Are you running a local business? Or is a part of your revenue generated locally, from your community, city, or area? If your answer is Yes, chances are, you have already heard of local SEO rankings and optimization.
Besides listing your company on Google My Business as a local business, you can take other, more targeted steps to improve your SEO rankings and be placed higher in SERP.
One such step is to do local SEO competition research to find sweet spots where you can get
Before actually finding relevant keywords that you can easily rank for, or rank higher than your competition, you have to get real, unbiased, and unadulterated SERP data. Here’s a simple guide on how you can retrieve this data.
But first: the problem we all face.
Inaccurate Local Search Rankings Data
As a search engine, Google is great. There’s no doubt about it. But all this greatness comes at a cost for you: search results are personalized based on your previous searches and intents.
If you are using your own internet service provider and IP address, you get won’t get reliable SEO data
In most cases, this personalization provides a great user experience. But, when you have to check search engine rankings, the personalization will give you misleading results.
Here are some personalization factors used by Google:
- Previously visited websites (Like your own)
- Your physical location
These two elements are enough to skew results and show two different SERP pages to two people sitting next to each other.
Besides personalization, Google also rotates positions and tests different results to compare CTR (Click Through Rates) to optimize search experience.
Let’s say that you are an avid reader of ZDNet, like me.
What do you think will happen when you search for something generic such as “best vpn“?
I ran this simple experiment on my PC with two different browsers:
- Browser 1: Google Chrome – I use it for most of my personal queries and to log in to Gmail – so Google certainly knows that it is me using this browser.
- Browser 2: Mozilla Firefox (with custom “delete history when closing” settings) is the other browser that I use for random searches online, such as for books, random information, YouTube tutorials, and so on. I use this browser for impartial information. In this way, I know that after searching for sourdough, I won’t be bombarded by targeted ads.
Note: I use Firefox because I like it. If you do not have Firefox installed on your device, you can use Google Chrome Incognito Mode to browse privately and get rid of the search history when closing the window. My Firefox and Chrome Incognito Mode have the same function. It’s all down to your browsing preferences.
The results, while not spectacular, have slight differences, clearly showing different websites and suggestions.
Here is the bottom part of the SERP page:
As you can see, on Google Chrome, I get a slightly personalized result page, with ZDNet (that I visit often) as one of the results. Whereas on Mozilla Firefox, I get a generic VPN review website (without ZDNet, which is probably somewhere on page 2 or 3).
Furthermore, even the related searches suggested are different and more personalized, showing “best vpn reddit” first and “best vpn for streaming” – as I visit Reddit daily, and I watch Netflix in my Chrome browser.
At the same time, another indication of personalization is missing keywords. This means that my result page omitted specific keywords or suggestions that are irrelevant to me, such as “ios best free vpn” – I am an Android user, so there was no point for Google to suggest iOS apps for me.
By now, you have a clear picture of what personalization is, why it is a good thing when we act as consumers, but not for doing local SEO research.
Note: I didn’t use a local SEO query for my experiment because I wanted to show that even for the most generic terms, you will get skewed results, let alone for local search terms. Moreover, I chose to show the bottom-of-page suggestions and how they differ for the same query but two browsers with different footprints and different search histories.
You should do a few local searches yourself and run some experiments to see how local search results differ for you and your city.
How local SEO works
Local SEO, which stands for local Search Engine Optimization, is the practice of optimizing a website’s structure, content and online presence to improve and increase traffic from locally-oriented searches.
Google uses different rankings signals for ranking local businesses for locally-oriented searches.
For example, searching for “coffee shop near me” in Houston, TX, will return a different set of results than searching for “coffee shop near me” in Seattle.
For such terms, Somebody looking for a coffee shop in Seattle doesn’t care about the best-rated coffee shops in Houston.
Now, from a user’s point of view, local search personalization is great. You can find a good coffee shop near you without much hassle and without having to specify your location as a keyword.
But what about your business? Is it prepared and optimized for local search?
What if you run a business in two locations. Let’s say you’re active in New York and New Jersey. Will people in New Jersey find your business if they use the “near me” term in their search queries?
There’s only one way to find out: test by “teleportation”.
How to do local SEO effectively for a business
Don’t think of teleportation as in Star-Trek teleportation: from a physical point A to a physical point B.
Instead, think of it as digital teleportation.
In other words, you need to tell search engines that you are in a different area for it to return results from that area, not from the one that you reside in.
As in the case of a business with two locations, in New York and New Jersey, if you are located in New York, you need to access New Jersey’s local search results to gauge how you stand against your competition in that locale.
But, Google won’t necessarily return objective (un-personalized) results. Instead, you will receive skewed results, tailored to your past queries and personal preferences.
The only way of getting real, objective results is to provide search engines with as little as possible about you or to use an SEO tool.
Anonymizers for local SEO
One way of providing less data is to use anonymizers, such as VPNs or proxies when checking your keyword rankings.
In essence, these anonymizers will replace your device’s IP address with their servers’ IPs. So, any website accessed, while connected to VPN or proxies, will see the VPN (or proxy) address instead of yours. Subsequently, it will return search results unbiased from your previous searches and personal options.
A VPN for local SEO
At first, a VPN might seem the right tool for local SEO. But, there are a couple of features that make VPNs not so great for marketing:
- System encryption – VPNs encrypt your whole device, so you are forced to use your own accounts through the VPN (the same accounts that help personalize your online content)
- Single connection per device – You can’t use multiple VPNs in different locations at once; hence you can’t automate local SEO research through multiple IP addresses
VPNs are not the perfect tool for performing local SEO research. However, a VPN might do the trick if you run a small business that requires a minimum amount of search keywords.
For bigger projects and automating local search optimization, VPN’s won’t do the work.
Residential proxies for local SEO
Unlike VPN connections, which have one connection at a time, when using proxy servers, you can use several at once. Which has a few benefits:
- Do simultaneous research on both desktop and mobile rankings
- Automate local SEO research
- Use multiple IP addresses from the same area (or from different areas) to filter skewed rankings and retrieve only the “core results”
While VPNs are best used for privacy, residential proxies are employed for marketing and data mining. However, there’s a catch: these types of proxies are pretty expensive to use — several times more than a VPN.
In exchange for higher prices, proxies offer accuracy, or better said, the lack of bias, in the data retrieved, making them a viable option for any business that can afford them.
Getting back to my general query for “best vpn”, here’s the results I retrieved by using a residential IP from New York. Different results and new suggestions.
Can I expect 100% objective data?
No, you shouldn’t expect 100% objective data. But this doesn’t mean that you should be and not try to improve your local SEO rankings.
You should think of local SEO research as an art task, not a purely scientific one. You will get results, but each time different. Thus, you should stress about the small stuff. Try to get as close as possible to “pure data”.
But never expect to find a holy grail or the ultimate method. They don’t exist.
Using anonymizers, you get a higher chance of retrieving accurate and unbiased data that you can use in your optimization.
Can I use a rank tracker?
Yes, you can always use a rank tracker. However, when it comes to local SEO research, it’s still best to emulate your potential clients’ real connections and try to get data as close to their results as possible.
Your end-users will get personalized search queries too (as my search above). But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to get objective local SEO results and optimize your website to increase your chances of ranking above your competition.
We all enjoy the benefits of personalized and locally-oriented search results offered by Google. The same granular personalization can become a hindrance when performing competition research for local SEO optimization.
Even a slight change in the browser used for searching leads to different results. To mitigate personalization results and retrieve “core search results” – which are shown to most users – you can use various anonymizers.
These are tools that mask your real IP address, location, and digital identity. At the same time, you can use them to emulate the location and browsing patterns of your actual customers.
Editors Note: There you have it. Now you know how to get impartial data to show you where your website is ranking on Google for your primary keywords without having to pay for an expensive SEO tool.
This method of anonymizing yourself requires you to use a fresh or incognito browser without any history and a VPN or proxies if you want to see the results from multiple locations. Give it a try, this is a skill that is essential for anybody trying to improve their local keyword rankings.