Quietly announced in August and fully implemented in November, Google has once again changed the rules for local searches. While this update was not a change in local search ranking factors, it dramatically changed the way local business information is displayed in the search engine results page. These changes may not be a good thing for local businesses that have invested heavily in organic search and little or nothing in paid search.
Google+, storage bin for local business information
First, a little background. Originally meant to be a social network rival to Facebook, Google+ never took off and Google has been changing its purpose, keeping only the pieces that actually worked — Photos, Communities, and Collections. Google+ Local was deemed to be the place where all local business data was displayed. The marriage of social network and local business always seemed odd, but at least Google+ was being used for something.
That has ended with these changes, as Google removed the links from search results to Google+ Local pages. This cut off much of the information that was formerly displayed in search results. You’ll see how that matters next.
Old versus new
It’s easiest to compare the old way Google Local displayed search results and how that has changed. In the old Google+ style of showing local search results, all information that Google had on a business was basically put out there. A search would display reviews and star ratings, business categories, maps and directions, photos of the business, and the business contact information, particularly phone numbers.
Answering a search, Google would return what was called the 7-pack of listings. This meant it would show the seven highest-ranking searches, along with the information above.
That all changed this fall. Now, Google only displays a 3-pack, already casually known by users as the “snack pack.” Plus, it dramatically decreased the information it shows, while increasing the paid ads adjacent to the search results.
The new display is much more friendly for mobile users, but it provides little in-formation about the local businesses. Many searches don’t even list the phone numbers for the three Snack Pack listings. Obviously, this will result in fewer phone calls for those businesses that make it into the top three. Forget about the four below them that no longer are listed.
Another significant change is the increase in the number of ads that are showing “above the fold,” an old newspaper term that on a phone or desktop search means items that must be scrolled down to view. In some searches, only paid ads show up above the fold, particularly on mobile devices.
The impact of these changes
What’s the bottom line on Google’s changes in local search? Obviously, the jury is still out, as these changes have only been in place for a month or so. The new display format may reduce phone calls and traffic to many Google Local listings. How could it not since the odds of actually showing up in the search have been lessened by more than half (7 listings down to 3)? And this doesn’t take into effect the growing display presence of paid ads in place of organic search results. Most likely, businesses will need to spend money on paid search ads in an at-tempt to move up in the ad listings to maintain a presence similar to what they’ve been achieving.
Of course, this won’t impact the number one reason for an online local search — to find the location and contact information of a “known” business (from comScore, Neustar Localeze, 15 miles — Local Search Study, 2014). If the business name is already known, search displays don’t come into play.
So what does this mean for you? In order to be found in a basic category search, local businesses need to have a solid digital marketing strategy in place. Since Google is constantly making changes to their algorithm and the way they display results, it may be time to diversify your online marketing portfolio. If you haven’t yet considered implementing a paid search campaign, now may be the time, increasing the likelihood searchers will find your business.
Any guess who benefits the most from all these unpredictable changes that are out of our control? Hint: it starts with a big G.