28 July, 2014

Local Search Wrapup – July 2014

Google Local PackIn the last few day Google released a big enough update in local to catch lots of attention. It’s normal to see little tremors – minor dancing around of business in the pack.

This latest one is being a bit of a doozy and worth mentioning. In part because it’s looking like a case of one step forward, two steps back. It has changed the landscape of local packs in three ways.

  1. Spammy listings (reappearing yet again)
  2. Local packs disappearing or appearing where previously there were none, 3 pack becoming 7 packs, 7 packs becoming 3 packs, and any and all mixings of the three – far more than usual
  3. Using a broader range of “signals” for classifying businesses in the local packs

The impact

The effects for a local business could be significant.  if you showed up towards the bottom of the pack, you might not be in it anymore.  If you used to show up in the pack, you might not, and there might not even *be* a pack (reported over 60% decline in local packs – my feel is that’s a bit high). That local pack is a remarkably important channel for businesses attracting customers.

Local has been incredibly volatile over the last couple of years, and those of us who immerse ourselves in it daily have seen the coming and going of spammy listings. They’re entries that are completely bogus business listings, or so stuffed full of specific words and locations that no human could read it without getting their eyes burnt. The listings are there because at one stage, that’s what worked to get a business listed high in the local pack. It’s widely recognised as black-hat, and about as far from best-practice as you can get.  I’ll do another post shortly about how to report those spammy listings if they’re hurting you.

This latest update is not only bringing back long-dead spammy listings, but also takes in a much larger eco-system of signals about each entry in the pack. This is already one of the hundreds of factors Google used in ranking businesses, but someone’s turned the dial right up, and IMHO it’s waaaay too loud.

It also harbours a change in thinking you ALL need to know about, whether your business is in the local pack or not.
click to see full image

Shift your thinking

In my training workshops, I explain the four key factors which influence how Google will rank a business in the local pack: Your website, your Google Local page (aka Google My Business), citations and reviews. Seems I now need to add a 5th – the local ecosystem. (Darn, I liked my picture…)
So what is the ecosystem exactly?

It’s anything and everything someone says about you online, outside the scope of your reviews, citations, etc. You do not control it. And the scary part is, all too often businesses don’t even know about it.

An example

click to enlarge I admit I had a good laugh at this at first.

And then the implications hit. If it were your local business/school showing up like this, would it be so funny?

A number of my colleagues and I tried to figure out how on earth this community college got lumped in here. It could be a fluke – or it could be a sign of the importance of the eco-system. We checked the website, the backlinks, the citations, the Google page setup, reviews, all with nothing to indicate why this college would show here.  And then someone “did some related searches and found references to weed and pot on other sites that included South Seattle Community College..”

You can bet the college has little or no control over those references.

Do you now see where I’m going with this?

If you’re only paying attention to what marketing assets you control ( website,  Google page,  directory links and reviews – to a point), you’re not seeing the big picture of your online footprint. Google does. And Google does in part, because people do.

They’re simply trying to get better at serving up local, relevant results to searchers.

The good news

Generally speaking, the new update ties Local deeper into General search capabilities, using a broader reach of indicators to verify information about your business.  It also improves the distance and location factoring.

For the moment, this update is rolled out only in the USA, with no details about when it will roll out to the rest of the world.

For my own clients I have seen shifts in rankings for Australian as well as international (non-US).  These have largely been the usual ups and downs but nothing I couldn’t describe as the normal “breathing” of the local packs for Google.

Interestingly, I have seen a big shakeup in Bing local results. Will dig into that one soon.

How to use Local in your marketing mix

It’s a wonderful source of new customers – and can and absolutely should be used to your advantage.  The way I see it, you have two choices to ensure the future of your company –

  • rail and rant at the enigmatic Google and blame it for changes in your business, or
  • get refocussed on promoting your business with online and traditional media.

Keep an eye on your online marketing and use Google local to its utmost. Take it seriously.
And please, please, please don’t rely on it as your sole source of customers.