January 7, 2021

Let’s Talk Local #03: The factors that determine local SEO with Greg Gifford

Local SEO nerd Greg Gifford joins us to talk about:

  • How Google’s secret algorithm makes its ranking decisions
  • What the increase of zero-click searches means for local SEO
  • Why the changes in customer behavior that came with COVID are here to stay – and how brands should adapt

Listen & follow on Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform.

Conversation transcript

Text has been lightly edited for clarity.

Today we're going to be talking about factors that affect local SEO with self-professed SEO nerd Greg Gifford. Thanks for being here, Greg. Can you start off by telling our audience a little bit about yourself?

I do local SEO and I've been doing it for 13-14 years. I'm a bit of a goofball. And I'm lucky enough that people dig my presentations, so I get to speak at conferences all over the world. I really dig talking about SEO and going out, meeting people, helping businesses show up better in search results. And I'm a movie fan too.

Yeah, I was going to mention that – for those of you that aren't already following Greg on LinkedIn, I highly recommend it. His presentations are the most entertaining by far of any of the local SEO stuff I've seen. You learn a lot about SEO and then you also get some fun film references thrown in there, too.

So I want to start off by talking a little bit about Google. Google is notoriously secretive about their algorithms, so we don't necessarily know all the things that go into determining their search engine rankings, or who gets into the local three pack. But I was hoping you could tell our audience a little bit about what things you’re reasonably sure factor into the search engine rankings.

While nobody knows 100 percent for sure, just from doing research over the years, it's pretty obvious which factors matter.

So the local algorithm is a little bit more complex than the traditional algorithm. It's looking at some things that don't really matter if you're not a local business. And there are actually a couple of different areas, because you mentioned the map pack, where you've got the map and the three results. The factors for showing up there are different than showing up in the localized organic results. So depending on which area you're targeting, there are different signal weights.

The content on your site is incredibly important. You need to make sure that your content is localized so that you're targeting your local area. Links are still incredibly important, probably the most weighted factor, but link building is a lot different in local because in local we're not worried about no-follow links, or we don't really care as much about getting those big, authoritative links that you always hear about or read about when you see stuff online or at conferences about link building. In local, you want to get links from local businesses and local digital entities because that reinforces that locality factor, and then get citations, which are kind of directory listings. Any time your name, address, phone number is mentioned on another website, that used to be really powerful. Now it's more of a foundational factor. But Google wants to see supporting evidence out on other sites that say, "yeah, that business is really located at that address."

And Google My Business is incredibly important. And that's the most weighted factor for showing up in that map pack. In local SEO, you can rank in the map pack or in Google Maps without even having a website, just by having a Google My Business listing. It obviously depends on how much competition there is, but it still happens that businesses will rank and they won't even have a website. So the Google My Business is really, really important, and then customer reviews on Google are kind of part of Google My Business because that's where they live. But it's a really weighted signal as well.

So content, links, Google My Business, reviews – those are really kind of the big four things that matter.

So people are seeing when they're typing in their search query, then they're coming to the search engine results page to see those listings. Then a trend we've been seeing in maybe the past year or a little longer is that a lot of these people, after they get to these search results and they see the local pack or the GMB listing, they don’t click – they’ve gotten all the info they need. They're called zero click searches. And I think the summer of 2019 was the first time that more than half of searches on Google ended without a click. And I'm wondering what this means for local SEO, this increase in zero click searches.

People have been talking about the increase of zero click search for a couple of years now. And it's always typically at conferences, you know, some big guy like Rand Fishkin or another really well-known person.

One thing that people need to realize is when you see these conference presentations, it's not always specific to the type of businesses that you work with. So they're always talking about zero click search – whether it's a conference presentation, or a blog post, or a video online, or a podcast or whatever – and they're usually not considering local, they're talking about how you get the rich snippets or the answer boxes at the top, where you used to be able to Google something and the answer would be the number one result, and you'd click through and read it on the site. Now, Google displays the answer right there, so you don't need to click through to the site anymore to get that answer. And that's what a lot of that is coming from, from the additional features that Google has been adding into the search results page.

But it's very clearly a function of local SEO as well. Mike Blumenthal coined the phrase that “the Google My Business is your new home page.” So for local businesses, all the traffic that used to need to come to your website to get your phone number, or come to your website to get directions, or come to your website to see photos of your business or read testimonials – customers don't have to do that anymore. They can see all of that in your Google My Business profile, whether they're on desktop or mobile.

You can still get conversions as a local business, because all those people that say, "Hey, I need to call this car dealership to get my car fixed” or “I need to call this attorney and set up an appointment" – or whatever it might be – they don't have to go to your website anymore, but that doesn't mean you're losing those customers. It's just that they don't need to go to the website to actually get your number and convert. Because of that, Google My Business, and all the additions that have happened there and how rich that Google My Business experience is now, that contributes to zero-click search.

They're not clicking on your listing through to your website, but they are interacting with your Google My Business profile. They're still seeing this info. And again, it speaks to the importance of keeping that Google My Business profile or listing super updated because more people are seeing it than you can tell.

Yeah, definitely.

I want to talk quickly about Covid. I was watching a recent presentation of yours, and you said that we have to stop waiting for things to go back to normal after Covid. You said this is the new normal. Can you talk about how you see Covid is having fundamentally changed local search?

It's not necessarily that it's changed local search. It's that it's changed consumer behavior. So the businesses that are thriving during Covid are the ones that have adapted to the way that customer behavior has changed. The businesses that are struggling are the ones where you'll talk to business owners, and they're like, "Yeah man, I just can't wait for the vaccines to come out so we can get back to normal life." Well, this is normal life. The things that people have changed in their behavior, that behavior is going to stay.

I did a presentation yesterday for a conference and there were a bunch of stats in there. And one of them was like – don't quote this stat, but you'll get the idea – like fifty percent or fifty nine percent or sixty three percent, more than half, of consumers in this study have said they're going to continue to use curbside pickup even when the pandemic is over. So things like curbside pickup, delivery, you know, a lot of people are saying that they're choosing the business that they want to do business with based on the fact that they can order online but pick up locally in a store that same day.

One study mentioned three factors about how consumers are choosing the businesses they want to buy from:

  1. Proximity to their home. Is it close to their home or not? It's less about the e-commerce giants like Amazon, where you just order and get it delivered. It's: "I want to buy something from a place that I can physically go to and pick it up."
  2. The hygiene of that store.
  3. How much room is in that store. Are there lines of customers, and does the store have enough space so that you can safely social distance?

Now, obviously, these are important right now during the pandemic. But a lot of the studies out there are saying that for years, Japan has been a mask culture. People tend to just wear masks as a part of regular daily life in Japan. And a lot of the rest of the world is kind of like, "That's weird." But it's pretty likely that at least once the pandemic is over, anyone that's got a cold or that's kind of sick is probably going to start wearing masks. It'll be a lot more common all through the world to see people wearing masks on a daily basis when they're out in public.

So there's a lot of fundamental changes because of this pandemic that even when it's over, these things are going to linger for a long time. So businesses before that didn't really worry about digital marketing and didn't really worry about local search were OK because they still were thriving and getting business. And now a lot of businesses that didn't worry about SEO or paid search realized that, "Holy crap, with the pandemic, I've got to show up digitally because that's how people are shopping. They're sitting at their house using their mobile phone to shop. I've got to show up there." So all these people are jumping on the digital marketing bandwagon. I don't think that's going to go away.

There's been a big shift from all the kind of old school businesses still using traditional media to being more digital. And that's not going to switch back once we all get vaccinated and we're not worried about coronavirus anymore, so the businesses out there that are still waiting for the return to normal need to realize: this is how things are now.

Something that just jumped out to me about the three factors that you mentioned is that you can see two of the three of them already on a Google My Business profile: you can see how close it is to you, and with the new attributes, you can see what kind of precautionary measures they're taking. But as far as I know, there's nothing that would show you how much space is in a store.

Photos! Photos of the business And that's one of the things that we're encouraging businesses to do. You know a lot of businesses with Google My Business, they're going to upload five or six photos of the business and that's all they ever do. And they never come back. And there's a lot of anecdotal evidence – is it correlation or causation? Nobody really knows that – where businesses that upload a lot of photos and change their photos that often tend to have a little bit better visibility. I think it's more the fact that businesses that are that conscientious about their photos tend to be doing a lot of other things right, so that's why I don't think it’s a direct result of the photos, but the photos are definitely a conversion factor.

So for businesses that are further north, where in the summer it's nice, but in the winter there's snow, you should change your photos out so that the front of your building looks like it's got snow in the winter and looks like it doesn't have snow in the summer because it's awkward if you're looking in the summer and it's nice and everybody's wearing shorts, but your photo of the front of the building is covered in snow, you know? So you want to change those photos out.

But right now, it's important to upload photos of your employees wearing masks, your customers wearing masks, customers with social distance in force in the store, or photos of those stickers on the floor: "Six feet apart, here's how you stand in line." Sharing photos like that takes care of that in Google My Business, so people can see that you do enforce those safety measures.

Thanks for some really practical advice for our listeners.


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