Posted by MiriamEllis
Staff at your agency get asked this question just about every day, and it’s a local SEO forum FAQ, too:
“I’m located in ‘x’, but how do I rank beyond that?”
In fact, this query is so popular, it deserves a good and thorough answer. I’ve written this article in the simplest terms possible so that you can instantly share it with even your least-technical clients.
We’ll break rankings down into five easy-to-grasp groups, and make sense out of how Google appears to bucket rankings for different types of users and queries. Your clients will come away with an understanding of what’s appropriate, what’s possible, and what’s typically impossible. It’s my hope that shooting this link over to all relevant clients will save your team a ton of time, and ensure that the brands you’re serving are standing on steady ground with some good education.
There’s nothing quite like education as a sturdy baseline for creating achievable goals, is there?
One hypothetical client’s story
We’ll illustrate our story by focusing in on a single fictitious business. La Tortilleria is a tortilla bakery located at 197 Fifth Avenue in San Rafael, Marin County, California, USA. San Rafael is a small city with a population of about 60,000. La Tortilleria vends directly to B2C customers, as well as distributing their handmade tortillas to a variety of B2B clients, like restaurants and grocery stores throughout Marin County.
La Tortilleria’s organic white corn tortillas are so delicious, the bakery recently got featured on a Food Network TV show. Then, they started getting calls from San Francisco, Sacramento, and even Los Angeles asking about their product. This business, which started out as a mom-and-pop shop, is now hoping to expand distribution beyond county borders.
When it comes to Google visibility, what is La Tortilleria eligible for, and is there some strategy they can employ to show up in many places for many kinds of searches? Let’s begin:
Group I: Hyperlocal rankings
Your supreme chance of ranking in Google’s local pack results is typically in the neighborhood surrounding your business. For example, with the right strategy, La Tortilleria could expect to rank very well in the above downtown area of San Rafael surrounding their bakery. When searchers are physically located in this area or using search language like “tortilleria near me,” Google can hyper-localize the radius of the search to just a few city blocks when there are enough nearby options to make up a local pack.
Ask the client to consider:
- What is my locale like? Am I in a big city, a small town, a rural area?
- What is the competitive level of my market? Am I one of many businesses offering the same goods/services in my neighborhood, or am I one of the only businesses in my industry here?
Google’s local pack radius will vary greatly based on the answers to those two questions. For example, if there are 100 tortilla bakeries in San Rafael, Google doesn’t have to go very far to make up a local pack for a searcher standing on Fifth Avenue with their mobile phone. But, if La Tortilleria is one of only three such businesses in town, Google will have to reach further across the map to make up the pack. Meanwhile, in a truly rural area with few such businesses, Google’s smallest radius could span several towns, or if there simply aren’t enough options, not show a local pack in the results at all.
To do well in the hyperlocal packs, tell your client their business should:
- Create and claim a Google My Business listing, filling out as many fields as possible. Earn some reviews and respond to them
- Build out local business listings on top local business information platforms, either manually or via a service like Moz Local.
- Mention neighborhood names or other hyperlocal terms on the company website, including on whichever page of the site the Google listing points to.
- If competition is strong in the neighborhood, invest in more advanced tactics like earning local linktations, developing more targeted hyperlocal content, using Google Posts to highlight neighborhood-oriented content, and managing Google Q&A to outdistance more sluggish competitors.
*Note that if you are marketing a multi-location enterprise, you’ll need to undertake this work for each location to get it ranking well at a hyperlocal level.
Group II: Local rankings
These rankings are quite similar to the above but encompass an entire city. In fact, when we talk about local rankings, we are most often thinking about how a business ranks within its city of location. For example, how does La Tortilleria rank for searches like “tortilleria,” “tortilla shop,” or “tortillas san rafael” when a searcher is anywhere in that city, or traveling to that city from another locale?
If Google believes the intent of such searches is local (meaning that the searcher wants to find some tortillas to buy near them rather than just seeking general information about baked goods), they will make up a local pack of results. As we’ve covered, Google will customize these packs based on the searcher’s physical location in many instances, but a business that becomes authoritative enough can often rank across an entire city for multiple search phrases and searcher locales.
For instance, La Tortilleria might always rank #1 for “tortilla shop” when searchers on Fifth Avenue perform that search, but they could also rank #1 for “organic tortillas San Rafael” when locals in any part of that city or even out-of-towners do this lookup, if the business has built up enough authority surrounding this topic.
With the right strategy, every business has a very good chance of ranking locally in its city of physical location for some portion of its most desired search phrases.
Ask the client to consider:
- Does my location + Google’s results behavior create small or large hurdles in my quest for city-wide rankings? When I look at the local packs I want to rank for, does Google appear to be clustering them too tightly in some part of the city to include my location in a different part of town? If so, can I overcome this?
- What can I specialize in to set me apart? Is there some product, service, or desirable attribute my business can become particularly known for in my city over all other competitors? If I can’t compete for the biggest terms I’d like to rank for, are there smaller terms I could become dominant for city-wide?
- How can I build my authority surrounding this special offering? What will be the most effective methodologies for becoming a household name in my community when people need the services I offer?
Your agency will face challenges surrounding this area of work. I was recently speaking with a business owner in Los Angeles who was disappointed that he wasn’t appearing for the large, lucrative search term “car service to LAX.” When we looked at the results together from various locations, we saw that Google’s radius for that term was tightly clustered around the airport. This company’s location was in a different neighborhood many miles away. In fact, it was only when we zoomed out on Google Maps to enlarge the search radius, or zoomed in on this company’s neighborhood, that we were able to see their listing appear in the local results.
This was a classic example of a big city with tons of brands offering nearly-identical services — it results in very stiff competition and tight local pack radius.
My advice in a tough scenario like this would revolve around one of these three things:
- Becoming such a famous brand that the business could overcome Google’s famous bias
- Specializing in some attribute that would enable them to seek rankings for less competitive keywords
- Moving to an office near that “centroid” of business instead of in a distant neighborhood of the large city.
Your specific scenario may be easier, equal to, or even harder than this. Needless to say, a tortilla shop in a modestly-sized town does not face the same challenges as a car service in a metropolis. Your strategy will be based on your study of your market.
Depending on the level of competition in the client’s market, tell them they will need to invest in some or all of the following:
- Identify the keyword phrases you’re hoping to rank for using tools like Moz Keyword Explorer, Answer the Public, and Google Trends combined with organized collection and analysis of the real-world FAQs customers ask your staff.
- Observe Google’s local pack behavior surrounding these phrases to discover how they are clustering results. Perform searches from devices in your own neighborhood and from other places around your city, as described in my recent post How to Find Your True Local Competitors. You can also experiment with tools like BrightLocal’s Local Search Results Checker.
- Identify the top competitors in your city for your targeted phrases and then do a competitive audit of them.
- Stack these discovered competitors up side-by-side with your business to see how their local search ranking factors may be stronger than yours. Improve your metrics so that they surpass those of the competitors, whether this surrounds Google My Business signals, Domain Authority, reputation, citation factors, website quality, or other elements.
- If Google’s radius is tight for the most lucrative terms and your efforts to build authority so far aren’t enabling you to overcome it due to your location falling outside their reach, consider specialization in other smaller, but still valuable, search phrases. For instance, La Tortilleria could be the only bakery in San Rafael offering organic tortillas. A local business might significantly narrow the competition by being pet-friendly, open later, cheaper, faster, more staffed, women-led, serving specific dietary restrictions or other special needs, selling rarities, or bundling goods with expert advice. There are many ways to set yourself apart.
- Finally, publicize your unique selling proposition. Highlight it on your website with great content. If it’s a big deal, make connections with local journalists and bloggers to try to make news. Use Google My Business attributes to feature it on your listing. Cross-sell with related local businesses and promote one another online. Talk it up on social media. Structure review requests to nudge customers towards mentioning your special offering in their reviews. Do everything you can to help your community and Google associate your brand name with your specialty.
Group III: Regional rankings
This is where we typically hit our first really big hurdle, and where the real questions begin. La Tortilleria is located in San Rafael and has very good chances of ranking in relation to that city. But what if they want to expand to selling their product throughout Marin County, or even throughout several surrounding counties? Unless competition is very low, they are unlikely to rank in the local packs for searchers in neighboring cities like Novato, Mill Valley, or Corte Madera. What paths are open to them to increase their visibility beyond their city of location?
It’s at this juncture that agencies start hearing clients ask, “What can I do if I want to rank outside my city?” And it’s here that it’s most appropriate to respond with some questions clients need to be asking themselves.
Ask the client to consider:
- Does my business model legitimately lend itself to transactions in multiple cities or counties? For example, am I just hoping that if my business in City A could rank in City B, people from that second location would travel to me? For instance, the fact that a dentist has some patients who come to their practice from other towns isn’t really something to build a strategy on. Consumers and Google won’t be excited by this. So, ask yourself: “Do I genuinely have a model that delivers goods/services to City B or has some other strong relationship to neighbors in those locales?”
- Is there something I can do to build a physical footprint in cities where I lack a physical location? Short of opening additional branches, is there anything my business can do to build relationships with neighboring communities?
- First, know that it’s sometimes possible for a business in a less-competitive market to rank in nearby neighboring cities. If La Tortilleria is one of just 10 such businesses in Marin County, Google may well surface them in a local pack or the expanded local finder view for searchers in multiple neighboring towns because there is a paucity of options. However, as competition becomes denser, purely local rankings beyond city borders become increasingly rare. Google does not need to go outside of the city of San Francisco, for example, to make up complete local results sets for pizza, clothing, automotive services, attorneys, banks, dentists, etc. Assess the density of competition in your desired regional market.
- If you determine that your business is something of a rarity in your county or similar geographical region, follow the strategy described above in the “Local Rankings” section and give it everything you’ve got so that you can become a dominant result in packs across nearby multiple cities. If competition is too high for this, keep reading.
- If you determine that what you offer isn’t rare in your region, local pack rankings beyond your city borders may not be feasible. In this case, don’t waste money or time on unachievable goals. Rather, move the goalposts so that your marketing efforts outside of your city are targeting organic, social, paid, and offline visibility.
- Determine whether your brand lends itself to growing face-to-face relationships with neighboring cities. La Tortilleria can send delivery persons to restaurants and grocery stores throughout its county. They can send their bakers to workshops, culinary schools, public schools, food festivals, expos, fairs, farmers markets, and a variety of events in multiple cities throughout their targeted region. They can sponsor regional events, teams, and organizations. They can cross-sell with a local salsa company, a chocolatier, a caterer. Determine what your brand’s resources are for expanding a real-world footprint within a specific region.
- Once you’ve begun investing in building this footprint, publicize it. Write content, guest blog, make the news, share socially, advertise online, advertise in local print, radio, and TV media. Earn links, citations and social mentions online for what you are doing offline and grow your regional authority in Google’s eyes while you’re doing it.
- If your brand is a traditional service area business, like a residential painting company with a single location that serves multiple cities, develops a website landing page for each city you serve. Make each page a showcase of your work in that city, with project features, customer reviews, localized tips, staff interviews, videos, photos, FAQs and more. As with brick-and-mortar models, your level of rarity will determine whether your single physical office can show up in the local packs for more than one city. If your geo-market is densely competitive, the main goal of your service city landing pages will be organic rankings, not local ones.
Group IV: State-wide rankings
This is where our desired consumer base can no longer be considered truly local, though local packs may still occasionally come into play. In our continuing story, revenue significantly increased after La Tortilleria appeared on a popular TV show. Now they’ve scaled up their small kitchen to industrial strength in hopes of increasing trade across the state of California. Other examples might be an architectural firm that sends staff state-wide to design buildings or a photographer who accepts event engagements across the state.
What we’re not talking about here is a multi-location business. Any time you have a physical location, you can simply refer back to Groups I–III for strategy because you are truly in the local running any place you have a branch. But for the single location client with a state-wide offering, the quest for broad visibility begs some questions.
Ask the client to consider:
- Are state-wide local pack results at all in evidence for my query or is this not the reality at all for my industry? For example, when I do a non-modified search just for “sports arena” in California, it’s interesting to see that Google is willing to make up a local pack of three famous venues spanning Sonora to San Diego (about 500 miles apart). Does Google return state-wide packs for my search terms, and is what I offer so rare that I might be included in them?
- Does my business model genuinely lend itself to non-local queries and clients willing to travel far to transact with me or hire me from anywhere in the state? For example, it would be a matter of pure vanity for me to want my vacuum cleaner repair shop to rank state-wide, as people can easily access services like mine in their own towns. But, what if I’m marketing a true rara avis, like a famous performing arts company, a landmark museum, a world-class interior design consultancy, or a vintage electronics restoration business?
- Whether Google returns state-wide local packs or only organic results for my targeted search terms, what can I do to be visible? What are my resources for setting myself apart?
- First, let’s take it for granted that you’ve got your basic local search strategy in place. You’re already doing everything we’ve covered above to build a strong hyperlocal, local, and regional digital and offline footprint.
- If Google does return state-wide local packs for your search phrases, simply continue to amp up the known local pack signals we’ve already discussed, in hopes of becoming authoritative enough to be included.
- If your phrases don’t return state-wide local packs, you will be competing against a big field for organic results visibility. In this case, you are likely to be best served by three things. Firstly, take publication on your website seriously. The more you can write about your offerings, the more of an authoritative resource you will become. Delve deeply into your company’s internal talent for developing magazine-quality content and bring in outside experts where necessary. Secondly, invest in link research tools like Moz Link Explorer to analyze which links are helping competitors to rank highly in the organic results for your desired terms and to discover where you need to get links to grow your visibility. Thirdly, seek out your state’s most trusted media sources and create a strategy for seeking publicity from them. Whether this comes down to radio, newspapers, TV shows, blogs, social platforms, or organizational publications, build your state-wide fame via inclusion.
- If all else fails and you need to increase multi-regional visibility throughout your state, you will need to consider your resources for opening additional staffed offices in new locales.
Group V: National rankings & beyond
Here, we encounter two common themes, neither of which fall within our concept of local search.
In the first instance, La Tortilleria is ready to go multi-state or nation-wide with its product, distributing goods outside of California as a national brand. The second is the commonly-encountered digital brand that is vending to a multi-state or national audience and is often frustrated by the fact that they are being outranked both in the local and organic results by physical, local companies in a variety of locations. In either case, the goals of both models can sometimes extend beyond country borders when businesses go multinational.
Ask the client to consider:
- What is my business model? Am I selling B2B, B2C, or both?
- Which marketing strategies will generate the brand recognition I need? Is my most critical asset my brand’s website, or other forms of off-and-online advertising? Am I like Wayfair, where my e-commerce sales are almost everything, bolstered by TV advertising? Or, am I like Pace Foods with a website offering little more than branding because distribution to other businesses is where my consumers find me?
- Does my offering need to be regionalized to succeed? Perhaps La Tortilleria will need to start producing super-sized white flour tortillas to become a hit in Texas. McDonald’s offers SPAM in Hawaii and green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. Regional language variants, seasonality, and customs may require fine-tuning of campaigns.
- If your national brand hinges on B2C online sales, let me put the e-commerce SEO column of the Moz blog at your fingertips. Also highly recommended, E-commerce SEO: The Definitive Guide.
- If your national brand revolves around getting your product on shelves, delve into Neilsen’s manufacturer/distributor resources and I’ve also found some good reading at MrCheckout.
- If you are expanding beyond your country, read Moz’s basic definition of International SEO, then move on to An In-Depth Look at International SEO and The Ultimate Guide to International SEO.
- This article can’t begin to cover all of the steps involved in growing a brand from local to an international scale, but in all scenarios, a unifying question will revolve around how to cope with the reality that Google will frequently rank local brands above or alongside your business for queries that matter to you. If your business has a single physical headquarters, then content, links, social, and paid advertising will be the tools at your disposal to compete as best you can. Rarity may be your greatest strength, as seen in the case of America’s sole organic tulip bulb grower, or authority, as in the case of this men’s grooming site ranking for all kinds of queries related to beards.
- You’ll be wanting to rank for every user nationwide, but you’ll also need to be aware of who your competitors are at a local and regional level. This is why even national/international brands need some awareness of how local search works so that they can identify and audit strong local brands in target markets in order to compete with them in the organic SERPs, sometimes fine-tuning their offerings to appeal to regional needs and customs.
- I often hear from digital-only brands that want to rank in every city in the nation for a virtual service. While this may be possible for a business with overwhelming authority and brand recognition (think Amazon), a company just starting out can set a more reasonable goal of analyzing a handful of major cities instead of thousands of them to see what it would take to get in the running with entrenched local and digital brands.
- Finally, I want to mention one interesting and common national business model with its own challenges. In this category are tutoring businesses, nanny services, dog walking services, and other brands that have a national headquarters but whose employees or contractors are the ones providing face-to-face services. Owners ask if it’s possible to create multiple Google listings based on the home addresses of their workers so that they can achieve local pack rankings for what is, in fact, a locally-rendered service. The answer is that Google doesn’t approve of this tactic. So, where a local pack presence is essential, the brand must find a way to staff an office in each target region. Avoid virtual offices, which are explicitly forbidden, but there could be some leeway in exploring inexpensive co-working spaces staffed during stated business hours and where no other business in the same Google category is operating. A business that determines this model could work for them can then pop back up to Groups I-IV to see how far local search can take them.
There may be no more important task in client-onboarding than setting correct expectations. Basing a strategy on what’s possible for each client’s business model will be the best guardian of your time and your client’s budget. To recap:
- Identify the client’s model.
- Investigate Google’s search behavior for the client’s important search phrases.
- Gauge the density of competition/rarity of the client’s offerings in the targeted area.
- Audit competitors to discover their strengths and weaknesses.
- Create a strategy for local, organic, social, paid, and offline marketing based on the above four factors.
For each client who asks you how to rank beyond their physical location, there will be a unique answer. The work your agency puts into finding that answer will make you an expert in their markets and a powerful ally in achieving their achievable goals.
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