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.

33 comments on “The Difference-Making Local Ranking Factor of 2020

  • Amazing post, David. I think you nailed it. Google would be crazy to not use these engagement metrics. They are such an excellent view of real world behavior. I think there is a decent amount of this being used in local search rankings right now, and I bet they become the dominant driver of local results before 2020. Maybe as early as 2018.

    Trying to figure out how and why certain businesses are ranking right now is already a challenge, and it’s just going to get more challenging as Google gathers and uses data that SEOs just won’t have access to. The black box is going to get harder and harder to see into.

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence!

      Totally agree, that’s another business reason for Google to use these signals…not only are they harder to game but they’re basically impossible to reverse-engineer.

      I’m still not convinced there’ll be enough Voice data to make sense of in 2018 but certainly a lot of that mobile engagement is already in the mainstream.

  • Great Post! I would add to your bulleted list of engagement metrics if a place / business is saved as a place inside google maps app on ios and android. This new functionality that they just rolled out, could be used to determine quality/engagement of a local biz.

  • myles anderson says:

    Very thought provoking David – I wouldn’t expect anything less.

    I suspect that the path to this new paradigm won’t be smooth and Google will fallback to relying on signals like links for longer than they’d like. There have been false dawns in the past – e.g. Social signals , which never delivered the quality that many thought they would – and I expect that there will be 2 steps forward, 1 step backward in this case.

    Question for you – when you talk to local business owners, how do you distill this ‘engagement’ concept down to language and actions that they can grasp and also work with today?

    Also, links have value today and will do for some time. Same with review & citations.

    I presume that you encourage business owners to keep investing in those signals but also start making changes to their business so that these future signals start accumulating – e.g. start accepting Google wallet payments sooner rather than later, or build an email list & optimise newsletters to deliver more opens & clicks

    I think the movement towards real-world engagement signals is great for local businesses. It means that they get rewarded for delivering a great service rather than having the best optimization. It’s a truer meritocracy and allows them to focus on what’s truly valuable for their customers. And this of course benefits customers which is what we, as customers, want.

    Thanks David


    • Absolutely agree that we will see these signals move into the algorithm in fits and starts, and that links, reviews, and citations far outweigh these engagement signals today.

      In terms of distilling the concept…essentially I’d say anything that Google can track as a touchpoint between you and your customers is a possible engagement signal. The tactics to take advantage are as you described above.

  • Interesting read…I am just not sure that using data from chrome or maps or gmail etc would paint a true to life picture any better than the current links or citations model. I’m surprised e google have already tested this out and if the results where deemed to be “better” then they would have done it already.

    • Hi Matt,
      Perhaps so for generic queries…but I think the ability at least in Local to track physical actions on phone (or Voice/Knowledge Panels in terms of transactions) makes it a logical evolution. That data has only been available with the kind of granularity that Google needs for the last 18 months or so, which would be pretty early to roll out as a full-blown algorithm.

    • I’d also add that there’s some recent evidence they ARE doing this already, even for generic queries. Here’s a story I’ll be linking to in my newsletter tomorrow––Google is able to track the success of non-Google marketing campaigns via Chrome (and possible GA) data, and rewards the companies who run them with higher rankings.

  • Great read David. G’s algorithms are growing in sophistication and as marketers we need to be doing the same. It appears, for local anyway, that citations are now the baseline to begin ranking – they are no longer a significant ranking factor. To expand, if you don’t have citations you won’t rank in Local, simply having them gets you into the game. Now you are saying, having them is great, but let’s expand on that and get as many reviews as we can, respond to reviews, be active on those citation websites.

    As Myles stated, I think G is going to have a difficult time integrating some of these new metrics into their algo which will result in some messy results until they actually figure it out.

    Interesting take.

  • With so many local directories here in the UK starting to offer only paid links, it’s nice to know that Google has found another way to measure and rank. Using these ‘interactions’ that she has more access to and which are harder to purchase makes sense… until the scammers find a way to automate these anyway.

  • perryevans says:

    Excellent POV; I’m a BIG proponent of the importance of engagement. There’s an interesting data dimension and challenge to parse and rank the “genuineness” of engagement signals. By example, we track the social signals that relate to an outbound Instagram post from the business, alongside posts initiated by consumers that are not in response to a business’ outbound posts. I’d argue that consumer initiated content is a “more pure” signal of engagement [closer to capturing WOM], but when consumers do engage in what the business posts, it’s a good indicator. Moving from “posting” as engagement to shopping action behaviors like driving directions and transactional link activity as you suggest are excellent factors.

    I’m also fond of the “time to respond” to incoming messages, and response patterns to reviews, as engagement quality indicators – these are legitimate ways that consumers judge whether a business is responsive and desirable.

    I do worry that auto-responders and bots are “lining up” to mimic engagement as soon as leading authorities signal their importance [ahem], but that’s a whole other kettle of phish.

    • David Mihm says:

      Yes, sadly I’m sure there will be bot-spam with this as well. But this gets diminished with Google’s knowledge of normal Gmail user behavior, for example (which I’m sure varies wildly on a user-by-user basis).

      Would not be at all surprised to see lead-time of response play a role on Facebook, as you suggest.

  • otherwise says:

    Great post. Sort of new at this, but all I read from the “gurus” is mostly emphasizing links for off-page rankings.

  • Beyond Google, David, I’m seeing a big influence from conversations on NextDoor. Love it or hate it, in many communities it has replaced Facebook as the primary source of referrals for local businesses. Business owners are becoming skeptical that anybody even “googles” to figure out which vendors to call. Look for NextDoor’s influence to expand.

    • David Mihm says:

      NextDoor has not come close to replacing Facebook in my own neighborhood, but I agree with you that it’s well-positioned to capture at least some digital word-of-mouth market share. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Hey David, your predictions are marvelous. At the same time do you think you have missed out negative engagement metrics? Google love to penalize/demote websites/listings for improving their search quality that giving credibility? For ex: Negative engagement metrics like how many of their searched for a term and checked a local listing but not asked for directions/clicked open their websites like that. Also why can’t Google use WHOIS and hosting server records address matching for ranking local businesses?

    • Hi Prakash, thanks for your comment.

      I’d say it’s a little harder to infer “negative engagement metrics” like the one you mention…it’s possible the consumer would simply know where that business is located and travel to it on their own.

      There’s some thought that Google does use WHOIS records as a local ranking factor but it’s typically rated pretty low on the overall list in my former annual survey of experts.

      • regarding negative engagement metrics, how harder it might be?
        Google should maintain a database of CTR activities which may contain date, query, url for the query, positive engagement metrics like clicks, negative engagement metrics like hovers but not clicks(this may significantly tell Google they are not using compelling title/meta data), bounced back to SER Pages(result doesn’t match the query/irrelavant), position of the URL for the query, if personalized search, user information, the position of the clicked URL may drop from ranking here for better user experience. while searching again for the same query. there may more possibilities, which I didn’t mention here.

        But I assume this could be possible, if they had a database for this as well and the query is passing through them to get results. Is that hard for Google! What do you say?

    • Hi Gail,
      Thanks for the question. I guess I’m not sure how you would game in-store visits and actual purchases, short of hiring people to actually go to your physical locations (and refunding them in cash for any purchases on their credit card or via Google Wallet, which seems like an accounting nightmare). Even at minimum wage here in the United States, hiring people to visit stores in enough volume to make a difference in rankings would probably be cost-prohibitive, though I suppose it could work in certain very high-margin industries like autos and jewelry.

  • David, thank you for an interesting look at local ranking. It will bring a whole new dimension to SEO if link building takes a backseat to engagement signals….

  • David, finding that “entity” perfection involves other checkboxes including schema markup, a credit card on file, and more robust publishing on Google-owned properties.

    Do you have any comments (or referral to other posts) specifically on what things an SEO can do to start hitting the trust-zone by perfecting the business entity?

    Kind regards,

    • Hi Tony,
      Not sure what you’re referring to with “credit card on file,” but agree that publishing Google Posts and potentially even Google+ in some industries still helps.

      I’d absolutely make sure to add photography and videography as a key component of what you’re offering clients and if your clients are in an industry that’s part of Reserve with Google, make sure they sign up with one of those partners for scheduling & booking services.

  • That’s a really interesting insight David. I’ve seen a lot of the articles you mentioned but you really put all the pieces together to make a strong case for engagement as a dominant ranking factor.

  • It is now a year and a half since your wrote this article and I would have to say that you predictions are proving correct. Certainly engagement is having more effect as Google continues to improve the sophistication of its algorithms.
    When consumer traffic takes the time to initiate content or comments, it is a clear signal of engagement in what the business posts. Stacking any shopping action on top of this, eg.. like driving directions and transactional activity (purchases off links) as you suggest are excellent factors.
    Thanks for sharing

  • Hi David, I agree with you that the entire game of local search ranking has changed. The engagement plays an important role in deciding the google the ranking of local business. I have also noticed that irrespective of how many reviews you have on your google map a new website with very few genuine reviews will outrank you in local search. Anyways thank you for the insight.

  • David, that’s a fascinating observation. I’ve seen many of the studies you cited, but you truly pulled everything together to make a compelling argument for interaction as a major ranking element.


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