2021 Local Search Ranking Factors Report Header Image

Whitespark published its 2021 Local Search Ranking Factors annual report at the tail end of last year. Recently, we were joined by a fantastic panel of digital marketing and SEO experts to answer some of the top questions that have come from the report live on a webinar.

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The report shares important insights about what it takes to drive local rankings and conversions in the current environment. The research takes into account 132 potential factors and the results are based on over a decade of analysis, experience, and research by local experts testing their various hypotheses. The survey goes out to about 40 experts to determine what is impacting local ranking.

With the help of our panel, we discussed and provided guidance for:

  • Google Local Pack/Finder Individual Ranking Factors
  • Local Organic Individual Ranking Factors
  • Google Business Profile Conversion Factors
  • What’s Working / Not Working in Local SEO

The discussion was led by Ryan Weber, Director of Client Success at Rio SEO and our expert panel included:

2021 Local Search Ranking Factors Panelists

Amanda and Lily were among the group of experts who provided their insight for this study as well. 

In this post, we will share the top nine takeaways discussed during the webinar as well as the panel’s recommendations for elevating your Local SEO strategy.

Review Your Primary Category

As seen in the list below, the search experts polled believed the Primary GBP category your business selects has the highest impact on ranking for the Google Local Pack. The primary category you select also impacts the features and functionality available to you on your Google Business Profile (GBP).

As Darren shares during the webinar, this list can help you determine what to focus on first. Start with selecting or revisiting your primary category. Your primary category is the strongest signal telling Google what your business is and what you do.

Selecting or revisiting your additional categories would be your next area of focus. Google adds new categories every month to help businesses like yours cast a wider net for additional terms and to better tell Google what products or services you specialize in. Work your way down this list as time permits to ensure you’re giving your business the best chance to appear on the Search Engine Results Page.

Proximity Continues to Be A Powerful Ranking Signal

We polled our own audience during the webinar to see what factor they think has the biggest impact on GBP conversions. Our audience’s opinions differed from the search experts polled by Whitespark, with 36% of the audience believing proximity of address to the point of search has the biggest impact on conversions and 19% saying completeness of GBP listing. 

The audience’s answers could be in part due to the recent end-of-year Google update, which is seeing smaller businesses closer to the searcher outperforming larger businesses further away. Whitespark polled their search experts prior to this update.

Top 20 Local Pack and Finder Factor

Internal Linking Is a Valuable On-Page Ranking Factor

Internal linking may be a new ranking factor included in this year’s report; however, it’s important not to overlook its importance. These links guide users to resources on your own website, increase your visibility, and can boost your search rankings. Your business also has more control over internal links than you do with external links. With internal links, you can determine which keywords to include in your text anchors and select the page where you’ll place the link.

To create a solid internal linking strategy across your entire site, Lily recommends ensuring you have a proper site navigation structure in place to start, and then:

  • Only use internal links when they provide value to the reader
  • Use related posts or side panels to increase internal linking
  • Link to your products or service whenever they’re mentioned in your content
  • Diversify anchor text so you’re not using the same keywords every time

Reviews Are Rising in Importance

Reviews and specifically the content within those reviews are becoming an increasingly powerful ranking factor. We asked our panel for advice on how brands can get reviewers to mention specific keywords in their reviews while still adhering to Google’s guidelines. 

Amanda recommends prompting your customers with questions or statements that will help them think of their entire experience with your brand rather than just giving you a star rating. Some questions she shares that can help spark conversation include: “How was your experience with us?” or “What was your level of satisfaction with the service you received from us?”. 

Amanda also recommends thinking of what Google asks Local Guides when they leave reviews. Google states, “Local Guides is a global community of explorers who write reviews, share photos, answer questions, add or edit places, and check facts on Google Maps.” 

Google asks that Local Guides, “Be specific and relevant to the place you’re reviewing, and describe what other visitors are likely to experience. Highlight what makes the place special, and try to share something unique and new.” You can sign up to become a Local Guide with your Google account.

Think Beyond Focusing On Keywords You’re Trying to Rank For 

As Lily shares, on-page factors to consider extend beyond traditional SEO, such as optimizing your title tags and H1/H2 tags. Businesses must also focus on the content on their landing pages and how this impacts their customer’s experience. Is the content the same on every location’s landing page? Is the information your customer is reading relevant and helpful?

An example Lily uses is Home Depot. Home Depot has hundreds of thousands of locations in the U.S., yet each page has unique content such as nearby stores, store details specific to that location, FAQs for that store, and first-party reviews displayed for that store. 

To replicate Home Depot’s hyperlocal content strategy, Lily recommends creating a questionnaire for each business location for owners to answer. This allows individual locations to share tidbits about the business you wouldn’t otherwise get otherwise and helps to streamline the initiative.

Home Depot on-page hyperlocal content Example

Build High-Quality External Local Links

Local link building is an integral part of local marketing strategy. Local links point from your site to a third-party site and serve as an endorsement for the content they’re linking to. Google sees inbound links as a trust signal and factors it into its search ranking algorithm. An example of a local link is a quick-service restaurant that sponsors a blood drive event and receives a link to their site on the blood drive’s event page. Darren recommends the following local link building opportunities:

  • Sponsorship links – Look for opportunities in your city to sponsor local organizations (such as 5K runs, homeless shelters, etc.). He recommends using Zipsprout to help you find hyperlocal opportunities in your area.
  • Local chambers/business associations
  • Content-based link building – Create industry-related content for third-party publications in your industry.
  • Citations – Get listed on search directories to earn citations.

Local Link Building Example

AI Isn’t Replacing Content Creation…Yet

Another highly rated factor for local organic ranking factors is creating quality content, which has long impacted organic visibility and is quickly rising to become a top priority for many businesses. While AI is becoming a popular topic, and some are beginning to use it to produce some of their content, Amanda states it’s still important to have human intervention. As she shares, having someone who understands the value of the content you’re trying to drive is still invaluable. 

In terms of the cadence in which a business should produce content, Lily says to focus on the quality and helpfulness of the content instead of meeting a quantity goal. 

Don’t Forget About Communication Tools Within GBP

Google Q&A is an often overlooked feature in GBP, yet offers businesses a direct line of communication with high-intent purchasers. As Lily shares, she’s seen missed opportunities for brands to convert potential customers by failing to respond to questions. She recommends developing seed questions, having the location’s owner answer those questions, and upvoting those answers to maintain the voice of authority.

When asked about whether a business should invest time in monitoring incoming messages from GBP Messaging, Lily states any form of a chat with a customer is crucial. In fact, the people reaching out to your business are already interested and asking clarifying questions. Each missed interaction is a missed conversion opportunity.

Quality and Relevance of Photos Associate With a Profile Have Grown in Importance

High-quality photos can help you stand out from your competition and depict a more accurate representation of what a customer can expect when interacting with your business. Stock photos will no longer suffice. Using real photos of your location, what the inside looks like, aisles in your store, your checkout area, and customer service desk are often underleveraged and can differentiate your business. 

Darren notes search experts are seeing more evidence of great photos having a decent ranking impact. Optimize your photos with relevant alt tags to further help Google determine what your photo is of.

Watch the 2021 Local Search Ranking Factors Report Deep Dive Webinar Now

Want to hear more key takeaways from this webinar? Watch the webinar on-demand now. We also host webinars monthly that cover a wide range of topics in the local search space. Join us for our next webinar.