How the Google Local Algo Really Works - What Rules the Ranking Order

Linda Buquet

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Google Local Algo:
What Controls Ranking Order? Citations, Reviews or Organic?

<img title="LocalSEO" src="http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/LocalSEO.jpg" alt="" width="122" height="61" align="left" hspace="10" />With David Mihm's latest Local Search Ranking Factors soon to be published... (I think a sneak peek may be coming today) and with all the misconceptions floating around, I wanted to share my take on the Local Algo again - and prove it.


Back in 2011 I blogged that the blended algo was based primarily on ORGANIC ranking factors and and I've been saying it ever since. Here is one in a series of long posts I did about the algo back in June 2011 showing it. Tale of 2 Google Local Algorithms – Blended vs Places Ranking Factors Revealed.

Below I show you that it's still the ORGANIC algo that controls the ranking order.

There have been lots of posts lately about the new Local Carousel saying that reviews rule the ranking order. (Not true, as I'll attempt to prove below.) Plus there are lots of consultants and business owners that still think # of citations and reviews rules the ranking order OR they question why a listing that has lots of reviews is not ranking on top of the pack.

The BLENDED algo is all about pure organic ranking factors - NOT # of reviews or citations. At least that's usually true for the top 3 -4 listings in the "7 Pack". And we don't want to just get clients on page one - we want to get them in the top 3, right??? So the top 3 are the ones to beat. In order to beat them you need to understand why Google chooses them to be on top of the pack!

Below I'll show again, but even better than I did back in 2011, that organic rules, and show you how you can do the research yourself on your own client listings.

Since a pic is worth a thousand words, I'll drop the 1st screenshot with more explanation below it.

seattlechirosAOL.jpg


So to summarize what you are seeing above and understand it, follow top down on the RIGHT AOL SIDE which is pure organic. You'll see the top 3 organic are also the top 3 organic in Google search on the left. Sandwiched in are the top 3 local. A, B, C listings from regular Google search on the left are in the exact order they show up in pure organic on AOL search on the right. Even though A and C have zero or few reviews they rank higher than listings with lots more - because organic controls the ranking order.

Note: Some of the high ranking organic results that show on the AOL side, don't show in the pack and only show in Google organic search - usually due to some kind of problem on the Places side of the house. (Explained more below.)

But every listing in pure organic on the AOL (right) side is in the same exact order in Google search, it's just a matter of whether the listings qualify to show up in the pack or not.

SO THE CORRELATION IS...

The top 3 (or so) Google blended results in the 7 Pack, almost always match
the PURE ORGANIC ranking order which is what AOL search displays.

Top organic listings in AOL only show in Google organic and DON'T rank in the "Pack"
if there is a problem on the Places side. Usually one of the following: No Place page,
duplicate confusion, NAP mismatch, Places violations or outside the ranking radius.

But the search order for the top 3 or so listings in the "pack" almost always match up, which shows that it's the organic algo that controls ranking order...

Reviews and citations don't control who's in the top 3, organic factors do!
SEE ANOTHER EXAMPLE BELOW - But 1st let me explain more about the comparison you are looking at above, so you can do your own comparisons and ranking analysis.

EXPLANATION: AOL search which is what I used above, displays Google organic results. Startpage is another one I like better in some ways. There are others, but these 2 are the best and they all pull the same Google results - there are just a couple differences in display and options.

WHAT THESE TOOLS DO: They pull "PURE ORGANIC" search results from Google. These results have nothing to do with reviews, citations, maps, they are just pure organic.

Prove it to yourself. (So you have a baseline trust in what I'm telling you.) Search for something that does not have any local listings and not a lot of directory or commerce listings. "Pet Rock" is a good generic term. Use regular Google search for "Pet Rock" then do the same on AOL search and Startpage. You'll see the results are in the exact same order. (Occasionally there will be one out of place due to different data centers or because G did an algo update on live search that has not flowed out to custom search results yet or whatever.)

So as I explained and showed above. The ranking order for the top 3 in the "Pack" matches the ranking order in pure organic.

EXAMPLE #2:

chicagocosdentAOL.jpg

So in this example as well A, B, C perfectly match the pure organic ranking order.

Again reviews aren't the deciding factor. A, B, C only have a few. D & E have tons, yet are not on top.

Additionally as we saw in the 1st example, many of the high ranking organic sites on the right, didn't make it into the "Pack" due to a wide variety of issues, so they land in Google search as just organic listings.

NEED MORE PROOF? If you don't quite believe me or want to hear it direct from Professor Maps - you need to sort of read between the lines, but Mike allude to this in the comments of this post about authorship markup. See Mike's comments #26, #30 and #34. This also helps to explain why the # of blended organic results vary. I've been saying "usually the top 3 are based on organic" but it varies somewhat based on competition. Here are a couple short quotes from Mike:

"In any given blended pack results the first results (it could be anywhere from 1 to 7) are created by blending web content with the local results." "All the of the lower pinned results are “pure” map results NOT blended results. Thus to get an author photo it is necessary to have a blended result which occurs when you have a highly placed (as in the first web search results) web page AND a highly placed maps listing." "Google only blends at the start for any listing that is ranked high in both web and local… once it runs out of those it pushes the high ranking web results down in the SERPS and “backfills” with pure Local results. So depending on the niche there might be only 1 blended result but if more competitive there might be 7."
So now after reading Mike's comments, look at my screenshots again and see if it does not start to make more sense.

DISCLAIMER - There are over 300 ranking factors that go into the organic algo. And I can't remember how many used to go into the old "Places algo". Then everything got mashed together. Plus there numerous different of Google algos at any one time and they are constantly changing. So there is nothing you can point to that is always 100% consistent with Google Local.

So in some comparisons you run, using my methodology above, you'll find discrepancies due to different data centers or whatever. ALSO some markets are really hard to run this particular comparison for. One industry I've talked to Miriam about in her posts listed below, is Restaurants. That's largely because there are so many food review sites, local directories and strongly branded chains mucking up the pure organics that it's really hard to find the individual restaurant sites to try to cross match. And sometimes they don't match well, so maybe a little different algo or something?

If you do enough comparisons though, you'll see that what I am suggesting above is true MOST of the time. There are always search anomalies and glitches and updates in mid-rollout that can cause differences in any search comparison.

Bonus Tip - In my on-site Local SEO training in addition to covering what on-site factors Google LOVES for local that helps boost ranking. I also explain that using AOL Search or StartPage is a must for analyzing ranking problems and penalties. It helps you see if the ranking drop/problem is on the organic or Places side of the house. Some day if I get time I'll do a post, but this one is way too long to go into ranking troubleshooting here.

TO BE CONTINUED... I'm going to break this post off here and in part 2 right below I'll go into a little bit of ranking strategy and post some related links. Hang on, it's coming right up.



 

Linda Buquet

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LOCAL RANKING STRATEGY

<img title="LocalSEO" src="http://marketing-blog.catalystemarketing.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/LocalSEO.jpg" alt="" width="122" height="61" align="left" hspace="10" /> In the OLD "Places algo" the ranking factors were primarily weighted toward "Places" factors like NAP integrity, #of citations, reviews, proximity... Many think this is still how the algo works. (The old Places algo is still live, but seldom shows up any more.)


However the blended algo, at least getting in the top 3, is all about ORGANIC!

HOWEVER that is not to suggest at all the that Places factors and best practices we cut our teeth on are not important! You MUST have both sides of your house in order!

See all those guys in the screenshots in post #1 that rank high in organic and don't make the pack? They have a problem on the Places side of the house somewhere or the top ranking organics would all be in the pack.


I always tell consultants I train that ranking in Google is like a complicated puzzle.
You need to get ALL the puzzle pieces right - the organic pieces & the Places pieces.


I also explain to them that I stopped working on citations and shifted my energy to on-site SEO after the blended hit, because organic is what can move the needle the most. That isn't to say citations aren't important. They are for trust. BUT if you have a mature client with tons of citations already, adding more won't necessarily move the needle - but improving their on-site SEO often will!

On average I moved my Dentists from #16 to #2 just using the on-site Local SEO strategies I teach. NO citations, NO backlinks. Just on-site SEO and local hooks. (After I cleaned up any Places problems they may have had.)

Recommended Steps

1st:
Troubleshoot any Places problems. You can do the best on-site SEO on the planet but if they have a Places violation, screwed up NAP, dupes or some other problem, then you are building on a broken foundation. Get the Places side of the house in order 1st. After correcting problems, optimize what you can in the dashboard, the most important thing being selecting the correct categories.

2nd: Simultaneously start an ethical, well thought out review strategy. They do help ranking in the lower part of the pack, but more than anything they are important for conversions. A "C" listing with 25 great reviews may see more action than an "A" listing with 2 reviews.

3rd: DO SOME REALLY SMART SOLID ON-SITE "LOCAL" SEO (which is somewhat different than traditional SEO) to get to the top of the pack for your most important keywords. Most local sites are not covering all the on-site SEO bases or doing it well. If you do really advanced Local on-site SEO and understand the signals Google is looking for, you can often leapfrog the competition.

To learn more about how to get your clients ranking on top I offer extensive training.

But you are also in luck because our 2nd InsideLocal webinar is all about on-site Local SEO.

FREE ON-SITE LOCAL SEO WEBINAR
InsideLocal Webinar #2, coming up July 31st. Details soon!​

RELATED LINKS:

Below are a few discussions I've been involved in lately related to the screenshots above, that spurred me on to do this big algo analysis post. Even though I've been saying all along that organic rules and posted explaining it all back in 2011, I guess lots of folks missed it and I think this post shows it more clearly.

How Much Does Sheer Review Count Really Matter? Miriam started discussion here.

How Google?s Carousel Convinced Me That Review Counts Count For Nearly Nada Miriam's Post.

Do Review Velocity Or Recency Influence Local Business Rankings? Miriam's mini ranking study where she attempts to show that # of reviews is not what controls the ranking order.

Keyword Variation Rankings Joshua said "Linda, I was under the assumption that more or less, 25% of the algo was based on reviews according to David Mihm. Is this incorrect?" I replied explaining partially in that thread and promised to do this post.

WHEW! If you got to the bottom of these 2 posts, you deserve a prize!

Any questions???
 
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Hi Linda,
This is a gripping read! Your Google-to-AOL comparison strategy is so interesting! I've never tried that before and it inspired me to try a search of my own. In this case, I searched for 'Dentists Mill Valley CA'. Here are my results:

millvalleydentists.jpg

Google is on the left, Aol is on the right. In this search, I'm not seeing that clear lineup of the first 3 pack results reflecting the order or AOL organic. How would you diagnose this variance? I would love to get your eyes and mind on that to see why it differs from what you have come to expect the results to act like. I really want to 'get' your strategy and be able to prove it to myself. Thanks, Linda!

 

JoyHawkins

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Great post Linda! I actually read the entire thing (didn't skim) :)

---------- Post Merged at 04:04 PM ---------- Previous Post was at 04:01 PM ----------

Top organic listings in AOL only show in Google organic and DON'T rank in the "Pack"
if there is a problem on the Places side. Usually one of the following: No Place page,
duplicate confusion, NAP mismatch, Places violations or outside the ranking radius.


I would also add new place page listings because while they are waiting the 6-8 weeks for the listing to be added to the index it won't blend with their organic ranking.
 

Linda Buquet

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Great post Linda! I actually read the entire thing (didn't skim) :)

[/I]I would also add new place page listings because while they are waiting the 6-8 weeks for the listing to be added to the index it won't blend with their organic ranking.
Whoa, no skimming? That was a long one.

Great point about the new listings! Super good point I forgot to mention.

Miriam - working on reply to explain what you are seeing.
 

Linda Buquet

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Hi Linda,
This is a gripping read! Your Google-to-AOL comparison strategy is so interesting! I've never tried that before and it inspired me to try a search of my own. In this case, I searched for 'Dentists Mill Valley CA'. Here are my results:

Google is on the left, Aol is on the right. In this search, I'm not seeing that clear lineup of the first 3 pack results reflecting the order or AOL organic. How would you diagnose this variance?
I "BELIEVE" it's the way you structured that search term Miriam, but I'm kinda guessing, let me try to explain.

Your example: "Dentists Mill Valley CA". If you use Startpage for some reason they line up a little better.

HOWEVER it's the search order, plural and CA that's throwing you off.

If you use the more standard and direct key phrase most Dentists would want to rank for "Mill Valley Dentist", then it almost perfectly lines up just like my examples.

Try it again with "Mill Valley Dentist" and you'll see it pretty much jives.


I'll attempt to explain what I think the reason is...

Google organic in part orders search by what's in the title tag. If your title tag is little green widgets you won't rank well for big blue widgets.

The MAJORITY of high ranking Dentists are trying to optimize for Mill Valley Dentist or Dentist Mill Valley. They aren't all using plural or CA and some are using California spelled out. And most have the phrase split up maybe like Dentist John Smith - Mill Valley Ca so wont rank as well for the exact phrase "Dentists Mill Valley CA"

Google this exactly: allintitle: "Dentists Mill Valley CA"
That pulls the top ranking pages that have that exact title in the title page. (In other words those listings are optimized for that exact phrase.)

Only 1100 - BUT LOOK AT THE SITES. NONE on page 1 are indiv Dentist websites. They are all directories and funky sites like nsv9beta.apphb.com because Dentists are not optimizing for a phrase just like the one in your example.

So if no Dentists rank high in organic, they aren't go to fill in at the top of blended.

Now Google: allintitle: "Mill Valley Dentist"

See the difference in the listings on page one? Those are actual Dentist sites trying to optimize for that more popular and direct phrase.

SO NOW - back to what Mike said, which I think will help explain why your results did not pan out.

He said IF there are high ranking organic AND high ranking Maps listings, Google will merge them into blended. IF NOT she back fills with pure Maps listings. So with your example phrase there were not many or any high ranking organic dentist sites optimized for the phrase the way you used it.

Most businesses want to rank for city KW or KW city - so those are the ones that are most important. It's fine to optimize for the other variations, but they don't get as many searches and aren't going to always match up as the examples above do.

So if you stick to the more specific and most popular keywords this matches up. If you use a more obscure search phrase that has directories and funky sites and no actual business web sites, they aren't going to rank in blended and Google will fill in with the maps listings, which is a different algo.

Does that make sense?
 

JoshuaMackens

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Linda,

I didn't see any research on the amount of citations each individual business had, amount of reviews across the local search directory landscape, or any data on G+L claimed and optimized.

Without this information, we're getting too close to causation vs correlation. Well optimized organic sites correlate to a great ranking but are not necessarily the overall, or direct cause.

It's not too far off to imagine that since these guys rank so well organically, they know how to rank locally as well. Meaning they've claimed their G+L pages, they've created a large citations database, they've garnered reviews across many platforms. It is not unreasonable to then draw the conclusion that due to all those factors plus their great organic ranking, that's why they rank as high as they do.

In fact, if you look up Facebook page likes/engagement vs organic rankings, they are remarkably similar. Why? Because social media via Facebook rules local rankings? No. It's because the internet marketing savvy folks who run social media campaigns are running another type of internet marketing campaign, SEO. Correlation, not causation.

I'd be interested to see this study (when you have time, I know you're a busy lady) backed up with local citation, aggregate review count, and G+L optimization information. Then, we can get a true picture of what's really going on.

One of the main reasons I do not believe the local algorithm is anymore than 50% organic is due to the fluctuating nature of organic listings. This fluctuation is absent in local listings. Listings in the pure organic 20+ ranking range fluctuate dramatically, almost every single day, for almost any keyword. They flop-flop and "do the dance" quite a bit. For listings on the first page, there is fluctuation quite frequently as well, once or twice a week isn't uncommon, if not more for less competitive terms. With local results, there is normally zero fluctuation in the blended listings, ever, for the keywords I watch, over a week's period. Sometimes even a month or longer. Because the behavior is not seamless across the spectrum, I just can't say with conviction that the local algorithm is dominated by organic factors because the behavior is not the same between the two. They act completely different. This isn't the only reason I believe this way but it's a major influence.

You can also look at people who rank horribly for organic (their title tag isn't even optimized) but they've been #1 for a long, long time. Age of business plays a factor here, both offline and online. I believe much like domain age, that G+L page age plays a role in ranking. Also, the longer you've been in business, the more rounds your NAP has made through the phonebook to the internet search directories. Meaning, you have more citations.

Those are just a few observations I've had.

I believe the local algorithm definitely has organic tendencies and is much more organic than it ever has been. DM even goes so far as to say the local algorithm is 50% organic when it comes down to blended. I think his comment on the algorithm as 1/4 citations, 1/4 reviews (review distribution and not quantity is the key here, in my opinion), 1/4 on-site SEO, 1/4 off-site SEO is okay to bet on. I would mix it up a little bit there and maybe say it's more like 60% organic with more focus on the off-site as competition rises but still, I think he's close.

However, I saw your post not too long ago, or maybe it was Miriam's on review count. I completely agree that review count plays no part in ranking past a certain point, or at least has a steep diminishing return. Also, review quality doesn't matter either. Although, I believe that will change very, very soon.

Just my 2 cents. You've been at this longer than me so I take your expertise to heart :)
 

Linda Buquet

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Hi Joshua I agree with you on many levels and one thing with Google is for sure. It's never black and white or cut and dried and like my disclaimer pointed out it's always in flux.

One of the things I wanted to do, but it would be WAY too much for this post, is to use Places Scout or one of the other tools to do a more thorough analysis of all the various factors - # of backlinks, reviews, citations, proximity, domain authority etc. etc.

However I've tried that before with different tools and nothing ever reliably matched up. Even all the tools pulled different #s and didn't match up. The only thing that's consistently matched up and given me any sense of understanding the algo is this.

That isn't to say I'm right or this is the only way to look at it. Like I said there are a bunch of different factors and several algos at play at any time - so no absolutes, just good guesses. And this is one of many tools that could be used to try to figure it out.

The other thing I have to go on, is just from my own experience. "On average I moved my Dentists from #16 to #2 just using the on-site Local SEO strategies I teach. NO citations, NO backlinks." Many of my clients I got to the A spot and they had NO reviews and were furthest from City Center. This was just by doing the on-site SEO.
 
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Hi Linda,
I do see the better matchup with the differently ordered kw search phrase. Thank you for explaining that so clearly. It's terrific to get a peek into how you discovered this way of cross checking organic rankings with local ones and I think you've presented some very compelling arguments for the vital part organic SEO plays in Local. Thank you for taking so much time to document this for all of us. There is a HUGE number of reads on this post, if not many comments. I bet people are thinking this over carefully.
 

JoshuaMackens

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The other thing I have to go on, is just from my own experience. "On average I moved my Dentists from #16 to #2 just using the on-site Local SEO strategies I teach. NO citations, NO backlinks." Many of my clients I got to the A spot and they had NO reviews and were furthest from City Center. This was just by doing the on-site SEO.
I hear that. Well, not really, I've never been able to do that with just on-site :) but that is impressive.

It may have just been that all factors were the same in many cases ie they all had equal'ish citation numbers, review numbers (zero wouldn't surprise me), etc. Then, your on-page SEO was unique to your client's industry/competition and boom, shot him right up. Or, it could just be that your local on-page SEO is just that good.

Unfortunately with Google and those over 200+ signals in the organic algorithm (or is it 300 now?) you can never tell exactly what's going on.

Good food for thought nonetheless. Thanks for sharing as always! :)
 

Linda Buquet

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Dr Pete at MOZ just did a really interesting post.

He uses the Google "start=" parameter to see PURE organic results to figure out local.

How Does Google Count Local Results? - Moz

I'm anxious to try his method but I think it will compare with AOL and Startpage which I find easier to do for some reason. But I'm going to play with his method and see if I can uncover anything else buried in the local algo I maybe did not see when doing it the other way.
 

wokka

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Linda - I'm trying to get a small local optimisation business (one man band) going over here in the UK.

I've read loads of articles and techniques on how you should do on-site optimisation and how to fill in your G+ local page. But, your explanation above is the most down to earth straight forward, provable one I've ever read.

Thank you so much for cutting through all the fog for me, I've read so much BS and spammy advice that I've actually not advanced forward with the business at all. But, you are giving me the confidence to think that I can actually do this.

Looking at small businesses in the UK, I can't believe how little they think of getting positioned on google and on how much business they're losing.

My thoughts are that if I can educate them into taking me on board to help them gain more business, my job should be relatively easy, because of the lack of local knowledge and proper seo. At least in the larger cities, excluding London that I've looked at.

Probably, your onsite methods would be enough to push them onto page one on their own. I really need to learn how to do on site optimisation for local seo....

But, my problem with this is that I can't attend your training because I'm on the other side of the pond and couldn't afford to come across.

Do you offer any other types of distance learning methods? Thanks for all the time and efforts you put into this forum, it is much appreciated.
 

Linda Buquet

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Hi wokka glad this helped make some sense of the algo.

All my training is remote so that's no problem, but it is advanced and there are a couple options. Please use my contact form and mention your user name here in the forum and that you are from UK - then I can explain.
 

katandmouse

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Just landed on this interesting discussion but it's 12:43 am here so I'm going to have to read it another day when I have an hour or two, but I will pipe in here now with a discovery of my own.

I ran a test a few years ago where I actually created a Google Place page for a business that was not located in that particular city. I also created a legitimate Place page for the business in the real town. (I know what you're thinking. Don't ask. And nobody else try this. This was all done in the name of science. :)

Other than create the Place page I did no other Local SEO. The one in the legitimate town has naturally occurring citations and a few reviews. The test page has NONE, neither does it have any reviews. Three years later, it is and has always been in the #1 position in that city for the main keywords.

Based on this research I would say if you know how to do SEO well, you can skip all the citation and review building. I'm not recommending that; I'm just saying it was absolutely NOT NECESSARY at all for the #1 results I was able to achieve. And in glancing over your post here, Linda, I see you got the same results.

Another piece of interesting info is the fact that the legitimate listing was appearing #1 in 7 pack for towns as far away as 25 miles. Except for some keywords, it has mostly fallen out of the 7 pack in those cities as Google is now pickier about your location, but it is still #1 and #2 for keywords ABOVE the pack in the organic listings. The test listing is not there but both are about equal distance from the distant towns. So it appears to me that for outlying areas, it could be Google is looking for other citation, etc. signals and that's why the legitimate listing is there, but I can't say for sure.

Another good lesson here is that you really don't need to move your business to get good rank in other cities. Just hire a good SEO -- that is, unless everyone you're competing against has hired a good SEO, then you might want to think about moving.;)
 

JoshuaMackens

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When you say you can do it without citations and reviews, are you talking about ranking organically? Because those do not factor into the organic algorithm. Did you "illegitimate" business rank in the pack?
 

katandmouse

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I'm talking about BOTH, in organics and in the maps pack. And that's really the point I was trying to make. They are #1 in organics and the maps pack in a city 20 miles away with the site that has only naturally acquired citations and reviews.

They are #1 in organics ABOVE the maps pack and #1 in the 7 pack in the city where they have a pin with NO CITATIONS all from on-site SEO, and this is for multiple keywords.

It should be noted this is pretty easy to do with keywords that the competition didn't think to optimize for. So everyone should look for those opportunities!
 

katandmouse

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I should add to avoid confusion, when I said multiple keywords, I'm talking about the most important ones!
 

JoshuaMackens

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How competitive is this city and how competitive is the industry? I can't see anyone ranking without citations in a competitive city/industry with just on-page. If you had enough links or reviews, I could see it.
 

Linda Buquet

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How competitive is this city and how competitive is the industry? I can't see anyone ranking without citations in a competitive city/industry with just on-page. If you had enough links or reviews, I could see it.
I think the key point may be "without building and citations" not with zero citations at all.

At least in my case I got all my client to 1st page just with on-site SEO. (After of course fixing any Places probs they had - except for a couple uber competitive markets.)

No citation building. No backlink building. BUT they had been in business for awhile so already had natural citations like Kathy said from YP or directories. Most had done no citation building or submissions or anything previous to working with me. So when I started they have whatever natural citations they already had and rank on average #16. I do the on-site SEO and nothing else they jump to #2 on average.

I can show you a bunch of #1s I did with no citation building and even a double #1 in organic and A in the pack. All just with the on-site SEO methods I teach.

That's what good on-site can do in local from my experience, without building citations. But again that's with a mature biz that already had some natural citations. And also if talking uber competitive market like Atlanta Personal Injury Attorney - it's a different story. They'll need more than just good on-site SEO.
 

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