Last summer, Google released a significant change to its local search algorithm that aimed to improve the accuracy of location parameters in a search result. In the months since, the update, later dubbed Pigeon, appears to have shifted the balance of power in its results to favor larger-scale, branded search terms.
The algorithm update comes at a complex moment in the local search industry. Smartphones continue to change search behavior and a crop of new vertical-specific startups threaten to chip away at Google’s hegemony in certain categories.
David Mihm, the director of local search strategy at Moz, is well-versed in the update, and getting set to speak about it at the Local Data Summit on March 5th in Denver. We recently caught up with him to talk about the impact of Pigeon on multi-location brands, the state of local search’s shift to mobile, and what a rash of new vertical sites means for Google.
Let’s talk latest change to Google’s algorithm. What types of business succeeded (with it); what types of data did it favor; what do these changes mean for the search industry?
It actually wasn’t as substantial an update as everybody reported, merely a continuation and amplification of the direction Google has been going in for the last three or four years. Pigeon largely benefited well-branded, well-structured websites. If you have a very strong brand, good brand recognition, and lots of brand name searches — you benefited.
In general, the update favored brands and hurt small businesses. That seems to be the initial data. We haven’t seen any substantial changes, although I do think there have been multiple algorithm updates since then that have flown under the radar where the quality of results have gotten better.
We’re entering a post-mobile period in which mobile more often than not accounts for the majority of local search and discovery traffic. What do we know about the state of local search with mobile, and what is still unresolved?
While I’m not sure if we are there just yet, directionally that’s an absolutely accurate statement for companies. But people have definitely moved to mobile, which has actually hurt the industry in previous years; but the potential for mobile is huge.
On mobile, the breakdown of web-search-versus-app-search is not likely to change anytime soon. We are at more or less of an equilibrium, where you have these very strong vertical apps like Yelp — certain go-to apps for search if you are a consumer — and then there’s also still plenty of searches on Google, especially if you are an Android user. I think there will continue to be an increase in the number of searches done within apps and web searches, but I don’t think one side will win over the other.
We talk a lot about the way in which mobile is changing consumer behavior. But how has mobile changed the way the industry itself functions?
The most exciting thing I’ve seen is that the calculation of return on investment on mobile search becomes much much easier, particularly if you are a service business and you judge leads based on phone calls. There’s a huge industry built up around tracking phone calls. The paradigm is pretty mature, and the innovation and evolution happening on the post-search world is what I’m most excited about at this point.
In your annual local search review, you said: “The user is the new Centroid.” Can you expand?
Essentially as part of this latest update, Google on desktop searches has gotten much better at detecting the latitude and longitude of the desktop user. Google has become much, much better at detecting specifically the neighborhood where you are performing those searches, and will narrow the radius of businesses they show to you that are within a short drive or walking distance.
Many brands have upped their investment in local SEO recently, but there are also many multi-location brands still lag behind. How have the changes in the local search market impacted larger brands differently than it might have for small businesses?
The importance of brand is definitely on the rise and that’s a good thing in the long-term. It does reward the right kinds of businesses, both large and small, but I think right now the bigger brands are the ones it favors. If you’re a large brand and haven’t made the investment in a well-structured and high-converting store locator and location page system on your own website, you’re kicking away the opportunity Google is giving you.
We’ve seen a rash of vertically-focused sites pop up recently aiming to bring a depth to the discovery experience that the horizontal search engines do not provide. Do you think these models present a meaningful threat to Google and Yelp?
I do think they present a meaningful threat largely to the older players that have focused on search traffic as their mechanism of demand aggregation. For the vertical players who relied on search traffic, if they haven’t adjusted by now it may be too late. Google will increasingly start to box them out if they’re not established brands.
In general, I think a lot of these newer vertical players are building a business that’s independent of Google or at least not highly dependent on it. I think they present a threat to Yelp, which will always get squeezed, not only by Google, but by all these new entrants.
Over the past few years, firms like Yext and SinglePlatform built big businesses around data syndication. Do you see that product becoming more or less valuable over the next few years? Why?
Syndication is established and at this point it’s a matter of pricing the best flavor of company for your own business needs. I don’t think it will become less valuable, especially as we see more fragmentation with these vertical players. I think the need to get your data correct across a fragmented market is going to continue, as long as there are multiple consumer access points for businesses
If the app space continues to do well, the syndication space will do well. And that’s here to stay. Obviously there are going to be innovations and secret sauces that will make one product stand out better than its competitors, but I don’t think there’s a one right fit in terms of a syndication product.
Liz Taurasi is a contributor to Street Fight.