Jun 042012

Google Plus Local, Google+ Pages, +Local, or whatever it is called, was rolled out just 5 days ago, and it already generated a lot of questions and answers. However, the fact is - not much changed. It was predominantly a “face lift” for Google Places, an ongoing process which will most probably not finish any time soon. The thing most people are interested in, though, is how this shift would affect the organic rankings in local search. Judging from the trend, search seems to be going to be more and more “social” (think Search Plus Your World), thus, it would not be superficial if one assumes that the local organic Google search results and the search results produced by Plus Local would eventually become the same. Currently they aren’t. David Mihm shared some initial observations just a few hours after everything happened. In his findings, most of the results in Maps search and Google+ Local search were the same. However, he also found a couple of cases where there were major differences. This rang some bells and I decided to dig a little deeper to discover if these were just anomalies, or the results really differed.

Methodology and Gathering Data

For my small-scale research I chose 14 very different industries in 14 of the biggest US cities. When I was choosing, I was trying to be as diverse as possible. Here are the keywords I checked:

restaurant Houston
florist Philadelphia
photographer Seattle
home improvement Phoenix
hotel San Francisco
attorney Jacksonville
real estate agency Chicago
clinic Columbus
beauty salon Indianapolis
car dealer New York
contractor Los Angeles
bar San Diego
carpet cleaning San Antonio
plumber Boston

What the color marking means:

- red - there are at least 2 businesses, for which the rankings differ with more than 1 ranking point (for instance, changes in ranking from position A to position B are not considered ranking changes)

- yellow - there is 1 business, for which the rankings differ with more than 1 ranking point

As you can see, in half of the researched niches there were major ranking changes for at least one of the top 7 competitors. I also went further and checked the local search rankings twice in order to find some trends. The first time was on 30 May, and the second on 3 June. Note that in the above list only changes in rankings observed during the 3 June checking are being counted.

Observations on Google Plus Local Rankings

1) Trends spotted between 30 May - 3 June

In all but one case when on 30 May the rankings of a business were lower in Google Plus Local search, compared to Maps search, the business completely disappeared from first page (or ranked at the bottom in one case) in both searches , or at least in +Local, on 3 June. Examples:

Mary Grace Long Photography

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 2 Google+ Local

3 June: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

Law Offices Of L Lee Lockett Equire LLC

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Riverside Methodist Sleep Diagnostic Center

30 May: Rank 2 Maps > Rank 6 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Body Works Day Spa and Hair Salon

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 5 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches

Pegasus Carpet Care

30 May: Rank 1 Maps > Rank 7 Google+ Local

3 June: no ranking in top 7 in both searches


2) Causes for the differences

As this is a small-scale study, it is hard to draw any conclusive results regarding the difference in rankings. Additionally, due to the specifics of the research I had to build up some hypotheses, which would get proven or rejected by the findings. Here they are:

- As a lot of new content in the form of reviews, descriptions, citations, comes from Zagat, if the business has a Zagat page (and reviews), they might be ranking higher in Google+ Local.

- As Google now directly connects reviews to the Google Plus profile of the reviewer, that might have positive effect on the rankings in Google+ Local.

- As the new platform already allows the creation and usage of Google+ Business pages, these might have positive effect on the rankings in Google+ Local.

- Google+ Local might be inheriting the ranking factors typical for the “pure” local search results, i.e. the website factors have rather negligent importance.

I could not find enough evidence pro or contra the first hypothesis. However, it seems that having a Zagat page or not is not that important (at least for now). The same goes for an existing Google+ Business page. It’s existence or non-existence doesn’t seem to affect seriously the rankings.

I found enough evidence that the reviewer’s profile/authority’s value in terms of rankings are negligible. However, with the new interface, Google also introduced new ways through which a user could search, depending on their preferences. One could order results based on the the feedback of “top reviewers”, based on what you’ve already rated, or based on what people in your circles rated. Thus, a review from a very authoritative and active Google+ user might have great importance, especially in industries in which the online reviews are a major decision-making factor.

And now the interesting part - businesses with “well-optimized” websites rank higher in the organic local search results than in Google Plus Local. By “well-optimized” I mean such where many of the important local SEO elements are in place - good content on landing page and throughout the whole website, optimized title tag(s), N.A.P. on website, location-specific words in content on landing page, diverse backlink profile, etc. However, in some cases well-optimized websites rank high in both searches. Except one “small” detail - the anchor texts.

It appears that sites, for which the backlinks anchor text style is mostly “converting keywords”-rich, are regarded with much lesser value in the Google+ Local search results, compared to sites whose backlink anchor text profile consists mostly of “branded” keywords (domain name, business name).

Additionally, in the cases when the website has “merged” with the Google+ Local listing in the organic search results, the business for which that happened tends to rank higher in these SERPs. The most visible sign of a listing merged with a website is the title tag showing up in the search results instead of the business name. Some notable examples include:

[Hotel San Francisco]

The listing for Fairmont Hotel is merged with the website. It ranks 1/2 in the organic and Maps search results, but ranks 5/6 in the Google Plus Local search results.

[Real Estate Agency Chicago]

The listing for @Properties is merged with the website. It ranks 1 in the organic and Maps search results, but 8 in the Google Plus Local search results.

[Carpet Cleaning San Antonio]

The listing for Aladdin Cleaning & Restoration is merged with the website. It ranks 1 in the organic and Maps search results, but 8 in the Google Plus Local search results.

What Will Change in the Local Search Ranking Factors

The trend seems to be towards unifying the search results in the organic local search and the Google Plus Local search. In 7 out of 14 cases they were identical on 3 June, compared to 4 out of 14 on 30 May. I am not sure if the fluctuations in rankings are caused by the fact that the changes are being rolled out gradually, or by some modifications Google made into the value of particular ranking factors. However, there seems to be a trend (and it is not just in local search) towards decreasing the importance of “keyword” anchor text, and increasing the importance of “branded” anchor text. The bottom line is obviously relevance between linking-linked page and the anchor text connecting them. I’d also assume that in future some of the typical for Google+ ranking factors will be taken into account and will play significant role in the local organic rankings:

- general authority of the Plus page (how many people have it in circles, how many people +1’ed it, who are the people that follow it, etc)

- activity on the Plus page (how many posts were done, how many people +1’ed them, how many people commented, how many people shared them)

- general relevance of the Plus page (shared content is relevant to the topic of the Plus page)

Other factors that are currently important in Google+ “People and Pages” search results will most probably fade away - keywords in title, keywords in slogan, in descriptions, in other fields (see more here).

If you have any opinion, observations, and/or see different things than what I reported, please, feel free to leave a comment.

  7 Responses to “Google Plus Local Rankings - What Changed and What Will Change”

Comments (7)
  1. I like your analysis here as I have seen similar small ranking increases with our customer base, drops in competitors.

    Your conclusions make sense to me as well. Since Google seems to have decided to drive adoption of G+ through business use, then the carrot is clearly to reward increased use with ranking increases - at least for as long as the front page of serps has some content that is not paid for.

    • I am not sure Google would want to incentivize the simple usage of Google+, i.e. I don’t think just creating a Google+ page or profile and not being active there will bring you any positives. However, they would most probably award the ones that are active and authoritative on the platform. Time will show :)

      • a great way to get activity on a google+ page is to get a google business photos virtual tour on a business’s google+ local page. they are very cheap and can be embedded into a business’s website, facebook, and can be tweeted etc.

        every click/visit that a tour gets (even when the visit comes from the embedded tour on a website, facebook, link etc) is a visit on the google+ local page. more visits = better ranking in google+ local.

        check this out by googling: google business photos. click on the “get started” button on the upper left to get a list of google trusted/certified photographers in your area.

  2. Nyagoslav; In the past when I compared pure maps rankings to whatever showed on first page of google.com-in the cases where a merged result or a pure maps result showing in google.com jumped a lot from the results inside maps.google.com…it was invariably b/c of pure seo-lets say links.

    Of course all that could change with social signals. And then again..it could change now or later. Oh lordie…its always google’s game!!!

    • Yep, nothing is constant here, and it is normal. People’s behavior is not constant as well :) If only Google was providing some more and more granular data, especially in the Webmaster Tools… And if only they’d drop this [not provided]…

  3. First, I commend you on taking up that research. Its time consuming. I looked this week at one phrase and the results were different.

    Now here is something that can mess up everything: Last week there were reports across the web about really crazy serps results. I saw them relative to some PAC results. Totally different than had been the case the week before or after.

    This week results look more settled. I looked at just one of your phrases this week: attorney Jacksonville in google.com and in maps.google.com. Didn’t see a change in the rankings of more than 1 position in any case.

    Lets test and test and test. This is a big issue.

    • Yep, testing is the only way to go. The last week there was, supposedly, an index update, so I think this might have caused the earthquakes in rankings. Usually it takes a few days for these to settle.

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