How Popular Are Tailored Features in Local Search?

Local search results are very different today compared with just a couple of years ago. I’m not just talking about the redesigned 3-Pack or the increased likelihood that Google will surface local results for a broad variety of searches. I’m referring to the features shown in the results themselves.

Still, the gradual rollout of featured photos, justifications, prominent attributes and more has made local search’s evolution less dramatic than it would have been if all of these changes had occurred in a matter of weeks or months. For a useful contrast, here’s a 3-Pack from an old blog post published in 2018:

That same search today looks quite different:

We see the increased prominence of the local result with a full-width 3-Pack above the fold, dominating the entire page. Prominent buttons not present in 2018 prompt the user to schedule an appointment directly within the Google interface. And for the one result that does not feature a schedule button, there is a prominent attribute advertising the availability of online appointments, offered through an appointment link in the full business profile. The larger viewport of the map in this 3-Pack allows us to see a fourth barbershop, Kenwood Barbers, that didn’t find its way into the 3-Pack but gains prominent placement as an also-ran. The map also has navigation controls and popups, in stark contrast to the static map of 2018.

This result is actually a rather mild example of the updated local search experience common in so many listings. Especially for popular categories like restaurants and retail, as well as results for long-tail searches across a wide range of categories, we see many more indicators that Google understands the intent of search at a deep level and knows how to extract and feature content in order to showcase that a business is likely to meet the user’s needs.

Take for example the Local Finder result for men’s work boots in Oxnard, CA:

Here we see a dramatic example of the changes Google has made to local results. In this result, every listing showcases a photo of the item the searcher is looking for, culled from the gallery in each business profile. Reinforcing the relevance of the businesses Google has chosen to feature in this 3-Pack are three different types of justification (the snippets of text that appear underneath the opening hours). These are, in order:

  • A website justification, showing that Google has gone to look for content on the business website that matches the user’s intent
  • A review snippet showing how one consumer feels about the work boots offered by this shop
  • An “in stock” notification pulled from the Google Merchant Center and referencing that the store has updated its inventory today

These three examples represent just a sampling of the many types of justification that can appear in local results, many of which, such as website content and Merchant Center inventory, can be influenced by the business, who may not be able to control how or whether such snippets appear but can position content to be available to Google when the local algorithm determines that a justification should be triggered.

Research conducted by SOCi and examining more than 8 million local results finds that photo content now appears in 44% of listings in the 3-Pack and Local Finder. In our research, we looked primarily at high-traffic terms such as “barbershop in Minneapolis” rather than long-tail searches like “men’s work boots in Oxnard,” making it likely that the actual occurrence of photos in listings is even higher, since photos tend to be featured today in many long-tail searches.

We found that prominent attributes occur with a similar frequency; some 43% of the local results we examined displayed at least one prominent attribute. The most popular attributes were in-store shopping, curbside pickup, delivery, dine in, takeout, and no contact delivery, in that order. Again, this is for high-traffic queries rather than searches looking for these particular features. In long-tail queries like the example below, where the search was for department stores offering delivery in Chicago, the incidence of matching attributes will be even higher.

As for justifications, we found that these occur much less frequently for high-volume queries than for long-tail searches, which makes sense: Google uses justifications to demonstrate the relevance of a result to a query in cases where more obvious indicators, like the business name and primary category, fall short. This will be especially true for long-tail searches where relevant terms are unlikely to be found in such obvious places. Review justifications were the most prominent type in our results, occurring in 16% of listings and making up 92% of all justification appearances. Notably, the recent appearance of justifications on the map in the Google Maps app also indicates a high proportion of review justifications, as shown in the result below.

The evidence shows that Google is tailoring search results both to match explicit intent, as with justifications and photos matched to long-tail searches, and to meet perceived consumer needs that may not be expressed outright, like the Covid-driven demand for information about availability of in store shopping, pickup, and delivery.

Gradually, local results have become far less generic, offering a personalized experience modeled on the needs of each user. One imagines that the fast-moving development of AI models like BERT and MUM will make Google even better at knowing what we want.

For now, it’s important for businesses to know that they can optimize for many of these customizations by providing text content, photos, product listings, and Google Business Profile enhancements that feature the products, services, and differentiating service features that they want to appear for in search.

Tags:
Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is Director of Market Insights at SOCi and can be reached via Twitter at @damianrollison. SOCi is the publisher of Street Fight.