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What is Google Pigeon and how will it impact local businesses?

By Alexandra Gavril - August 18, 2014
Image courtesy of Simon Howden/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Simon Howden/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On 24 July, news hit that Google had made changes to its local ranking algorithm. While there was no official announcement from Google, they did confirm the update with Search Engine Land (SEL) which decided to codename it Pigeon “because this is a local search update and pigeons tend to fly back home.”

Since its release, the Pigeon update has generated plenty of buzz, mainly because many were trying to understand what it is and, most importantly, how it will impact their businesses. So we’ve used the most reliable sources to compile what we do know so far about Google’s new algorithm and its impact on small business owners.

Understanding the Pigeon update

Google’s new algorithm is meant to provide a more useful, relevant and accurate experience to users seeking local results. According to SEL, Pigeon ties deeper into Google’s web search capabilities, including many different ranking signals which play a part in determining search engine results pages (SERPs) within non-local searches. This also includes search features such as spelling correction, Google’s Knowledge Graph, synonyms and more.

The update started to roll out on 24 July for US English results only, and Google has not yet confirmed when it would roll out in other countries and languages. The changes will be visible within the Google Maps search results and Google web search results.

What’s important to understand is that this is a local search ranking algorithm change and not a penalty-based update like the Panda update which penalised low-quality websites with poor content. However, that doesn’t mean that it won’t impact your rankings and increase or decrease your website referrals, leads and business.

Let’s dig deeper and see what these changes are and how they can affect your site’s rankings in local search results.

What are the core changes?

1. Local seven-pack listings disappear for many queries

Post-Pigeon, local seven-pack listings seem to have flown away for many keywords, and many are debating whether this change is good or bad for local businesses.

This is how a seven-pack listing in Google’s search results looks:

Google seven-pack listing

Some local businesses have already reported they have lost their place on page one of Google’s search results, following the disappearance of the seven-pack results.

Mike Blumenthal at local search blog Blumenthals.com provided a Google doc from Moz which includes a list of search queries that no longer show the seven-pack results. He also pointed out in a comment on his post that real estate queries seem to have lost the seven-pack results as of 25 July:

Mike Blumenthal comment

Mike also mentioned that data from Moz and data from Whitespark both showed a 24% decline in seven-pack results for numerous queries:

seven-pack decline

2. Local directories like Yelp are winning, surfacing more in the results for local searches

It seems that local directory sites and listings like Yelp are receiving better rankings and visibility in Google’s search results than ever before. In fact, for some queries local directories show up in search results before local businesses.

From SmallBusinessTrends.com:

“In the past, when you would search for something local, you would get your carousel results and then a list of organic results, typically individual restaurants. Now, you will sometimes see directories showing up in the search results below the carousel including OpenTable, Urbanspoon and even TripAdvisor.”

Search Engine Land also reported on Yelp’s improved visibility in Google’s search results:

“It looks like Yelp and other local directory-style sites are benefiting with higher visibility after the Pigeon update, at least in some verticals. And that seems logical since, as Google said, this update ties local results more closely to standard web ranking signals. That should benefit big directory sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor — sites that have stronger SEO signals than small, individual restaurants and hotels are likely to have.”

Here’s a quick background on the conflict between Yelp and Google. In 2012 after the release of Google Places, directory sites like Yelp started to notice a drop in rankings in Google’s search results.

The “Yelp problem”, as it became commonly known, referred to Yelp’s assumptions that Google was manipulating search results to return its own listings ahead of other directories, without taking into account search terms, site popularity or authority, or other SEO practices.

Yelp even created a report where it detailed how a specific search term which included the word “yelp” returned results from Google+ listings ahead of Yelp listing.

Yelp report

Since the update, the search term now lists the Yelp listing first in Google results.

Many experts believe that directories’ increased visibility in search results is bad news for local businesses that have been working so hard to stand out. For example, David Mihm, Director of Local Search Strategy at Moz, told SEL that he sees no benefit in boosting directories to the detriment of businesses who are working hard at being the best. He argues that “the quality of the SERPs has been downgraded, with ‘search results within search results’ (i.e. directories) getting rewarded relative to their pre-Pigeon position.”

What does this mean to you? If you’re a directory, you’re lucky. However, if you’re a small local business, you will probably need to work even harder to come out on top. Also, because of the new prominence of listings, going at it alone, without the support of larger networks may be more difficult than ever.

3. Website authority to impact local rankings

According to SEL, Google’s new algorithm is meant to provide relevant and accurate local search results that are tied more closely to traditional web search ranking signals. This means that local rankings will be influenced by domain authority, backlinks and other SEO ranking factors.

Make sure you also check out Moz’s top 20 local ranking factors that include local-specific requirements such as assigning the correct category to your business, ensuring contact details are accurate, putting your location in your landing page title and more.

What should you do next

If you’ve been ignoring local search engine optimisation, now’s the time to make it a priority.

Here are a few things you can do to improve your local rankings:

Verify your business major business listings

Google My Business

Make sure you verify your business on Google My Business, Bing Places, Yahoo Local Listing, and Yelp for Business Owners.

As previously mentioned, Google’s Pigeon update will make it harder for local businesses to maintain a high search ranking on Google. With directory sites and listings becoming more prominent, it’s more important than ever to list your business on major industry and geo-location related directory sites and optimise where possible. Also, make sure that the information you supply is complete, accurate and consistent on all the directories where you choose to list your business.

Need more help? Check out our short tutorial on how to get started with local search and Google My Business (formerly known as Google Places for Business).

Create a Google+ local page for your business

There are many reasons why your business needs to be on G+ and why key influencers in business sectors are actively using this platform. So if you haven’t got on board with Google+, now is the time to start. Read this post to learn how to create a Google+ Local page for your local business.

Update your website for local search

update business details

Make sure your website includes all the important information about your business including:

  • Your business’s name, address, and phone number (NAP).
  • Your location in your keywords on the appropriate pages (for example: London Pizza).
  • Your local keywords – the industry or business related search terms that people use when searching for your business.

Get your customers involved

Positive reviews influence local search rankings so make sure your customers are happy with your business and then encourage them to leave reviews for your business. You could even link to your directory listings in your email newsletter and on your website, or use social media sites to ask your fans and/or followers for their feedback. The more positivity you can generate, the more your listings will work to your advantage.

In conclusion

Google’s Pigeon update may very well revolutionise the way listings are displayed in local search results. However, with the algorithm still ironing out its wrinkles it may be too soon to tell the long term impact of Google’s local ranking algorithm update.

Have you noticed any changes to your site’s traffic or search engine visibility?