2015 Local Search Rankings Factors Debunked

2015 Local Search Rankings Factors Debunked

October 13, 2015

Moz, a website that has been trusted in the local search community for a number of years, recently released their 2015 Local Search Engine Rankings factors report. This is a survey conducted by a collection of experts in the local search realm, as they weigh in on what they believe are the most important rankings signals when it comes to local search queries.

As an attorney, you most likely market your services to a specific geographic area. You would also, therefor, most likely be interested in your site ranking among the top 3 local search results for search terms that are relevant to your practice area(s) and location(s). A few examples:

“Los Angeles employment law attorney”

“Miami divorce lawyer”

“Houston bankruptcy law firm”

And so on. But how do your competitors constantly obtain top rankings in the local search results, especially now that there are only 3 local search results being displayed by Google? I’ll dive into the most important factors that are in the survey, and explain why they’re important for your law firm to improve it’s visibility on Google+ Local.

The Overall Ranking Factors

The survey groups each ranking factor into a primary category. They are as follows, in order of importance:

  • On-Page Website Signals (name address and phone number listed on website, local and practice area keywords in page titles and headlines, alt image tags, etc.) 20.3%
  • Link Signals (anchor text of inbound links, quality of websites that are linking to your firm’s site, number of inbound links, etc.) 20.0%
  • My business signals (your Google+ Local business page being properly categorized, name address and phone number on Google+ Local business page matching law firm name, address, and phone number on website, etc.) 14.7%
  • External location signals (does your law firm name, address, and phone number appear the same on all trusted citation sites, quality of citation sources, etc.) 13.6%
  • Behavioral/mobile signals (click-thru rates, mobile click-to-calls, etc.) 9.5%
  • Review signals (number of reviews, review scores, diversity, etc.) 8.4%
  • Social signals (amount of Google+ Authority, number of Facebook likes, followers on Twitter, etc.) 5.0%
  • And Personalization signals account for the additional 8.5%

I’ll touch on each of the most important ranking factors under each category below. It’s also worth noting that the survey broke each factor down in two different categories- how important they are for organic results, and how important they are for local results. Organic results are the non-local results in Google that don’t list the business name, address, phone number, website, and reviews. They are the rankings in Google under the local results, and the results which appear if the local results (referred to as Stack/Snack Pack) do not appear for that search query.

So in the example below, a Google search for “Los Angeles employment law attorney”.

Local (“Snack Pack”) Results:


Organic Results


There’s no way of knowing when the local results will be displayed for every keyword you’re trying to rank for, and there’s not really a reason to optimize for organic and not for local, or vice-versa.

There are also a number of organic ranking factors which attribute to a law firm’s website obtaining higher local search engine rankings.

That being said, I’ll move forward assuming that all of the ranking factors that I touch on will attribute to your law firm website’s overall search engine visibility for local search terms, with the emphasis on improving your local search engine ranking results.

There are also additional categories which list the most negative ranking factors, as well as the top difference-making factors. I’ll discuss each of these under each category.

On-Page Website Signals

Back in the good ol’ days of SEO, including your keywords in your website’s page titles, meta keywords list, and maybe even your meta descriptions (if you really knew what you were doing) would be enough to see your website obtain top search rankings on Yahoo! and AltaVista. However, times have changed. There are hundreds of on-page ranking factors when it comes to optimizing your website to obtain top search engine rankings on Google+ Local and Google organic. Some of the most important factors include:

Geographic (City/Neighborhood) Keyword Relevance of Domain Content (# 7/50 for top organic ranking factors)- Google wants to see your city, state, and county mentioned in the actual content of your website. If you’d like to rank for a number of city/county-based search terms, then putting together specific pages dedicated to those cities and/or counties can’t hurt. But make sure you include your city, state, and county in the content of the website, not just where your address is listed.

HTML NAP Matching GMB Location NAP (# 9/50 for top local ranking factors)- Your law firm name, address, and phone number should be listed on your law firm’s website in text that can be crawled by Google EXACTLY as it appears on your Google+ Local business page. Not as an image, not without the suite number listed, and not without the “PLLC” or suffixes that are at the end. EXACTLY as it appears on your Google+ Business page, and vice-versa. Marking it up in schema.org format can’t hurt either.

City, State in Most/All Website Title Tags (# 10/50 for top organic ranking factors)- Including your city and state in your website’s page titles isn’t a ranking factor that is normally discussed, nor it it one that we’ve taken seriously until now. You only have 55 characters when it comes to your page titles, but a lot of law firms include the firm name at the end of every page title. Why not include your city and state instead, to prove to Google that you’re the best firm in your area? Try to implement your city and state in the relevant page titles as often as possible, because this is now an important ranking factor when it comes to on-page optimization for local SEO.

Domain Authority of Website (#2 overall difference-making factor in competitive markets)- The survey lists domain authority of website as an on-page optimization factor. However, domain authority is widely-believed to be a link signal factor. Moz’s exact definition of domain authority is:

Domain Authority is Moz’s calculated metric for how well a given domain is likely to rank in Google’s search results. It is based off data from the Mozscape web index and includes link counts, MozRank and MozTrust scores, and dozens of other factors. It uses a machine learning model to predictively find an algorithm that best correlates with rankings across thousands of search results that we predict against.

I didn’t include this factor in the list to discuss it, because it’s a very broad ranking factor made up of a collection of on-page and off-page metrics. Instead, I included it to explain why on-page ranking factors were the most important category when, in all honesty, off-page factors are probably more important.

Business Title in Anchor Text of Inbound Links to Domain (#26 overall difference-making factor in competitive markets)- Anchor text diversity is important when it comes to SEO. Don’t focus on all of your anchor text of inbound links including keywords that you want to rank for, which is an old-school SEO technique. Instead, your law firm’s name should be the anchor text for the inbound links to improve your local search engine rankings.

NAP in hCard / Schema.org on GMB Landing Page URL (#27 overall difference-making factor in competitive markets)- Like we said, including your law firm name, address, and phone number in schema.org or hCard markup format can’t hurt. You should try to do this on every page of your website, but including it in your landing page (which is usually your home page for most firms) is a good starting point.

Top Negative On-Page Ranking Factors

Presence of malware on site (#4 overall of top negative ranking factors)- check in Google Webmaster Tools and make sure there are no malware threats present on your law firm’s website.

Absence of crawlable NAP on website (#9 overall)- like I said earlier, Google should be able to crawl your law firm’s name, address, and phone number. It shouldn’t be an image.

Address includes suite number similar to UPS Mail Store or other false addresses (#10 overall)- If you’re using a UPS mail store, Regis Virtual office, etc. Google is probably on to you.

Presence of Multiple Crawlable NAP on GMB Landing Page (#21 overall)- This is an interesting ranking factor, because the survey is stating that having multiple crawlable addresses on your Google+ Local landing page can negatively affect your local search engine rankings. However, a lot of firms (and businesses, for that matter) who have multiple locations usually include all of their locations in the footer or sidebar(s) of their home page, and throughout the website. This factor is stating that you should be specifying city-specific landing pages for each of your locations, and that those pages should not include the other office locations.

Mis-Matched or Private WHOIS Information (#27 overall)- I’m glad this factor is listed. Do NOT use domain privacy for your law firm website, and make sure your hosting company doesn’t do this either. There’s no reason for it, and it could actually see your website penalized for local search queries.

Link Signals

Google has tried over the past 3 or 4 years to limit the types of methods that SEO professionals use when attempting to rank a website higher in Google’s index. Their Penguin updates that have launched over the years have made link building tactics that were previously effective, such as article submissions, social bookmarking, blog commenting, forum signatures, and a number of other link building methods, not only unacceptable, but potentially harmful.

However, link building is not dead. Inbound link-related factors continue to be the most important when it comes to obtaining higher organic AND local search engine rankings. Here are some of the most important link signals ranking factors when it comes to local SEO:

Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Domain (# 2/50 for top organic ranking factors)-Diversity of Inbound Links to Domain Your website should obtain links from websites which are quality and authoritative. How do you measure the quality of an inbound link? Google Pagerank? Domain authority of the domain linking to your law firm’s website? Domain authority of the individual page linking to your law firm’s website? Relevance? Number of additional outbound links on the page? Yes, and I could go on. Also, the ranking factor “Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to GMB Landing Page URL” is listed as #12/50 for organic ranking factors, which seems to be very similar.

Diversity of Inbound Links to Domain (# 6/50 for top organic ranking factors)- Don’t rely solely on inbound links from your microsite(s) or paid legal directories. Your law firm website should be linked from a number of different sites which are relevant to your location(s) and practice area(s).

Quantity of Inbound Links to Domain (# 16/50 for top organic ranking factors)- Your website should have a higher quantity of inbound links, and they should also be of high quality (ranking factor #2). If it sounds like I’m being a little stand-offish when it comes to trying to explain inbound links as a ranking factor, there’s a reason for it.

Let’s just move forward saying that inbound links are extremely important to your law firm website’s search engine rankings, before I say something I’ll regret when trying to explain other link-related ranking factors, like:

  • “Velocity of New Inbound Links to Domain”
  • “Quantity of Inbound Links to Domain from Industry-Relevant Domains”
  • “Quantity of Inbound Links to GMB Landing Page URL from Locally-Relevant Domains”

Yes, these ranking factors are important. But am I going to tell you that you should focus time and attention on one or a few of these factors?

No, because they’re all related.

You can’t focus on building higher quality inbound links, only to turn around and see that the quantity of inbound links are important as well.

You can’t focus on building more practice area-specific links, only to turn around and see that local-specific links are important as well. Not to mention the fact that link building methods are dramatically limited by Google’s numerous updates, so I’ll conclude and move on to the negative link-related ranking factors by concluding this: links are important. According to Google- write great content, and you’ll more quality, relevant links. According to Google.

Top Negative Link Factors

Oh wait, link-related factors are the most important overall ranking factor category, and yet… there are no link-related ranking factors in the top negative factors category. (Head spins).

Moving on….

My Business Signals

Moving on to something that you (mostly) control, your local Google My Business page. Here are the most important local ranking factors when it comes to your GMB page:

Proper GMB Category Associations (# 3/50 for top local ranking factors)- We took on a new client a few weeks ago, and made some changes to their Google My Business page. All we did was change their primary category, and their local search engine rankings saw a significant improvement less than a week later. This is definitely an important ranking factor, it’s listed #5 under difference-making factors in competitive markets.

Product / Service Keyword in GMB Business Title (# 7/50 for top local ranking factors)- Proceed with caution. The number 14 negative ranking signal- Keyword stuffing in business name. List your business as your law firm name in your GMB profile, don’t include keywords. It should be exactly as it appears on your website. This ranking factor doesn’t make sense to the legal field for a number of reasons.

Individually Owner-verified GMB Location (# 13/50 for top local ranking factors)- Make sure you claim your GMB profile.

Top Negative My Business Ranking Factors

Incorrect Business Category– #1 negative ranking factor. Make sure your law firm’s Google My Business profile is properly categorized.

Reports of Violations on your GMB location- #5 overall

Mis-match Address on GMB Landing Page #7

Incorrectly-placed map marker in GMB #12

Presence of Multiple GMB locations with Same/Similar Business Title and Address #13

Choosing to Hide GMB Address #20

External location signals

Google pulls from a number of trusted citation sources when it comes to local search engine rankings. These citation sources are extremely important when it comes to your local search engine rankings. Here are some of the most important ranking factors when it comes to external location signals:

Consistency of Structured Citations (#2 overall for top local ranking factors)- I’ll save everyone some time and sum up citation/external signals like this- your law firm name, address, and phone number has match up across the board on all citation sources. If there are inconsistencies, duplicates, etc. you’ll probably be negatively affected. This is the NUMBER ONE ranked factor under difference-making factors, as well as the #1 factor that experts have been focusing on ever since the 3-pack of local results launched in Google.

Tip: Want to see how your law firm name, address, and phone number are listed on trusted citation sites? Order our free Local SEO Audit which will display how your firm is listed on all of the top citation sources.

Quantity of Structured Citations (IYPs, Data Aggregators)- #14 for top local ranking factors- What’s interesting here is that, according to the study, the number of citation sources that a business is listed on is less important than the citation sources that you do have being consistent and accurate. I do have a hard time believing, however, that a law firm which is listed on 10 sites accurately will have more authority and obtain higher search engine rankings than a firm which is listed on 120 citation sites.

Quality/Authority of Unstructured Citations (Newspaper Articles, Blog Posts)- #18 for top local ranking factors- Not necessary links from other websites, but how often is your law firm name address and phone number (NAP) mentioned on non-citation websites? Be sure to add your NAP to your Youtube videos, press releases, etc. and make sure it’s all accurate and consistent.

Quantity of Citations from Industry-Relevant Domains- #13 in difference-making factors in competitive markets- Being listed on niche legal directories such as hg.org, Findlaw, Justia, and other niche legal citation sources can help to improve your local search engine rankings.

Top Negative External Location Factors:

Mis-match NAP / Tracking Phone Numbers Across Data Ecosystem (citation sources)- #3 overall

That’s pretty much it when it comes to external location factors. Make sure your citations are consistent, because if they’re not, you’ll probably have a hard time obtaining top local rankings on Google.

Additional Ranking Signals

Behavioral/mobile, Review, Social, and Personalization Signals

I’m going to group the remaining ranking factor categories together and touch on a few remaining factors which you can focus on to improve your local rankings on Google:

Quantity of Native Google Reviews (w/text)- #11 overall for local ranking factors- more positive reviews means higher Google rankings, to an extent.

Proximity of Address to Centroid- #16 overall for local ranking factors- I am only mentioning this ranking factor because I’m glad to see it has dropped over the years. I wrote a report on how to obtain higher rankings on Google Maps, way back when it was called Google Maps, and this was a top 5 factor. Not anymore, glad to see things are evolving.

Proximity of Address to Centroid of Other Businesses in Industry- #20 overall for local ranking factors- Hmm, maybe I spoke too soon. How close your address is, to the centroid of other law firms in your area? Not so sure about this one.

Top Remaining Negative Ranking Factors

Low Numerical Ratings of GMB location by Google Users (e.g. 1-2)- #18 overall- Bad Google reviews means bad Google local rankings. Once again, to an extent. The fact that this is only #18 on the list of negative ranking factors means that a few negative reviews, left for whatever reason, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. From a rankings standpoint, at least.

The rest of the negative review ranking factors, such as negative reviews on third-party sites, and negative sentiments, round up the list of remaining negative ranking factors.


To conclude my post, which was intended to explain and debunk some of these local SEO ranking factors, I’d like to include some quotes from some of the experts polled in this survey as they weigh in with some of their expert opinions.

“In the past year or so, “local” seems to have come full-circle: it’s mostly organic SEO (read: links), Google local listings are primitive, and Google still won’t do anything about mapspam.  What’s really changed in 10 years?” – Phil Rozek, Local Visibility System

“How does this local website with no SEO, no backlinks, crappy title tags beat us? Aggregate user data. Historical citation data. Hyper local signals. Forget being a small fish in the world wide waters, be a big fish in a local search pond.” -Thomas Ballantyne

“In a hyper competitive market like legal, claiming the few remaining spots (of the Top 3 Snack Pack) relegated to the actual businesses requires exorbitant retainers with sophisticated agencies. Good for me, but bad for the industry as a whole – especially the smaller firms who can’t possibly afford to keep up.” -Conrad Saam, Mockingbird Marketing

“Those who gain meaningful local links and couple it with strong on-page optimization, good site structure and useful content will thrive. I believe that some behavioral signals are effecting rankings – click-thorough rates from the SERPs, in particular, and probably bounce rates and time on page, too. There are some signals that can help in local rankings, but only if they are not overdone – things like location and product terms in anchor text and review text, for example. The challenge for many is having the restraint to not overdo something that works.” -Mary Bowling, Ignitor Digital

“I think this is going to eventually (gradually after several other small changes) turn into pay-to-play​…. “Only 3 precious spots – pay a premium if you want to be in one of them. If you can’t afford a 3 spot, then there is always Adwords.” -Linda Buquet, Local Search Forum

“Local business owners will need to prepare to pay to play, while at the same time, diversifying their marketing outreach to be less Google-dependent. Reviews have become a major competitive difference maker, so you’ll want to be earning as many good ones as possible, particularly on prominent platforms like Yelp, and the basis of these reviews is right in your own store, in your interactions with customers. I would not be surprised to see digital-happy marketers taking a second look at more traditional marketing techniques to try to regain relationships that have just vanished with the universal introduction of the highly limited Local Stack. Diversify, diversify, diversify!” -Miriam Ellis, Solas Web Design