Google – Local Updates, The Unknowable Machine & You
A couple of weeks past, Australian agencies and businesses noticed something wrong with their Google organic listings – they were the same everywhere.
That may seem like and odd statement to businesses that don’t operate at a local level, but since mid-2013 and culminating in the Pigeon update, the big G has been making increasing strides to present local bricks and mortar businesses in search results.
Let’s take the example of “converse”. Pre Christmas 2014, organic listings were the same whether your location was Wagga, Sydney or Bondi Junction. After Christmas this drastically changed to include local businesses and directories. The two search result engine pages (SERPs) are for exactly the same search – but note the difference:
These updates didn’t necessarily improve results for everything – if you know Surry Hills, you know you’re unlikely to be buying converse there – but it was an important watershed moment in understanding Google’s re-focus on local and user personalisation. This has been a trend over the last couple of years for products and services, and one that has been picked up and optimised to, by businesses, SMEs and agencies.
All this went temporarily out of the window last week as results across areas were made homogenous. Local listings remained the same, but organic results went back to their default “vanilla” setting. Google confirmed that they had made some changes to the local algorithm after some nasty business in the states involving important public institutions and racist slurs, but as standard were silent about the nature and extent of these changes, even after business cried foul:
At Match we advised clients that this was likely a temporary glitch caused by the quick address of the above issues and – happily – this proved to be the case. Beyond the fluctuations in ranking and traffic that the brief update made however, there’s a couple of interesting strands to take heed of – especially for small to medium sized enterprises.
Best Practice, Best Practice, Best Practice
You would expect us to say this – but making the time for best practice is essential. We can break this down in the following ways:
- Audience – Take the time to research local demands and what the consumer wants. Tools like Google Keyword Planner are great for understanding local search trends, but using social networks and content tools such as Ahrefs Content Explorer are also crucial tools to understand what your local audience want and are talking about. Well written, targeted and relevant content on your site will help your long tail growth and help to mitigate algorithm shifts.
- Store Pages – If you’re a business operating across a number of locations, having pages for each stores optimised to the surrounding location is something you should really consider. While it also adds to the admin and work think beyond boilerplate pages to how you can make those pages useful for users as well as search engines. Offers, opening times, local related content – all of this can help to keep you visible and can feed into your social efforts.
- Google Local – Yes we know. Keeping your listings up to date can be excruciating – but it really is essential. Make sure you have a regular process for maintenance and dealing with openings and closures. A regular checkup of your citations and backlinks to ensure NAP (Name, Address, Phone) consistency is also a must, especially as Google are considering un-verifying inactive listings. And if you have over 10 stores – use the upload tool – it will make your life easier.
Man vs Machine
The results of the update were likely not a mistake per se – it’s more likely that Google very quickly disabled a part of the local algorithm while they worked on the googlebombing issues in the background. From Google’s perspective, taking some flack from SEOs and businesses sounds more preferable to some potentially very expensive litigation.
It’s interesting that Google said anything about this update however – there’s been a consistent trend of less and less communication from the team in Mountain View. The Match team believe there’s likely three reasons for this:
- Go Away SEOs – When the first round of big manual and algorithmic penalties started rolling out Google went on a bit of a PR blitz to keep SEOs and businesses up to date on best practice. In fairness, that isn’t actually their job – one can only imagine the resources required to service the notoriously insatiable appetite of the SEO industry for information.
- Rolling Not Iterative Updates – Traditionally Google’s algorithm updates have rolled out iteratively, e.g. Panda 1, Panda 1.1, Panda 2.0 etc. These releases would be accompanied by announcements and industry speculation. However Google have indicated they’re moving towards continuous rolling updates for big parts of the algorithm – i.e. Penguin, Panda, Pigeon etc. This means that we’ll see far less dramatic shifts across SERPs when changes are rolled out, conversely businesses ad agencies will also have a far harder time singling out the precise reasons for changes – such as the one from a couple of weeks back.
- The Awakening – The reason Google can do the above is the sophistication of their algorithm and their massive advances in machine learning. A quick glance at Google’s heavy investment in AI and tech over the last few years gives an idea of the direction of the team at Mountain View. The sophistication and automation of the algorithm does have a flip side however – it will make it much more difficult for the Search engineers to understand how manual input will translate into machine output.
Diversify Your Traffic
Best practice is essential, but ultimately no-one apart from the Google Search team know precisely how the algorithm works. This means one crucial thing to any business – especially small to medium sized businesses or those that rely heavily on local traffic – diversify your traffic. At Match we have clients that are locally focused, and while none of them saw critical impacts, there were certainly fluctuations. We’re certainly glad everything returned to normal, but the reason why it wouldn’t have been crippling is helping clients to ensure they have a varied traffic and acquisition portfolio.
Google makes up ~93% of all organic search traffic in Australia, which is why it’s such a huge focus, but the effort that goes into creating the experience and content that helps your site rank can also be helped to promote across other channels. Think about how all of that rich local content can be fed in your social channels, or how you can work some of that messaging into a re-targeting/marketing programme so you can bring back visitors that didn’t quite make it across the finish line.
As the latest local update reminds us, your Google traffic doesn’t belong to you.
Google made a temporary change to its local results that had SEOs and businesses in a flutter. While everything is back to normal, the episode once again proves why your business should focus on driving targeted traffic from as many channels as possible while also focusing on Google best practice.