How Can You Tell a Competitor Does Effective Local SEO?

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It’s trickier than you think.

You can monitor competitors’ rankings and links until you’re cross-eyed.  You can study them with SEMRush, Moz, Alexa , and other tools until hens grow teeth.  The insights you get from those activities can have value, and may be a good use of your time, but trying to dissect a competitor’s rankings is pointless unless first you’ve determined the right competitor to dissect.

First you need to figure out who’s most likely to rank well long-term, and who probably gets customers from that visibility.

I suppose there’s no way to know for certain how effective competitors’ local SEO efforts are unless you see several years of their ledgers and Google Analytics numbers.  Still, I’ve been part of local SEO efforts that have amounted to nothing more than blips and bumps in rankings/traffic, and I’ve had my hand in efforts that also brought big and lasting gains in business and profit.  High-payoff local SEO campaigns tend to have some qualities in common.

Below are some ways you can be pretty sure a competitor is doing local SEO that works in the ways that you’d want yours to work.  I doubt any single competitor of yours checks all the boxes, but an SEO-smart competitor will meet many of the criteria.  That competitor is worth grabbing ideas from and maybe trying to reverse-engineer.  The below points will give you a sense of which local competitor(s) you can follow up the rankings rather than into a rabbit hole.

Your competitor’s probably doing effective local SEO if your competitor has:

1. Ranked well for more than a couple of months. Newly-opened businesses or businesses that appear out of the blue often get some visibility in the Google Maps results for no apparent reason other than they’re new. But those businesses often don’t stay up there long-term.

 

2. Good visibility for search terms that aren’t too similar to the name of the business. For better and for worse, the business name does affect local rankings. If your competitors rank for terms stuffed into their Google My Business names, you can probably undo that advantage.  If they rank for terms that are part of their real businesses names, good for them, but that doesn’t mean the rest of their local SEO is worth studying.

3. Good visibility for a range of search terms. Unless you only care about ranking for one service, product, or category of search term, you probably can’t glean much from a one-hit wonder.

4. More than one page that ranks well. A page on a business’s site can bob up and down in the search results constantly. You don’t want all your visibility riding on one page, so you’d probably like more than one page on your site to ride high.  You may learn the most from the competitor who’s most consistent.  Which Olympic athlete would you rather be: the one with one gold medal, or the one who’s always somewhere on the podium, event after event and year after year?

5. Solid organic rankings – not just rankings on the local map. If your competitors seem to have only Google Maps / 3-pack rankings, much of that visibility may be based on their locations (specifically their distance to customers). The location is a big factor.  Now, maybe they have a more-prime address than you’ve got, and that may help them on the local map, but that doesn’t mean their local SEO effort has much else to tell you.  Sometimes the organic results are where the real action is.

6. “Conversion” (or “money”) pages that rank well. If your competitors have crusty blog posts from 2009, or “Ultimate Guides,” or rogue PDFs, or category pages that rank for competitive search terms, more power to ‘em. I’m not saying that counts for nothing, or that you can’t learn anything from whatever muck floats to the top of the pond.  But you can’t assume most people who click on that thing plan to become customers.  Spend more time looking at the high-ranking pages that only a local customer would want to click on, and that might compel him or her to pick up the phone.

7. Made it clear who they are. People want to know whom they’re calling and possibly paying. If your competitors don’t have a discernible brand or if you can’t find any info on who runs the business, they may get more customers you’d like them to, but not nearly as many customers as they hoped.  An anonymous, generic-looking business that ranks well today is on a hamster wheel.  If the owners aren’t making a name and building word-of-mouth power while the rankings are good, they will be in serious trouble when the rankings dip.

8. Not become a household name. Big brands tend to have tons of good links, often due to brand-building they did over the course of many years, possibly pre-Web. Not to take any glory away from enterprise SEO people, but a big, aged, stacked link profile can absolve many local-search sins (like no review strategy, messy listings, thin content on the site, and lazy on-page work).  Their non-SEO activities will probably tell you more about how you can improve your rankings.

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9. Increased their visibility over time. Be less concerned about the competitor who crashes onto page one, and more concerned about the competitor who crawls onto page one. That person probably isn’t there because of dumb luck, a fluke, heavy-duty spam, or Google’s latest test.

10. A site that’s not full of gibberish. It’s usually not difficult to get a keyword-stuffed monstrosity to rank in the local results, even for competitive terms. But to rank well long-term and get customers out of the deal is the real challenge.  Your site must make it clear exactly what you do, but try to get the message across with at least a little charm.

 

11. Not flouted the Google My Business guidelines. It’s pretty easy to spam the local map and get some good rankings (at least for a little while). For that visibility to result in customers and hold up over time is another question.  You probably don’t know for sure whether a competitor spams because it’s profitable, or in a last resort.  Most often people spam because they’ve got nothing left in the golf bag.  In any case, you don’t know how spammy tactics would work for your business, or whether your competitors will just out-spam you in reaction.

12. Outranked at least a few other local businesses besides yours. Outdueling one business doesn’t mean much. A competitor who’s outgunned several or many other local business owners – including you – is more worth watching.

 

13. Not caused you to think, “I could do all of that easily,” or “Duh! Why didn’t I think of those tricks?” when you try to figure out why they rank well. If you can tell that they’ve put in real work somewhere, and you’re not sure you want to put in that much work, at least you’re probably reverse-engineering the right local competitor.

14. Continued to outrank you even though you’ve emulated them in some ways. You’ve tried to do what they did, but you haven’t gotten the same results. That’s good.  Easy come, easy go.  Means if you eventually do get similar good results, it’ll be a little harder for your other competitors to ape you and expect good results.

15. Reviews that sound like reviews from your best customers. The ultimate goal of your local SEO effort should be to attract customers who make the rest of your marketing more effective, and your local rankings less necessary to maintain. Effective local SEO should take a little pressure off.  A super-happy customer’s review does that when it’s visible in Google Maps or on other review sites, and maybe on the business’s site.  You may have those sorts of reviews already.  Your competitors may have more.  Local SEO isn’t a “marketing channel.”  It’s the GI tract of a business.  Watch what comes out the other end.


Besides link/rankings/“SEO score” metrics, what are other signs of a local competitor worth grabbing ideas from?

Do you have a competitor who checks most or all of those boxes?

Any points you disagree with?

Leave a comment!

Who Stretched Google’s Map?

Here’s a question that’s relevant to my post from last week on competitive-intel:

Which of your local-search competitors is most worth learning from?

One obvious answer would be, “Whoever’s #1, Sherlock.”

A lot of times I’d agree that – all other things being equal – you should probably pay more attention to the King of the Hill than to the Prince of the Pile.

But what I’d really want to know is: Who’s stretching Google’s map?

Dig that D-ranked lawyer.  Pretty much all the other attorneys in Jackson, TN are right in the middle of town.  If not for that one guy, the map would be centered on central Jackson.  But he causes the whole map to pull north – by 5 1/2 miles.

I’ve seen this kind of thing for years, and probably so have you.  Much ink has been spilled on the “distance” topic.  But yesterday a conversation in the Local U forum (worth joining, by the way) made me think about it in a new way.

Ben Walsh of Baseline SEO asked a great question about the “attorney Jackson TN” example I just showed.

Then Dana DiTomaso said something that I thought was brilliant:

Find out whatever D is doing – they’ve managed to drag the map which means that they’re doing something right.

(Joy Hawkins of Imprezzio coined the “stretch the map” term.)

Turns out that the attorney who stretches that particular map isn’t doing anything extraordinary.  On the one hand, he’s got clean citations, a page for every case type, a good homepage title tag, and no toxic links.  But on the other hand, he’s got no Google reviews, no noteworthy links, and he doesn’t seem to be listed on many attorney-specific sites.

But being solid on the fundamentals is usually all you need to rank pretty well – if not to stretch the map.

I’ve had clients in that nice position, and I’ve had clients up against stretchy competitors.

Pay attention to businesses that stretch the map (in your market and in others).  They’re easy enough to spot.

When Can Digging for Competitive Intel Help Your Local SEO?

People often ask me what kinds of competitive fact-finding I think can help their local SEO efforts.  My answer usually is, “Not what you’d think.”

The theory is solid enough: you want to know why your competitors outrank you in the local results, so you try to find out everything you can about them.  Knowledge is power, right?

But there are some problems inherent in competitive-intelligence:

  • You’ll be tempted to do whatever your competitors do, even if it’s stupid and might earn them a penalty in the future. Lemmings off a cliff.
  • You won’t know exactly why they’re ranking well now.
  • You may not know how long they’ve ranked well (for all you know, there’s a bug), and you can’t know how long it will last.
  • It’s hard to know to what extent your competitors’ search-engine visibility results in paying customers.
  • Google can see things that you can’t.

You don’t want to be the schmuck who says, “I don’t get it…I’m doing everything my competitors are doing, so why don’t I have good rankings?”  Well, because Google may not be looking for more of the same in the search results – and your would-be customers certainly aren’t.

The best thing you can do is gather the kind of competitive-intel that you can use to get ahead of your competitors, and to ignore the useless facts that only allow you to ape them.

Let’s start with the useless stuff that – in my opinion – isn’t even worth researching:

Useless competitve-intel

  • Keyword-density. Because you too can be the proud owner of a spammy site that confuses and annoys visitors.
  • Anchor text of inbound links. If you can control the anchor text it’s probably not a good link in the first place.  But in either case, the temptation to go too far is too strong.
  • Title tags. Most people (especially SEOs) write horrid title tags.  Ignore them and just write a good one.
  • Domain name. Yes, a keyword-relevant domain is a small advantage.  But changing your name is a big deal, and not worth the hassle purely from a rankings standpoint.
  • Domain age. Same issues as with domain names, except an old domain that you buy is an even smaller advantage, and you may inherit some backlinks baggage.
  • Name of Google Places landing page. In my experience, you’re more likely to rank well if you use your homepage.  But there are exceptions.  If you see a competitor who’s using a city-specific landing page he / she may be one of the exceptions.  Your mileage may vary.
  • Google Places description. Your competitors probably don’t rank for every keyword in their descriptions.  Most likely neither will you.

Sometimes-useful intel

  • Inbound links. (C’mon, you know the pros and cons of looking at competitors’ links.)
  • Site structure. Your competitors’ pages may be easier for Google to crawl, and there may be more of them that conceivably could rank well.
  • Title tags. Most people (especially SEOs) write horrid title tags.  Ignore them and just write a good one – OR, if you must look at someone else’s title tag, do it just to get the creative juices flowing.  (Thanks to Dave for reminding me in his comment that this sometimes has value.)

My favorite intel

  • What useful pages do your competitors have that you don’t?
  • Where do they have reviews?
  • How many reviewers do they have? It’s worth knowing whether your competitors have had many customers / clients / patients to review them, or they’re banking off one or a few super-fans
  • How many of their other locations rank well? You might want to pay closer attention to a company that’s 5 for 6 than one that’s 1 for 6.
  • What categories do they use on their Google Places page and on other listings?

  • What kinds of barnacle SEO advantages do they have?

  • What obvious mistakes are they making? (And how can you avoid making those mistakes?)

Pay attention only to the areas where you can do something beyond just ape what other people are doing.  Especially in the long term, that’s the only way you can use competitive-intel to pull ahead, rather than to be just another plastic-coated noggin in the peloton.

 

What’s your philosophy on researching local competitors?  What do you pay attention to or ignore?  Leave a comment!