Who are your clients’ true competitors?
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!
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