Assess Your Clients’ Local Search Competition in Three Quick Steps

Local SearchCongratulations! You’ve just signed that hard-to-land client that’s been in your sales pipeline for months.  Now the hard (or, I think, the fun) work begins.  Where can you deliver the most value for this hard-earned client, right from Day One?

While a number of great automated tools exist for filtering prospects, like Radius, no tool really gives you a comprehensive roadmap for the strategies and tactics that are most likely to help a small business succeed online.  And there’s just no substitute for a brief human review of the various factors that play into a client’s local search visibility.

Here’s a quick overview of how I analyzed a new client’s competitive space during my consulting days, that in my frequent review of the local SERPs still holds value today.  Some of you who have the luxury to be selective in your client acquisition may even want to perform a version of this audit prior to taking a new client on.

Step One: On what keywords should my client be competing?
With the relatively recent surge in keyword-not-provided clickthroughs from search results, it’s getting harder and harder to identify the keywords around which to optimize your content.  In local search, though, we have pretty stable indicators from Google (and other search engines) of high-volume keywords with local intent: categories.

So as a starting point, I recommend running one search per keyword on popular local search categories at Google Places, Superpages, and Infogroup (you can use the free Moz Local category research tool to get an idea of what these terms might be in your client’s industry).  These terms are all likely to be labeled by Google as having strong local intent, and therefore likely to return localized results.

Expand your keyword set with the terms that Google suggests as related keywords at the bottom of the SERPs for each of these phrases.  And for the eager beavers out there, go even deeper by assessing the relative search volume of each of these phrases using Google Trends.

As you search these terms, take note of the type of search results that are returned:

  • Local Packs, including the position of that pack, and the number of results in each pack
  • Localized Organic results
  • Neither

Analyzing the kinds of results returned can tell you a great deal about where to focus your optimization efforts, as we’ll see in steps three and four.

Step Two: Against whom is my client competing?
In your searches across your client’s primary local search categories, pay attention to who is ranking well both organically and in Google’s purely place-driven algorithm.

Organic results are straightforward enough to track: what you see on the SERP is who you’re competing against.  But it’s important to take qualitative measure of the types of results returned.  Are they:

  • Other SMBs?
  • Brands?
  • Directories?

If your client is a small business, it’s a good idea to look at directories as partners rather than competitors.  And brands with deep pockets are going to be hard to compete against. So pay closest attention to other SMBs.

Stack-ranked maps results are a little trickier to discover in the New Google Maps, but after some experimentation a couple of weeks ago, I found that the am=t parameter yields just the list we’re looking for:

Across both types of results, when it comes to other small businesses and brands, you’re looking for what I call MFOC’s: Most Frequently Occurring Competitors.  There are plenty of tools you can use, including the MozBar, that can automatically export these results into an Excel table for you.

I typically score the top 10 or so results using a simple reverse scoring system (10 for first place, 1 for tenth) and tally the scores across the keyword set I’m analyzing, for both maps and organic search.

The net result looks something like this:

Step Three: Why are they doing well?
In this step, I take a look at each of the primary ranking factors from my annual survey of local SEO experts.

At this stage of the audit, I’m primarily concerned with the baseline factors:

  1. A well-structured website is generally something you can spot-check to see whether a competitor is using any keywords in his/her Title Tags, and has included his/her business contact information in HTML across multiple pages of the website.
  2. For NAP consistency (I’m biased of course!) I’ll use Moz Local to see how a given business is doing.  For citation volume, I’ll run an exact-match query at Google and look at the total number of results as a relative indication.
  3. I’ll perform an audit of their link profile using Open Site Explorer, paying special attention to the number of unique root domains that link to their website.
  4. I’ll take a cursory look at their review volume at Google and other primary review sites just by looking at the Knowledge Panel for their business name on a branded query.
  5. And finally, I’ll see how far away they are from the centroid of their city by doing a search like this in Google Maps.

Put all of the above into an Excel table and see how your potential client stacks up!


  1. You’ve analyzed the set of terms that Google thinks are Locally-relevant to see what kinds of results are returned.
  2. You’ve recorded your client’s position and the positions of their MFOC’s.
  3. You’ve analyzed each of the client’s MFOC’s against the primary local search ranking factors.

At the end of this process, you should have a pretty clear idea of whom your client is competing against, and just how far behind they are.  I hope it helps you prioritize your agency’s workflow accordingly!

david mihmDavid Mihm is Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and the architect of Moz Local — a newly released software product that distributes U.S. business listings to the primary local data aggregators and important local directories.