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