“Why is that business outranking mine?”
This has to be the commonest local search FAQ, and a worthwhile answer to it will always require real analysis.
Today, I’ll teach you to assess 50+ factors and provide you with a free, copyable spreadsheet to fill out to help you discover how the business you’re marketing can reach the level of its top local competitor. I’ll provide an illustrated tutorial of each field in the sheet, and I’ll also cover how to use what you learn to create strategy, differentiation, and a philosophy for competition that exists within the positive framework of localism.
How to use the local business competitive audit spreadsheet
You’ll find four columns you can fill out within the sheet: one for the business you’re marketing, one for its competitor, one for wins, and one for notes.
Use the “wins” column like this: when both businesses are doing equally well for a specific factor, leave this column blank, but if one is doing better than the other, put their name in that column. This way, at the end of the audit, you can count up the wins of the winner and have a detailed record of which factors are likely to be giving them an advantage. Use the “notes” field to document interesting findings along the way.
Now you’re ready to begin with your copy of the spreadsheet, using the following as a key to each field:
Multi-sampled local finder rank
Your audit kicks off with these first, essential steps to orient yourself within a local market.
Identify a keyword phrase for which you most want to achieve high local visibility. You can follow this workflow for each of your important search phrases, but start with just one to acquaint yourself with the process. Enter that keyword phrase in the top field of the spreadsheet.
While located at the place of business, search on Google for that phrase and click on the local pack to be taken to the full local search results, called the “local finder”. If you are doing this audit on behalf of a client, have them perform the searches and send you the data.
Jot down the name and address of the business coming up in the top non-paid spot (ignore any paid ads that come up) of the local finder.
Scroll through the local finder until you see your business. Jot down its position.
Now repeat this process of searching and note-taking from different locations around your town or city. This is how you get multi-sampled data. You will likely notice that the rankings change as you change location, because Google personalizes results based on the location of your device. You may go to just one or two additional locales, or many, depending on the size of your community and your competitive goals.
At the end of this process, you will have a list of competitors from which you can determine the dominant player. You can perform a competitive audit for each major local competitor, but to get started, just pick the one you saw come up in the top local finder position most often.
Finally, enter the rank, name, and address of the business you’re marketing and the top competitor in the first three fields of the spreadsheet.
An alternative to manual multi-sampling of local rankings is to use a local rank tracker that emulates searching from multiple locations, with the understanding that the data you get may not be quite as accurate as what you’ll get from feet on the street. Do what works for you.
Now that you’ve filled out the name field of the business you’re marketing and its top competitor, evaluate how the actual words in the name could be impacting rankings. Google has historically given a ranking boost to businesses with names containing keywords. For example, if our search phrase was “Breakfast San Rafael”, then a business named “Delish Breakfast” or “Good Morning San Rafael” might have some advantage over one named “Joe’s Place”.
However, in late 2021, Google rolled out an update commonly known as the “Vicinity Update” which appeared to significantly reduce the impact of keywords in the business name. In early 2022, they issued a second presumed update which may have softened Vicinity, meaning that keywords in the business name may still be giving a competitor an advantage to some degree. Write the competitor’s name in the “wins” column of the spreadsheet if their business name contains keywords and yours doesn’t, or vice versa. If neither or both businesses have keywords in their business name, leave the “wins” column blank.
Address, centroids, proximity, and maps
Now, take the address in row 5 and do some searches to fill out rows 6 and 7.
First, look up the city you’re investigating by searching for it on Google and clicking on the map. See if both businesses fall within the red border Google throws around your city. It’s typically harder to rank within any city when a business isn’t located inside of the perimeter.
Next, look at where Google is placing the name of the city in its knowledge panel. That is considered the “centroid” of the city. Estimate the distance each of the two businesses is from the centroid. You can do so by looking up directions between the business address and the approximate address of the town name on the map.
When you multi-sampled the market, you may have discovered that the dominant competitor was coming up regardless of where you moved around town. Perhaps they are located in part of town, like an auto row, that Google appears to strongly associate with an industry, or they are in the densely-populated center of town, while your business is located on the outskirts or even beyond the mapped borders of the city.
Note down if one business is inside the border while the other isn’t, and if one is closer to the centroid than the other.
Now, get the free GBP Spy Chrome Extension and look at the categories both businesses have chosen. If your competitor has categories that you don’t, mark a win for them and make a note of any categories you are missing. Correct categorization is key to local search rankings, and the category you choose as your primary/first category is believed to have the strongest impact.
You already know whether the company you’re marketing is sharing a location with other businesses in the same industry. Look up your competitor’s address and zoom in on the map to see if any other businesses within the same industry are at that location. This matters because businesses in the same category at the same address may experience Google filtering them out of the results. This behavior has been especially noted since the 2016 Possum update. It’s important to understand that if the brand you’re marketing is in a shared space with another with the same category and you are not able to see your business on the local finder map unless you zoom in, Possum may be to blame.
Next, examine the surroundings within a few blocks of both businesses to see if any other companies with the same categories are on the map and note this down, as filtering can sometimes occur in this scenario, too. If either of the two businesses you’re investigating has no competition for a few blocks around them, note that as a win for them in row 11.
Next, notate the website URL of each business. As with keywords in the Google Business Profile title, having the search term in the domain name may give the business a bit of a boost.
Google Business Profile Landing Page URL
Now, click through on the website link on the Google Business Profile for each business and record that address. Often, businesses link from their profile directly to their website homepage, but it’s also common to see some types of businesses linking to a different landing page on their site. If you’re linking to a landing page but the competitor is linking to their homepage, mark it as a win for them, because the homepage is usually the strongest page on a website.
GBP name, address, phone matches NAP info on website?
Next up, check to see whether the NAP (name, address, phone number) on the websites of you and your competitor exactly match what’s on the Google Business Profile. Small discrepancies like “street” vs. “st.” don’t matter, but a difference in the business name, its street address, or phone number can make Google feel less “trusting” about the identity of the company, possibly decreasing its visibility.
Google Business Profile reviews
Here, we dive into the many powerful aspects of reviews to fill out rows 15-21 of our sheet.
Begin by looking at the oldest review to estimate how old the Google Business Profile is. It’s debatable whether listing age is a local ranking factor, but it’s unquestionable that an older listing has had more time to accrue reviews, photos, and other important elements.
Then, note down the overall star rating for each competitor. Star ratings are a major conversion factor because consumers look at them as a way to decide whether or not to patronize a business.
Next, record the total number of reviews each business has earned.
Then, analyze the sentiment of the two bodies of reviews and note down whether reviews are mostly positive, neutral, or negative. While you are doing so, look at the place topics labeled “People often mention” (see screenshot, above) and write those down to see if your competitor is earning good mentions of aspects of their business which you have yet to earn.
Write down the date of the most recent review each business has received, as recency may be a ranking factor.
Finally estimate the percentage of reviews to which each business has responded, as owner responses are key to local search marketing.
GBP Web Results links
Examine the links to third parties that Google is surfacing in the “Web Results” section of the listings. Write down your competitor’s links in the “notes” section of your spreadsheet, and evaluate whether the websites linking to your competitor are more prestigious than those linking to you.
Date of last Google Post
Look at each profile and record the date on which each business last wrote a Google Post. Though not a direct ranking factor, posts are a good signal of how actively and comprehensively a competitor is managing their Google Business Profile. Give the business with the most recent post a “win”.
Google Q&A count
Record the number of questions each business has received. In our screenshot, the business has received four total questions. Mark a “win” for the business with the most questions, because their audience is the most engaged with this feature.
Business response to Q&A percentage
Estimate the percentage of questions that have received a direct response from the business owner, as shown in the above screenshot. The owner with the highest percentage of responses wins, because the alternative is ignoring customer service opportunities and leaving a customer to the vagaries of receiving public responses of uncertain quality, or no response at all.
There are multiple types of attributes which can appear in different areas of the Google Business Profile, in profile overlays, and on Google Maps. For example, our screenshot shows safety and service attributes, but other possibilities include attributes like “Black-owned”, “Wheelchair accessible” or “Late-night food”. Attributes can be the result of information a business has given directly to Google in creating their listing, or feedback Google intakes from the public. Rather than this row in your spreadsheet having a clear winner, use the notes section to record any positive attributes your top competitor has that you would also like to have.
While you are looking at attributes, include the “$” price attribute, and make a note of how this metric is representing your business vs. the competitor. For example, note it down if you feel that having a greater or lesser price attribute than the competitor could be impacting public perception of the business you’re marketing.
Fill out rows 27 and 28 in your spreadsheet by counting the number of photos each business has, calculating the percentage of them that have been uploaded by the owner (see the identity of the uploader in the upper left of the larger dessert photo), and make a judgment of the overall quality of the photo set. For example, has your business or the competitor uploaded images more recently, and are those images of high quality? These are your basic checks.
Photos have become one of the most important and powerful elements of listings. For a more advanced audit of these assets, read Mike Blumenthal’s three-part series on visual search to learn about the “find places by photos” feature, multisearch, Google’s Cloud Vision AI, Google Lens and all the other developments that are making it clearer every year that visual media will play an increasing role in local searching and shopping.
Next, note whether either business has taken the time to enhance their listing with a menu, be that a traditional restaurant menu or a menu of services. In the case of the former category, I also like to record the URL that the menu link is pointing to in order to understand whether a business is hosting their own menu or linking to a third-party service which they don’t directly own.
Hours of operation and popular times
There are four tasks here. Record the hours for both businesses and note whether the competitor is open at different or more hours, which might be giving Google extra reasons to make their listing visible more often. Second, verify that the hours of operation listed on the profile match those displayed on the website. Third, assess whether the display of hours meets Google’s guidelines; for example, business models which operate by appointment only are not supposed to list their hours (see guidelines for more examples).
Finally, look at how your popular times compare with those of the competitor, and assess whether your hours of operation and patterns of foot traffic might need to be remodeled if you want to compete in the same time slots as the top competitor.
Use of GBP Products and other shopping features
Like photos, shopping is one of those areas of SEO audits that just keeps expanding. At a basic level, check to see if either business has taken the time to add products to their listing.
At a more advanced level in appropriate industries, Google Business Profiles and the Google Merchant Center are becoming increasingly linked. If your competitor has taken the steps to set up a Pointy feed of inventory and is enjoying the resultant “See What’s in Store” section on their listing, this is a big win for them which you may need to replicate if you’ve not yet fully “transactionalized” your listing.
Justifications appearing on listing for query language
As I’ve covered in-depth here in my column, justifications are a big deal and you can influence them. If the query you’re investigating is triggering justifications on either your listing or your competitors, write down the exact language and source. Justifications come in many flavors, including website, review, sold here, services, menu, in-stock and posts. In the above example, in a local search for “fiestaware”, Google’s display of a website-based justification is a strong signal to us of just how highly they associate this entity with our search term. Mark a “win” for the competitor if they are earning a justification, and you are not.
Any obvious signs of GBP spam? (Name spam, fake address, fake reviews, etc.)
This can be one of the more skillful areas of a local business competitive audit because you may need a practiced eye to spot spam. Increase your abilities via a careful study of the guidelines for representing your business on Google and the review guidelines. What you are trying to diagnose is whether a competitor is attaining their top position with any help from prohibited practices. For example, they may be stuffing keywords in their business name, using a string of employees’ homes as fictitious business locations, or some of their reviews may appear to stem from incentivized reviewers or be the product of review gating.
In some cases, guideline violations are so obvious that they’ll be easy to recognize once you know the rules and reporting them to Google may even result in the removal of elements that have been giving a competitor an unfair advantage. Unfortunately, in many other cases, certain types of spam can be hard to see and prove, and difficult to get Google to act on. For the purpose of a basic audit, simply record if you see anything overtly suspicious on either listing and mark a “win” for either business if you believe spam may be contributing to their success.
Percentage of Local Finder spam
While you are sleuthing for spam, take a few minutes to dive deeper. Look at all of the listings that stand between you and the top competitor in the Local Finder, and do a basic estimate of the percentage that feature obvious spam tactics. If you’ve never done this before, read my column on Simple Spam Fighting: The Easiest Local Rankings You’ll Ever Earn. While this exercise is not a direct assessment of the distance between your business and its top competitor, it is an evaluation of the muck you will have to wade through to move up in the local search rankings.
DA, PA, and links
Domain Authority (DA) is a Moz metric for predicting how likely a website is to rank in the search engine results. Page Authority (PA) evaluates the same scenario, but for a single page on a website. Top Linking Domains are based on the DA of the websites doing the linking from one site to another and how those links may contribute to rankings.
Moz Pro customers can do an advanced audit of all these factors in their paid dashboard, but if you’re not yet a customer, use Moz’s Free Domain Analysis tool for a basic audit and to fill out the next several fields in your spreadsheet. *Note that if the GBP landing page is different than the domain and is not revealed by this tool as one of the top pages of the site, you can download the free Moz Bar or use Moz Link Explorer to find that information about any page. I’ve linked to a variety of free resources in this section of the spreadsheet for ease of discovery. Fill out fields 39-43 regarding DA, PA, and links on your sheet and evaluate whether a competitor’s better metrics may be supporting their win.
Age of domain
There are many free tools like this one that will let you quickly look up the age of your domain and that of your competitor. Google reps have repeatedly stated that domain age is not a ranking factor, but I look at it anyway, to let me know how long a competitor has had to work on their website and build its authority. While it’s absolutely correct that a brand new website can outrank an old one with a great campaign, mark a win for the older domain in this row of your sheet, regardless of ranking.
Organic rank for search phrase
Look at the organic (not local) results for your search phrase. Subtract the listings that aren’t for actual businesses (in our above example, theculturetrip.com is lifestyle site rather than a restaurant) and record the true organic rank of your site and your competitor’s. Mark a win for whichever business has the highest organic rank.
Search phrase in title tag of GBP landing page?
Is the complete or partial search phrase present in the title tag of the page being linked to from the Google Business Profile? Note it down and mark a win if one business has it but the other doesn’t. Pay attention to how this language may be supporting rank for this keyword phrase.
Search phrase in main body content of GBP landing page?
While you are on the GBP landing page, check to see if the complete or partial search phrase is mentioned on it. Mark a win for whichever business is remembering to include their keywords in their copywriting. If both are, don’t mark a win here, but do write down what you observe in the “notes” section. You might also like to notate how the search phrase is incorporated. For example, is it in the headings or subheadings of the page?
GBP landing page content quality at-a-glance (weak, medium, strong)
An advanced content audit will typically be a project of its own. For now, do a quick review of the GBP landing page for both businesses to grade the effort that has been put into publishing useful, optimized multi-media content. Some things to look for would be complete and accurate contact information, helpful text that incorporates many appropriate phrases related to the search term in natural language, excellent spelling and grammar, photos, videos, reviews and review requests, maps, directions, social media links, a strong internal linking structure, and a strong call-to-action. Make notes on your observations and grade the efforts present on the two pages as “weak”, “medium”, or “strong to find your winner.
Run both domains through Google’s free mobile-friendliness test tool. Mobile and local are inextricably linked, and if one domain is performing properly on people’s cell phones while the other isn’t, you have a clear winner.
In 2018, Google began marking domains that hadn’t made the move from HTTP to HTTPS as “insecure”. SEOs had been touting the benefits of secure sites for some years, but if your site is displaying that warning and your competitor’s is not, you are likely losing customers as well as ranking opportunities.
Moz Check Presence Score
Now, evaluate the health of citations across the local search ecosystem by looking up your business and your competitor in Moz’s free Check Presence tool. In just seconds, you will be able to see whether the distribution of local business information to a variety of listing platforms is contributing to your competitor’s win.
Yelp ranking, rating, and review count
It’s likely that Google looks at Yelp as part of its assessment of local business authority, so we’ll finish up our audit by looking there, too. Document where you and your competitor rank for your search phrase in Yelp, what your respective ratings are, and how many reviews each of you has earned. The winner is typically easy to see, in all three rows.
Now you’re ready to total up the wins!
Congratulations, you’ve just made it through the audit. Your last step is to count up the wins for each business name you entered in the “wins” column (your top competitor will typically have more of them), make your own list of the fields in which they won, and pair this with the notes you took to understand the efforts that are likely contributing to their top visibility. For example, you may have discovered that reviews, content, and mobile-friendliness are clearly underpinning the exemplary performance of your peer.
It’s from gleanings like these that you’ll create an informed strategy for the business you’re marketing, to get its metrics up to a competitive level. There are some factors, like location, that you can’t typically control, but with most of your findings, a to-do list will have surfaced from the audit process. The more experience you accrue working in local SEO, the better you’ll get at prioritizing the factors on that list, based on each client and market.
Bear in mind that the purpose of a competitive audit isn’t solely to show you how to match and surpass a peer’s metrics. Examine your notes and findings for clues on how to differentiate yourself within your market. For example, your audit may have enabled you to realize that reviews indicate a local desire for something your competitor either doesn’t provide, or doesn’t do well. You could fill that gap. Or, maybe you’ve just realized that a change in hours of operation could make the business your marketing the go-to spot on Mondays and Tuesdays when its competitor is closed. A good audit shouldn’t generate a mere carbon copy – it should point the way to creating a uniquely powerful local identity.
Whew, if this was a basic local competitive business audit, what would an advanced one cover?
We’ve hinted at this throughout the basic audit, but typically, a more advanced audit is likely to dive more deeply into factors like:
A full advanced audit could also incorporate investigation of elements not mentioned in the basic audit, including:
- Evaluation of current communications strategy, including live chat, SMS, messaging, Google messaging, email, forms and more
Assessment of e-commerce and other digital shopping functionality
Assessment of offline performance and opportunities including in-store metrics, traditional media, policy and more
Other areas that are specific to the industry or market of the business you’re promoting
Final thoughts on local competition
Most local businesses you market can’t reach their full potential without achieving a competitive level of visibility in Google’s local packs. But how we think about competition and, more specifically, about the people who are our competitors, matters.
I haven’t been able to shake the memory of a marketer I heard boasting about helping one local business put another out of business. For me, the conversation conjured up stark images of a small business owner and their staff thrown into unemployment amid the desperate insecurity of the pandemic and an already-harsh economic structure. This type of swagger may have become normalized in parts of the business sector, but it’s antithetical to localism, which seeks to offer a diversity of options and resources for everyone within a community with the goal of human well-being.
The point of learning to perform a competitive local business audit does not have to be to analyze and destroy the livelihood of your esteemed neighbor down the road; rather, it can be a study of how they have succeeded in the SERPs so that you can create an informed strategy for finding your own strong niche on the nearby business scene. This is a healthy and caring mindset local business owners can share with their marketers and vice versa – one that can make the work you do more fulfilling because it’s contributive instead of merely extractive. Good luck in bringing a new level of attention to something great within a community, with your professional skills!