Did you know that Google isn’t just useful for finding recipes and looking at funny cat pictures? As digital marketing has replaced print and billboard ads, one of the most frequent questions we get from veterinarians is “How can we improve our Google rankings?”
There’s a lot to unpack in that question. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, it might be helpful to understand how Google captured 92 percent of the search engine market.
How Google Won the Search Engine Wars
As an elder millennial, I came of age when the competition among search engines was fierce. Do you remember Excite, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, or AltaVista? Google was a relative latecomer to the game, so how did it come to completely dominate the market? It’s simple: Google was better at finding relevant information and provided a better user experience.
When users visited other search engines, they were usually confronted by an onslaught of advertisements, while Google’s homepage was crisp and blank. Even now, you’ll find only a search bar, the Google logo, and a couple of buttons. That explains part of the friendly user experience, but how did Google deliver better results?
All search engines generally work from the same principles. When users enter their keywords, the search engine looks at various websites and uses simple data like domain names, images, the presence of the search terms, and traffic to predict what sites are most useful to the user. You might remember that it was often hard to find the information that you were looking for, as it was very easy to manipulate the results of most search engines, so visitors were often left with page after page of irrelevant garbage that was only intended to serve ads to unfortunate visitors.
Google got ahead of the game with a more-refined search algorithm that is continuously updated. Instead of just relying on web developers to tell search engines what’s important, Google’s intuitive solution was to rely on the users to identify good content. For example, if lots of other websites are linking to a page on your website, you must have something relevant. Those links are social validation, and they make it more likely that that page will be recommended in a related search over a website that no one is linking to.
That’s just one example of the dozens (hundreds?) of ranking factors that impact where a web page will show up during a search.
For over two decades we have been spectators in a digital arms race among search engines, and Google makes changes almost daily to try and tweak their algorithm for the best results. As people catch on to Google’s top-secret algorithm, everyone updates to take advantage of the changes in an attempt to rank higher.
Veterinarians who want to stand out in a competitive market need to pay regular attention to what’s happening under Google’s hood, lest they be pushed out of the most relevant local search results.
Google Local Search Ranking Factors
Before going further, it’s important to point out that we are now specifically talking about Google local search, the “maps” section in Google where most users go when looking for local businesses and services. When potential customers search for “veterinarian near me,” they usually click on the map, where they can easily compare the rankings, reviews, and locations of vets in their area.
From a marketing perspective, this is one of the most important and competitive pieces of real estate for any local business to focus on, but especially veterinarians. We’ve collected a tremendous amount of data on this subject from a variety of markets, and one thing we noticed is that people are very particular about caring for their pets. Ranking well and maintaining a great online reputation will make or break a veterinary practice.
What can you do to rank well? While there are hundreds of things that can impact your Google ranking, we can divide them up into a handful of categories using the Local Search Ranking Factors Survey, an annual study done by marketers to assess what the most important factors are for Google.
Google My Business – 25%
It should be no surprise to anyone that Google thinks its own business listings are very important. Claiming and optimizing your Google My Business page is the first step in any SEM (search engine marketing) strategy.
Make sure that your business name, address, phone number, and website are all accurately listed. Most users are there to compare vets at a glance and to find basic information.
When conducting a local search, Google weights the proximity of your business to the user’s location very heavily. Running a search from your office might show a different ranking than running one from your home, for example. While there’s not much you can do about that aspect, there are a lot of other important factors involved. Most people want the best veterinarian in their area, not simply the closest one.
Link Signals – 16.5%
As mentioned earlier, Google loves links. If people link to your website, that must mean that you did something right and you have relevant information, so your website gains validation in the algorithms.
It’s not just the number of links, either. A link to your site from the American Veterinary Medical Association carries more weight than one from a random blogger. The better the quality, as assessed by domain authority, the more importance is given to that link.
You should strive to obtain a high quantity of quality links to your site. This can be hard to do and will usually take a fair amount of work — or you can get an agency that specializes in this task to do it for you.
Reviews – 15%
Reviews are the fastest-growing ranking factor. Google is looking at both the number of reviews and your overall rating among several review sites (not just Google reviews!)
I would point out that users also place great weight on reviews—88 percent trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. Most people use them, and as review sites get better at verifying reviewer authenticity, that trend will continue to grow.
You’ll notice when you conduct a branded search that Google isn’t just displaying its own reviews. It also includes two other review sites in the location card. Vets who want to compete online need to actively obtain more reviews, from Google and from two or three of the other most important review sites as well.
On-Page Signals – 14%
Even in the maps, Google thinks your website is important. The domain your Google My Business page links to needs to pass inspection if Google is going to recommend it. If your site is just a landing page with no meat behind it, Google won’t favor it over a site with fleshed-out content.
On-page factors include must-have basics such as the name, address, and phone number of your practice. Google is going to look for relevant keywords that include your location, specialties, and content that show you’re relevant. Your contact page should also include the location name in the URL, for example www.superawesomevet.com/denver-veterinarian.
On-site optimization is one factor that you have complete control over. By producing a quality website for your practice, you help convince Google that you are trustworthy and reliable and that it should tell users about you.
Citation Signals – 11%
While Google might be king, the programmers also recognize there are plenty of other directories on the web that catalog and review businesses. Google not only embraces them but relies on them as validation for its own rankings.
Think of directories like Yellow Pages, your local chamber of commerce, social media sites, review sites, and business association pages. At the least, these websites provide citations for your business that include your name, address, and phone number.
To improve your standing in Google, it’s very important to not only claim your listings on as many directories as possible, but also make sure that the details are consistent and perfectly accurate. Fair warning: citation building can be tedious and time-consuming.
Behavior and Mobile Signals – 10%
We’ve reached a point where more local searches happen on a phone than on a computer. Thus, Google assesses how well your site works on smartphones and related mobile devices.
Your website needs to have a responsive design. Google’s algorithm will weigh users’ behavior when they click through to your site. Have you ever been on your phone and instantly hit the back button because the site was clearly not designed with mobile users in mind? Have you ever left a site immediately because of a full-page ad that covered the entirety of your phone’s screen? Google keeps track of what users do when they click through to your site, and if the usual behavior is fleeing in panic then it’ll be less likely to recommend you.
Google also wants to know how users interact with your site online. What do they search for before clicking on you? Where are they searching from? If they click on the “Call Business” or “Get Directions” links in the Google pages, that says you are relevant.
Personalization – 6%
It should come as no surprise to anyone that a search engine keeps track of users’ search history. Google assesses each user’s preferences, frequented sites, keyword usage, and unique behavior to try to personalize search results (and ads) to that behavior.
Social Signals – 3%
At three percent, social signals may not seem like a big factor, but as there are hundreds of things that factor into Google local search rankings, this is still a significant piece of the pie. Social signals are growing in importance as Google gets better at analyzing them.
When you search for your practice, you’ll see that Google is aware of your social media activity (or lack thereof). Google uses this activity—your reviews, your shares, your Twitter followers—as social proof that you’re the real deal.
Social media is also important on its own merits. The game in advertising is to show your brand off where your potential customers are, and a significant number of them are on Facebook right this second.
The latest changes within Google indicate that the local competition is fiercer than ever. As veterinarians compete for eyeballs and clicks, only those who take their digital presence seriously will be able to stay at the top.