SEO for local business has gone through a number of changes. First, local businesses had to figure out Google’s algorithm so that their websites would appear in search results. Next came local search ranking factors that emphasized location-based factors. Now, it seems Google updates will require a new look at vertical-specific ranking factors.

This isn’t really a third wave of SEO — rather, it’s an evolution of Google’s general ranking factors. Consistent with attaining its goal of providing consumers with search results that best match what they are looking for and content that will be most helpful, Google looks more deeply and more specifically at factors that determine search results.

What this means is that pursuing general factors like “more backlinks” or “matching keywords” simply doesn’t cut it anymore. That’s not to say those factors are no longer relevant; they are. But it’s getting more complicated.

One size no longer fits all

While the debate rages on about the importance of websites or whether pages on third-party platforms such as Yelp, Facebook, or even Google My Business are diminishing the need for them, Google’s move itself may provide the real answer.

Basically, Google is saying that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Consumers are demanding more specific information and more targeted responses, even from advertising. Thus, SEO for ranking factors can no longer be a one-rule-fits-all solution.

Sometimes websites are the best option; sometimes a Google My Business or Yelp listing is enough. When it comes to restaurants, for example, the information you need to decide where to eat can be contained in a short profile caption that simply includes location, cuisine, price point and reviews. On the other hand, you’d likely do a lot more research before deciding what financial advisor you want to manage your money — and you’d not likely make that decision based on the advisor’s Facebook page.

The proliferation of information sources may work to Google’s advantage. If Google can provide the most relevant results that directly answer the consumer’s search inquiry, it will protect the dominance of its search platform against other domains. In other words, Google wants websites to remain relevant.

Additionally, the growing blur between online and offline commerce means that local businesses need to maintain a strong online store presence. It’s no longer solely about driving foot traffic from online ads or local search results. Consumers may buy online and pick up in store. Or buy in store and reorder online. Or book appointments online for offline visits.

Consumers expect these conveniences and cross-media interactions to be seamless. Thus, local businesses need to be easy to find both offline and online, to make their online experiences great and to design storefronts that continue that online user experience.

Recently, Searchmetrics conducted studies on the highest-ranked websites for keyword searches in several verticals, including finance, travel, media and e-commerce. Their results included both ranking factors and other trends that may not be recognized as directly considered by Google’s algorithm but that correlate across the top sites. Since Google broadly measures user experience through volume of views or clicks, these correlations that attract consumers or reflect well-liked sites still may impact search ranking.

Summary of study results

Below is a summary of how the top 10 websites for a variety of keyword searches in a given vertical compared to average benchmarks for universal search results.

Finance websites

  • 30 percent smaller in file size.
  • 40 percent fewer images.
  • Load one second faster.
  • 23 percent more likely to have bullet point lists.
  • Keywords appear one-third as frequently in text body.
  • 81 percent fewer internal links.
  • 20 percent of benchmark for Facebook signals; 70 percent more LinkedIn signals.
  • 14 percent longer URLs.

The above demonstrates that users on Finance websites value relevant and clearly communicated content, organized in readable format, that provides specific details on the subject matter.

Faster load times are a result of fewer images that are deemed less important in conveying hard facts or terms.

Users appear to be single-item shoppers, less interested in a variety of products or information, so they surf around the site less and use specific landing pages.

Social media is not considered authoritative in financial decisions, with the exception of LinkedIn and its professional focus.

Travel websites

  • 38 percent more images.
  • 23 percent more internal links.
  • 57 percent higher word count.
  • Load times slower by three seconds, on average.
  • 27 percent more bulleted points.
  • 50 percent fewer keywords on page.
  • 50 percent fewer results are HTTPS encrypted.
  • 11 percent of Facebook and 2 percent of Tweets compared to 100 percent index.

Consumers searching for travel information also demand more relevant and deeper content related to keywords, but unlike for financial websites, images are highly useful for travel. These consumers are also more likely to surf within a domain — for example, users on a hotel site may look at other products such as different rooms, different properties or other destinations.

Less sensitive general information is not protected by secure websites, and users are likely transferred to separate and secure sites for purchases, bookings and financial transactions.

Surprisingly, social media signals are rated low for travel sites. Thus, don’t confuse pretravel research with post-travel social sharing.

E-commerce websites

  • 40 percent higher interactive elements like buttons, menus, click to call.
  • More than double the rate of online stores above the fold.
  • 70 percent more bullets per list and 25 percent higher word count.
  • 73 percent more internal links.
  • 32 percent larger file size.
  • 30 percent less video integration.
  • 74 percent less Facebook integration.

Not surprisingly, e-commerce sites prioritize online stores and calls to action via interactive buttons and menus. They also have substantial internal links, presumably because consumers like to consider or compare other products or services offered on the site. Detailed product descriptions via lists are valued over video. And e-commerce sites rely less on social media.

Media websites

  • 106 percent greater Pinterest social signals; 39 percent greater Facebook signals, 29 percent greater Google+ signals and 17 percent more Tweets.
  • 16 percent more external links.
  • 7 percent more images.
  • 12 percent greater use of keywords; 16 percent more text.
  • Four-second slower load time.
  • 75 percent fewer results are HTTPS encrypted.
  • 24 percent higher Google AMP integration for media websites; 43 percent higher for news search results on publisher sites.

The high value of social signals generated by media sites demonstrates the importance of traffic generated by social media for news and articles.

Higher keyword and text count indicate the importance of relevant content complemented selectively by images.

Lack of sensitive information translates into low encryption rates. And industry-wide dependence on advertising revenue to pay for content leads to higher load times.

The high adoption of AMP integration helps compensate for the slow load speed.

Takeaways

The above Searchmetrics study results reveal that SEO often boils down to common-sense application of matching relevant content to targeted audiences and less emphasis on keyword matches or checking boxes of general ranking factors. Below are some of my takeaways that will help your websites rank better:

1. Help consumers understand subjects requiring deeper research

Products such as electronic devices, home appliances and computer equipment often are distinguished by technical specifications and functional capability. Knowing what features are included for the price helps determine value. Google will prioritize search results that help consumers make these decisions.

Likewise, health advice or medical information related to prescriptions or conditions requires detailed explanations. Consumers will search narrowly but deeply about specific subjects. Helping break down the information into more easily understood headings and bullet points appears to be valued by Google.

Professions like lawyers, dentists and financial planners should also describe their expertise in specific fields. For example, lawyers should detail their field of practice in divorce, criminal defense or estate planning.

Consumers also spend more time researching high-dollar purchases such as cars, homes, and expensive electronics. Make it easy for them to compare the benefits and features that they’ll spend their hard-earned money on.

The quality of the content matters in areas consumers will research in depth.

2. Use images only when they enhance the user experience

The stats that indicate increased user engagement when using images is compelling. But don’t overdo it. The studies above indicate that well-organized text can be more effective in breaking down complex subjects such as financial products, medical procedures, legal services and technical information.

Areas where use of images is well served include fashion, food, design and travel, in which visual evaluation plays an important role.

3. Social media is more effective for showing off end products, less for the path to purchase

Social media is likewise universally touted as critical in today’s marketing environment. Certainly, published content like media, news, articles and blogs is highly dependent on social media.

Yet based on Google search results, social media signals are far less important for e-commerce, finance and even travel. The distinction may lie in the fact that users like to share travel experiences after the fact, and not while they are planning a trip — or show off a new watch they bought on social media, not where they bought it.

While the end might justify the means, it doesn’t always justify sharing the means.

4. Seek backlinks from relevant sources

This takeaway is an extrapolation of the social media signal results from Finance websites in Searchmetrics’ study. While Facebook signals correlated at only one-fifth of the benchmark for Finance websites, LinkedIn signals were highly correlated, at 70 percent more than the benchmark. Thus, broad rules regarding social media signals cannot be drawn. Rather, social media signals from the right sources or relevant sources are what matter.

Backlinks are widely sought for their SEO value, yet the same logic applies to backlinks. If you’re a bike store, and you receive a backlink from a website that caters to triathletes, that’s a quality backlink. A link from a deep-sea fishing website, not so much.

5. Use common sense within verticals, too

The concept that one size doesn’t fit all is true even within verticals. There are many variable subgroups within verticals where results may skew from the norm.

For example, while social media signals don’t correlate strongly with search results in travel, an exception would be for a site that depends heavily on referrals. Destination wedding locations or planners might benefit much more from social signals than the typical travel site.

6. Consumers will wait for good content

Google’s public emphasis on load time and its AMP format led to broad advice about improving page rank by creating faster web pages. Mobile adoption and responsiveness remain important, but speed alone should be looked at in context.

Local businesses should quickly display signals to consumers that their content is of high quality and worth waiting for. If you can do that, consumers will be more patient for the page to load. Some tips include those that AMP uses: Loading above the fold first or prioritizing text first and slower items like images or video second.

7. Separate general information from secure information for a better user experience

While repeated reports of security breaches and Google’s emphasis on security have many scrambling to convert their entire websites, HTTPS may affect performance or web page load time. A better practice may be to separate sensitive information from general information.

Even finance websites don’t have a greater-than-general rate of HTTPS adoption. And travel sites that seek to spur purchases of airline tickets, vacation bookings and hotel rentals have a significantly lower rate of HTTPS encryption. By linking to secure sites for transactions, general information doesn’t need to be protected by encryption.

Conclusion

Google continues to improve what its search result algorithm is meant to accomplish: providing results that truly help the user find what he or she is looking for. Understandably, that means more customized results that don’t follow a one-size-fits-all formula.

In order to show up in top search results, businesses must evaluate broadly accepted ranking factors in light of their audience. Instead of checking off boxes of ranking factors, it is important to ask whether those items truly serve the utility of the website for consumers and users. Putting user experience first is Google’s priority, and websites that demonstrate that they do will be chosen for search results.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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