For the past 8 years, I’ve run the annual Local Search Ranking Factors survey. But as Tidings moves into a broader digital marketing arena, I felt it was important to leave the execution of the survey in the hands of someone who remains intimately involved in local search (Darren Shaw).

Darren was kind enough to invite me as a participant in this year’s edition, and I wanted to expand on my comments in this year’s survey and share them with the Tidings community.  They help explain much of my rationale for starting this company and developing its first product (more on that very soon!).

My View of the Future

While I’m not as bullish on the ROI of organic local search at Google as I was early in my career, cost-effective local discoverability will remain critical for small businesses no matter the dominant search paradigm (or dominant search player) in three or four years.

You probably know by now that entities—and especially single entities returned by voice assistants—are where I see Google and others headed.

Right now links are still the overwhelming markers for authority in local search results (and results of all kinds), but from where I sit, entity authority is well on its way to becoming the overarching ranking factor in local.

Entity Authority: The Overarching Local Ranking Factor

While many others besides Mike Blumenthal and me have probably reached this same conclusion, entity authority is a nebulous concept, which we recently tried to tease out at StreetFight.  Giving it a little thought will, I believe, give you the underlying algorithmic logic for at least the next decade.

Ask yourself, “If I were Google, how would I define a local entity? And once I did, how would I rank it relative to others?”

  • How widely known is the entity?
    Especially locally–but oh man, if it’s nationally-known, searchers should REALLY know about it.Citations play a role here (see the updated citation concept Mike and I discussed in the StreetFight article above), as do links. But so do things like inclusion in critical lists and even social chatter and reach–as long as Google can measure them accurately–will likely play a role, too.
  • What are people saying about the entity?
    It should probably rank for similar phrases.Structured reviews on Google and other prominent platforms are the obvious sources here. But also the context and language surrounding citations and critical mentions. Google has been rolling up common review sentiment since at least 2009, and I’m sure they’re now extending that analysis to text content in Local.
  • What is the depth of engagement with the entity?
    This is the contributing metric I find most interesting.

In fact I believe that in 2020…

The difference-making local ranking factor will be engagement.*
*But we need to expand our concept of engagement.

The power of links as difference-makers will fade over time as Google is able to ingest a broader range of engagement signals.

But I’m far from the only SEO who believes engagement is already playing a role.

I think as an industry we need to expand our definition of “engagement,” though, particularly when it comes to voice search and local businesses.

For most of us–including me until the last 18 months–engagement still reflects a “10 blue links” mindset:

  1. User performs search
  2. User clicks result
  3. User spends variable amount of time on website
  4. User is satisfied and closes browser tab or unsatisfied and returns to perform another search (pogo-sticking)

While users will always perform searches (I’m actually not bullish on predictive search at all), typical search results have qualitatively changed.

  • Knowledge Panels are frequently the top search result (often no clickthrough)
  • Answer Boxes are frequently the top search result (often no clickthrough)
  • Voice searches are gaining serious traction (clickthrough how? to what?)

Increasingly, transactions and interactions are a much better proxy for the quality of a result than clickthroughs:

  • I transact with a local business (like booking a table) right from a Knowledge Panel
  • I click-to-call right from the SERP
  • I ask my voice assistant to perform a transaction without ever searching (“OK Google, order me a large pepperoni pizza with extra mozzarella from Cibo. I’ll pick it up in 20 minutes.”)

Google would be crazy not to use those kinds of behaviors as major ranking signals.

Think about it: the number of OpenTable bookings at a decent local restaurant on a single night probably exceeds the total number of quality backlinks to that restaurant’s website.  And the number of bookings in a month probably exceeds its total number of reviews across all major platforms.

Beyond searches, we all know that Chrome has been the #1 desktop browser since mid-2012. We also know that since Pigeon, Google’s been crazy-good at detecting location on desktop. It’s hard for me to believe they wouldn’t be looking at which sites people were visiting and engaging with in a given geographic market to influence local rankings.

There are plenty of other engagement metrics that have nothing to do with search that are much better signals of authority for local businesses than the number of backlinks to their websites:

  • How many Gmail users read its newsletter?
  • How many Gmail users click through on offers and other transactional emails?
  • How many ask for directions to it in Google Maps?
  • How many have it saved as a contact in their Android phone?
  • How many visit its location while carrying their Android phone?

Engagement is simply a much more accurate signal of the quality of local businesses than the traditional ranking factors of links, directory citations, and even reviews.

There are a number business reasons why this makes sense for Google as well (aside from the privacy issues around relentless location tracking of Android, Google Maps, and Waze users).

  1. It’s harder to game.
    I suppose you *could* Mechanical-Turk things like performing voice searches, Gmail subscriptions and clickthroughs, requests for driving directions, etc. But it seems to me spam using those kinds of signals would be much easier to spot than a paid link in the middle of a blog post.
  2. It’s more personalized.
    Just because Bridgeport Brewing has a Domain Authority of 53 and Breakside Brewing has a DA of 43 does not mean that a craft beer connoisseur like myself wants to see Bridgeport at the top of my local search results.If I allowed Google to track my location and used Google Wallet for my cashless transactions, I’m quite sure my search results for “best craft brewery in Portland” would be vastly improved.
  3. It’s more reflective of real-world behavior.
    Maybe one in 1,000 people have ever created a hyperlink in their lives.  Only 10-25% of people leave reviews of local businesses on sites other than Facebook. But close to 100% of people use a major maps application to get directions, or carry their phone with them to a local business when they patronize it.

As digital marketers, we should all be excited for this future.

Google’s goal in local search has always been to mirror the real world as closely as possible with its digital results. The engagement signals they now have access to as a result of the firehose of data coming from Chrome, Gmail / G Suite, Google Maps, Waze, Android, and soon Google Home, has finally given them the ability–at least in Local–to make the algorithmic shift so many of us have long yearned for: to stop using backlinks as their primary ranking factor.