In an effort to improve SEO, search marketers keep a track of Google updates as they help explain changes in rankings and organic website traffic. Google is always with its thinking cap on thinking of new ways to change its search algorithm, and this annual ritual invariably brings along with it changes – mostly minor ones.
On July 24, 2014, a minor earthquake took place in the SEO world. The local search result changes brought along with it a new algorithm that was expected to improve distance and location ranking parameters. A little more than a year later, there was another major upheaval and this time, Google updated the search results you see in a query – the normal 7-packs were replaced by 3-packs.
The impact of Google’s local search result changes dramatically altered the local space for Google local business listings. Put simply that means that instead of showing 7 businesses in the pack and in the Google map, the local space would show only 3 businesses. Initially, people just shrugged it off, but as time passed, it became clear that Google intended to transform the aspect of search.
SEO experts voiced concerns that Google could make a change to show more 3-packs than 7-packs, and that’s exactly how it happened. The Google 3-packs brought a whiff of fresh air along with it, something that didn’t suit SEO experts and local businesses. For any local business with more than two competitors, the impact is going to be tremendous.
Strangely, Google didn’t test this local change in a few countries as it normally does before rolling it out; it launched this change both in the US and internationally at the same time. For everyone, all over the globe, 7-packs made way for 3-packs to become the order of the day.
With the world veering towards mobilocracy, Google decided to change the desk-top search results and redesign it to fit more with the mobile user interface. Obviously the 3-pack fit like a glove on the mobile user’s screen. By removing the 7-pack, Google ensured that desktop users and mobile users had the same user experience. This merely reinforces what we know about Google – it has a focused approach on the user’s experience no matter what the product is or the platform.
Business listings no longer came with exact addresses as before. Google decided to do away with them and included only the street name. Even the street number is missing – so maybe those who don’t fall into the top 3 may actually have a good thing going for them. Anyone searching for the exact address needs to go to the website or the map listing.
Mobile users however need to go the company’s card listing page to get the address and that’s equivalent to the card on the right of the desktop search. This means that most probably, desktop searches will get more traffic than mobile.
In addition, the phone numbers of businesses were also missing and searchers would have access to this only from the company website. As if to compensate, Google added store hours that included opening and closing times.
Andrew Shotland of Local SEO guide defended Google’s 3-pack approach saying – “I would imagine that Google was seeing far fewer clicks and calls from the listings after the first three, so they probably figured, ‘what’s the point of presenting them?’ ”
This view is extremely credible, given that Google doesn’t make changes without a lot of testing. Business listings after the 3rd one were probably not clicked on as much as the top three. Be that as it may, even if spots 4-7 experienced less traffic, they are losing out on a branding opportunity because of the local change effected by Google.
What’s more, ratings are bound to become more important – Google added an alternative so that searchers can select those businesses beyond a certain assessment. Good ratings then will make it to the topmost of the priority list – for obviously searchers will be looking to go for ones with the highest ratings.
This should keep businesses on their toes for sooner or later, the star ranking selection dropdown will appear for more local searches within the 3-pack, and they would want to figure in the higher ratings. Businesses that have many competitors will have to devise a way to up their ratings and get reviews that will push them into the 4-star bracket or higher.
The ones who would probably lose out in this ‘ratings game‘ is smaller towns that don’t have enough eateries with rankings available. Where there are more eateries, the ratings drop down.
The Waning Part that Google+ Plays
Although Google+ does have a low profile today when compared to its launch period, links to the profile page of Google+ still show up when businesses figure in the normal search results, though they don’t figure in the 3-pack.
The talk about shifting the photos feature from Google+ is a reality and this has been moved to Google maps. In the native 3-pack too, photos for native businesses are now shown in Google Maps.
Although Google+ is evolving, Brian Barwig of the Integrated Digital Marketing advises people and businesses to “Continue focusing on Google+ reviews as well since those are the only reviews Google is showing in the Local Pack.” All reviews should be directed to their Google+ page as has been done all along.
Fresh businesses & assessments
With ratings and reviews playing a significant role in local SEO, Google has apparently not provided for new businesses and also those businesses that currently do not have Google+ reviews. As reviews are going to determine ratings and ratings are linked with search engine rankings, this is one area that needs fixing immediately or at least somewhere in the near future.
Businesses that currently don’t have reviews listed are going to be the victims as anyone who looks to leave their review is going to find it impossible to do so. Yes, they can go to the local listing and click on the review link and post their comments, but that’s too complex. It should be easy for anyone who wants to write a review. They will either have to go to Yelp or just not write a review. In the process, the business loses so many reviews and its ratings are likely to drop.
With the ratings selector coming into the picture, ratings take on a new look. And as ratings are dependent on reviews, new businesses could be in a terrible disadvantage. It’s unlikely that such companies will have a Google+ page at all to leave their review, but there could be a Yelp page – if that helps any.
The Innovative Model of Sponsored Marketing
The consequences for home service advertisements, that closely resemble local packs, is still not very clear. Google is presently testing within the San Francisco area alone and for two professions only – for those searching for locksmiths and plumbers. This means that a lot of work still remains to be done before the 3-pack becomes a regular feature for home service ads.
So if that works out as Google plans and encompasses other professions and cities too, local SEOs will be pretty anxious as local packs could well become a “pay and play” condition. Barwig echoes these fears and says “This new Local Pack looks similar to those ads and it could be Google’s intention to simply replace the Local Pack with ads or integrate ads directly into the Pack.”
That appears to be an easy adjustment for Google and if it does just that, then searchers will probably have a seamless experience as they won’t even realize or feel that any change has been made. This is because they will resemble the 3-packs to a great extent – so much so that the result is one that local searchers would expect.
If the home service advertisements become the 3-pack, then it’s good for Google. However not generally so good for businesses. SEOs fears that these could well become “pay and play,” will materialize and Google will become richer while businesses become poorer. This is because they have to invest so many dollars to get traffic from Google. Lead optimization will cost the local SEOs in terms of money and also in terms of time invested on optimizing leads.
What If You Are Penalized Either By Panda Or Penguin?
In case you’re not aware of what a Panda or a Penguin penalty is—here goes. A panda penalty is a Google search algorithm that has websites, with low quality content or too many ads, squirming. Earlier, it only penalized the inferior content, but now the penalty is directed at the domain itself. On the other hand, a Penguin penalty is handed out to sites where SEOs use unethical practices to rank the websites.
Those sites that have suffered the wrath of Panda or a Penguin will probably be hit the most for local pack change will have severe repercussions as far as penalized sites are concerned.
Google will continue to display listings for a website within the local pack (including those that have been penalized) but with the 3-pack becoming the norm, penalized sites will lose the privilege of replacing the pack listing using a normal organic listing. With the 7-pack, these penalized businesses would still figure on the first page, but the recent change will punish them severely by not allowing them to figure in the new 3-pack.
However, there’s still hope for businesses as there is a way to recover from a Panda penalty. All they should do is to just focus on delivering quality content and increase the website’s social media presence to start ranking again. Recovering from a Penguin penalty means websites will have to get rid of all the bad back links from their site before the next Penguin update (which may be at any time).
The New UX or User Experience
The reception for the 3-pack has been a mixed bag—while some rate it as a great user experience, marketers are worried about user interaction as users will now have to click through to get to the second listing page.
Barwig opines that the new 3-pack could augur a reduced user experience but is quick to point out that other factors like bounce rate, click through ratio and more may gain more significance. However only time and in-depth study will prove if the 3- top spots are really as ‘important’ as they are made out to be.
The question begs as to whether 3-pack will continue to storm the search engine citadels as forcefully as they are doing currently. Well, unless Google does an about turn on this one, it appears that 3-pack is here for good.
When you are among the 3 top companies
Do you think you’re safe if you’re in the top most 3 – then do think again.
Don’t be complacent, just because you have a place among the top 3 – it may not be for long. Local SEO will turn out to be a battlefield where there are always strong contenders for the best three spots instead of the former 7. With SEO becoming more aggressive and companies vying for a top place, it’s going to be anybody’s guess as to who actually makes it. Everyone will be ramping up their optimization struggles for SEO, competing will be strong and even those companies that were content at figuring in the best 7 previously, will be advertising themselves online with more vigor.
Such being the scenario, you can never tell when somebody comes out from somewhere and nudges past you.
Linda Buquet had a good word for the local SEOs that managed to get clients into the ‘top three bracket’ and pointed out that the 3-pack local change could well work in their favor.
If it’s any consolation, Barwig notes that it’s still too early to tell how all this is going to pan out in the end. Just because you’re not in the top 3 doesn’t imply anything bad as the new setting is still being evaluated, analyzed, tested and tracked. There’s really no certainty that Google will continue with the 3-pack, it might change its mind suddenly and create a ‘new norm pack, decide to roll back the updates or tweak it a little to ensure that all is calm on the ‘stormy pack scene.’
Google is unpredictable and has the power to ‘make it or change it.’ You’ll have to wait and watch for this one to see how it goes.
Enhancing yourself to be in the Best 3
The key to make an entry into the best 3 is to ‘focus on being organic.’ Many aspects of normal organic SEO are going to be the keys in rankings in Google; hence it would do local businesses a great deal of good if they continued to work on their normal SEO too. Buquet advises businesses to “laser beam on properly strategized organic SEO, both for on-page and off-page.” This will help to boost rankings or at least help in your organic position. There is an almost universal opinion that “the top organic rankings beats the top local map rankings in conversion anyway.”
You need to have a clean SEO record and for that you will have to use Google-sanctioned SEO techniques. Don’t heed businesses that indulge in spam techniques and earn temporary success. With a clean slate behind you, Google is sure to write ‘approved’ on it.
Focus more on links
There’s nothing to beat good solid backlinks as it’s a strong portion of the local SEO and will continue to be so. With the market becoming more competitive, backlinks are rather top key. Even the nofollow link can send in referrals. Certifications and directories could be crucial for some and important for others. This is especially true in the case of local businesses that don’t have their own website and where Google has to rely on information provided by third party sources.
Hence Barwig advises SEOs to ensure that their customers are recorded on bigger directories, feed into data aggregators, and their listings are correctly filled and their records are all in order.
The scenario for local SEO has now changed with those 4-7 spots vanishing from the first page. Before 3-pack made an entry, relatively non-competitive local business areas could get by with just minimal SEO. That has changed now and SEO is not only about directories, reviews and link building but extends its purview into marketing and even PR.
That’s why Shotland assumes that “marketing and PR will play a much bigger role for many businesses wanting to compete.” His views seem to be borne out by the fact that an attorney is spending millions on PR to rank numero uno in their arcade for some high-value legitimate terms. He also urges businesses to think beyond standard PRs and extend their outreach to reach a larger and wider spectrum. Shotland goes on to add that there is a tremendous opportunity to get recognition and a gratuity link and businesses should make best use of this.
With the introduction of 3-packs, the top positions have become more viable than ever before, so those lucky enough to occupy those slots will have to do more than their competitors to remain there. While marketing and backlinks have gained greater significance, alerts regarding competitor activity have become crucial as they could be a great promotion opportunity. You do have to keep busy all the time to remain at the top and the slightest slack on your part may well cost you- your place.
All of us are aware that Google’s Local SEO is an ever – changing and ever-evolving process that changes the way how local searches are handled. So do learn to adapt and adopt new changes or miss the boat. What all this amounts to currently is that you need to learn to cater to local Search Engine Optimization in a 3-pack world.
There’s no doubt that local SEO is now more complex, more convoluted than even one year ago, and if you want to control new SERPs, then you need to evolve as and when needed, whenever Google changes the local SEO landscape. Keep yourself posted, keep updated and work towards the new challenges that Google poses; it’s the only way to remain a step ahead of search engines and use them to your advantage.
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