Rank Ranger Blog

In Search [Episode 56]: Getting Local SEO Competition Analysis Right

Don't forget, you can keep up with the In Search SEO Podcast by subscribing on iTunes or by following the podcast on SoundCloud!

SUMMARY OF EPISODE 56: How to Find, Analyze, and Keep Tabs on the Local Search Competition 

In Search SEO Banner 56

Cori Graft of Seer Interactive joins the show to talk about how to analyze the competitive field at the local level:

  • What metrics should you focus on when analyzing the local competition?
  • How to find, analyze, and track local competitors at scale
  • What going beyond proximity means for your local competition analysis

Plus, we have the data! Jump into the data on the recent Jan. 2020 Core Update!

Analyzing the Impact of the January 2020 Core Update [02:50 - 18:20]

This week we must talk about the giant, gargantuan, January 2020 Core Update. It was a BIG update, one of the biggest we’ve seen in a bit.

As with the core updates, the Health and Finance niche got clobbered (or saw tremendous reversals of fortune because remember, increases in rank volatility work in both directions, big falls down the SERP as well as quick swings up the SERP!). What makes these core updates unique is their impact at the top of the SERP and that was no different here, at least for the Health and Finance niches.

Finance saw a 15% increase in rank volatility at the very 1st position on the SERP while Health saw a 19% increase at that position. At the same time the other two niches Mordy looked at, Retail and Travel, saw marginal volatility increases at position 1.

This was the same pattern until we got to the 3rd position. Here, Travel and Retail saw volatility increases of 16% and 18% respectively with Health and Finance showing 2X the volatility.

Once you get to the top 10 results overall… it was insane:

Travel - 82%
Retail - 89% (Note, since the recording of the podcast we have updated this particular figure.)
Finance - 87%
Health - 92%

Those numbers are nuts, but volatility is all relative. There’s no objective number that says what is and is not volatile. Well, not exactly.

To help understand the relative size of the January 2020 Core Update we compared it to an unconfirmed update that took place on Dec. 6, 2019.

That said, all of the other data showed the January update to be way more impactful. There’s too much data for right now (Mordy will do a full post hopefully in the coming days), but here’s a short sample.

Looking at the Top 10 results on the SERP:

Dec. 2019 Core Update

Travel - 40%
Retail - 60%
Finance - 64%
Health - 57%

Jan. 2020 Core Update

Travel - 82%
Retail - 89%
Finance - 87%
Health - 92%

That’s a near 100% increase in volatility in January relative to December!

Again, hopefully, Mordy will have the full analysis in the coming days and perhaps some site-level patterns as well. Check out the Rank Ranger blog to stay updated!

Track Search Competition at the Local Level: A Conversation with Cori Graf [18:20 - 48:35]

[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]

Mordy: Welcome to another insert SEO podcast interview session today we have with you the senior team lead at Seer Interactive. She's an industry speaker, as well as an avid lover of good beer. She is Cori Graft.


Cori: Hey, thanks for having me.

M: You’re a Philly sports fan, and you like craft beer so you're very much welcome here.

C: Thanks for not banning me or judging me for being a Philly sports fan. It’s a contentious topic sometimes.

M: That's cool. I mean, I'm a Rangers fan for hockey so there's a little bit of bad blood, but it's okay, we’ll let it slide. I have to ask you though, you like craft beer and you like Philly sports so if you put two and two together does that mean that while you're burning down your city after winning a Super Bowl, you're drinking good beer?

C: Hell yeah. I was actually downtown when that happened. I was at a friend's house watching the game and I had broken my leg and torn my ACL and decorated my crutches in tape so I was all decked out trying to be festive, making the best out of the situation. But when we won, we walked two miles into the center of the city just to be part of the festivities and I was crushed the entire way there. One of the prouder moments of my fandom but honestly I've never seen the city happier. People were so supportive, people were loving it. You know when celebrations get a little rowdy and people trash the house. That's basically what was happening just with burning garbage trucks.

M: Yeah, that makes total sense. I understand your definition of festivities in Philly is very different.

So we could talk about Philadelphia and it's a peculiar way of celebrating for a while, but we're here to talk about local competitive insights. I have to ask you off the bat, why are we talking about local competitive insights and not just competitive insights?

C: The short answer is there's a lot of different levers that you can pull on local that don't always translate to the more traditional aspects of SEO. So I'm thinking of the basics like the obvious NAP consistency, which debatably isn't as important as it used to be. But looking at things like engaging parts of the listings, photos, and user signals that are a little bit tougher to measure and see on the surface, I really found in our research to make a pretty big difference when it comes to outranking competitors.

M: Just to sort of give a basic introduction, when you're looking at the local competitive field, what are the very foundational metrics that you're looking at when analyzing a competitor?

C: We collect as much data as we possibly can. So we're looking at link metrics, on-page content, all the traditional SEO metrics that you would typically look at in a traditional competitive analysis. But on the local side of things, we're also looking at the number of photos, photo views, review count, actual star ratings, etc. We're looking at the baseline to start. But really, we're just looking for any data point that we can find to help us understand what might be giving people an edge. We’re also looking at the words that people use in reviews. Proximity is obviously a big piece of this too, although it's not really something that we can influence directly, but we’re really looking at as much data as we possibly can to just crunch it and see what correlates.

M: Are you looking at an actual number of images within a profile? You will go to the local panel and see that you have 50 images in there?

C: Yep.

M: Wow. How does that play itself out?

C: That's an interesting one I would like to dive more into with the data that we have, but we have seen that engagement signals as a whole really seem to be improving and increasing in prevalence when it comes to being the difference-makers in terms of ranking. When I think of what an engagement signal actually is, things that I can see on the outside from the competitive view are reviews and review responses like how often a business owner is actually jumping in and responding to the positive and the negative reviews that they're receiving. I can look at the number of photos that someone has taken the time to upload. User photos are also an interesting angle to look at. Are people taking the time to leave reviews and add a photo with those reviews and optimize the listing and make it a little bit richer than it would be to stand out from competitors? But that's all on the outside, but internally with our clients’ data, we're able to see that things that receive clicks for driving directions tend to rank better than listings that don't. That’s definitely a causation/correlation question, but it definitely makes a pretty good case that people actually interacting and clicking around on your listing seems to improve its visibility.

M: That makes a lot of sense. I'm curious, how do you go about it so that you have user-generated photos? Say you have a business listing that’s really photo-centric (e.g., a restaurant), and they don't have that user-generated photo stock. What do you do about that?

C: It depends on how active your client is willing to be.

M: A dollar off every taco.

C: Well, you said it, not me. I believe in encouraging a culture within the business location of sharing photos. Basically, I would encourage people to leave photos and encourage that culture or showcase that culture of leaving photos and reviews and sharing them on their listings. Something really smart that I've seen is people having a TV up in their dining room or wherever and showing user-submitted photos. That way it plants the seed in their head like, "Oh, this is something that I should do. That food is really delicious. I want to share it.” It encourages them to share in that way.

I'm talking specifically about Google, but on Yelp, anyone who works in local search knows that Yelp is pretty bullish on their terms and conditions in terms of asking for reviews. Basically, you're blacklisted if you get caught and you can get in a ton of trouble. Interestingly, and I learned this from Jason Brown, it's not against their terms of service to request for someone to leave a photo and right next to the share photo button is the review button on Yelp. So you can guide people to share a photo and while they are there they might as well leave a review.

M: So basically, if your main source of clientele of your restaurant is the early bird special for people over 60, you're kind of screwed when it comes to photos.

C: You're gonna have a harder time. Try going after their grandchildren.

M: That's really interesting. I never thought of looking at the number of images in the listing.

Let's jump back a little bit. When you're setting out on this journey to find your local competitors, what are some of the ways you start off doing that?

C: I start with a pretty robust keyword list as I think it’s the foundation of our business. When you're doing this type of analysis, if you're putting garbage in you’re going to get garbage out so it's really important to spend some time thinking about all the services that you have and all the things that you might want to show up for. And make sure that the right type of SERP features show up for the queries that you're trying to capture. You might be a local business that has a niche service offering that doesn't trigger a Local Pack. If Google doesn't think that that's a localized query then you're never going to rank locally for it.

The first step is paying attention to the intent behind the query that you're researching, but really putting a lot of time into the foundational keyword research to understand what you're even analyzing.

M: So when you're looking at the intent, I'm assuming obviously you're looking at if there is a local intent altogether, but beyond if there is a local intent or not, when it comes to intent, what are you looking for?

C: I'm looking at the types of sites that are ranking. Google analyzes billions of data points a day and has invested a lot of money and a lot of smart people into developing an algorithm to give people exactly what they're looking for. I can build a lot around the intent behind a keyword by the types of sites that rank there. For example, sometimes I'm researching a head term on the SERP and I see Wikipedia, WikiHow, and sites like that ranking. To me, that is probably too top of the funnel because I’m going to have a hard time getting somebody to take action on something when strictly informational sites are showing up. From a local perspective, this also happens with those Yelp "Top 10 Locations" pages that show up on Google. It’s not really showing too much of the intent behind it as it's just Google saying, "Oh, this is localized. So here's a Yelp result that shows well for results.” It doesn't tell me too much about the actual competitors that are going to be showing up there.

Also, to infer intent, I'm looking at the types of features that are showing up. I'm looking at Featured Snippets, I'm looking at Knowledge Graph, and I'm looking at People Also Ask. All of those things are sort of indicators. And so what Google believes the user wants to search is what they're seeing on the page.

M: So a Featured Snippet I’m assuming is bad?

C: Unless I think I can answer that question or get my client to answer that question through content, that's probably not something I’ll go for. At least on a local level I will always want to target it, but in any other case, if the Featured Snippet or the answer isn't really satisfactory and I think I can write an answer that's better, then yes, I'm going to go for that.

M: Is it really worth it from a local perspective to get into that Featured Snippet? You're selling tacos in lower Manhattan, and some guy in Wichita, Kansas sees it... that’s great as you answer his question about tacos, but the chances of him coming to visit you are slim to none.

C: Yeah, I think it depends. For a localized query it probably is not going to really move the needle for you if you're not in the right location. But from a branding perspective, if somebody in Manhattan sees that, I think that would definitely be worthwhile.

M: Regarding the People Also Ask Box, it's funny that you mention you're looking at it because it shows up with everything. What can you actually learn from people liking the People Also Ask Box?

C: I can learn what else people want to know. If I am a localized website and I see a mix of PAA boxes and results, that at least gives me a little bit of insight into what other queries about other topics Google is deeming relevant. So I can create content on my own site to kind of build-up that relevancy and actually answer people's questions. That, combined with reviews, obviously, is a goldmine for getting information about what people actually want to know and what questions they have.

M: You just reminded me of something you said earlier that I wanted to ask you about. You said before that you're looking at reviews and the language used in reviews. What exactly are you looking for when you do that?

C: When we're looking at reviews we're looking for a couple of things. First is a sentiment around specific topics. If I have a lot of one-star reviews that all mention wait time, that's something that I probably want to address operationally in my location. On the flip side, if we're doing something really well that can help us know what to highlight as a strength. Another favorite (but we do it as a re-analysis) is we look at a competitor’s reviews where they seem to be falling short. So if my competitor’s customers are always complaining about their wait time I might highlight on my own site that our wait time is guaranteed to be less than 10 minutes. So if anybody's reading those reviews and they come to my site, they see it’s better.

M: Our wait time is 10 minutes less than Bob's.

C: Yeah, we're always faster than them. But yeah, it's good competitive intel that you might not get unless you're like secret shopping around your competitors.

M: Gotcha. Okay, so now to ping pong a little bit, when you talk about SERP features or even about reviews, is any of this vertical-specific?

C: Yeah, I think some of it is. What do you mean by, "is any of it?”

M: What I mean is you have so many different features that show up for so many different types of queries. Imagine if PLAs show up for commerce queries, there could be local intent going along with which might be a competitive problem for you. Or informational queries where you're going to get Featured Snippets. Or People Also Ask boxes where Local Packs do show up.

Bringing this back to fast-food restaurants, does this usually apply for fast-food restaurants in this one type of scenario, but for local accountants there’s a totally different equation?

C: The short answer is yes. I want to talk a little bit about the Local Pack being farther down on the page because that is interesting and I'm noticing that happen more and more. I interpret that as Google not being sure what the query actually is. That's pretty common, especially with head terms, I noticed that a lot of where it's just like a hodgepodge of there's going to be a Knowledge Graph on the right side, or maybe a Featured Snippet that will answer your question that’s vaguely related. The map might be at the bottom of the page. I even saw a map on page two.

Anytime I see a mix of organic SERP features that's what I'm understanding. If you look at a lot of things like the Related Questions at the bottom or the Related Searches, you'll see Google is trying to nudge you in a particular way. One is a little bit more commerce-related, one is a little more informational, it's a little bit of a mixed bag. And then as you continue down that path, it'll get a little bit more specific with the types of results that it's showing.

But to your question about commerce-related queries, let’s talk a little bit about retail and what that looks like these days. Google will try to sell you anything. If you see product listing ads or PPC ads on a web page that subjectively doesn't make sense for the ad to be there, that isn't too much of a signal for me, that's just Google being greedy. They’re a business and they have to make money. I get that. But I don't read too much into the presence of paid search features because I think that Google will always try to show paid results whenever it can.

M: That's really interesting. I remember seeing an ad for Skyscanner for the query ‘take a trip to Venus.’ That's a little bit too responsive, Google. Someone, though, will click on it.

C: Yeah, someone will. I'm not sure if they’ll book a flight but maybe they'll pay.

M: I have to ask you about neural matching, the burning topic in local SEO recently. For those who are unfamiliar, on December 2nd, Google announced that they've applied neural matching to local which is why everybody's rankings went crazy all throughout November even for non-local queries. One of the advents, or consequences, of this is that Google now better understands if a business is relevant or not, even though the title description of that business may not seem to be as specific to the query as you may have thought it would need to be. What's the general impact of neural matching at the local level?

C: Not a ton per the data that I’ve been looking at. I think this is a symptom of the types of "local” businesses that I work with and my role at Seer is very different than a lot of the people who are working with the smaller SMBs of the world. A little bit about my client base that might be helpful for context is we're typically working with national chains and multi-location businesses. I don't very often track rankings at the super, super granular level on an ongoing basis. I use it as a barometer, but we're not looking at every single keyword because that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for our clients which would just be ridiculous.

We do it for some clients and some folks who are willing to invest the money and it is a useful lagging indicator of if what we’re doing is working.

M: But is it really worth it? Day-to-day it’s too much.

C: Yes, it is too much.

If anything we will do it weekly just to understand how we're doing and if we're falling off drastically across the board we know it’s because of something that needs to be adjusted. It may be that we blocked something from Google. Typically I'm not looking at data granularly enough that would show me the kinds of fluctuations that people were seeing. I think there was a lot of movement in November when that rolled out. There were a lot of fluctuations on keywords that I imagine people cared a lot about, but what I hope the effect of neural matching is that it gets better results for people based on the context that the websites provide. So hopefully stepping away from Google just using the business titles as a ranking factor.

M: Those business titles are great. "Best best locksmith New York, New York, best best locksmith.” I love that. Don't get rid of that.

C: Totally. Definitely your real business name. But that stuff does work and it's so frustrating that it's so easy to spam and you see immediate results. I tested that, never on a client, but I have a couple of listings around that I play with for my own testing and literally 10 minutes after I added a keyword to a business name it got approved and started to rank differently. It's laughable. For as advanced as people like to think Google is it's not with some stuff. The algorithm is not that smart.

M: Exactly. There are certain areas that I don't understand. I worked in property management in New York City around 15 years ago and so I know a lot of the plumbers in New York City because we used them a lot. When you search for a plumber in New York City, you wonder, "Who are these people?” I don't know any of these people. This is really strange. We actually did an experiment and we sat around the office for a while trying to call these plumbers and they're not actual plumbers. They are hotlines where they connect you to a plumber, but they're not plumbers and it's amazing that there's so many of them on the top of the listing chain.

C: Yeah, they're lead generators. It's one way to make money and I'm sure they're raking it in especially for industries like home service where people need help immediately like plumbers and locksmiths. You're searching for them because you need somebody fast. I've been in that situation where I'm skimming reviews making sure they won’t mug me when they show up. And people know that and that's been true for as long as services have been a thing. I don't think that's something distinct to SEO, that's just marketing in general, people are going to try to exploit needs.

My hope is with any Google algorithm update that they're getting closer to actually mapping to what people want and sunsetting some of the things that have been really easy to spam in the past.

M: Do you find that's a problem at the multinational level? If you deal with multinational brands does that really come into play?

C: Not so much. We'll see competitors pop up that are confusing and usually a lot of times if it's a smaller business it’s because they're winning at spamming in some way and that's not always fair to say for every industry, but for a lot of retail and stuff like that we don't really have to worry too much about that.

M: You know, I love that every single conversation around local ends up talking about local spam. I never even planned for it to happen, but it always does.

C: It does because it's such a problem. There are a lot of people out there fighting the good fight. I know Joy Hawkins, Jason Brown, and more have all been awesome at raising the issues to Google. Folks should really stay on top of that and make a point to be heard. And Google trusts them, they listen to them, and they take their feedback. I think it's just a matter of the technology catching up with what users are noticing. A couple of years ago, Google admitted that they kind of missed the boat on mobile and it took off faster than they expected it to. I think that local goes hand in hand with the rise of mobile. They just didn't invest what they needed to get their local search algorithm to the point where their core search algorithm was and we're unfortunately feeling the effects of that, but I do think they're working on it.

M: Outside of search and or even of the digital world, what should you be thinking about when analyzing the local competitive field?

C: I think brand footprint is really important. I think that's something that gets translated to search. So a proxy for measuring that in search is looking at search volume, either nationally or localized search volume, to kind of understand how people perceive the brands and how they're specifically searching them out versus the services that they offer. I think, especially locally, you can't discount things like billboards, flyers, and things like that. Outside of digital, I think that's probably a little bit of a cop-out answer, but it is, I think, at its core.

Optimize It or Disavow It

M: In a world where the only thing you can look at when analyzing a local competitor would be Google posts or the Google My Business photos within the business listing. Which one would you choose to determine which competitors are most relevant or most threatening to you?

C: Definitely photos. I can explain why I don't look at posts. I think posts are a nice idea. I think that they are good real estate and it's a good way to promote what you want on your listing and hope that people engage with it. I have not seen a ton of engagement on posts, but it's kind of similar to what we just talked about with billboards. It’s like McNamara's fallacy, just because I can't measure it tangibly doesn't mean that it's not important. I look at them more like social media visibility, but I don't think that Google is looking at those as an engagement signal in actual ranking decision making. I do believe that Google looks at photos and engagement with photos as a ranking signal.

M: Thank you so much for that, Cori. That was a really dynamic and wonderful conversation. Thank you for taking the time to come on. Thank you.

C: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me on. It was fun.

SEO NEWS [49:50 - 55:50]

Google January 2020 Core Update Released: Google released another core update as covered above.

Favicons and Black Ad Label Comes to Desktop: The black ad labels and favicons of the mobile SERP are now on desktop… officially.

Google’s Latest Evergreen GoogleBot is Live: Google’s Evergreen GoogleBot that keeps up with the latest version of Chrome appears to be live!

Google Ads Releases Target ROAS Bid Simulator: Simulation for smart bidding has come to Google Ads. Now users can see their return on ad spend for smart bidding campaigns. Meaning they can see how a change in their return targets will impact things like clicks, cost, etc.

New Google Rich Results Test: The Google rich results test will now tell you if your 3rd party embedded page content will or will not load.

Popular Products Carousel on Mobile: Google has introduced a Popular Products carousel on mobile that will feature the queried product from a host of websites.

FUN SEO-Send-Off Question [55:50 - 58:30]

If Google was a Disney princess, which princess would it be? 

Sapir chose Mulan as she kicks butt and so does Google’s core updates…. by smashing websites.

Mordy chose Elsa from Frozen because Elsa is cold as ice and if Google needs to make a change, they can be as cold as ice.

Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.

About The Author
In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

Tune in to hear pure SEO insights with a ton of personality!

New episodes are released each Tuesday!

Start your free trial

Get the ultimate SEO tools with Rank Ranger
Start Free Trial
No Credit Card Required