Google Seeks to Improve Local Search UX with AI

In mid-October, Google held a livestream event, Search On, where they announced new AI-powered features aimed at improving user experience. These new features make search more sophisticated in an effort to help users better navigate the physical world around them. One of the biggest announcements from Search On was that Google is now using their natural language understanding algorithm, BERT, on almost every search query in English. This will help the algorithm better understand user intent and therefore serve more relevant search results.

In addition to BERT, there were three other features that stuck out to local search professionals: ‘Busyness,’ AR in Google Maps and Google Duplex.

‘Busyness’ Accuracy Update

With COVID-19 drastically affecting local businesses, Google has opted to discard pre-COVID popular time data when showing a business’ ‘Busyness’ on their Google listing. Google is now using “more recent data from the previous four to six weeks to quickly adapt to changing patterns for popular times.” Google is still using real-time mobile user data to populate “Live Busyness.”

AR Use Case for Google Maps with Live View

Last year, Google rolled out augmented reality walking directions on Google Maps. Named Live View, this feature overlays navigation on top of Google Street View data so users can navigate to their destination in a real-world view.

Source:  Google

During Search On, Google spoke about a variety of use cases for AR technology with one of them relating to Google Maps. The idea is to use AR in Google Maps with Live View to show users a location’s Google My Business listing when the user points their camera at the physical location. This is an idea that Google has been working on for nearly a decade and one that requires highly accurate location data. With AR, Google hopes to make this idea come to life.

Google Duplex Updates Local Business Data

Google Duplex is a virtual assistant originally designed to help users make appointments or reservations at local businesses. Last year Google began using this feature to directly reach out to business owners to confirm local business information they have on file for their business. Google announced this at Search On and said that Duplex has been instrumental in “over 3 million updates to businesses like pharmacies, restaurants and grocery stores that have been seen over 20 billion times in Maps and Search.”

Between 50-60 percent of Google My Business profiles in the U.S. are owner verified. However, even listings that are claimed are sometimes not updated with accurate business information. Google Duplex is helping to close that gap by utilizing their technology to verify data with business owners.


Need help managing your brand’s local business information? Mindstream Media Group can help. We have the solutions national or franchise brands with hundreds or even thousands of points of distribution need to manage their local presence. Contact us today to learn how we can help your locations be found easily when consumers are seeking information to make buying decisions.

2020 Local Ranking Factors Survey

Originally developed by David Mihm 12 years ago, the annual Local Search Ranking Factors survey has been used by brands as a guide to understand the most important factors influencing local search results in order to prioritize marketing efforts. This year’s survey, conducted by Whitespark’s Darren Shaw, polled about 50 local SEO experts to collect their opinions on which activities and factors impact local business rankings. The study hopes to help marketers understand what could be changed on their current listing and gives insight into what has helped others increase page rank and conversions. This year, the survey explored seven themes:

  • Google My Business
  • Citations/Listings
  • On-page Factors
  • Links
  • Reviews
  • Behavioral Signals
  • Personalization

Changes in Local Ranking Variables

Source:  Whitespark, 2020 Local Search Ranking Factor Survey

According to the study, there has been a noticeable shift in influences on the Local Pack and Local Finder variables.

Local Pack Results

Source: Whitespark

Local Finder Results

Source:  Whitespark

Google My Business and reviews are local ranking variables that have increased the most in recent years, while local links, citations and on-page signals are on the decline.

Source:  Whitespark, 2020 Local Search Ranking Factor Survey

When comparing the local organic results found lower on the search results page to the Local Map Pack and Local Finder, reviews and GMB seem to have less impact on local organic rankings. The top factors in local organic ranking are links and on-page factors.

Local Organic Results

Source:  Whitespark

Top Local Organic Factors

The impact of local SEO variables was also considered in the study. At the top of the local organic SEO ranking factors, was authority of inbound links. The top five local organic factors were:

  • Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Domain
  • Volume of Quality Content on Entire Website
  • Keywords in Anchor Text of Inbound Links to Domain
  • Topical (Product/Service) Keyword Relevance Across Entire Website
  • Geographic (City/Neighborhood) Keyword Relevance of Domain Content

Source:  Whitespark, 2020 Local Search Ranking Factor Survey

Top Map Pack and Local Finder Ranking Factors

While the primary GMB business category was the top factor, close behind was adding keywords into the GMB business title, even though Google has stated placing keywords in the business title is prohibited. Additionally, keywords in native Google reviews appear to be a greater ranking factor than review scores, quantity of reviews and completeness of GMB listings.

Source:  Whitespark, 2020 Local Search Ranking Factor Survey

When taking a detailed look at the GMB Local Pack variables, the top five factors are:

  • Primary GMB Category
  • Keywords in GMB Business Title
  • Proximity of Address to the Point of Search
  • Physical Address in City of Search
  • Additional GMB Categories

Google My Business Conversion Factors

One of the last questions within the survey was, “Which individual factors do you think have the biggest impact on conversions from GMB?”

Based on the survey’s findings, the top five GMB conversion factors were:

  • High Numerical Google Ratings
  • Positive Sentiment in Review Text
  • Quantity of Native Google Reviews
  • Proximity of Address to the Point of Search
  • GMB Messaging Feature is Enabled

Source:  Whitespark, 2020 Local Search Ranking Factor Survey

As seen in the survey results, higher ratings, positive reviews and the quantity of reviews are all top factors in GMB conversions. These findings may add some confusion to the mindset of marketers that are attempting to understand these factors. So, does this mean that conversion factors are more important than ranking factors?

Rankings Vs. Conversions

When Darren Shaw was asked for his key takeaways from this study, he stated, “A #1 ranking isn’t going to drive any leads to your business if your profile doesn’t have any information on it. A complete GMB listing ranking in the #5 spot with products, photos, descriptions, special offers and tons of positive reviews will always beat an empty GMB listing ranking first.”

The findings within this survey suggest that while rankings are important to visibility, Google My Business conversions are more important to potential sales conversions. Higher conversion rates can equate to generating sales and that is not necessarily true of ranking higher on search result pages. Therefore, marketers should continue to fill their GMB profiles with consistent and accurate information to increase customer engagement on search result pages.

There are so many factors influencing how well a business ranks in local search results, it can be difficult for brands to manage their local listings efficiently, especially for hundreds or thousands of locations. Mindstream Media Group offers a full suite of location services solutions including listings management, store locators, data management and location pages. Contact us to learn more about how we can help your brand connect with local consumers searching for the information they need to make buying decisions.

[Video]: Utilizing Data to Gain Efficiencies and Uncover Opportunities

We believe the daily pressure on CMOs to move their business forward is real, intense and not going away. Join our media practitioners as we discuss the HOW behind supporting client growth through media strategy.

Fast-Forward the Conversation

In this episode of Fast-Forward the Conversation, Kimberly Lockett, Planning Director, shares a unique perspective on work we’ve done for a franchise client in the home improvement category with influence across 200 markets.


Catch the Highlights

  • The client’s current media plan was spread a little thin in terms of broadcast and digital campaigns, with a somewhat laissez-faire approach in terms of management.
  • We started with a media audit to assess what had been done in the past in order to determine where we should aim for the future. We discovered previous efforts had been focused more on brand awareness with broad-scale buys in print and broadcast rather than concisely-targeted buys concentrated on specific zip codes within the client’s service areas.
  • Although television viewership has changed, especially in light of COVID, the client had been running the same schedule for a few years.
  • We scratched their whole daypart mix in favor of a more efficient way to reach the target audience of 25-54-year-olds. Our market research and the ratings showed that both the 25-54 and the 55+ buying demos were watching the same programming. Adjusting the purchase to the slightly older demographic allowed us to lower pricing enough to shift 15-20 percent of the budget into the coveted prime-time slot.
  • The client was also overspending in search. Fully-optimized search campaigns require active management on a weekly or even daily basis, but the client was simply letting the campaign run on its own.
  • Our search and broadcast team members worked in tandem to re-piece the media mix puzzle together without increasing the overall budget.
  • Once broad media was covered efficiently with tremendous reach, we utilized data partners to provide better visibility into the true opportunity areas in the marketplace for a digital plus-up.
  • We started by leveraging Simmons data to better understand the target audience. Learning about the behavior, lifestyle and attitudes that impact the purchasing decisions of the target audience helped us determine where to find and target them.
  • Then, we looked at zip codes within the service area and layered on homes that were 20+ years old, since homeowners typically start thinking about home improvement activities when a home reaches 15-20+ years of age. This helped us identify more narrowly defined areas with the most potential for leads and conversions.
  • Reporting from the client’s previous agency consisted of thousands and thousands of lines of data in Excel with no real insights into what it all means. Our goal for the future is to create more valuable reporting that combines sales data with campaign performance to provide a full picture of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis in order to be able to pivot quickly if a tactic is underperforming.
  • Our dynamic reporting creates a much more intimate relationship with the data, making our client’s life easier by providing an immediate connection to KPIs and business intelligence to enable informed decisions.

See the next episode, Influencing the Customer Journey.

Health and Safety Measures Coming to Google My Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has made business difficult for both proprietors and consumers in 2020. Several states are now allowing physical visits again, but consumers are often confused about the safety protocol at their favorite local businesses. Google has developed a new solution aimed at helping patrons understand what to expect.


Earlier this month, Google launched a new set of Health and Safety attributes businesses can add to their Google My Business (GMB) profile to help communicate the coronavirus protection measures they have in place. Although these new attributes have not been appearing in Search and Maps yet, it is believed that they will appear soon.

There are currently six options available for food, retail and service businesses: Appointment required, Mask Required, Staff gets temperature checks, Staff wear masks and Temperature check required.

Research data suggests that consumers are more likely to visit stores that communicate these health and safety measures as they prefer to patronize businesses that require masks. In August, GatherUp and Mike Blumenthal researched nearly 40,000 reviews across nine different business types after a business commented in the GMB forum that they had received an unfair negative review related to their efforts to enforce mask compliance. Results showed few anti-mask reviews. In fact, most negative reviews revolved around businesses not requiring masks or the lackluster enforcement of them being worn properly inside stores by both employees and shoppers.

Key Takeaways

Throughout the pandemic, Google has searched for ways to make displaying safety information easier. As consumers begin to venture out into their usual store locations and health facilities, businesses that use the Health and Safety attributes have a new way to communicate requirements. Informing consumers of safety protocols prior to arriving at a business could lead to positive reviews and more frequent visits.

These Health and Safety attributes are the most recent tool GMB has developed to help local businesses stand out from the competition and provide essential information to consumers. As experts in the local space, we’re constantly on the lookout for features like these to help our clients optimize their listing to stay visible in search results. If you’re interested in learning more about the Health and Safety attributes or GMB, reach out to connect with our team.

Which Features in Google My Business Impact Ranking?

Business owners that are utilizing Google My Business profiles have a variety of features on the platform to display their business’s information. These features continue to evolve over time on Google, but do these features impact business listing ranking in search results? Over the last few years, the Sterling Sky Agency has been conducting studies to help answer which features impact rankings in Google’s search results.

Business Name Keywords

In 2018, Sterling Sky Agency owner, Joy Hawkins, tested the impact of keywords within business names on Google My Business by adding and removing the words “Salad Bar” into the business name of a restaurant that did not actually offer a salad bar. The study reflected a large increase in visibility on Google when the keywords were included in the business name.

While an increase in rank might be appealing to business owners, including keywords in the business name of listings on Google is prohibited. Including keywords could result in Google suspending the listing, and business owners can report competitor listings that may be using this tactic to improve ranking. Instead of placing keywords in the business name, they should be used within the description of the business. Accurate categories should be selected as well.

Source:  Sterling Sky

Listing Categories

In January 2019, Darren Shaw conducted a study to see if visibility on Google would fluctuate if unrelated business categories were added to the listing, by adding random categories to a listing for Whitespark. He found that including unrelated categories had a negative impact; business owners should make sure that listings include only relevant categories. Additionally, it was found that adding related additional categories to a listing would not have a negative impact and could potentially increase ranking.


When Google began removing reviews from anonymous profiles in May of 2018, Joy Hawkins used it as an opportunity to find out if the number of reviews on a Google listing impacts ranking. During the case study, she studied the position of several dentist listings in New York City that had fewer reviews being displayed because of Google’s removal of anonymous profile reviews. While reviewing visibility over several weeks, Joy determined that fewer reviews on the dentist listings caused a decrease in ranking. Therefore, Joy concluded that the number of reviews on a Google listing does, in fact, impact ranking.

Website URL

A similar study was conducted in March 2020 to determine how the URL on business listings influences rank on Google’s search results. This test consisted of changing the URL on the listing of a New York City law firm from the business homepage to one of their specific law category pages within their website, the bus accident page. After making this change, the test showed that directing users to the bus accident page, and not their overall business landing page, did have a significant impact and caused an increase in ranking results.

Because the content on the specific URL you link to is important and impacts ranking in the local results, we typically recommend that multi-location businesses use the location’s landing page on the business website to help with local rankings.


While the above studies have highlighted the Google My Business features that do impact ranking performance, tests have determined that the Services field of the business profile does not. Both the usage of pre-defined services and custom services were included in the study. During the test of the pre-defined services, keywords used as services were added and removed, but there were no noticeable increases. The test of the custom services field resulted in a slight change, but there was not enough evidence to suggest that rankings were impacted by services within Google My Business.

Source:  Google My Business

Key Takeaways

Even though these experiments show that not all features offered in Google My Business impact ranking results, it is still important to make sure your Google profile is complete. Profile completeness not only impacts ranking, but ensures that essential information is readily available for customers, creating a better user experience that increases engagement. As many Google features continue to evolve, we will provide insight on these updates and how they will impact business listings.