Google Places : What’s Driving Local SERPs

Google Places search results pages drive me crazy on a daily basis.  They go from displaying businesses that are 20 miles away to returning incomplete, unverified, places pages with no website above legitimate businesses.

Today I was searching for ‘laser hair removal’ in nearby St. Paul.  A look at the Google SERP below shows the usual local results hogging nearly the whole first page of organic.

The first two listings look like they belong but after that the results are strange at best.  I did a quick comparison with some values from Open Site Explorer.

LRD is the number of linking root domains and DA is Domain Authority. I graded the site URL and the places page listings myself based on pretty simple metrics of phrase usage and proper placement.

The first two results use the search phrase (sans city name) nicely in the business title on the places page. They are also running the new Google tags but I think the phrase use in the title is placing them first and second and not the free month trial of tags. The first result is actually in St. Paul while the second result is in a suburb of St. Paul.

The third result has no reference to the search phrase on the URL page, the phrase is poorly referenced in the places page, and it is on a weak domain. The only two signals the third result has going for it is a domain name that is close to the search phrase and a business address in the city searched for.

The fourth result comes from a page that isn’t in the linkscape index but is on a fairly strong domain. The URL page is highly optimized for the search phrase but the places page doesn’t contain anything close to the search phrase. And the business is not actually in the city searched for but a distant suburb.

I am tempted to call the fifth result on the list and offer to do 10 minutes worth of work to their places page and watch them jump to #1. They have the strongest domain in the list. The URL page is highly optimized for the search phrase. I am very confident that adding the search phrase to the Google Places listing would move them up the results quickly. As I say that I remind myself that the listing above in the #4 spot has an F grade for the places page also and I have no idea why it is in the results (confidence killer :) )

The sixth result has no website but has a places page that targets the phrase and the business is actually in St. Paul – the city I searched for.

The results get worse from there with spammy directories. My biggest questions in all of this are:
1. If I search for a city name and there are businesses in that city, why doesn’t Google show those first?
2. How can a business that is at least 15 miles away from the center of the city and that doesn’t use the search phrase on their places page (#4), outrank businesses in the city targeting the phrase?

Here is a map of the results. I’ve placed an ‘X’ near the center of St. Paul.

I know there are better search results sitting on page 2 of the SERPs.  And I know there are laser hair removal businesses actually in St. Paul.  So why is Google showing me results that are 15-20 miles away?

It is fairly clear that domain authority,  page authority, domain optimization (or relevancy) and Place page optimization play a critical role in the top 2-3 positions.  I would say that due to lack of quality competition we see very strange results in situations such as this one.

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  1. Local search can drie you crazy, mostly because it uses many additional factors past organic SEO and the many unknown and changing/growing criteria used.

    At quick glance, I think result #3 (C) has benefited from proper categories being set for the search you ran – focused on hair removal. They also benefit from their zip code being considered a St Paul zip. A deeper look might show their local data is unified across many sources or that their citations provide strong signals (I’m not looking that deep on it though.)

    Great post, love seeing local search posts!

  2. Thanks Aaron. We started tracking local SERPs in our SEO tool and will be tracking more local signals in the coming month also.

    Right now it seems the local SERPs are changing quite a bit day by day. We see 7-packs and Places results swapping out for each other regularly. I hope all this flux turns into more relevant SERPs for the local user.

  3. I’m with you. The SERP is more frustrating to me than the algo for sure. I can only guess that G is trying to address what produces the most use/clicks of Place pages to bolster them and their new local products (tags, boost). It will be nice once there is rhyme, reason and consistency to the local results pages.

  4. Over the weekend I did a study of local results for “self storage” searches. It was a small sample, 10 results each from 4 markets but I saw:
    - no correlation between domain authority and ranking
    - high correlation between reviews and citations and ranking

    Interesting enough, there was a statistically significant correlation between using Google Offers and ranking (.06). I noticed that both #3 & #4 in your SERP used Google Offers…just something that jumped out to me.

    SEO Moz found in their analysis that the ranking factors differed by industry so maybe Domain Authority is more significant in Laser Hair Removal and less significant in Self Storage. That is what keeps us on our toes!

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