2015 local search engine ranking factors debunked

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Moz, a trusted website in the local search community, recently released their 2015 Local Search Engine Rankings Factors report. This survey was conducted by a collection of experts in the local search realm who weighed in on the most important rankings signals in local search queries.

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

  • “Los Angeles employment law attorney”
  • “Miami divorce lawyer”
  • “Houston bankruptcy law firm”

But how do your competitors obtain top rankings in the local search results, especially now that Google only displays 3 local search results? I’ll dive into the most important factors revealed by the survey and explain how they can improve your law firm’s visibility on Google+ Local.

The overall ranking factors

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

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 percent

Link signals (anchor text of inbound links; quality of websites linking to your firm’s site; number of inbound links; etc.) 20.0 percent

My business signals (proper categorization of your Google+ Local business page; name, address, and phone number on Google+ Local business page matching law firm name, address, and phone number on website; etc.) 14.7 percent

External location signals (ensuring that your law firm name, address, and phone number appear the same on all trusted citation sites; quality of citation sources; etc.) 13.6 percent

Behavioral and mobile signals (click-through rates; mobile click-to-calls; etc.) 9.5 percent

Review signals (number of reviews; review scores; diversity; etc.) 8.4 percent

Social signals (amount of Google+ authority; number of Facebook likes; followers on Twitter; etc.) 5.0 percent

Personalization signals account for the remaining 8.5 percent

I’ll touch on each of the most important ranking factors under each category below. It’s also worth noting that the survey broke down each factor into 2 different categories: how important they are for organic results and how important they are for local results. Organic results are non-local results in Google that do not list the business name, address, phone number, website, and reviews. They are the rankings in Google under the local results, and the results that appear if local results (also referred to as “Stack” or “Snack Pack” results) do not appear for that particular search query.


There is no way to know if local results will be displayed for every keyword you’re trying to rank for, and there is no reason to optimize for organic, but not local, search results—or vice-versa. A number of organic ranking factors also influence a law firm website’s ability to obtain higher local search engine rankings. That being said, I’ll move forward assuming that all the ranking factors I touch upon will contribute to your website’s overall search engine visibility for local search terms, with an emphasis on improving local search engine ranking results.

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

On-page website signals

Back in the good old days of SEO, including keywords in your website’s page titles, meta keywords list, and even your meta descriptions (if you really knew what you were doing) would be enough to earn your website 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 content of your website. If you’d like to rank for a number of city or county-based search terms, putting together specific pages dedicated to those cities or counties allows you to naturally work in additional variations of keywords. Say, for example, that you’re a family law firm in Miami, and you want to rank for Fort Lauderdale, Coral Gables, and the Keys. It’s hard to include keywords like “Fort Lauderdale divorce lawyer” and “Key Largo child custody attorney” in the home page and practice area pages and have the content sound natural to your readers. Make sure you include your city, state, and county in the content of the website, not just where your address is listed and in the footer of your home page.

HTML NAP matching GMB location NAP (#9/50 for top local ranking factors). Your law firm name, address, and phone number should be appear on your law firm’s website in textexactly as it appears on your Google+ Local business page. Pay close attention to even the smallest details, such as suite numbers and business designations (like PLLC) and ensure these match. Your NAP information should not appear as an image but rather as text that can be crawled by Google. Marking it up in 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 is it something we’ve taken seriously—until now. When it comes to page titles, you only have 55 characters, but many law firms include their firm name at the end of every page title. Why not include your city and state instead to show Google you’re the best firm in your area? Try to implement your city and state in relevant page titles as often as possible because this is now an important ranking factor for on-page optimization for local SEO.

Domain authority of website (#2 overall difference-making factor in competitive markets). The survey lists a website’s domain authority 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, which is a broad ranking factor made up of a collection of on-page and off-page metrics, simply to discuss it. Instead, I included it to explain why on-page ranking factors are often considered most important when, in fact, 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 ensuring that the anchor text of inbound links includes keywords you want to rank for, which is an old-school SEO technique. For example, if all your inbound links have the anchor text “Bankruptcy law firms in Houston,” Google will assume you’re trying to manipulate search rankings because this isn’t natural. Instead, your law firm’s name should be the anchor text for inbound links in order to both improve your local search engine rankings and prove to Google that you’re not building links to influence search engine results pages.

NAP in hCard / on GMB landing page URL (#27 overall difference-making factor in competitive markets). As mentioned previously, including your law firm name, address, and phone number in 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 firm’s home page) is a good starting point.

TIP: There are a number of NAP generators on the web. Here are a couple:

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. This information should not appear as an image.

Address includes suite number similar to UPS mail store or other false addresses (#10overall). If you’re using a UPS mail store, Regus Virtual Office, or a similar service, Google is probably on to you. This is a common practice for law firms that want to rank for additional cities in their state. Although this tactic occasionally works, Google is usually smart enough to determine when a local business is paying a monthly fee for a local address.

Presence of multiple crawlable NAP on GMB landing page (#21 overall). This is an interesting ranking factor since it indicates that having multiple crawlable addresses on your Google+ Local landing page can negatively affect local search engine rankings. However, most firms (and businesses, for that matter) with multiple offices include all their locations in a footer or sidebar on their home page and elsewhere throughout their website. This survey result indicates that you should specify city-specific landing pages for each of your locations, which you should designate as GMB landing pages for each law firm office location. Those pages should not list the other office locations.

Mismatched 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 cause your website to be penalized for local search queries.

Link signals

Over the past 3 or 4 years, Google has tried to limit the methods SEO professionals use to rank websites higher in Google’s index. Their Penguin updates over the years have made previously successful link building tactics, such as article submissions, social bookmarking, blog commenting, forum signatures, and other tactics, unacceptable and 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. In terms of local SEO, here are some of the most important link signals ranking factors:

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 high quality, authoritative websites. 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? I could go on and 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 very similar.

Diversity of inbound links to domain (#6/50 for top organic ranking factors). Don’t rely solely on inbound links from your microsites or paid legal directories. Your law firm website should be linked from a number of different sites that 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 high quantity of high quality inbound links (ranking factor #2). If it sounds like I’m being a little standoffish when it comes to using inbound links as a ranking factor, there’s a reason for it.

Let’s move forward assuming that inbound links are extremely important to your law firm website’s search engine rankings before I say something I’ll regret while trying to explain other ridiculous 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 to focus time and attention on one or a few of these factors?

No. Why? 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 is 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 wrap up 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 secure 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

Now, let’s discuss 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). For a new law firm that our company took on as a client a few weeks ago, we made some changes to their Google My Business page. The only significant change we made was to their primary category, and their local search engine rankings saw significant improvement less than a week later. This is definitely an important ranking factor, which is why it’s listed as #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 #14 negative ranking signal is keyword stuffing in your business name. List your business as your law firm name in your GMB profile; don’t include keywords. Your name should appear exactly as it does on your website. In the past, I’ve seen plenty of instances where a law firm was penalized for stuffing keywords into their Google Local business title.

Individually owner-verified GMB location (#13/50 for top local ranking factors). Make sure you claim the Google My Business profile for your law firm.

Top negative Google 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.

Mismatched address on GMB landing page#7 overall. Sorry to beat a dead horse here, but your NAP information has to match up with your law firm’s GMB profile, appearing identically on your website.

Incorrectly-placed map marker in GMB – #12 overall.

Presence of multiple GMB locations with same/similar business title and address – #13overall.

Choosing to hide GMB address#20 overall.

External location signals

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

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

Tip: Want to see how your law firm’s name, address, and phone number are listed on trusted citation sites? Order this free local SEO audit, which reveals how your firm is listed on all 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 is less important than the consistency and accuracy of those citation sources. I have a hard time believing, however, that a law firm listed accurately on 10 sites will have more authority and higher search engine rankings than a firm listed on 120 citation sites.

Quality/authority of unstructured citations (newspaper articles, blog posts) – #18 for top local ranking factors. Not necessarily including links from other websites, how often is your law firm name, address, and phone number mentioned on non-citation websites? Be sure to add NAP information to YouTube videos, press releases, etc. Make sure all content is accurate and consistent.

Quantity of citations from industry-relevant domains – #13 in difference-making factors in competitive marketsAppearing on niche legal directories such as Avvo,, FindLaw, Justia, and other legal citation sources can improve your local search engine rankings.

Top negative external location factors:

Mismatched 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. If they’re not, you’ll 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 outstanding ranking factor categories together and touch on a few remaining factors that can help improve local rankings on Google:

Quantity of native google reviews (with text) – #11 overall for local ranking factors. To some extent, positive reviews generate higher Google rankings.

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 (back when it was called Google Maps), and this was a top 5 factor. But not anymore, and I’m glad to see that things are evolving.

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, this only occurs to an extent. The fact that this is only #18 on the list of negative ranking factors means that getting a few negative reviews for whatever reason isn’t the end of the world—from a rankings standpoint, at least.


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

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 affecting 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

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.

—Miriam Ellis, Solas Web Design

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 worldwide waters. Be a big fish in a local search pond.

—Thomas Ballantyne

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