One of the more interesting aspects of seeing local search mature over the past seven years has been how little the algorithm driving local search results on Google has shifted.
For example, while Google has made significant changes to which queries trigger local results and how those results display, its stance on citation building and cleansing/optimizing Google Business/Places/Maps/Plus Local listings has remained consistent since day one.
Some of the more recent factors like traditional organic signals are occasionally prominent as Google tests ideal ways to present merged local and organic results in the search engine results pages (SERPs). On the other hand, while review and social media signals are being spoken about frequently and starting to be incorporated in SERPs, the weight of those factors when it comes to local rankings is still fairly limited at this time.
Yet despite Google's consistency in the past, we can expect the importance of certain local factors to grow in the year ahead. Marketers should focus their energies on these key tactics in 2014.
1. Improving Brand/Domain Authority
The shift from keywords to context that started with the Panda updates in 2011 and culminated, most recently, with the Hummingbird update last August have had a clear impact on domain and brand authority, major facets of SEO. These two factors now matter more than ever.
Targeting micro sets of tail end keywords with thin content pages is a tactic that lost a great deal of effectiveness with the Panda release, and with the Hummingbird update, the tactic is poised to go the way of other previously killer SEO techniques that eventually became ineffective like microsites and PageRank sculpting with nofollow tags.
What will matter more is how authoritative searchers and Google view a site relative to any given topic.
Does the site offer the information searchers need? Will it keep visitors on the site after their initial visit? Will they visit again based on the content? Or does the site simply contain pages just to manipulate the search results?
These are the types of questions Google is trying to answer as it orders its search results, and it gets better at this every year.
2. Making Websites Mobile Friendly
Smartphone penetration reached 65 percent in 2013, up from 44 percent in 2011 and is expected to continue climbing in 2014. With some analysts predicting that reach could be as high as 75 percent by the end of the year, it is safe to say that more people will access content with mobile devices than ever before.
At a Pubcon keynote earlier this year, Matt Cutts reiterated the need for businesses to have sites that are friendly on mobile devices, preferably through responsive design. While this message was targeted to people looking to perform well in Google's organic results, businesses wanting to perform well in local and local-organic results should also follow the advice.
3. Correcting Any Inaccuracies in Foursquare
At the time, Instagram was its only large licenser, but that alone was enough to make it the fourth largest data provider to mobile apps. With its increased reach (Pinterest, Uber, etc) and relative ease in managing the data on its platform, I agree with Mihm that the four primary data aggregators (Neustar, Infogroup, Acxiom, Factual) will be joined by Foursquare to become five by the end of the year.
4. Fixing Other Maps
Most local search marketers now know to make sure their address information is correct and consistent across the local ecosystem, but they should also make sure to check map markers on local sites like Yelp, Citysearch, and Google Maps.
If an address is entered correctly, these sites should be able to generate the correct latitude and longitude for proper pin placement.
Unfortunately, business locations on these maps often appear incorrectly. Because the underlying mapping software for these sites sometimes comes up with the incorrect latitude and longitude, checking just the address is no longer adequate to maximize the opportunity these sites offer.
The obvious risk with incorrect pin placements is the inability for customers to find a business when they access that business' information from one of these sites on mobile devices, but just as important is the potential for a decrease in ranking for customers searching near a business location.
Mobile search results often incorporate a searcher's location into the ranking algorithm, so having an incorrect latitude and longitude could mean that these sites think a business is further away from the searcher than it actually is and prevent that business from appearing in the search results.
Marketers should expect Google to continue elevating the prominence of local search results in 2014, and proactively preparing for these likely changes to the local ranking algorithm make great business sense for marketers. They not only position marketers for success on the local SERP; they also elevate the customer experience these marketers offer and address a number of much needed usability improvements for sites in today's omnichannel world.
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