Expert Local SEO Predictions for 2021

Now that 2020 is well and truly behind us, we can begin looking forward to bigger, better things. That’s right folks, the time is once again upon us to bring out our BrightLocal crystal ball and enlist some of the local search community’s most well-loved experts to help us with some local SEO predictions for the coming year. 

But, before we get started thinking about what’s to come for 2021, how did our experts fare with what they predicted in 2020?

Reflecting on 2020’s Local SEO Predictions

A lot happened in 2020, but how many of our experts’ local SEO predictions came true? 

Unfortunately, a lot of our pros had hoped 2020 would see a reduction in spam, but with the introduction of new Covid-19 support, resources, and features, plus limited Google My Business support, it seems Google had other things besides spam-fighting to keep them busy…

My prediction for 2020 was right — Google figured it out and eliminated spam! Just kidding — I really said that “I think spam will increase,” and it did. The legal space, garage door, and insurance space, to name a few, are still littered with spam.

Ben Fisher (VP of Marketing, Steady Demand)

I predicted that spam would get worse for 2020 and, boy, was I right.

Tim Capper (Local SEO Consultant, Online Ownership) 

We may not have seen the back of spam, but some of our experts did successfully predict some pretty major GMB news.

I’m feeling the pressure after correctly predicting the paid-for GMB last year – with the roll-out of ‘upgraded’ profiles for $50 per month coming in July last year. It just goes to show even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes! 

Andrew Cock-Starkey (Founder, Optimisey)

Last year my prediction was that Google was going to put more effort into monetizing GMB and local search. My prediction came true with the rollout of Local Service Ads (LSAs) for professional service industries. Google had been testing LSAs prior to the rollout for quite some time and decided to finally roll it out nationally.

Dan Foland (SEO Director, Postali)

Google My Business

Towards the end of the year, Whitespark’s Local Search Ranking Factors survey showed just how important having an active and optimized GMB profile really is. With GMB being voted the number one local search ranking factor, it’s no surprise that it was top of the list when it came to our experts’ local search predictions…

The prominence of GMB listings increased in 2020, primarily during the lockdowns. Businesses used GMB to get the word out as much as possible, especially when people couldn’t get to their physical locations. They remembered how to log in, and found out how to correct misinformation. With this stark reminder, I’m hoping businesses continue their interactions with their listings to keep control of their information.

Amy Toman (SEO Analyst, Digital Law Marketing)

Backed up by what many local search experts confirmed in the 2020 Local SEO Ranking Factors survey, thorough optimization of your GMB profile will continue to be key for local pack rankings in 2021. 

I’ll be continuing to take advantage of the full gamut of features in GMB, including posts and products, and making sure that the business profile of my SMB clients look totally kick-ass and that they encourage engagement and actions. Active engagement on the business’s part will be key — monitoring user-generated content like Q&A, images, and reviews needs to be a timetabled activity. Small businesses will become more aware of how their brand displays in the SERP and how third party and UGC play a role in that. Under-utilized features like messaging, and little known features like the ‘new follower offer’, will start to gain momentum as Google pushes more interactive and social features into Google Maps.

A vibrant and fully optimized GMB profile will become table stakes in 2021 as more businesses start to explore features that were lesser-known to them — so the importance of testing and measuring what works and doesn’t work for your business in terms of GMB content will be more important than ever.

Claire Carlile (Digital Marketing Consultant, Claire Carlile Marketing)

GMB will remain at the top of the list of things you need for local search, as nearly all local intent searches return GMB profiles.

I believe there are also some major changes coming to how service-area businesses are handled from a discoverability standpoint, and the guidelines will be made more clear.

I think we will see a rise in suspensions as GMB continues to narrow its guidelines and increases the crackdown on “bad actors.”

Ben Fisher (VP of Marketing, Steady Demand)

For 2020, I predicted a rise in the importance of user-generated content and engagement. We did see elements of this such as the impact of reviews on local ranking. As we look to 2021, I see the trends of local search leaning towards information and convenience. Consumers want to know everything about a product or service prior to visiting a store or making a phone call. Search engines will continue to build tools to support this and brands and search marketers are going to enable this.

The shift we saw in consumer behavior in 2020 with features like live inventory, multiple ordering and delivery methods, and virtual services, will mature into 2021. These won’t be a competitive play, but a consumer expectation.

For Google My Business specifically, I imagine they will continue to explore ways to bridge the gap with e-commerce as well as bring more tools to support virtual services. 

Krystal Taing  (Solutions & Strategic Partnerships, Uberall)

With posts starting to show in the ‘Explore’ tab, we should see more emphasis on full-funnel content marketing in posts.

Getting in front of potential customers towards the top of the funnel will help get them familiar with a brand and, thanks to personalization, help bottom of the funnel queries rank higher when it matters.

Google will monetize Google My Business more. The slow rollout of the Google Guaranteed Program will accelerate and let businesses get their own Google Guaranteed badge without participating in LSAs.

Blake Denman (Founder, RicketyRoo)

I think Google will continue to make changes to the Google My Business guidelines in order to accommodate different business models —Telehealth is a great example. Currently, the guidelines say you need to make in-person contact with customers to qualify for a listing. Google has opened this rule up during the pandemic to accommodate this new health model.

So the question is whether or not this will continue into the future once the pandemic is over. I think it will. I also think we will see more e-commerce style local business models being accommodated in the GMB model.

Colan Nielsen (VP of Local Search, Sterling Sky)

I see a dramatic shift coming in Google ranks in GMB. There will no longer be an emphasis on the GMB title. Google will de-emphasize it in an effort to curtail the lead generation spam and keyword stuffing. Google will instead use other, more important signals, such as the age of the GMB listing, the website, and other best practices. Google posts will continue to be a non-ranking factor just like geo-tagging photos.

Jason Brown (Founder, Review Fraud)

Monetized Google My Business

Last year, one of our pros (hats off, Andrew!) correctly predicted that we might begin to see the long-standing GMB pay-to-play rumors come to fruition. As GMB’s $50/month upgraded listings test took the local SEO community by storm, is this something we can expect to see more from in the new year?

The Google badge for Google My Business pages is starting to appear in certain categories and I predict as businesses start to pay the monthly fee additional categories will open up. As hopeful as we were last year with spam decreasing, I hope with the monthly fee that this will help dilute the Google My Business guideline violators and allow the rule-following businesses to take the lead. 

Crystal Horton (Digital Account Manager, Accelerate Marketing)

My thoughts for 2021 are that we will definitely see Google continue to roll out features for GMB. This year we saw Google pivot pretty quickly with Covid-19 related features like the Covid post type and expanded attributes for delivery and pickup. We also saw the small rollout of the $50 Google Guarantee program which I wouldn’t be surprised to see expanded in the coming months. Overall, as proximity search gets even more narrow, focusing on sending all the right signals with location-specific content will be as important as ever.

Niki Mosier (Head of SEO, Two Octobers)

Now Local Search Ads (LSAs) have finally rolled out, 2021 will see Google My Business promote the upgraded business profile. For $50/month GMB will add the Google guaranteed badge (green icon) to your listing and back services your business provides with the Google Guarantee. How this will affect GMB rankings, upgraded vs standard, we shall have to wait and see but one thing it might do is help reduce the amount of GMB spam — upgraded listings could force spam to the bottom and out of the 3-pack.

Andy Simpson (Senior SEO Specialist, Digital Law Marketing)

In 2021, I predict that Google is going to continue monetizing GMB and local search. For example, in 2019 Google sent out a survey to GMB users asking if (and how much) users would pay for certain “premium” features. Google is currently testing a paid model offering a Google Guaranteed badge on business profiles, among other features. I expect that Google will roll this out or something similar in 2021 while they continue monetizing local search.

Dan Foland (SEO Director, Postali)

Local Services Ads

2020 brought with a lot of changes to Google My Business, but even more prominent were Local Services Ads, which took the spotlight. There were plenty of changes to the popular paid option, but what more can we expect from it in the coming year?

I would predict that next year Google will make an aggressive push to get Local Service Ads expanded to many other verticals.  I expect it to hit the insurance industry, automotive industry, and the healthcare industry next. I think these ads can potentially lower the volume of clicks that we see for the local pack as they continue to look and operate a lot like organic listings. 

Joy Hawkins (Owner, Sterling Sky)

Google will continue to invest in Local Services Ads and continue to expand the program. I predict that the quality of LSA leads will also go down as more merchants get involved and spam the program. 

Ben Fisher (VP of Marketing, Steady Demand)

Right now we’re seeing reviews on Local Services Ads come through separately from reviews on a business’s GMB listing. They eventually seem to merge and most (if not all) reviews are shown on the LSA page, but the LSA reviews don’t always come through to the GMB listing reviews.

My prediction is Google is going to figure out how to merge these into one system, but label the reviews that come in as part of the Local Services Ads as “verified” in some way — because the lead came through the LSAs and is “Screened” or “Verified”.  The current system is a bit messy, doesn’t always connect, and freaks clients out when their LSA profiles show zero reviews for their business, while their GMB listing shows X number of reviews for that business.  When will it happen? I have no idea, but I think something significant will happen with this system sometime in 2021!

Carrie Hill (Local Search Analyst & Community Manager, Sterling Sky)

I think Google will continue to try to monetize local, especially with the shift in consumer behavior due to the pandemic. I think there will be an expansion of LSAs (or some similar form of ad), and expansion of a “Google trusted” type of program, and potentially a paid inclusion of products in GMB (we’re already seeing extensive tests of this in automotive). GMB will always be free, but the really cool stuff that helps you stand out will likely be more of a pay-for-play situation.

Greg Gifford (VP of Search, SearchLab)

Zero-click Search

What felt like a big phenomenon last year doesn’t seem to be quite so high on our experts’ radars this year. That said, with the introduction of GMB’s direct edit, can we expect more emphasis to be placed on in-SERP actions than ever before?

Zero Click search will be the focus of 2021. Additionally, to keep you on search even longer, I think the direct edit experience’s ongoing improvement will continue.

Ben Fisher (VP of Marketing, Steady Demand)

Maps Spam

What would a local SEO piece be without at least some talk of spam? Well, we’ve got plenty for you here. Will it improve or could it possibly get worse? Our pros chime in to talk all things #StopCrapontheMap.

Like many of us predicted last year, in 2021 I predict that spam will continue to be a massive problem in local search, particularly with respect to Google My Business. In fact, as I sit here today on December 7, 2020, all three local pack listings for “car accident lawyer,” contain keyword-stuffed business names.

Furthermore, contrary to statements from Google’s PR team, at least two of the traditional localized organic listings contain rich review snippets generated from structured data from self-serving reviews on the firms’ pages. I predict that if you continue to blindly follow the advice of Google’s PR team you will remain at a competitive disadvantage in local search.

Gyi Tsakalakis (Founder, AttorneySync)

Lead gen spam is out of control even reaching the UK and AUS with reporting and takedown being exceptionally poor. I will throw the spam team a crumb and say that Covid played a small part in the slow response to the increase in spam. API loopholes are still being exploited and no ‘bad’ address databases outside of the US on the cards.

With the benefit of some Product Expert insight, I am more optimistic for 2021 with GMB tackling spam, especially SAB spam. Unfortunately don’t get your hopes up outside of the US just yet. LSA has launched in the UK but we still have not seen any live listings. Regardless, get your applicable clients signed up now ready for rollout.

Tim Capper (Local SEO Consultant, Online Ownership) 

I predict that Google will make a significant change in its effort to combat maps spam. This year we saw an increase in suspensions of both legit and spam GMBs. I think we will continue to see Google turn this dial up from time to time in order to continue the fight. But I also think Google will do something new to combat the problem. Dial down the ranking weight attributed to the business name? Perhaps. A guy can dream, right?

Colan Nielsen (VP of Local Search, Sterling Sky)

I’m not sure if it’s just the year we’ve had in 2020 addling my brain or just making me outrageously optimistic but… I think a reckoning is coming. A reckoning for Google Maps spammers.

We’ve all seen #StopCrapOnTheMap and equal parts hilarious and horrifying examples that make it onto maps. This is not a good look for Google, especially when some of those locations are ‘drug rehab’ centers and the like… when in fact they’re not and are (at best) lead gen fronts.

Some of the examples are outrageous and egregious and there’s a growing swell of people getting upset by it, not least the ‘free labor’ Google gets to fight their spam problem in the shape of local SEO folks and their Product Experts.

Google has the capability and the technology to make big strides in improving this and at a stroke could help struggling small business owners, score political points (which given the number of court and anti-trust cases coming their way would help!), and appease local SEOs and Product Experts. Win-win, right?

Or maybe optimism has gotten the better of Optimisey this year…

Andrew Cock-Starkey (Founder, Optimisey)

In 2021, GMB spam is going to continue to be a problem. My hope is that Google pays more attention and dedicates more resources to cleaning up spam in GMB, but I’m not sure that it’s a top priority for them.

Dan Foland (SEO Director, Postali)

Online Reviews

As the second most important local search ranking factor, it’s no surprise that reviews should remain front of mind throughout 2021. Our experts discuss how reviews might gain even more prominence in the coming year.

I predict for 2021, reputation management will continue to be a huge factor for local performance. In addition to reviews continuing to be a ranking factor, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google made review responses a much bigger deal. This may include the number of review responses becoming a rank factor in itself or more review management options within the GMB platform. I also expect to see more attributes to be added for medical and retail business categories.

Amanda Jordan (Director of Local Search, Locomotive Agency)

Reviews will become a critical local search ranking parameter. So, it’s a good time to optimize your GMB listing, perhaps by adding a messaging feature to it. You can also focus on other tier 1 directories and niche-specific directories. If you really want to step up your review game, you can create standardized review responding templates or use review management tools. It is also wise to read between-the-lines of reviews to gain deeper customer insights.

Shane Barker (Cofounder, Attrock)

Links and Link Building

Link building has stood the test of time when it comes to helping businesses rank in search results, but how can building relevant links help local businesses in 2021?

Links will still be important but agencies and SMBs are going to shift more and more towards pure local links rather than relying on third-party metrics to determine the value of a link. Entity building, entity leeching, entity optimization, entity sculpting, whatever you want to call it will start becoming more popular at the local level.

Blake Denman (Founder, RicketyRoo)

Conclusion

When it comes to local, things can change pretty quickly. What do you think of our experts’ local SEO and Google predictions? Can we expect to see paid-for GMB profiles come to life? Will review responses gain even more importance as a ranking factor? And the big question: will Google finally put a stop to crap on the map?! (No shade Google, we know you’re working on it!)

Whether you agree or not, we want to hear your own search predictions for the coming year! Share your 2021 local SEO prediction with us in the comments below.

The post Expert Local SEO Predictions for 2021 appeared first on BrightLocal.

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