Posted by MiriamEllis
Google must be one of the most experimental enterprises the world has ever known. When it comes to the company’s local search interfaces, rather than rolling them all out as a single, cohesive whole, they have emerged in piecemeal fashion over two decades with different but related feature sets, unique URLs, and separate branding. Small wonder that confusion arises in dialog about aspects of local search. You, your agency coworkers, and your clients may find yourselves talking at cross-purposes about local rankings simply because you’re all looking at them on different interfaces!
Such is certainly the case with Google Maps vs. the object we call the Google Local Finder. Even highly skilled organic SEOs at your agency may not understand that these are two different entities which can feature substantially different local business rankings.
Today we’re going to clear this up, with a side-by-side comparison of the two user experiences, expert quotes, and a small, original case study that demonstrates and quantifies just how different rankings are between these important interfaces.
I manually gathered both Google Maps and Local Finder rankings across ten different types of geo-modified, local intent search phrases and ten different towns and cities across the state of California. I looked at differences both across search phrase and across locale, observing those brands which ranked in the top 10 positions for each query. My queries were remote (not performed within the city nearest me) to remove the influence of proximity and establish a remote baseline of ranking order for each entry. I tabulated all data in a spreadsheet to discover the percentage of difference in the ranked results.
Before I roll out the results, I want to be sure I’ve offered a good definition of these two similar but unique Google platforms. Any user performing a local search (like “best tacos san jose”) can take two paths for deep local results:
Here’s a side-by-side comparison:
At first glance, these two user experiences look fairly similar with some minor formatting and content differences, but the URLs are distinct, and what you might also notice in this screenshot is that the rankings, themselves, are different. In this example, the results are, in fact, startlingly different.
I’d long wanted to quantify for myself just how different Maps and Local Finder results are, and so I created a spreadsheet to track the following:
I found that, taken altogether, the average difference in Local Finder vs. Maps results was 18.2% across all cities. The average difference was 18.5% across all search phrases. In other words, nearly one-fifth of the results on the two platforms didn’t match.
Here’s a further breakdown of the data:
While many keyword/location combos showed 0% difference between the two platforms, others featured degrees of difference of 20%, 30%, 50%, 70%, and even 100%.
It would have been lovely if this small study surfaced any reliable patterns for us. For example, looking at the fact that the small, rural town of Angels Camp was the locale with the most diverse SERPs (28%), one might think that the smaller the community, the greater the variance in rankings. But such an idea founders when observing that the city with the second-most variability in LA (25%).
Similarly, looking at the fact that a longer-tail search like “cheapest tax accountant” featured the most differences (41%), it could be tempting to theorize that greater refinement in search intent yields more varied results. But then we see that “best tacos” results were only 11% different across Google Maps and the Local Finder. So, to my eyes, there is no discernible pattern from this limited data set. Perhaps narratives might emerge if we pulled thousands of SERPs.
For now, all we can say with confidence is that we’ve proven that there’s a good chance that the rankings a business enjoys in Google’s Local Finder frequently will not match their rankings in Google Maps. Individual results sets for keyword/locale combos may vary not at all, somewhat, substantially, or totally.
The above findings from our study naturally lead to the question: why are the results for the same query different on the two Google platforms? For commentary on this, I asked three of my favorite local SEOs for theories on the source of the variance, and any other notable variables they’ve observed.
“I think that the differences are driven by the subtle differences of the ‘view port’ aspect ratio and size differences in the two environments. The viewport effectively defines the cohort of listings that are relevant enough to show. If it is larger, then there are likely more listings eligible, and if one of those happens to be strong, then the results will vary.”
Here’s an illustration of what Mike is describing. When we look at the results for the same search in the Local Finder and Google Maps, side by side, we often see that the area shown on the map is different at the automatic zoom level:
“Typically when I begin searches in Maps, I am seeing a broader area of results being served as well as categories of businesses. The results in the Local Finder are usually more specific and display more detail about the businesses. The Maps-based results are delivered in a manner that show users desire discovery and browsing. This is different from the Local Finder in that these results tend to be more absolute and about Google pushing pre-determined businesses and information to be evaluated by the user.”
Krystal is a GMB Gold Product Expert, and her comment was the first time I’d ever heard an expert of her caliber define how Google might view the intent of Maps vs. Finder searchers differently. Fascinating insight!
“What varies is mainly the features that Google shows. For example, products will show up on the listing in the Local Finder but not on Google Maps and attribute icons (women-led, Black-owned, etc.) show up on Google Maps but not in the Local Finder. Additionally, searches done in the Local Finder get lumped in with search in Google My Business (GMB) Insights whereas searches on Maps are reported on separately. Google is now segmenting it by platform and device as well.”
In sum, Google Maps vs. Local Finder searchers can have a unique UX, at least in part, because Google may surface a differently-mapped area of search and can highlight different listing elements. Meanwhile, local business owners and their marketers will discover variance in how Google reports activity surrounding these platforms.
As always, there is nothing an individual can do to cause Google to change how it displays local search results. Local SEO best practices can help you move up in whatever Google displays, but you can’t cause Google to change the radius of search it is showing on a given platform.
That being said, there are three things I recommend for your consideration, based on what we’ve learned from this study.
I want to show you the most extreme example of the difference between Maps and the Local Finder that I discovered during my research. First, the marker here locates the town of Angels Camp in the Sierra foothills in east California:
For the search “personal injury attorney angels camp”, note the area covered by map at the automatic zoom level accompanying the Local Finder results:
The greatest distance between any two points in this radius of results is about 100 miles.
Now, contrast this with the same search as it appears at the automatic zoom level on Google Maps:
Astonishingly, Google is returning a tri-state result for this search in Maps. The greatest distance between two pins on this map is nearly 1,000 miles!
As I mentioned, this was the most extreme case I saw. Like most local SEOs, I’ve spent considerable time explaining to clients who want to rank beyond their location that the further a user gets from the brand’s place of business, the less likely they are to see it come up in their local results. Typically, your best chance of local pack rankings begins with your own neighborhood, with a decent chance for some rankings within your city, and then a lesser chance beyond your city’s borders.
But the different behavior of Maps could yield unique opportunities. Even if what’s happening in your market is more moderate, in terms of the radius of results, my advice is to study the net Google is casting for your search terms in Maps. If it is even somewhat wider than what the Local Finder yields, and there is an aspect of the business that would make it valuable to bring in customers from further afield, this might indicate that some strategic marketing activities could potentially strengthen your position in these unusual results.
For example, one of the more distantly-located attorneys in our example might work harder to get clients from Angels Camp to mention this town name in their Google-based reviews, or might publish some Google posts about Angels Camp clients looking for the best possible lawyer regardless of distance, or publish some website content on the same topic, or look to build some new relationships and links within this more distant community. All of this is very experimental, but quite intriguing to my mind. We’re in somewhat unfamiliar territory here, so don’t be afraid to try and test things!
As always, bear in mind that all local search rankings are fluid. For verticals which primarily rely on the narrowest user-to-business proximity ratios for the bulk of transactions, more remote visibility may have no value. A convenience store, for example, is unlikely to garner much interest from faraway searchers. But for many industries, any one of these three criteria could make a larger local ranking radius extremely welcome:
If any of those scenarios fits a local brand you’re marketing, definitely look at Google Maps behavior for focus search phrases.
As Joy Hawkins mentioned, above, there can be many subtle differences between the elements Google displays within listings on their two platforms. Look at how hours are included in the Maps listing for this taco shop, but that they’re absent from the Finder. The truth is, Google changes the contents of the various local interfaces so often that even the experts are constantly asking themselves and one another if some element is new.
The good news is, you don’t need to spend a minute worrying about minutiae here if you make just 5 commitments:
I realize this is a tall order, but it’s also basic, good local search marketing and if you put in the work, Google will have plenty to surface about your locations, regardless of platform variables.
Google Maps, as an entity, launched in 2005, with mobile app development spanning the next few years. The Local Finder, by contrast, has only been with us since 2015. Because local packs default to the Local Finder, it’s my impression that local SEO industry study has given the lion’s share of research to these interfaces, rather than to Google Maps.
Yet, Maps is the golden oldie in Google’s timeline (albeit one Google has handled irreverently with the rise and fall of the Map Maker community), and Maps has been shown to have three times more impressions than search, in one recent study. Maps is the default app on Android devices, and other mobile brand users often prefer it, too. Most intriguingly, Google is appearing to toy with the idea of replacing the Local Finder with Maps, though nothing has come of this yet.
I would suggest that 2021 is a good year to spend more time looking at Google Maps, interacting with it, and going down its rabbit holes into the weird walled garden Google continues to build into this massive interface. I recommend this, because I feel it’s only a matter of time before Google tidies up its piecemeal, multi-decade rollout of disconnected local interfaces via consolidation, and Maps has the history at Google to become the dominant version.
We’ve learned today that Google Maps rankings are, on average, nearly 20% different than Local Finder rankings, that this may stem, in part, from unique view port ratios, that it’s possible Google may view the intent of users on the two platforms differently, and that there are demonstrable variables in the listing content Google displays when we look at two listings side-by-side. We’ve also looked at some scenarios in which verticals that could benefit from a wider consumer radius would be smart to study Google Maps in the year ahead.
I want to close with some encouragement for everyone participating in the grand experiment of Google’s mapping project. The above photo is of the Bedolina Map, which was engraved on a rock in the Italian alps sometime around 500 BC. It is one of the oldest-known topographic maps, plotting out pathways, agricultural fields, villages, and the people who lived there. Consider it the Street View of the Iron Age.
I’m sharing this image because it’s such a good reminder that your work as a local SEO linked to digital cartography is just one leg of a very long journey which, by nature, requires a willingness to function in an experimental environment. If you can communicate this state of permanent change to clients, it can decrease stress on both sides of your next Zoom meeting. Rankings rise and fall, and as we’ve seen, they even differ across closely-related platforms, making patience essential and a big-picture view of overall growth very grounding. Keep studying, and help us all out on the mapped path ahead by sharing what you learn with our community.
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