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SEO

Google Maps: What if we’re not all judged on the same basis?

Gareth Cartman

Recently, we’ve been doing some analysis for a major national brand. Their bugbear? Google Maps, and why they’re consistently falling behind a competitor. Not only that, they’re sometimes appearing behind small competitors who have none of their national presence, and therefore none of their brand power.

Why does Google Maps often appear a crapshoot? It often seems illogical. Given Google’s natural preference for big brands, how can a tiny local competitor with just one location outrank a major national competitor with hundreds of locations, better reviews and – sometimes – they’re actually closer.

We have a theory. Not everyone is judged on the same basis.

In competitive searches, a certain percentage of Google’s maps rankings are given to small businesses. Let’s say it’s 20%, which gives the remaining 80% to larger businesses.

This could be a conscious decision by Google to include small businesses alongside their larger, often more national competitors. However, it could be a choice to ensure that 20% of the search results are based on different factors that might be more favourable to local businesses.

A couple of examples…

Example 1 – Supermarkets

In this example, we’re looking for a supermarket in Maidenhead. So how did Grenfell Local outrank Lidl, two Tesco Expresses and the Co-operative (further down)?

Assumption - it’s proximity

CLD is situated right next to the train station, so Grenfell Local is – geographically speaking – one of our closest supermarkets. There is a Sainsbury’s Local that is even closer, but for some reason, that’s not on the map. Perhaps someone at Sainsbury’s would like to take a look at that.

So our plucky little Grenfell Local is most likely given priority thanks to its proximity to CLD’s offices. It can’t be reviews, because 3 reviews is not statistically significant, while Lidl has 123 reviews, and an average score of 4 stars.

Example 2 – Coffee Shops

You would expect to see the usual big brands here – and we do. Costa, Nero and Starbucks take up the first three places, but our ‘local’ brand is based way off to the north of Maidenhead.

I’ve heard good things about Palmieri’s, but it’s not exactly walkable. There are plenty of local coffee shops, including one called Café Tee which is so close to CLD’s offices, it’s remarkable I’d never heard of it. So why Palmieri’s?

Assumption - it’s about reviews

There are niches in which local competitors can do well, and it appears that Palmieri’s has more reviews than your local Costas, Neros and Starbucks in the town centre.

Sometimes, it seems quite logical: why would you review a specific local branch of Costa or Nero? If you like your local café, you would naturally want to support them with a review. If you were asked…

So in this case, the strength of Palmieri’s reviews is what has helped them earn the top place for local café, and enables them to play among the big boys, because it certainly isn’t showing thanks to proximity.

Step back - how do local rankings actually work?

You can understand why so many businesses are frustrated at the workings of Google Maps. With so many factors at play, including searcher proximity - they can vary wildly.

And 20% of rankings appear to be skewed towards small businesses, which gives the many local businesses 2 chances in 10 to out-rank the big boys who can rely on more traditional ranking factors.

So to explain how local rankings actually work, let’s look at some of the most common ranking factors specifically for Google Maps:

Backlinks

Backlinks still appear to be a major contributing factor to Google Maps results. There is some debate as to whether the volume of backlinks to local pages, or to the home page is what makes the difference, but backlinks are most definitely a factor.

This would start to drive the DA (Domain Authority) of the website, a resulting factor of the volume and quality of the backlinks pointing to it.

Engagement

Google only wants to provide results people like. If people don’t like the results, they don’t come back. So how does it measure this? By promoting results where people have visited the website, and stayed there. We have seen a number of examples where comparisons on Similarweb show greater dwell time and more pages per visit. This can even extend to calls on mobile through the maps page.

My Business Listing 

Optimising your Google My Business listing is an obvious starting point for anyone on Google Maps. Putting keywords in the business title, ensuring that all of the details are filled out and the right categories selected are basics that should ensure you rank well on the map. But it doesn’t always work.

Citations

Citations are not backlinks. And not everyone wants to create a backlink, because when you’re talking about a local café or restaurant, there’s little need to insert a hyperlink. So citations are mentions of your brand, shop, café, locale, etc., and obviously this will happen more frequently the larger you are.

Consistency of your address also helps improve your local rankings. The more Google sees the same structure (e.g. Road / Rd., Street / St.), the better.

Reviews

There are three ways of looking at reviews:

  1. Volume
  2. Quality
  3. Velocity

Volume is great, but if they’re all bad, then that’s not so great.

Quality is amazing, but if you only have three, that’s not statistically significant.

Velocity is also good, but once more, if you’re getting five bad reviews a day, it’s not so good.

We have seen plenty of evidence that velocity is a major factor in terms of how reviews contribute to maps listings. Consistency, more than anything, helps. What’s more, we don’t see any evidence that Google is taking into account reviews from Feefo, TrustPilot, or others.

Proximity

There are two things you can’t change – your location, and the location of the person searching for you. The “Possum” update last September placed greater importance on the searcher’s physical location.

So it figures, the closer you are to the searcher, the better. Usually.

Throw that all into the mix…

Once you throw all of that into the mix, you start to see why Google allocates a specific portion of the results to smaller businesses. If it’s based on either your ability to fill out Google My Business, backlinks or citations, then the big boys would dominate, and local businesses wouldn’t have a hope.

If it’s based on proximity and reviews of those specific locations, then local businesses have a chance.

This is reductive, of course – there are hundreds of potential ranking factors and we’ve taken the ones we consider to be the most important, but if Google were to look at all of these factors for Grenfell Local, you might see something like this:

If 1-10 were the scale of how they rank on this local scale, they would rank best in terms of proximity (for me, where I am right now), and I’m guessing that in terms of engagement, it’s not too bad. Reviews could be better, but at the very least, Grenfell Local is close, and that might be what matters most when looking for a supermarket.

And if we were to do something similar for Palmieri’s, you’d potentially see something like this:

We know that in terms of reviews, they’re beating the big boys, but on a national scale, Palmieri’s would struggle. Thanks to the way Google Maps lists businesses, they stand a chance of ranking because Google recognises their popularity.

So, in essence, Google is giving small businesses a chance. And it’s doing so intentionally.

That’s great, yes?

What’s even better is that you can’t game the system. You can ask people to review you, but sending them the Google Maps link to leave a review is cumbersome. Reviews should be earned, and Google will likely spot patterns of review-buying a la Amazon.

Engagement cannot be gamed. If people don’t like your site, your listing, or never call your number, then Google will know. You will have to change something – be it your website, your listing or your business.

Proximity cannot be changed, unless you decide to change your business model to please Google Maps, and that’s a risk.

You can, of course, put keywords in your Google My Business listing, but that is only one factor among many, and if you’re lacking on the others, then you’re going to struggle.

So – Google Maps. It’s hard work, but if you know what is going to make a difference for you, then you can influence the rankings. You may not be able to move your business location, but many factors are within your gift. Let our SEO team see how they can help.