Why Clunky Sites (Often) Punch Above Their Weight in the Local Search Results

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By “clunky” I mean a website of which you can say some or all of the following:

  • Doesn’t look smooth.
  • Not mobile-responsive.
  • Built on an old or less-common CMS, or is hand-coded.
  • Doesn’t have an SSL certificate.
  • Has some cruft, like pages with overlapping content, messy URLs, wordy title tags, etc.

At least in my experience, those sites often rank well.  Surprisingly well, and more often than you’d think.  When sniffing out a client’s local market and figuring out who’s up to what, naturally I’ll take a quick look at who’s #1 (and 2 and 3).  Half the time that business’s site is beautiful and seems to check all the boxes, perhaps because of a recent redesign.  But the other 50% of the sites are clunky.

How could that be?  Aren’t the Maps and organic rankings so competitive these days that even slight edges matter?  Why might a clunky site rank well in the local results?  A few possible explanations:

1. In-depth content hasn’t been scrubbed out (“Hey, nobody reads anymore!”) in favor of an “elegant” and more-visual design.

2. The site may have fewer slow-loading graphics, whiz-bang special effects, bloated WordPress plugins (h/t Darren Shaw), and other things that make “slick” sites load slowly. Better to be the Badwater snail than the finicky tropical fish.

3. The SEO person hasn’t wiped out or butchered the title tags.

4. The SEO person hasn’t 301-redirected any or many pages, perhaps losing inbound links in the process.

5. Google has had more time to digest the content on the site, and to evaluate how searchers behave on it. It’s not changing every day, and is more of a known quantity.

6. Most other businesses have sites that are clunky, too, and most of the few who have slick-n’-modern sites probably think that’s all they need to rank well.

7. The business owner doesn’t spend all his or her time on the site, and puts a little effort into other things that matter – like earning links, rustling up reviews, and working up enough recognition that people search for the business by name.

I’m not saying you should try to make your site clunky, or that you should never put work into it or reinvent it.  There’s a time to take it to the barber and the tailor, and there’s a time to take it behind the barn.

All I’m saying is that to rank well in Maps and in the localized organic results (1) your site doesn’t need to be perfect, (2) a redesign may not make it better, (3) the off-site work matters at least as much, and (4) tweaking your site shouldn’t be your nervous twitch when you want to improve your rankings.  Don’t be afraid of a little crust.


How well does your clunky site – or redesigned site – do in the local results?

Any first-hand experience that aligns or conflicts with what I’ve described?

Any war stories?

Leave a comment!


  1. Phil,

    This is awesome stuff. I’ll have to look at some of my clients competitors to see how many may be running clunk sites.

    Your content is always so unique and I look forward to every email you send because I know it will be good.

  2. Excellent post, excellent insight into something that’s baffled me for ages…
    OF COURSE! Hahahahah, it all makes much more sense now.
    The simple answer is not to judge a book by it’s cover eh? Dig a little.

    • Thanks, Linda. Yeah, people don’t think enough about what the clunky sites do well. They also don’t look closely enough at what the “perfect” sites do badly.

  3. Yep. Those old outdated sites often have a ranking advantage. Another reason is that new sites are often built with a ton of bloaty plugins and WordPress themes and the site loads super slow creating a poor user experience, and hurting rankings. A mega WordPress site can never compete with a simple hand-coded HTML site on performance.

  4. Phil:
    You mentioned “not having SSL certificate” as being a characteristic of a clunky site. I’m curious what your opinion is on this. It seems that 98% or so of small business websites don’t have SSL – even the fancy ones at that. Should small businesses move to SSL? I’d love to see you write a blog post on this topic if you haven’t already. My inclination is that unless you are a bank or some kind of financial institution that should convey “trust” with the public, SSL just isn’t necessary – YET. Your thoughts?


    • Hey Travis,

      It’s complicated, for sure. I’ve thought about doing a post on which “local businesses” benefit a lot vs. a little vs. not at all from moving to SSL.

      The fortune-cookie version of my thinking is that for most “local” businesses now the pros of moving to SSL don’t outweigh the cons. (At least for sites that have been around for a while, maybe have some good links, maybe have some good rankings, etc.) If all they have is a simple contact form, who cares.

      The big variable, of course, is how obnoxious Google/Chrome gets with the warnings in the address bar.

      • Having been around a while with good links and good rankings won’t be affected at all with an SSL move. The small print is that it has to be done right. If it’s done right (which really isn’t that difficult) then all ranking move over seamlessly and there isn’t a single hiccup.

        Even with a rebrand from one domain to another there should be relatively little hiccup so SSL is an even bigger non-issue. The benefits (Chrome not nagging) is far more important. If there’s any information asked for (even from a contact form) that business should be protecting that users information, it’s irresponsible not to which means SSL and strong passwords on a CMS are essential.

        • I agree, Nick, but wouldn’t call that “small print.” Doing it right is a big “if” for most businesses. Probably shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

          • Not small print in that it’s not important, just as in it’s often not done and brushed aside in the panic to get things done in a hurry. It is unmeasurably important though to get it right and take the time to do it right. Unfortunately it’s a big “I don’t want to pay the amount it costs to get it done right” sort of thing. On the flip side though, hard to know if even somebody who’s supposed to know how to do it does it right 🙁

          • Very true, Nick.

  5. Good analysis Phil. Sometimes you come across expensive looking sites that don’t rank, but because they’re so pretty you assume they must have had the budget for strong off-page work. Then you discover the only thing uglier than the link profile is the local citations. “the off-site work matters at least as much” yes indeed.

    • Well-said, Patrick. Often the business spends all its budget on the shiny new site. Often it’s a moonshot.

      Of course, my post doesn’t even cover the non-SEO advantages some clunky sites (though not all) have, like supporting the assumption that the business owners have plenty of business and don’t spend all their time spit-shining the site while waiting for the phone to ring.

    *it does ok in Local – sometimes I just shake my head at the Local ranking results 🙂

  7. Phil,
    First-time visitor here… Sometimes we find it hard to figure out why we can’t get a client to rank locally, and you gave me some ideas. Thanks for your insights.

    What do you mean by an SEO person ‘wiping out’ or ‘butchering title tags’? You mean an SEO person who is just bad at their job, essentially? Because my immediate thought was, “If they’re an SEO person, why would they wipe out title tags?”
    Thanks again!

    • Hey Chris,

      That’s exactly what I mean. Some SEOs are bad because they write lame title tags (e.g. full of keywords, but that don’t compel searchers to click), or because they rely on a WP plugin to generate title tags and don’t configure the plugin properly or at all, or because they constantly tweak the title tags and never let Google get a bead on them.

      (Of course, just doing a good job on title tags doesn’t mean you’re a good SEO. But messing them up doesn’t bode well for the less-straightforward stuff, in my opinion.)

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