Last week local SEOs began noticing the disappearance of the so-called Google 7 pack, the cluster of local Google listings that frequently appears for search queries like “sushi in San Francisco.” At first, the impact seemed quite dramatic, with Moz reporting a 60% decline in this common search result type. The impact on local businesses and the local SEO industry would have been momentous if this number had proved accurate, given that angling for presence in the 7 pack is at the center of local optimization strategy for many agencies. But the estimate has since been adjusted downward by more than one corroborating source, and it seems more likely as of this writing that the decline in 7 Pack results rests around 24%, still significant but less dramatic.
A cluster of changes appears to have come along for the ride, as part of a comprehensive update since confirmed by Google and dubbed Pigeon over at Search Engine Land. For instance, local pack results have actually returned for some categories such as “web design” and “advertising agency” where no local pack has been seen for years. Rankings have been reordered in several categories, with no clear pattern yet emerging, though the general indications are that rankings for many well-optimized businesses have improved.
And there are indications that Google is now penalizing listings for service-area businesses that are not properly formatted. Google asks that such businesses provide a street address (even if only a residential address) and then request that the address be hidden. There have traditionally been listings in many service categories such as landscaping that did not follow this rule, so an attempt to clean up the sector would be welcome; but reports suggest that Google may have turned the screws a little too tight, suspending the listings of several legitimate service-oriented businesses.
Presumably the initial snafus and misapprehensions will settle down soon, leaving us to ask the remaining pertinent question. Much of the coverage thus far has been an attempt to understand what Google has done; less focus has been placed on why.
Google’s announcement last week indicates it is trying to tie local results “more closely to traditional web search ranking signals.” Search Engine Land reports, “Google told us that the new local search algorithm ties deeper into their web search capabilities, including the hundreds of ranking signals they use in web search along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.”
If traditional web search means downplaying local results powered by Google itself, as the evidence seems to show, then Google might seem to be acting against its own interest, though perhaps this merely represents one more course correction in the never-ending effort to improve the search experience.
Notably, the decline in local pack results has meant increased visibility for directory listings. For instance, one of the most impacted categories, real estate, now shows directory listings for realtors and homes from Realtor.com, Zillow, Trulia, Homes.com, Craigslist, RealEstate.com, and so on, where previously the 7 pack took up half the space on page one. See this example:
And here on Google.ca where the update is not yet in place:
The situation is similar for other directories popular with consumers such as Yelp, OpenTable, and TripAdvisor. It’s fair to say that the vacuum left by disappearing local pack results has been filled with local directories. As others have pointed out, this change seems consistent with Google’s stated goal of adjusting local results to make use of relevance signals from traditional search. In other words, directory results may often represent a more informative, content-rich, or relevant search result than Google’s own local content. Still it does seem counterintuitive that Google would cede this much real estate to third parties, so it will be interesting to see if these results get tweaked over time.
Growth in visibility for local directories will have some affect on the work of local SEO services like UBL, Yext, and Moz Local. For the time being anyway, Google seems to be experimenting with driving more traffic to its local competition, meaning that it’s more important than ever for a business to secure its presence across a broad base of directories. The value proposition of local SEO does not change in a fundamental way, given that Google has long used citation consistency as a prominent local ranking signal. For this reason, optimized directory listings are important whether or not Google displays them on page one. But the redirecting of consumer traffic could end up causing a reorientation of efforts aimed at consumer engagement. Google itself seems to be reminding us that it isn’t the only site that matters.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.