If someone asked you, “Where should we eat around here?” you’d assume they intend to go out to eat sometime soon, right? Well, the same is true of Google searches for restaurants.
When people search for restaurants in the area, they have high purchase intent. Either they’re hungry right now or they’re planning a meal for the near future. So you want to show up in that search!
But here’s the problem: most of the first-page search results on Google aren’t individual restaurants. They’re from aggregate sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
These sites have thousands upon thousands of pages and huge domain authority. Your little taqueria may have the best tacos in town, but your website can’t compete with Eater a search like “best tacos near me.” It’s just not going to happen.
But there’s hope! One of the few places on Google’s results page where local businesses can still dominate is the Google Local Pack.
Note: This article specifically talks about restaurants, but these concepts apply to any brick-and-mortar business like hotels, event venues, caterers, event planners, and more.
What Is the Google Local Pack?
The Google Local Pack is a highlighted selection of three local brick-and-mortar businesses that satisfy a search query. Getting your restaurant into the Google Local Pack for common search terms is an unbeatable way to get eyes on your website.
Often, searchers don’t even scroll past the local pack if it has good options. And 44% of searchers click on one of the Local Pack search results.
How Does Google Choose What Businesses Reach the Local Pack?
Google’s algorithm looks at three main factors when selecting the lucky trio for the Local Pack: distance, relevance, and prominence.
It’s called a Local Pack, right? So search results are tied to a location. Searchers may add a location in their query, like “Best pizza in Austin.” Or they can include a point of interest, like “Best pizza near the Austin Marriott.”
If they don’t, the results will default to their current location, as if the search had been “best pizza near me.” There’s no clear distance rule that Google applies when selecting results. It could be within a mile, or it could be within five miles if there aren’t satisfactory search results in a closer vicinity.
Your restaurant needs to answer the user’s query. If you sell burgers, you’re not going to show up for a search that says “best pasta in town.” And restaurants that try to cheat the algorithm by adding irrelevant keywords will get punished by Google. So don’t do it. (More on keywords in a minute.)
Online and offline prominence are both factors in your appearance in the Local Pack. Online prominence comes from clicks and interactions with your website. And offline prominence is demonstrated in the quality and quantity of your Google reviews.
Rank Your Restaurant in the Local Pack
Even if you do everything right, no one can guarantee that your restaurant will appear in the local pack. That’s because you don’t know what every other local restaurant is doing. But here are steps you can take to improve your chances.
1. Claim and complete your Google Business Profile
It’s very likely that you’ve already claimed your Google Business Profile account (formerly called Google My Business). But if you haven’t, that’s the first step. Most restaurants are already listed on Google, so you just have to claim it as your own.
In Google Maps, type in the name of your restaurant and select it from the dropdown. Then click Claim Your Business and Manage Now. You’ll then have to select your verification option so you can prove you really own the thing.
Once you’ve claimed your account, you’ll need to fill it out completely with contact info, website, hours, and address. Make sure all of your information is an exact match to the information on your website and other listing sites, like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Consistency is important here—it’s an indicator of accuracy and trustworthiness.
Next, you can add categories for your restaurant. It may be tempting to be general, trying to capture a wider audience. But if you’re going to appear in the local pack for your restaurant style, you need to be specific. You can choose several categories, but you want as few as possible to present a strong category.
A pizzeria that has a bar should stick with “pizza restaurant” if the bar is simply an amenity to diners. But a Japanese restaurant that serves sushi and classic Japanese dishes may want to include both “sushi restaurant” and “Japanese restaurant” if those are both core components of the restaurant.
2. Optimize your website
A well-optimized, user-friendly website will be a big help in getting your restaurant included in the local pack. A deep dive into search engine optimization (SEO) would take a long blog post, so I’ll just make a couple of quick points.
- Mobile-friendliness: One study showed that 89% of restaurant research is done on mobile. Your site has to be mobile-friendly. Test your site on Google Search Console to make sure every page is usable on mobile.
- Site speed: Site speed is a major ranking factor in the Google algorithm. Test your site speed with Google’s PageSpeed Insight tool. Make sure to check for both mobile and desktop.
- Backlinks: Links back to your website from other reputable sites are a major signal to Google that your site is valuable. Make sure your website (rather than a Facebook page) is linked on all citation sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, or YellowPages.com. And any time an article or review is posted about your restaurant, make sure they link back to your site. If they don’t, send them a quick email asking them to add a link.
3. Use the right keywords
A successful strategy for hitting the Local Pack requires aiming for the right keywords. Keywords are the terms that link your website to a query. They’re usually short phrases like “best ramen in Chicago” or “cheap burgers in Las Vegas.”
How to pick keywords
Start by looking for the search terms that people are already using to find you. Log into your Google Search Console. Then click Search Results (in the left sidebar under Performance) and scroll down to the Queries tab. This will show you what searches are currently getting people to your site.
If there are any search terms like “Italian food Austin” or “best tacos Hyde park,” you’ll know those terms are already leading people to your site, and you can try to use them a bit more. But if you’re not finding any local searches in your Queries, that means you need to add some local keywords to your website.
Use a free tool like Ahrefs Keyword Generator to asses the monthly search volume and keyword difficulty for the words you’d like to use. Difficulty is ranked on a scale of 1-100, with higher numbers indicating more competition.
Based on a search for “tacos near me,” I see that phrase has a keyword difficulty of 81. That’s high. But just below, I see that “birria tacos near me” has a much lower keyword difficulty. It’s a more niche product and has fewer searches. But more specific search terms can actually net you better results than broader terms!
If you’re in a large city, it may be best to use a neighborhood keyword rather than a city keyword. After all, people don’t search for “tacos in Chicago” when that could return results that are 15 miles away from the searcher. “Tacos in Wicker Park” is a more likely search, and will provide targeted local results.
The keywords you focus on in your website will tell Google what search terms are most appropriate. If your website makes it clear that you sell “tacos in Wicker Park,” you’ll have a better chance of appearing in the Local Pack for that search.
Where to use your keywords
Add your keyword to your website home page in a few (but not too many!) places. Your title tag, meta description, subheadings, and image alt text are all good places for your keyword. The exact steps to do this will depend on your website platform like WordPress, Squarespace, or Wix.
Last note—remember before when I mentioned trying to cheat the algorithm by adding irrelevant keywords? Some unscrupulous types will try to hide words in their websites like this: “best pizza near me best Italian food near me best tacos near me best burgers near me best sushi near me.” Their hope is that they can improve their rankings for all of these search terms, even if they don’t sell any of these foods.
It’s a spammy technique and it doesn’t even work anymore. And if Google catches on, you can actually suffer a ranking penalty. Not worth the risk.
4. Manage your Google reviews
With reviews such an important part of your site’s “prominence” factor, you need to take an active role in your online reputation. To start, encourage your diners to leave a review on Google instead of Yelp or TripAdvisor. Good feedback on any platform can be valuable, but to get in the Google Local Pack, you need plenty of 5-star Google reviews.
As your reviews start to build, there will inevitably be bad experiences. The only way to deal with this is to engage. Reach out to the 1, 2, and 3-star reviewers. Thank them for sharing their experiences, and let them know what you plan to do to fix anything that may have gone wrong during their visits. If the issue is dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner, they may decide to change their review. Even if they don’t, a prompt and professional response will show anyone reading the reviews that you take customer complaints seriously.
If this seems like too much to manage, here’s how I respond to reviews on behalf of five different hotels in less than 30 minutes per day.
As I said, there is no way to guarantee your restaurant will appear in the Local Pack. And changes often take some time to go into effect. Plus, building up your good Google reviews can only come with time.
Plus, it may be tough to assess your success. If you’re sitting in your taqueria and Google “tacos near me,” you may show up in the local pack…but another searcher two blocks away could get different results. Just remember—even if you don’t make it to the Local Pack, you will at least improve your position in the Google search results for your keywords.
Keep up with those reviews and make sure to update your website regularly to keep it fresh. And continue building backlinks with local and national press and blogs whenever possible.
It’s a long-term project, but the increased visibility will bring in real dollars to your restaurant’s bottom line.