From Zero to Local Ranking Hero – MozCon 2019

Get an inside look into the process, strategies, and tactics implemented to take a business from having zero web presence to ranking hyper-locally in 8 months.

Questions asked along the way:

  • How long does it take to rank in local?
  • How should you set up local rank tracking?
  • How many citations are indexed on average after building citations?
  • How do you get more citations indexed?
  • What impact do reviews have on rankings?
  • Does setting service areas in GMB help you rank in those areas?
  • How valuable are links for local rankings?
  • How well can a business rank from a GMB listing alone?
  • How much better is a full website for ranking vs a GMB one-pager?


Idea Conception
November 9, 2018 – Most SEO campaigns start by executing many different SEO tactics and strategies right away. Rankings typically improve, but how do you know which strategies were the real ranking boosters, and which tactics seemed to have little impact? How can we measure the impact of specific local search strategies independent of each other? To test this, I needed to start a local SEO campaign for a business that was a “clean slate” with no pre-existing online presence. This would allow me to step through each tactic one by one and see how they affected rankings.

So, I took to Twitter and asked if anyone knew of a business that had no pre-existing online presence that I could do free SEO for.

Case Study Time-frame
December 15, 2018 to July 15, 2019

Business Test Subject
Hmm, out of 113 businesses submitted for this, every single one of them already had some online presence. They had a facebook page, or a GMB listing, or a website, or a decent amount of citations already.

Fortunately, I remembered about some friends with a company that truly was the clean slate I was looking for. FC Developments, a custom home builder in Edmonton, Alberta had no existing online presence. No website, no links, no GMB, no Facebook, and no citations.

Information Gathering
I had a call with the owners and collected all of the business details necessary for citation building and writing up some website content, then I did some basic keyword research.

Register the Business Name

Since FC Developments had zero online presence, it was a golden opportunity to incorporate their top keyword in their business name and register the business as “FC Developments Custom Home Builder”. Keywords in the business name are known to have a significant impact on local search rankings, but adding keywords when it’s not your actual business name can get your listing suspended for spamming, so the ideal situation is if the business’ real business name has the keywords in it. Since we were starting from scratch, we had the opportunity to make this happen.

Google My Business Setup

December 20, 2018

I created their GMB listing.

The Primary Category is Critical

One key element for ranking in local search is setting the optimal primary category. In their case, custom home builder is the best category and their target keyphrase. It’s also important and valuable to add any other RELATED categories that make sense for your business, but watch out for “category confusion“, as that can actually have a negative impact on ranking.


What Else Can You Optimize on a GMB Listing?

Beyond the categories, there isn’t much else to explicitly optimize for rankings on a GMB listing. Things like adding keywords to the description, services, and Posts have been shown to not directly impact rankings, but they may indirectly impact rankings through increased engagement and click-through signals. These features of GMB are also extremely valuable for conversion rate optimization on your Google listing. It’s one thing to rank, but you also need compel people to engage with listing and contact your business. You should work towards getting the most from your GMB listings by filling out every field, and regularly using every available feature. We have an excellent guide on GMB enhancement for the do-it-yourselfers, and we have a reasonably priced GMB Management Service where our expert team will make your GMB listing shine and convert.


January 9, 2019 – Verified the Listing

As it seems to happen so often, the postcard never arrived, but fortunately, and surprisingly, the phone verification option just showed up in the dashboard for me.

TIP:If you don’t receive the verification postcard after 2 weeks or if someone at your business accidentally throws it out – log back in and check for the phone verification option (it might appear).

Let’s get them a website

Google offers a quick and easy website builder in Google My Business, so I figured I’d start with that and see how well it worked.

Positives About GMB Websites

  • The basic design options look fairly decent
  • It’s simple and easy for a business to use
  • Perhaps the content you add to this site feeds directly into the Knowledge Graph? This is pure speculation and I don’t know if it helps, but with a GMB website you are putting your content right into Google’s database.
  • Any Google Posts you and and any reviews you get are automatically added to the website, so it’s continually being updated with fresh content.

TIP:Even if you already have an existing website, you can still create a GMB site and add content to it!

January 10, 2019 – Let’s get them a proper domain

The default URL you get with a GMB website looks pretty terrible:

I didn’t want to spread this URL all over the web in their citations and then have to go back to update them later, so I purchased a domain name from Google. They have a domain buying feature right inside GMB!

Setup Rank Tracking

January 11, 2019

Wow. The day their Google listing went live, FC Developments was ranking #1 for one of their terms.

Welp, that was easy. Ranking #1, my work here is done.

A couple of caveats:

  1. This specific ranking result was for a more obscure long tail term: home builders in Glenora Edmonton.
  2. I was checking the rankings from within that area. My house is located only about 10 blocks from their business location. Google puts an extreme emphasis on proximity to searcher, and so that was also influencing our ability to rank so quickly.

Still, it’s very interesting that Google will rank a business so quickly with almost no other local search elements in place. No citations, no reviews, no links. Only a GMB listing and a GMB website. If your business is relevant for the term and the searcher is located close by, you will rank!


Make sure you’re tracking rankings from multiple zip/postal codes

Most people just track local rankings from a single point, in the center of the city. Bad move. Rankings will vary every 10 feet. To get a rough sense of how you rank around the city, you need to set up your rank tracker to check across multiple zip/postal codes. I clicked around on Google Maps and selected these spots to track rankings from:

By specifying these different search locations in the Whitespark Local Rank Tracker, we’re able to see how we rank in each zip code and it’s easy to filter by location. This offers much better insight into how we’re actually ranking, rather than just tracking from one point in the city center.

Citation Building

January 15, 2019
We built 100 citations through our citation building service

TIP: Use a different phone number for citation building to avoid all the annoying sales calls from crap directories. You can get a number from Call Rail or a similar number provider. Just make sure that you add it as an additional phone number in GMB for NAP consistency. This will make sure you still get all the credit for these citations.

Did the citations impact rankings?
A small boost, but nothing dramatic (below image is of rankings 1 months after citations were built). Citations are more of a foundational factor than a rankings booster. You’ll have a hard time ranking without them, but other tactics in local search will be more likely to move the needle.

More Content

March 6, 2019
I added more content to the GMB website, and the next day, FC Development’s first organic ranking appeared.

Citation Indexing

March 8, 2019
After you build out your listings on directories, Google is only going to index about 40-60% of them. Which begs the question, are citations providing any benefit if the pages where the information is listed isn’t indexed in Google?

The solution? Create links to your citations from a page you control, and then submit that page for indexing through Search Console.

What is Indexing?
For a site’s content to show up in search results it needs to be included in Google’s Index. Google keeps track of all the webpages that it’s aware of in a massive database, so when Google visits a site and detects new and updated pages, it updates its database. To ensure Google is aware of your site pages, and can surface the content in the search results, you can submit indexing requests using Google Search Console.

One common way to do citation indexing is to:

  • Create a page on your website with all the links to your citation URLs,
  • Internally link to the page,
  • Submit the page for indexing in Google Search Console.

On March 8th, here’s what I did to try to increase indexation of the citations:

  • I added the citation URL’s to the GMB website,
  • I submitted the page for indexing in Search Console,
  • Then I used this Google Indexation Tester tool (which, sadly, no longer works),
  • March 12 – There was no real change to indexation and the results diverged at different times during the day.

Let’s try a link indexing service

With the GMB page not helping with the citation indexing, I thought I’d try something else. I did a little research and found this case study from Matthew Woodward. I tried the service which was the top recommended solution. This also did nothing to increase indexation,. but hey, at least Matthew got some sweet affiliate bux! 🙂

A better approach for citation indexation

I think I know why the GMB page didn’t get manage to help citation indexation. It had no authority to pass to the citations! It’s a brand new site with no links to it, so it’s not going pass any value to the citations. So, I created a page on a higher authority domain, right here on, and linked to all the citations. I then submitted that page to search console. (see this detailed guide on how to index citations)

BOOM. The next day the citation indexation rate doubled, and it seemed to have a positive impact on rankings too!

The day after indexing listings from Whitespark rankings seemed to respond, and have been on the rise since, but reviews and links are now also contributing.

Service Area Test

February 19, 2019
Lots of people have been asking if adding service areas in GMB would help you rank, so I decided to use this opportunity to test for myself. I updated the GMB listing to include the service areas for each postal code I am tracking in their ranking campaign.

There was a very slight increase in rankings shortly after doing this, but this could be due to other factors. To be sure, I took all the service areas out of GMB on April 5th. My thinking was that if they were assisting with rankings, then I should see a slight drop after taking them out. No decrease occurred.

Conclusion: the service areas are for display only. All they do is specify how top draw your service area map in the results. Google’s not using them to help you rank in those areas.

Google Posts

February 24, 2019
Started pumping out Google Posts daily, and rankings maybe responded a little. If Google Posts do contribute to rankings, I think it’s very small, and I think it’s more likely to be a secondary affect. Any ranking benefit was more likely to come from the engagement signals on posts and the fact that the post content was being added to GMB website.


March 7, 2019
There is no question that Google reviews have a direct impact on local search rankings, so I wanted to see what a few good reviews could do for this business. I provided the business owners with a template to get reviews from previous clients and they started sending our the requests. On March 14th they got their first Google review, and then two more the next day.

How did the reviews impact rankings? 

It seems so!

The conclusion was that (H)igh (A)uthority (D)omain (R)elevant links with branded or URL anchors, and no keyword anchors, are the most beneficial for rankings. Using optimized anchor text is something that can harm you if you don’t have a strong link profile, so for the case of FC Developments and many other small businesses that are just getting started, branded anchor text links are the way to go.

We built 3 HADR links by March 29 and April 1. Our requests for the links were that the sites linking out had a DA of higher than 40, and they were industry relevant sites. Oh, and I also snuck in a sneaky link from the Whitespark Local Citation Finder landing page. I know. Tsk tsk.

How did the links impact rankings?
Wowee! These links had a huge impact and we saw a massive spike in the ranking proximity and rankings for many different keyphrases.

Only 4 links made this much of an impact, and that is likely because this business is in a local market with a smaller set of competition. Often in local search your competition is not up on the latest strategies and SEO, and so a few links is all it takes to move the needle. Link building is hard and people don’t know how to do it, and when you get those links it can really differentiate your business and have a big impact.

Build More Links!

May 23 to June 21, 2019

Given the massive impact that these four links had, I was excited to see what more links might do, so I built 12 more links. Earning 4 links in March and April resulted in a huge positive increase in rankings, so just imagine the impact of tripling the links and getting 12 more links from industry and city specific sites!

Sadly, the results were not as expected.

No impact?

Sad trombone, still nothing as of July 5th.

Theory: the law of diminishing returns.

No one knows how Google really works, but I think that what happened is that we already matched our competition on links. It was no longer the differentiating factor that was holding us back. Getting more links wasn’t what we needed to to progress further. What we needed to do was improve in other areas.

Build & Launch A New Website

July 9, 2019 

One key area we were lacking in was in the website department. The one-pager from GMB just wasn’t cutting it, so we built a proper website, created long form content that targeted the key areas of the city for new projects, optimized title tags, highlighted past projects, etc.

It’s only been a week or so, but after launching the new website, I re-indexed the site using Search Console and we’re already seeing an uptick in rankings.

This was Google’s face after seeing our new site

Key Takeaways

#1. Don’t just track local rankings from the city centre. Track from multiple zip codes around the city.

#2. To get the full value from your citations, ensure they’re indexed.

#3. The service area section in GMB will not help you rank in those areas.

#4. Invest in a Google review strategy. Reviews have an impact.

#5. Whoa, those first few links, hey?

#6. Any individual strategy will eventually hit a point of diminishing returns.

#7. A full website is better than a GMB single-pager. Obviously.

#8. It’s not one specific activity, it’s the aggregate of all activities that will move the needle.

The concept of Google as your new home page is key in local search. The results Google is returning to searchers are providing them with the majority of information they need to make decisions right from search results. Businesses that are active in GMB, that care about providing quality and accurate information, have a leg-up on the competition. It’s a huge differentiating factor. It’s not just about rankings, it’s about converting searchers right on your Google listing.

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) for GMB is a new realm that every local business should be focused on. 

From Zero to GMB Hero

Short on time or local expertise? Gain the competitive edge you need to stand out, increase listing engagement, and take control of your branded search results. Let Whitespark’s GMB experts turn your Google listing into a high performing, high converting tool to win business.


Darren Shaw

Darren Shaw founded Whitespark in 2005. The company specialized in web design and development, however, Darren's passion and curiosity for all things local search led Whitespark to focus primarily on local SEO in 2010 with the launch of the Local Citation Finder, followed by the Local Rank Tracker.

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11 comments on “From Zero to Local Ranking Hero – MozCon 2019

  • That was awesome Darren. So much information in one place.
    I found the test where you added 12 more links without much change a bit of a local seo mythbuster.
    And that subsequently it’s the all-round game that Google is rewarding.
    There were too many other points to praise here.
    Thank you for your insights, blown away.

  • All the brand mentions and behavioral actions directed at the test business mentioned in this post won’t hurt things for them either, eh? 😉

  • This was a very interesting exercise. In some ways it was a validating experience as I place great importance on Google Reviews, not only on getting them, but focusing on how they are used. We use them as on page juice and feed new ones to the relevant page and we share them on social media.
    The link building section and conclusion about possible diminishing returns is very enlightening. Thanks a great job and for taking me to the next level of local search!

  • Great post Darren, we’ve been struggling to rank locally for sometime now, and with the information this blog has provided it should now be a breeze! Thanks again.

  • Darren:
    Simply a great idea, a great article, a wonderful review of the process and a current outline on how to proceed. Each of your 8 points are excellent. While I’ve been skeptical of the strength of citations for some time, and in view of current commentary, getting them indexed helps. That is worth remembering.

    Now I have to go back to the 2 smb’s I made aware of your offer from last year and let them know how much they missed.

    If you were charging for those services, how about a range of what you would have charged for the services.

    A noble and valuable resource. Thank you!!!

  • This is a fantastic article Darren. Did you track how your online work impacted their business at all in terms of leads or customers?

  • Thanks Darren, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this ever since I saw you posting looking for new businesses last year.

    Great article.

    What are your thoughts on the Q&A and posts sections of GMB now, and can that copy have an impact in terms of SEO? Is this an area of GMB that can be optimised?

Comments are closed.