Google Adds More Custom Relevance Signals to Local Results

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Google’s local team has been on a tear recently when it comes to new features, experiments, and expansions of existing functionality. Recent developments include a dramatic expansion in shoppable product photos within the Local Pack as well as a new “Browse by product” and “Browse by store” interface within the Local Finder (primarily on mobile devices) that melds Google Shopping with local results to an unprecedented degree. Google has even updated its help documentation on how businesses can improve their local ranking, now suggesting that the presence of product listings may help businesses outrank the competition.

Shoppable product photos in the Local Pack and Local Finder

Products in the Local Pack and Local Finder are showcased in the form of carousels dominated by product photos, aligning Google’s expanding effort to digitize local store inventory with its emphasis on visual components in local results. Visual cues are also showing up in more and more places, with Google making use of its sophisticated image recognition technology to pull relevant photos from the photo galleries within Google Business Profiles in order to display them directly in the Local Pack and Local Finder.

There’s another common thread here besides increased emphasis on visual media. On the topic of local ranking, Google has long identified three primary areas of evaluation that its local algorithm applies when deciding how to rank a business for a particular search. These are relevance, distance (or proximity), and prominence. Relevance is an answer to the question, “Does this business meet the need indicated by the search query?” Distance answers the question, “Is this business among the nearest good examples matching the search query?” And finally, prominence answers the question, “Is this business an excellent example of its type?”

The ranking criteria that matters most for the current discussion is relevance. In offering product photos to users searching for products, Google is both declaring and emphasizing that this business has offerings relevant to the searcher’s stated need.

The evidence points to relevance as a huge priority for Google these days. The examples already cited belong to an even larger trend many of us have been tracking since early 2019. Around that time, Google’s internal teams are said to have coined the term “justifications” to describe what is now a commonplace in local results: text snippets sourced from the Google profile, the business website, and even Google users, appended to the listing in the Local Pack and Finder in order to show that the listing matches query intent.

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A search for “gyms with free trial membership” shows justifications from the business website (“Their website mentions”) and from GBP service attributes (“Provides”)

Justifications are now extremely common, not only in niche searches like the example above but even in results for more generic queries like “Italian restaurant near me.” And it’s easy to see that, although they are not often described using this term, shoppable product photos and other types of photo content in Google results function in a manner that is highly similar to justifications. Again, the key is relevance: in all cases, Google is creating a result tailored to search intent that is designed to prove the relevance of the business.

In some more recent examples gathered by my colleague Michael Snow, Google is going even further to push relevance and anticipate consumer demand. In the search below for “nike air near me,” Google pulls relevant content from offer-type Google Posts associated with a listing and displays that content both as a justification-style snippet in the abbreviated profile on the left and as an expanded carousel of Google Posts in the full business profile.

local results
Google showcasing offer content relevant to Nike Air and other offerings

And Google doesn’t stop there. In this example and others Michael was able to uncover, Google is highlighting another set of offers lower down in the business profile that appear to be sourced from the business website, with custom deal icons applied by Google. These offers may not all be directly related to the search, though the first of them suggests that the store is offering Nike products at 50% off. The rest may serve as further enticement to visit the business.

The appearance here of offer-type Google Posts is not accidental. Google is showcasing this post type more prominently in search lately, sometimes under the heading Offers. In many cases there is not such an obvious tie to search intent as what we see here, where the Nike Air brand is found both in the query and the first offer. Google seems to be offering slightly less relevant content if that’s the only content available, hoping it will be close enough.

Overlapping the theme of increased relevance signals is the theme of customized search results, where one searcher may see something different from another depending on factors like search intent. Time is another of these factors. In addition to photos, justifications, and post carousels, Google is peppering local results these days with indicators that customers are visiting the business and that the business is providing timely updates. Examples include flags in listings indicating how recently hours of operation and other details were last updated, as well as prominent callout sections such as “Updates from customers” and “From the owner” that display recently uploaded content. These callout sections are triggered by shared photos from users and “what’s new” Google Posts from business owners, which also generally feature photos — again showing Google’s emphasis on visuals.

With all of this customization, Google listings are now not static entities but are designed with flexibility in mind so that factors like search intent and timeliness can be taken into account. Presumably, all of this is leading to higher conversions. Certainly Google’s efforts have made its local search offerings more sophisticated than ever and have placed even more distance between Google and its competition.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.