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What Does the Google Places SERP Update Mean for Local Search?

Andy Williams

by Andy Williams on 2nd November 2010

Google SearchGoogle give businesses a wake-up call with its latest update changing the dynamic of local search entirely.

Last week local search optimisation experienced a fundamental overhaul thanks to the Google Place update. Now, for any geographically targeted business search (‘hotels in Portsmouth’ for instance), you might now encounter a page like that shown below.

The above example is actually interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is actually one of the few tests we’ve carried out where organic listings outrank local results (more on which later). However, the most notable difference is the layout and appearance of the SERP itself.

Google have foregone the local business results at the top. Traditionally this would be a simple map with seven companies matching the search request pinpointed by their listed location (shown below). This is now a static feature above the sponsored links on the right. As the page scrolls down, it will remain visible.

The reason for this sudden map movement is that the local business results are now being shown where once you’d find the organic results. The listings also include reviews the usual Meta description and contact information – as you would have found by opening the local business results.

This exploded local listing has pretty significant implications for the way we optimise websites for location-based searches.

From the results that we can see, comparing the new SERP with the original, it appears that the current ranking of sites is based on a combination of the local business rankings and the organic positions. However, the weighting still appears to side heavily with natural SEO.

Here’s why.

In top position you have laterooms.com. This is the same as the original SERP and is obviously not a hotel in Portsmouth.

Second you have the Marriott organic listing (no local business data shown). Again, this was second on the previous SERP and has maintained this position. The reason why it isn’t within the local results with the same information as the other destinations is simply because it doesn’t appear within the map area (it’s not actually in the city of Portsmouth) therefore Google can’t extract the information.

From here it gets even more interesting.

The order of the local results is different to both the original organic SERP and its associated local business results. This suggests some kind of tinkering.

First up is the Queens Hotel. It was third in organic, first in local map. Next up is Travelodge, which again appeared directly beneath the Queens Hotel in organic, but was only third in the local.

The reason why it was only third was because Ibis Portsmouth was second. This is now beneath Travelodge.

Why is that significant?

Well, previously it only appeared tenth in the organic rankings. Therefore, thanks to this Google update, the Ibis is (arguably) now getting more exposure.

From here the results simply follow the original local results, with the remaining organic propping these up. That’s a pretty poor deal for the Hilton who were sat in a respectable fifth place and are now effectively demoted to tenth. The reason for their omission, as with the Marriott earlier, is purely geographical.

By being placed outside the city map, these hotels are simply unable to appear within the listings – making for a bit of an optimisation nightmare.

Another interesting thing to note is the area of the map in this example. This might be unique to Portsmouth, but the area of coverage has vastly increased. By doing so, it has incorporated the Travelodge in the localised results. So now they appear exactly where they were in the organic listing (beneath the Queens hotel) but with all the advantages of the new local listings. Possibly confusing, but definitely beneficial.

The question is though, has Google expanded the map to accommodate a strong organic site (remembering that the same wasn’t granted to the Hilton which was directly beneath Travelodge) or has this growth in area occurred as a result in widespread parameter alterations?

Anomalies

This is an update that is still in transition. There is little uniformity amongst SERPs and how they’re ordered. But this will be tweaked and updated in time by Google.

Within the Portsmouth Hotels results for instance, one of the new local listings (which did also feature in the original local results) is for Southsea Common. For those of you who don’t know the area, this is actually just a large expanse of grass – punctuated by the odd tree, bench and pathway. So in terms of overnight accommodation, it isn’t ideal.

The scrolling map also poses a problem. Now when users move down the page, the adverts on the right-hand side are obscured. This could lead to more impressions for ads and significantly reduced click throughs. This has wide-ranging consequences for PPC users, not least a possible drop in clicks, reduction in Quality Score and, as a consequence, higher bids.

Hopefully these kinds of issues will be ironed out reasonably soon.

What does this mean for you?

Well, if you’ve got a business and are already ranking locally, this shouldn’t cause major issues. However, if you haven’t created a profile on Google Maps, have struggled with local search optimisation and have no reviews to bolster your business, you could soon be invisible.

Google is becoming location orientated for many searches, so there really are no excuses for modern businesses to overlook the importance of geographical optimisation. If you’re not already signed up, here’s our guide to creating your local listing in Google Maps.

With the increase in mobile search, people are looking for services more on the move. Whether Google have gone too far with this latest bout of changes remains to be seen. But now, perhaps more than ever before, local search optimisation is essential for business websites.

Andy Williams

Andy Williams

Andy Williams, our DADI award winning Digital Marketing Manager will be giving you useful insights into local search and the overall SEO landscape. Andy has over 9 years experience in the SEO industry including 2 years as the in-house SEO consultant with a leading Web Design company.

6 Comments

  • Martin Williams 2nd November 2010

    Thanks for that detailed analysis Andy. Interesting stuff.

    A quick question.

    The Services Area in your Google Places account – is choosing ‘Yes, this business serves customers at their locations’ and opting for a say…. 50 mile service area from your location the equivalent of being located in these areas? If not does that at least have an influence on your organic placement chances in those places?

    I’m struggling to see how any company that operates in more than one location has a fighting chance of first page placement anywhere other than on its home turf.

    Ant ideas would be much appreciated.

    Best

    Martin

    Reply to this comment

  • Paul 2nd November 2010

    Only just noticed the change half an hour ago and thought WTF is all this about. Within 5 mins all is explained. Well done for a detailed report.

    Reply to this comment

  • John Nagle 3rd November 2010

    If you do that search and refresh the page, the results will change slightly. Don’t infer too much from one page view.

    The real change, though, is not that Google has moved the “places search” from Maps into the Web search results. It’s that Google is now indexing businesses, not just web sites. Search for a non-location commercial item like “dvd player”. You’ll get paid ads, links to Google pages for “Brands”, “Stores”, and “Types”, and Google Shopping results. A few organic search results still appear, but most of the links on the page now lead to Google revenue generators, not web sites.

    What does this mean? It means Google is taking over the web spam business. “Directory” sites and junk sites are disappearing from the top of Google web search results, in favor of links to Google’s own portal and directory pages. Expect many AdWords supported sites to go under in the next few months.

    Reply to this comment

  • jason 3rd November 2010

    thanks great article

    in your opinion what is the most important thing to have your site rank highly in google maps? what do they look for specifically?
    jas

    Reply to this comment

  • Andy Williams

    Andy 4th November 2010

    Hi Martin,

    Giving Google as much information as possible is always going to be beneficial. Completing the “Areas We Cover” section in your Google Places profile will help inform Google that you are relevant to these areas but your physical location is always going to be the deciding factor when you are ranked. Companies physically closer to a searched for location will more often than not appear ahead of a company that simply covers the area.

    Companies that have offices in different locations can of course create a Google Places profile for each separate area allowing them to cover more than one location.

    Gaining links from relevant local sites will help indicate your relevance to a location. If you cover a certain area work towards gaining as many links from locally focused sites.

    Information on areas you genuinely cover should be included on your actual site and so it is perfectly natural for you to optimise towards these areas. Including the areas you cover within your Google Places description will also help.

    These actions will help build up your relevance towards locations you aren’t that physically close to but cover as part of your business.

    Hi Jason,

    The most important area thing that should be addressed before anything else is claiming your Google Places profile and including as much information as possible during the process. Profiles that are verified and claimed by a company are confirming that the information is correct and can therefore be trusted.

    With these profiles now being integrated into SERPS in this manner they will gain a higher profile so this will also remove the chance of your profile being hijacked and used for spam.

    Reply to this comment

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