A roller is a good tool for painting a house in big, broad strokes. But creating a masterpiece of art requires finer brushes.
Franchises face a unique challenge here: they know how to market at the national level, but often lack the detailed tools for reaching their local customers at a granular level. Google has stated that localization of search results is the greatest form of personalization they currently engage in. For franchises, where local sensitivity is lacking in the marketing plan, opportunity is being lost.
Don’t settle for this. Know that less-motivated competitors are losing this opportunity, too. This creates a large, blank canvas for a franchise you’re marketing to paint a new picture which takes state, regional and community nuances into account.
One famous example of localized marketing is McDonald’s offering SPAM in Hawaii and green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. For your franchise, it could revolve around customizing content for regional language differences (sub sandwich vs. po’ boy), or knowing when to promote seasonal merchandise at which locations (California vs. North Dakota weather).
What you need is marketing plan capable of scaling from national priorities to hyperlocal customers. Want the complete strategy now?
From paint roller to sumi-e brush: A franchise marketing plan
Today, we’ll explore the basics of getting to know your local customers, so that your national franchise can customize how you serve them. Build a strategy around the following:
Your step-by-step guide to how to create a local marketing strategy
Finding your target audience
First, you need to understand who your customers are. If you have an existing franchise, you can do this fairly easily by simply observing or asking them. You might run an online survey, or you might do some quick spot interviews right in your place of business. What you want to work out is:
Demographics: What are the common ages, genders, income levels, and other relevant characteristics of your customers.
Psychographics: How do your customers think? What are their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs as they relate to your franchise?
Pain points: What problems do your customers have that you could potentially solve? Maybe they want to eat healthy but have no time. Maybe they want a gym that will help them become better athletes.
Consumption habits: How do your customers decide where to buy? Are they online? Do they have smartphones? Do they prioritize reviews/recommendations? Do they like video, or podcasts? Which social platforms do they frequent? What events do they attend?
Understanding the customer’s journey
Marketers spend a lot of time thinking about what we call the “customer journey.” This is just another way of saying we want to understand what happens between us and customers before they know our brand exist, after they discover it, up until they buy, and then beyond.
The best way to do this is to divide that experience into steps, understanding that some people will drop out of the process at every stage. Most corporate franchisers will recognize this as the “sales funnel.”
Here’s a simplified version of a sales funnel. Take the time to determine what happens at each stage in your own customers’ experience, and you’ll be a long way toward understanding how you can influence and help customers from one step to the next.
Mapping a sales funnel
Awareness This is where a customer first discovers you exist and starts to form an opinion about you based on what they see. Often, this is managed by the activities being conducted by corporate franchisors (like a national TV ad campaign). But, it can also happen through franchisee-generated references and referrals (like a searcher discovering you via a Google Maps search on their phone).
Discovery This is where a customer has already absorbed information about you and your product and begins to actively try to learn more about it. This stage often encompasses online research. It local word-of-mouth queries between potential customers and their friends and family.
Evaluation This is where a customer has decided to probably purchase something similar to what you offer, but is trying to decide where to buy. They might stop by your business in this stage, or they may give you a call. They might visit your online website or listings to look at your hours, or menu or price list. This stage is influenced by both franchisor and franchisee activity.
Intent Now the customer has decided to buy from you — which means they are your customer to lose. Franchisors can lose them at this stage through misinformation in the brand’s local business listings — like incorrect hours or bad directions that lead customers to the wrong place and cause them to give up. Franchisees could lose the business through poor on-premises experiences — like uncleanliness, long wait times, low inventory, pricing, or poor customer service.
Purchase This is where the transaction takes place, and is generally entirely within the control of the franchisee.
Loyalty This stage determines whether the customer will return to buy again, and whether or not they will become an advocate for your business, give you good reviews, or rate you poorly. Again, this is typically within the control of the franchisee unless the issue is a decision made at the franchisor level, such as product/menu, pricing or policy.
Sometimes this whole funnel can take place in the time it takes to spot a sign for ice cream and purchase a double scoop sundae. Sometimes it may take weeks, as your customers labor over the right financial advisor to choose.
Understanding how your customer is thinking and what goes into making the decision to use you is important and will guide decision-making and sales activity at both the franchisor and franchisee levels.
Scoping out the competition
Most brands have already worked out their positioning with regard to other national brands, so this one is mainly for franchisees. Take some time to figure out who your direct competitors are in your local market. They might be other big brands, but there will also probably be local SMBs that are not on the corporate franchisor’s radar.
Where they are stronger or weaker, compared to you
Who they attract, compared to you
How they are marketing their business
Having this information should help you to position yourself to win a bigger piece of the local pie. Is your competitor a gym that has better weight training and machines than you? Are they marketing mainly to younger men and athletes? Are they advertising on local radio? Perhaps you should double down on your cardio and yoga classes and try to attract more women or older clientele. Maybe adding some nutrition classes will encourage people trying to lose weight. And so on.
Building your authority
Once you’ve figured out who your customers are, how they buy, and how you plan to position your franchise in the local market, it’s time to put that plan into action by creating some content to support it.
For franchisors at corporate this means putting in the time to create an informative, interesting brand website with dynamic, engaging content. Your content should aim to educate, inform and/or entertain, rather than only sell. The more points of engagement your website offers to customers, the more reason they have to read, share, and link to your content, building authority. Your most valuable content will, of course, be the elements or pages that directly convert visitors into customers.
The content you put out over social media should follow this same precept, and lead back to your site as often as possible. Experts suggest that “60% of your posts you create should be engaging, timely content, 30% should be shared content, and only 10% should be promoting your products & services.” (Medium)
Invest some time in link building, in order to show Google’s algorithm how influential your site is and boost your authority and ranking.
Here are a few tips:
Use Moz’s “Find Opportunities” feature to locate sites which are linking to your competitors and not you (yet).
Look for people who are already referencing your site and ask them to hyperlink to you.
Do a little PR or news-making and ask articles to link to your site. (This is something local franchisees can excel at.)
Ask for links from local trade organizations, community organizations or commerce groups.
Sponsor events and ask for a link.
Start a scholarship and post it on local .edu sites.
Armed with good, authoritative content and an effective website, you’ll want to focus on how you manage all the channels available to you. This also includes managing your budget effectively. Most franchisor budgets are focused on the brand, and many franchisees don’t have a lot left over for local marketing, but here are some things to think about.
Listings first: Your listings aren’t expensive to manage, but they give your marketing it’s biggest overall value — in some cases literally guiding people to your registers. Make great local business listings your top priority.
Claim everything: Franchisors, be sure you are the one in control of your directory listings and social profiles. Complete your Google My Business profile and establish a presence on key social media and review platforms like Facebook and Yelp.
Budget wisely: Do the strategy work to understand who your customers are and how best to reach them before you allocate your franchisor or franchisee marketing dollars.
Pointillism for franchises
Adept franchise marketing requires the eye of Seurat: the ability to see life in hundreds of tiny points, making up a masterpiece. For you, franchise pointillism includes:
Points representing each customer
Points for the customer’s community, as a whole
Points representing your locations on the map
Points across the web where engagement happens
Points offline where engagement happens
Points of resource at all levels of the franchise, from franchisor to franchisee
Ready for expert help from Moz in seeing the finer points? Download your copy:
Maybe I just got off of work, like millions of other non-nine-to-fivers. Maybe I was running around with my family all day and didn’t get my errands done. Maybe I was feeling too sick to appear in a public grocery store wrapped in the ratty throw from my sofa.
And now, most of the local shops are closed for the night and I’m sitting here, taco-less and sad.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if I could search Google and find a kiosk just a couple of blocks away that would vend me solutions, no matter what time of night or day?
Something old is becoming new again, just like home delivery. And for your agency’s local business clients, the opportunity could become an amazing competitive advantage.
What’s up with kiosks?
The automat was invented in Germany in the late 19th century and took off in the US in the decades following, with industry leader Horn & Hardart’s last New York location only closing in 1991. These famous kiosks fed thousands of Americans on a daily basis with on-demand servings of macaroni, fish cakes, baked beans, and chicory coffee. The demise of the automat is largely blamed on the rise of the fast food industry, with Burger Kings even opening doors at former automat locations.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching an episode of my favorite local SEO news roundup in which Ignitor Digital’sCarrie Hill mentioned a meat vending kiosk. I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about this. What I learned sparked my imagination on behalf of local businesses which are always benefitted by at least considering fresh ideas, even if those ideas are actually just taking a page from history and editing it a bit.
What I learned from my research is that the Applestone Meat Company is distinguishing itself from the competition by offering a 24/7 butcher shop via two vending installations in the state of New York. They also have a drive-up service window from 11am–6pm, but for the countless potential customers who are at work or elsewhere during so-called “normal business hours,” the meat kiosks are ever-ready to serve.
CEO Joshua Applestone says he was inspired by the memory of Horn & Hardart and he must be one smart local business owner to have taken this bold plunge. The company has already earned some pretty awesome unstructured citations from the likes of Bloomberg with this product marketing strategy and they’re planning to open ten more kiosks in the near future.
But Applestone isn’t alone. A kiosk can technically just be a fancy vending machine. Check out Chicago startup Farmer’s Fridge. They recently closed a $30 million Series C round led by one-time Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. Their 200+ midwestern units provide granola, Greek yogurt, pasta, wraps, beverages, and similar on-the-go fare, and they donate leftovers to local food pantries.
Americans have long been accustomed to ATM machines. DVD and game rental stations are old news to us. We are nowhere near Japan, with its sixty-billion-dollar-a-year, national vending machine density of one machine per 23 citizens, and its automated sales of everything from ramen to socks to umbrellas. Geography and economics don’t point to the need to go to such a level in the US, but where convenience is truly absent, opportunity may reside. What might that look like?
Use your imagination
My corner of the world is famous for its sourdough bread. There are hundreds of regional bakeries competing with one another for the crustiest, lightest, most indulgent loaf. But, if you don’t make it to the local stores by early afternoon, your favorite brand is likely to have sold out. And if you’re working the 47-hour American work week, or gigging California night and day but don’t want to live on fast food, you’d likely be quite grateful to have your access to artisan baguettes restored.
Just imagine every bread bakery around the SF Bay Area installing a kiosk outside its front door, and you can hear the satisfied after-hours crunching, can’t you?
Applestone is selling unprepared meat, Farmer’s Fridge is selling prepared meals, and almost anything people nosh could be a candidate for a kiosk, but why should on-demand products be limited to food? I let my imagination meander and jotted down a quick list of things people might buy at various off-hours, if a machine existed outside the storefront:
What if customers who do their morning bike ride at 5 AM knew they could stop by your client’s kiosk to fix a punctured tire? What if night workers knew they could pick up a box of light bulbs or bandages or cat food on their way to their shift? Think of the convenience — in some instances even life-saving help — that could be provided to travelers on the road at all hours, members of your community who are housing-insecure, or whole neighborhoods that lack access to basic goods?
Not every local business has the right model for a kiosk, but once I started to think about it, I realized just how many of them could. I’m initially envisioning these machines being installed at the place of business, but, where the scenario is right, a company with the right type of inventory could certainly place additional kiosks in strategic locations around the communities they wish to serve.
Kiosk Local SEO
Clearly, kiosks can generate revenue, but what could they do for clients’ online presence? The guidelines for representing your business on Google already support the creation of local business listings for ATMs, video rental stations, and express mail dropboxes. But I went straight to Google with the Applewood example to ask if this emerging type of kiosk would be permitted to create listings. They were kind enough to reply:
The link in the Twitter DM reply just pointed to the general guidelines, and I can find no reference to the term “Food Kiosk listing” in them. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard this terminology. But, clearly this representative is naming food kiosks as a “thing.” Google, it seems, is already quite aware of this business model. And the proof of their support is in the Maps pudding:
My, my! Talk about having the ability to hyperlocalize your local search marketing to fit Google’s extreme emphasis on user-to-business proximity. Enough to make any local SEO agency see conversions and dollar signs for clients.
Tip #1: Helpline phone numbers
I’ve written about ATM SEO in the past for financial publications, and so I’ll add one important tip for creating eligible Google listings for kiosks: guidelines require that you have a helpline phone number for kiosk users. I would post this number both on the listings and on the units, themselves. Note that this will likely mean you have a shared phone number on multiple listings, which isn’t typically deemed ideal for local search marketing, but if kiosks become your model and you avoid any semblance of creating fake listings, Google can likely handle it.
Tip #2: Unique local landing pages for your kiosks
I can also see value in creating unique location landing pages on client websites for their kiosks, especially if they aren’t stationed at your physical location. These pages could give excellent driving and walking directions for each unit, explain how to use the machine, feature reviews and testimonials for that location, and perhaps highlight new inventory.
Tip #3: Capitalize on your social media
Social media will also be an excellent vehicle for letting particular neighborhoods know about client kiosks and engaging with communities to understand their sentiments. Seek abundant feedback about what is and isn’t working for customers and how inventory could better serve their needs. And, of course, be sure every client is monitoring reviews like a low-flying hawk.
I’m a longtime observer of rural local SEO. I’ve learned that being intentional in noticing small things can lead to big ideas, and almost any novel concept is worth floating to clients. The tiny, free book lending kiosks sometimes officially branded “Little Free Libraries” are everywhere in my county, have become a non-profit initiative, and are driving Etsy sales of cute wooden contraptions. Moreover, my region is dotted with unstaffed farm stands that operate on the honor system, trusting neighbors to pay for what they take. I’d say our household purchases about half of our produce from them.
Within recent recall, the milkman and the grocery delivery boy seemed as distant as the phonograph. Now, consumers are showing interest in having whole meal kits, entire wardrobes, and just about everything delivered. The point being: don’t discount anything that renders convenience; not the traveling salesman, not the automat.
The decision to experiment with a kiosk isn’t a simple one. There will be financial aspects, like how to access a unit that works for the inventory being sold. There will be security questions, as most businesses probably won’t feel comfortable operating on the honor system.
But if the question is whether there is an appetite for the right kiosk, selling the right goods, in the right place, I’ll close today with a look at these provocative, illuminating reviews from just one location of Farmer’s Fridge:
We couldn’t do it without you! In 2018, over 1,400 marketers responded to our State of the Local SEO industry survey. We all learned so much from your responses about the day-to-day realities of marketing local businesses. This year, we can do even better because your answers will give us all valuable comparative data to analyze, YoY.
Who can take the survey?
Anyone who markets local businesses in any way is eagerly invited. Whether you market a single location, work for an agency with some local business clients, or are an in-house SEO for a brand with thousands of locations, we would love your participation! Whether you do just a little local search marketing or a lot, are a novice or an adept, your insights have value.
What is the survey about?
Unlike a typical local ranking factors poll, The State of the Local SEO Industry Survey digs deep into marketers’ experiences with tactics, challenges, clients, Google, and the working environment. For example, we learned last year that:
90% of respondents felt Google’s emphasis on proximity was detrimental to SERP quality
62% felt there aren’t enough quality local search marketing training materials available
60% lacked a comprehensive review management strategy
49% felt utilization of Google Business Profile features were impacting local rank
35% had no link building strategy in place
17% of enterprises had no in-house SEO staff
With your help, we’ll see what’s changed and what hasn’t. There are fresh questions, too, which we hope will uncover new stories to spark new strategies for local brands and their marketers.
There will be four lucky winners!
Everyone is a winner with access to the data we’ll be sharing from this large survey. But we’d like to offer a little extra thank-you for your time and knowledge.
Every respondent who completes the full survey will be automatically entered for a chance to win one of four $50 Visa gift cards. Winners will be selected at random, and we hope they will use these gift cards to shop someplace local and awesome this holiday season!
Right now, the shoppers nearest you are making some pretty long gift lists. US holiday sales are predicted to surpass $1.1 trillion, with 4.5–5% growth between November–January. That’s a lot of gadgets, garments, games, goodies, and gizmos to bought and sold.
Winter weather and long lines will be braved, traffic endured, tired feet soaked, and patience tested in the search for the perfect gift for everyone on everyone’s list. Holiday shopping can and should be cheery, but sometimes it can be a bit of an overload. The end of the year can put local businesses back in the black, but it can be kind of stressful, too.
And that’s why local business marketers need a list of their own. Your agency can be holiday heroes, both to clients and their customers. An organized approach can ensure that no mom with three kids in tow is inconvenienced by a wrong address on a Facebook listing, and no dad is doomed to wander lonely aisles for hours with no help in sight. Strategic planning can save your clients, too, from total holiday frazzle.
Be of good cheer! Download the Moz Holiday Local SEO Checklist, share it with each of your clients, and plan for reputation, rankings, and revenue to rise as a result of your well-orchestrated campaign:
When it comes to Google’s algorithms, there’s quite a difference between how they treat local and organic. Get the scoop on which factors drive the local algorithm and how it works from local SEO extraordinaire, Joy Hawkins, as she offers a taste of her full talk from MozCon 2019.
Click on the whiteboard image above to open a high resolution version in a new tab!
Hello, Moz fans. I’m Joy Hawkins. I run a local SEO agency from Toronto, Canada, and a search forum known as the Local Search Forum, which basically is devoted to anything related to local SEO or local search. Today I’m going to be talking to you about Google’s local algorithm and the three main factors that drive it.
If you’re wondering what I’m talking about when I say the local algorithm, this is the algorithm that fuels what we call the three-pack here. When you do a local search or a search that Google thinks has local intents, like plumbers let’s say, you traditionally will get three results at the top with the map, and then everything below it I refer to as organic. This algorithm I’ll be kind of breaking down is what fuels this three-pack, also known as Google My Business listings or Google Maps listings.
They’re all talking about the exact same thing. If you search Google’s Help Center on what they look at with ranking these entities, they tell you that there are three main things that fuel this algorithm. The three things that they talk about are proximity, prominence, and relevance. I’m going to basically be breaking down each one and explaining how the factors work.
I’ll kind of start here with proximity. Proximity is basically defined as your location when you are searching on your phone or your computer and you type something in. It’s where Google thinks you are located. If you’re not really sure, often you can scroll down to the bottom of your page, and at the bottom of your page it will often list a zip code that Google thinks you’re in.
Zip code (desktop)
The other way to tell is if you’re on a phone, sometimes you can also see a little blue dot on the map, which is exactly where Google thinks you’re located. On a high level, we often think that Google thinks we’re located in a city, but this is actually pretty false, which I know that there’s been actually a lot of talk at MozCon about how Google pretty much always knows a little deeper than that as far as where users are located.
Generally speaking, if you’re on a computer, they know what zip code you’re in, and they’ll list that at the bottom. There are a variety of tools that can help you check ranking based on zip codes, some of which would be Moz Check Your Presence Tool, BrightLocal, Whitespark, or Places Scout. All of these tools have the ability to track at the zip code level.
Geo coordinates (mobile)
However, when you’re on a phone, usually Google knows your location even more detailed, and they actually generally know the geo coordinates of your actual location, and they pinpoint this using that little blue dot.
It knows even more about the zip code. It knows where you’re actually located. It’s a bit creepy. But there are a couple of tools that will actually let you see results based on geo coordinates, which is really cool and very accurate. Those tools include the Local Falcon, and there is a Chrome extension which is 100% free, that you can put in your browser, called GS Location Changer.
I use this all the time in an incognito browser if I want to just see what search results look like from a very, very specific location. Now these two levels, depending on what industry you are working in, it’s really important to know which level you need to be looking at. If you work with lawyers, for example, zip code level is usually good enough.
There aren’t enough lawyers to make a huge difference at certain like little points inside a given zip code. However, if you work with dentists or restaurants, let’s say, you really need to be looking at geo coordinate levels. We have seen lots of cases where we will scan a specific keyword using these two tools, and depending on where in that zip code we are, we see completely different three-packs.
It’s very, very key to know that this factor here for proximity really influences the results that you see. This can be challenging, because when you’re trying to explain this to clients or business owners, they search from their home, and they’re like, “Why am I not there?” It’s because their proximity or their location is different than where their office is located.
I realize this is a challenging problem to solve for a lot of agencies on how to represent this, but that’s kind of the tools that you need to look at and use.
Moving to the next factor, so prominence, this is basically how important Google thinks you are. Like Is this business a big deal, or are they just some random, crappy business or a new business that we don’t know much about?
This looks at things like links, for example.
Store visits, if you are a brick-and-mortar business and you get no foot traffic, Google likely won’t think you’re very prominent.
Reviews, the number of reviews often factors in here. We often see in cases where businesses have a lot of reviews and a lot of old reviews, they generally have a lot of prominence.
Citations can also factor in here due to the number of citations. That can also factor into prominence.
Moving into the relevance factor, relevance is basically, does Google think you are related to the query that is typed in? You can be as prominent as anyone else, but if you do not have content on your page that is structured well, that covers the topic the user is searching about, your relevance will be very low, and you will run into issues.
It’s very important to know that these three things all kind of work together, and it’s really important to make sure you are looking at all three. On the relevance end, it looks at things like:
onsite SEO, so your title tags, your meta tags, all that nice SEO stuff
Citations also factor in here, because it looks at things like your address. Like are you actually in this city? Are you relevant to the city that the user is trying to get locations from?
Categories are huge here, your Google My Business categories. Google currently has just under 4,000 different Google My Business categories, and they add an insane amount every year and they also remove ones. It’s very important to keep on top of that and make sure that you have the correct categories on your listing or you won’t rank well.
The business name is unfortunately a huge factor as well in here. Merely having keywords in your business name can often give you relevance to rank. It shouldn’t, but it does.
Then review content. I know Mike Blumenthal did a really cool experiment on this a couple years ago, where he actually had a bunch of people write a bunch of fake reviews on Yelp mentioning certain terms to see if it would influence ranking on Google in the local results, and it did. Google is definitely looking at the content inside the reviews to see what words people are using so they can see how that impacts relevance.
How to rank without proximity, prominence, or relevance
Obviously you want all three of these things. It is possible to rank if you don’t have all three, and I’ll give a couple examples. If you’re looking to expand your radius, you service a lot of people.
You don’t just service people on your block. You’re like, “I serve the whole city of Chicago,” for example. You are not likely going to rank in all of Chicago for very common terms, things like dentist or personal injury attorney. However, if you have a lot of prominence and you have a really relevant page or content related to really niche terms, we often see that it is possible to really expand your radius for long tail keywords, which is great.
Prominence is probably the number one thing that will expand your radius inside competitive terms. We’ll often see Google bringing in a business that is slightly outside of the same area as other businesses, just because they have an astronomical number of reviews, or maybe their domain authority is ridiculously high and they have all these linking domains.
Those two factors are definitely what influences the amount of area you cover with your local exposure.
Spam and fake listings
On the flip side, spam is something I talk a lot about. Fake listings are a big problem in the local search space. Fake listings, these lead gen providers create these listings, and they rank with zero prominence.
They have no prominence. They have no citations. They have no authority. They often don’t even have websites, and they still rank because of these two factors. You create 100 listings in a city, you are going to be close to someone searching. Then if you stuff a bunch of keywords in your business name, you will have some relevance, and by somehow eliminating the prominence factor, they are able to get these listings to rank, which is very frustrating.
Obviously, Google is kind of trying to evolve this algorithm over time. We are hoping that maybe the prominence factor will increase over time to kind of eliminate that problem, but ultimately we’ll have to see what Google does. We also did a study recently to test to see which of these two factors kind of carries more weight.
An experiment: Linking to your site within GMB
One thing I’ve kind of highlighted here is when you link to a website inside your Google My Business listing, there’s often a debate. Should I link to my homepage, or should I link to my location page if I’ve got three or four or five offices? We did an experiment to see what happens when we switch a client’s Google My Business listing from their location page to their homepage, and we’ve pretty much almost always seen a positive impact by switching to the homepage, even if that homepage is not relevant at all.
In one example, we had a client that was in Houston, and they opened up a location in Dallas. Their homepage was optimized for Houston, but their location page was optimized for Dallas. I had a conversation with a couple of other SEOs, and they were like, “Oh, well, obviously link to the Dallas page on the Dallas listing. That makes perfect sense.”
But we were wondering what would happen if we linked to the homepage, which is optimized for Houston. We saw a lift in rankings and a lift in the number of search queries that this business showed for when we switched to the homepage, even though the homepage didn’t really mention Dallas at all. Something to think about. Make sure you’re always testing these different factors and chasing the right ones when you’re coming up with your local SEO strategy. Finally, something I’ll mention at the top here.
Local algorithm vs organic algorithm
As far as the local algorithm versus the organic algorithm, some of you might be thinking, okay, these things really look at the same factors. They really kind of, sort of work the same way. Honestly, if that is your thinking, I would really strongly recommend you change it. I’ll quote this. This is from a Moz whitepaper that they did recently, where they found that only 8% of local pack listings had their website also appearing in the organic search results below.
I feel like the overlap between these two is definitely shrinking, which is kind of why I’m a bit obsessed with figuring out how the local algorithm works to make sure that we can have clients successful in both spaces. Hopefully you learned something. If you have any questions, please hit me up in the comments. Thanks for listening.
If you liked this episode of Whiteboard Friday, you’ll love all the SEO thought leadership goodness you’ll get from our newly released MozCon 2019 video bundle. Catch Joy’s full talk on the differences between the local and organic algorithm, plus 26 additional future-focused topics from our top-notch speakers:
“To receive everything, one must open one’s hands and give.” – Taisen Deshimaru, Buddhist philosopher
A woman stands in a busy supermarket checkout line. The shopper in front of her realizes that they don’t have enough money with them to cover their purchase, so she steps in and makes up the balance. Then, when she reaches the checkout, her own receipt totals up higher than she was expecting. She doesn’t have enough left in her purse.
A bystander snaps a photo and posts the story to Facebook. The story ends up on local radio and TV news. Unstructured citations for the grocery store start crackling like popcorn. National news takes notice. A scholarship foundation presents a check to the clerk. When asked how he felt about it, the clerk said:
“Personally, I think it’s undeserved attention. Because she did something so good … I felt like it was my responsibility to return the favor.”
In the process, if only for a moment in time, an everyday supermarket is transformed into a rescue operation for hope in humanity. Through the lens of local SEO, it’s also a lesson in how good deeds can be rewarded by good mentions.
Studying business kindness can be a rewarding task for any motivated digital marketing agency or local brand owner. I hope this post will be both a pick-me-up for the day, and a rallying cry to begin having deeper conversations about the positive culture businesses can create in the communities they serve.
10+ evocative examples of business kindness
“We should love people and use things, but sadly, we love things and use people,” Roger Johnson, Artisan
As a youngster in the American workforce, I ran into some very peculiar styles of leadership.
For instance, one boss gruffly told me not to waste too much time chatting with the elderly customers who especially loved buying from me…as if customer support doesn’t make or break business reputations.
And then there was the cranky school secretary who reprimanded me for giving ice packs to children because she believed they were only “trying to get attention” … as if schools don’t exist to lavish focus on the kids in their care.
In other words, both individuals would have preferred me to be less kind, less human, than more so.
Perhaps it was these experiences of my superiors taking a miserly approach to workplace human kindness that inspired me to keep a little file of outbreaks of goodwill that earned online renown. These examples beg self-reflective questions of any local business owner:
I only know about these stories because of the unstructured citations (online references to a local business) they generated. They earned online publicity, radio, and television press. The fame for some was small and local, for others, internationally viral. Some activities were planned, but many others took place on the spur of the moment. Kindness, empathy, and gratitude, flow through them all like a river of hope, inviting every business owner to catch the current in their own way. One easy way for local business owners to keep better track of any positive mentions is by managing and monitoring reviews online with the New Moz Local.
In Demark, schoolchildren learn empathy as a class subject. The country is routinely rated as one of the happiest in the world. At Moz, we have the TAGFEE code, which includes both generosity and empathy, and our company offers internal workshops on things like “How to be TAGFEE when you disagree.” We are noted for the kindness of our customer support, as in the above review.
According to Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, people “catch” cooperation and generosity from others. In his study, the monetary amount donors gave to charity went up or down based on whether they were told their peers gave much or little. They matched the generosity or stinginess they witnessed. In part two of the study, the groups who had seen others donating generously went on to offer greater empathy in writing letters to penpals suffering hard times. In other words, kindness isn’t just contagious — its impact can spread across multiple activities.
Mercedes-Benz CEO, Stephen Cannon, wanted employees to catch the kindness bug because of its profound impact on sales. He invited his workforce to join a “grassroots movement” that resulted in surprising shoppers with birthday cakes, staff rushing to remote locations with spare tires, and other memorable consumer experiences. Cannon noted:
“There is no scientific process, no algorithm, to inspire a salesperson or a service person to do something extraordinary. The only way you get there is to educate people, excite them, incite them. Give them permission to rise to the occasion when the occasion to do something arises. This is not about following instructions. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”
“Organizations that trade in kindness allow their employees to give that currency away. If you’re a waitress, can you give someone a free piece of pie because the kid at the next table spilled milk on their foot? If you’re a clerk in a hotel, do you have the authority to give someone a discounted rate because you can tell they’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?”
There may be no formula for teaching kindness, but if Zaki is right, then leadership can be the starting point of demonstrative empathy that can emanate through the staff and to its customers. How do you build for that?
A cared-for workforce for customer service excellence
You can find examples of individual employees behaving with radical kindness despite working for brands that routinely disregard workers’ basic needs. But, this hardly seems ideal. How much better to build a business on empathy and generosity so that cared-for staff can care for customers.
I ran a very quick Twitter poll to ask employees what their very most basic need is:
Unsurprisingly, the majority of respondents cited a living wage as their top requirement. Owners developing a kind workforce must ensure that staff are housing-and-food-secure, and can afford the basic dignities of life. Any brand that can’t pay its staff a living wage isn’t really operational — it’s exploitation.
Flexibility in both hours and location to create a healthy work/life balance
Ethics in company technology, practices, and transparency
Equity in pay ratios, regardless of gender
Empathy in the workplace, both internally and in having a positive societal impact with customers
It’s just not very hard to connect the dots between a workforce that has its basic and aspirational needs met, and one possessing the physical, mental and emotional health to extend those values to consumers. As I found in a recent study of my own, 70 percent of negative review resolution was driven by brands having to overcome bad/rude service with subsequent caring service.
Kindness as currency, with limitless growth potential
“I wanted a tangible item that could track acts of kindness. From that, the Butterfly Coin emerged.” Bruce Pedersen, Butterfly Coins
Maybe someday, you’ll be the lucky recipient of a Butterfly Coin, equipped with a unique tracking code, and gifted to you by someone doing a kind act. Then, you’ll do something nice for somebody and pass it on, recording your story amongst thousands of others around the world. People, it seems, are so eager for tokens of kindness that the first mint sold out almost immediately.
The butterfly effect (the inspiration for the name of these coins) in chaos theory holds that a small action can trigger multiple subsequent actions at a remove. In a local business setting, an owner could publicly reward an employee’s contributions, which could cause the employee to spread their extra happiness to twenty customers that day, which could cause those customers to be in a mood to tip waitstaff extra, which could cause the waitstaff to comp meals for hungry neighbors sitting on their doorsteps, and on and on it goes.
The most priceless aspect of kindness is that it’s virtually limitless. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be quantified. The Butterfly Coin idea is attempting to track kindness, and as a local business owner, you have a practical means of parsing it, too. It will turn up in unstructured citations, reviews, and social media, if you originate it at the leadership level, and share it out from employee to customer with an open hand.
Can your marketing agency make a profit working with low-budget clients in rural areas?
Could you be overlooking a source of referrals, publicity, and professional satisfaction if you’re mainly focused on landing larger clients in urban locales? Clients in least-populated areas need to capture every customer they can get to be viable, including locals, new neighbors, and passers-through. Basic Local SEO can go a long way toward helping with this, and even if package offerings aren’t your agency’s typical approach, a simple product that emphasizes education could be exactly what’s called for.
Today, I’d like to help you explore your opportunities of serving rural and very small town clients. I’ve pulled together a sample spreadsheet and a ton of other resources that I hope will empower you to develop a bare-bones but high-quality local search marketing package that will work for most and could significantly benefit your agency in some remarkable ways.
Everything in moderation
The linchpin fundamental to the rural client/agency relationship is that the needs of these businesses are so exceedingly moderate. The competitive bar is set so low in a small-town-and-country setting, that, with few exceptions, clients can make a strong local showing with a pared-down marketing plan.
Let’s be honest — many businesses in this scenario can squeak by on a website design package from some giant web hosting agency. A few minutes spent with Google’s non-urban local packs attest to this. But I’m personally dissatisfied by independent businesses ending up being treated like numbers because it’s so antithetical to the way they operate. The local hardware store doesn’t put you on hold for 45 minutes to answer a question. The local farm stand doesn’t route you overseas to buy heirloom tomatoes. Few small town institutions stay in business for 150 years by overpromising and under-delivering.
Let’s assume that many rural clients will have some kind of website. If they don’t, you can recommend some sort of freebie or cheapie solution. It will be enough to get them placed somewhere in Google’s results, but if they never move beyond this, the maximum conversions they need to stay in business could be missed.
I’ve come to believe that the small-to-medium local marketing agency is the best fit for the small-to-medium rural brand because of shared work ethics and a similar way of doing business. But both entities need to survive monetarily and that means playing a very smart game with a budget on both sides.
It’s a question of organizing an agency offering that delivers maximum value with a modest investment of your time and the client’s money.
Constructing a square deal
When you take on a substantial client in a large town or city, you pull out all the stops. You dive deeply into auditing the business, its market, its assets. You look at everything from technical errors to creative strengths before beginning to build a strategy or implement campaigns, and there may be many months or years of work ahead for you with these clients. This is all entirely appropriate for big, lucrative contracts.
For your rural roster, prepare to scale way back. Here is your working plan:
1. Schedule your first 15-minute phone call with the client
Avoid the whole issue of having to lollygag around waiting for a busy small business owner to fill out a form. Schedule an appointment and have the client be at their place of business in front of a computer at the time of the call. Confirm the following, ultra-basic data about the client.
Business model (single location brick-and-mortar, SAB, etc.)
Are there any other businesses at this address?
Main products/services offered
If SAB, list of cities served
Most obvious search phrase they want to rank for
Year established and year they first took the business online
Have they ever been aware of a penalty on their website or had Google tell them they were removing a listing?
Finally, have the client (who is in front of their computer at their place of business) search for the search term that’s the most obviously important and read off to you the names and URLs of the businesses ranking in the local pack and on the first page of the organic results.
And that’s it. If you pay yourself $100/hr, this quick session yields a charge of $25.
2. Make a one-time investment in writing a bare-bones guide to Local SEO
Spend less than one working day putting together a .pdf file or Google doc written in the least-technical language containing the following:
Your briefest, clearest definition of what local SEO is and how it brings customers to local businesses. Inspiration here.
An overview of 3 key business models: brick & mortar, SAB, and home-based so the client can easily identify which of these models is theirs.
Foolproof instructions for creating a Google account and creating and claiming a GMB listing. Show the process step-by-step so that anyone can understand it. Inspiration here.
A list of top general industry citation platforms with links to the forms for getting listed on them. Inspiration here and if the client can hit at least a few of these, they will be off to a good start.
An overview of the role of review acquisition and response, with a few simple tips for earning reviews and a list of the top general industry review platforms. Inspiration here and here.
An overview of the role of building offline relationships to earn a few online linktations. Inspiration here.
Links to the Google My Business forum and the main Google support platforms including their phone number (844.491.9665), Facebook, Twitter, and online chat. Tell the client this is where to go if they encounter a problem with their Google listing in the future.
Your agency’s complete contact information so that the business can remember who you are and engage you for further consulting down the road, if ever necessary.
If you pay yourself $100 an hour, investing in creating this guide will cost you less than $1000.00. That’s a modest amount that you can quickly earn back from clients. Hopefully, the inspirational links I’ve included will give you a big head start. Avoid covering anything trendy (like some brand new Google feature) so that the only time you should have to update the guide in the near future will be if Google makes some major changes to their guidelines or dashboard.
Deliver this asset to every rural client as their basic training in the bare essentials of local marketing.
3. Create a competitive audit spreadsheet once and fill it out ad infinitum
What you want here is something that lets you swiftly fill in the blanks.
For the competitive audit, you’ll be stacking up your client’s metrics against the metrics of the business they told you was ranking at the top of the local pack when they searched from their location. You can come up with your own metrics, or you can make a copy of this template I’ve created for you and add to it/subtract from it as you like.
Make a copy of the ultra-basic competitive local audit template — you can do so right here.
You’ll notice that my sample sheet does not delve deeply into some of the more technical or creative areas you might explore for clients in tougher markets. With few exceptions, rural clients just don’t need that level of insight to compete.
Give yourself 45 focused minutes filling in the data in the spreadsheet. You’ve now invested 1 hour of time with the client. So let’s give that a value of $100.
4. Transfer the findings of your audit into a custom report
Here’s another one-time investment. Spend no more than one workday creating a .pdf or Google Docs template that takes the fields of your audit and presents them in a readable format for the client. I’m going to leave exact formatting up to you, but here are the sections I would recommend structuring the report around:
A side-by-side comparison of the client vs. competitor metrics, bucketed by topic (Website, GMB, Reputation, Links, Citations, etc)
A very basic explanation of what those metrics mean
A clear recommendation of what the client should do to improve their metrics
For example, your section on reputation might look like this:
The beauty of this is that, once you have the template, all you have to do is fill it out and then spend an hour making intelligent observations based on your findings.
Constructing the template should take you less than one workday; so, a one-time investment of less than $1,000 if you are paying yourself $100/hr.
Transferring the findings of your audit from the spreadsheet to the report for each client should take about 1 hour. So, we’re now up to two total hours of effort for a unique client.
5. Excelling at value
So, you’ve now had a 15-minute conversation with a client, given them an introductory guide to the basics of local search marketing, and delivered a customized report filled with your observations and their to-dos. Many agencies might call it a day and leave the client to interpret the report on their own.
But you won’t do that, because you don’t want to waste an incredible opportunity to build a firm relationship with a business. Instead, spend one more hour on the phone with the owner, going over the report with them page by page and allowing a few minutes for any of their questions. This is where you have the chance to deliver exceptional value to the client, telling them exactly what you think will be most helpful for them to know in a true teaching moment.
At the end of this, you will have become a memorable ally, someone they trust, and someone to whom they will have confidence in referring their colleagues, family members, and neighbors.
You’ve made an overall investment of less than $2,000 to create your rural/small town marketing program.
Packaging up the guide, the report and the 1:1 phone consulting, you have a base price of $300 for the product if you pay yourself $100/hour.
However, I’m going to suggest that, based on the level of local SEO expertise you bring to the scenario, you create a price point somewhere between $300–$500 for the package. If you are still relatively green at local SEO, $300 could be a fair price for three hours of consulting. If you’re an industry adept, scale it up a bit because, because you bring a rare level of insight to every client interaction, even if you’re sticking to the absolute basics. Begin selling several of these packages in a week, and it will start totaling up to a good monthly revenue stream.
As a marketer, I’ve generally shied away from packages because whenever you dig deeply into a client’s scenario, nuances end up requiring so much custom research and communication. But, for the very smallest clients in this least competitive markets, packages can hit the spot.
Considerable benefits for your agency
The client is going to walk away from the relationship with a good deal … and likely a lot to do. If they follow your recommendations, it will typically be just what they needed to establish themselves on the web to the extent that neighbors and travelers can easily find them and choose them for transactions. Good job!
But you’re going to walk away with some amazing benefits, too, some of which you might not have considered before. To wit:
1. Relationships and the ripple effect
A client you’ve treated very well on the phone is a client who is likely to remember you for future needs and recommend you. I’ve had businesses send me lovely gifts on top of my consulting fee because I’ve taken the time to really listen and answer questions. SEO agencies are always looking for ways to build authentic relationships. Don’t overlook the small client as a centroid of referrals throughout a tight-knit community and beyond it to their urban colleagues, friends, and family.
2. Big data for insights and bragging rights
If your package becomes popular, a ton of data is going to start passing through your hands. The more of these audits you do, the more time you’re spending actively observing Google’s handling of the localized SERPs. Imagine the blog posts your agency can begin publishing by anonymizing and aggregating this data, pulling insights of value to our industry. There is no end to the potential for you to grow your knowledge.
Apart from case studies, think of the way this package can both build up your proud client roster and serve as a source of client reviews. The friendly relationship you’ve built with that 1:1 time can now become a font of very positive portfolio content and testimonials for you to publish on your website.
3. Agency pride from helping rebuild rural America
Have you noticed the recent spate of hit TV shows that hinge on rebuilding dilapidated American towns? Industry consolidation is most often cited as the root of rural collapse, with small farmers and independent businesses no longer able to create a tax base to support basic community needs like hospitals, fire departments, and schools. Few of us rejoice at the idea of Main Streets — long-cherished hallmarks not just of Americana but of shared American identity — becoming ghost towns.
It can be a source of professional satisfaction for your marketing agency if you offer these brave and hard-working business owners a good deal and the necessary education they need to present themselves sufficiently on the web. I live in a rural area, and I know just how much a little, solid advice can help. I feel extra good if I know I’m contributing to America’s rural comeback story.
Promoting your rural local SEO package
Once you’ve got your guide and templates created, what next? Here are some simple tips:
Create a terrific landing page on your website specifically for this package and call it out on your homepage as well. Wherever appropriate, build internal links to it.
Promote on social media.
Blog about why you’ve created the package, aligning your agency as an ally to the rebuilding of rural communities.
If, like me, you live in a rural area, consider presenting at local community events that will put you in front of small business owners.
Don’t overlook old school media like community message boards at the local post office, or even fliers tacked to electric poles.
If you’re a city slicker, consider how far you’d have to travel to get to the nearest rural community to participate in events.
Advertising both off and online in rural papers can be quite economical. There is also a place of worship print bulletins, local school papers, and other publications that welcome sponsors. Give it a try.
And, of course, ask happy clients to refer you, telling them what it means to your business. You might even develop a referral program.
The truth is that your agency may not be able to live by rural clients, alone. You may still be targeting the bulk of your campaigns towards urban enterprises because just a few highly competitive clients can bring welcome security to your bank account.
But maybe this is a good day to start looking beyond the fast food franchise, the NY attorney and the LA dermatology group. The more one reads about rural entrepreneurs, the more one tends to empathize with them, and empathy is the best foundation I know of for building rewarding business relationships.
Exciting secrets can be so hard to keep. Finally, all of us at Moz have the green light to share with all of you a first glimpse of something we’ve been working on for months behind the scenes. Big inhale, big exhale…
Announcing: the new and improved Moz Local, to be rolled out beginning June 12!
Why is Moz updating the Moz Local platform?
Local search has evolved from caterpillar to butterfly in the seven years since we launched Moz Local. I think we’ve spent the time well, intensively studying both Google’s trajectory and the feedback of enterprise, marketing agency, and SMB customers.
Your generosity in telling us what you need as marketers has inspired us to action. Over the coming months, you’ll be seeing what Moz has learned reflected in a series of rollouts. Stage by stage, you’ll see that we’re planning to give our software the wings it needs to help you fully navigate the dynamic local search landscape and, in turn, grow your business.
We hope you’ll keep gathering together with us to watch Moz Local take full flight — changes will only become more robust as we move forward.
What can I expect from this upgrade?
Beginning June 12th, Moz Local customers will experience a fresh look and feel in the Moz Local interface, plus these added capabilities:
New distribution partners to ensure your data is shared on the platforms that matter most in the evolving local search ecosystem
Listing status and real-time updates to know the precise status of your location data
Automated detection and permanent duplicate closure, taking the manual work out of the process and saving you significant time
Integrations with Google and Facebook to gain deeper insights, reporting, and management for your location’s profiles
An even better data clean-up process to ensure valid data is formatted properly for distribution
A new activity feed to alert you to any changes to your location’s listings
A suggestion engine to provide recommendations to increase accuracy, completeness, and consistency of your location data
Additional features available include:
Managing reviews of your locations to keep your finger on the pulse of what customers are saying
Social posting to engage with consumers and alert them to news, offers, and other updates
Store locator and landing pages to share location data easily with both customers and search engines (available for Moz Local customers with 100 or more locations)
Remember, this is just the beginning. There’s more to come in 2019, and you can expect ongoing communications from us as further new feature sets emerge!
When is it happening?
We’ll be rolling out all the new changes beginning on June 12th. As with some large changes, this update will take a few days to complete, so some people will see the changes immediately while for others it may take up to a week. By June 21st, everyone should be able to explore the new Moz Local experience!
Don’t worry — we’ll have several more communications between now and then to help you prepare. Keep an eye out for our webinar and training materials to help ensure a smooth transition to the new Moz Local.
Are any metrics/scores changing?
Some of our reporting metrics will look different in the new Moz Local. We’ll be sharing more information on these metrics and how to use them soon, but for now, here’s a quick overview of changes you can expect:
Profile Completeness: Listing Score will be replaced by the improved Profile Completeness metric. This new feature will give you a better measurement of how complete your data is, what’s missing from it, and clear prompts to fill in any lacking information.
Improved listing status reporting: Partner Accuracy Score will be replaced by improved reporting on listing status with all of our partners, including continuous information about the data they’ve received from us. You’ll be able to access an overview of your distribution network, so that you can see which sites your business is listed on. Plus, you’ll be able to go straight to the live listing with a single click.
Visibility Index: Though they have similar names, Visibility Score is being replaced by something slightly different with the new and improved Visibility Index, which notates how the data you’ve provided us about a location matches or mismatches your information on your live listings.
New ways to measure and act on listing reach: Reach Score will be leaving us in favor of even more relevant measurement via the Visibility Index and Profile Completeness metrics. The new Moz Local will include more actionable information to ensure your listings are accurate and complete.
As a veteran local SEO, I’m finding the developments taking place with our software particularly exciting because, like you, I see how local search and local search marketing have matured over the past decade.
I’ve closely watched the best minds in our industry moving toward a holistic vision of how authenticity, customer engagement, data, analysis, and other factors underpin local business success. And we’ve all witnessed Google’s increasingly sophisticated presentation of local business information evolve and grow. It’s been quite a ride!
At every level of local commerce, owners and marketers deserve tools that bring order out of what can seem like chaos. We believe you deserve software that yields strategy. As our CEO, Sarah Bird, recently said of Moz,
“We are big believers in the power of local SEO.”
So the secret is finally out, and you can see where Moz is heading with the local side of our product lineup. It’s our serious plan to devote everything we’ve got into putting the power of local SEO into your hands.
“A good chef has to be a manager, a businessman and a great cook. To marry all three together is sometimes difficult.” – Wolfgang Puck
I like this quote. It makes me hear phones ringing at your local search marketing agency, with aspiring chefs and restaurateurs on the other end of the line, ready to bring experts aboard in the “sometimes difficult” quest for online visibility.
Is your team ready for these clients? How comfortable do you feel talking restaurant Local SEO when such calls come in? When was the last time you took a broad survey of what’s really ranking in this specialized industry?
Allow me to be your prep cook today, and I’ll dice up “best restaurant” local packs for major cities in all 50 US states. We’ll julienne Google Posts usage, rough chop DA, make chiffonade of reviews, owner responses, categories, and a host of other ingredients to determine which characteristics are shared by establishments winning this most superlative of local search phrases.
The finished dish should make us conversant with what it takes these days to be deemed “best” by diners and by Google, empowering your agency to answer those phones with all the breezy confidence of Julia Child.
I looked at the 3 businesses in the local pack for “best restaurants (city)” in a major city in each of the 50 states, examining 11 elements for each entry, yielding 4,950 data points. I set aside the food processor for this one and did everything manually. I wanted to avoid the influence of proximity, so I didn’t search for any city in which I was physically located. The results, then, are what a traveler would see when searching for top restaurants in destination cities.
Now, let’s look at each of the 11 data points together and see what we learn. Take a seat at the table!
Categories prove no barrier to entry
Which restaurant categories make up the dominant percentage of local pack entries for our search?
You might think that a business trying to rank locally for “best restaurants” would want to choose just “restaurant” as their primary Google category as a close match. Or, you might think that since we’re looking at best restaurants, something like “fine dining restaurants” or the historically popular “French restaurants” might top the charts.
Instead, what we’ve discovered is that restaurants of every category can make it into the top 3. Fifty-one percent of the ranking restaurants hailed from highly diverse categories, including Pacific Northwest Restaurant, Pacific Rim Restaurant, Organic, Southern, Polish, Lebanese, Eclectic and just about every imaginable designation. American Restaurant is winning out in bulk with 26 percent of the take, and an additional 7 percent for New American Restaurant. I find this an interesting commentary on the nation’s present gustatory aesthetic as it may indicate a shift away from what might be deemed fancy fare to familiar, homier plates.
Overall, though, we see the celebrated American “melting pot” perfectly represented when searchers seek the best restaurant in any given city. Your client’s food niche, however specialized, should prove no barrier to entry in the local packs.
High prices don’t automatically equal “best”
Do Google’s picks for “best restaurants” share a pricing structure?
It will cost you more than $1000 per head to dine at Urasawa, the nation’s most expensive eatery, and one study estimates that the average cost of a restaurant meal in the US is $12.75. When we look at the price attribute on Google listings, we find that the designation “best” is most common for establishments with charges that fall somewhere in between the economical and the extravagant.
Fifty-eight percent of the top ranked restaurants for our search have the $$ designation and another 25 percent have the $$$. We don’t know Google’s exact monetary value behind these symbols, but for context, a Taco Bell with its $1–$2 entrees would typically be marked as $, while the fabled French Laundry gets $$$$ with its $400–$500 plates. In our study, the cheapest and the costliest restaurants make up only a small percentage of what gets deemed “best.”
There isn’t much information out there about Google’s pricing designations, but it’s generally believed that they stem at least in part from the attribute questions Google sends to searchers. So, this element of your clients’ listings is likely to be influenced by subjective public sentiment. For instance, Californians’ conceptions of priciness may be quite different from North Dakotans’. Nevertheless, on the national average, mid-priced restaurants are most likely to be deemed “best.”
Of anecdotal interest: The only locale in which all 3 top-ranked restaurants were designated at $$$$ was NYC, while in Trenton, NJ, the #1 spot in the local pack belongs to Rozmaryn, serving Polish cuisine at $ prices. It’s interesting to consider how regional economics may contribute to expectations, and your smartest restaurant clients will carefully study what their local market can bear. Meanwhile, 7 of the 150 restaurants we surveyed had no pricing information at all, indicating that Google’s lack of adequate information about this element doesn’t bar an establishment from ranking.
Less than 5 stars is no reason to despair
Is perfection a prerequisite for “best”?
Negative reviews are the stuff of indigestion for restaurateurs, and I’m sincerely hoping this study will provide some welcome relief. The average star rating of the 150 “best” restaurants we surveyed is 4.5. Read that again: 4.5. And the number of perfect 5-star joints in our study? Exactly zero. Time for your agency to spend a moment doing deep breathing with clients.
The highest rating for any restaurant in our data set is 4.8, and only three establishments rated so highly. The lowest is sitting at 4.1. Every other business falls somewhere in-between. These ratings stem from customer reviews, and the 4.5 average proves that perfection is simply not necessary to be “best.”
Breaking down a single dining spot with 73 reviews, a 4.6 star rating was achieved with fifty-six 5-star reviews, four 4-star reviews, three 3-star reviews, two 2-star reviews, and three 1-star reviews. 23 percent of diners in this small review set had a less-than-ideal experience, but the restaurant is still achieving top rankings. Practically speaking for your clients, the odd night when the pho was gummy and the paella was burnt can be tossed onto the compost heap of forgivable mistakes.
Review counts matter, but differ significantly
How many reviews do the best restaurants have?
It’s folk wisdom that any business looking to win local rankings needs to compete on native Google review counts. I agree with that, but was struck by the great variation in review counts across the nation and within given packs. Consider:
35 percent of “best”-ranked restaurants have between 100–499 reviews and another 31 percent have between 500–999 reviews. Taken together that’s 66 percent of contenders having yet to break 1,000 reviews.
A restaurant with less than 100 reviews has only a 1 percent chance of ranking for this type of search.
Anecdotally, I don’t know how much data you would have to analyze to be able to find a truly reliable pattern regarding winning review counts. Consider the city of Dallas, where the #1 spot has 3,365 review, but spots #2 and #3 each have just over 300. Compare that to Tallahassee, where a business with 590 reviews is coming in at #1 above a competitor with twice that many. Everybody ranking in Boise has well over 1,000 reviews, but nobody in Bangor is even breaking into the 200s.
The takeaways from this data point is that the national average review count is 893 for our “best” search, but that there is no average magic threshold you can tell a restaurant client they need to cross to get into the pack. Totals vary so much from city to city that your best plan of action is to study the client’s market and strongly urge full review management without making any promise that hitting 1,000 reviews will ensure them beating out that mysterious competitor who is sweeping up with just 400 pieces of consumer sentiment. Remember, no local ranking factor stands in isolation.
Best restaurants aren’t best at owner responses
How many of America’s top chophouses have replied to reviews in the last 60 days?
With a hat tip to Jason Brown at the Local Search Forum for this example of a memorable owner response to a negative review, I’m sorry to say I have some disappointing news. Only 29 percent of the restaurants ranked best in all 50 states had responded to their reviews in the 60 days leading up to my study. There were tributes of lavish praise, cries for understanding, and seething remarks from diners, but less than one-third of owners appeared to be paying the slightest bit of attention.
On the one hand, this indicates that review responsiveness is not a prerequisite for ranking for our desirable search term, but let’s go a step further. In my view, whatever time restaurant owners may be gaining back via unresponsiveness is utterly offset by what they stand to lose if they make a habit of overlooking complaints. Review neglect has been cited as a possible cause of business closure. As my friends David Mihm and Mike Blumenthal always say:“Your brand is its reviews” and mastering the customer service ecosystem is your surest way to build a restaurant brand that lasts.
For your clients, I would look at any local pack with neglected reviews as representative of a weakness. Algorithmically, your client’s active management of the owner response function could become a strength others lack. But I’ll even go beyond that: Restaurants ignoring how large segments of customer service have moved onto the web are showing a deficit of commitment to the long haul. It’s true that some eateries are famous for thriving despite offhand treatment of patrons, but in the average city, a superior commitment to responsiveness could increase many restaurants’ repeat business, revenue and rankings.
Critic reviews nice but not essential
I’ve always wanted to investigate critic reviews for restaurants, as Google gives them a great deal of screen space in the listings:
How many times were critic reviews cited in the Google listings of America’s best restaurants and how does an establishment earn this type of publicity?
With 57 appearances, Lonely Planet is the leading source of professional reviews for our search term, with Zagat and 10Best making strong showings, too. It’s worth noting that 70/150 businesses I investigated surfaced no critic reviews at all. They’re clearly not a requirement for being considered “best”, but most restaurants will benefit from the press. Unfortunately, there are few options for prompting a professional review. To wit:
Lonely Planet — Founded in 1972, Lonely Planet is a travel guide publisher headquartered in Australia. Critic reviews like this one are written for their website and guidebooks simultaneously. You can submit a business for review consideration via this form, but the company makes no guarantees about inclusion.
Zagat — Founded in 1979, Zagat began as a vehicle for aggregating diner reviews. It was purchased by Google in 2011 and sold off to The Infatuation in 2018. Restaurants can’t request Zagat reviews. Instead, the company conducts its own surveys and selects businesses to be rated and reviewed, like this.
The Infatuation — Founded in 2009 and headquartered in NY, The Infatuation employs diner-writers to create reviews like this one based on multiple anonymous dining experiences that are then published via their app. The also have a SMS-based restaurant recommendation system. They do not accept request from restaurants hoping to be reviewed.
AFAR — Founded in 2009, AFAR is a travel publication with a website, magazine, and app which publishes reviews like this one. There is no form for requesting a review.
As you can see, the surest way to earn a professional review is to become notable enough on the dining scene to gain the unsolicited notice of a critic.
Google Posts hardly get a seat at best restaurant tables
How many picks for best restaurants are using the Google Posts microblogging feature?
As it turns out, only a meager 16 percent of America’s “best” restaurants in my survey have made any use of Google Posts. In fact, most of the usage I saw wasn’t even current. I had to click the “view previous posts on Google” link to surface past efforts. This statistic is much worse than what Ben Fisher found when he took a broader look at Google Posts utilization and found that 42 percent of local businesses had at least experimented with the feature at some point.
For whatever reason, the eateries in my study are largely neglecting this influential feature, and this knowledge could encompass a competitive advantage for your restaurant clients.
Do you have a restaurateur who is trying to move up the ranks? There is some evidence that devoting a few minutes a week to this form of microblogging could help them get a leg up on lazier competitors.
Google Posts are a natural match for restaurants because they always have something to tout, some appetizing food shot to share, some new menu item to celebrate. As the local SEO on the job, you should be recommending an embrace of this element for its valuable screen real estate in the Google Business Profile, local finder, and maybe even in local packs.
Waiter, there’s some Q&A in my soup
What is the average number of questions top restaurants are receiving on their Google Business Profiles?
Commander’s Palace in New Orleans is absolutely stealing the show in my survey with 56 questions asked via the Q&A feature of the Google Business Profile. Only four restaurants had zero questions. The average number of questions across the board was eight.
As I began looking at the data, I decided not to re-do this earlier study of mine to find out how many questions were actually receiving responses from owners, because I was winding up with the same story. Time and again, answers were being left up to the public, resulting in consumer relations like these:
Takeaway: As I mentioned in a previous post, Greg Gifford found that 40 percent of his clients’ Google Questions were leads. To leave those leads up to the vagaries of the public, including a variety of wags and jokesters, is to leave money on the table. If a potential guest is asking about dietary restrictions, dress codes, gift cards, average prices, parking availability, or ADA compliance, can your restaurant clients really afford to allow a public “maybe” to be the only answer given?
I’d suggest that a dedication to answering questions promptly could increase bookings, cumulatively build the kind of reputation that builds rankings, and possibly even directly impact rankings as a result of being a signal of activity.
Looking at both the landing page that Google listings are pointing to and the overall authority of each restaurant’s domain, I found that:
The average PA is 36, with a high of 56 and a low of zero being represented by one restaurant with no website link and one restaurant appearing to have no website at all.
The average DA is 41, with a high of 88, one business lacking a website link while actually having a DA of 56 and another one having no apparent website at all. The lowest linked DA I saw was 6.
PA/DA do not = rankings. Within the 50 local packs I surveyed, 32 of them exhibited the #1 restaurant having a lower DA than the establishments sitting at #2 or #3. In one extreme case, a restaurant with a DA of 7 was outranking a website with a DA of 32, and there were the two businesses with the missing website link or missing website. But, for the most part, knowing the range of PA/DA in a pack you are targeting will help you create a baseline for competing.
While pack DA/PA differs significantly from city to city, the average numbers we’ve discovered shouldn’t be out-of-reach for established businesses. If your client’s restaurant is brand new, it’s going to take some serious work to get up market averages, of course.
Google’s Local Finder “web results” show where to focus management
Which websites does Google trust enough to cite as references for restaurants?
As it turns out, that trust is limited to a handful of sources:
As the above pie chart shows:
The restaurant’s website was listed as a reference for 99 percent of the candidates in our survey. More proof that you still need a website in 2019, for the very good reason that it feeds data to Google.
Yelp is highly trusted at 76 percent and TripAdvisor is going strong at 43 percent. Your client is likely already aware of the need to manage their reviews on these two platforms. Be sure you’re also checking them for basic data accuracy.
OpenTable and Facebook are each getting a small slice of Google trust, too.
Not shown in the above chart are 13 restaurants that had a web reference from a one-off source, like the Des Moines Register or Dallas Eater. A few very famous establishments, like Brennan’s in New Orleans, surfaced their Wikipedia page, although they didn’t do so consistently. I noticed Wikipedia pages appearing one day as a reference and then disappearing the next day. I was left wondering why.
For me, the core takeaway from this factor is that if Google is highlighting your client’s listing on a given platform as a trusted web result, your agency should go over those pages with a fine-toothed comb, checking for accuracy, activity, and completeness. These are citations Google is telling you are of vital importance.
A few other random ingredients
As I was undertaking this study, there were a few things I noted down but didn’t formally analyze, so consider this as mixed tapas:
Menu implementation is all over the place. While many restaurants are linking directly to their own website via Google’s offered menu link, some are using other services like Single Platform, and far too many have no menu link at all.
Reservation platforms like Open Table are making a strong showing, but many restaurants are drawing a blank on this Google listing field, too. Many, but far from all, of the restaurants designated “best” feature Google’s “reserve a table” function which stems from partnerships with platforms like Open Table and RESY.
Order links are pointing to multiple sources including DoorDash, Postmates, GrubHub, Seamless, and in some cases, the restaurant’s own website (smart!). But, in many cases, no use is being made of this function.
Photos were present for every single best-ranked restaurant. Their quality varied, but they are clearly a “given” in this industry.
Independently-owned restaurants are the clear winners for my search term. With the notable exception of an Olive Garden branch in Parkersburg, WV, and a Cracker Barrel in Bismarck, ND, the top competitors were either single-location or small multi-location brands. For the most part, neither Google nor the dining public associate large chains with “best”.
Honorable mentions go to Bida Manda Laotian Bar & Grill for what looks like a gorgeous and unusual restaurant ranking #1 in Raleigh, NC and to Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen of Tupelo, MS for the most memorable name in my data set. You can get a lot of creative inspiration from just spending time with restaurant data.
A final garnish to our understanding of this data
I want to note two things as we near the end of our study:
Local rankings emerge from the dynamic scenario of Google’s opinionated algorithms + public opinion and behavior. Doing Local SEO for restaurants means managing a ton of different ingredients: website SEO, link building, review management, GBP signals, etc. We can’t offer clients a generic “formula” for winning across the board. This study has helped us understand national averages so that we can walk into the restaurant space feeling conversant with the industry. In practice, we’ll need to discover the true competitors in each market to shape our strategy for each unique client. And that brings us to some good news.
As I mentioned at the outset of this survey, I specifically avoided proximity as an influence by searching as a traveler to other destinations would. I investigated one local pack for each major city I “visited”. The glad tidings are that, for many of your restaurant clients, there is going to be more than one chance to rank for a search like “best restaurants (city)”. Unless the eatery is in a very small town, Google is going to whip up a variety of local packs based on the searcher’s location. So, that’s something hopeful to share.
What have we learned about restaurant local SEO?
A brief TL;DR you can share easily with your clients:
While the US shows a predictable leaning towards American restaurants, any category can be a contender. So, be bold!
Mid-priced restaurants are considered “best” to a greater degree than the cheapest or most expensive options. Price for your market.
While you’ll likely need at least 100 native Google reviews to break into these packs, well over half of competitors have yet to break the 1,000 mark.
An average 71 percent of competitors are revealing a glaring weakness by neglecting to respond to reviews – so get in there and start embracing customer service to distinguish your restaurant!
A little over half of your competitors have earned critic reviews. If you don’t yet have any, there’s little you can do to earn them beyond becoming well enough known for anonymous professional reviewers to visit you. In the meantime, don’t sweat it.
About three-quarters of your competitors are completely ignoring Google Posts; gain the advantage by getting active.
Potential guests are asking nearly every competitor questions, and so many restaurants are leaving leads on the table by allowing random people to answer. Embrace fast responses to Q&A to stand out from the crowd.
With few exceptions, devotion to authentic link earning efforts can build up your PA/DA to competitive levels.
Pay attention to any platform Google is citing as a resource to be sure the information published there is a complete and accurate.
The current management of other Google Business Profile features like Menus, Reservations and Ordering paints a veritable smorgasbord of providers and a picture of prevalent neglect. If you need to improve visibility, explore every profile field that Google is giving you.
A question for you: Do you market restaurants? Would you be willing to share a cool local SEO tactic with our community? We’d love to hear about your special sauce in the comments below.
Wishing you bon appétit for working in the restaurant local SEO space, with delicious wins ahead!
It’s a question that’s become harder to answer. What felt like a fairly simple triangulation between Google, brand, and searcher in the early days of the local web has multiplied into a geodesic dome of localization, personalization, intent matching, and other facets.
This evolution from a simple shape to a more complex shape has the local SEO industry starting to understand the need to talk about trends and patterns vs. empirical rankings.
For instance, you might notice that you just can’t deliver client reports that say, “Congratulations, you’re #1” anymore. And that’s because the new reality is that there is no #1 for all searchers. A user on the north side of town may see a completely different local pack of results if they go south, or if they modify their search language. An SEO may get a whole different SERP if they search on one rank checking tool vs. another — or even on the same tool, just five minutes later.
Despite all this, you still need to analyze and report — it remains a core task to audit a client’s competitive landscape.
Today, let’s talk about how we can distill this dynamic, complex environment down to the simplest shapes to understand who your client’s true competitors are. I’ll be sharing a spreadsheet to help you and your clients see the trends and patterns that can create the basis for competitive strategy.
Why are competitive audits necessary…and challenging?
Before we dive into a demo, let’s sync up on what the basic point is of auditing local competitors. Essentially, you’re seeking contrast — you stack up two brands side-by-side to discover the metrics that appear to be making one of them dominant in the local or localized organic SERPs.
From there, you can develop a strategy to emulate the successes of the current winner with the goal of meeting and then surpassing them with superior efforts.
But before you start comparing your brand A to their brand B, you’ve got to know who brand B actually is. What obstacles do you face?
1. SERPs are incredibly diversified
A recent STAT whitepaper that looked at 1.2 million keywords says it all: every SERP is a local SERP. And since both local packs and organic results are both subject to the whims of geo-location and geo-modification, incorporating them into your tracking strategy is a must.
To explain, imagine two searchers are sitting on the same couch. One searches for “Mexican restaurant” and the other searches for “Mexican restaurant near me”. Then, they divvy up searching “Mexican restaurant near me” vs. “Mexican restaurant in San Jose”. And, so on. What they see are local packs that are only about 80 percent similar based on Google recognizing different intents. That’s significant variability.
The scenario gets even more interesting when one of the searchers gets up and travels across town to a different zip code. At that point, the two people making identical queries can see local packs that range from only about 26–65 percent similar. In other words, quite different.
Now, let’s say your client wants to rank for seven key phrases — like “Mexican restaurant,” “Mexican restaurant near me,” “Mexican restaurant San Jose,” “best Mexican restaurant,” “cheap Mexican restaurant,” etc. Your client doesn’t have just three businesses to compete against in the local pack; they now have multiple multiples of three!
2) Even good rank tracking tools can be inconsistent
There are many useful local rank tracking tools out there, and one of the most popular comes to us from BrightLocal. I really like the super easy interface of this tool, but there is a consistency issue with this and other tools I’ve tried, which I’ve captured in a screenshot, below.
Here I’m performing the same search at 5-minute intervals, showing how the reported localized organic ranking of a single business vary widely across time.
The business above appears to move from position 5 to position 12. This illustrates the difficulty of answering the question of who is actually the top competitor when using a tool. My understanding is that this type of variability may result from the use of proxies. If you know of a local rank checker that doesn’t do this, please let our community know in the comments.
In the meantime, what I’ve discovered in my own work is that it’s really hard to find a strong and consistent substitute for manually checking which competitors rank where, on the ground. So, let’s try something out together.
The simplest solution for finding true competitors
Your client owns a Mexican restaurant and has seven main keyword phrases they want to compete for. Follow these five easy steps:
Step 1: Give the client a local pack crash course
If the client doesn’t already know, teach them how to perform a search on Google and recognize what a local pack is. Show them how businesses in the pack rank 1, 2, and 3. If they have more questions about local packs, how they show up in results, and how Google ranks content, they can check out our updated Beginners Guide to SEO.
Step 2: Give the client a spreadsheet and a tiny bit of homework
Give the client a copy of this free spreadsheet, filled out with their most desired keyword phrases. Have them conduct seven searches from a computer located at their place of business* and then fill out the spreadsheet with the names of the three competitors they see for each of the seven phrases. Tell them not to pay attention to any of the other fields of the spreadsheet.
*Be sure the client does this task from their business’ physical location as this is the best way to see what searchers in their area will see in the local results. Why are we doing this? Because Google weights proximity of the searcher-to-the-business so heavily, we have to pretend we’re a searcher at or near the business to emulate Google’s “thought process”.
Step 3: Roll up your sleeves for your part of the work
Now it’s your turn. Look up “directions Google” in Google.
Enter your client’s business address and the address of their first competitor. Write down the distance in the spreadsheet. Repeat for every entry in each of the seven local packs. This will take you approximately 10–15 minutes to cover all 21 locations, so make sure you’re doing it on company time to ensure you’re on the clock.
Step 4: Get measuring
Now, in the 2nd column of the spreadsheet, note down the greatest distance Google appears to be going to fill out the results for each pack.
Step 5: Identify competitors by strength
Finally, rate the competitors by the number of times each one appears across all seven local packs. Your spreadsheet should now look something like this:
Looking at the example sheet above, we’ve learned that:
Mi Casa and El Juan’s are the dominant competitors in your client’s market, ranking in 4/7 packs. Plaza Azul is also a strong competitor, with a place in 3/7 packs.
Don Pedro’s and Rubio’s are noteworthy with 2/7 pack appearances.
All the others make just one pack appearance, making them basic competitors.
The radius to which Google is willing to expand to find relevant businesses varies significantly, depending on the search term. While they’re having to go just a couple of miles to find competitors for “Mexican restaurant”, they’re forced to go more than 15 miles for a long tail term like “organic Mexican restaurant”.
You now know who the client’s direct competitors are for their most desired searches, and how far Google is willing to go to make up a local pack for each term. You have discovered a pattern of most dominant competition across your client’s top phrases, signaling which players need to be audited to yield clues about which elements are making them so strong.
The pros and cons of the simple search shape
The old song says that it’s a gift to be simple, but there are some drawbacks to my methodology, namely:
You’ll have to depend on the client to help you out for a few minutes, and some clients are not very good at participation, so you’ll need to convince them of the value of their doing the initial searches for you.
Manual work is sometimes tedious.
Scaling this for a multi-location enterprise would be time-consuming.
Some of your clients are going to be located in large cities and will want to know what competitors are showing up for users across town and in different zip codes. Sometimes, it will be possible to compete with these differently-located competitors, but not always. At any rate, our approach doesn’t cover this scenario and you will be stuck with either using tools (with their known inconsistencies), or sending the client across town to search from that locale. This could quickly become a large chore.
Negatives aside, the positives of this very basic exercise are:
Instead of tying yourself to the limited vision of a single local pack and a single set of competitors, you are seeing a trend, a pattern of dominant market-wide competitors.
You will have swiftly arrived at a base set of dominant, strong, and noteworthy competitors to audit, with the above-stated goal of figuring out what’s helping them to win so that you can create a client strategy for emulating and surpassing them.
Your agency will have created a useful view of your client’s market, understanding the difference between businesses that seem very embedded (like Mi Casa) across multiple packs, vs. those (like Taco Bell) that are only one-offs and could possibly be easier to outpace.
You may discover some extremely valuable competitive intel for your client. For example, if Google is having to cast a 15-mile net to find an organic Mexican restaurant, what if your client started offering more organic items on their menu, writing more about this and getting more reviews that mention it? This will give Google a new option, right in town, to consider for local pack inclusion.
It’s really quite fast to do for a single-location business.
Client buy-in should be a snap for any research they’ve personally helped on, and the spreadsheet should be something they can intuitively and immediately understand.
My questions for you
I’d like to close by asking you some questions about your work doing competitive audits for local businesses. I’d be truly interested in your replies as we all work together to navigate the complex shape of Google’s SERPs:
What percentage of your clients “get” that Google’s results have become so dynamic, with different competitors being shown for different queries and different packs being based on searcher location? What percentage of your clients are “there yet” with this concept vs. the old idea of just being #1, period?
I’ve offered you a manual process for getting at trustworthy data on competitors, but as I’ve said, it does take some work. If something could automate this process for you, especially for multi-location clients, would you be interested in hearing more about it?
How often do you do competitive audits for clients? Monthly? Every six months? Annually?
Thanks for responding, and allow me to wish you and your clients a happy and empowering audit!