07/12/2010

By Andy Heaps, Director of Search, Epiphany Solutions Ltd

Google’s integration of Places into its search results has been around for a while now — long enough for us all to be used to regularly seeing the little red pins and floating maps cluttering many of our SERPS!

Local search ranking factors haven’t changed a great deal (if at all) during this update. A couple of good reference points on local ranking factors are Tom Critchlow’s Think Visibility presentation from earlier this year, and David Mihm’s extremely comprehensive local search ranking factors study, also from earlier this year. The gist of both of these is that the following factors are the most heavily weighted:

• Ensuring Places listings are owner-verified
• Listings being placed in keyword rich categories
• Distance from the searcher’s location and/or distance from location searched for
• Number of citations the brand / website has
• Number of reviews on the places page (seemingly bad reviews aren’t a significant negative — but that’s another blog post!)

Ranking factors however aren’t the focus of this post. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the types of queries that trigger Places integration. Historically, the creeping of local search results was heavily biased towards queries with local intent — ‘pizza delivery in Leeds’ for example. This was later broadened so that local search results were often triggered without the need for a location modifier in the search term — e.g. ‘pizza delivery’. Local results in this instance would be triggered based primarily on your IP address.

The launch of ‘Places’ saw this broadened even further. Now, local (‘places’) results are triggered for many searches that aren’t necessarily expected:

The above shows a search for ‘mens clothing’, with location set by default to Manchester. As is evident, there are many Places results listed. The extent of integration of local results can vary significantly by location though - compare the above results to the same search from Hull:

There are a few notable differences in the results between the 2 places. With different retailers having shops in different locations, this is to be expected. Looking closer at these SERPs though, a few things stand out:

• The Manchester search sees Hugo Boss ranking in position 4, based almost solely on the optimisation of its Places page. For the equivalent search in Hull (where Hugo Boss doesn’t have a store) they don’t rank in the top 100 results. Take a quick look at the site and you’ll see why!

• ASOS, an online only retailer ranks in position 8 for the search in Manchester. The Hull search shows ASOS in #3. Because they have no physical shops (and therefore no Places pages) they are automatically demoted below the local results. There are several more instances in the top 10 — Reem Clothing, M and M Direct and Jacamo — all primarily online, are all demoted in favour of traditional retailers with physical locations.

I imagine this has ruffled a few feathers amongst ASOS and the likes, because even with the most optimised website, rankings in high-population locations are going to be limited to below the fold. Should poor websites be catapulted above their higher quality online-only counterparts just because they have a shop? Seems a little unfair to me.

I like the idea of merging online and offline, but if Google continues to integrate Places results across broad keywords without (obvious) local intent, online-only businesses may have to rethink their strategy - the online pie won’t be as big as it used to be. Retailers with significant offline presence however, now have a real opportunity to use that to their advantage online, relatively cheaply and easily.

I wonder how long it’ll be until we see businesses consulting SEO specialists when choosing the location of their next branch, and SEOers become High Street Optimisation specialists?

Find out more about Epiphany Solutions Ltd at www.epiphanysolutions.co.uk


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