Last Updated on 01/25/2021 by OTC
Posted by MiriamEllis
Image credit: Sharon Mollerus
A new client comes to your digital marketing agency and says their competitors are stuck to the local packs like mussels cleaved to coastal rock.
“How do we edge our way up in Google’s local finder, and find our place above the tideline? We don’t even know where to begin,” the local business owner says.
The rough truth is that Google’s local search engine results often don’t make sense at first glance, or even at second or third glances. Local brands are left to puzzle out how to achieve maximum growth when they’re consistently being outranked by sticky competition for their core search phrases.
About a year ago, I decided to run a study in which I’d track a local finder for a single query — “breakfast (X city)” — to see if anything brands or the public did over the course of 12 months would shift the top eatery out of its #1 spot. I chose a small SF Bay Area city where I’m not physically located (to remove the influence of proximity from the mix) and repeated the same query across time to see what we might learn from trying to explain the results at the end of the test period. I did my searches manually and tracked them in a spreadsheet.
My anonymized data and takeaways are at the service of your agency as you work to increase local clients’ visibility so that they can achieve optimum growth.
Visualizing a year of movement in the local finder
Google’s local finder results are paginated in sets of ten. In the following chart, you’ll see the top 10 competitors as they stood in January, moved throughout the year, and finished in December. A total of fifteen brands saw some visibility in the top 10 local finder results over the course of the year, and each brand is represented by its own color.
1) Nothing anyone did in 2020 shifted Brand #1 (which I’ll call Tansy) out of its top spot. No amount of links, reviews, photos, posts, category changes or any other activities over the course of year unseated Tansy.
When I see a results set like this, I suspect a sluggish market in which no one is making a strong enough marketing effort to surpass a business like Tansy. If you find a sluggish market, your client can become a winner with the right strategy.
2) The higher a business appeared in the local finder, the more stable it tended to be throughout the year. The lower a business appeared in the local finder, the more erratic its position was as the year moved along. One notable exception to this was dramatic eight-spot April drop the business that started out in position #2 experienced. My theory was that this outlier may have been tied to changes at the business at the onset of COVID-19. But other than this, the lower levels of the top 10 local finder results are very volatile, with some brands even vanishing while new ones popped into view.
It’s clear that local results are extremely dynamic, sometimes even changing from hour to hour within a single day, but you seem to be most secure at the top. Even if you only report on rankings to clients a few times a year, remind them that variation is the norm, and that they shouldn’t sweat the small ranking stuff because it’s tracking overall upward growth that matters most to their brand.
3) Of the 15 total brands that won a spot in the top 10 results over the course of the study, three began and ended the year in the same position. Two that maintained a presence in the results throughout the study ended up in a higher position at the end of the year than they’d begun with, and two ended up lower. Two latecomers began the year not in the top ten but achieved a top ten placement by year’s end. Finally, two that began the year in the top ten fell out of the set by year’s end and two latecomers made brief appearances at some point, only to disappear later.
I wasn’t expecting the pandemic to happen when I began this study, but my takeaway at the end of the test period was that this set of restaurants had done an amazing job adapting. Though a few restaurants lost their spot “above the tideline” of the top 10, most remained operational and visible, and some even made small gains. Anything you can do to help clients remain safely viable will be work of real value for the duration of COVID-19.
Seek strategic clues to unseat a sticky local competitor
Image credit: Megan Hemphill
So, a year has gone by in which no other brand was unable to unseat Tansy. This leaves us with two questions:
- What could restaurants lower in this local finder do in the year ahead to mount a challenge to Tansy’s dominance?
- As a side query, how do I feel about the results quality? Is it fitting that Tansy is ranking #1 for this search phrase, or are Google’s results inexplicable and/or of low quality?
To investigate this, I did an competitive audit of Tansy at #1, the brand at #5 which I’ll call Lovage, and the brand at #10 which I’ll call Rosemary, to continue my herbal theme.
Obviously, I don’t have access to the analytics of any of these brands, but I was able to analyze 48 data points for each brand to discover where Tansy is winning and where Lovage and Rosemary would need to improve to pry Tansy out of its spot, if possible. I won’t cover all 48 points here, but let’s look for answers together in this data set:
All three brands are within Google’s mapped city borders, though Rosemary is right at the edge, just within the red perimeter.
No location shares an address with a competitor with the same primary category, though Lovage is within a block of businesses with the same primary category.
Lovage is moderately winning on proximity to the city centroid, at .1 miles from it. Tansy is .4 miles, and Rosemary is much further away at 4.5 miles.
There are no signs of spam, in terms of location. Everything is legit.
No business has the word “breakfast” or the name of the city in its business title, so no one is either spamming or winning an advantage here.
Tansy is categorized as “breakfast restaurant”, but both Lovage and Rosemary are categorized as “American Restaurant”.
This is our first big a-ha. If Lovage or Rosemary see breakfast-related queries as their primary queries (their head terms), they would likely need to change their primary category to compete with Tansy. Right now, Tansy is getting a big win here.
Tansy is also doing a better job with secondary categories, according to GMBspy, having selected brunch restaurant, american restaurant, and family restaurant to let Google know more about their relevance. Lovage has only selected the rather redundant restaurant as a secondary category, and Rosemary has no secondary categories. Lovage and Rosemary are leaving opportunities on the table here to enrich their secondary categories.
Tansy comes out ahead again by having uploaded about 20 photos and accumulated 400+ total photos from the public. Lovage has uploaded 0 photos, though the public has stepped in with 100+ uploads. Rosemary has also uploaded 0 photos, and has only amassed 20 public pics.
In terms of quality, I saw lots of good shots for Tansy and Lovage, but Rosemary’s user-uploaded photos are fuzzy, unflattering, and in need of work. Both Lovage and Rosemary need to invest the time in uploading a great photo set to enrich their listing and improve conversions.
All three brands have achieved a laudable 4.6 star rating, so there is no clear winner here, but Tansy has 510 reviews, Lovage has 245, and Rosemary has 109.
Tansy is running away with the review game. Lovage needs to double its review corpus and Rosemary needs 5x the reviews it currently has to achieve comparable metrics.
Tansy is also ahead in terms of review recency, with their most recent review being 6 days ago, while it’s been 3 weeks since Lovage was reviewed and 2 weeks for Rosemary.
None of our three competitors have responded to a single Google review. This would seem to shore up the theory that owner responses don’t directly impact local pack rankings, because clearly a lack of responses isn’t preventing high placement in this local finder. That being said, ignoring conversations your customers are starting each time they review your business is not good customer service and could erode reputation and ratings over time. There’s opportunity here for Lovage and Rosemary to become more active than Tansy in ways that could improve customer experience and conversions.
I saw no signs of spam in Tansy’s body of Google reviews, so nothing can be reported by lower competitors to gain an advantage.
Meanwhile, over at Yelp, Tansy is ranking #2, with a 4-star rating, and 673 reviews. Lovage comes in at #7, with a 4-star rating, and 223 reviews. Rosemary is way down at #24, with a 4-star rating, and just 100 reviews. The high stars of all three brands could be doing something to shore up their rankings over in Google’s product, but this is just speculation on my part. I find Rosemary’s top 10 Google visibility a bit more mysterious after looking at Yelp.
I consider this an experimental area of Google’s review interface. It surfaces and quantifies subjects reviewers are discussing. I like to look at this to gauge how Google might derive signals of relevance in relationship to the search phrase.
Tansy’s top ranking for a breakfast query might be somewhat supported by 43 mentions of “french toast” and 5 of “breakfast burritos”, but Lovage looks to be in the best shape here with 52 mentions of “breakfast”. Rosemary has received 11 mentions of “breakfast”.
I found the place topics for Lovage especially interesting, because as I accumulated some rather low metrics for them elsewhere in my audit which caused me to feel surprised by their good #5 ranking, I revisited this data point. Could this winning number of mentions of “breakfast” be doing a great deal to support Lovage’s ranking for my search term, even though their metrics are severely lacking in other areas of the audit? Food for thought!
Don’t forget that review acquisition campaigns can shape response language by the way requests are phrased. Tansy should secure their relevance by asking patrons to specifically comment about breakfast, and Rosemary needs to keep working on breakfast mentions as they increase their overall review count.
Google Posts, Q&A and menus
Tansy is in the lead again, with minor usage of Google Posts, and 4 questions asked with some response from the brand. Our other two competitors have never published a Google Post or received, published, or answered a question.
Lovage and Rosemary could shine here with a moderate effort put into Google Posts since Tansy’s usage has been lukewarm, and it would take about 15 minutes for the two lower-ranked competitors to put up 10 FAQs and answer them to take on a more active appearance than Tansy.
In regards to menu links, only Tansy had posted one. Smartly, it was a link to the menu on their own website rather than on a third-party platform.
Here’s where I got a fairly significant audit shock.
Tansy has a real website that’s been around for 4 years with a Domain Authority of 19 and a GMB landing page Page Authority of 20. They’ve earned 70 links from 43 root domains. The basic contact info on the website matched the GMB contact info. The GMB landing page title tag optimization did not include my search phrase. The site passed Google’s mobile friendly test but does not pass secure HTTPs muster. The top link the site has earned is from a local online newspaper with a PA of 40, according to Moz Link Explorer.
But Lovage has no website at all, and aren’t linking their Google My Business listing to anything.
Meanwhile, Rosemary has a sketchy two-month-old subdomain on some sort of free website builder with a concerning backlink portfolio of 7,324 links from 74 root domains. The actual DA of the website builder domain is 22 and the GMB landing page PA is 15. The GMB NAP matched the landing page NAP but the GMB landing page title tag optimization did not include my search phrase. The site was neither mobile-friendly nor secure. Moz Link Explorer found that the top link followed to the site was from a completely unrelated web page on a lifestyle site about life in another state, with a PA of 43.
Tansy’s content was minimal, lacked the search phrase in its title tag, and was in what I’d consider pretty poor SEO shape. But it was better than having no website, like Lovage, or the single subdomain page that Rosemary has.
So, this is one of those good but startling audit surprises. No one has a strong website, and despite this, Lovage is ranking #5 with no website and Rosemary is managing top 10 visibility without a real website of their own. There is certainly opportunity for a competitor with a strong, optimized website and a solid backlink profile to make headway in a market like this where high rankings are being awarded despite minimal organic effort.
High level takeaways from the audit
Image credit: Marco Verch
I looked at a variety of other points, like hours of operation, price attributes, and the sites Google was surfacing from around the web on the GMB profiles, but I didn’t see any major wins or losses here.
From the overall audit process, what I did see was that:
Tansy’s win is clear
Of the 20 factors in which one of the three competitors scored a clear win, Tansy won 17, Lovage won 2, and Rosemary won 2.
Nobody but Google knows what all the local ranking factors are, but as far as my auditing process can measure, it made sense that Tansy’s 17 wins were translating to the top ranking among these three competitors. As far as I can measure as a local SEO without access to behavioral signals and other analytics, the top result, at least, makes sense.
Lovage and Rosemary’s claims to visibility are cloudier
Things fall apart a bit after acknowledging that Tansy deserves to be #1. Google is measuring Lovage as being a better result than Rosemary, despite the former having no website and the latter having at least a free subdomain page it is designating as home.
Maybe Google is as suspicious of that backlink profile on the free website builder as I am and is pushing Rosemary below Lovage because of it. Maybe Lovage’s winning Place Topic mentions of “breakfast” are keeping it in the running for my breakfast query, and are even moderately representative of Google’s overall understanding of this entity’s relevance to searches for breakfast in this city.
The trouble is, within the first 10 results of the Local Finder, I saw Lovage outranking restaurants with higher metrics in many areas I haven’t described in my summary, and so, Google’s weighting of ranking factors remains frustratingly vague in this test, as it does in so many real-world cases.
Lovage or Rosemary could unseat Tansy if they chose to
Despite the opacity of Google’s local algorithm, there is clearly room for improvement for both Lovage and Rosemary. If either of these brands were your agency’s client, you would need to take Tansy’s wins column and build your strategy from it. Your strategy could include recommendations for:
- Primary category adjustment based on ranking goals
- Website development and optimization
- Link development
- Review acquisition, including both numbers and recency, as well as review language
- Customer service improvements via owner responses and Q&A usage
The main thing is that Tansy’s effort has not been so enormous that it can’t be overcome. It has remained at the top for a year due to a modest presence — not an insurmountable one.
X factors and Google’s local SERP quality
For nearly two decades, local SEOs have been trying to identify and assign weight to the various local search ranking factors. The truth is, whenever I have occasion to conduct an audit, I realize that:
- I’m confident that we know some of the factors, but certainly not all of them. I think there are X factors out there still to be discovered.
- I have little confidence that we know the weight Google assigns to individual factors, and I strongly suspect that Google weights unique factors differently in different industries.
More on that second point: in this data set, I’ll reveal that the business which ranked #8 in December is IHOP — a large, corporate competitor with a Domain Authority of 68, and nearly 700,000 links from nearly 20,000 root domains. Yet, it ended up being outranked by both Tansy and Lovage, which are single location, independently-owned eateries. How does that happen?
I strongly believe that organic factors have a huge impact on local rankings, but it doesn’t play out that way in this local finder. I also strongly believe that review count matters, but Lovage is beating IHOP with fewer reviews. I still moderately believe that for remote searches, distance to city centroid continues to have some effect, but IHOP is very centrally located in this instance. And so on and so forth.
Overall, I feel Google’s results are, indeed, delivering a good quality experience for a person searching for breakfast in this city. The searcher is certain to find a decent variety of nearby options for a meal, and I saw no spam lying in wait for them in this particular top 10 of the local finder. But as to the individual placement of each restaurant, I did see mysteries that I couldn’t easily solve for myself and that agencies like yours would likely find difficult to explain to clients.
Creating a strong plan of action for clients, despite any ranking mysteries
Image credit: Rose Dav
No one factor will “do the trick” in any local finder. Just like flour doesn’t equal bread unless you add yeast, salt, and water, a single local ingredient won’t = rankings without attention to the whole recipe.
Your agency will encounter sluggish packs where no brand is taking substantial action to challenge the top competitor, meaning achievable wins are totally possible with a few good ingredients. You’ll uncover local finders so riddled with spam that reporting bad actors will be core to your strategy. And you’ll also encounter SERPs that are so actively managed by mighty competitors, making any headway for your client will require throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the problem.
Regardless of scenario, you can create the strongest plan action with these five steps:
- The top ranked business in my study were the recipients of tons of love from the public. Their food, their service, their adaptations to the pandemic, and many other human factors really sang out loud in the reviews. The foundation of success both offline and online is positive real world relationships. Be sure you make this message central to what you teach all clients.
- Audit the individual packs and finders for each important search phrase. Make a copy of my free Local Business Competitive Audit spreadsheet to help you out. Always look at the metrics of the top competitor and measure your client’s metrics relative to them.
- Identify the top competitor’s wins, and prioritize your local marketing strategy based on which factors you believe are having the most impact in the client’s unique market, whether that’s reviews, photos, or what have you. Even if there are mystery rankings, you’ll typically get the best results by applying best practices to presumed ranking factors, hoping to see cumulative rewards. But don’t take anyone’s word for it. Keep experimenting when you encounter mysteries. It may be your agency that unlocks an X factor.
- Some agencies don’t report on rankings at all. If yours does, be sure you’re not overreporting, because the constant variation in ranking order can cause clients needless worry. Rather, use rankings mostly as internal benchmarks, and be sure you’re tracking how the work you’re doing is leading to upward growth in conversions and revenue.
- Be sure incoming clients understand the influence of user-to-business proximity, meaning that there are no static #1 rankings. This yields many, many chances for your client to rank because customers are multi-located, mobile, and being served up highly dynamic local SERPs.
What would your agency add to my to-do list? What have you seen in your own year-long or multi-year local SERP tracking? Do you suspect the identity of an X factor no one is talking about? If you’ll share in the comments, we can all keep learning together!
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