You may not be seeing it in Firefox yet, but fire up your Google Chrome browser, and you'd better be sitting down for this one because the new integrated Google Local results are dizzyingly different and ready to rock the SERPs. My Canuck friends to the North aren't seeing this yet, and the rollout isn't complete in all browsers in the USA, but the implications of this totally new layout, if set in stone, are going to effect every local business on the map.
The first hints of this major change started appearing in July of this year when a few SEOs, including Mike Blumenthal, noticed some queer testing going on, but over the past couple of days, a big wave of altered results has resulted in some 50+ emails rushing back and forth amongst my Local SEO colleagues who are feeling fairly blown away by what we are seeing.
For review, for quite some time now, if you did a search for Chinese Restaurant San Francisco you would be shown results like the following, with the map and 7 Pack at the top, Adwords to the right and organic/universal results below:
Now, perform the same search in Google Chrome and you will see something very different, with a floating map at the top of the Adwords column, a vanished 7 Pack and local data stemming from Google Places integrated right into the organic results:
Let's dissect one of these new integrated results. I hereby nominate Henry's Hunan Restaurant for fame here on Search Engine Guide. The following graphic will show you the basic elements that are making up most of the new integrated local results I am seeing, though there are some variations. What you will see here is a combination of traditional data from the business' website, such as the title and meta description tags, plus much rich data from the business' Google Place Page:
Why This Is A Big Deal For Local-Focused Businesses
I've literally had no more than about 24 hours to really sit and play with this, so my opinions are just forming, but to me, the most revolutionary aspect of this is the perks apparently being given to those businesses which have successfully combined their on-site and off-site work for a strong local and organic presence.
Why is this a big deal? Let me count the ways:
- Google Local/Places used to be open to all comers, including those without a website. You could rank in the 7 Pack and Maps with no website. While website-less companies will still be able to add and verify their Place Page listing, their chances of gaining prime rankings without a website have just become much more remote.
- Over the past couple of years, many businesses with strong websites found their organic listings pushed down by 7 Packs they may or may not have been able to break into. If organic web page rank is now being taken into account in these integrated results, the chance is there to leap back up into the running for companies with strong websites.
- This may be one of Google's most effective attempts to fight Mapspam yet. Spammers and scammers who found it easy to take shortcuts in Maps/Places, creating lots of fake listings, fake reviews and other simple data may find that their goose is about to be cooked. This laziness will not do in a new Local world that demands a high ranking website to gain top visibility. Will this lead to spammers developing high ranking local business websites? Maybe so, but for now, at least in my view, the new results are slanted toward those who have been working hard on their websites all along.
Possible Negative Effects Of Integrated Local Search
To me, the greatest negative potential of this integrated approach is its ability to put Google's bad local business data in the limelight, mixing it up with the correct data provided by business owners via their self-regulated websites. The errors, bugs and spam in Google Maps are rife and any change Google makes to promote its own data means promoting false information. Until Google's local business index is markedly cleaner, they will continue to publish bad data and the more prominence Local is given in the SERPs, the more power that bad data has to misrepresent and mislead.
Secondly, in some verticals, some businesses that formerly enjoyed two organic listings for a given search term may now be seeing only one or none, as a result of the integrated listings pushing other data down or off the front page. I say in 'some' verticals, because in looking at some of my clients' results in less competitive verticals or in more rural (less populous) areas, I am seeing results in which my clients not only have a high integrated local rank, but also have 1-2 organic results from their website appearing below this. Depending on the competitiveness of your industry in your geographic location, you may wind up with a little less visibility or truly ruling that front page.
One potential negative I'm considering but haven't had time to really research is this: I have clients who are ranking excellently in both the old 7 Pack and organic results for their main service term and the city in which they are located. Maps/Places has been built around the premise that each business is allowed to rank only for the city in which it is physically located. That's Google's take on what a local business is, but in the real world, there are countless businesses that offer go-to-client services in a wide area. For example, I have a client who is a mobile notary public. Let's say she is located in San Francisco, but she also renders services in Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond.
Historically, the way we have worked with Google's definition is to create a Google Place Page for a client like this notary in her main city - let's say that's San Francisco. Then, harnessing the power of her website, we have created strong content pages for each of the other cities in which she serves. The result of this has been excellent organic rankings for all major points in her service area, backing up her high local rank for her city of location.
But what happens now? Will the new integrated local SERPs push my client's high ranking service area web pages off page 1? This will require further investigation of the new system.
Another possible downside to this is that the integrated data does make it rather easy for your potential website traffic to go off in all different directions. Some may click on your Place Page link, others on the various user review sites being listed or elsewhere. The bottom line with SMBs tends to be that they want business and money and don't particularly care how the phone ends up ringing or how the client ends up walking through the door. So long as all of these secondary data sources (secondary to your website) lead to you, this may not be much of a problem, but your basic organic traffic could potentially drop as visitors decide to investigate you in other ways.
Finally, those businesses without websites may find themselves left out of the game. My advice to you - this is the time to invest in an excellent, professional website, rich in the content that helps your potential customers to know all about you, your locations and the benefits of doing business with you. With the new integrated results, those days of depending on the phone book (or a simple Maps listing) are really, really over.
In the dawning hours of this rollout, I am seeing big ranking shuffles going on between the old SERPs and the new. Businesses that didn't rate an A-G ranking in the former 7 pack are now being brought to sudden prominence, ostensibly on the strength of their organic/local combined efforts. As a web designer, I actually like this change because it appears to be set to reward the big investment of time and money that goes into developing useful, helpful websites - as opposed to solely rewarding the 20 minutes it takes to create a Place Page.
Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.
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