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Google's Usability Fixation Reveals Local Ranking Factors

Google’s obsession with usability is well-established. They use human evaluators to test search results and many algorithmic methods to establish quality scores that can impact rankings, such as the recently introduced site speed value. There are a number of common usability elements of business websites which I believe could be leveraged for rankings in local search. Here are ten.

Further background: In 2005, Google began introducing various factors in calculating a Quality Score which can impact PPC ad rankings and minimum bid amounts. As details of some of the factors involved were emerging, a few of us could see that Google was likely using similar Quality Scores as part of ranking webpages for organic search rankings.

In 2008, Google added landing page load time as another factor feeding into the AdWords Quality Score calculation. So, in the summer of 2009 after Google deployed page speed, a Firefox extension for measuring and diagnosing web page load times, I theorized that Google likely would use page load time as a ranking factor for natural search results. Later in the year, Google provided a Site performance interface in Webmaster Tools provided metrics on page delivery averages, and then announced site speed as a new search ranking factor.

I clued-in to Google’s use of usability criteria in search in large part due to my awareness of the importance of user-experience measurement in developing and refining internet applications while I worked at Superpages.com. I’m sometimes asked how I succeeded in getting millions of pages to index and rank well for Superpages, and this was one of our “secrets:” iterative adjustment of our applications and user-interfaces as a result of findings in our usability research enabled our SEO work to be more effective.

Google’s public announcement of a specific signal that they incorporate in search rankings is very unusual, but it validates the approach and theories I’ve been using effectively for many years. Clearly, usability and user-experience testing is a top component of everything Google develops. Some factors used in AdWords quality score are also being used in organic search rankings.

Further underscoring this, usability guru Jakob Nielsen used to be a member of Google’s advisory board of directors for some years, and Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President, Search Products & User Experience, states that Google is performing usability testing on various features every week. Finally, Vanessa Fox, Google alumnus, strongly recommends using searcher personas in optimizing for search marketing. If you want to approach SEO from a strategic standpoint, you must be able to channel Google’s mindset.

If you’re Google, you’re interested in usability, and how to quantify elements of it for use in automated, algorithmic rankings. For small business websites, this actually isn’t all that difficult to do, because all of us are consumers—you don’t have to stretch too much to create a persona to imagine what one wants to find on a business website, because the persona is yours. What things do you expect to find, by default, across local business websites?

Many of these elements are driven by common sense, and they’re already going to be on typical websites—your business name, phone number and address should go without saying.

Yet there are other elements which are frequently ignored and which can be easily detected by Google. You don’t really need to know the next “secret” technical trick to be edging out your competition in Google Maps rankings—you need to be including all elements which consumers would desire to find on your website when they’re attempting to select one business from the pack to go to for products and services.

If you attended Ranking Tactics for Local Search session at the recent SMX West conference, a number of these tactics covered in this article will not be a surprise. When you review your site to see if you’ve got these elements, also check to see if you’re using common naming conventions which consumers would look for, and whether the pages containing them are easily accessible for search bots. Some elements are more important than others, according to what type of industry the business is a member of.

10 Elements For Good Quality Scores & Local Search Ranking:

Employee profile pages. There’s nothing worse than going to a website and wondering if there are any humans behind it. Including some employee profile pages can really satisfy this need. If a company is particularly associated with a founder/proprietor/owner, this is even more important. Doctors, lawyers and partners of firms are often searched-for via their names, and not just via the firm’s name, so creating a unique page for each can enhance findability. More progressive companies should even consider including pages for less senior employees as well—employees may even be more dedicated to companies which are proud of them and promote them publicly.

Masry & Vititoe - Website Screengrab

A fascinating example of lost opportunity is the Masry & Vititoe law firm which once employed the famous Erin Brockovich who inspired the film of the same name. Although she’s no longer employed by that firm, they could still have a profile page about her. Having that page could enable them to rank on the first page of results for “Erin Brockovich” searches, and, while that is likely not directly important to their business any more, it would likely result in a great many more links and clickthroughs to them, enabling them to rank higher for many more other keyword searches which they do want.Each employee presented should be displayed on a single page that is all about them, with unique Title, Meta Description, H1, text description, photo, and phone number (if applicable). For more details, see my earlier article, “Leveraging Your Employees For Local Search Rankings“. 

Google’s Maslan Carter suggested to some of us at SMX West that Google Maps may actually allow for individual listings for individual partners working within a firm—which increasingly makes sense, considering they are pulling-in ratings based on individual doctors’ and lawyers’ names.

Contact us / locations pages. I’ve seen cases on small business sites where this was merely an information request submission form! Using a submission form and email address are great options for contacting a company, but if you have a physical address, you should also list your street address and every local business should list its phone number as well. All these contact options should be listed on a “contact us” page. Ideally, create a discrete page for each individual outlet location if the company has multiple locations, although they may all be linked-to from the main contact/locations page.

Maps, particularly Google Maps. Including a dynamic map on your contact us or locations page is helpful to consumers, and a Google map be particularly predisposed to local sites which sport their own map code. Google is able to read the geolocation from their embedable map code, which further helps them to associate your site with local searches. Also, I see indications that having a Google Map and/or hCard Microformat which includes geo microformat could help Google to add a “plus-box” map to your listings within regular web search results!

Telephone numbers, in standard machine-readable format. You may see your phone number on your homepage and other pages in your site, but if it’s embedded within an image or Flash media file, or if it’s been formatted in some odd way for snazzy visual layout, it will be more challenging for Google and other search engines to read and use. So, it’s important to have the phone number somewhere on your site in a more standard, html-text format. At minimum, it’s ideal to have this machine-readable phone number on your homepage and contact/locations pages.

There are two primary formats which I recommend for this purpose. The Telecommunication standardization sector’s E.164 format is commonly used on sites in Europe and other countries, and it looks like this: +1.1234567890.

Also, using a conventional format used by many in the U.S. will also work well. For example: (123) 456-7890 or 123-456-7890.

Testimonials. Including real testimonials from your satisfied customers can really make a difference for business sites, particularly in service-oriented industries such as wedding services, doctors, funeral homes, catering, and home contractors. I recently evaluated plastic surgeon companies ranking well in Los Angeles and found that most of those which were top-listed in Google Maps included customer testimonials. One plastic surgery company which had a particularly well-designed Testimonial page was Marina Plastic Surgery Associates which included scanned thumbnail images of greeting cards sent to them by satisfied patients.

Marina Plastic Surgery Associates Testimonials Page

Coupons, specials & discounts. I’ve pointed out previously that the economic recession created a big spike in consumer interest in coupons, and that trend has not let up.

Searches For Coupons, Google Insights

If you can swing it, there’s likely some real promotional value in having an offer page for coupons and discounts on your website. Google Maps seems to consider this important, considering they allow you to add a few coupons into your place page. It’s also worthwhile to tie special deals to your Facebook fan page updates for your business.

Events pages & calendars. Frequent involvement in local events and hosting of store happenings can indicate a more dynamic business which attracts the interest of consumers on a frequent basis. A website which provides such information will typically have a lot more repeat visits and consumer interactions over time, compared with static “brochure-ware” sites. Google added special rich snippets treatment last year for websites appearing in the SERPs which provide events listings formatted with semantic markup, which I anticipated in 2008 when I recommended optimizing local events with hCalendar Microformat.

Product & service descriptions. It’s often ideal for a company to have a page dedicated to each primary product or service that they offer. These pages should describe in good detail the unique differentiators the company brings to the table. Listing the same names of products and services in your Google Maps listing as well as in online yellow pages profiles may help to further reinforce what the company sells.

Display your prices! Consumers love to see prices on business websites! As a consumer tries to select a business out of the crowd online, they first are doing comparative research, and prices are one of the main considerations they will use to make a decision. Displaying prices or price ranges on product and service description pages will enable consumers to be more satisfied with a website’s information. For hotels and restaurants, this information becomes so important as to be considered required—a menu should list prices. Afraid of needing to constantly update changing amounts? Don’t avoid displaying prices in that case, but instead show representative prices or price ranges and make it clear that amounts may not be current and should be verified for latest rates.

Provide plenty of images or a photo gallery. Visual information is one of the most important elements for consumers trying to select businesses and products, so having them on your website will make it easier for them to choose your business with confidence. Google Maps knows this, which is why they encourage businesses to upload images. I’ve recommended before that photos help with local SEO.

For some types of businesses like hotels or bed-&-breakfasts, images should be considered a necessity, not an option! Large images are best! Enable consumers to browse through images by clicking thumbnail images which are linked to pages displaying the large image. Lots of local business sites are now using Flash and Javascript slide show interfaces for perusing the pics. If you use that, be sure to also provide means for the search engines to spider the images—a slide show interface can be created by using DHTML and CSS which is fully crawlable.

Google has neither confirmed nor denied that these ten elements may be part 200+ ranking factors within Google Maps algorithms. However, I think I provided some convincing reasoning for using them beyond the fact that I’ve successfully anticipated search ranking developments a number of times now. Google’s devotion to usability has extended now to automatically assessing the usability of the websites that they’re ranking, and giving some preference to more usable sites.

Employing these elements doesn’t involve “gaming” search engines through technical tricks—these are very classic elements which should already be a part of the repertoire of any good web designer. Yet, many sites and developers continue to ignore aspects of usability in their work and instead seek tricks and exploits that will never be sustainable over the long term.

Even if the elements I’ve listed are not part of Google’s secret sauce for rankings, you should use them anyway for their indirect benefits. Usable sites make it easier for consumers to find the information they’re seeking when they come to your site, and this will translate into making a better impression and attaining more conversions over time.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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