With years of experience in both SEO and digital marketing, Steve Wiideman is a trusted pro in his field. In this article, he explains how you can rank in Google Maps – one of the most powerful platforms in local search.
To maximize keyword rankings in Google Maps and Map Packs, a business must set up and continuously nurture four primary local SEO focus areas that include: business data, local landing pages, off-page visibility, and online reputation.
- How the Google Maps Ranking Algorithm Works
- Managing the Accuracy of Business Data
- Optimizing Local Landing Pages
- Improving Off-page Visibility
- Improving Online Reputation
- Scaling Local SEO for Multiple Locations
- Final Thoughts
How the Google Maps Ranking Algorithm Works
It’s important to address that not all users of Google Maps are looking for a business. Some users are looking for a quick route home — for example, a park or landmark, or any non-commercial location for directions or general information.
For businesses, holding a position in the search results within Google Maps or the Google Maps App is paramount to business sustainability and growth. Based on an estimated 67% market share in mobile app navigation according to a study by The Manifest, to not be listed in Google Maps is to be in the dark ages as it relates to marketing in general.
Google claims to use three focus areas in its Google Maps rankings for businesses, known as the Google Local Algorithm:
- Distance (Proximity)
Relevance refers to how well a local listing matches what someone is searching for. Adding complete and detailed business information can help Google better understand your business and match your listing to relevant searches.
Distance or proximity
This is just what it says on the tin – how far is each potential search result from the location term used in a search? If a user doesn’t specify a location in their search, Google will calculate distance based on what’s known about the user’s location (this is visible at the bottom of SERPs and is not always 100% accurate).
Prominence refers to how well-known a business is. Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local rankings. For example, famous museums, landmark hotels, or well-known store brands that are familiar to many people are also likely to be prominent in local search results.
Prominence is also based on information that Google has about a business from across the web (like links, articles, and directories). Google review counts and ratings are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business’s local ranking. Your position in organic search results is also a factor, so general SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.
The somewhat obvious signal Google Maps will start with before displaying search results is the distance from the searcher’s location. After all, why would Google show you a business listing 10 miles away, when there is a business offering the same product or service only 1 mile away?
The distance focus point is thought to be based on the algorithm created by a computer scientist named Edsger Dijkstra, known simply as Dijkstra’s Algorithm, which finds the shortest paths between nodes in a graph, such as road networks.
The remaining ranking signals for businesses can be influenced by the local search engine optimization specialist. These attributes include:
- Managing the accuracy of business data
- Optimizing local landing pages (if you’re dealing with more than one location)
- Improving off-page visibility in search engines, navigation engines, local-social, industry, and regional directories
- Improving online reputation as it relates to ratings, reviews, and perhaps even sentiment
We will be talking about each of these areas herein, but it’s critical to the success of a local SEO strategy to have the mindset of treating these factors like a needy plant, with constant sunlight and water. Many businesses lose traffic by simply deciding to rest on their laurels, resulting in a competitor earning more reviews, business listings, or having a better landing page.
Managing the Accuracy of Business Data
Anyone can create a Google My Business profile with a valid phone number and address, even if they are not conducting business from either (although this is against Google’s guidelines), just so long as Google can verify through a phone call or postcard. This might explain why there is so much spam in the search results, something Google has continuously said they are working to address.
To authenticate whether a business is real or not (and to improve location accuracy), search engines use a number of data sources. The most well-known are listed below, but it’s likely Google is using a number of other sources as well.
Managing business data, be it for one location or thousands, for multi-location brands or franchises can be challenging. Thankfully, there are platforms and services available (such as BrightLocal) that have direct connections with these data sources, often called data aggregators, who receive bulk rates and pass the discounts down to their clients.
BrightLocal’s Citation Tracker
Optimizing Local Landing Pages
In the Google My Business guide mentioned above, Google states that “Your position in web results is also a factor, so SEO best practices also apply to local search optimization.” To rank in web results, a corresponding page must exist, and on-page search engine optimization best practices should be used for that page.
Many of these optimizations are discussed in Google’s SEO Starter Guide, including basic SEO focal points, such as:
- Web Security
- User Privacy
- Browser and Device Compatibility
- Unique Content
- Mobile Usability
The kinds of on-site optimizations you perform will be impacted by the industry you’re in. A 2020 study of multiple locations by my company, Wiideman, revealed several common attributes of pages used by food and dining franchises, for example. Several of those factors are listed below, in order of percentage used across 100 pages analyzed.
Note: single-location businesses may use many of the attributes discussed in this section within the lower portion (“footer”) of the website across all pages, versus using a single Contact Us page.
Most-used Local Landing Page Attributes in Food & Dining
|Local Landing Page Attribute||% Utilized|
|Hours of Operation Listed||100%|
|Directions Link Available||78%|
|Geo-Meta Tags Used||55%|
|Google Map Embedded on Page||40%|
|Location Social Links/Buttons (Yelp, Foursquare, etc)||37%|
|Open Now Status Available||31%|
|Custom Location Images (Unique to Each Location)||20%|
|Full Menu Listed on the Page||17%|
|Hyperlocal Content Present (Unique to Each Location)||12%|
|Custom Video Embedded (Unique to Each Location)||5%|
|Native Ratings and Reviews Specific to the Location||4%|
|360 Virtual Tour Embedded on Page||0%|
|Printable or Mobile QR Coupons Offered||0%|
Beyond attributes, the Wiideman study revealed specific performance averages for speed and the number of external requests a page makes (for scripts, style sheets, etc). Below is a table of averages to consider using as key performance indicators when coding the local landing page. These are based on approximately 100 local landing pages.
Average Performance Metrics of Food & Dining Local Landing Pages
|Local Landing Page URL (GTMetrix)||Average Score|
|Fully Loaded Time||8 Seconds|
Most importantly, as it relates to local landing page optimization, user experience is absolutely everything. Invite groups from every demographic to test the page via usertesting.com or via your own in-house focus group initiative.
Have your testers (mobile-only should be fine for local pages) compare the page to competitor pages and ask questions that might include the following:
- Does this page give you enough information to help you make a decision?
- Is it easy to find the information that’s most important to you when choosing a place like this one?
- Which of these two pages is the most helpful? (Compare against another competitor, use additional questions for each other competitor.)
- By looking at this page, is it convincing enough to compel you to not go back to Google and comparison shop?
- Can you fill out a form on this page (if applicable) quickly and with one hand?
- Can you make a purchase on this page (if applicable) quickly and with one hand?
- Are the buttons and links easy to click or too small?
- How could this page be improved to give you everything you need to want to make a purchase or visit this store?
Pro Tips for Local Landing Page SEO
Listings that stand out in organic search results often have more rows than competing listings. Test using structured markup to earn Rich Snippets. Successful campaign examples I’ve seen have used schema.org/Event and schema.org/FAQPage.
Also, be sure to find the right markup for the schema.org/LocalBusiness subtype inspired by what competing pages are using.
Improving Off-page Visibility
Similar to an organic SEO strategy, a local SEO campaign meant to improve rank in Google Maps requires trust from external sources, mainly other websites. Google itself states this requirement in the guide mentioned above and highlighted below. In particular this hint:
At a bare minimum, businesses should claim and manage their profiles in the following destinations:
Off-Page Visibility Placements for Local Businesses
|Search Engines||Navigation Engines||Local Review Sites||Industry Directories||Regional Directories|
|Google My Business||Google Maps and Waze (both via Google My Business)||Simply search your industry with the word “directory” to find a list of placement opportunities in your niche.
|Simply search your for your city with the phrase “business directory” to find a list of placement opportunities in your city. Repeat for county, region and state.
|Bing Local||Apple Maps||Yelp||Lawyers.com||cityofirvine.com|
|Yahoo! Small Business||OpenStreetMaps||TripAdvisor||Martindale||irvinechamber.com|
As it turns out, many of these directories buy their data from the aggregators, so most of the time you don’t need to worry about claiming a business profile with them. Exceptions might be websites such as Yellowpages.com and JudysBook.com, both of which pay for offline advertising and drive reasonable traffic to their respective websites.
Earning links to local landing pages can be challenging. Consider having periodic events and getting neighboring businesses involved. A Starbucks in La Mirada, CA, had an event that included the local Sheriff, enabling them to get a link from the La Mirada city website to promote the event.
Meanwhile, an attorney in Louisville, KY, offered free CPR classes, a blood drive, and gave away free helmets to promote safety month. All three events earned free PR and inbound links to the event page (AKA the local landing page).
Improving Online Reputation
For obvious reasons, very few search engine users prefer to click on unrated or low-rating listings in Google Maps or blended Map “Pack” listings. As a result, less desirable businesses and their listings are typically demoted over time.
Whether a user’s behavior in SERPs affects SEO is argued time and time again by industry experts. Some experts simply don’t believe the data because the tests do not hold up to their standards (such as a post from SEO Theory that came across as somewhat angry at those who believe in click behavior’s influence in rankings.)
Others, such as a Rand Fishkin post entitled, “Queries and Clicks May Influence Google Results,” and Larry Kim’s study, believe CTR and click behavior do in fact play an important role in the long-term rankings.
Whichever side you take in the “user behavior influences rankings” debate, getting more clicks can never be a bad thing, whether it supports SEO efforts or not.
“What’s this got to do with reputation?” you ask. Well, while Google does not say they use clicks on listings based on their reviews when they describe how to rank in Google Maps, they do say they use reviews and positive ratings in their algorithm, as shown below.
If a business does not have an active strategy for earning and improving reviews, it’s possible that over time rankings will plummet, and right along with them, leads.
A simple strategy might be to pass out a “Care Card” to those who seem like they may be having a poor experience. This card might contain the contact information of the store manager or regional director, along with a URL to share their feedback and get a coupon to try a different location. While it won’t stop all customers from Yelping at the business, it may reduce the volume.
A “Share Card” might make sense when an employee is certain that the customer had a delightful experience. This card might offer a short URL to a native review intake form, later used to share customer experience on the local landing pages, with a request to share a review online after submitting the initial feedback.
As a business owner or marketing manager, consider creating an incentive program and leaderboard outside of the customers’ view. Set some review goals for each platform mentioned in the table above (Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc.), monthly, quarterly, and annually. After all, they say the first step to achieving a goal is to write it down!
Scaling Local SEO for Multiple Locations
Most of the recommendations above are manageable for businesses with around one to twenty locations. But what happens when you have 2,000+ locations? Who is going to write custom content for that many local landing pages or moderate reviews from that many locations?
Below are a few tips that may help streamline local SEO for multiple locations.
Create a Cheat Sheet
Provide each location with a printed, perhaps laminated, copy of a single page Local Marketing Guide. This guide might include three sections:
- Marketing handled by corporate – data management, citations, local landing pages, and reputation management
- Marketing tactics to avoid – buying reviews, links, or social followers; going rogue and building a separate website
- Ways you can help – check the accuracy of directions from various navigation apps, provide corporate with plenty of fresh images they can add to Google and to the local landing page, encourage staff to be more verbal with customers about leaving online reviews.
Use a Data Management Platform
Trying to manage 2,000+ locations manually with the aggregators, search engines, local review websites, industry/niche directories, and regional directories could be extremely difficult. Fortunately, platforms such as BrightLocal offer scalable solutions to manage and automate the syndication of business data.
Simply log in to the platform, update changes to a location one time, and the data will automatically get updated across the various syndication points.
Build a Franchise (or Location) Marketing Portal
Getting buy-in from franchise owners and store managers is critical to the success of a multi-location SEO strategy. A Marketing Portal is a simple way to create a place to find up-to-date information, tips, and events to help propel online marketing initiatives at the local level.
Consider scheduling webinars, and organizing them in the portal for reference. Use the portal as a unique selling proposition to increase franchise sales. Send periodic reminders and updates to keep the portal top of mind.
If one were to choose a single actionable item to focus on to improve online performance, that item might be to get everyone in the organization excited about learning how to rank in Google Maps, be it through the Cheat Sheet mentioned above, the Marketing Portal, or through recommended training.
Having worked with multiple franchises and multi-location brands, the biggest challenge is always educating the leadership team and the person most in charge of the individual location, be it the owner or store manager.
By nurturing the areas of local SEO each month, either through KPI goals or percentage of growth improvement, a business with one or more locations can climb their way to the top of Google Maps and stay there for an array of target keywords.
Keep in mind that algorithms don’t just store data; they analyze patterns. Avoiding a “set it and forget it” mindset could be the one strategy that sets your business apart from its competition.