What a study of 1,000 local law firms reveals about proximity and rankings

When it comes to local search, we know that Google considers the physical distance between a user and a business in creating its search results. However, just how strong of a factor proximity is has always been a bit of a mystery.

It’s obvious that a law firm will rank better in local search if a user is 1,000 feet away as opposed to 10 miles. What’s less clear is how soon those rankings will start to decline, as well as if the decline is predictable across different locations. 

To get to the bottom of the issue, we performed a study of 1,000 personal injury law firms—the top 20 firms from each of the 50 largest U.S. cities—to see just how quickly Google rankings decline based on distance from a business. 

The majority of law firms used in this study have very strong local rankings. In fact, 56% of them rank first in their own location:

Local SERP Position of Law Firms at Their Own Location

For each law firm, we used the service Local Falcon to collect Google My Business rankings for every listing that shows up in Google Maps or the Maps portion of the organic search results page. We used the search term “car accident lawyer” to collect our data points for the study. To visualize the data, we created rankings plots for each location on a 15-by-15 grid representing 10 square miles. 

The results were eye-opening. 

Expectations vs. Reality in Proximity and Rankings

Just as an object will gradually appear smaller as you walk away from it, a logical assumption about local rankings is that they will steadily decline the further one gets from a local business. However, the results of our study paint a different picture. 

Law firms with high rankings tend to stay strong within the first mile. Shortly after that first mile threshold is crossed, the firms see a sudden sharp decline in rankings. After that initial drop, rankings start to decline a little more gradually until eventually dropping out of the top 20 altogether. 

Here’s an example from a local personal injury law firm in Miami:

example scan miami 1
An average performing location in Miami.

It seems that, in the case of local search, rankings follow the law of exponential decay. In mathematics, exponential decay describes the process of consistently reducing an amount by a certain percentage over time. The initial drop is the most significant, and each subsequent drop is less dramatic. 

Looking at the big picture, exponential decay serves as a suitable rule-of-thumb for the relationship between proximity and rankings, but when we zoom in on individual firms, we see plenty of outliers. Not every law firm’s rankings behave in the same way. 

Rankings Declines Don’t Follow a Specific Pattern

For some law firms, rankings start to plummet after just a mile (or less) away from the business location. Here is another sample of a Miami law firm. In each direction, the firm goes from being ranked #2 to completely out of the top 20 in less than a mile.  

example scan miami 2
Users might find this law firm on Google — if they’re already in the lobby.

Other firms can hold their rankings for several miles before they fall into the proximity “event horizon.” Here is a law firm in Miami that seems to defy the laws of exponential decay:

example scan miami 3
Some locations are able to maintain their positions beyond the average “drop-off” point.

In other scenarios, firms hold on to their rankings in one direction while their rankings quickly diminish in another. 

On the previous section’s rankings map, the law firm was able to hold onto its rankings for longer distances to the north and northwest. But to the west and southwest, rankings dropped considerably faster.

Decay Patterns Are Different Depending On the City

While the sharp decline in ranking over the first mile appears in nearly every city, what happens afterwards varies considerably across the different cities used in this study. 

In this chart, we see the average rankings decline by mile in each city. 

As you can see from the chart, law firms in all cities experience that sharp first-mile decline, immediately dropping anywhere from 5.3 to 11.8 positions. For all 1100 samples, the average drop was -8 positions. 

Riverside, California has the lowest first-mile (-5.3) drop of all 50 cities, but its final rankings (-14.4) are near the bottom of the pack. New Orleans (-8.1) had a sharper drop initially, but after that, its rankings held steady—at the greatest distance, it actually performed better (-7.7) than all the other cities. 

Proximity also affects individual firms differently in each city. Some locations are able to hold on to their rankings for longer. Some have sharp declines, but are able to remain in the top 20 and maintain the possibility of some organic search traffic even with several miles of distance between the location and the user. Still, in every city, some firms drop out of the top 20 completely.

In this chart, we can see that in Boston (81.5%), Los Angeles (82.3%) and New York City (80.8%) nearly every law firm has dropped out of the top 20 once we reach the edge of the proximity radius. In cities like Columbus (28.5%) and Pittsburgh (26.7%), less than a third of firms had dropped out over the same distance. 

With that knowledge, we can begin to cautiously draw some conclusions about proximity and rankings. 

Possible Reasons for Variance in Decline

  1. SEO strength of various firms. As we know from our previous study, local SEO is dependent on hundreds (if not thousands) of variables. While local SEO strength determines a firm’s rank at its own location, it’s difficult to tell how much it influences ranking decay over a given distance. Based on the variance between firms in the same city, it’s likely that the firms with stronger local SEO will see a less significant decline.
  2. Proximity to similar business locations. When looking at this study, it’s important to keep in mind that none of these business locations exist in a bubble. They are all sharing the geography of their cities together. A firm that’s surrounded by other law firms will need to be more diligent in SEO than a similar firm that’s the only location for several miles. 

Proximity and SEO strength may be important factors in holding on to rankings over distances, but there is enough variance across our samples to say that there are no obvious rules for how rankings declines happen. Even in densely populated Manhattan, there are law firms holding onto their rankings despite an enormous amount of competition. 

In that regard, what our study illustrates the most is just how unpredictable the relationship between proximity and rankings is for local SEO. We know proximity, market saturation, and SEO strength all have a role to play, but the extent to which each affects a location’s ranking remains unclear.  

What This Means for Local Businesses

  1. Continue to focus on optimizing your website and listing. The variances in rankings decay across law firms in the same city means that proximity isn’t the only factor at play in determining your position in local search results.
  2. Consider opening new locations. If you know your firm is falling out of Google’s search results in certain parts of your city, consider opening additional locations for your firm in those regions. Traditionally, “expanding your business” usually means opening a location in an entirely new city, but in this case, it can be beneficial to cast more nets in the same body of water (or so to speak).

Key Takeaways

  1. Local rankings drop by an average of 5 to 12 SERP positions after the first mile. 
  2. Rankings decline follow the rule of exponential decay. That means declines are less significant for each subsequent mile.  
  3. Every law firm behaves differently. Some are able to hold on to their rankings for several miles, while others drop out of the top 20 almost immediately. 
  4. Each city has different patterns of decline at greater distances. For example, in Pittsburgh, only 27% of firms dropped out of the top 20 at 14 miles, as opposed to 92% of law firms in Queens.  

As you can see from the study, the relationship between proximity and search rankings for local law firms is complex and unpredictable. Each city has its own patterns of decay which don’t correlate with seemingly obvious variables like population density and land area. 

For local firms and site managers, knowing your city’s decay patterns would prove useful for formulating a strategy to maintain your search rankings and capture more organic traffic. Take a closer look at our data report used in this study, or head over to Local Falcon to see how your business rankings perform in your own city. We also have a GitHub repository of the data that we used.

What did you find interesting about this study? Do you have a question about our methods, findings or interpretation of the data? 

Let us know in the comments!