Here’s an interesting piece of information you should be aware of as we head into 2015: Google changes its search algorithm around 500–600 times every year. As Moz points, however, that’s nothing to be worried about. Most of the time these are minor changes, but every now and then Google shakes things up significantly – think Google Panda and Google Penguin.
Regardless of the size of the update, Moz recommends marketers be aware of “the dates of these Google updates,” because it “can help explain changes in rankings and organic website traffic and ultimately improve search engine optimization.” And, since Google owns over 67% of the search engine market, whenever it does make a change, we have to pay attention.
While 2014 saw updates regarding Panda, as well as the removal of Authorship, it was also a very interesting year in regards to local search. This past year alone we experienced the launch of Google My Businesses, a major Pigeon update, and some significant changes with Carousel.
We’ll take a look at how these three changes have impacted local SEO and then provide a couple of tips to take with you into the next year.
Google My Business
Mark Mitchell notes on the BrightEdge Blog that “Google Places was first introduced with Google Plus (Google+) in 2011,” which became Google+ Local by 2012. This past June Google announced that this free service had been renamed to Google My Business.
Sarah Perez explained on TechCrunch that Google My Business is a suite of tools “for business owners, offering them a one-stop shop to update their business information, add photos, read reviews and, of course, use Google+.” The idea behind Google My Business is that business owners can easily update and increase their visibility on Google search, Google Maps, and Google+ through one dashboard.
In fact, as Ashley Zeckman states on SEW, you can now access the following applications on one screen:
- Google+: You can share new text, photos, links, videos, and events.
- Insights: Once you verify your business you are able to gain insights into your visibility, engagement, and audience.
- Reviews: Each business is given a Google rating and you are able to manage your reviews on Google and view other reviews around the web.
- Google Analytics: Quick access directly to your Google Analytics dashboard.
- Start a Hangout: With the click of a button you can start or join a Hangout.
By the end of October the Google My Business App – available on both Google Play and iTunes – was beefed up so business owners could read and respond to online reviews. AsBusiness News Daily states, this means you’ll receive an alert whenever someone posts a review on Google+ Local and be able to respond to that review in a timely manner. The update to the app also works with AdWords Express so you can track ad campaigns from anywhere via your mobile device or login via desktop.
Key takeaway: Google My Business can be used by small business owners to engage their audience in one convenient location. Because of this, you can now respond to reviews quickly and keep your customers in the loop.
On July 24, Google turned the local SEO community on its head with the algorithm update, “Pigeon” – Jim Yu stated in SEW that many believed it was “the biggest Google update to the local search results since the Venice update in 2012.” One of the biggest impacts was “directories were now being favored in the results above local businesses.” And while that may have been welcoming news for sites like Yelp, it wasn’t exactly a great day for top-ranked websites.
According to data from BrightEdge, via SEW, here were the industries hit hardest by the Pigeon update:
- Jobs (68% decline in Google Places results)
- Real estate (63% decline in the Google Places results)
- Movies (36% decline in the Google Places results)
- Insurance (11% decline in the Google Places results)
That’s not to say that it was all doom and gloom for business owners. The Pigeon update helped improve queries for the following:
- Hospitality (28% growth in Google Places results)
- Food (19% growth in the Google Places results)
- Education (13% growth in the Google Places results)
Other winners included Spa (+4.64%), Shop (+4.32%), Law (+3.55%), Medical (+1.83%), Transportation (+1.31%) and Fitness (+1.12%).
What else did Pigeon have an effect on? According to Moz’s Local Search Ranking Factors 2014, it also changed the importance of ranking factors. Following the update, here are the ten most important ranking factors:
- Domain Authority of Website
- Proximity of Address to the Point of Search (Searcher-Business Distance)
- Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Domain
- Quality/Authority of Inbound Links to Landing Page URL
- Physical Address in City of Search
- Quantity of Reviews by Authority Reviewers (e.g.Yelp Elite, Multiple Maps Reviewers, etc)
- Quality/Authority of Structured Citations
- City, State in Landing Page Title
- Click-Through Rate from Search Results
- Page Authority of Landing Page URL
Here are the factors that have decreased in importance:
- Proximity of Address to Centroid
- Physical Address in City of Search
- Individually Owner-verified My Business Page
- Quantity of Structured Citations (IYPs, Data Aggregators)
- Proximity of Address to Centroid of Other Businesses in Industry
- Location Keyword in Business Title or Title Modifier
- Quality/Authority of Structured Citations
- Quantity of Native Google Maps Reviews (w/text)
- Geographic Keyword in Website URL
- Proper Category Associations
Key takeaways: Despite all the changes with the Pigeon update, you shouldn’t neglect the four main areas of local: website, links, citations, and reviews. However, after a through 5,000 page case-study, Adam Dorfman shared the following on Search Engine Land: Pigeon has not improved SERPs, strong domains are important, location matters, and you shouldn’t over-optimize your site.
In June 2013, Google debuted the Carousel feature for desktop searches. These interactive, horizontal listings included images you could scroll if you searched for something like “Seattle restaurants.” Search marketer Matthew Hunt, via Search Engine Land, discovered that “48% of searchers surveyed clicked the Carousel results, while only 14.5% clicked on the map” in 2013. Because of the popularity of this feature, it was suggested that you should use high-quality images of your business.
That was all well and good until Google decided to start shifting away Carousel over this past summer. Instead, the Big G now prefers to have a format that more closely resembles mobile searches. By mid-November, local searches for hotels, restaurants or nightlife options were replaced by a “three-pack” of ads – Bing, however, is now using the interface for local searches. Lisa Raehsler, founder and principal strategist at online advertising company Big Click Co., informed SEW that:
“Clicking on the organic results leads to a new details page where initiating a second action, like hotel reservation search, is a sponsored ad. This opens up opportunities for SEO/PPC to be more integrated and see more interactive ad units in search results.”
Key takeaway: As Tom Dibble states on Econsultancy, “this move will affect your organic traffic ranking and volume of traffic,” especially if you’re in the hospitality industry. He also notes that “the new Local 3-Pack is going to make the lives of independent and boutique properties a bit more difficult.”
Local SEO Tips for 2015
To help you prepare your local SEO strategy for 2015, here are a handful of general SEO tips.
According to research conducted by Google, in conjunction with Nielsen, consumers are spending over 15 hours per week during research on their smartphones. As smart phone usage continues to grow, it only makes sense for your business to be mobile friendly. If not, competitors could take away 68% of your smartphone traffic.
Jay Taylor argues on SEW that having a mobile-friendly site can improve click-through rate and increase both rankings and revenue. To make sure your site is mobile-friendly you can use this handy tool from Google.
Optimize Google My Business
You also want to optimize your Google My Business. Google suggests you do the following:
- Make sure your business location is entered correctly on the map
- Double check your business name, physical address, and phone number(s)
- Add information such as hours of operation and payment types
- Add your official website on the local Google+ page
- Use specific categories, keywords and descriptions of your business
- Encourage reviews
Besides being listed on Google My Business, you should also be listed on the following business directories:
Moz has an extremely useful guide on how to get local citations if you need a little more assistance in this area. And, don’t forget to make sure that your N.A.P. is consistent as well.
Here’s some simple, and effective, tips on how to be successful with local search in 2015 courtesy of Greg Gifford on Search Engine Land.
- Have useful content on your homepage
- Include relevant and informative content on every page
- Stop spamming keywords
- Your title tag should summarize the page
- Include your city and state in your title tag, H1 heading, URL, content, and alt text on images
- Earn quality links
In short, these tips aren’t all that different from the good ol’ fashioned local SEO tactics you’ve probably used in the past.
Miriam Ellis created a 6-point Pigeon-proofing checklist for local businesses for Moz that starts off with this piece of advice, “Stay tuned in to local blogs and fora and monitor the SERPs on a regular basis to watch things progress in the coming weeks and months.” She says because “the dust has not settled” on the Pigeon update, you shouldn’t “react with a complete 180 in your marketing strategy.”
Was your local SEO campaign affected by any of these changes that Google implemented this year? If so, how did you react? And, how are you planning your local SEO strategy for 2015?