Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of continuously adjusting and improving your website to help it rank higher on Google. For example, some common optimization strategies include publishing useful content; building high-quality backlinks; increasing your site speed; and of course, ensuring your website is mobile-friendly.
Local SEO is the same basic premise, but applies specifically to local searches that are performed near your physical place of business. For brick-and-mortar businesses, such as car washes, apartment complexes, or self-storage facilities, optimizing for local searches is an essential part of attracting customers and driving growth. Businesses should aim to rank in the local pack — a group of three businesses that are prominently displayed at the top of Google’s front page results when someone performs a search that has local intent — while also continually working to boost their local organic rankings (which are displayed below the local pack).
Ranking in local searches is critical for a few important reasons, such as boosting your visibility and traffic while helping build greater trust in your brand. But what are the actual factors that determine how well your business ranks in Google’s local search results? And which of those factors have the most significant impact?
A new report from local search marketing company Whitespark has the answers — including data that points to the growing significance of reviews. Follow along as we explore Whitespark’s findings, compare the data with previous years, and discuss the implications for your business.
Where Does the Data Come From?
First, we wanted to provide some quick background information about our source for this article, the 2021 edition of Whitespark’s Local Search Ranking Factors report. According to Whitespark, it “was developed by David Mihm in 2008 and taken over by Darren Shaw in 2017.” Whitespark describes the report as “the industry’s go-to resource for understanding how to rank in Google’s local search results,” making it a rich source of information for business owners, digital agencies, and new or established brands. You can view the full report here, including a complete list of contributors, along with an archive of previous editions.
Whitespark states, “The 2021 survey had 132 potential factors that local search experts think Google might use to rank businesses in the local pack/finder/maps and local organic results. We don’t have any special access to the internal workings of Google’s local search algorithm.” However, the results of the report were based on more than “a decade of analysis, experience, research, and…testing,” offering business leaders a valuable inside look at some of the “specific signals Google is using to evaluate and rank businesses.”
2021 Local Search Ranking Factors: How Important Were Business Reviews?
Whitespark’s survey distinguishes between local pack ranking factors and local organic ranking factors, so let’s provide a quick overview of each.
As we mentioned above, the local pack (sometimes called the “the Google Map Pack”) is a group of three businesses that are relevant to a search. The local pack is displayed at the top of the first page of Google search results in response to a search with local intent (such as “tacos near me” or “dentists in Chicago”). In addition to their prominent positioning, local pack results also show star ratings, distance, and other key pieces of information about the business.
Local organic results are unpaid search results that are displayed below the local pack. They generally contain a brief description of the business called a “meta description,” unless an issue is preventing the text from displaying properly. Ideally, your business should strive to appear in both the local pack and organic results sections — a goal that gathering and responding to reviews may help your business attain. Continue reading to learn about the impact of ratings and reviews on local search rankings, including some notable trends over time and shifts from previous years.
Report Finds “Steady Increase” in the Importance of Online Reviews for Local Pack Rankings
Whitespark differentiated between over half a dozen “ranking factor groups,” such as:
- Behavioral — This group included factors like click-through rate (CTR), dwell time, and the amount of mobile clicks to call.
- Google My Business / Google Business Profiles — This group included the way the business was categorized, whether there were keywords in the business title, and related points.
- Reviews — This group, which will be the focus of this blog post, included factors like “review quantity,” “review velocity,” and “review diversity,” among others.
Participants in the report were asked to estimate “how much weight Google attributes to each” of these groups, providing separate estimates for local pack results and local organic results. The outcomes were surprising — and fascinating.
On one hand, reviews were estimated to be the least important ranking factor for local organic results: just 5%. However, reviews were also estimated to be the second most important ranking factor for local pack results: 17%, outweighed by only GMB/GBP (36%). By comparison, these figures were respectively 6% (slightly higher) and 16% (slightly lower) in the 2020 report. In the 2018 edition, which is the next available version prior to 2020, the respective percentages were 6.47% (again, slightly higher) and 15.44% (again, slightly lower).
In other words, the data shows us that review signals (such as velocity and diversity) have grown consistently more significant over time since 2018, at least when it comes to ranking in the local pack. Whitespark acknowledged this trend in the 2021 edition of their report, stating, “There has been a steady increase in the perceived importance of reviews.”
Reviews were significant to local pack rankings in several ways. Whitespark’s top 20 local pack factors in 2021, which are compiled in this section of the report, notably include the quantity of Google reviews with text (#12); keywords appearing in Google reviews (#9); and, as we discuss in the next section of this article, having high Google ratings (#6).
Notably, “quantity of reviews” also scored as the #7 factor that experts were most focused on in 2021. While you can’t control the content of your reviews, you can help increase their quantity by:
- Asking your customers to share honest feedback (while remembering never to purchase or incentivize reviews)
- Leveraging an automated review generation service
- Using social media to encourage your followers to share ratings and comments
Optimizing your GMB/GBP listing is also critical for ranking in the local pack — for example, ensuring that you have not chosen an irrelevant or otherwise incorrect business category. If you have not already created a Business Profile on Google, you can get started for free here.
Before we take a look at the effects of negative reviews, which we’ll explore in the next section, we wanted to share a few quotes from some of the experts featured in Whitespark’s report, which you can browse in the commentary section. Consider the following words of advice from some of the industry’s leaders:
Making sure that clients engage with their listings, with Q&A, with reviews, etc. is a priority – so that potential customers can see they’re involved and customer focused. —Claire Carlile
The time and resources that were once earmarked for citations, should be shifted towards responding to reviews and Q&A initiatives. —Matt Lacuesta
For a number of multi-location clients, we’ve been testing including limited but relevant keywords in owner responses to reviews, services, and posts to help capture more unbranded traffic and seeing some positive signals when applied consistently. —Krystal Taing
For more about including keywords in owner responses (which some experts disagreed with), check back on our blog later this week when we’ll dive deeper into that topic. For now, let’s examine the relationship between bad reviews and local rankings.
How Much Can Negative Ratings or Reviews Hurt Your Local Rankings? (And What Can Your Business Do About It?)
You’ve always known that bad reviews on Google My Business (GMB), also known as Google Business Profile (GBP), could be harmful to your business — especially if they’re handled improperly by your review response team. But in its report, Whitespark was able to quantify just how harmful they actually are.
According to the report, “negative sentiment in Google reviews” was #8 in Whitespark’s Top 20 Negative Ranking Factors, making bad reviews even more harmful than issues like hidden business addresses on GMB/GBP (#12), incorrect map markers in GMB/GBP (#13), and certain types of incomplete or missing data (#19). Interestingly, low ratings were found to be slightly more damaging than negative “sentiments,” with “low numerical ratings of Google reviews (e.g. 1-2)” coming in at #6 on the list. (Conversely, “high numerical Google ratings (e.g. 4-5)” ranked #6 on an opposite list, appearing on Whitespark’s Top 20 Local Pack/Finder Factors in 2021.)
Of course, you can’t dictate the content of user-generated reviews or choose how many stars your business is awarded, giving you limited power over these two particular ranking factors. However, as we explored in a previous post, you are more likely to retain unhappy customers — and attract new ones — if your team consistently provides reviewers with swift, friendly, and helpful responses.
In addition to low ratings and negative review sentiments, Whitespark also included fake reviews in its Top 20 Negative Ranking Factors, with “reports of fake reviews on your GMB listing” landing at #16 on the list. Learn more about the pitfalls of paying for positive reviews, consider how you can leverage bad reviews to your advantage, or discover useful strategies for dealing with 1-star and 2-star ratings. You can also browse our tips for responding to negative reviews, or brush up on some do’s and don’ts when replying to legally sensitive reviews, such as comments involving safety or discrimination at your business.
No matter what sort of negative review you need help replying to, the tips and strategies above can help you get started — and if you don’t have the time to personalize each response, count on our 24-hour, US-based response scribes to provide a bespoke review response service for you.
Ask for a Demo of Our Custom Review Reply Service for Digital Agencies and Brands
The expert consensus is that reviews are an increasingly significant ranking factor when it comes to the local pack — which, according to MomentFeed, can increase the number of clicks your business receives by as much as 100%. Make sure your business is leveraging reviews efficiently to generate leads, improve client retention, boost revenue, and drive growth.
Ask how Shout About Us can help your brand or digital agency generate, manage, and respond to reviews on behalf of your clients in any industry. Whether you’re interested in our custom review reply service, our secure and powerful review management platform, or effortless review generation, our team is available 24 hours to provide you with scalable solutions. Request a demo of the services we offer for digital agencies and brands, or contact us online to learn more.
Emily Homrok is a freelance copywriter with more than seven years of writing experience. She joined the Shout About Us team as a content strategist in 2020.