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MozCon 2019: Joy Hawkins – Factors That Affect the Local Algorithm That Don’t Impact Organic


Continuing on with our Ignite Search MozCon blog series where we discuss some of the most influential and informative presentations that we attended at the MozCon 2019 Digital Marketing conference in Seattle, Washington. In this week’s blog post we will be discussing Joy Hawkin’s presentation on ‘Factors That Affect The Local Algorithm That Don’t Impact Organic.’

Who is Joy Hawkins?

Before jumping into her presentation, we would first like to introduce Joy Hawkins. Joy is the founder of Sterling Sky, a local SEO agency based in Uxbridge, Ontario. With over 10 years of experience in the local SEO industry, Joy spends her time troubleshooting ranking issues on Google for some of the most complicated accounts, and offers her findings in her training manual The Expert’s Guide to Local SEO.  She is also a speaker at various search engine marketing conferences such as SMX and LocalU, Pubcon and of cause this year’s MozCon conference.

joy hawkins moz con profile image

Now For The Presentation Details

Joy begun her presentation with the difference between local and organic optimisation. Many believe that upon optimising for one area, it will subsequently optimise for the other. This is not true.

She explained that local SEO have a strong association with the 3 pack and Google My Business (GMB) listing. This refers to the listing of three businesses you can see first in the search results when searching for terms using keywords like ‘near me’ or near a specification location. Whilst organic optimisation refers to ‘everything else’ as Joy had described it.

In a recent study, Joy found that only 8% of all local pack results had a website that search could access from in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Of that 8%, only 12% had an organic ranking in the first 2 pages – top 20 positions.

In this presentation, Joy shared with the audience 7 crucial elements that have an impact on the local algorithm.

Starting The Presentation – 7 Crucial Elements That Impact The Local Algorithm in Google.


1. Proximity

Proximity is the location of the user or searcher. This can be located at the bottom of the SERPs as seen in the image below:

location identifier in google serps

Joy emphasised that proximity plays a fundamental role in local SEO and will influence local rankings in the local pack results for businesses. This can be demonstrated by a study from Juris Digital, a full-service digital marketing, web design and SEO agency dedicated for Law Firms located in Denver, Colorado. They found when performing a single keyword search for lawyer amongst 138 zip codes (postal code), the results varies drastically and provided 82 different law firms, as seen in the image below:

juris digital local search study on 138 zip codes

Further assessing this, Joy had conducted a similar test with a tool known as LocalFalcon, a local SEO tool that allows users to see rankings on Google Maps based on where someone is searching for businesses’ GMB listing. She explained, with this tool users can search for a business and a keyword, and scan using geo-coordinates to provide a more accurate ranking position in the local pack than what our mobile phones can produce.

For example, with the zip code 77006 in Houston for a search query – ‘dentist near me’, the results varied from 2 locations with only 0.5 miles (0.8 km) apart produced completed different local pack results, as seen in the image below:

joy hawkins test on local pack results with half a mile distance

Proximity does matter, but according to The 2018 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey by Moz & Whitespark, this element is the 27th most important ranking factor when it comes to local search.

To further test the importance of proximity, Joy conducted another test with a tool know as PlacesScout, an all-in-one solution that provides advance tools for keyword research, lead generation, rank tracking, business reputation monitoring and many more to help users dominate their local SEO.

In this test, Joy searched for the top-ranking law firm rankings and found that 90% of this firms traffic came from organic search. When it comes to local search, she suggests that leads are correlated to business success.


2. Rank Tracking

Joy commenced discussing this element with a Tweet from Chris Green, Head of Search at StrateiQ – a full-service marketing agency based in the East of England:

chris green tweet hourly results in serps

Where he scanned the daily results of a single keyword to see how much it varied on an hourly rate. He found that any pages that are ranking pass page 1 in the SERPs produced very ‘choppy’ results. This is true for organic search, however in local search pages that are ranked below position 5 is ‘choppier’ as seen in Joy’s test:
joy hawkins result on local pack study and position placement

She further advised SEOs to NOT send monthly ranking reports and instead focus on leads such as calls from GMB listings, and provided the audience with a link to an article from Darren Shaw of Whitespark – http://bit.ly/mozcon3.


3. GMB Landing Page

The next element to Joy mentioned was to which page should GMB listings link to. She continued by sharing one of clients – Stewart J. Guss, an Injury Accident Law Firm in New Orleans, US. Her client was expanding and had broaden their services to numerous areas in New Orleans. As the client starts to rank in the SERPs, he began to create location page, as seen in the image below:

stewart j guss location landing page

In order to increase rankings in local search, Joy posed a question to the audience:

‘Should Stewart J. Guss link his homepage or his location page in the his GMB listing?’

By linking a location page in the GMB listing, this increases relevance based on the content, meta tags and citations. However, by linking the homepage this increases prominence based on website authority and links.

Joy had tested linking the homepage in the Dallas and the New Orleans GMB listing, as Stewart J. Guss was located in New Orleans this brought both prominence and relevance to the GMB listing and this can be seen in the images below:

stewart j guss dallas home page link results in rankings

steward j guss new orleans home page link results in rankings

The wining factor is prominence!


4. Reviews

According to The 2019 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey by Moz & Whitespark, reviews account of 15.44% of how Google ranks a local business. With regards to requesting feedback from customers and website visitors, the provision of negative reviews is against Google guidelines. However, Joy posed another question to the public:

‘Does reviews impact local search rankings?’

In an example, a Dentist went from having 738 reviews 12 reviews. Joy found that the lost in reviews didn’t cause a huge lost in their rankings, and since the June 2019 Algorithm Update their rankings had dropped by 1, as seen in the image below:

joy hawkins review impact in local pack

Joy explained that reviews does not determine rankings but more so movement in CTR. Furthermore, amongst a passed conversation with an ex-Google employee of 10 years, she found that reviews that are removed by violating Google’s guidelines aren’t really removed. They are hidden!


5. Filters

Local search filters are different to organic search filters. Joy explained that in organic search, Google will filter a website’s duplicated content and drop their rankings. While in local search, Google will scan similar listings in the same industry and pick the stronger listing of the two. Joy refers to this as the ‘Possum Filter.’

For example, when search for ‘personal injury attorney palmdale Joy found that the Google had displayed Car Accident Lawyer over other firms such as Nadrich & Cohen, Palma Car accident Lawyers and Sefyan Law Firm, PC – Palmdale Lawyer, Attorney, as seen in the image below:

google local search filter

This is largely due to the keywords in the GMB listing. Which leads to our next element.


6. Keywords

Back to The 2019 Local Search Ranking Factors Survey by Moz & Whitespark, keywords in GMB name is the 4th most important ranking factor in local search. However, does keyword stuffing impact rankings?

For a client, Joy had attempted removing the keywords from one of her client’s GMB name, the results can be seen below:

keywords in gmb name results

However, Joy warn the audience the dangers of over using keywords or ‘keyword stuffing’ as this may violate Google’s guidelines and result in the suspension of your GMB listing of 3 to 4 weeks.


7. Fake Listings

The use of fake listings can greatly impact website trying to rank for specific keywords. An article from the Wall Street Journal discussed operations of a business generating fake listings for $100 with a maximum of 3800 listings a day – with no authority, citations and website.

wall street journal article on fake listings

This article, stresses a prominent threat for business in the SERPs. However, according to AHREF, 5.7% of all newly published pages will get to Google’s top 10 within a year.

ahref stats on serp rankings for new websites

These stats refer to organic search, however in local search new listing can rank in the local pack in less than a day. However, Google has removed 3 million listings in 2018, 250 000 were reported by users. In a given example for the search term ‘tree removal’ the results can be seen in the image below:

impact of google removing fake listings for tree removal keyword

What Can We Take From This Presentation?

As many local businesses continue to improve their rankings in organic search, these activities will not reflect in local search. Through a series of real-client examples, official studies and use of numerous local search tools Joy’s presentation has provided us with 7 elements to consider when conducting local search optimisation for our business that will influence our local pack rankings in the SERPs.

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