Sherlock Investigates Local SEO: How We Solved 3 Local Ranking Mysteries

sherlock holmes local seo at smxIn a greasy burger joint in Seattle in June, the people on the stage were trading stories about solving crazy strange ranking mysteries that, if you spend any time doing local search engine optimization, you’re going to be familiar with. That’s where this session was born.

Here are our SMX East 2015 speakers presenting on local SEO solutions:

  • Mary Bowling, Co-Founder of Ignitor Digital (@MaryBowling)
  • Joy Hawkins, Digital Advertising Product Director at Imprezzio Marketing (@JoyanneHawkins)
  • Andrew Shotland, Founder of Local SEO (@localseoguide)

Mary Bowling’s “The Case of the Hidden Merchants”

“It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” –Sherlock Holmes

One of the first steps of local SEO mystery solving: a very thorough, detailed audit of the site and its organic ranking.

However, you may not always be able to do the Full Monty. In these cases, she’d focus in on these aspects:

  • Technical
  • SERPs
  • Google My Business listing
  • Location
  • Website
  • NAP + URL
  • Inbound links
  • Competitors


  • Are they ranking for their name?
  • Are they ranking well in organic and in Google Maps?


  • Robots.txt
  • XML sitemap
  • Webmaster Tools/Search Console
  • Site: search to see how many pages of the site are in the index and if important pages are showing up

GMB listing:

  • Are categories correct? Best primary, all applicable, no marginal
  • Guideline violations? Follow the guidelines for representing your business on Google
  • Duplicate listings? Search Google for [name(s) + location(s)/phone numbers]


  • Is the map pin exactly correct?
  • Check the street view to see if it maps
  • Is NAP + URL correct and does it match the website?
  • Are they faking it? Do they claim to have a location where they really don’t? Or do they claim they’re open 24 hours when it’s a virtual business service?
  • Is the address in the right city?
  • Does the business pin match the address pin? (Open two Maps windows and search for the business in one and the address in the other to see if they are in the same place.)


  • On-page optimized for geo terms
  • More than one site?
  • NAP (name/address/phone number) matches GMB?


  • Check Moz Local to see if anything stands out.
  • Check Yext to see the breadth of the problem.

Inbound links:

  • Where are the links from?
  • What does the anchor text say?
  • Manual penalties (Search Console)
  • Algorithmic penalties (Panguin tool)


  • Do competitors have advantages you must work harder to overcome?
  • Address in city
  • Location within map area
  • More or better links
  • A superlink
  • More media attention
  • More targeted focus
  • Keywords in business name
  • Keywords in URL
  • More or better content
  • Better on-page optimization
  • Active and savvy on social

“Presume nothing. You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” –Sherlock Holmes

Look at the little details and be obsessive about making sure they match up across the board.

Here are Mary’s slides for reference:

Joy Hawkins: “Why Doesn’t My Business Rank in the Maps Section of Google?”

You’ve probably received this email before:

Dear Joy,

Why am I not ranking on the map/local? My website’s better. I have more Google reviews.


Concerned Client

Problem: A Closed Listing

He moved in the last year to an office down the street.

MapMaker and GMB handle moves differently.

You can only find closed listings in MapMaker. A lot of other methods to find duplicates don’t show closed listings. She always looks here first.

Why are they a problem?

  • Older listings are more authoritative.
  • Reviews can be on the old listing and not moved over to the new listing.

MapMaker is the way to edit non-verified listings.

  • MapMaker’s policy is to close the existing listing and create a brand new listing.
  • Pros: Prevents mapping issues.
  • Cons: Ranking power is lost (it’s like having a brand new business).

Google My Business

  • Tells you to edit the existing listing in the GMB Dashboard
  • Pros: You are way less likely to see a big drop in ranking. Reviews, photos, videos and posts stay intact.
  • Cons: Driving directions will be wrong for a bit; map marker will be in the wrong spot.

She prefers the GMB way because it’s better for rankings.

Solution: She contacted Google My Business support to merge the open and closed listing. After this, the listing went from nowhere to Page 3.

Problem: Two identical websites

The real website is on, which has a lot of authority and links. The vanity URL website is easier for users. She looked, and both sites had links pointing to them.

Two websites competing against themselves.
Two websites competing against themselves.


  • Step 1: Use a canonical tag to tell Google your preferred site.
  • Step 2: Google will ignore this and keep the site in the index if the non-canonical site has more links. However, the link equity was combined.

What about the filter? There are other State Farm agents that are ranking higher and causing him to be filtered out of results.

Solution: More links from good local sources.

Problem: Address Free-Form

The address from GMB does not transfer into the right fields on MapMaker.

Some signs of mapping issues:

  • Driving directions are wrong.
  • In some cases, your map marker won’t stay in the right spot.
  • No Street View on your listing in Maps.


  • Try changing the address in GMB to use the exact same formatting as MapMaker.
  • Contact GMB phone support.

NAP Diagnosis Process

Joy Hawkins' NAP diagnosis process
Joy Hawkins’ NAP diagnosis process.

She also uses a directory tool called Yellowbot to find multiple databases and directories where a business is listed.

Bonus tip:

There are authority data providers that are applicable only to certain industries. Working with medical professionals? Make sure NPPES is up-to-date. This is a .gov data provider with huge authority, and keeping it up to date is key.

Here’s Joy’s slide deck for your reference:

Andrew Shotland, the Local SEO Guide, in The Case of the Mysterious Local Entities

The Knowledge Graph is brilliant. Google has created all the data together to try to get a 3D picture.

It’s brilliant — like a 2 year old. It throws hissy fits and wets its pants. :O

For example, Google takes data from DMOZ, which is largely outdated.

When is a closed GMB listing not closed? (See answer on Local SEO Guide.)

Q: Why is a cat showing up in our knowledge panel?

Check out this example of a random photo showing up for a Hyundai dealer:

Kittens in the Knowledge Graph result for a Hyundai dealer
Kittens in the Knowledge Graph result for a Hyundai dealer?!

To solve this mystery, he chased many trails and couldn’t solve it. Eventually, they had multiple people from different IP addresses report that the image was not relevant to the business.

Q: Why don’t we rank #1 for “local seo company Pleasanton, ca”?

  • No address on site
  • No LocalBusiness schema
  • Lots of NAP issues

Q: Can we fix the ranking without addressing NAP issues?

  • He optimized the on-page.
  • He updated the GMB page.
  • Got a quality inbound link.
  • Added address to GMB landing page.
  • Changed Google+ link to his company rather than himself.

With all that, he locked in #2 in the local listings!

What made the difference to get #1 was adding the keyword to the title tag. But it bounces around and he’s still looking to solve the mystery, which you can follow along on his blog at


Andrew Shotland's local SEO mystery conclusions
Andrew Shotland’s local SEO mystery conclusions


Do you tell clients how long it might take? Joy says she usually gives a 3-month standard. Andrew says that they tell them they’ll have an idea of the problem in a couple weeks and then start executing. Mary explains the difficulty of NAP clean-up is because no one ever has all their logins, new accounts have to be created, and it requires incredible attention to detail. NAP problems can plague businesses for years.

For more Q&A, see the liveblog of their other SMX East session: Local Search Q&A with Top Local Experts.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay, Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger. Head over to her author page to connect on social.
Comments (3)
Filed under: SEO — Tags: , ,
Still on the hunt for actionable tips and insights? Each of these recent SEO posts is better than the last!

3 Replies to “Sherlock Investigates Local SEO: How We Solved 3 Local Ranking Mysteries”

Good article from GREAT people in the industry!

You have shared a very helpful article for the people who want to promote their business locally.

If you want to promote your online business in local area, you should use NAP consistently on your website as well as on business listing websites. Use keywords targeted to local places and add local schema to your website.

Consistent NAP across internet is really important for ranking on local 3-pack. Structuring NAP information with Schema or other structured data helps a lot. And targeting geo specific keywords on the contents & URLs is another important factor.
Very good article, lots of valuable points shared, I am sure this content is going to help many local optimizers. I am bookmarking this page as a future local SEO reference.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Serving North America based in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area
Bruce Clay, Inc. | 2245 First St., Suite 101 | Simi Valley, CA 93065
Voice: 1-805-517-1900 | Toll Free: 1-866-517-1900 | Fax: 1-805-517-1919