Is Google Shrinking the Local Pack?
A few days ago, Joy Hawkins broke the news on Twitter that Google was announcing a potentially significant change in the so-called “Snack Pack,” the box containing three local listings that is featured in Google’s organic results page for searches with local intent. Hawkins was in attendance at SMX Advanced when Ali Turhan, Global Product Lead for Local Ads at Google, discussed several new AdWords features and, by way of example, showed a mockup of a Snack Pack where the first position was taken up with an ad.
As far as I know, this version of the Snack Pack has yet to be spotted in the wild, but some have created mockups based on the photo Hawkins posted to Twitter. Below is Barry Schwartz’s mockup from a post at Search Engine Roundtable.
As Greg Sterling indicated in his write up on Search Engine Land, Turhan made it clear that this version of the local pack was not official, that “Google was still testing,” and that “the ultimate result might be different from what he showed.” Sterling speculated, for instance, that Google might end up with a Snack Pack showing one ad and three organic listings. I’d suggest too that even if ads do start to appear in Snack Pack results, their appearance will likely depend on ad inventory for a given vertical or geography, so some users might see ads and some might not, just as we see today in the Local Finder.
The Snack Pack itself is less than a year old, having emerged last August to the surprise of industry experts. Between October 2009 and August 2015, a long time by internet standards, Google typically showed results in a 7-pack, and before that in a 10-pack. This gradual reduction in real estate for local listings has been accompanied by changes in ad display, the most dramatic example of which was the disappearance of right rail ads from organic search in February.
There are a few ready explanations for these changes. The most obvious is the explosion of mobile search. Google is now thinking of its organic page in mobile-first terms, meaning that local content needs to be presented in a smaller footprint with the most meaningful results featured prominently. The Snack Pack makes more sense in this light, and Google is clearly doing its best to offer the most direct answer to any local query, assuming a context where the mobile user wants guidance for in-the-moment decisions.
As far as the encroachment of advertising into local results — represented not only by the news from SMX but also by the recent appearance of deals in organic hotel listings — this too is understandable if you consider that in a condensed mobile format, Google must find creative ways to ensure that ads will be melded smoothly with the search experience.
The reduction of local real estate of course represents a huge challenge to marketers, who must work even harder to ensure their clients’ listings can compete in a shrinking field. It also suggests that a strategy combining organic and paid efforts is becoming ever more important.
Still, it’s worth remembering that Google has many overlapping delivery systems for local results, supporting many different kinds of use cases. The decision to experiment with advertising in the Snack Pack may, for instance, reflect the fact that a large volume of local queries are coming through the Maps app. Google may, in other words, be more willing to play with ad display in browser-based search when it knows that users can easily access local results in the Maps app if they want a relatively ad-free environment.
So too, the number of results in the local pack is somewhat arbitrary no matter how many of them Google chooses to display. Sure, your business will gain an advantage if it’s featured in the first set of results, but in my own experience those results feel more like a teaser anyway. If I really want to know what my options are, I’ll click “More places” and view the complete list in Google Maps. In fact, many times I start local searches at maps.google.com to begin with, knowing that the Snack Pack will be abbreviated to the point where it isn’t really useful. I suspect I’m not alone.
But the challenge for marketers remains. Any mobile search will necessarily limit the number of results to which a user is exposed, and on desktop, highly ranked results will still outperform all others. For this reason, points of differentiation like Google’s new local attributes will likely gain more attention as marketers and local businesses strive to compete for consumer eyeballs.