Google has to be one of the most experimental companies the world has ever known. When it comes to the company's local search interfaces, rather than implementing them all as a single, cohesive whole, they have sprung up piecemeal over two decades, with different but related features, unique URLs, and separate branding. No wonder that confusion arises in the dialogue about aspects of local search. You, your agency staff, and your clients may be talking across local rankings just because you are looking at them all on different interfaces!
This is certainly the case with Google Maps compared to what we call the Google Local Finder. Even highly skilled organic SEOs in your agency may fail to understand that these are two different companies that can have vastly different local company rankings.
Today we're going to clarify this through a head-to-head comparison of the two user experiences, expert quotes, and a small, original case study that shows and quantifies how different the rankings are between these important interfaces.
I manually collected both Google Maps and Local Finder rankings in ten different types of geomodified search phrases with local intent and in ten different cities in the state of California. I explored the differences between search phrases as well as between locales, observing the brands that ranked in the top 10 for each query. My queries were removed (not done in the city closest to me) to remove the influence of proximity and set a distant baseline for ranking for each entry. I've tabbed all of the data in a table to see the percentage difference in the ranking results.
Results of my study on Google Maps compared to the local finder
Before I put the results out, I want to make sure that I have offered a good definition of these two similar but unique Google platforms. Anyone doing a local search (like "Best Tacos San Jose") can go two ways to get in-depth local results:
- Path one starts with a local package that usually consists of three results at the top of the organic search results. When you click on it, the local package takes the user to the local finder which extends the local package and contains several entries with a map. These types of results are available from google.com/search.
- Path two can start by default on any Android device with Google Maps, or it can start on a desktop device by clicking the Maps tab above the organic SERPs. These types of results are similar to the local finder with its list of rated companies and associated map. However, they are available on google.com/maps.
Here is a side-by-side comparison:
At first glance, these two user experiences look pretty similar with some minor formatting and content differences, but the URLs are different, and what you might also notice in this screenshot is that the rankings themselves are different. In this example, the results are actually surprisingly different.
I've wanted to quantify for myself how different the results of Maps and Local Finder are, so I created a table to keep track of:
- Ten different search phrases including some head words and some longer term terms with refined intent.
- Ten cities from all over the large state of California with broad population ratios. Angels Camp, for example, only has 3,875 residents, while LA is home to nearly 4 million people.
Overall, I found that the average difference between the Local Finder and Maps results across all cities was 18.2%. The average difference was 18.5% across all search phrases. In other words, almost a fifth of the results on the two platforms disagreed.
Here is another breakdown of the data:
Average percentage of difference by search term
- Burger (11%)
- Grocery store (19%)
- Pediatrician (12%)
- Personal Injury Lawyer (18%)
- House cleaning service (10%)
- Electric vehicle dealers (16%)
- best tacos (11%)
- cheapest tax advisor (41%)
- Nearby attractions (8%)
- Women's clothing (39%)
Average percentage of difference by city
- Angel camp (28%)
- San Jose (15%)
- San Rafael (24%)
- San Francisco (4%)
- Sacramento (16%)
- Los Angeles (25%)
- Monterey (14%)
- San Diego (16%)
- Eureka (25%)
- Grass Valley (15%)
While many keyword / location combinations showed a 0% difference between the two platforms, others showed differences of 20%, 30%, 50%, 70%, and even 100%.
It would have been nice if this little study had produced reliable patterns for us. For example, considering 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 the rankings. But such an idea emerges when one observes that the city with the second most common variability is LA (25%).
Given that a longer term search like “cheapest accountant” showed the most differences (41%), it might be tempting to theorize that more refinement of search intent leads to more diverse results. But then we see that the results of the “best tacos” were only 11% different between Google Maps and the local finder. In my view, no pattern can be seen from this limited data set. Maybe narratives could emerge if we pulled thousands of SERPs.
For now, we can only say with confidence that we have proven that there is a good chance that the rankings a business has in Google's local Finder often do not match the rankings on Google Maps. Individual result sets for keyword / locale combinations may not vary at all, slightly, significantly, or completely.
Maps vs. Finder: What's the Difference and Why?
The above results of our study naturally lead to the question: Why do the results for the same query differ on the two Google platforms? To comment on this, I asked three of my favorite local SEOs about the theories about the source of variance and about other notable variables they observed.
Mike Blumenthal, Co-Founder of Near Media, says:
“I think the differences are due to the subtle differences in the 'viewport' aspect ratio and the size differences in the two environments. The viewport effectively defines the cohort of entries that are relevant enough to be displayed. If it's larger, more entries are likely to be allowed, and if either is strong, the results will vary. "
Here is an illustration of what Mike is describing. When we look side by side at the results for the same search in the Local Finder and Google Maps, we often find that the area shown on the map is different at the automatic zoom level:
Uberall Solutions engineer Krystal Taing confirms this understanding with additional details:
“When I start searching maps, I usually see a wider range of results and categories of businesses. The results in the local finder are usually more specific and show more detailed information about the companies. The map-based results are provided in a way that shows users that they want to be recognized and searched. This differs from the Local Finder in that these results are usually more absolute and Google promotes certain companies and information in advance that must be evaluated by the user. "
Krystal is a GMB Gold Product Expert. Her comment was the first time I heard an expert of her caliber define how Google might see the intent of Google Maps and Finder searchers differently. Fascinating insight!
Joy Hawkins, founder of Sterling Sky, highlights other differences in UX and reporting between the two platforms:
“What varies are mainly the functions that Google shows. For example, products in the list appear in the local Finder but not in Google Maps, and attribute icons (female-owned, black-owned, etc.) appear in Google Maps but not in the Local Finder. In addition, searches in the local finder are combined with searches in Google My Business (GMB) Insights, while searches in maps are reported separately. Google is now segmenting it by platform and device as well. "
Overall, Google Maps or Local Finder searchers can at least partially have a unique user interface, as Google may display a differently assigned search area and highlight various listing elements. In the meantime, local business owners and their marketers will notice differences in the way Google reports activity around these platforms.
What should you do with the Google Maps vs. Local Finder variables?
As always, there is nothing a person can do to get Google to change how local search results are displayed. Local SEO best practices can help you rise in the ads that Google is showing. However, you cannot get Google to change the search radius that is displayed on a particular platform.
That being said, there are three things I recommend for your consideration based on what we have learned from this study.
1. Check whether Google Maps uses a wider network than the local Finder for one of the search phrases you want.
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 locates the town of Angels Camp in the foothills of the Sierra in Eastern California:
When searching for "Angels Camp for Personal Injury Lawyers", note the area covered by the map in the automatic zoom level that accompanies the results of the Local Finder:
The greatest distance between two points in this result radius is approximately 100 miles.
Now compare this to the search shown in the Google Maps automatic zoom level:
Amazingly, Google returns a three-status result for this search in Maps. The greatest distance between two pins on this map is nearly 1,000 miles!
As I mentioned earlier, this was the most extreme case I've seen. As with most local SEOs, I've spent a lot of time explaining to clients wanting to rank beyond their location that the further a user is from the brand's place of business, the less likely they are to see this in their local results sees. Usually, your best chance for local pack rankings starts with your own neighborhood, with a decent chance for some rankings within your city and a lesser chance beyond your city's boundaries.
However, the different behavior of cards could offer unique possibilities. Even if what's happening in your market is more moderate in terms of the radius of results, I recommend researching the network that Google uses for your search terms on Maps. If it's even a little broader than what the Local Finder delivers, and there's some aspect of the business that makes it valuable to attract customers remotely, it could indicate that some strategic marketing activities may be your position in these unusual ones Areas could strengthen results.
For example, one of the more distant attorneys in our example might work harder to get Angels Camp clients to mention this city name in their Google-based reviews, or publish some Google posts about Angels Camp clients looking for the best attorney possible regardless of the distance, or post some website content on the same topic, or try to build some new relationships and links within this more distant community. All of this is very experimental, but quite fascinating to me. We are in somewhat unknown territory here. So don't be afraid to test things!
As always, remember that all local search rankings are fluid. For industries that rely primarily on the tightest user-business relationships for the majority of transactions, greater remote visibility may be of no value. For example, a supermarket is unlikely to arouse great interest in distant searchers. For many industries, however, one of these three criteria could make a larger local ranking radius extremely welcome:
- The business model has traditionally been associated with traveling a certain distance to get there, like hotels or attractions (here after the pandemic).
- Due to the rarity of the goods or services offered, it is worth driving from a greater distance. This is extremely common in rural areas with few options nearby.
- The company has implemented digital shopping on its website due to the pandemic and now wants to sell to as many customers as possible in a larger region, with either driver delivery or traditional shipping being the fulfillment method.
If any of these scenarios fit a local brand you're marketing, be sure to check Google Maps behavior to find search terms.
2. Flood Google with all sorts of details about the local businesses you are marketing
As Joy Hawkins mentioned above, there can be many subtle differences between the items that Google displays in listings across its two platforms. See how many hours are in the card list for this taco shop, but not in the Finder. The truth is that Google changes the content of the various local interfaces so often that even the experts are constantly asking themselves and each other whether an element is new.
The good news is that if you only make 5 commitments, you won't have to worry about the little things here for a minute:
- Complete all possible fields on the Google My Business dashboard
- Add to that a modest investment in non-dashboard items like Google questions and answers that are present on the Google Business profile
- Make sure your website is optimized for the terms you want to rank for
- Earn advertising on third party websites that Google uses as a reference for "web results" in your listings.
I realize this is a big challenge, but it's also simple, good local search marketing. When you get to work, Google can learn a lot about your locations regardless of platform variables.
3. Study Google Maps with a view to the future
Google Maps started as a company in 2005. The development of mobile apps will extend over the next few years. In contrast, the Local Finder has only been with us since 2015. Since local packs use the Local Finder by default, it seems to me that the local SEO industry study carried over the lion's share of the research to these interfaces and not to Google Maps.
However, Maps is the golden oldie on the Google timeline (though one Google has been disrespectful to the rise and fall of the Map Maker community), and a recent study showed that Maps had three times more impressions than search. Maps is the default app on Android devices, and other mobile brand users often prefer it too. Google seems to be most intriguing to play with the idea of replacing the local finder with maps, although nothing has come of it yet.
I would suggest 2021 is a good year to spend more time looking at Google Maps, interacting with him and walking down his rabbit holes in the weird walled garden. Google continues to build into this massive user interface. I recommend this because, in my opinion, it is only a matter of time before Google cleans up the gradual, multi-decade introduction of disconnected local interfaces through consolidation and Maps has the dominant version on Google.
Photo credit: Ruparch
We learned today that the Google Maps rankings differ on average by almost 20% from the Local Finder rankings. This may be due in part to clear view port ratios, so that Google may see users' intentions differently with respect to both platforms, and that there are detectable variables in the listing content that Google shows when we look at two listings side by side. We also looked at some scenarios where industries that could benefit from a larger customer base would be wise to examine Google Maps in the coming year.
I would like to close with some encouragement to everyone taking part in the great experiment of the Google Mapping Project. The above photo shows the Bedolina card dating sometime around 500 BC. It was engraved on a rock in the Italian Alps. It is one of the oldest known topographic maps depicting roads, agricultural fields, villages and the people who live there. Think of it as the Iron Age street view.
I share this picture because it's such a good reminder that your job as local SEO in the context of digital mapping is only part of a very long journey that inherently requires a willingness to function in an experimental setting. Being able to communicate this permanent change status to customers can ease the burden on both sides of your next Zoom meeting. The rankings go up and down, and as we've seen, they differ even between closely related platforms, which makes patience and an overview of overall growth very important. Keep learning and helping us all on the journey ahead by sharing what you are learning with our community.
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