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!

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

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.

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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!

7 Ways to Kill Your Local Search Rankings without Touching a Computer

There are a million online misadventures that can snuff out your business’s rankings in local search – in the Google+Local (AKA Google Places) search results and everywhere else.

Attempts to spam or deceive Google usually backfire.  You can also destroy your rankings through sheer laziness – like if you never update any of your business information or never bother to understand Google’s quality guidelines.

You may be aware of what online actions can hurt your local rankings.  Maybe you’ve learned the hard way.

But there also are offline ways you can kill your local rankings.  Simply not doing anything stupid or naughty in your local SEO campaign isn’t enough.  You can lose local visibility and local customers without ever touching your computer (or smartphone or iPad).  To be more precise, I can think of 7 ways:

 

Offline Way to Die Online #1:  Relocate, rename, or use a new phone number without updating your Google+Local page or other business listings to reflect the change(s).

By “update” I mean you must do two things: (1) update all your business listings with the new info, and (2) scour the web for listings (AKA citations) that list your old info.  (By the way, doing a free GetListed.org scan can be a huge help when you get to this step.)

If you fail to do the above, you may be OK…for a little while.  After some months a major third-party data source (most likely InfoGroup) will catch wind of the change and create new listings for your business with the new info.

This will cause your business to have inconsistent info spread all over the web – which itself is a rankings-killer – and may cause Google to create unwanted and inaccurate Google+Local pages for your business (another rankings-killer).

 

Offline Way to Die Online #2:  Get a phony address, like a PO box, UPS box, or virtual office.  Eventually your fake-o address will enter the local-search “ecosystem” (in the way I described above) and you’ll end up with inconsistent business info all over the web, penalties from Google, or both.

(It’s likely that the only reason you’d want a phony address in the first place is so you can try to game Google – so it’s likely your rankings won’t die as a result of your offline actions alone.  More likely, you’ll try to update your business listing(s) with the fake address and end up getting flagged by a competitor or good citizen.)

 

Offline Way to Die Online #3:  Mistreat your customers and get slammed with bad reviews.  This probably won’t have a direct effect on your rankings unless you have dozens or hundreds of scathing reviews, BUT it may affect your rankings indirectly.

For instance, nobody knows for sure whether click-through rate (i.e. the percentage of people who see your business listed in Google and click on it) is a factor that Google takes into account when sorting out the local rankings.  But Google does “know” a bunch of user-engagement stats.  If people simply don’t click on your listing because they see a 10/30 average Google rating, or if nobody clicks your link from (say) your Yelp listing because you have a 1-star average, Google may very well take your rankings down a peg.

Bad service = bad reviews = fewer clicks = low rankings / fewer customers

Also, although “social signals” like Facebook shares, tweets, and Google +1s don’t seem to affect your local rankings much or at all as of this writing, they most likely will become a stronger ranking factor in the future.  If potential customers are scared off by bad reviews, you’ve got fewer opportunities to get social shares.

Most of all, at the end of the day, it’s about getting people to pick up the phone.  You can’t do that very well if nobody clicks on your Google+Local page or website because your reviews reek.

By the way, you get bonus idiot points if you get hammered with bad reviews but don’t write thoughtful “replies from the owner.”  Yes, you can do this: Google+Local and Yelp (and probably other sites that aren’t coming to mind now) let you respond to reviews.  It’s easy to write a reply and takes you maybe 90 seconds.  It’s even easier never to check up on the sites where you’re listed or  simply to live in ignorant bliss, oblivious to the public criticism.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #4:  Hire and fire an unethical SEO.  He or she has access to your Google+Local page or other listings (and maybe even your website), and may do something nefarious or simply not hand over your command codes when you need them.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #5:  Let your domain name or hosting expire (thanks to Chris Silver Smith for this one).  True, technically you don’t need a website to rank in the Google+Local or other search results.  But if you don’t have one, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, because many local-search ranking factors depend on your website.  If you’re in a competitive local market, forget it: Without a site you’ll fare about as well as Lance Armstrong in a polygraph test.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #6:  Never grow your site.  No, I’m not talking about updating the copyright at the bottom of your website so that it no longer reads “© 2002.”  I’m talking about keeping a “static” website to which you rarely or never add useful, non-promotional info that might cause a potential customer to think “Hey, that was handy!”  A static website is a lost opportunity.

Google knows when a website is an online paperweight, and may very well reflect that fact in your rankings.  Worse, if your site is devoid of fresh, helpful info, nobody will link to you, share your site, or give you a juicy unstructured citation or review – all of which are factors that otherwise could boost your rankings.

If you’re going to rank well, your site needs to show signs of life.

 

Offline Way to Die Online #7:  Never check your Google+Local page and other listings.  They say a watched pot never boils.  The corollary is that an unwatched pot can eventually boil over or boil until there’s no water left.

Things will happen to your online local presence, whether you know it or not – and probably not all of those things will be good.  Sometimes you’ll need to fix or remove inaccurate info on your listings, respond to reviews, or double-check your Google+Local page or website is compliant with the Google update du jour.

But you can’t fix problems if you never know about them.

By the way, there’s no offline way to fix most of the above problems.  The solutions involve getting with the times, getting on the computer (or tablet), getting a little bit of local SEO know-how (as you’re doing now!), and getting your hands a little dirty.  That will help you become or stay visible to local customers, and it will help keep the phone ringing.

Any other offline “ways to die” you can think of?  Any questions or general suggestions?  Leave a comment!