A Beginner’s Guide To Fixing Local Ranking Failures

The author’s posts are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.

The fallout from lost Google local rankings can be drastic, from silent phones in the office to a loss of pride in a company’s standing in the community. Don’t panic: Be proactive and take the steps outlined in this guide to begin troubleshooting the cause of your ranking failure. This article is intended for both local business owners and new Local SEOs who will benefit from having a set of procedures to follow should local rankings go south. While I can’t cover every possible cause of local ranking issues, the steps outlined below will help you surface major, common problems and take steps to correct them. This graphic provides an overview, and the details of each step follow.

Check for mass issues

The first thing to discover is whether the issue being experienced is part of a major change or bug in Google’s system. It’s extremely common for a single issue to affect enormous numbers of businesses when something goes wrong with Google’s local product or when they change a guideline, turn a filter on or off, or alter their algorithm.

Start by going to the Google and Your Business Forum. Search for the problem you’re experiencing in a variety of ways in the search box. If you see multiple threads reporting your identical issue stemming from a time near the date you began to notice the problem, there is a good chance that a bug or update may be the cause of the situation. Read all of the existent threads to see what the Top Contributor members of the forum are saying. Frequently, a Google staffer will chime in on these threads with Google’s position on the issue. Some problems may require that you take a specific action, such as performing a null edit on your listing, whereas others dictate that you sit tight until the matter is resolved.

Other good places to check for news of mass issues are:

Linda Buquet’s Local Search Forum
Mike Blumenthal’s Blog
51 Blocks’ Google Local Weather Report
Moz Q&A Forum

Rule out obvious violations

One of the quickest ways to incur a penalty or ranking issues is to violate one of Google’s clearly stated quality guidelines. Unfortunately, there is some grey area surrounding certain aspects of Google’s rules, but on many points, Google is completely straightforward. Read the Google Places Quality Guidelines and be sure that basic (but major) mistakes haven’t been made in regards to the naming of the business, address, phone number, number of listings and similar components.

If you are new to Local SEO, there is a learning curve involved in understanding Google’s unique take on how local businesses should present themselves. For example, many real world businesses use vanity phone numbers in their advertising. This is what helps me remember to phone 1 (800) COMCAST every time my Internet service hiccups. But if my provider chose to try to enter this as their phone number when creating their Google+ Local listing, they would be falling outside of Google’s guidelines, both because they’d be using a toll free number and because it’s a vanity number. There are dozens of instances in which common real world practices don’t gel with Google’s vision of Local. This is why it pays to take the time to memorize Google’s guidelines and check back with them for the updates Google releases from time to time.

Breaking even one of Google’s rules can cost you your rankings. Be sure that your troubleshooting work includes a double check for obvious violations.

Check for NAP consistency issues

NAP is the acronym for your business name, address and phone number and it represents the very core of your business data. NAP is also sometimes referred to as NAP+W because your website is also a key component of this data. Every place your complete or partial NAP is listed on the web is referred to as a ‘citation’. Because Google checks not just your Google+ Local page and the website it links to for information about your business, but checks the whole Internet, it’s absolutely vital that they find a consistent presentation of your data in your citations. Small inconsistencies concerning abbreviations like Howard St. vs. Howard Street do not matter, but things like this do matter:

  • Differences in the business name
  • Different numbers or spelling in street name
  • Lack of suite number on some citations but not others
  • Different phone numbers
  • Citations pointing to more than one website for the business

These kinds of discrepancies can ‘confuse’ Google and cause them to lose trust in the data they’ve accumulated about your business, leading to ranking problems. The basic rule of thumb here is to ensure that your NAP is identical across the web. Here are three methods for auditing your citations to discover NAP consistency issues:

Use a free tool
GetListed.org allows you to plug in your business name and zip code to be returned data about your listings on core directories. At a glance, you will be able to see if there are mismatches in your NAP on these important platforms. It’s wonderful that this tool is free. Two limitations of this option are that the tool currently only supports US-based businesses, and that it searches only a limited number of platforms for your listings. This is an excellent place to start your citation audit, but once you have cleaned up errors on these core platforms, you will need to look beyond them for additional NAP consistency issues.

Use a paid tool or service
BrightLocal’s Citation Tracker tool is a paid product that will surface your citations from around the web, enabling you to see if there are NAP consistency problems that need to be corrected. The tool also alerts you to new places to get your business listed. One helpful aspect of BrightLocal’s products is that they support multiple countries. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the task of auditing and/or cleaning up your citations, you can pay a company like Whitespark to do it for you. While there is no reason why a local business owner cannot audit and repair his own citations, paid tools can represent a major savings of time and effort in return for an investment.

Manual search and cleanup
This method requires an investment of time and should be approached in an organized fashion. Create a simple spreadsheet. Then, go to Google and begin searching for the following:

  • Your complete business name
  • Your partial business name or any variants you have ever used
  • Your street address, including old addresses if you have moved within the past decade
  • If you have a suite number, search for your address both with and without it
  • Your phone number, including old phone numbers you may have used in the past decade
  • The names of partners, if you are in a multi-partner practice

Input the listing details and URL in the spreadsheet of each citation you find. Review the spreadsheet to check for NAP inconsistencies, and then, track your progress on the document as you make efforts to clean up any problematic listings. Remember that citations are not limited to local business directories or review sites; they comprise any mention of your complete or partial NAP, including news sites, social media platforms and blogs.

It can take time to see results from citation cleanup jobs. Be patient and know that the more cohesive your overall NAP is across the web, the better your chances of obtaining consistent, high local rankings.

Seek out duplicate Google+ Local listings

With the exception of multi-partner practices (like law firms) and businesses with multiple departments (like hospitals), each business is allowed to have just one Google+ Local Page per location. Having more than one is not only a violation of the Google Places Quality Guidelines but is also likely to cause local search ranking failures. Sometimes, duplicate listings are intentionally created by business owners due to a lack of understanding of the rules and sometimes they are built by spammers for manipulative purposes. In other cases, however, owners may have no idea that they’ve got duplicates, because they’ve been automatically generated by Google or have resulted from some scenario such as moving locations or changing a phone number.

Clues that you may have duplicates include a discrepancy in the name, phone number, address, categories or description that you see in your Google Places for Business Dashboard vs. what is appearing live on your Google+ Local listing. Even if you don’t see any variance, however, it’s a good idea to check for duplicate listings if you’re experiencing ranking issues. Start by going to maps.google.com. *Be sure you are viewing the old, classic version of Google Maps, not the new Google Maps (for more on why this is important, read this fascinating thread on Linda Buquet’s Local Search Forum.) Once inside the classic Maps, take these actions:

  • Search for your business name
  • Search for variants of your business name, including old names and names of partners in your business
  • Search for your business name + your address
  • Search for your address, including addresses you may have occupied within the past decade and search both with and without a suite number, if you have one.
  • Search for your phone number, including all phone numbers you may have used within the past decade

If any of these searches brings up more than one listing in the left hand column of the page, beside the large map, then you are dealing with a duplicate. Be sure you are clicking the link at the bottom of the results to view all listings, if the link exists.

Getting rid of duplicates is a major cause of confusion in the local business arena. There are so many ‘if’ clauses involved. I have attempted to set out here a set of steps for businesses in a variety of scenarios which will hopefully lead to the removal of duplicates. I want to personally thank Google and Your Business Forum Top Contributors Mike Blumenthal and Linda Buquet for conferring with me about some of the following points:

If the listing is claimed and appearing in your dashboard:

Delete it via the dashboard. This will hopefully remove it from the index and prevent its reappearance. But, if you continue to see the listing appearing live and you have the New Google+ Local Dashboard, take the following steps:

  • Sign into the dashboard of your Google+ Local Page
  • Click the ‘Edit Business Information’ link where your NAP information is listed
  • Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the ‘Get Help With This Listing’ link
  • Click the ‘Contact Us’ button in the upper right of the page
  • Click the ‘Call Us’ button on the popup
  • Provide your name and phone number and Google will call you

If you still have the old dashboard:

Apparently this option exists behind a ‘help’ link or ‘gear’ icon. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to an old Google Places dashboard, so need to recommend that you search for the above in order to facilitate a call with Google.

If you run a brick-and-mortar business and the listing either isn’t claimed or doesn’t exist in your dashboard, you have three options:

1. Do a brand name search in Google’s main search engine. Select the ‘feedback link’ from the knowledge panel to the right of the search results to report the issue.

2. From the live Google+ Local page, select ‘edit details’ and report the issue.

3. If you have access to the old Google Maps, use the ‘report a problem’ link.

All of these options will take you to a MapMaker URL that enables you to report the place as a duplicate of another listing. Be sure to provide the URLs of both the authoritative listing and the duplicate listing so that Google can understand which one you want shut down. *Note that this will not work for service area businesses with hidden addresses. If you have such a business, I recommend trying the form located behind the “Contact Us” button on this troubleshooter.

If several weeks go by and none of the above methods have worked, I recommend posting a request for help at the Google And Your Business Forum. Getting duplicates deleted may require a bit of work and patience, but it is worth it when you consider that their presence is both a violation of the guidelines and a drain on your company’s ability to rank well.

Consider hidden merged duplicates and multi-practitioner listings

I want to make note here of two subtopics which are related to the theme of duplicate listings: duplicates for multi-practitioner listings and hidden merged duplicates. These involve advanced troubleshooting techniques I don’t plan to cover in this article. It’s my opinion that Linda Buquet covers these subjects better than anyone else in the industry. If obvious duplicates do not surface from the above steps and you’ve ruled out more common ranking hazards, I recommend that you read the following:

WARNING: Dual Claimed Ranking Penalty – Drop like a Rock or Get Suspended

Warning Email re Google Places Duplicate Listings

Multiple attorneys sharing the same NAP

Identify website quality issues

The on-page quality of your website and the methods you choose for marketing it play a major role in your local search rankings. When troubleshooting ranking issues, take all of the following into consideration:

  • Is the website properly optimized for local search? Does it have the complete NAP on the Contact Us page and elsewhere on the site, such as in the footer? Have keywords been reflected sensibly in elements like title tags and copy?
  • Is the website over-optimized? Are tags and copy stuffed with keywords to the point that the site reads poorly to human users and might be considered spammy?
  • Does the website feature clear, crawlable navigation? Can humans and bots make their way through the site easily?
  • Does Google Webmaster Tools indicate that the site is being crawled properly? Could there be errors in places like the robots.txt file, preventing indexing?
  • Is the website content professional, or does it contain errors of spelling or grammar that could result in it being deemed of low quality?
  • Do pages on the site feature thin content? Does it appear that multiple pages were published for manipulative reasons instead of for the purpose of helping human visitors?
  • Do pages on the site feature duplicate content, stemming either from other pages of the site or scraped from third-party sources?
  • Has the business taken a multi-site approach, which can be a danger zone for thin/duplicate content and NAP+W consistency issues?
  • Does the website feature a natural-looking backlink profile, or could questionable practices have incurred a famous Google penalty?
  • Has the website suffered from known penalties in the past? Is it certain that steps were taken to rectify problems and get back into Google’s good graces?

The interesting thing about some of the above factors is that they represent a judgment call on the part of the troubleshooter. While marketers can easily audit a website without bias, it can sometimes be challenging for local business owners to critique their own websites objectively because of the amount of time and money they have invested in them. When it comes to somewhat nebulous issues like the quality of content or possible over-optimization, it can help to get second opinions from impartial parties.

Moz members have access to the On-Page Grader Tool, which highlights potential issues surrounding keyword usage, URL formatting, links and other quality factors. If you are not currently a Moz member, you might like to check out Hubspot’s Marketing Grader, which is free. There are many other free website analysis tools available, with differing degrees of value. Your website is the Internet’s most authoritative document about your business, and how it is developed and marketed directly contributes to high or low local rankings. If you suspect you are operating a low-quality website, you may want to consider hiring a reputable Local SEO firm to provide a custom audit. If a business is failing to rank well locally, the website must be considered as a possible contributing factor.

Discover relationship to the Google Maps Business Centroid

This is one of the more complex local search ranking factors. In the past, it was believed that businesses located nearest to the official geographic center of a city had an edge over competitors located further from the heart of town. Recently, however, it has become apparent that the “centroid” refers not to the city center, but to an area of town which Google has deemed to be the center of a specific industry within that city. In other words, it appears that Google may feel there is one centroid for restaurants and another for car dealerships within the same city. Examples have been surfaced of apparent business centroids being located completely outside of the downtown districts of major cities.

What this means for the troubleshooter is that it’s important to do a search on Google Maps for the industry in question. Note if businesses ranking A-J appear to be clustered within a certain area of the target city. Then, assess whether the street address of the business in question falls inside or outside of that cluster. Keeping this in mind can be helpful when troubleshooting a business which falls shy of ranking in the top 7 of the Google Local Pack, particularly if you have been unable to discover any obvious penalties. Though the earlier concept of a city centroid has been abandoned, location still does matter in the form of the business centroid.

I am unaware of any official studies that have been undertaken detailing how to overcome the business center bias if a business is located outside of the cluster. I would propose that the best method of attempting to do so would be to continue to build both local and organic authority in hopes of getting ahead of less active competitors.

Factor in time and authority

Over the years, I’ve received frantic phone calls from business owners eager to know why they aren’t ranking better in the local pack of results. If I asked about complex factors first, I might spend thirty minutes chatting before I realized that time was actually all that was working against the company. This experience helped me learn to ask early on in these conversations the specifics of certain actions, such as:

  • When the website was published
  • When the Google+ Local page was created
  • When the business started building third party citations

If a business is just getting started with the above components, then they shouldn’t expect to have earned automatic dominance in the local search results, unless they are literally the only game in town. The fruits of these kinds of labors take time to take effect. You can’t move the clock forward, but you can get busy on building buzz about your business via social media while waiting for your more central efforts to begin earning the rankings you hope for. Time is a local search ranking factor.

By the same token, the concept of authority is a local search ranking factor. Have you built the best website for your industry in your city? Are you continuing to build it out with exceptional, fresh content? Have you implemented a review acquisition strategy? Are you earning positive reviews across a variety of platforms and handling negative reviews proactively? Are you earning high quality links and social mentions? Are you participating in offline activities that are earning your company online notice? The benefits of these activities will seldom become apparent overnight, but a consistent effort to reach out and be visible to your local community will help you to build authority that stands the test of time.

Can’t find anything wrong? Consider other possibilities

If you’re troubleshooting a local ranking failure and, by going through this article, you’ve determined that the company isn’t suffering from a mass bug, an obvious violation, NAP inconsistencies, visible duplicates, hidden merged duplicates, business centroid issues or issues of quality, time or authority, you must be wondering what to do next.

While I can’t cover every possible cause of ranking failures, I can make a few more suggestions for things to consider if you’ve ruled out all of the above.

Shared categories between multi-practitioner listings
If a legal firm, medical practice or similar business model has taken advantage of Google’s invitation to create a listing for each partner as well as one of the practice, it’s important to know that many Local SEOs believe that duplicating categories between the listings may cause ranking failures. So, for example, if the practice listing is using ‘Elder Law Attorney’ as one of its ten Google+ Local categories, then that same category should not be used on the listings of any of the partners. You will not find advice regarding this in the Google Places Quality Guidelines, but if you’ve ruled out other issues and see that there are shared categories at play, you’ll want to know that this theory exists. It’s believed that it’s best to divvy up available categories between the practice and the various partners so that none of the listings feature duplicates.

Geographic terms in the business description
This is an oldie, and while I’ve not heard recent reports of issues with this, it’s worth mentioning. In the early days of Google’s local product, it was observed that including city names and other geo terms within the business description field appeared to have a negative effect on rankings. Again, this was never mentioned in the official guidelines. Google seems to have downgraded the importance of the business description over the past couple of years, so how great an effect this practice might be having on listings these days is unknown. Still, if you’ve got mysterious ranking problems and have geo terms in your description, removing them can’t hurt and might just help.

Disconnected place page
This is a strange one, brought to my attention by Linda Buquet. The theory here is that if a local business has a high organic ranking but poor local rankings, the website and Google+ Local page may be disconnected. Linda posits that this can happen due to issues covered above, such as guideline violations, distance from business centroid and NAP inconsistencies. A good way to gauge your pure organic authority is to search in AOL.com. If you see great organic rankings there and a lack of local pack rankings in Google, you may be dealing with a disconnect stemming from the above problems. Time to troubleshoot such issues and clean them up, if possible.

Map zooming conundrum
Here’s another weird one I’ve seen discussed in Linda’s forum in which a listing is dropping in and out of the pack due to the Maps radius expanding and contracting from search to search. In the case I’ve seen highlighted, the business in question was located on the outskirts of town and when the radius tightened, they dropped off the map and out of the pack. If your business is at the edge of the map shown for your important searches and you’ve got rankings that are playing hide-and-seek, I would suggest taking screenshots of a variety of searches over the course of several weeks to see if the radius of the map is changing. Given that this is based upon Google’s display of geography, there is unlikely to be an easy fix for any business in this peculiar scenario.

Standing still
If your business previously enjoyed higher local rankings that have gradually ebbed away, you must take into consideration whether you have been standing still while competitors have been busy. A loss in rankings may have nothing to do with violations or inconsistencies and may simply be the product of a competitive market. Analyze your competitors to discover if they’ve surpassed you by dint of superior marketing efforts.

Organic penalties
Remember that organic factors play a major role in local rankings. If the website is hit with a major penalty or falls on the wrong side of a Google update, it can absolutely effect your local pack rankings. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to consistently monitor how you’re doing, ranking-wise. If you notice a sudden drop off, the date on which it occurred can yield vital clues as to whether the issue coincides with a web-wide change effecting everybody. Keep up with your reading of major local and organic SEO blogs so that you know when trouble hits and how experts are making efforts to recover.

History of spamming
This one is especially for new Local SEOs. You will sometimes be contacted by local business owners who have made a practice of spamming Google, either via their own volition or because they’ve been poorly advised by past marketers. An example of this might be a lawyer calling you for help and the conversation revealing that he has set up ten virtual offices in order to create multiple Google+ Local pages. In my experience, some businesses dig themselves into too deep of a hole for me to dig them back out. Such cases will involve a judgement call on your part – do you feel reasonably certain that you can undo spam, including penalties the business may have incurred, and put spamming clients back onto the straight-and-narrow? If not, pass on the work. You will be saving yourself a major headache.

Troubleshooting is seldom easy
I am far from being the world’s best troubleshooter! As a Local SEO, I much prefer building up a positive business presence to trying to diagnose and fix a troubled one. That being said, we all run into businesses with outstanding issues that need to be corrected before new, quality work can shine through.

I sincerely hope having this list of pitfalls to check for will help you troubleshoot not only sudden ranking drops, but also, problems that could be putting a damper on the effectiveness of your overall local marketing campaign.

Do you have additional techniques you use to surface common local ranking problems? Please contribute to the usefulness of this article by sharing them with the whole community!