Google Rolls Back Unpopular Local Search Changes

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

Google-HQThe Google’s algorithms work are a a scientific black box to internet marketers. SEO experts can see the inputs (i.e. the search terms) and we see the output (i.e. result pages) but we don’t know what’s happening to go from one to the other. This means that marketers can mostly only speculate about what Google has changed to the algorithm or why. In recent weeks, Google has been making changes to its search algorithm that have reversed other changes that had a negative effect on local SEO. This article will explain what is known about these recent beneficial and negative search changes from Google.

A few months ago, Google made a minor update to their algorithms that got a lot of attention from some SEO marketers who quickly dubbed the changes “Pigeon” even though Google said the update didn’t warrant a title. At any rate, after the update, some marketers saw it had a negative effect on local SEO. Among other things, it was noted that the update heavily favored the massive directories which one SEO writer suggested was the result of “Yelp’s persistent anti-competitive whining”. It also drastically reduced the frequency of local packs by reducing the number of local Google Map listings on search result pages. And it seemingly removed protections from local results that prevented certain local spam tactics.

A recent study of law firms that compared their traffic before and after the “Pigeon” update supports these claims. In the study, it was shown that around the time of the “Pigeon” update, law firm sites saw reduced traffic and that sites that were using known Geo-spamming tactics were benefiting. According to Conrad Saam, who helped with the analysis, “looking at traffic for the four weeks immediately following Pigeon launch, two out of three of the law firm sites saw a drop in traffic.”

The analysis by Search Engine Land and AttorneySync does support the theory that these negative effects are related to the so-called “Pigeon” update, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. Another possible explanation could relate to changes to the Google’s recent update of the spammy keyword algorithm. As was mentioned in an article back in May, Google has a “Payday Loan Algorithm”, a special algorithm they use to handle keywords that produce a lot of spam links because of the value of the ads. Anything related to law firms, settlements, class action lawsuits, etc. has an extremely high CPC so these terms are often targets for spammers. So using law firms as a test for changes in “Pigeon” is somewhat flawed because these sites are probably being affected by more than one algorithm.

Regardless of the cause, in recent weeks, some of these unpopular changes have been rolled back.

Another thing that Google recently changed and then changed back affects local businesses search results. When consumers search for something where local businesses could be the answer, Google supplies a list of locations next to a Google Map showing where they are, before showing the typical search results. A few months ago, Google reduced the number of listings shown this way to three, which significantly reduced the traffic to these local businesses. However, Google recently rolled back that change and now there are seven listings being shown again.

This is another situation where Google is black box. It’s possible that the switch from a 3-pack back to a 7-pack is the result of an algorithm change being rolled back, which is one some SEO experts believe. However, Google often experiments with different layout designs to see how the changes would affect the search experience and web traffic to sites. It’s possible that Google was testing to see if less local listing were more helpful in certain situations, and then decided they weren’t based on the data. Regardless of the reason, this is a positive change for local businesses who use their Google Business listing to attract new customers.

In some respects, many of these issues may become moot in just a few weeks. Google is currently in the process of rolling out it’s first major update in over a year, so search rankings will change again. As more is known about this major Penguin update, we’ll post it on our site.


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