I used a number of publicly available metrics to reverse engineer Google’s local organic search results for general contractor, general contractor near me, and general contractor in Jacksonville Fl.
Why should you care if you aren’t a general contractor?
These same principles are at work for every Google search that turns up local results. That means regardless of what industry you’re in, this is how Google works for yours too!
Throughout these next three posts I am going to break down the biggest factors that make each of these sites rank as they do. While not many if any people know how Google’s exact algorithm works, I’ll show you how I was able to use a number of metrics to create a formula that is correlated to Google local SERP rankings.
The screenshots will not be big enough to read in the blog, so you can click on them to enlarge them. I’ve included a table of contents so you can skip around if you want:
Graph of Results of Study
Overview of Case Study on General Contractors
How Accurate is this Back of the Envelope Google Algorithm?
Accurate enough to directly affect the bottom line of your business if you understand how I made it and take action to improve your online presence accordingly.
This case study is meant to show how a number of important SEO factors work together to create local organic SEO rankings, not to actually recreate Google’s local search algorithm. If you run a business, this stuff is significant enough to loosely predict Google local SERP rankings. If you do all of these things better than your competition, you will beat them in search rankings. Beating your competition in keyword rankings for important keywords can not only get your business in front of more prospective clients, but when you succeed theirs will be in front of less!
Google Search Rankings vs. Recreated Local Search Ranking Score
What is This Graph and What Does it Mean
The Blue Dots
I took the keyword rankings of each of the companies that ranked in each of these 12 searches, and gave them a corresponding amount of points for their rankings. If someone ranked 7/30 they were given 23 points, and if they ranked 20/30 they were given 10 points. If they were not ranked they got 0 points. That dot that is way above the rest? Breaking Ground Contracting Co. They were the ones to really separate themselves with their online presence. The blue dot is the sum of their results from all 12 searches, and Breaking Ground was the only company to consistently rank highly in all of them.
The Red Dots
This will be explained in depth in the next post, but I did some research on local search ranking factors for all of these companies so that I could create my own basic algorithm to see how closely it would predict Google search rankings. I made these calculations based off of information available about Google local organic search rankings.
How Complicated Was the Algorithm?
Not very. I assigned all my original values based largely on a combination of experience and Moz’s 2017 survey results. It has been discussed here on this blog and elsewhere (Moz, Whitespark) that location is the #1 most important local ranking factor, so I wanted to see what type of numbers I ended up with before figuring out how much to amplify location as a ranking factor. My first guess took the graph from complete scattershot to the almost exactly matching trendline you see above.
I have used Google sheets for all of my data in these posts so I could share them dynamically. The trendlines here are the default trendlines for Google sheets. While there is clearly a large margin of error, the overall trends look very similar!
Showing Google Results and Telling Them
There are lots of posts out there that explain all of this stuff and how one thing is more important than another (we just published a big guide to Google local results!), but that is why this post seeks to show you how Google works.
This means that regardless of what your industry is, after you get through this series you will be able to see why companies are ranked the way they are in your industry. You will also be able to better diagnose what your biggest weaknesses are and where your competition might be beating you in search rankings.
These principles can be applied to any business that wants people to come to their business for a product or service: hair stylists, accountants, brick and mortar stores of all types, etc.
They can also be applied to any business that is based out of a certain location and serves clients in that area: plumbers, electricians, painters, landscapers, general contractors, etc.
Overview of Case Study on General Contractors
It was just as scary as it was exciting for me to find out how much information someone can find out about any website without needing any access to backend credentials. Some of the data is more reliable than other parts, but it is still useful for ballpark stats. While there isn’t enough data available to try and totally recreate and predict what Google’s local search rankings will be, there is enough to get access to about 3/4 of it.
A Case Study That Shows Why Companies Rank in Local Organic SEO
The goal of this case study is to give you a glimpse into the inner workings of Google. We will not be hacking the algorithm, but we will be taking a look at the broad strokes of what makes local organic search work.
We will be using the results of 12 different searches that all focus on local organic results, analyzing those results and analyzing the online presence of each of the companies that showed up in results to compare them.
In the next post we will take a look at a number of metrics not available in the search results themselves.
With each search I will provide a picture of the screenshots of the local search results for that search term, the spreadsheet with the rankings of each company that showed up, and after each group of 4 searches I have included some brief commentary on the individual searches and what we found from the searches themselves.
The Moz Bar- A Great Free SEO Tool
In order to make these searches a bit more informative I used the Moz Bar, which displays the domain authority and page authority of each page that shows up in the search results. The domain authority is a metric that measures the relative importance of a domain based on a number of factors. This mostly relates to the number and quality of backlinks to the domain. Page authority is a similar metric that is used just for the individual page.
Both scales are logarithmic in nature, which means that it gets progressively harder to move up. It is about twice as hard to get from 20 to 30 as it is from 10 to 20.
This scale is an approximation received from Moz and is for illustrative purposes only
Both of these measurements are based on Google’s original PageRank algorithm, but both have evolved a lot over time. PageRank was a big part of what made Google into the search goliath it is today. While it has changed a lot over the years, the basic underlying insight is that what other people say about you is more important than what you say about yourself!
The General Contractor Search Results with Brief Commentary
Each search result shown is a combination of pages 1-3 for that search term. The companies and search terms are highlighted, as there are numerous other results that are not general contracting companies. I grouped the searches by search terms, which means there are 3 groups of 4. Each group includes one search from my house in my normal browser, another in incognito, one from the office at Multiverse Media Group, and another in incognito mode in that order. Since people don’t usually search in incognito mode (at least not for general contractors) I didn’t think it would be most representative to use only that.
First Group: General Contractor searches
1. General Contractor Search from Home
What to Pay Attention to Throughout these Searches
I will first tell you where to find each, then tell you what to look for when you find them.
Title: They’re the circled ones.
- What the title says. How related to the search is it?
- Does the title fill up the whole space?
- Is the title too long so the “…” is at the end?
- Is it interesting? Do you want to click on it?
URL: Just below the title.
- Is it the company name?
- Does it contain any keywords in the url?
Meta Description: Just below the URL.
- Does it use the full space? Is it too long and ends in “…”?
- Does it use keywords
- Is it interesting? Does it make you want to click on it?
These are below the meta description in the black or grey bar, depending on which search you are looking at. The first one on the left that says ‘PA’ is Page Authority and the number on the right that says ‘DA’ is Domain Authority.
Domain Authority and Page Authority:(described in Moz section above)
- 0-10= Bad
- 11-20= Not Good
- 21-30= Decent
- 31-40= Good
- 41-50= Great!
- 51+= Excellent!
Remember, these are logarithmic in nature, so it is about 2x as hard to get from 20 to 30 as from 10 to 20. It is not very realistic for most companies that do not focus on an online service or who do not have a very large content marketing budget to get over 60 for either of these metrics, but clearly many of the other search results have achieved this.
Company Names, Company Rank, Page, and Organic Search Rank
I have also included a spreadsheet after each of these for easy reference with a few metrics. This lists the company by their official name (according to the Moz official listing), their rank out of general contractor companies in that search, what page they were on, and their organic search rank.
Yellow = Decent
Orange = Not Good (used for names only)
Red = Bad, but better than nothing!
These spreadsheets are meant to give you an idea at a glance of a few different things. Keep in mind that everything we are evaluating here is relative to the search general contractor, so just because Halbert Waterproofing Co is a bad name for the search ‘general contractor’ does not mean it is a bad name for the company. If they specialize in Waterproofing it is probably a good name, as it tells Google and anyone reading their name exactly what they do.
Why this scale for these different categories?
I wanted to keep things simple but also show a few different things.
Company Name: If ‘general contractor’ is in the name it is good for this search because it is both the actual search term and the Google category for Google My Business. If it has a closely related term, such as ‘construction’ in the name that is decent because it is a related field and part of a related Google My Business (GMB) category. As we’ll see later, the companies that showed up are mostly a mix of the ‘general contractors’ and ‘construction companies’ with regard to GMB categories. ‘Waterproofing’ is somewhat related, but likely not what we’re looking for this search. It is still better than just having a name like ‘Halbert Company’. Brasfield and Gorrie is the worst in this regard, as this company could be anything.
Company Rank: Generally speaking the first 3 search results are by far the most likely to get selected. While none of the companies are ever in the top 3 search results, if somebody was going to choose one of the companies by going to a general contractor’s website they are highly likely to choose one of the top 3 companies.
Page: 90+ percent of people choose something on the first page. The second page is only yellow because those companies are in striking distance of the first page with some work.
Organic Rank:The top 3 is where the real traffic comes from, so this is the only real ‘good’ area. Other than that being on the first page is crucial.
There is an analysis of these first results at the end of the first group which will help to show why different parts are important.
2. General Contractor Incognito Search from Home
3. General Contractor Search from Multiverse
4. General Contractor Incognito Search from Multiverse
Commentary on First Group of Searches
Overall our big standouts for this round of searches are Breaking Ground Contracting Co, Halbert Waterproofing Co and RPC General Contracting Inc, with Accelerated Contractors LLC getting an honorable mention. The first three are consistently on the front page, whereas Accelerated Contractors made it on the first page once and was consistently #1 on the second page (#11 overall).
Titles: Only Sierra View Company Inc., RPC General Contractors and NFFS Construction and Residential (ReConstructionTeam.com in search results) utilized the full space without going over. The full space is about 65-70 characters depending on how many capital letters you use (it is space-based, not character based).
This lack of proper utilization either shows that most of these companies probably don’t have people that are very good at SEO doing their online marketing if they have anyone. Proper titles and meta descriptions is part of the basics of SEO and a very easy thing to do. These title and metas are for the home page, so they are the single most important title for the whole site. If you don’t have a title filled out Google will just grab whatever your title is on your page and it might put your brand after it. This can be OK, but is not ideal. They should all be written with intention.
Make sure you fill out your SEO title so Google doesn’t have to guess.
The real point of an SEO title/headline is to get people to click on your page, so make it interesting! Keywords are important, but only use your main keyword once. Toward the beginning is better…but having a good headline is more important. You can take a look for yourself and see which ones grab you.
Meta-descriptions:The performance here is better than the titles. As you can see from the search results Google does not actually give you two full lines. It is about 156 characters depending on capitalization. The worst of the bunch here is NFFS, one of the only companies to do well with utilizing a full title. Their description is just ‘General Contractor’. During research their site was under development, so this is somewhat understandable. It is surprising they showed up at all without a fucntioning site, as I have not seen that before.
If you had a good enough headline, somebody might read your meta description. If you have a good enough meta description, somebody might visit your site. Again, keywords are important, but interesting is more important!
Domain Authority:This is where it becomes clearer why there are so many sites ranking above all the general contractor results. Most the results that come up before general contracting companies have a Domain Authority of 80+, including Wikipedia which has a perfect 100! These are going to be hard to beat out, but it certainly is possible with the right campaign and the right budget.
As far as general contracting companies go, Brasfield and Gorrie is our one standout in this area. As they mention in their meta description, they are one of the nation’s largest construction firms. There is often a correlation between online presence and real world reality. The more projects you have done in the real world with different clients, the more likely different sites and people are to link back to you. The bigger and more important the jobs and the clients the more important those links will be in the eyes of Google. Industry and online strategy will play a part, but the bigger a company is the easier it is for them to utilize their resources to show up online and get better backlinks to their site. No real surprise there.
With small to medium size companies online strategy is going to mean a lot. As you can see, even though domain authority is an important metric, there are plenty of other factors at work. Halbert Waterproofing and RPC General Contractors are both on the first page consistently with only a 10 and 13 for Domain Authority, respectively. Accelerated Contractors also made it on the front page once as well (search 1), and their Domain Authority is only 14. None of these are good scores.
Out of all of our rankings Domain Authority is the hardest thing to change. It includes a number of signals, but is mostly determined by backlinks. These will not be under the direct control of the company, and that’s what makes them powerful.
Remember what Google thinks: What other people say about you is more important than what you say about yourself.
Page Authority: Page Authority is going to be looking at the number of backlinks coming to this page and it’s relative importance. In this case almost all of these search results go to the homepage, so the Page Authority is almost always going to be higher than the Domain Authority. On other smaller pages the reverse will often be true. The homepage tends to be the page with the most links to it, so it will be the most important page on the site in the eyes of both Moz and Google. When your Page Authority of your homepage is lower than your Domain Authority that either means you have another really strong page on your site (relatively speaking at least), or that you have something wrong and/or probably aren’t linking to your own homepage enough internally.
It is easier to rank higher for Page Authority than Domain Authority because it is harder to get lots of links to one page than to a whole website. Keep in mind that Page Authority is going to use a combination of both your internal links on your site linking to your page and external links going to your page.
On to the next group.
Second Group: General Contractor Near Me Searches
5. General Contractor Near Me Search from Home
6. General Contractor Near Me Incognito Search from Home
7. General Contractor Near Me Search from Multiverse
8. General Contractor Near Me Incognito Search from Multiverse
Commentary on Second Group of Searches
As you can see, there have been some substantial changes from the rankings from the ‘general contractor’ searches in rankings. Our standouts in this group that stayed on the first page for most searches are J. Lane Construction (all) and Breaking Ground Contracting (all but one). Halbert Waterproofing Co, RPC General Contracting Inc. and Accelerated Contractors LLC were all relegated to the 2nd and 3rd pages, with Halbert not showing up at all on one.
Smarter Remodeling gets a shout out for terrible use of a title with just ‘Smarter Remodeling’. They used just 18 of their allotted 70 characters to just say their brand name. Not smarter SEO.
Potential Short-Term Google Hack
It is generally assumed that Google understands that ‘near me’ is not be to taken as the searcher is literally searching for the terms ‘near me’ but the meaning of close in proximity. It seems that the real results are a bit of both. Take a look at page 3 of all of these results with ‘near me’ searches (5-8) and find ‘Heroica Construction’.
This is a company that is in Providence, Rhode Island but is showing up in my Jacksonville, Florida search due to having a page with ‘near me’ in the URL. The page is under their ‘About’ menu and is titled ‘History’ in the menu, however the url is ‘/general-contractors- near-me-history/’. This is of course an almost exact match for the search term ‘general contractor near me’, as plural/singular is not a very important difference. Since near me is not included in the meta description or any of the very short content on the page it seems that the almost exact match is enough to override the meaning of ‘near me’ and Google will still turn up some results containing the text.
While it is beyond the scope of this study, this firm probably shows up in a lot of areas for the search term ‘general contractor near me’. It would be interesting to see if they end up #1 in their general area or close to it, as it could be possible that Google just penalizes them enough to get them off the first page (effectively meaning no one will find them). However, that is beyond the scope of this study.
Also note that on search 8 there is a similar result for a FHR Construction at rank 29. They are based out of Arizona and show up with a url that contains ‘/general-contractor-near-me/’ for a page that has a Page Authority of 1. That is an exact match, which apparently is still quite powerful! It is the title of a tag in the archives which makes it also the title of that page, but is not in the actual text of anything else on the page.
This goes to show that while Google has advanced a lot in recent years, there are still little hacks that can potentially work to outsmart it, for now. Will it help you get you to number 1 in your area? Maybe, maybe not. Please post in the comments if you try it out and let us know your results! I would imagine this will be remedied sooner rather than later, but it has lasted to this point so who knows.
On to group 3!
Third Group: General Contractor Jacksonville Fl searches
9. General Contractor Jacksonville Fl Search from Home
10. General Contractor Jacksonville Fl Incognito Search from Home
11. General Contractor Jacksonville Fl Search from Multiverse
12. General Contractor Jacksonville Fl Incognito Search from Multiverse
Commentary on Third Group of Searches
First off, it is clear that this search turned up noticeably more general contracting companies than either of the other two. Despite rumors that Google is making location-specific terms like your city less important because it automatically incorporates the location of your business into its search algorithm, these results demonstrate it might be a bit early to remove references to your city. They may be looked at as spammy soon, but they are still working right now.
The stars of this round are Breaking Ground Contracting Co, J. Lane Construction, F&G Construction, and Dantzler Group, Inc. All four of them consistently made the first page. Silcox Contracting Inc. was able to make it on the first page once and was constantly at the beginning of page 2 along with McFarland Builders (www.general-contractor-jacksonville.com, as their name is not in their title or meta description), and ShayCore Enterprises.
URLs: There is a higher concentration of URLs that have ‘jax’ and ‘jacksonville’ in these searches, so keyword matching in urls is still an important factor.
On page 2 of these results is Kendale Design/Build General Contractors LLC. Their site is a .net instead of a .com site.
Don’t do this.
People are used to .com and they don’t want to have to remember that your site is something different. If you do decide to do this at least make sure to buy the .com URL and redirect it to your site so people can still find you when they inevitably forget. Even if you are an organization and using .org it is still best to buy the .com and forward it. Domains are cheap, so if it is available there is no esxcuse not to.
Initial Conclusions on Google General Contractor Searches
So what have we learned before looking at our ranking factors?
Who Ranked the Best?
Breaking Ground Contracting Co was the clear winner, as they were the only company to consistently show up on the first page of Google for all 3 different groups of results! They were the first company more often than not and were only not on the first page 1 time.
This is an area that could definitely use some improvement all around. Most of these results are for homepages, and the homepage needs to have a good title that both utilizes the correct keywords (only once!) and is interesting enough to draw you in.
This was better than the titles, but it usually will be. Since Google by default pulls the first text from the page, when this happens the text will usually have the … at the end. This can also happen when someone inputs something into the meta description that is too long, which happens a surprising amount among people who are not actually SEOs using SEO tools. Often they have done enough research to know the meta description is important and should be filled out, but don’t check to make sure that their description is the right length. This is another area that could definitely use some improvement for most of these companies.
Domain Authority and Page Authority
You can really see the importance of these metrics throughout the results, especially with the results that are not contractor companies. Sites like Wikipedia, Thumbtack, and Angie’s List will have low relevancy throughout their whole site to the search term ‘general contractor’, but have very high domain authorities. This still places them higher than all the general contractor sites.
While the relevancy of the keyword throughout your whole site is important to Google, clearly once you get up to 80+ domain authority your site is so authoritative that it is able to overcome many if not all of these smaller sites. There are still sites such as ‘Associated General Contractors’ that constantly make a second page appearance despite having a very high Domain Authority (81) and Page Authority (85) and presumably have high relevancy throughout their site, but apparently there are a number of other factors working to keep it on the second page.
What’s in your URL is clearly important. From our exploration of a potential ‘near me’ Google hack and seeing the higher density of sites with ‘jax’ and ‘jacksonville’ in the URL for ‘jacksonville fl’ searches this is clearly important. Another example of the importance of URL is Bob Moore Construction. The firm seems to be showing up from Texas mostly due to the combination of being the smart guy that was first to get www.generalcontractor.com and building a good Page Authority and Domain Authority to go with it. He is in Texas, so clearly his location (the #1 factor) is working against him in this case.
Almost all of these results for all three searches are local. As you will see in the next post, there are only a few that were not located in Jacksonville. Many of them have been pointed out for various reasons in this post. The search ‘general contractor’ is understood by Google to primarily be a local search. This is going to be the case with most searches, as Google is trending towards giving more location centered results for both desktop and mobile. The percentage of people searching on Google is now over 50%, and will continue to grow.
Moral of the Story: Local Organic SEO takes work, but with some work you could be your industry’s ‘Breaking Ground’ that consistently shows up first!
The follow up that shows you all the local search metrics, how each company performed, and how I recreated a poor man’s version of Google’s algorithm to approximate local search results is coming up!
Notes on how the Study was Conducted
Why General Contractor, General Contractor Jacksonville Fl, and General Contractor Near Me
These searches were the three searches that were done for this case study. They were done from two different locations in Jacksonville, Florida. Finding out how location affects search results was only a minor part of this study, as the main focus was to see how well I could recreate Google results with the information we have on Google local search results.
Why Normal Search and Incognito Mode
The reason for this is that Google keeps track of your search history and will incorporate that to modify your search results based on a number of factors. This is part of the algorithm that is clearly not going to be reproducible and is the hardest for any individual to figure out. This takes having a lot of data on both users and searches, which is hard to come by. When searching in incognito mode Google is not going to use this data and will be giving more ‘honest’ and less custom-tailored results for better or worse. Unfortunately, I ended up deciding to expand this case study in the middle of it, which means I had visited a few of the sites to do some ranking factor research before some of the searches. While this is not ideal, it is also similar to if someone was actually evaluating these companies for hiring one for a real job.
Since most people do not do much searching in Incognito mode I thought it best to include both normal and Incognito. While previous searches and the search order will likely have a small effect on results, we’re not going for pinpoint accuracy here. We’re looking for broader lessons. Of that there were plenty. Searching in both regular and incognito also provided some data to take a look at some of the potential differences between the two. While that is not the focus of this study and it was not delved into here, that could be a subject for a later post.
Thanks for reading and make sure to check out the next post in the series to see how the ranking factors work together!