The PlaceRank Secret Behind Google’s Local Search Rankings
Most local business marketers focus solely upon their company’s web presence and don’t realize that if they shifted a portion of their promotional efforts outward in a less self-centered manner, the benefit might come back to help their own online marketing performance. This premise is based upon a virtually-secret aspect of the PlaceRank local search algorithm.
What Is PlaceRank?
“PlaceRank” is named after “PageRank,“ Google’s original ranking algorithm, and it is the process by which Google collects information about all sorts of local places, and then interprets that information to generate ranking scores for each place. Marketers mostly concentrate upon business locations as places, but there are far more things that can be places, such as cities, counties, office buildings, residential addresses, parks, statues and monuments, automated teller machines, and more.
A large portion of the PlaceRank algorithm is specific to a business itself, analyzing things like whether there are photos and videos about a business location, how many people view those photos and videos, how many people view the business profile “Place Page” — recently replaced by the Google+ Local pages — how many times driving directions are requested to the location, how many reviews are written and how influential the reviewers are, and so on.
‘Place’ Is More than a Single Business
However, an aspect of the algorithm analyzes the popularity of collections of places — the relevant U.S. patent document refers to them as “entities” or sets of coordinates — and it’s this area of the algorithm that I find particularly interesting. You see, a collection of places could easily be multiple addresses or multiple businesses that are grouped together in some way. For instance, when consumers search in Google for something like “Pizza restaurants in Nashville,” Google is interested in providing them with a list of pizza restaurants from their database of businesses. So, it will display listings from the group of all businesses determined to be in Nashville and the greater Nashville area.
The point at which the algorithm attempts to determine the relative popularity of businesses in the particular area is the critical piece, and it has become increasingly complex. This goes beyond mere proximity — earlier iterations of Google’s local search algorithm was biased to often display more businesses closest to the center of a city. Google has since incorporated and weighted more heavily various popularity signals to try to show the best, highest-quality, most interesting businesses for the area. The centroid of the search radius is far less important now, as Google included data on the outlines of geographic areas such as city limits. But, this goes beyond the city’s borderline — businesses nearby but outside that border could still appear and rank high in local search results.
The other factor that may be coming into play is data from the analysis of relative popularity of small regions within urban areas. It seems fairly clear that Google has performed some analysis like this to determine the relative popularity of neighborhoods, districts, and smaller regions within cities. A resultant philosophy could describe this concept: Businesses located in more popular districts may be more important than businesses located in less-popular, less-trafficked areas of cities.
Or, you could invoke the traditional business rule: “There are three things that matter in property: Location, location, location.”
There are a number of methods by which Google could perform this sort of analysis to figure out which districts have higher degrees of prominence. For one thing, Google has taken pains to integrate Wikipedia data into Google Maps on a layer. If you click to enable display of the layer, you’ll see the locations of Wikipedia articles associated with specific places pinpointed on the map.
Notice how Google has also performed analysis to assess which Wikipedia locations are more popular than others, indicated by larger and smaller pinpoint icons. Further, you can see that places that are noteworthy enough to merit having a Wikipedia article are sometimes clustered together in historically significant districts or more-popular neighborhoods.
Wikipedia data is but one signal that Google could be using to determine the PlaceRank of neighborhoods and districts. It doesn’t take much to see that top-ranking businesses in various categories also coordinate fairly closely with these district clusters.
So, if you’re doing marketing for local businesses, you now might be thinking, “So, what?!? I’m stuck with my business location, and it’s impractical for me to move into a more-popular neighborhood.” Or, you might even be thinking that you’re already in an area with fairly good prominence, so perhaps this isn’t a factor that you can affect to further help your business’s local search rankings. However, there are some marketing strategies that can be used to effectively influence the relative popularity of your neighborhood or district.
Businesses that cooperate with each other for some group marketing efforts can increase their area’s PlaceRank signal. Some ideas for this could include hosting street festivals, local charity fundraising events, district festivals or concerts, and perhaps even collective discount offers similar to the “buy local” efforts if promoted effectively enough.
Local events result in an increase in social media signal and buzz around the Internet as multiple sites will list the event, linking to official event websites, and inspire some coverage in local newspapers, blogs, and media added to photo sharing and video sharing platforms. Sponsoring such events can also result in links back to your business site.
I should mention that if you get enough participants, large annual events often merit having a Wikipedia article.
Small business marketers often don’t perceive a clear return on investment for participating in local events, but doing so may indeed pump up the overall popularity of their entire area, resulting in better rankings in Google’s local searches as their overall PlaceRank becomes enhanced. Obviously, the other businesses in your area will also benefit from it, but realize that all ships will rise on the tide.