23 Things That Won’t Hurt Your Local Search Rankings

Ranking well in local search is a matter of doing 3 things at once:

1. Working on the factors that help you;

2.  Avoiding getting hurt by the factors that can hurt you, and

3.  Not wasting time and effort on the stuff that doesn’t count.

I talk about the first point all the time.  It gets a lot of attention in general.

The second one involves following the rules and not making blunders.

The third doesn’t get much airtime, even though people constantly ask me, “Phil, will I be shooting myself in the foot if I do such-and-such?”

That’s why I’m going to talk about the harmless stuff – the factors that, in my experience, don’t affect how your business ranks in local search (particularly in the Google+Local results).

Here are 23 items that won’t hurt your local rankings:

Google+Local listing

 1.  Using your home address, if you run your business out of your home rather than in a bricks-and-mortar building.

 2.  “Hiding” your address from appearing publicly on your Google+Local listing.

 3.  Having the same street address as other businesses.  This might be the case if you’re in a strip mall.

 4.  Not being located in or near the center of town (AKA the “centroid”).

5.  Seeing discrepancies between the way your address is formatted when you’re on your Google listing and when you’re looking at it through the Google Places “dashboard” or Google Plus page-builder.  For instance, sometimes you’ll enter your address as “Ave.” but it shows up as “Avenue.”  That’s OK.

 6.  Using a cellphone number as the “primary” phone number for your listing.

 7.  Specifying a secondary phone number (in the “alternate phone number” field).

8.  Specifying a “contact” email address that isn’t associated with your website.  It can be a Gmail address, a Yahoo address…whatever.

9.  Having near-duplicate Google listings for individual people.  (You probably don’t even have to worry about this situation in the first place unless you run a law practice, medical practice, real-estate agency, or insurance agency.)

10.  Having some parts of your listing that aren’t 100% Google-compliant but that get “grandfathered” in because they’re not grievous offenses.  For instance, if for the past 2 years your listing has had your suite number in the 1st address field (rather than in the 2nd) you probably don’t need to change it.

11.  Using the same page on your website as the landing page for multiple Google listings, if you have multiple locations.  Ideally you have a landing page specific to each location, but in my experience it’s totally fine to use the homepage as the landing page for multiple Google listings / locations.

12.  Not “merging” your Google Places and Google Plus for Business pages.

Website

13.  Using CSS to format a rich snippet that contains your business name, address, and phone number (“NAP”).

14.  Running your website off an un-fancy platform (like GoDaddy’s “Website Tonight”).  I love WordPress, but you can optimize your site just fine on a more-primitive CMS.

15.  Using non-crawlable phone numbers on your website – like in the form of images.  Doesn’t matter if they’re call-tracking or toll-free numbers; Google can only read text.

16. Having domains that forward to the landing page that you use for your Google listing.

Third-party listings (AKA citations)

17. Not claiming your business listings on third-party sites like SuperPages, YP, Manta, etc.  The only reason you’d need to claim them is if they’ve got incorrect info on your business.  Beyond that, you might want to claim your listings in order to add as many photos, descriptions, etc. as possible.  So it’s worth taking a couple minutes to claim them, but your rankings won’t suffer if you don’t.

18.  Seeing minor formatting discrepancies between your listings on various sites.  Various citation sources have their little rules about formatting: MapQuest might use “123 Main St” for your listing, whereas SuperPages might use “123 Main Street.”  One site might want parentheses around your area code, whereas another might not.  There’s nothing you can do about these little variations, but they don’t hurt your Google rankings.

19. Concealing your street address on your listings.

20. Building citations quickly.  It’s not like with links, where Google might penalize you if you get too many links in too short a period of time.

21. Using the same “additional info” from listing to listing.  For instance, it’s OK to use the same 300-character description on every site that allows you to include a description of your business.

Reviews

22. Having negative reviews.  I’m sure if you’ve got hundreds of one-star reviews on a variety of sites (not just Google), your wings might be clipped in terms of how well you can rank locally.  But short of that, a few negative reviews won’t hurt you (at least from a rankings perspective; customer-acquisition is another matter entirely).

23. Losing reviews to the “anti-spam” filters used by Google and Yelp.

Can you think of anything else that simply doesn’t affect your local rankings?  Any first-hand experience with the above?  Leave a comment!

IYP Ranking Factors: Getting Visible in Local-Biz Directories

IYPs – short for “Internet Yellow Pages” – get a bum rap.

Some of it is true:

Yes, they’re directories, not search engines.

Yes, some of them are mere flies on the windshield of Google.

Yes, we often harbor murderous fantasies when one of their sales representatives calls us on the phone.

It’s for all these reasons and others that most business owners pay little attention to these sites.

This makes sense on one level: these sites don’t have nearly as much “eyeball share” as Google does.

But it’s a mistake.  If you’re in a competitive local market, you’re going to want every edge you can get.

More specifically: you’ll want every promising eyeball you can get (not to sound creepy or anything).  On the whole, many people use IYP sites – partly because Google usually ranks them above or right below its own local search results.

That’s why you need to know basically how these third-party directory sites rank their business listings: as on Google, on these sites there are visible businesses and invisible ones.  You want yours to be in the first group.

These sites influence your Google+Local rankings, too, but that’s another story.

I recently spent a few hours trying to figure out what separates some businesses from others on 7 of the biggest IYP sites.  I’ve listed the sites in alphabetical order, with the ranking factors for each underneath.

Here are the ranking factors I’ve found for each site:

(Please note: these simply are my observations, based on a few hours of gumshoeing and several years of helping my clients with local search.)

 

1. Reviews (AKA “ratings”).  That’s it.  One ranking factor.

In terms of how CitySearch ranks businesses, there is a very clear pecking order:

-“Best of CitySearch” winners (if there are any in a particular local market).

-Then businesses that havereviews, ranked in descending order of “CitySearch score” and/or number of reviews (more on this in a second).

-Then businesses with no reviews.

A little more detail:

Businesses that win the “Best of CitySearch” award tend to have some reviews, but I’ve seen winners that have 1 or 2, which leads me to believe reviews may not even be a factor in winning.  My understanding always has been that there are judges – AKA “scouts” – who pick the winners, but I’ve always been unclear on the specifics (despite a couple of unanswered inquiries on my part).  Whatever the case, BoC winners get the top spots.

Slightly farther down the totem pole are all the businesses with reviews.  All of them rank above all the businesses without reviews.

How do all the businesses with reviews get sorted out?  Well, that leads us to “CitySearch score.”  It’s the equivalent of an “average rating” (like what you see on Google and Yelp).  100% is perfect.  75% may mean that 3 out of 4 customers gave you a positive rating – which they can do without actually having to string together a couple sentences in a review.

CitySearch ranks businesses mostly by score, but also by number of ratings.

CitySearch usually ranks businesses with 90% above ones with 85%, which in turn outrank the ones at 72%, and so on.  You get the idea.

There are some exceptions to this: Occasionally a business with a 90% CitySearch score will outrank one with a 100%.  In these cases, the number of ratings also seems to be a factor: a business with 95% based on 60 ratings may outrank a business with 100% based on 20 ratings.

But businesses with a score of 50% or more always outrank the ones that have a score below 50%

When several businesses have 100% scores (which is common), it seems that the one with the highest number of reviews/ratings will be at the top.

Given that your local competitors probably don’t include many or any “Best of CitySearch” winners, and that businesses without any reviews rarely are contenders on the site, your #1 task is just to rack up a couple of reviews on the site.  (CitySearch reviews help you out on many other sites, too.)

 

1.  Paid results.  Businesses that pay get the top spots.  Everyone else dukes it out based on:

2.  Reviews.  InsiderPages is similar to CitySearch in this way.  All businesses with reviews outrank all the ones that don’t have any.

Here, too, the businesses are ranked based on the number of reviews they have and by order of average rating (e.g. 5-star average, 4-star average, etc.).  But unlike on CitySearch, here the number of reviews seems to carry a little more weight than how high the average star rating is.  It appears quantity matters a bit more than quality, in this regard.

 

1. Being “Verified by Manta.”  Once you create your Manta profile, they call you up to make sure your info is accurate.  I don’t recall ever having done this with my clients (maybe once or twice…don’t remember), but I believe it’s free.

2.  Business name.  If the name of your Manta listing includes a given search term or city name, you’ll probably rank highly for it.  But do NOT mess with your business name just to grab an extra edge: it may hurt the all-important consistency of your “NAP” info across the web.

By the way, there’s no such thing as a “Manta review,” so reviews aren’t even part of the equation here.  Probably all you can do to climb over a few competitors is owner-verify your Manta listing (again, with the caveat that I’m not 100% sure whether it’s free – not that it necessarily would be a bad use of a buck).

 

1.  Paid results.

2.  Business name.

3.  Reviews (?).  This is a bit unclear to me: although businesses with reviews generally seem to outrank ones that don’t, sometimes I’ll click on a listing with a star rating next to it and the actual listing page for the business won’t show any reviews (I have a theory about this, though).  I do know, though, that MerchantCircle is no stranger to the occasional shenanigan.  It’s definitely a good site to be on, and you’ll want to make sure your listing is complete and accurate.  I just don’t really know the extent to which MerchantCircle reviews help you on the site (or in your Google+Local rankings).

 

1. Paid results.  SuperPages seems to have a ton of businesses on-board with “sponsored listings” – to such an extent that the “basic” listings often are halfway down the page or lower.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.  SuperPages has an unusually wide range of categories you can list your business under, but you can’t specify any custom categories.  You can pick up to 5.  It’s really worth taking a few minutes to make sure you pick them wisely.  (One good practice is to check out which ones your competitors are using.)

4.  Reviews.  Relative to other sites, SuperPages doesn’t have an enormous amount of review activity – though certainly it would be smart to make sure you get a couple reviews on it.  In effect, this makes the other 3 main ranking factors I’ve identified a little more important.

 

I did a whole post on Yelp ranking factors, as you may have seen.  But here are the CliffsNotes on what seem to be the biggest ranking factors:

1.  Existence of reviews.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews

3.  Categories.

4.  Name of business.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.

8.  Quality of reviews.

(For more detail, check out the post.)

 

Let’s start this one off with some great observations by my good buddy Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca:

I looked at some businesses ranking in yellowpages.ca a while back and it looked to me that the #1 thing was just to get a couple reviews. Any reviews. Most businesses didn’t have any reviews on the site, and the ones that did tended to rank. The trouble with yellowpages.ca is that they randomize the rankings on every page load. Refresh this a few times: http://www.yellowpages.ca/search/si/1/plumbers/Edmonton+AB

The items in blue are paid, and the items with pins are paid as well but a lower cost package. It looks pretty random.

I’m pretty sure that if you phone and talk to a sales rep at most directories, they’ll tell you exactly how the rankings are generated. Typically it’s paid level 1, paid level 2, paid level 3, then random non-paid with reviews possibly playing a role. They seem to randomize the various paid levels as well so that each business gets equal opportunity to rank #1 in their section.

 Just for the sake of comparing notes, here are the YP ranking factors I’ve noticed:

1. Paid results.  They’re everywhere.  The only randomized results – the ones Darren mentions (above) – seem to be the paid results.  The “basic,” free listings appear to rank the same way consistently – based on some of the ranking factors we’ve seen elsewhere.

2.  Business name.

3.  Categories.

4.  Reviews.  YP is an important site to your local-search efforts in a lot of ways – certainly if you’re in the US, but especially if you’re in another country.  Even if you don’t give a hoot about how visible you are on YP, I do recommend getting at least a few reviews there.

Even if some of specific factors I mentioned were news to you, the takeaway messages from all of this shouldn’t be news:

1.  Make dead-certain you’re listed on each of the above sites, spend a few minutes picking out the most-relevant categories you can for your listings, and try to get reviews on as many of the sites as you possibly can.

2.  Although many ad packages are a waste (or an outright scam), don’t necessarily dismiss them out of hand.  For instance, if there’s on IYP site where you have a ton of great reviews, getting more people to see that listing may pay off.

3.  Whenever there’s an often-ignored to-do item that can set you apart on one specific site (like verifying your Manta profile), do it.  Most of your competitors would rather kick back and shovel Pringles into their faces than take a few minutes to pick low-hanging fruit.

Do you have any thoughts on / experience with the sites I mentioned or with others?  Any advice or suggestions?  Leave a comment!

Yelp Ranking Factors

How would you go about ranking well on Yelp?For a while I’ve pondered a simple question: how does Yelp.com rank the businesses listed on it?

A few of my clients have wondered that, too.  They’ve asked, “Phil, my local rankings in Google are great, but why am I only on page 2 of Yelp for my big search terms?”

Until now, my answer has been “Well, I’m not sure, but I do know priority #1 is to get more customers to write you Yelp reviews.”

I was right – mostly.  Reviews in general are the biggest factor in your Yelp rankings.  (Duh…reviews are Yelp’s whole claim to fame).  That may not be news to you.

But there are specific aspects of those reviews – not just sheer numbers of them – that likely influence your rankings.  Plus, there seem to be entirely separate factors that matter.  (More on those in a second.)

 

Why should you care about your Yelp rankings?

a.  Yelp is already a giant in the local-search realm.  It’s a close second to Google+Local, and the site appears to be growing rapidly.

b.  Yelp has a hardcore user-base.  Yelpers love writing reviews, and they read others’ reviews.  They’re a good group of people to be visible to.

c.  Yelp reviews are fed to other big sites.  Bing Business Portal gets many of its reviews from Yelp – and should be getting more over time.  Plus there’s the soon-to-be partnership with Apple Maps.

d.  If ever we witness an epic “Google fail” (or, more likely, a series of smaller ones) and Google ceases to be the place people go to search for local businesses, my guess is Yelp will fill more of that role.

That, gentle reader, is why you need to pay attention to your Yelp presence (if you don’t already).

But Yelp, like Google, doesn’t exactly broadcast how it ranks businesses on its site.

 

First, a few notes

The little lawyer on my shoulder just reminded me that I should mention a few points before we get into the likely ranking factors.

  • This is based purely on my observations.  Yelp has not “told” me or anyone else what goes into their secret sauce.
  • Nor is this supposed to be some “scientific study” (as if there really is such a thing in the world of SEO).  Apart from a few years of dealing with Yelp for my clients, all I did recently was spend a couple hours studying the rankings in a variety of local markets.
  • All I’m trying to do is sketch out the basic moving parts that seem to make up Yelp’s machinery, so that you can make the most of the factors you can control and just be aware of the ones you can’t.  It would not be smart to try to game Yelp’s rankings (not that you’re the type to do that!).  Even if you could do so, the results probably wouldn’t last for long: Yelp has a lot of employees who “make the rounds” and keep the search results fairly clean.
  • One thing I want to show is the rankings are NOT just about how many reviews you have.
  • The rankings I’m referring to are the ones you see by default when you search on Yelp – the ones ranked by “Best Match”

The Factors

Major factors (I’m 99% sure Yelp takes these into account):

1.  Existence of reviews.  Almost all of the businesses that have reviews rank above the businesses that do not have any reviews.  Think of it as a poker game with an ante of one review.  If you don’t get that one review, you’re not even at the table.

2.  Keyword-relevance of reviews.  Spammers and scammers know about this, too, but Yelp’s filters do a pretty good job of weeding out the bad apples.

3.  Business categories specified.

4.  Name of business.  This is something you just can’t control on Yelp.  But if you have a relevantly-phrased business name, that will work in your favor.

5.  Number of reviews.

6.  Reviews by “Elite” members.  These people are the wizened, weathered village elders.  Their words seem to carry extra heft.

7.  Check-ins via smartphone.  These are going to be even more important once Apple Maps rolls into town.

8.  Quality of reviews.  Are they 1-star or 5-star?  This doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as you might think, but it does seem to be a factor.

Possible additional factors

9.  Number of reviews left for other businesses by reviewer.

10.  Completeness / thoroughness of business profile.

11.  Location-relevance of reviews.

12.  Recentness of reviews.

13.  Frequency of reviews.

14.  Age of listing.  I’d bet you a box of stogies that older listings are assigned a certain amount of “trust” by Yelp, and that they generally rank a little more highly as a result.

15.  Business info from third-party data-providers (particularly Acxiom, according to David Mihm’s Local Search Ecosystem).

16.  Editorial discretion of Yelp employees.

 

How might you improve your Yelp visibility?

  • Get duplicate listings removed.  You want any and all reviews your customers write to benefit one listing, rather than sorta-kinda benefit two listings.  You don’t want your reviews spread thinly.
  • Try to prevent future duplicates from popping up.  If this has been a problem, what I suggest you do is go to the upstream data-aggregators – Acxiom, InfoGroup, and LocalEze – and make sure you only have ONE listing per location on those sites, and that those sites list the same business info that your Yelp listing has.
  • Specify as many relevant business categories as you can.  Emphasis on ”relevant.”
  • Claim your Yelp profile so that you can write in-depth descriptions of your business and services.
  • When asking customers for reviews, your first question should be “Have you ever written Yelp reviews?”  If the answer is “yes,” simply ask those people to post a Yelp review for you.  They’ll know what to do.  Reviews left by first-time users are more likely to get filtered out.  Even if you ask someone who’s never heard of Yelp, that’s fine; just know that there’s a chance his/her review will never see the light of day.
  • If you’re face-to-face with a particularly enthusiastic, smartphone-fondling customer, ask him or her to give to go onto Yelp real quickly and give you a check-in.
  • Get in the habit of asking customers for feedback on Yelp.  Don’t have a Yelp-review binge weekend.  Ask customers as close to real-time as possible – not 2 months after you’ve provided your services.  I guarantee you won’t be able to drum up many reviews if you do it in bursts.  Just stick with it.

It would be very cool if someone else – maybe you! – continues to dig into the question of why some businesses rank more highly on Yelp than others do.

I’d love to hear any of your first-hand experience with Yelp rankings and visibility, or if you do some research and draw some new conclusions about Yelp’s likely ranking factors.

9 Known Ranking Factors of Reviews in Google Places

Maybe your business has 2 reviews and sits proudly atop Google Places.

Or maybe you’ve busted your butt for 40 customer reviews but still toil at #13 on page 2 of Google.

Perhaps your competitor is outranking you…even though he has 3-star average rating and you have a 5-star average.

You’re well aware that reviews influence your Google Places ranking.  That’s as true as ever.  So what gives?

Simply this: a review is not a review.

Numbers do matter—a lot.  So does your average rating.

But Google looks at many aspects of your reviews when deciding how to rank your business in Google Places.

Why should you care?  Well, because you need a rough idea of whether your reviews are helping, hurting, or having no affect on your Google Places ranking.  That tells you whether your current review-solicitation strategy is right on the money or needs serious tweaking.

At least 9 factors seem to determine how your reviews influence your local ranking.  I’ve noticed these on my own, and David Mihm touches on most of these factors in his excellent “Local Search Ranking Factors.”

It’s impossible to tell which single factor is the most important, which one is second-most important, etc.   But what is clear is that the more of these qualities your reviews have, the more likely it is you’ll outrank local competitors in Google Places.

Anyway, without further ado, the main review factors (in no particular order):

  • Total number.  The grand total of all your reviews on all the sites where customers may have written reviews for you—Google Places, CitySearch, InsiderPages, etc.

Factor: total # of reviews

  •  Total number of “Google reviews.”  Long story short, Google pays somewhat more attention to its own “brand” of reviews.  All other things being equal, you get more ranking benefit from 10 Google Places reviews than from, say, 10 SuperPages reviews (in my experience).

Factor: total # of Google reviews

  • Total number of reviews on third-party sites.  In other words, how many customer reviews you have on sites other than Google Places.

Factor: total # of reviews on third-party sites

  • Average rating.  Newsflash: a 5-star average is better than a 4-star average.
  • Relevance to services.  Your reviews help your ranking more if they contain phrases that are relevant to the services you’re trying to get found for.  A review that says “Best dentist in town” is more beneficial than one that says “Dr. John Doe is the best!”

Factor: keyword-relevance to your specific services

  • Relevance to location.  One of the big “questions” that Google tries to determine is whether your business is, in fact, local.  If reviews seem to confirm that you are located in the area you claim to be located in, Google’s more likely to rank you well.  So, to go back to my previous example, a review that says “Best dentist in town” is not as good as one that says “Best dentist inCleveland.”
  • Velocity.  AKA the speed at which you receive reviews.  If you get 5 reviews in 5 weeks, your Places ranking is more likely to improve than if you get 5 reviews in a year.  Receiving reviews at a healthy pace is one indication that you run a fully operational business, and that customers emerge alive and well and willing to write you reviews from time to time.  To Google, it’s just another sign that you run a quality business.
  • Diversity of sites.  Do you only have reviews on MojoPages, or do you have them on MojoPages, CitySearch, InsiderPages, YellowPages, and Google Places?  The more sources your reviews come from, the better.

Factor: diversity of sites where you have reviews

  • Prominence / authority of third-party sites.  20 customer reviews on a well-established site like CitySearch will probably get you more Google Love than if you had 20 reviews on some dinky little site nobody’s ever heard of.  (Note: Yelp reviews used to influence over your Google Places ranking heavily, but ever since July 2011, when Google stopped using Yelp’s data, Yelp reviews haven’t seemed to pack as much of a wallop).

There are some other aspects of reviews that may influence your Google Places ranking, but that I haven’t seen as much evidence for.  To some extent, I’m speculating.  Anyway, consider these 4 “maybe” factors:

  • Who writes the reviews.  It only makes sense that a Google review from a customer who’s written 20 reviews for other businesses would count for more than a review written by someone who’d never written a Google review and just opened a Google account 5 minutes ago.  I haven’t verified that this is the case, but it makes sense that the history / activity of the reviewer’s Google account would matter.
  • Pace.  I’ve noticed that businesses seem to rank most highly when they can get a steady stream of reviews.  If you get 30 reviews in a weekend and then none for a month, the alarms are likely to go off at Google.
  • Age of oldest reviews.  In the organic SEO world, “domain age” (how old your website name is) gives you a slight advantage in the rankings.  Similarly—all other things being equal—if you have reviews that are 3-5 years old, I’m sure Google gives you a slight edge over (say) a competitor whose oldest reviews are from earlier this year.
  • User feedback.  If people consistently visit your Places page and flag your reviews as “inappropriate,” I imagine that those specific reviews—be they 1-star of 5-star—would influence your ranking less.  Of course, if they’re flagged enough, Google may remove them entirely.  Similarly, the extent to which people rate your reviews “helpful” most likely affects how much influence they have over your Google Places ranking.

I think you could draw one of two conclusions from all of this:

Conclusion 1:  “Holy $#!%, I totally underestimated Google!  I’m going to have to put in overtime in my laboratory to conjure up the kinds of reviews that Google ‘likes’!”

OR

Conclusion 2:  “Google’s just trying to determine if my reviews are real, written willingly by my customers.  I’m just going to keep it simple and ask a bunch of my customers for reviews.”

The best thing to know about these factors is you can’t control all of them: you really cannot and should not try to cook up the reviews, nor should you be too heavy-handed in asking customers where, when, and how to write the reviews for you.

Instead, if you ask enough customers for reviews, over time you’ll cover all the bases (the “ranking factors”).  And that will ensure that your reviews, as a whole, will have the one quality that Google can’t detect but that will win you the most customers: authenticity and sincerity.

Any interesting stats, tests, or case-studies that I should know about?  Any review factors that I forgot to include, or that you think belong on the “maybe” list?  Leave a comment!

By the way, here’s a one-page “tip sheet” I put together a while ago on best practices for asking customers for reviews.