A perennial question for restaurant brands is where to spend your marketing dollars. Many brands have built impressive regional or national reputations through digital and traditional channels. This approach may be successful at creating awareness and demand, but the last mile between a search and a transaction occurs not through national ad placements but in local channels like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Yelp, as well as social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Restaurant brands that focus on local will see a surprisingly strong return on their marketing investments. 

When a potential customer searches for “pizza near me” on Google, the search engine knows this is a query from someone who wants local results. The search result displayed in response will usually contain the familiar Local Pack, often called the 3-Pack, where Google displays three local listings accompanied by a map. Three chances are all you get to appear on the first page of results for a hungry potential diner. 

Research conducted by SOCi shows that winning a coveted top three position in Google search earns a business 126 percent more traffic than a ranking of four through 10, only visible when a user clicks through to the second page. Not only that, but top three placement earns a business 93 percent more consumer actions like phone calls, website clicks, and requests for directions—the types of actions that indicate you’ve been chosen above competitors. 

How can restaurants earn top placement? Fortunately for marketers, Google has published guidelines that can help businesses understand and influence its local ranking algorithm. There are three primary factors that cause a business to rank highly in a local search: 

Proximity: This is the distance from the searcher to the business, often very precise due to most searches taking place on phones that emit GPS signals. Businesses can’t do much to influence this signal, but you should be aware that it carries significant weight in local results. For instance, tools that track ranking from multiple spots in the same city can reveal that although you may rank well when searchers are near your location, you’re losing out to the competition when searchers are further away, suggesting that you need to redouble your local optimization efforts. 

Relevance: This is a measure of how closely your business fits what a searcher is looking for, and is primarily determined in Google searches by your primary category, your secondary categories, and your business name, though other signals such as keywords in reviews may play a part. To make sure you show up for searches relevant to your business, choose as specific a primary category as is accurate for your business — “hamburger restaurant” or “Mexican restaurant” are usually better choices than the highly competitive “restaurant.” And if you offer catering or banquet services or any other significant secondary line of business, be sure to list it as a secondary category so you can capture traffic for those searches.

Prominence: This signal is broader than the others but can be summarized by saying that Google wants to show searchers the best among the available choices for any local search. As such, the search engine looks at signals such as strength of reviews, ranking of your business website, mentions of your business in other online sources, and even your offline reputation as a well-known place or brand. Taking care to encourage positive feedback and reinforce your great reputation can help to establish prominence.

In the same ranking documentation that explains these basic factors, Google suggests several specific actions businesses can take to improve their local ranking. Five of these tactics are especially relevant for restaurants. Let’s discuss each in turn. 

Tactic #1: Claim your local listings

This is a basic action that is the prerequisite for all the tactics that follow. Restaurants must claim ownership of the online listings for all of their locations, a process that may involve verification steps such as receiving a postcard with a PIN code at the business location. You can also create new listings if your locations are new or not already represented by a Google listing. Claiming and verification of listings are required in order to make any changes or updates. 

Tactic #2: Update hours of operation (and other key fields)

The most commonly searched for data point in a local listing is hours of operation. This makes sense, because search results won’t do you any good if the business you want is closed. Make sure your hours are up to date for every day of the week and that you indicate special hours due to holidays, as well as any separate hours for drive-through service, breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, or takeout. Moreover, make sure every piece of information in your listings – address, phone number, website links, and more – is fully accurate and up to date to ensure a good consumer experience. 

Tactic #3: Enter complete data

Google provides many fields and features within the typical restaurant listing. Just some of these are name, address, phone, website, categories, hours, description, menu link, order link, waitlist link, years in business, amenities, dining options, and payment methods. In addition, you can share offers and promotions with Google Posts, enable live chat with Messages, and respond to customer questions with Google Q&A. The more fields and features you are able to utilize, the better. 

Tactic #4: Manage and respond to reviews

You can’t directly influence how consumers review your business, but there’s a lot you can do to manage your reviews in a way that shows your business in the best light. Research conducted at SOCi shows that businesses that respond to all of their Google reviews convert searchers into customers 16% more often than those that don’t respond. Common sense can tell you that responding to feedback — from your fans and your detractors — shows that you are listening and that you care about customer feedback and providing a great experience. 

Tactic #5: Add and update your photos

Google has recently expanded its utilization of photo content in local listings in order to show consumers what they’re likely to get when they visit a business. Take another look at the screenshot above of the Google 3-Pack result for “pizza near me.” Every business listed includes photos of pizzas, displayed as a photo carousel that users can scroll through on their phones. Businesses should regularly upload fresh photos showcasing the best possible representations of menu items, ambience, friendly staff, and more. 

Google is, undoubtedly, the most important local channel for restaurants, but many of the same tactics apply to important secondary platforms like Apple Maps, Yelp, and Facebook. Remember that today’s consumers have very high expectations for being able to learn about, engage with, and begin transactions with local businesses using digital tools. Utilizing the tactics outlined here can help turn your national or regional brand into a local favorite. 

With over a decade of local search experience, Damian Rollison, SOCi’s Director of Market Insights, has focused his career on discovering innovative ways to help businesses large and small get noticed online. Damian’s columns appear frequently at Street Fight, Search Engine Land, and other publications, and he is a frequent speaker at industry conferences such as Localogy, Brand Innovators, State of Search, SMX, and more.

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