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It’s a question I constantly think about, especially in terms of how to counsel our current and prospective clients. Now, upfront, I will admit to being a bit of a skeptic. Google’s guidelines are what make the most sense for them in running their business, not what makes the most sense for our clients’ businesses. I’m a big believer that our obligations are to our clients and not our benevolent overlords at $GOOG, so we set out to do a test on a specific part of the guidelines that I have long been skeptical about: Categories.

Google has changed it stance on categories more then it has changed the name of its local product. From allowing custom categories to not. From allowing 5 categories to 10. They are constantly moving the cheese. Here is the state of categories right now:

Google My Business Categories help your performance

Google is explicitly telling you that using the fewest number of categories to describe your business will get you the “best results”. Further on they clarify that not only should you also use the fewest categories as possible, but they should be specific and not solely based on keywords:

Using general categories will hurt your rankings

Now to me this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but whatever, lets test it out.

The Test

We have a client that uses multiple categories for all of their locations, and to me that has always made sense. It was something similar to:

Primary Category: The type of dealership (Toyota Dealer)
Category 2: Used Car Dealer
Category 3: Car Repair and Maintenance
Category 4: Auto Body Shop
Category 5: Tire Shop

These categories are all things that the business does, so why not have them as categories? However, in a world where you want to use the fewest and most specific categories and not choose categories based on keywords they all seem to be covered by “Toyota Dealer”.

So we took 5 locations and set the primary category to  whatever make of car the dealership sold and removed the rest. Based on the Google My Business Guidelines I should expect positive performance at best and neutral performance at worst right?

The Results

So far the results are not good.

Using the fewest most specific categories hurts Google My Business rankings

The locations are down drastically in terms of total keywords ranking and the amount of keywords towards the top of SERPs. Here are the most relevant raw numbers:

Pre-Test:
851 Terms
36 in position 1

End of Test:
243 Terms ranking at the end of the test
16 in position 1

72% of the terms we were tracking disappeared over the course of the test and they lost 56% of their terms that were ranking in position 1. Not really what I would call “best results”.

Takeaways

If you are an SEO and not taking everything you read, even this post, with a grain of salt then you need to start now. This is an industry where best practices often are not and in a weird way we are all just resellers of some other company’s product (Google.) That means you should be testing out tactics before recommending them to clients and making sure you start rolling things out gradually. How else would you learn that despite what it’s guidelines say, Google is not very good at “umbrella categories”? Most important after this test, we know to always recommend caution to clients when looking to make drastic changes to their Google My Business categories.

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11 Response Comments

  • Mike Blumenthal  February 10, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    When Google says: Google is explicitly telling you that using the fewest number of categories to describe your business will get you the “best results”. what they mean is that you shouldn’t repeat a general category and a specific category NOT that you should have all relevant categories.

    IE you should not put both “New Car Dealer” and “Toyota Dealer”

    Or in the case of a restaurant use both “Restaurant” and “French Restaurant.

    Of you are a laywer, and you specialize in divorces and criminal then you should use “Divorce lawyer” and “criminal lawyer” but not lawyer.

    But if you are a “French Restaurant” that is also a bakery then you should be all means add “Bakery”

    Ie the guideline (according to their conversations with me) of using the most specific category only apply within one category type.

    That all being said they could solve this confusion quite readily be making their categories hierarchical when you are adding them to be sure that you use the ones that they require in their quidelines.

    Reply
  • Dan Leibson
    Dan Leibson  February 10, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    That makes a lot of sense Mike, thanks. It’s interesting though that their used car dealer terms took a big hit as well. It would seem much like “New Car Dealer” that would also be covered in “Toyota Dealer”. This may be specific to the auto field vs. restaurant but they don’t seem to know what actually being a “Toyota Dealer” entails.

    We are doing some other tests with a vertical where Google has two virtually identical categories. Interesting to see what that one reveals as well.

    Reply
  • John  February 10, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    Interesting experiment with the Google My Business pages. It’s given me a lot to think about and test out on my own.

    Reply
  • Phil Rozek  February 10, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    Good stuff, Dan.

    I think the next thing worth testing is what happens when you add extra categories to a business that’s just trying to rank for search terms in *one* category. Like a chiropractor who just wants to rank for “chiropractor” and “chiropractic.”

    Reply
  • Kate Veinot  February 10, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks for running this test! I’ve run a similar tests with Dentist and other related categories with the same results in lost rankings. What Mike says adds some clarity.

    Reply
  • Gerry D  February 11, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Interesting results Dan, what Phil is an interesting one cheers.

    Reply
  • Dan Leibson
    Dan Leibson  February 11, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Phil –

    You should do that! We don’t currently have any clients that fit that mold right now.

    Reply
  • Andy Kuiper  February 11, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Not what I would have thought either – interesting results :-)

    Reply
  • Justin Young  February 15, 2016 at 11:13 am

    I take everything Google says with a grain of salt. Because let’s be frank, they don’t want anyone to be able to rank well or develop a system that takes away from their bottom line.

    Reply
  • Taylor Johnson  July 18, 2016 at 10:02 am

    I appreciate seeing these numbers from your testing. We read through what Google says, talk about it as a team, then decide what the best decision going forward is going to be. We trust Google, but know there are many unique techniques on getting high rankings. FYI, we always stick with 1 category on our listings.

    Reply
  • Jane Foster - Blogger  August 21, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Very interesting. I learn a lesson from your post that “not to change category” of business listing on Google.

    Thanks

    Reply

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