Local SEO Mythbusting with Darren Shaw

local seo mythbusting darren shaw

Sometimes we get a guest that seems like he would need no introduction, and Darren Shaw, founder of Whitespark, certainly seems to be one of those. Ask someone to name a “local SEO expert” and he’s probably going to be one of the first names, if not the first name, to come up. He’s been doing all things Local Search since 2010.

Today Garrett brings him in to debunk some pervasive Local SEO myths, along with discussing the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey, which is a massive survey of local SEO experts that pinpoints what’s been working for them vis a vis getting businesses to rank in local search.

You can catch the latest version here.

You can also catch some of the top insights by listening to today’s podcast. If you’re working hard in local SEO you won’t want to miss this one, because Darren’s going to slice apart a bunch of myths that still plague the industry. This is the podcast that’s going to let our local SEOs work smarter, not harder. 

The highlights:

  • [1:41] Introduction to the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey.
  • [4:31] The biggest headlines of the survey.
  • [6:57] Why it’s important to keep revisiting your GMB listing.
  • [8:11] Busting the GMB keyword myth.
  • [12:13] Why spam-fighting has become such a major component of local SEO.
  • [13:17] How Darren would name a new business.
  • [18:15] Keywords in reviews.
  • [20:36] Justifications.
  • [23:36] A few more myths!
  • [29:42] Are citations dead?
  • [32:01] Getting mentioned in local publications.
  • [33:49] Darren’s causes.

The insights:

Introduction to the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey

Darren explains how the survey was originally developed by David Mihm, with the first edition coming out in 2008. He ran it until 2017 before passing it to Darren and Whitespark.

“It’s a survey where we ask the top local search experts, people researching and studying local SEO, writing about it, speaking about it, really engaged. We ask them what they saw working for their clients or in their businesses.

When you take an aggregate of 40+ people, all of these people considered the best in the world at local search, you really get to surface the top: what are things that are really driving local search today?

It’s great to have the history of local search ranking factors because you can see how things have changed over time. These things are shifting.”

Darren does clarify that this is a survey of opinions. 

“These are the opinions of people. We don’t have direct insight into Google. Google didn’t give us their code base for their local search algorithm.

But there is definitely something to be said for the hive mind that happens here. Because if you’ve got 40+ people doing local search, really notable experts, and 39 of them say: that the thing they see impacting rankings the most is the business name, well – it’s pretty strong validation. If you ask just one person, hey, what do you think impacts local search, you’ll get one answer. Ok, well, thanks for your opinion.

An aggregate of 40+ people really carries a lot more weight.”

The Biggest Headlines of the Survey

local pack finder survey results

Darren says the big headline was a continued growth in GMB-related signals. 

“GMB took up a much bigger piece of the pie this year, with 33% compared to 25% last year.”

Another common story?

“The decline of the importance of citations. Back in the early days of local search, it was all about: citations, citations, citations.

You just build out all your business listings and you rank like a champ. These days citations play a lesser role, particularly the importance of NAP consistency.”

Darren also mentioned the importance of conversion rate optimization in your GMB listing.

“A lot of people are so focused on rankings, but their listing looks like garbage. They haven’t gathered any photos. They’re not doing posts. They don’t have any products. They don’t have any services.

A person’s not going to be like: Oh, that’s the #1 ranking, I’m going to call that business. They look through the results. So you can actually rank #5 #6, #7, and still be the business that gets all the calls, because you’ve taken the time to optimize your business for conversion. You’re trying to get people to convince them. And Google’s added all these amazing features.

That’s another big thing that has really surfaced as an important area for people to focus on.”

Why It's Important to Keep Revisiting Your GMB Listing

Darren stresses the need for local businesses to revisit their listings periodically.

“They set it and forget their Google listing. Google’s added so many amazing differences to GMB over the past four, five years, and hey you’d better dive back in there and take advantage of those features.

You’ve got a basic listing vs. a well-built-out listing, the well-built-out listing gets the calls. You probably have a basic listing if you haven’t looked at it in four, five years.”

Busting the GMB Keyword Myth

Darren also took the time to address a pervasive myth about keywords in a Google My Business listing. 

“People almost look at it like you’re optimizing a website. The reality is Google doesn’t actually look at most of these fields for rankings. They don’t look at the description field.

So many people want to stuff the description full of keywords. But: Put whatever you want in there. It’s not going to actually impact your ranking whatsoever.”

Keywords in the description came in as the survey’s number one myth this year, but Darren says keywords in almost any other part of the GMB description are equally useless.

“People are trying to put keywords in the products, keywords in the services, keywords in their Google Posts.

All of that stuff doesn’t necessarily impact ranking, but there are benefits to putting keywords into some of these places. They turn into more conversion factors than ranking factors.”

Conversions are valuable in their own right.

“It’s valuable to make sure you mention the primary services in your description because it helps solidify in the reader’s mind: oh, they do this thing I’m looking for.”

Darren says if you want to worry about keywords in your GMB listings, categories are the place to focus.

“The primary category you set in GMB has a significant impact on how you can rank. And your additional categories. So if there is a category that matches the keywords you want to rank for, make sure you have it on your profile. It’s super huge.

Why Spam-Fighting has Become Such a Major Component of Local SEO

Darren mentions that keywords in the business name do impact rankings: and that’s not necessarily good news.

“It creates a world of spam. People are just stuffing keywords in there because they’re like: Ahh, it’s so easy to rank in local search. Just put the keyword in the business name field and boom, I’m golden.

This technically violates Google’s guidelines. You’re supposed to use your legal DBA.

“This has created an entire new industry: spam fighting. It’s an actual ranking tactic. When you knock down people who have stuffed their business name with keywords, you take those keywords out, you get their listed suspended, and then your business, which is playing by the rules, goes up.”

Whitespark offers Google My Business management, and it requires them to scan the listings every single month. They report and keep a log of everything they’re doing.

“We’re often going back. Repeat offenders typically will get suspended. That’s the goal. We want the spammers to pay whatever that price is so they stop doing it, although it is an endless battle.”

How Darren Would Name a New Business

Garrett then threw out a few hypothetical scenarios. What would Darren name a new business if he were starting one?

Like…a breakfast restaurant?

“I would probably still brand it because you have to think about what your signage looks like on the front of your building. I would definitely add the words. Adding the words helps not just Google, but helps humans looking at your sign on the street. I would call it: Egg Bonanza Best Breakfast Restaurant.”

A personal injury lawyer in Boise, ID?

Darren, laughing:

“I would call my business Best Personal Injury Lawyer Boise Idaho. Anyone looking for my business will be: welp, I guess that’s what I’m looking for. It has the psychological effect.

[Here], local branding is less valuable than the keywords. I would actually go down to the state registry, register my business with that exact name.

And in fact, if my business isn’t called that right now? It’s Joe Crawford Law? I would immediately go down to the state registry, change my name, change my signs, change my business cards, put it on my website, make a new logo.”

Darren says Whitespark actually tested this phenomenon to make sure they were really seeing what they were seeing.

“Obviously Whitespark’s GMB listing’s business name was just Whitespark. I wanted to see, well, what if I added SEO Company Edmonton to the business name?

Overnight we jumped from position 20 from not ranking at all for the term. So basically we went up 80 positions. From position 200 to 20 overnight. Then we dropped to #21, then the next day we went to #6. We’ve been sitting at #6 for 2 weeks. That’s a 94 position ranking improvement. It’s nuts. It’s crazy.”

He has of course returned the GMB listing back to just “Whitespark” by now, as it was an experiment and not a true attempt to game the system. 

Garrett pointed out this is similar to the old Yellow Pages tactic of naming your company AAA Whatever Business so you’d be the first in any category. 

Darren isn’t thrilled by the phenomenon but understands why it happens. 

“Google is trying to understand search intent. If someone types in personal injury lawyer Boise, ID, and there’s a business that has an exact name, Google’s like: Oh, you are looking for this business, here they are. Or let’s say you type in Starbucks. Here’s the Starbucks listings.

That’s just how branded search works! If they demote that it messes with search intent. Someone might type Starbucks and Google doesn’t actually pull it. It’s a really hard problem for them to solve.

Google wants to return exact match businesses in case you’re looking for that specific business.”

Keywords in Online Reviews

Here’s one place where keywords matter: reviews.
“Google looks at them. They increase your relevancy for those terms, and Google wants to return businesses that are relevant for whatever you search.”
GMB keyword reviews

The words “criminal attorneys” and “defense attorneys” in this review are helping this defense lawyer out a great deal. 

Darren does warn that keywords in owner responses do absolutely nothing.

“That’s been tested multiple times. You can go ahead and stuff every response. Thank you very much for using our best Boise ID personal injury service. Don’t bother with that in your owner responses.

Keywords in owner responses, no ranking impact. Keywords in the reviews written by customers? Ranking impact.”

So how do you get those sweet, sweet review keywords?

“When you ask for the review, always ask: please also mention the service that we did for you.

If you do that, sometimes it just gives a little hint and people will actually drop a few more keywords. If you’re a restaurant: Please mention your favorite dish. These things can help you rank.”

This is a little controversial, some local SEOs don’t agree you should do that. But Darren’s got a firm take.

“Drop the hint. They don’t have to take it. But I think it’s useful to drop a hint. You can’t control what they write. You don’t want to control what they write. You’re not going to tell them what to write. Just. Hey. It would be cool if you mentioned your favorite dish. It would be great if you mentioned whatever service it was that we performed for you.

The Impact of Justifications on Google

Justifications are a new feature.

“In the local pack you’ll sometimes see a list, three businesses, and then one of them will have a little blue dot. There are three different icons. And then a little blurb.

One justification can come from their website. Let’s say you typed in: dog bite lawyer. You might get a justification that says: their website mentions dog bite lawyer. You’re justifying why this result has been displayed in the three-pack. That’s Google telling you: we pulled this one because their website mentions dog bite lawyer.

Or for restaurants, vegan food. It’ll pull justifications from either the website,  the reviews or even Google Posts.

GMB Posts keywords

“A review justification is great. It will pull in that snippet from something they wrote. That’s another reason keywords in the reviews can have such a positive impact. It gives a visual cue.

If I’m searching for dog bite lawyer and I’m looking at that three-pack and only one of them has that justification? Then it helps me know, oh, this is the lawyer that specializes in dog bites. Because I’ve got that little extra burst.

There’s a third justification which is really valuable and that’s where it gets pulled from your Google posts. This becomes a smart Google post strategy. You want to make sure you’re getting your services covered in your Google posts.”

He stresses that Google posts can’t be used the same way Facebook posts are.

“Sometimes it will be: hey we’re running a special this week. Google posts have additional benefits such as those justifications where you can speak to the different services you provide. You can highlight your lawyers. Sometimes they get pulled in as justifications.

They give your listing a little extra line, and that extra line can really drive additional conversions. That’s the holy grail. You want your listing to stand out, and this is one of the best ways to make you stand out.”

For more about using Google posts well, check out this webinar from our sister company, Fanbooster.

Busting a Few More Local SEO Myths!

Darren had a few more myths to call out.

Geo-Tagging Images

“Don’t do it. It’s a waste of your time. It has no impact on your rankings. Images are extremely valuable for Google, and to upload to your business listing, but Google is very smart.

They have this thing called Google Vision AI, and they actually pull elements out of your photo. You can actually upload the photo to the Google AI Tester. It will tell you what’s in the photo.”

Google AI tester

“If you were a plumber and you had pictures of hot water tanks, then that increases your relevancy for hot water tanks without having to say it. The actual content of the photos themselves, that’s how you get keywords of your photos, just by what’s in your content.”

Service Areas

“People think they can rank in a service area by setting 10,000 zip codes. Particularly service area businesses. You’re a plumber that travels across the whole city, you’ll service anyone.

The service areas do not impact ranking in any way. You can only rank around a ten-mile proximity around your actual location, wherever you registered your listing at.

Setting the service areas will not allow you to rank in those areas. The only thing it does is it draws the little red outline on Google Maps. That’s all it does.”

GMB service areas

Frequency of Google Posts

“The frequency of Google posts don’t impact rank at all. But it impacts value to your business. You want to always make sure you have a post up there that’s relevant, that’s up-to-date, that’s new, so certainly there’s great value in regular posting. Conversion benefits, not ranking benefits.”

Are Citations Dead?

But the big myth? The pervasive myth? The one that’s on everyone’s mind?


“I’m calling consistency of citations a myth now. It’s crazy to say because it’s been such a hallmark of local SEO.”

It doesn’t matter if you have an incorrect listing on some obscure directory site like MyHuckleberry.com

“Back in the early days, Google used to have a very simplified database of business listings. It was really important that all your information matched, so if there was a mention of the business on the Internet, Google could say: This is that business. You get credit for that.

Darren says Google’s a lot more sophisticated these days.

“It’s not a simple database. It’s a very sophisticated knowledge graph of entities. Entity-based matching is based off many different signals. You can match on the partial business name, combined with the URL, partial business name combined with a phone number – Google can do all these matches and you still get credit for that.

If one listing has the wrong phone number but it has the same address, the same website URL, the same business name, Google isn’t confused.”

He does say that there is good value in having your NAP accurate on sites where humans will see the information, so they’ll phone the right number or go to the right website.

“Your consistency on MyHuckleberry doesn’t matter, but your consistency on Bing? Yeah. Your consistency on Apple Maps? Dang, you’d better have the right address, because people are using that to go.

There are a core set of sites where consistency matters for human interaction. And then citation building like actually getting listed on the top 30 sites. There’s still an SEO benefit to that.

You want to be on the top 30-50 sites. You get some ranking benefit. There is definitely a ranking benefit to having citations on any industry-specific or city-specific site.”

But when it’s done? It’s done. Darren warns against paying any recurring fees for citations.

Getting Mentioned in Local Publications

Garrett brought up a Rand Fishkin article about inferred links. That is a publication can mention your business name without linking it and it may now serve as a ranking factor.

Garrett asked whether Darren agreed that Google was pulling in this data.

“I think they do. The whole genesis of the concept of a citation existed because most small businesses in 2006 or 2007 didn’t have websites. Google wanted to be able to index small businesses and their algorithm was based off indexing websites.

They had to create a whole new algorithm based on citations. That’s still fundamental to local search. It still identifies businesses through the local search ecosystem of business listing. Definitely huge value.

Also, huge value if you get mentioned in a local newspaper, local magazine, local blog, and they don’t necessarily link to your website but they mention your business, that’s hugely valuable.”

Yet you’ll need a unique business name to benefit from it.

“If your business name is ACME Plumbing and they don’t say your city or mention your address or phone number or anything else Google can identify, then Google will be okay: which ACME Plumbing?

There are 500 of them across the US. In that case, Google can’t associate. So there has to be some signal for Google to take that inferred link to be able to say it’s this specific entity. As long as they can match it up as a specific entity, there is credit and ranking benefit to that in my opinion.”

What’s your right now cause?

Darren highlights Women in Tech SEO, “a phenomenal organization really trying to balance the scales in our industry, working hard for more diversity.” 

He also notes some women in tech SEO that are worth following on Twitter:

Connect with Darren Shaw

You can follow Darren, too! 

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Garrett Sussman

Garrett Sussman

Garrett is the head of content at Traject , a suite of digital marketing tools, and host of the Agency Ahead podcast. When he's not crafting content, he's scouting the perfect ice coffee, devouring the newest graphic novels, and concocting a new recipe in the kitchen.

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