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. 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. All the others make just one pack appearance, making them basic competitors. 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. 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. 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. 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? How often do you do competitive audits for clients?
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,…