is even more crucial. At local SEO company Argon Marketing, we worked with a family-owned restaurant chain to improve their local search results.
The restaurant’s website was not in the local carousel at the beginning of the contract. Due to budgetary and time constraints, we were only able to get the restaurant to position 9 in the local carousel for its relevant search phrase. Nonethless, the movement from off the carousel to position 9 resulted in a 1670% increase in click-throughs to the company’s site (from 23 per week to 407 per week). Given the conversion rate of clicks to reservations and the contribution margin of each additional customer, the restaurant received thousands of dollars a month in additional margin beyond the cost of the campaign.
Many factors determine a site’s position in the local carousel, but businesses and SEOs who ignore the carousel entirely are missing a significant opportunity.
Citations Are Key
One factor that is clearly relevant in both inclusion in the local carousel and ranking in the local algorithm is the number and quality of online citations. Online citations generally consist of large directories or review sites that collect data on every business within an area or industry. Some well-known web directories like Yelp, Merchant Circle, and Google Places For Business seem to be of paramount importance in establishing NAP for a local company.
Online citations are key for ensuring that Google recognizes a company as a real-world venture that has a physical location. While it is possible for a business to be included in the caorusel and local results without utilizing citations, the most important citation websites are free and provide an easy method of reinforcing data about a business.
Some SEOs view citation websites as little more than free links to a client’s site. But since most citation links are nofollow, spamming a client’s site across thousands of different citations is of limited benefit. Rather, SEOs should view each citation as a chance to establish a little more online credibility for a client firm. Seeing a business show up in one regional directory may not affect a prospective customer, but seeing the same information about a business in half-a-dozen popular citation websites will make the customer more comfortable with patronizing the business.
It is imperative that every citation be filled out with exactly the same information every single time. The company name should be entered in precisely the same way across all citation sites. Similarly, the company address should be identical on every site. Minor differences to humans, like “St.” versus “Street” or zip versus zip+4, may confuse software into thinking the citations refer to different businesses.
The Future of Local SEO
Google implemented the local carousel on June 18th of this year. In just six months it has become arguably the most important factor for local search traffic. Relying on static methods of SEO was never a winning strategy. But now, with fast moving local results being so different than regular search results, a dated SEO strategy is of no value.
Local businesses and the SEOs they work with should be aware of the distinction between the local and regular Google algorithm. More importantly, they should think about the manner in which end users will search for the business and adjust online marketing efforts toward user intent. There is no way to guarantee success when competing for local results. But only firms that tailor their tactics toward a local SEO strategy will be able to compete in the future.
- License: Image author owned
By Nolan Kido
This article has been written by Nolan Kido. Nolan works in the technology industry in Honolulu, Hawaii.