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Do Directories Really Matter for Local Search Rankings in Google?
One or two years ago, I stood on my soap box and explained the utter importance of consistent listings of a company’s Name, Address and Phone Number (“NAP”) in high-authority directories to rank in Google Map results (also known as “citations”). Nowadays, with the blending of local search and organic listings in Google’s “local search” results, the question of directories becomes intriguing (and plausible) because it seems that a directory-strategy alone will not achieve the map rankings a business might desire.
In light of the traditional focus on citations, I wanted to see if I “dug deeply” into local search results in Google if there’s any identifiable patterns among directories, what Google shows in a company’s Places’ page, and a site’s inbound link footprint.
So, with some time on my hands and a spreadsheet ready, I decided to look at every item that Google Places shows in a Places’ page among Page 1 ranking and non-Page 1 ranking results. Out of this came a long catalog of online sources where Google Places pulls information, along with SEO metrics such as unique inbound linking domains, anchor text of inbound links, keyword relevancy of inbound linking URL’s and others.
If you’re short on time, here’s the summary: SEO metrics (particularly anchor text of inbound links and local/industry relevancy of inbound linking URL’s) matter a great deal in regard to which listings rank in Google’s blended local search results; directories and reviews are still very important (the more the merrier) but there are instances where high quality inbound links trump citations altogether.
To illustrate the path to these findings, I focused on the dental vertical in Los Angeles, CA, looking specifically at results for “dentist los angeles”. Following are the findings, observations and assumptions.
Note: Are these findings 100% accurate? Absolutely not! First, these observations and conclusions are made on a relatively small data set. Second, Google’s ranking results (and underlying algorithm) continually change so these observations and findings come with an inherent expiration date. Third, these are anecdotal conclusions made from observations (there’s no numeric modeling going on here). And, fourth, analysis relies upon Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder tool and OpenSiteExplorer.org (the accuracy of findings from these tools carry through to this analysis).
Step 1 - Goal
Determine what distinguishes the listings that rank on Page 1 Google for “dentist los angeles” from those that don’t.
Step 2 - Analysis Process
Catalog and evaluate the following parameters:
- Google Places Listing: Is the listing “Owner Verified”?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Details” from owner website?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Details” from other sources? If so, how many?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Details” from dental/medical related directories? If so, how many?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Photos”? If so, how many from owner?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Videos”?
- Google Places Listing: Does listing show “Coupons”? If so, how many from owner and other sources?
- Google Places Listing: What is the total number of reviews?
- Google Places Listing: What is the number of review sources (e.g., Yelp, Insiderpages, etc.)?
- Google Places Listing: Are there reviews on Google Maps?
- Google Places Listing: Does the listing show reviews from dental directories?
- Google Places Listing: What’s the total “More About” URLs?
- Whitespark: What is the total number of citations for the listing?
- Whitespark: What is the total number of domains for the listing?
- OpenSiteExplorer (OSE): What is the “Page Authority” of the listing’s URL?
- OSE: What is the number of “Unique Linking Domains” to the listing’s URL?
- OSE: What is the “Domain Authority” of the listing’s URL?
- OSE: What is the number of “Unique Linking Domains” to the listing’s domain?
- OSE: What is the number of linking domains and URL’s (to the listing URL) with the anchor text “dentist los angeles”?
- OSE: How many of the top 25 inbound linking URL’s use “los angeles” in the title? How many use “dentist/medical/health” in the title?
Step 3 - Establish Sample Set and Parameters
This analysis looks at the following groups of listings: the first are those that ranked on Page 1 Google as of 3/4/11 for “dentist los angeles”; the second are those that did not rank.
- All non-Page 1 ranking listings are in the same zip codes as the listings that do rank.
- There is a unusual outlier with the Westin Bonaventure Hotel that has no relevancy for “dentists” but very high relevancy for “los angeles” (we’ll look at this in more detail).
Step 4 – Analysis
A) What does the Google Places information reveal?
Summary: Not too much. In general, Google Places is known not to show all of a business’s citations, listings, etc., so these data points don’t reveal trends that are predictive of rankings. Even so, here’s the run-down of findings.
Details from owner and other sources.
One of the few data points that are consistent for all Page 1 ranking listings is the inclusion of “Details” from owner’s website, which is expected given the importance to Google of finding the business Name, Address and Phone on the business website. However, the majority of non-ranking listings show the same data points, so this in itself is not a conclusive predictor of rankings.
In addition, it seems intuitive that details from multiple directories, including dental directories, would have a positive impact on rankings, but Beverly Hills Family Dentist has neither and ranks on Page 1, while all non-ranking listings have both.
Photos, Videos and Coupons.
As the chart shows, both ranking and non-ranking listings include circumstances with or without photos, videos and/or coupons. Again, not a conclusively predictive indicator.
While every ranking listing DOES include a review in Google Maps, the number of reviews and the number of review sources are across the board. For example, Esthetic Dentistry Dental Group: Mirzayan Armen DDS has only 1 review (and 1 review source) and ranks in the top A position. As for sentiment, this chart does not show that data point, but all of these have above average ratings. As for reviews from dental directories, this data point doesn’t provide any conclusive insights to ranking as there are more non-ranking listings with reviews from dental directories than there are among ranking listings.
Again, data points are across the board for ranking and non-ranking listings.
UGC – User Supplied Content.
An interesting side note is that more than half of the Page 1 ranking listings in August 2010 included some form of user supplied content, mostly from sources like finddentists.biz, maps.google.com, healthprofs.com and finder.geocommons.com. The March 2011 listings include no USC references.
In summary, the Google Places data is not surprising and also not very conclusive in regard to predicting rankings. Again, much of this is due most likely to the fact that Google Places doesn’t show all citations and online references in the Google Places listings. That’s why looking at a third-party citation analysis tool, like Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder tool, is helpful.
B) What does the number of citations reveal?
Using results from Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder tool, following shows the number of citations (e.g., NAP) for each listing, as well as the number of domains. (If you’re not familiar with Whitespark.ca, I highly suggest checking them out and their Local Citation Finder tool set.)
First observation is that Google Places indeed does NOT include all citations and online references for a business listing. Second observation is that citations alone do not predict rankings. For example, Beverly Hills Family Dentist has only two citations and domains and ranks on Page 1 Google. In addition, there are non-Page 1 ranking listings that have more citations and domains that some of the ranking listings.
Note: Darren Shaw (of Whitespark.ca) points out below that the reason Beverly Hills Family Dentist has so few citations via Whitespark’s Local Citation Finder tool is that the phone number on their Google Place Page is different from the number on their website. When using their website phone number on Whitespark, there are 87 URLs and 56 domains. As we know Google places enormous significance on the consistent use of a business’s Name, Address and Phone (NAP) in every instance (from business website to listing on another site), it’s not surprising that the Google Place Page shows no sources of additional information in the “Details” section. As for Beverly Hills Family Dentist, even though they’re ranking on Page 1, it would still benefit them to change their Google Place phone number to the one being used in their directory listings.
C) What do Page Authority and inbound links reveal?
Using OpenSiteExplorer.org (from SEOmoz.org), following shows the Page Authority and Domain Authority for each listing, along with the number of unique inbound linking domains to each listing’s URL (that shows in Google Places) and to the entire domain.
With these metrics we are now looking directly at the quality of inbound links (Page/Domain Authority is a good indicator of overall inbound link footprint quality) and quantity (via the number of inbound linking domains). In contrast to citations, these are pure SEO metrics.
Now we’re starting to see a little light. In particular, the Page Authorities for the ranking listings range from a low of 44 to a high of 61, while the non-ranking listings range from 16 to 30 with the exception of Los Angeles Dental Clinic which has a Page Authority of 66.
Domain Authority shows a similar pattern. The Domain Authorities for the ranking listings range from 33 to 86, while the non-ranking listings range from 0 to 20, with (again) the exception of Los Angeles Dental Clinic which has a Domain Authority of 59.
The number of unique inbound linking domains to the listing’s page and overall domain show the same pattern, including the exception.
This metric shows promise in predicting rankings: the higher the quantity and quality of inbound links, the higher the likelihood of a listing ranking on Page 1 map results in Google.
Still…what about Los Angeles Dental Clinic? Is it truly an outlier, or is there another metric at play? With that in mind, let’s look at the anchor text of the inbound links.
D) What does the anchor text of inbound links reveal?
Using OpenSiteExplorer, following shows the number of inbound linking URL’s and domains that use “los angeles dentist” as the anchor text.
Clearly, anchor text matters. So far, this is the most conclusive datapoint with the strongest potential to predict rankings, especially when coupled with Page/Domain Authority and Unique Inbound Linking Domains (above).
Let’s look at the outliers.
Beverly Hills Family Dentist (no citations and Page 1 ranking) has the second highest number of inbound linking domains with the anchor text “los angeles dentist” at 72 (and 108 URL’s). Does this indicate that anchor text and inbound links trump citations?
As for Los Angeles Dental Clinic (91 citations and high Page/Domain Authority, and no Page 1 ranking), it has no exact-match anchor text links for “los angeles dentist”. It DOES have 21 domains with the anchor text “los angeles ca dentist”, which is very close to the target phrase but not an exact match. With 712 unique inbound linking domains, LADC has many anchor text links that include the keywords “los angeles” and “dentist”, but none for the exact phrase “los angeles dentist”.
It seems the listing would rank for “los angeles dentist” given the prevalence of the target phrase in the anchor text results (especially so given the site’s high authority). There must be another factor at play. Okay, let’s look at the how relevant are the inbound linking URL’s for “dentist los angeles”.
E) What does the relevancy of inbound linking URL’s reveal?
Following shows the number of times “los angeles” and “dentist, health or medical” appear in the title tags of the Top 25 inbound linking followed URL’s (from OpenSiteExplorer).
With the exception of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, all Page 1 ranking listings have links from multiple URL’s with “los angeles” and/or “dentist, health, medical” keywords in the titles.
As for the Westin Bonaventure, the majority of it’s inbound links have the anchor-text “Westin Bonaventure” which is a very strong “los angeles” signifier AND they are from URL’s which include the hotel’s Los Angeles address. Coupled with the site’s extremely strong Authority, the page most likely ranks for this search because of its very strong “los angeles” relevance.
Of the metrics analyzed here, this is the most conclusive in predicting rankings. This also indicates how increasingly important it is for a site to have as many local (e.g., city) and industry-specific signifiers as possible to be considered relevant and authoritative in Google.
F) Are there Citations lurking among the Top 25 Inbound Links?
As Darren White (of Whitespark.ca) points out below, if the top inbound links are indeed citations, then perhaps it’s still the presence of high-authority citations that are driving the rankings. In response to this poignant question, following shows how many of the Top 25 inbound linking URLs include Name, Phone and Address (NAP) and which are (targeted) anchor-text driven links.
With the exception of Beverly HIlls Family Dentist, all the Page-1 ranking listings have at least 1 inbound linking URL that includes the full Name, Phone and Address (NAP). Only the Westin Bonaventure shows NAPs on all inbound linking URLs, which is attributable to the sites referencing the hotel’s name, contact information and location. Aside from the Westin outlier, no listing has more than three inbound linking URLs with NAPs, while one of the non-ranking listings shows the highest number with 5 URLs that include NAPs.
As for Beverly Hills Family Dentist, it shows zero inbound linking URLs with NAP information, and 25 URLs with targest keyword anchor text. In fact, nearly all of the Page-1 ranking listings have at least 19 URLs with target keyword anchor text. The exceptions are Westin Bonaventure (which has the highest “Los Angeles” relevancy of inbound linking URLs) and USC School of Dentistry (which has the highest “denist” relevancy of inbound linking URLs).
Again, this seems to indicate that exact-match anchor text and highly relevant inbound linking URLs trump citations as a predictor of rankings.
Step 5. What’s the best recipe for local search results?
Based on this analysis, the best combination is:
1) Inbound links from URL’s that reference “los angeles” and “dentist” in the title tags, and on-page as well.
2) Inbound links from as many domains and URL’s as possible with the exact-match anchor text “los angeles dentist” or “dentist los angeles”.
3) Strong footprint of highly relevant and authority inbound links (as seen via the Page and Domain Authority metrics).
4) Owner-verified Google Places listing that indexes business information from the business owner website and shows reviews from Google Maps and other review sources.
5) A healthy number of URL’s and domains that list the business Name, Address and Phone (NAP). While this analysis might indicate it’s possible to rank WITHOUTH a strong citation footprint, the majority of listings have consistent citations so it’s highly recommended to include this as part of a local search strategy (BUT it seems clear that citations alone won’t result in high rankings).
Using the above receipe, how can Los Angeles Dental Clinic secure it’s place on Page 1 Google for “dentist los angeles”?
In general, LADC might increase the “los angeles” and “dentist” signifiers, including exact-match anchor text on its inbound links:
1) Increase the number of quality links that use “los angeles” and “dentist” in the title tags.
2) Increase the number of links that use anchor text “los angeles dentist” or “dentist los angeles”.
Cynthia Cheung Los Angeles Dentist has inbound links from sites about “los angeles” and “health/dentist”. What would help push this listing to Page 1 Google for “dentist los angeles”?
In general, CCLAD might increase its overall inbound link footprint and targeted anchor text:
1) Increase the number of links from quality and relevant domains (which will help push up the Page/Domain Authority).
2) Increase the number of links that use anchor text “los angeles dentist” or “dentist los angeles”.
In conclusion, while this analysis and these findings are not definitive for predicting local search rankings, they do help illustrate the clear importance high quality and relevant inbound linking URL’s AND anchor text have on local search rankings. Does this mark the end of citations? Probably not BUT it does indicate how citations alone probably won’t do the trick.
If you’re seeing similar or conflicting findings, please share them! It’d be great to see other examples.
I’d like to give a special “thanks” to Gary Magnone for his great insight and his suggestion to explore the anchor text of inbound links and the “local signifiers” of the inbound linking URL’s. I’d also like to say “thanks” to Darren Shaw of Whitespark.ca for his additional insights and suggestions to this analysis. Thanks Guys!