“Why is he showing up in the map pack and I’m not!?”

An anonymous business owner

I get this question while consulting local businesses all the time. They want to know what we all want to know: Google’s secret sauce for displaying businesses in the map pack. They’re upset that some rag tag company that started up less than two years ago that barely has a customer base, a poorly designed website, few ad dollars if any, and no reputation is showing up before they are in Google’s map. And why not? It hardly seems fair.

Well the map pack isn’t a perfect place. It wasn’t that long ago that a person would search “restaurant des moines ia” and Google would only show restaurants in the downtown area. This was because adding “des moines ia” to the search set the pin on the map in the middle of downtown, and Google would use that as an anchor and only displayed businesses near that pin.

They changed that (somewhat, since some searches still heavily favor downtown), and recent research from Rank Ranger shows a little bit about how they might have done that. Google appears to be using a 2:1 clustering formula that has big implications for local SEOs. What do I mean by clustering formula? See below:

In most of the local searches I’ve run I’ve been able to identify this cluster pattern appearing. In some there doesn’t appear to be any real pattern at all, or it appears to be about equal distance, forming an equilateral triangle, for the folks that remember geometry.

This is pretty important for local businesses. Think about it this way: if Google is likely to display this clustering formula in the top three, then it means that 2/3 of the map pack is devoted to businesses that are in close proximity to each other. This effectively means that your proximity to competitors is a ranking signal for the local map pack. This also means that if you’re a business that provides home services and decided to set up shop in the boonies somewhere to take advantage of low rent, you might not have a competitor nearby, making you less likely to show up in the map pack because you can’t be a part of the 2/3 cluster. According to this study, the cluster result appeared for 64% of local searches. You would be disqualified from appearing in 2 of the slots pretty much automatically, and now you’re competing for that final spot with every other company out there.

To put it in simple math terms, let’s say there are 12 companies in town that do geothermal work. All else being equal, without this clustering formula all companies have an equal chance to show up in the map pack, meaning that your odds of appearing there are 1 in 4 or 25%, because there are three spots available. Great, but now add clustering and let’s say that you don’t meet the requirements for a cluster because you’re located in a far flung suburb to save on rent – maybe you’re setup in an industrial park or something. This changes the equation, because no longer are you competing with 12 companies for 3 spots. All else being equal, you’re now competing with 10 companies for 1 spot, meaning you only have a 10% chance to show up in the local pack with the 2:1 cluster formula in play. This formula changed because you didn’t meet the requirements for a cluster, so two of the twelve were selected for those spots, but presumably all other companies meet the requirements to show up as the outlier i.e. their proximity to competitors doesn’t matter. So 64% of the time (in this simple example) visibility drops to 10%.

Of course there are also other ranking factors. This isn’t the “one rank signal to rule them all”. There are over 200 rank signals in Google’s core algorithm, which is tied to the map pack, so it’s impossible to say why at any given moment you may be showing up or may not be showing up. So the age old question will have to remain a question. But there are still some things we can do to improve your chances of earning a seat at Google’s proverbial table.

1. Keep your citations clean and consistent

Citations, also known as listings or directories, are online websites that display your NAP information. NAP meaning name, address, phone number (and website where applicable). Ensuring that your information is consistent across directories is an important factor for showing up in both Google’s Map Pack and in organic search if you’re a local business.

2. Google My Business

Your citations mean diddly-squat if you haven’t set up Google My Business properly. This means you’ve gone to business.google.com and created an account, verified it with Google, set the NAP information to be consistent with your citations, added the correct landing page, and set the appropriate category. There are some other things you can do in GMB as well, such as upload photos of your business, add a business description, display limited time offers, etc. It’s unknown how much impact adding photos or a business description might have, but it sure can’t hurt.

3. Content on Site

If the content on your website does not match whatever you set the category to, don’t expect to be able to rank well. For example, if you’re an HVAC company who also does electrical work, and you’ve set your category to “HVAC Contractor” as primary and “Electrician” as secondary, but you have absolutely no content on your website about doing electrical work then Google isn’t going to be super confident about displaying you in the map pack for queries like “electrician near me”. People make dumb mistakes in Google My Business all the time, so Google isn’t going to take you at your word that you do electrical work just because you set a category that says you did. Heck, I’ve seen people mark themselves permanently closed (which does not do anything good for your business, trust me). Point is, if you want Google to display you for a specific type of search like “electrician miami”, then you need to put content on your site about it. You aren’t going to accidentally write a whole page about doing electrical work and publish it, so it’s solid signal to Google that you actually do that work.

4. Reviews

It’s believed that a higher quantity of reviews, higher quality reviews (more content from the reviewer with a high star rating), and review freshness and velocity all have an impact. Review freshness means that your reviews aren’t stale, and review velocity refers to the pace at which you earn reviews. If you’re getting a fresh review every 2-3 weeks and you sell termite protection, then you’re probably doing just fine. An Olive Garden likely receives reviews more regularly. How often you need to earn reviews is entirely relative to your market. Check your competition. If there are other companies with hundreds of reviews then you may need to continue putting effort into yours.

There’s also some evidence to show the way someone searches locally can impact how important reviews are as well. For example, someone searching for local discounts will get businesses with lower quality reviews than someone searching for the best stores. Someone searching for stores using a “near me” modifier will diminish the importance of reviews, as that search puts a higher weight on location. By contrast if you search by city e.g. “doughnut shop des moines” you will typically get a higher average review rating. This makes sense with how we know searches operate in today’s world, that the algorithm is different for each keyword and tested by machine learning for the optimal mix.

So getting good reviews does not guarantee you placement, but it does play a role, especially if you want to have a shot at showing up for searches like “best + your industry”.

5. Don’t be a Service Area Business (SAB)

Folks, there’s a setting in Google My Business that allows you to hide your address. In the dashboard Google may ask you if you deliver goods and service to people at their address. Even if this is true, I encourage you to only use this setting if you’re operating out of your house and are concerned about privacy. There are two downsides to this setting, one theoretical and one provably true. First, SEOs have shied away from this setting for years, believing that it reduces visibility in the map pack and organic listings because it reduces consistency of your NAP information. If you won’t or can’t use online directory listings because you don’t want your address to be written out across the internet, that will definitely impact you. Some businesses set themselves up as an SAB but maintain consistency with their NAP information everywhere. In theory if you maintain your NAP information everywhere, but only hide it on Google there should be no negative impact, right?

Well not exactly. See the image below.

The first result is a service area business. They’re showing up in the number one spot but they’re not in the map above at all. They’re hidden. This is what some business owners want for privacy’s sake but this is a mistake if your goal is to maximize leads from Google. Users interact with the map pack in a couple of different ways. They either select a business from the listings below (where this SAB is ranking) or they select them directly from the map by clicking on a pin and selecting the business information from Google Maps. By removing himself from the map pack, this business owner has effectively reduced his map pack visibility by 50%. Why might some people choose to select from the map instead of the list? Maybe they have an emergency they need a plumber to get to it right away, so they click on whoever is closest. Maybe the customer only wants to work with people who are specifically in their suburb so they can support their local community. Or maybe they just like how visual it is. Who knows? But people use it that way, so if you remove yourself, you’re reducing visibility.

There may also be some sort of algorithm specific to handling these sorts of businesses that we don’t know about. Google isn’t forthcoming with this information. It certainly bucks the trend when it comes to the 2:1 clustering formula. But overall I recommend steering clear of this setting unless you absolutely need to use it for privacy settings.

One last thing

Stop searching for yourself in the map pack and getting upset when you don’t show up. You don’t need that stress and there’s a better way. Go pro instead, and login to business.google.com and navigate to your Insights dashboard. The Insights dashboard will let you see how often you showed up in the map pack, how many people called your business, how many people clicked to your website, and how many people navigated to your storefront. It’s set to show 1 month by default but you can easily view the past quarter be selecting it from the drop down. This is a much better means of tracking your performance and is the only one that I would recommend, because Google personalizes their results to the searcher, so no other tracking software can accurately display your performance. This info is directly from Google, so it’s probably about the best you can get for map pack performance reporting. Oh, and it’s also free.

Thanks for reading, have a wonderful day!