Google’s latest local algorithm update, coined ‘Pigeon’, was rolled out to United States searchers in July last year. The UK was made to wait until December 2014 to see what effect this has had on search results. Now that the update has been available on UK shores for a few months and the dust has started to settle, there’s a much clearer picture of the changes made in Google’s largest shakeup of search results since the Hummingbird update. Google has stated that the update pushed local ranking factors more in line with its non-local algorithm, and from what we’ve seen, this has been the case. But what do these changes actually entail and how do they affect your local business? Read on to find out.
Frequency of Local Results the Big Change
The cosmetic change to results which most people will notice is the reduction in the actual number of results that return local pack results (those local results seen in regular search, rather than in map search). Mozcast, which tracks search engine results fluctuation, noted a massive drop in local pack results when Pigeon was released in the U.S. as can be seen in the graphs below:
With the number of searches returning local pack results just about halving overnight, almost all industries will have been effected in some way, and this seems to have been the case in the UK industries. Whilst the number of searches returning pack results has reduced, the number of pack variations has increased. Prior to the Pigeon update it had been commonplace to see packs with 7 results and 3 pack results, such as the below search for “Cosmetic Dentist Liverpool”:
Post-update we’ve seen more variations as Google attempts to improve the relevancy and quality of local results. So whilst 7 packs may have been the go-to in the past, Google is now attempting to look for the best option for searchers, cutting out sites it perceives to be of low-quality or not relevant.
What does this mean?
Basically, the bar has been raised when it comes to getting featured in local results. If Google doesn’t think your site will benefit its users, it won’t show in their results. The days of half-arsed attempts at optimising your business for local are gone. You need to ensure that your business is actively ticking all of the boxes Google sets out for ranking in local results, but what are they and how has the Pigeon update changed them? I thought you’d never ask…
How Have Local Ranking Factors Been Effected?
Becoming More Than Just A Business
As previously mentioned, the main reason Google created and launched Pigeon was to bring local ranking factors more in line with traditional factors (here’s a handy local SEO guide to get you up to speed on these local factors). Whilst good local results traditionally hinged on sound on-site optimisation, local citations and a smattering of links (and these are still essential components of a successful local campaign), Pigeon has pushed the emphasis towards building a brand with your business.
What does this mean?
When Google says you should build a brand, we can’t expect all businesses to try and act like ASOS and Coca Cola; it’s more about trying to make noise with your business and becoming part of the local community. Businesses can do this by engaging with other organisations in their local area. Are there other businesses that you can partner with? Of course there are! Build up a relationship with them and you’ll more than likely be able to feature on their blog. Local charities also welcome help, be that via donations of money or time, and will document how you assisted them. Local schools, colleges and universities may also be interested in having knowledge imparted on their students and will shout about it. This kind of activity will almost certainly be of interest to local journalists and can gain you great coverage. Look at that, you’re already making positive waves in the local community and gaining some great local links back to your site!
Reviews on Google+ Local Now Imperative
Whilst gaining reviews on Google+ has always been seen as important, its value has rarely been converted into an active push to gain reviews; seen as nice to have rather than a must have. From our initial research, the Pigeon update has made gaining reviews a vital part of a business’s online presence. Whilst ranking in the local pack is still possible without them, gaining positive reviews from your customers on Google+ can boost your business’s online profile.
What does this mean?
Putting it simply, the attitude around reviews is going to have to change moving forward. They are needed to complete the picture of your business as a brand. Brand building is a two-way street; you may be making waves with your activities in the community, but if your business isn’t being shouted about positively by its customers, Google isn’t going to push it to its searchers. During our research we came across this great example of how reviews are effecting results. Whilst a number of related searches have stopped showing local pack results, we found the following search returned a single local result, as well as an info box taking up the whole of the right-hand side of search results, completely dominating the results real estate for this page:
From our review into the reasoning behind this, it seems as though it is due to their Google+ page containing a number of positive reviews which mention this service.
So, by creating enough noise around the treatment, this dentist has led Google to show local results, as it improves the results page by having this information. The learning we need to take from this is that whilst Google does have a predetermined format for certain results, they can be coerced into amending this if they believe it will benefit the user.
Reviews on External Sites Set Businesses Apart
From our initial research, we’ve seen that a number of 3rd party review sites like Yell and Thompson Local have had some good ranking gains from the latest update, which validates our thoughts on Google pushing brands in local results. This may not initially seem like a bonus for business owners, but it does open up a further avenue for your brand to get noticed online.
What does this mean?
If Google is attempting to push people to these external review sites, it means that businesses need to ensure their listings on these sites are optimised fully. Whilst sites like these would have been used previously to gain a citation back to your business, more often than not the listings are completed with minimum information. This can no longer be the case, as a more complete and optimised profile is needed to send further signals to Google. Profiles need to contain photos, reviews, completed descriptions and relevant services. This will improve the ranking potential for the listing on the third party site and be more likely to convert users on the site. From the below, which would you be more likely to choose? The listing filled in with information and photos or the one which just includes the basics?
It is also wholly possible that Google is using information on these sites to aid their algorithm, analysing sentiment in reviews and rewarding those who have positive reviews with higher rankings. If this is not happening now then it is only a matter of time before it is included in ranking factors. It has been a much talked about potential ranking factor, and so ensuring your business is ready for its inclusion will ensure you are not left behind.
So, What Does This All Mean?
This is one of Google’s biggest updates, tackling both the look of results and how they are decided. Unfortunately this is also making entry to the local party a lot more select. It may seem as though Google is favouring the larger local businesses who already have brands, but this simply isn’t the case. Smaller local businesses need to transfer the passion that created their business into promoting their company and being heard in the community. Local Search is no longer something that you can be complacent with, it must be taken seriously to ensure a local business’s success.