Local Search and Franchises

When we prepare to build a website for a local company, we begin by checking out the competitive landscape. One of the tools we use is Spyfu, software which shares estimates of the performance of almost every website you can think of. The main overview tool checks how your website stacks up against online competitors. So, if you have a website for your dental office, you can plug in your URL and Spyfu will show you who else seems to be trying to rank for the keywords you’re working on. If our client doesn’t yet have a website, we’ll just use a competitor they identify for us as a starting point.

Sometimes we see a pattern like this:

Of course, we are not sharing information about our clients. We’re showing you a screenshot for our lab site. It’s not a local business, and neither are the competitors, but the lines here show the pattern we want to describe: one website right at the top and a whole cluster of sites down at the bottom.

If we were looking at results for local dental offices, we’d be chagrined to see that there is one website ranking for about 35,000 keywords. If  our dental office is the one with a blue line, we can’t expect to show up at the top of organic search any time soon.

But who is on top?

Remember, this is a pattern we’re seeing when we look at local businesses. If we see three local dental offices at the bottom of the chart ranking for 5,000 or fewer keywords and one way up at the top with 35,000 keywords, we know that we need to look more closely.

It is possible that the business at the top of the chart has been blogging assiduously for a couple of decades and they have all those keywords sewn up. For our long-term clients, this is what we want and expect to see: almost anything you ask, they will show up.

But when we’re looking at the average local business landscape, that’s not the most likely explanation. Instead, the business at the top of the chart is very likely to be a franchise.

The power of a franchise

A franchise is a single business with a corporate office and a number of individually owned additional locations. In many cases, there will be hundreds of locations across the country or even around the world. Every location will have a page at the corporate website. Usually, these pages are designed to look as though they are local companies, and certainly to show up in search results as though they are local companies.

Starbucks is honest about being a franchise, and you have probably already heard of them, so we won’t hesitate to use them as an example. Their website has 30,000 Google-indexed pages. This gives them an enormous advantage over local companies. Here’s how the Spyfu results look when we ask to compare Starbucks with several local coffee shops:

Starbucks so completely dwarfs the local shops that they are invisible on the chart.

But when we search for local coffee shops, we do not see only Starbucks on the SERPs. Google behaves differently for local search. We see the map and plenty of ads, but we don’t have to tell the coffee shops to give up because they have no chance against Starbucks online.

The thing to do in this case is to remove the franchise from the results. Then we see a different set of results:

There is still a clear leader. (If you happen to live in our town, you can probably guess who it is.) But they have control over about 600 keywords. Their competitors all rank for about 150. Whichever of them decides to make an investment in SEO can probably overtake the leader.

That’s not always what we see. Sometimes there’s a much larger gap, or there are some lines in the middle showing three tiers of competitors. But removing the franchise(s) generally provides a more accurate picture of the real competitors. Your local business can work to overtake the local leader and then start working to overtake the franchise if that’s what you want to do.

The takeaways

If you have studied statistics, you know that what we’re doing here is throwing out the sports. We’re eliminating the truly unusual and different results that skew the data enough to make it less useful. That’s not the same as throwing out the strongest local competitor to make yourself feel better about your website or your chances.

When you see this pattern, there are some useful strategies to consider:

  • Buy ads. The cost effectiveness of your ads will still depend on the quality of your website, so don’t think we are saying you should give up on SEO. But if you can see that you won’t reach the top of the SERPs within the next few months, it makes sense to invest in ads and social media to bridge the gap.
  • Get to know those competitors. Sometimes  we see that all the sites at the bottom of the chart are professionally designed and have good basic content, but none of them are making any effort with SEO or content marketing. Sometimes they aren’t buying ads, either. If everyone is fairly mediocre in their online presence, there’s no need to work very hard to get to the top. In that case, whoever makes the effort first can be way ahead. There are some industries in which companies don’t usually work hard on their websites. The first one to invest in their online presence can mop the floor with the others.
  • Make an honest inventory of your assets. Do you have someone who can and will produce a steady flow of high-quality content? Do you have the skills to plan a strategy and track your progress? Are you willing to pay for someone to do that? If so, SEO and content marketing can still be worth your while, even if it takes some time. SEO still produces the best ROI of any marketing strategy. If you don’t have the capacity, it makes sense to recognize that fact and choose another approach.
  • Show your roots. Make sure that your website says you are locally owned. Put it in your meta descriptions. Get involved with your local community. Franchise owners are often also local people who own their independent franchise business, but the perception of a locally-owned business can work in your favor. Your online presence can help that happen.







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