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.
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
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
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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