Local Search Ranking Factors 2021: What's New?

The survey chronicles Google's evolving local ranking algorithm and captures local SEOs' changing tactics over time.

Local Search Ranking Factors 2021: What's New?

Keyword stuffing local business names has grown in popularity as a local ranking tactic. That's one of many interesting findings from the 2021 edition of the Local Search Ranking Factors. Initiated by David Mihm almost 15 years ago and more recently taken over by Darren Shaw at Whitespark, the study documents the evolution of Google's local ranking algorithm and incremental changes in ranking emphasis over time.

42 Informed Opinions

The study is a survey of 42 leading local SEO practitioners and their perceptions of what matters to Google for local pack/finder rankings and local SEO. Last year Darren Shaw added "conversion factors" to the survey – the features of Google My Business (now Google Business Profile) driving user conversions as opposed to just rankings. Of course ranking precedes conversion, but rankings are a means to an end after all.

Source: Whitespark LSRF 2021

GMB/GBP Pulling Away

GMB/GBP has increased its lead as the top local ranking factor in the 2021 survey. It towers over other variables on the list. Reviews comes in at number two but is the top conversion variable, as we'll see shortly.

On the local organic side, the list is almost exactly flipped with reviews and GMB on the bottom and on-page factors and links as the top factors. Citations is unchanged from last year but it continues to lose favor with local marketers despite there being some evidence that it still has value.

Importance of Business Category

Within the category of GMB/GBP, the top factors are: primary GMB category, keywords in the business title, proximity of address to the searcher, physical address, additional GMB categories. In his comments on the survey, Darren Shaw emphasizes focusing on business categories – correct/precise category is a significant positive and incorrect category is a big negative ranking factor – and recommends against keyword stuffing in the business name. Yet keyword stuffing seems to be a top new tactic, gaining more attention in 2021. (Google should not reward business name keyword stuffing for many reasons.)

Source: Whitespark LSRF 2021

In terms of tactics being deemphasized, local marketers said they were focusing less on citations (across the board) and Google Posts (frequency/quantity) than in previous years.

Local Conversion Factors: Reviews, Reviews, Reviews

Darren Shaw added conversion factors to the study last year and it's a fascinating and important addition to the venerable survey. Photos probably doesn't get enough emphasis here – and photos is not among the top 20 local pack/finder ranking factors at all.

The top conversion factors are almost all about reviews/ratings in one form or another. Booking and messaging functionality are in there as well (messaging is probably more important in some respects than booking). Otherwise, accuracy and completeness of GMB/GBP information round out the top conversion variables.

Source: Whitespark LSRF 2021

Notable Changes for 2021

Shaw calls out several "notable changes" from the 2020 survey with a positive influence on ranking in the local pack/finder:

  • Internal linking
  • Correct map pin placement
  • Age/authority of listing
  • Keywords on landing pages (H1/H2 tags)

Conversely, keywords in the anchor text of in-bound links was seen as having less of an impact than in the past.

Local SEO Myths

Another new (and fun) addition to the survey debunks persistent local SEO myths – things that don't impact ranking but many SEOs think do provide a lift. There are 20 in total, but here are the top six:

  1. Geotagged photos
  2. Keywords in the GBP business description (as opposed to business name)
  3. Keywords in products
  4. Keywords in services
  5. GBP messaging enabled
  6. Google Post frequency

Interestingly, a few of the "local SEO myths" were also seen as conversion factors, such as enabled messaging, the presence of appointment URLs and the frequency of Google Posts.

There's more in the compete survey and lots of great color commentary (perhaps even a bit too much) from individual practitioners. You can read the entire survey here.