In the ultra-competitive SEO landscape of NYC, how did the number one result for dentists come to dominate Google Maps?
This business, which I'll call Mega Dentist, ended up in the Map Pack 18 times! That's vs. the 8 times that the number ten result managed. In this post we'll deconstruct these results and try to understand how Mega Dentist climbed to the top.
Measuring Search Visibility
I should be clear about what we're measuring before jumping into the study. These case studies measure the rankings of Google My Business listings, as opposed to the organic results of the websites they are associated with.
In other words, we're measuring against what we see on Google Maps and on the Local Finder. Local and organic search each have their own Google ranking algorithm. While some of the techniques covered here apply to both kinds of search, some are only applicable to local.
Because the location of the searcher is so important for Google Maps, I perform a grid scan to get the best picture of how local businesses are ranking. Checking from one location gives a very limited view of what's happening.
There's no denying that reviews are fundamental to local SEO. They are consistently one of the strongest ranking factors, right alongside location – but fortunately we can influence review gathering.
Let's check how Mega Dentist performed against the competition. These are the review factors we'll dig into:
Nothing too fancy here. The overall rating, whether that means based on 1 review or 100.
Having two five star reviews isn't much help if your competition has a hundred.
Glowing reviews are great, but if your last review was from six months ago, that doesn't look quite as good.
- Owner response rate
Some businesses reply almost religiously to every review, while others never reply.
I'll preface this section on ratings by proposing that ratings alone are not a terribly strong ranking factor. In fact, online ratings in general suffer from grade inflation, everywhere from Google to Amazon product reviews.
As a matter of fact, dentists make up one of the more "inflated" categories out there. This graph from an earlier study shows just how inflated the ratings can be.
Ratings alone must lose strength as a signal when so many listings all have perfect or near perfect grades.
Consumers have learned that ratings aren't everything – they may even perceive a perfect 5.0 rating as suspect. Slightly lower ratings, such as a 4.8 alongside a higher review count, are more trustworthy.
So how does Mega Dentist compare on review ratings? They scored a respectable 4.2 out of 5 on their Google reviews. This isn't a bad rating when you consider that they have 221 reviews in total.
How does a 4.2 compare with the rest of the local results?
In this next graph, I have bucketed results in groups of five, according to their search ranking.
We can see that ratings are not quite as inflated in this local market. The 4.2 that Mega Dentist scored is not a standout here, but it's high enough to compete with everyone else.
I would argue that review quantity, when ratings tend to inflate, is the more important metric. Having significantly more reviews than your competition can set you apart.
Mega Dentist performs pretty well here, having 221 reviews, versus the 24 reviews that the median result has gathered.
What does the average look like, if we put the results into the same buckets as above?
The difference between the averages and the median of 24 reviews is quite striking. On one end, 38 businesses had 10 or fewer reviews, while a dozen had more than 200 reviews. The highest review count came in at a whopping 628 reviews.
Have dentists with tons of reviews just been in business longer, or are they doing a better job of actively gathering reviews? We can't tell from quantity alone, but the picture should be clearer when we examine review freshness.
How many reviews you might have, or your rating, are not the only metrics to keep in mind. Freshness of reviews is also an important factor.
A solid rating and hundreds of reviews lose a bit of their luster if the last review was made months ago. Even if freshness was not a ranking factor, seeing outdated reviews is a negative signal for consumers.
So how does Mega Dentist compete in terms of review freshness?
Mega Dentist is blowing the competition out of the water when it comes to review freshness. Not only do they have more reviews than average, the bulk of their reviews are more recent than the competition.
Is Google rewarding this review freshness with higher rankings?
Of course, it's possible that the recent reviews are the result of something else, rather than the cause of higher rankings – but it is an interesting signal.
Owner Responses to Reviews
I'll say upfront that owner responses don't seem to correlate with ranking. Responding to reviews, however, should always be a priority – especially to address negative reviews.
That said, how do Mega Dentist and the competition handle responding to reviews?
As is the case typically, businesses tend to fall into three groups: those that never respond, those that respond to especially negative reviews, and the owners that are very attentive to their reviews.
|GMB Rank||Review Quantity||Owner Response Rate|
With a 4.2 rating, Mega Dentist has negative reviews that they could respond to, but don't engage with reviewers. Although owner responses don't seem to factor into ranking, I would still recommend that as something to improve upon.
Google My Business is becoming the name of the game, but website authority still matters. Associating an authoritative website with your GMB profile will give it a boost. Good on-page SEO, content, and backlinks are important in local SEO as well.
Some niches, such as legal, are highly competitive and look more like organic search in terms of how the competition prioritizes website authority. Less competitive niches, however, usually don't require the same amount of traditional SEO effort in order to rank on Google Maps.
The proximity factor is also weighted differently, according to the niche in question. A law office might rank highly across an entire city, whereas a coffee shop can see its search rank decline in just a few hundred feet.
You might think density of competition explains these differences, but from my own testing, it seems proximity is weighted differently across categories.
I preface this section on website authority, because in niches where proximity is stronger, I believe that factors like links are somewhat diminished.
Common SEO Crawling Issues
Before looking in detail at factors like links, I wanted to survey the results for serious crawling issues. These kinds of issues include sites where crawling is blocked due to robots.txt, the site has an SSL certificate but it's expired, there are large numbers of broken links, or the site is extremely slow.
Although I didn't find any SSL issues for this case study, I did find that an amazing 8 of the results blocked Googlebot from indexing the page that their GMB listing referred to. The takeaway here is to check the basics! Make sure your robots.txt file is not causing Googlebot to ignore your entire site.
In terms of site speed, the Google Lighthouse tool can generate a detailed report. Here we can see that Mega Dentist has a lot of room for improvement, despite ranking at the top.
How do backlinks to the business website factor into ranking here?
To find out, I exported the referring domains for each listing in the top 65 results. I was limited to exporting only the top 100 domains for each website, but I don't think that obscured any overall trend.
Mega Dentist had only 8 referring domains in total, but that clearly hasn't stopped them from dominating the Map Pack results.
The quality of links matters a great deal, of course, but in this case there were no obvious standouts. Links to the Mega Dentist website were mostly directories, such as Yellowpages.com, or from a web designer portfolio.
Does that mean links don't matter?
You can see that most listings with a lot of referring domains made it into at least the top 30 here. Only one listing with 100+ referring domains managed to fall into the bottom 30 results. Links clearly have an impact, but there are so many other factors to consider in GMB – getting another factor badly wrong can cloud any advantage from links.
Local SEO experts have long debated the benefits of blogs on small business websites. On the one hand, giving Google enough content will allow them to understand the services that you provide. On the other, blogging is a lot of effort, and ranking organically (i.e. non-local) can be of questionable benefit.
Well-written service and city landing pages are sometimes a good compromise between having a full-blown blog or a thin website.
In this section, we'll try to discover if there is a relationship between depth of website content and GMB ranking. I used the excellent advertools, an open source Python package, to crawl each website. If you want to learn more about using advertools, I recommend this tutorial by Koray Tuğberk GÜBÜR.
So how much content did the websites in this case study have?
Our case study subject, Mega Dentist, is easily in the top third for content when compared with the rest of the local results. They appear to have a page describing each of their specific services, as well as a blog and a series of gallery pages.
The outlier here, with over 600 pages, is a website for an entire medical clinic, of which the dentist in question makes up a small part.
Each of these case studies will cover different potential ranking factors, but I can't hope to cover every singe one of them! The previous study delved into GMB titles and categories, which are important factors in their own right.
So what's the verdict? How did Mega Dentist come to occupy the top spot?
Among all the factors we examined, I believe that review freshness is what propelled them to the top. Mega Dentist was solid, but not exceptional, in many other areas – including review rating & count, as well as website authority.
I learn something new with each of these case studies. My own takeaway has been that review rating and quantity alone do not tell the whole story. Having hundreds of reviews is great, but if the competition is amassing newer reviews and you're standing still, you may lose that top spot.
Local SEO Software
Most of the research for this case study was done using the Persuaded.io local SEO toolset. You can use Persuaded.io for hyper local rank tracking, spam busting, and much more. New users start with a credit, and you can try it without any signup required.