Proximity is the #1 Local Ranking Factor

Local SEO

Dan Leibson recently published a post titled “The TriModal Local Ranking Algo in One Screenshot”. In the post, he uses a screenshot which he believes illustrates that there isn’t a #1 local search ranking factor.

Here’s the screenshot:

He writes:

“Plainly put, I think this result shows that there isn’t a “number one ranking factor” when it comes to local search. Google’s local search algorithm is trimodal and is focused on relevance, prominence, AND proximity.”

We have a difference of opinion about there being a number one ranking factor, but I certainly agree that the algorithm is tri-modal. Of course, relevance and proximity are important aspects of the algorithm, in addition to proximity. A search in a high-density category like restaurants or coffee shops will only show three results, and within the tight radius around the searcher, there are probably dozens of businesses that are relevant to the search term. Google must consider prominence and relevance factors of the businesses within that radius, and use these factors to determine which 3 businesses to rank out of the dozens of candidates. What I have noticed, is that if you own a coffee shop outside of that radius, you don’t have a chance at ranking. You can build up all the prominence and relevance factors in the world, and it’s not going to get you into that local pack if you’re outside of the radius.

I actually think his screenshot does a good job of showing exactly how proximity IS the #1 ranking factor affecting the rankings of those three businesses for that specific search in that specific location. Every business in that result is within .6 miles of the searcher. Basically, half a mile.

Are these three businesses ranking because they are the most prominent and relevant businesses in the city for this term? Is Google ranking the best vegan restaurants in the city?

I suppose it’s remotely possible that the three best vegan restaurants just happen to be within half a mile of the searcher, but I’m willing to bet that there are other vegan restaurants within just 1 mile, or 2 miles, that have much higher relevance and prominence scores, Vegan restaurants with higher ratings in reviews, more links to their websites, more relevant content on their websites, and a ton of media mentions from all the foodies in town, but do they rank? Do their prominence and relevance strengths get them into this local pack? No, because they’re too far away from the searcher. Google is giving proximity more weight than relevance and prominence here. Proximity to searcher is the most dominant ranking factor that is affecting which three businesses are ranking in these search results.

Proximity Isn’t the ONLY Ranking Factor

I’ve read Dan’s post a few times, and it seems there may be some confusion between saying “proximity is the #1 ranking factor” and saying “proximity is the only ranking factor”. He alludes to it when he writes:

“…proximity isn’t as important as relevance/searcher intent when it comes to local searches … Were proximity, or other factors that weren’t about searcher intent, Google’s #1 ranking factor then Google would be directing users to bad search results. Kinda like sending a vegan to a rotisserie chicken joint.”

No one ever said that proximity was the only factor. If proximity was Google’s only ranking factor, then sure, Google would be directing users to bad search results. But proximity isn’t the only ranking factor. It just seems to be the strongest factor.

It sounds like his argument might be that relevance is the #1 local ranking factor, because when you search for plumbers, you get plumbers. You don’t get car dealers, or chiropractors, or rotisserie chicken joints. But that’s not really an argument worth having. A business isn’t going to rank in completely different and unrelated categories, so there really isn’t much point discussing it. We need to look at which factors are ranking the business within the categories they are relevant for.

It’s also noteworthy that businesses can rank in related categories if they’re even remotely relevant to the search term, and they can amplify their rankings for these terms because of their proximity. Here’s a great example that my colleague Nick Pierno pointed out:

Butterleaf is an actual vegan restaurant, but they are getting beat in the rankings by a Persian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a bagel shop, and a sandwich shop. They are getting beaten because of proximity. These other places likely have some vegan options, and they’re closer to the searcher, so Google ranks them higher even though they’re not as directly relevant as Butterleaf.

And this is where I take issue with Google giving so much weight to proximity. If I was actually looking for vegan restaurants, I’d be frustrated by these results.

Proximity Isn’t Always the #1 Ranking Factor

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that proximity to searcher is always the #1 local ranking factor. I assume that it’s not on some searches. On some searches, perhaps one business is outranking others because of relevance factors. On other searches, perhaps it’s prominence factors that are making the specific businesses rank.

Saying that proximity is #1 doesn’t mean it’s always #1. It’s just that in more searches than not, proximity appears to be the factor that is given the most weight.

Examples of Proximity in Action

Let’s check a couple more examples to see if this whole proximity thing still holds up.

Here’s a search for plumbers from my house:

To determine how far these businesses are from my location, I can search for directions in Maps using “my location” as the starting destination (then Google will replace it with “Your location” when it runs the search):

Ok, so these 3 plumbing businesses are all relatively close to me, but how many plumbers are there in Edmonton? Yellowpages.ca is probably a decent benchmark for this number. It looks like there are roughly 553.

Out of 553 different plumbing companies, why these three? Well, these three probably have the trifecta of factors impacting their rankings: proximity, relevance, and prominence. Considering that there are 553 different plumbing businesses in Edmonton, I am certain there are other plumbers outside of this 2.2 mile radius that might have higher relevance and prominence scores, but they don’t rank because they’re not close enough to me. They don’t rank because proximity is trumping relevance and prominence.

Let’s look at another search:

And there are roughly 577 painters in Edmonton:

Oh come on, Google. Why is Aprisa Painting ranking? No reviews, they don’t even have a website, and without a website they don’t have any links either. Could it be the strength of all their citations? As someone who runs a company that provides services and software for citation building, I’d like for that to be the primary reason, but it’s more likely that they are ranking because they are relatively close to my location in relation to the other 577 painters in Edmonton.

It is nice to see Edmonton Repaint Guys ranking here, though. They have 7 reviews with high ratings, a decently optimized website, and a ton of citations. It appears that they are getting rankings from a wider radius because they are working on their SEO.

(They also might be spamming maps with some other “locations” that may or may not be legitimate)

Clearly, this business is serious about their SEO and it’s getting them results. This is good news! The “proximity factor” may make it difficult to rank in a wider radius, but your SEO efforts are not for nothing. You can impact rankings through relevance and prominence factors and increase the radius your business can rank in. But even with this example, I STILL think that proximity is the #1 local search ranking factor. I don’t think Edmonton Repaint Guys would be ranking if they were 5 miles away from me.

The fact that they are trying to create other “locations” around the city to be able to rank in more places provides additional evidence. They know that they can only rank in a relatively small radius around their business, so they’re trying to expand their reach by creating new “locations” on Google. (Note, I do not recommend creating listings where you don’t actually have locations. This whole thing could/should come crashing down on them if those aren’t actually legitimate locations.)

Conclusion

The local search algorithm is unquestionably tri-modal. Google’s local search patents discuss proximity, prominence, and relevance, and there are many sub-factors within each of those. Proximity is just one factor among hundreds. But, observations from me and others lead us to believe that proximity is the KEY factor that Google is currently scoring higher than other factors. You’re just not going to rank if you’re too far away from the searcher. I certainly still believe that proximity to searcher is the #1 local ranking factor.

For the moment, anyway. As with everything with Google and local search, this is subject to change any day.