Photo credit: J. B. Hill

What good is a survey if it doesn't bring at least some surprises?

I know that my own eyebrows leaped to heaven when the data first came from the Moz Local SEO Industry 2020 survey, and I saw participants break the tradition of being close to users and companies ranked low third in terms of influencing Google’s local pack rankings. A year ago, our respondents had voted number 1.

If you're feeling scared too, here's a chance to take a closer look at the data and see if we can offer some useful theories for the decline in perceived dominance nearby.

First, a quick definition of the proximity between users and companies

What do local SEOs mean when they talk about user-company proximity? Imagine an Internet searcher standing in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco looking for "pizza" on his phone, laptop, or other device. Local SEOs find that it is more typical for Google to show this person's pizzeria in Pasquale right next to the park than to show them delicious pizza across town in the Glen Park neighborhood.

Ask an identical query when you move around your city and you will likely find that the local package and associated results change a little or depending on your location, depending on the competitiveness, density and variety of local trade in your city standing strongly change when you search.

In 2014, the annual survey of top local SEO experts, known as the Local Search Ranking Factors survey, rated proximity as the eighth largest impact on local pack rankings. By 2017 and in subsequent editions, proximity had reached number 1. As mentioned earlier, it came first in the 2019 Moz Status Report for the Local SEO Industry. But something has changed this year …

Third, proximity: the data

Our large survey group of over 1,000 respondents rated Google My Business elements (keywords in names, categories, etc.) and Google verification elements (number, mood, owner responses, etc.) as a greater impact on local pack rankings as a business proximity user .

Let us now take a closer look at which participants have arranged the influence on the ranking in this way.

GMB elements in first place

It's fascinating to see that, on average, agency workers ranked Google My Business elements as the most influential for local pack rankings. These would be practitioners who presumably work directly with local customers on a daily basis and continuously study local packages.

Google rating elements in second place

Overall, Google’s rating elements rank second. Within these statistics, it is the respondents who market a small local business that scores the highest on average for the impact of ratings. This would probably be independent business owners or their internal marketing staff who regularly watch the local packs to see what appears to be moving the needle.

Nearby ranks third

Overall, the proximity of the seeker to the place of business is in third place, and within this group the agency workers rate the influence of the proximity the highest on average. Again, it is this group of marketers who help make proximity representation less influential than GMB factors.

Three theories to understand the shift in proximity

The data scared me enough to figure out how to explain it. I came up with three different theories that made more sense to me personally.

1. Could the respondents simply be wrong?

Of course it's fair to ask. I'm honest – my first reaction to the data as it crossed my desk was, "Wait … that can't be right. How can proximity be in third place?"

I thought about how the long-term Local Search Ranking Factors project, which is limited to local SEO experts, has been focusing on proximity for several years and how our survey group encompasses all types of job titles related to marketing local businesses have to do. Owners, creative directors, authors, internal SEOs and agency SEOs as well as many other types of practitioners help to market local businesses and participate in our initiative. Could it be that respondents who don't do daily SEO work influenced this result?

But I stopped asking this question when I saw that it was actually agency workers who contributed most to this view that GMB factors outweigh the proximity. Digital marketing brands that offer local SEO as a service cannot be summed up as wrong. Next, I wondered what these agency workers might see, what would make them closeness lower than two other factors.

2. Could "it depends" make the absolute impossible?

Here's the thing: Demanding local SEO practitioners know that there is actually no absolute local ranking factor # 1. What appears in a local package depends to a large extent on understanding Google's intent and the different treatment of different industries and keywords.

For example, Google can decide that if a query such as "Coffee near me" is given, the user wants the closest option and groups the results in close proximity to the searcher. In the meantime, a customer anywhere looking for a “used car dealer” can see results in a specific part of the city where a number of such stores are located – a phenomenon that was long termed the “industry focus” . However, for users looking for something like "sports arena," Google can believe they are willing to go further away and form a local group of businesses in a city or even a state.

So the truth is that dubbing factor # 1 is an oversimplification that we put up with to tidy up the mess of Google results. Proximity can be the dominant influence for some queries, but definitely not for all.

With that in mind, respondents to our survey who work for agencies may see Google behave so differently that they lose confidence in restricting everything to proximity as the main factor. And that leads me to my third theory.

3. Could there be a desire for control here?

Proximity can be a problem. In a separate question in our survey, in which we asked whether Google's focus on proximity always leads to high quality results, only 38.6% of those surveyed were satisfied. Most of us often come across local pack results that are closest but not the best. This can make agencies and business owners a little doubtful of Google and even a little helpless when they act in an environment that is often only close to quality.

Unless a company is willing to move to another location that Google appears to prefer for key search phrase goals, you can't really optimize proximity. In this scenario, what's left for local business marketers to control?

Of course – it's GMB factors and ratings. You can control how you name your business, what categories you choose, how you use Google posts and Q&A, what photos, videos, and descriptions you use. You can control your review campaigns as well as your rate and quality of owner responses.

When I saw that respondents weigh GMB elements over proximity, I wondered whether the strong desire to be able to control the results of the local pack could unconsciously cause the subjects to easily factor in factors that could affect them bump. I am not a psychologist, but I know that here at Moz I always write about what you can control. It could be that this internal emphasis makes me attach more importance to factors other than closeness. Just a theory, but one to consider and I would love to hear in the comments if you have different hypotheses!

Can we know the truth

The results of our survey fascinated me so much that I carried out a very quick Twitter survey to get a further overview of the current mood regarding proximity. Most of my followers are interested in or involved in local SEO, so I was excited to see the result:

While robust 66% put proximity in the first place, interesting 34% did not. In other words, there is simply no complete agreement on the subject. Most revealing is that more than a respected SEO tweeted back to me: "It depends."

For this reason, I believe that my second theory of truth is probably as close as we can get it. In all surveys that summarize an anecdotal opinion, the different experiences of the respondents must be taken into account. Consider:

  • If my agency specializes in working with convenience stores or coffee shops, the proximity can determine my working day, since Google draws such a tight network around the users for my target keywords.
  • When most of my customers run tourist attractions or B2B brands, reviews or names on Google Business profiles can shape my world much more than proximity.
  • Or I have such a large number of customers, each with a different Google behavior, that the more I observe the differences in the results, my general trust in being close to the top has simply waned.

What we can say with certainty is that the way participants in the Moz State of the Local SEO Industry 2020 survey assess the impact of proximity has changed compared to last year. They believe that it is less dominant than a year ago. Knowing this may not change your local packing strategy because, as mentioned, there is never much you can do to affect proximity.

What benefit can we get if there is no absolute local ranking factor No. 1 that all parties agree on? I would like to get to the point: Our survey shows that the participants focus heavily on GMB factors and assessments. In your competitive landscape, awareness of these elements is alive, and your competitiveness means that you actively control what you can control.

Moz Local software offers an intelligent solution that allows you to get the most out of your Google Business profiles. I will close here with my short list of links to help you market local businesses in the competitive environment of Google:

Are you curious about what other findings you will find in our survey? Download the full, free Moz State of the Local SEO Industry 2020 report.

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