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New—And Unfortunate—Changes To Google Local Search
Google recently made some quite significant changes to the OneBox / Universal Search result that appears at the top of the result page when you do a query that Google determines has local intent. Previously, Google would display three local search results in the OneBox area, with a star rating and a review snippet. Now Google returns 10 local results listed A-J.
Once I’d finished reeling from the potential impact this would have on our natural traffic, I began to run through all the potential implications. What I discovered was quite a naive system—one that feels more like something Google would have created several years ago rather than an “improvement” to current Google search results.
Let’s look at the implications of this change for both Google and local businesses:
It’s clear Google is trying to make inroads into the small & medium business (SMB) market: Google Apps, the local business centre and yet another rumour that Google was preparing to buy Yell is proof enough of that. Increasing the prominence of its local business tools by giving it greater presence within traditional web search not only generates more traffic (meaning more lead generation for advertisers) but also increases Google’s chances of forging relationships with local advertisers who can provide new revenue streams, or, at the very least, provide further local data.
For small business owners it presents a unique opportunity to increase their profile on the web, to direct traffic to their website that would usually not rank for such generic terms, and also to dip their toes into the world of search marketing. That said, there are also a number of problems the changes create—more on that later.
The biggest impact is on those who rely on the natural traffic from local search queries to generate revenue. The new OneBox (probably better described, as Mike Blumenthal does, as the 10-Pack) seriously pushes down the number of natural results that are displayed. Assuming you’re viewing a competitive term with three ads in premium position, on a monitor 1024 pixels high I can see four natural search results “above the fold.” Reduce the resolution of the monitor down to 768 or 600 (which have 47% and 7% share of web user screen resolution according to thecounter.com) and you can forget about seeing anything organic. Not to mention the possibility of another 10 AdWords units appearing down the side. Google is massively monopolising these results, and while they claim it is best for the user, I have found a number of examples that would suggest otherwise.
A little background: Google determines whether to display a 10-Pack based upon geographical terms that are queried alongside business category terms. For example, search “removals” and you are likely to just see a number of paid ads both in premium and on the side. Search instead for “removals in London” and you’re likely to see a 10-pack as well.
The problems start when you discover that the primary determinant of which businesses are displayed is an indiscriminate geographical point that Google has determined as the centre of London—in this case the SW1A postcode area. Owning a small business in Westminster just got a little bit sweeter thanks to this arbitrary choice on Google’s part.
Google would probably counter that it uses other variables in addition to postcode. For example, it clearly looks at the names of the business and their domain, assuming one has been added via the local business centre. Veterans of traditional SEO will no doubt notice that it appears giving your company a name that contains generic search terms such as “cafe” is greatly beneficial.
Finally, it’s clear that having some positive reviews helps also, something that has become a whole lot easier now that Google has implemented a really simple reviewing mechanism. How much impact reviews have I have yet to determine. I’ve seen examples of businesses with two reviews appearing above those with twelve, and while I am in no way condoning fake reviews which have recently been made illegal under EU law, there is definitely a temptation for some. Google’s system has none of the community checks and balances that social sites such as Yelp, WeLoveLocal, and other sites do to root out the trolls.
The above demonstrates the naivety of these changes, and I’m confident we’ll begin to see people gaming the system to push through some extra traffic to their site. In fact, to prove my point I spent the day setting up Duncan’s Removals London, a completely fake business based right in the middle of “London” complete with its own Google Maps listing and website. How I bypassed their verification checks is for another post; what I ask you to do is watch the listing over the coming months and see if it rises up in search results. My bet is I can get it in the 10-Pack for “Removals London” by the start of March. Just to clarify, this is not an attempt to game Google Maps for financial gain, simply a chance to better demonstrate my point.
As well as being easy to game, the simplicity of the algorithm means you get some particularly poor results too—poor to the extent that you have to question why they are given prominence over natural search results. Take, for example, “hotels London.” Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about London hotels would tell you this is a terrible set of results. Same goes for “pubs London“—80% of these aren’t even pubs. And what about “Glasgow van hire,” a slightly different type of OneBox, but as you can see below (and I am sure you would all agree) this is near useless, and vastly unfair to competing firms.
Unfair?! Rely on natural traffic?! These sound like the ramblings of a bitter SEO who has lost 20% of his unique visitors as a result of the changes. Not so. In fact, I value high quality results over anything else and I welcome changes to Google’s search engine that are better for users. My criticism derives from changes that reduce the overall quality of the results being displayed, that appear, in part, to have been motivated by financial ends. Whether or not Google’s business strategy should be influenced by social utility is a debate that will rage on for some time to come, and one I am willing to strike up with anyone who wishes to join in.
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