The 5 Cardinal Errors of Local SEO for Dentists

In an age where digital presence is not just an option but a necessity, dental marketers are increasingly recognizing the importance of their Google Business Profile (GBP) in attracting new patients. 

This is especially true for Dental Service Organizations (DSOs) and group practice. However, even the most seasoned dental marketing experts can fall prey to critical mistakes when attempting to optimize their GBP rankings on Google Maps, inadvertently compromising their visibility and, ultimately, their patient acquisition rates.

Optimizing your Google Business Profile is a cornerstone of effective dental marketing. It not only improves your visibility on Google Maps but a robust, well-optimized GBP with numerous positive reviews makes your practice more accessible and appealing to prospective patients, thereby amplifying the impact of your marketing efforts. 

Yet, the path to optimization is fraught with pitfalls, many of which are not widely recognized within the dental community.

Cardinal Error 1: Misunderstanding Google Maps’ Functionality

A common oversight among dental professionals and marketing managers is a lack of understanding of how Google Maps functions as a local search engine. This misunderstanding can significantly impact the effectiveness of your dental SEO marketing efforts. 

The ranking of your practices on Google Maps is determined by local SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which means your listing’s visibility depends on the searcher’s location. Whether the search is conducted on a mobile device, leveraging GPS, or on a desktop using an internet connection, Google tailors search results to the user’s location. This localization is pivotal because it influences who finds your practice and from where.

This aspect of local dental SEO raises an essential question for dental practices: “In what areas around our practice(s) are people finding our Google Business Profile on the map?” 

To illustrate the importance of this understanding, consider a recent conversation with a dentist who believed her practice did not need local SEO services. Her website ranked number one on Google Maps for several dental search terms. 

With a bit of investigation, we discovered that she was searching from within her office. This scenario highlights a misconception: Google’s map algorithms are designed to prioritize local relevance, so of course, her practice appeared at the top of the search results when she searched from her location. 

This underscores the importance of recognizing Google Maps’ functionality as inherently local and leads to our second cardinal error.

Cardinal Error 2: Ignoring Existing Rankings and Service-Specific Visibility

Getting started with dentist SEO without a clear understanding of existing search rankings and service-specific visibility is a common error. This oversight can lead to inefficient use of resources and missed opportunities for targeted growth. Understanding your current rankings on Google Maps involves recognizing two key aspects: the variability in rankings by keyword and the geographic specificity of your visibility.

Variability by Keyword

Dental practices often experience significantly different rankings based on the specific services or keywords. For instance, your practice may appear prominently when someone searches for “dentist near me” but might be virtually invisible for searches related to “dental implants near me.” This discrepancy highlights the importance of targeted SEO strategies that not only improve general visibility but also enhance rankings for specific, high-value dental services like dental implants

By identifying the services for which your practice already ranks well, you can refine your SEO efforts to bolster weaker areas, ensuring a more balanced and effective online presence.

Geographic Specificity of Rankings

Another critical aspect of local SEO is the non-uniform nature of how a practice ranks across different neighborhoods or areas. The misconception that rankings are spherical—uniformly radiating out from your practice location—can mislead dental marketers. 

In reality, your practice might rank exceptionally well in areas to the south of your practice for “dental implants near me” but poorly in neighborhoods a mile north. This uneven distribution of visibility is influenced by various factors, including local competition, search density, and user behavior patterns in specific areas.

Understanding the geographic specificity of your rankings is vital. It allows you to identify areas where your practice is already performing well and uncover regions that present opportunities for growth. By analyzing this data, you can deploy targeted local SEO strategies, focusing your efforts on increasing visibility in underperforming areas without diluting your impact in regions where your practice already ranks well.

To further elaborate on cardinal error 2 here are two Google heat maps. A Google heat map illustrates the issues of keyword variability and geographic specificity. 

The images below are local search results for a dental practice near Chattanooga, TN. The first image shows results for the search phrase “cosmetic dentist.” Each one of the colored dots represents a search on Google Maps as if you were standing on the dot at that location. The number on the dot indicates where this practice ranks for “cosmetic dentist.” A ranking of 1 means a practice is the first listing on the map. 

Now, compare that with the following Google heat map for the keyword “emergency dentist” for the same practice. 

Looking at both of these Google heat maps will tell you a couple things. First, comparing the two with each other, this practice is already ranking pretty well for “cosmetic dentist.” They could continue to improve their rankings for that keyword or move onto another keyword. The practice is not very visible for “emergency dentist” searches. It may make more sense to focus efforts on that keyword.

Secondly, it looks like there is some pressure south of their practice, likely coming from competition in that area. An intuitive marketing manager would weigh the benefits of attempting to improve rankings in that area against shifting focus to the less competitive areas north of the practice. That decision would be made with some understanding of the type of patients that would come from those areas. 

Don’t make this cardinal error! Get the information you need by running Google heat maps for each of your locations. Here is a free resource.

Cardinal Error 3: Mismanaging Categories 

A pivotal yet frequently mishandled aspect of optimizing a dental practice’s Google Business Profile (GBP) is the selection of business categories. These categories serve as a fundamental means by which Google classifies the nature of your business, influencing how your practice appears in search results. 

The challenge lies in selecting the most appropriate and effective categories from the options provided by Google. For dental practices, this amounts to approximately 20 different possibilities.

The goal is to be precise rather than abundant. It’s a common misconception that adding as many categories as possible will enhance a practice’s visibility across a broader range of searches. However, this approach can actually dilute the specificity and relevance of your GBP, confusing Google’s understanding of your practice’s primary services and intent. 

Ideally, you want to use as few categories as necessary to accurately represent your offerings, focusing on those that are most likely to align with the search behaviors of potential patients.

For most general dental practices, the primary category should unequivocally be “Dentist.” This is the category that directly matches the most common search terms, such as “dentist near me” or “best dentist near me.” 

The inclusion of “Cosmetic Dentist” as a secondary category is advisable for practices that provide cosmetic dentistry services, as it further refines your service offerings for relevant searches.

If your practice includes specialized services such as orthodontics or dental implants, it’s important to reflect these with careful category selection. “Orthodontist” can serve as a valuable secondary category. Similarly, if a general practice provides dental implant services, the “Dental Implant Provider” category is a strategic choice. This category is specifically designed to indicate that dental implant services are available, without suggesting specialization in oral surgery or prosthodontics.

A notable pitfall to avoid is selecting “Dental Clinic” as a primary category. Despite its seemingly broad applicability, this category does not align well with common search queries. Patients are far more likely to search for a “dentist” rather than a “dental clinic,” making the latter a poor choice for optimizing search visibility. 

Choosing “Dental Clinic” as a primary category can lead to a significant loss in potential patient engagement, as it may render your practice virtually invisible for the most commonly used search terms.

Cardinal Error 4: Neglecting the Full Utilization of Service Areas

Google acknowledges that dental practices attract patients from beyond their immediate location, offering the option to specify up to 20 service areas. This feature is designed to enhance Google’s understanding of where a practice is likely to draw patients from, thereby improving the practice’s visibility to potential patients within those regions. However, many practices do not fully leverage this opportunity, thereby limiting their reach and visibility on Google Maps.

The process of selecting these service areas should be informed and strategic. Simply guessing or choosing areas at random can result in a misalignment between your practice’s actual patient catchment area and what Google perceives it to be. The most effective way to determine your service areas is by analyzing data from Google heat maps, specifically looking at where your practice currently ranks for relevant search terms and identifying areas where your visibility could be improved.

Here’s how to methodically select your 20 service areas:

  1. Identify Key Keywords: Start by pinpointing which services or keywords you want your practice to be known for. These could range from general terms like “dentist” to more specific services like “emergency dentist” or “dental implants”.
  2. Run Google Heat Maps for Keywords: Heat maps show where your practice appears in search results, allowing you to visually assess areas of strength and areas where your practice is less visible.
  3. Analyze Areas Losing Front Page Rankings: Pay close attention to areas where your practice’s Google Maps listing falls to the second page of search results or beyond (indicated by ranking positions of 4 or higher). These are the areas where you’re currently losing visibility and potential patient traffic.

This tailored approach ensures that Google’s understanding of your practice’s service areas aligns with areas you wish to target. By fully utilizing the service area feature and selecting up to 20 relevant locations, you can enhance your practice’s reach making it easier for potential patients in those areas to find and choose your practice.

Cardinal Error 5: Overlooking the Impact of Practitioner Listings

A nuanced but critical aspect is the significance of practitioner listings. Google distinguishes between two types of GBP listings relevant to dental practices: the practice listing and the practitioner listing. The practice listing represents the physical location of the dental practice, while practitioner listings are intended for individual healthcare professionals working within that practice.

Google’s aim with practitioner listings is to streamline the search experience, making it easier for patients to find the doctor they’re seeking.

Unfortunately, the importance of claiming and optimizing practitioner listings is not widely recognized. Unclaimed practitioner listings, generated automatically by Google from online information, are a missed opportunity for enhanced visibility and patient engagement. 

The potential for increased visibility through practitioner listings is substantial. Here is a perfect example. I live near a town called Pleasant Grove, Ut and I searched “best dentist in pleasant grove ut.”

Scrolling through the top ten listings for that search shows a profile for “Dr. Jonathan Jackson.” This listing had not been claimed or optimized in any way. With a little effort this listing could possibly outrank many of the dental practice listings in that area. 

A more powerful example is a recent specialty DSO client of ours where we found 30 unclaimed practitioner listings, many of which were already ranking close to the top results. With some local SEO optimization these listings are now outranking many of the competitors practice listings in the area. 

By acknowledging the role of practitioner listings, a marketing manager can unlock a new level of visibility and patient engagement on Google Maps. 


In the digital age, mastering Google Business Profile optimization is essential for dental practices to outshine competitors and attract new patients. Key to this effort is avoiding cardinal errors such as misunderstanding Google Maps’ local SEO, mismanaging service categories, overlooking service areas, and underutilizing practitioner listings. 

The synergy between a well-maintained Google Business Profile, your dental website, and content creation may require the expertise of a dental marketing company. If you have questions about Google Maps SEO or would like some help reaching your practice’s local SEO potential, reach out to My Social Practice