Zip Code Tracking: Summary
- Google uses proximity to deliver local results and does not use zip codes. Tweet
- All searches are affected by the proximity factor, but businesses with more dense competition will be affected the most.
- Organic results are affected by proximity but much less than Google Maps rankings.
- Checking rankings by zip code center does not always provide a complete or meaningful picture to base optimization decisions on.
Rank tracking has gotten more complex and more granular over the last few years. In the “olden days”, before the Google algorithm incorporated a local ranking component, we’d track rankings with a simple line graph of what position your website was found for a particular keyword. And this was sufficient.
We still rely on this type of graph today, however over time the Google algorithm has changed and now delivers different results based on the location of the searcher. This required us to start telling our rank trackers to check rankings from specific cities. Eventually, as Google’s system became more mature, rank trackers adapted and we were able to tell our rank trackers to check the SERPs from specific zip codes.
Tracking by zip code became the new normal for many years….
..until that is, Google introduced ‘Proximity’ as a local rank factor into Google Maps and Google My Business. Now, finding local businesses became much easier because Google automatically factored into its results the location of the searcher and how close they were to the businesses.
The thing is, SEO’s were so used to inputting zip codes into their rank trackers that we somehow got the notion that zip codes mattered to Google. In fact, they only matter to our rank trackers and Google does not use zip codes for determining Google Maps results.
In most cases, Google is using your exact GPS location or a good approximate through other methods.
Proximity as a Ranking Factor
This is not news anymore, it’s been a few years now that proximity, or distance is being used as a ranking factor.
Google actually states this directly:
Notice how there is no mention of zip codes.
Rank Tracking for Local SEO is Difficult
To those doing local SEO, this proximity factor was making it difficult to get an accurate reading on rankings. Two search results could be completely different depending on where a searcher was, even within the same zip code. This is especially true in industries where there are many competitors within a small area, like restaurants.
Let’s simulate a search for ‘pizza restaurant’ from these two points that are half a mile away from each other but still within the same zip code of 11220 (area highlighted by red border).
The results in the three pack have completely changed and we are still inside the same zip code.
When you track by zip code, the rank tracker will be checking from the center of zip code. In this case, the center of the zip code is here:
Checking from the zip code center, the search results are again, all different:
Three searches, all within the same zip code with three completely different results.
Now this is an extreme example, because there are a lot of pizza restaurants in Brooklyn, but it highlights the fact that if your rank tracker is choosing only one spot inside the zip code, you are getting only a tiny picture of what is going on ranking wise.
This type of result difference takes place with every type of business. Here is a comparison of two ‘dentist near me’ searches from 1/2 mile apart.
Basically, Google could care less about what zip code you are in when performing a search, it only cares about distances when it comes to local businesses.
Enter the Geo Coordinate Rank Trackers
In order to deal with this distance factor, rank trackers have adapted and are now scanning with many points instead of one. A grid is laid out according to distance and each point reflects a different result.
This gives a much better picture of what the rankings look like around a business as it takes into account the granularity that the algorithm actually produces.
These types of scans helps you visualize the ranking differences that take place over an entire area around a business by checking many spots.
This is invaluable data which helps you determine which keywords need better optimization, and when an area is so far out of reach for ranking well that a PPC campaign would be a good option.
What about Local Organic Results?
Organic Google search results are less affected by proximity than Google Maps results.
We have written about that in a previous article:
Sites like Yelp, HomeAdvisor, and other strong directory sites (depending on the industry) will tend to push individual business websites down the list and so the effect of locality will be less evident.
The only time Google will factor zip code into a search is if you specifically enter the zip code in your search: “Dentist near me 11219”. In which case you are telling Google to return results for dentists in that zip. Otherwise, the algorithm will use your location and give you results based off of distance.
The tool we recommend that offer this type of report for organic results is Places Scout.