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    This post was originally published in January 2018. It’s findings remain relevant.

    Proximity to the searcher is one of the most important factors in Google’s local pack rankings. The physical location where you are searching still carries a big impact on search results in 2023.

    In fact, according to the Whitespark 2023 Local Search Ranking Factors, Proximity of Address to Centroid is one of the top 3 local SEO ranking factors. 

    [ Mini Case Study ] One Keyword, One City, 138 Zip Codes…82 Different Law Firms

    Example of a local pack result.

    Technology has advanced to the point where Google almost always knows exactly where you’re searching from based on GPS and IP data. This means Google can use your location to serve up local businesses that not only match your keyword search, but that are as physically close to you as possible. 

    This reliance on proximity makes sense for many types of businesses – dry cleaners, coffee shops, liquor stores, pet groomers, etc. – but it doesn’t make nearly as much sense for law firms, attorneys and other legal service providers.

    Simply put, if I want a cup of coffee I don’t want to drive across town to get it.

    I just want to know if there’s a decent spot close-by. On the flip side, if I’m getting a divorce, the proximity of the attorney I hire makes little difference to me. I want the best possible divorce lawyer, and I’m happy to drive across town if that’s where the best lawyer is.

    Nevertheless, Google relies heavily on user proximity to serve up local results for keywords related to lawyers and legal services. The anecdotal case study below paints a clear picture of how fundamental proximity is Google’s ranking of law firms in local search results, and raises new questions as to whether it is still possible for law firms in competitive markets to “dominate” in local search.

    Law Firm Local Ranking Case Study

    I wanted to understand the extent to which proximity to the searcher impacts how Google ranks law firms in the local pack, so I searched the keyword “car accident lawyers” from 138 zip codes in the Houston-metro area, one of the most competitive markets for personal injury in the United States.

    To replicate searches from each zip code I used Bright Local’s local search result checker tool.

    I searched “car accident lawyers” from each and every Houston zip code, and documented the three firms in the local pack for each. Here’s an overview of my findings:


    For an interactive chart, click here

    Key Takeaways

    • Across 138 searches of “car accident lawyers”, 82 different law firms showed up in Google’s 3-pack at least once.
    • The two law firms that ranked the most times in the 3-pack appeared 19 times each. This means that the most dominant firms have only achieved 14% of the total local search visibility in Houston for this keyword.
    • No single firm owns more than 4.6% of the total local SERP real estate for the keyword “car accident lawyers” throughout Houston. In other words, lots of firms are each sharing small slices of the total pie (see pie chart above).
    • The average number of times for any of the 82 firms to appear in the 3-pack was 5.03.
    • The medium number of 3-pack rankings was 4.0.
    • The most common number of 3-pack rankings for any of the 82 firms was 1.0 (22 firms only appeared once)

    What does this mean, and what should law firms do about it?

    I want to stress that this is nothing more than an anecdotal case study. The results are highly specific to this particular market (Houston) and keyword (car accident lawyers).

    However, I do think it provides an essential truth about ranking in Google’s local results, which is: The closer your firm is to the searcher, the more likely it is that Google will show your business in the local pack.

    Here’s my best attempt at a list of takeaways for legal marketers based on this information:

    • If you practice in a highly competitive market and practice area, you must have realistic expectations with regard to how much market share you can possibly achieve with local search in Google. For an example of this reality, see the pie chart above.
    • If you are in a large, competitive market like Houston, and you have the means, establish offices in a variety of zip codes across town. You can also use some of our local optimization tips to expand the proximity footprint of your Google Business Profile.
    • If you are a new law firm, try to get an office in a zip code that has a solid population, and minimal competing firms. Ie. Don’t rent office space in a building with several other law firms like yours, and don’t be on the outskirts of town in a zip code with a tiny population.
    • Achieving high rankings for localized organic search results is an essential way to maximize lead volume in an environment where you can’t achieve wide-spread local search visibility.Ie. You need to be here:
    • Focus on getting online reviews and generally optimizing your firm’s online reputation. With so much competition, potential customers will shop around for legal services, which means they will often look beyond the first three Google results. Make sure your firm stands out from the crowd with solid reviews and content.
    • Take advantage of Google Posts, Google Q&A, and “See Inside” photos to help your firm stand out in crowded search results.
    • Don’t rely only on “money” keywords (like “car accident lawyers”) to drive relevant traffic to your site. Diversify your content marketing with evergreen content targeting informational keywords.

    Last Updated: May 25, 2023 by Casey Meraz

    Matt Green Hi, I'm Matt. I am the Chief Strategy Officer here at Juris Digital. I love SEO, content marketing, and brand development, and I am so grateful that my job is to help exceptional lawyers deploy these marketing tools to help more people. If you have specific topics you'd like to discuss with me, please feel free to email me.
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