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Changes in Local Search – Implications on Local SEO

6

Who would’ve guessed that while I was at SMX West (you can check out my presentation on solving problems with Google Places here), the search engines were not sleeping. They launched a few changes to their local search algorithms and display that might have great impact on how local SEO works.

Google, in their monthly Search Quality Highlights report announced two interesting improvements with direct effect on organic local search:

1. Improvements to ranking for local search results. [launch codename “Venice”] This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.

2. Improved local results. We launched a new system to find results from a user’s city more reliably. Now we’re better able to detect when both queries and documents are local to the user.

While Google did not directly share what the consequences of each of these might be, or how the display of the search results might change, I’d like to share some personal thoughts on what could be the front end implications deriving from these updates.

On the updates

First, it is notable that these updates are already live, i.e. this was a retrospective announcement, not preparatory. This means that the changes could already be seen and they happened during the end of January and in February. However, analyzing just the information Google shared, we could draw out the following:

1. The “Venice” update might be re-worded as “the importance of the “main search results” as a ranking signal and as a SERP triggering signal in local “Universal” results has improved”. By “main search results” Google probably means the organic website results. By “Local Universal results” Google might mean what is more widely known in the local SEO world as “blended local search results”, i.e. mixture between Google Places and website results. Therefore, my interpretation of this announcement (without having any third-party information) would be: “The importance of the organic website results as a ranking signal and as a SERP triggering signal in blended local search results has improved.”

2. The “Improved local results” update is more obscure. In my opinion, the keywords here are “user’s city” and “local to the user”. It might mean that now Google treats the city-level user location in a new/updated way. Furthermore, it might also mean that they improved their semantic understanding for recognizing when a search has local intent. An improvement to the way Google determines when/if a page is relevant to a particular location is also possible.

When we look into what happened during the time frame covered by the announcement, we could notice a few events that match relatively accurately the above descriptions.

In the end of January, Google started decreasing the Google Places results for many queries (first noticed by Mike Blumenthal). Now for the majority of the local searches, 3-packs or 4-packs of Places listings results are returned. This seems to be a result of the “Venice” update, as now the “main search results” prevail.

Google Places 3-Pack

In the beginning of February, Google seemingly “increased the radius” within which the local Google Places search results might be located (again, first noticed by Mike Blumenthal). This means that Google might have “loosened” the ranking factor “Distance” for search queries implying search within a city (“keyword+city” search queries for example). This seems to be a result of the “improved local search” update.

Increased Radius Google Local Search

What do these updates mean from a local SEO perspective?

The “Venice” update would not be liked by the ones that rely mostly on Google Places as a online marketing tool. The reduction of the listings that show up in the local SERP means that it is now more difficult to show up on first page with your Google Places listing. I constantly hear in the last few weeks that the Google Places pack now shows up lower in the SERP overall, i.e. there are many organic web results above it. For me personally this is a good change, as Google Places is a way too unreliable product to be taking up the biggest part of the local SERP and the click-throughs. Focusing on improving your website (more on- than off-) is now more important than it has ever been since the introduction of Google local. Furthermore, rich snippets for authorship and reviews started showing up which could only increase the CTR for the ones smart enough to implement them.

The “improved local results” update is exactly what it says – the local search results are now better than before. For a very long period of time it was impossible for a plumber, whose office is his home, living 10 miles away from the center of Dallas to rank high for a search term such as “plumbing contractor Dallas”. Many such small business owners were forced to abuse the system and look for some rather devious solutions to that problem. Google Maps was literally spammed with listings using virtual addresses or outright fake ones. Now, Google provides the opportunity for the businesses that were up to now in a disadvantageous position to fight for the top spots. This is a great improvement on the search engine’s side and something we’ve all been asking for. Implications on local SEO? Now if you cannot rank your/your client’s website/Google Places listing on first page it will be entirely (in most of the cases) your fault, and not the fault of Google’s very distance-sensitive local search algorithm. If previously “Distance” was the dominant factor in city-level local search, now “Prominence” prevails – a factor which is much more difficult to be abused.

Bing?

Bing has also been active on the local search front. They introduced a new layout for the local SERPs, and it seems very similar to the blended local search Google launched in October 2010 (present until now with slight moderation). Some of the interesting changes include “merging” between the website and the Bing Business Portal profile of a business. The local pack might now show up in the middle of the page, or to at least be over-ranked by organic web results. This implies that Bing now might also rely more heavily on some traditional organic SEO ranking factors in their local search algorithm.

Bing Local Blended Search

Images 1 and 2 courtesy of Mike Blumenthal. Image 3 courtesy of Bright Local.

  1. Phil Rozek
    Phil Rozek03-05-2012

    Hey Nyagoslav,

    Great insights, as always!

    My two cents:

    a) #2 is particularly interesting, IMHO, in that it coincides with the loosening of the “proximity lockout.” The wording of Google’s announcement is that the tweaks allow Google to find “results FROM a user’s city more reliably” (caps mine). They could just as easily have said “in” or “in and around.” To me, this confirms that location still matters quite a bit (of course), but not to the ridiculous degree that it did during the proximity lockout. Gives me some reassurance that the proximity lockout was a test that has ended, rather than a test that Google started, ended, and will pick right back up again.

    b) I think this also reinforces Google’s recent anti-spam efforts regarding the map marker (and how moving it to the centroid is now an explicit no-no). Black-hatters now have a little less reason to believe that they can rank well *without* having to put a little elbow grease into their sites.

    Overall, I agree that the changes Google made (and confirmed) recently are a very good thing. Sure, it makes the local results more competitive in general, but obviously that’s good news for those of us who have harped on the importance of the website all along.

    Thanks for the latest awesome post!

    • Nyagoslav Zhekov
      Nyagoslav Zhekov03-05-2012

      Hey Phil,

      I completely agree on that Google still relies a lot on location, but I’m not sure if the so-called “proximity lockout” was a test. It was rather the way the people in Google were seeing the things at that time. It stayed too long to be a test (a few months are years, or even decades in Google’s algorithm time). I don’t think it will pick again. I think Google had enough evidence to prove that the results they were displaying when the “distance” factor was THAT important, were often times irrelevant, especially in big metro areas + for industries in which customers are generally ready to travel longer to get what they want.

      The recent changes to the quality guidelines regarding marker location and these algorithmic changes might have something in common. However, I think it was more of a coincidence, because it would not make so much sense for Google to simultaneously decrease the distance factor, and raise the penalties against users abusing that factor.

      Thanks for the great comment, Phil! I’d be happy to hear your further thoughts.

  2. Mike Wilton
    Mike Wilton03-05-2012

    Glad to see you get something out about this. And it was great having the opportunity to discuss this a bit with you at SMX West. The biggest question I still have is, what differentiates a blended result from a straight local result? With the new layout it’s not very clear.

    Mike Ramsey and I discussed this a bit more on the last day of the conference and I was showing him some of the stuff I was seeing. Some of the results will show a website instant preview whereas other results will only show the Places instant preview. I still wonder if the local results we are seeing are still some sort of hybrid of local, like I discussed here: http://searchnewscentral.com/20120221255/General-SEO/the-blurred-lines-of-googles-place-search-and-the-return-of-local-packs.html

    Because of the new layout it’s hard to tell what’s blended and what’s just straight local. I’d love it if Google just came forward and explained the change a bit more.

    • Nico
      Nico03-06-2012

      Hi Mike,

      you asked
      “The biggest question I still have is, what differentiates a blended result from a straight local result? With the new layout it’s not very clear.”

      I admit that it’s not very clear anymore (as previous with description snippets), but there are still a few characteristics that help to differentiate a blended result from a straight local result (ie. 7-, 5-, 3-Pack) quickly.

      Characteristic 1: Existence of the headline “Places for XYZ for city”
      If there: 7-Pack
      If not there: blended local result

      Characteristic 2: Size of the title of a local result
      If 12px/small: 7-Pack
      If 14px/big: blended local result

      Characteristic 3: Number of other organic results
      If exactly 10: 7-Pack
      If less or more than 10: blended local result

  3. Phil Rozek
    Phil Rozek03-06-2012

    @Nyagoslav

    I probably just have a slightly different definition of the word “test.” I always thought of the “proximity lockout” as a test (i.e., a short-lived change to the way GP results are served). Although I don’t mean to sound like Bill Clinton debating the meaning of the word “is” :)

    My point about the distance/proximity-to-centroid factor was simply that if Google has tweaked the algo to make “prominence” in general and the website/on-page factors in particular *more* important, then black-hatters now have a *little* less reason to mess with the marker in an effort to manipulate the “location” factor.

  4. Justin Michael
    Justin Michael03-21-2012

    Now that SEO has a greater influence on the local search ranking factors, how sophisticated of a campaign should a small business run? Is it still possible to be successful with local search engine optimization without a website and by simply being diligent with submitting to listing directories at the right velocity?

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