Local Search is critically important for local businesses trying to reach a wider audience and for SEO agencies whose job is to rank local businesses. Mobile users in particular are likely to search for local businesses such as stores, restaurants, florists, auto services, and many others through Google.
Even as Google has encouraged businesses to work on their local SEO and to actively update their information, they also consistently change the rules of local search, making it more difficult to achieve and retain a high ranking. Just recently within the last few weeks Google has reduced the number of listings in local search results, which is sure to have a significant effect on local SEO. It will be now more challenging than ever to rank your business, or your client’s business in the top listings as the number of spots available has significantly decreased.
The big recent change has been to reduce the number of local search results from seven to three. Thus, what had always been known as the 7-Pack is now the 3-Pack. Chances are, the average search engine user will not even notice that anything is different. From the point of view of businesses in the top three places, this is actually an improvement, giving them center stage and less competition. It will, however, have a dramatic impact on the businesses that were previously listed in positions four through seven.
As with most Google decisions, the reason for this is not clear. In response to queries about the change, Google employees only gave vaguely worded replies about improving user experience. Most likely, the search engine is simply experimenting with different formats. Interestingly enough, Google also justified the change by saying it enables them to provide more relevant information about businesses. Yet, at the same time, certain crucial data has been removed, even from the top three listings.
In addition to changing the 7-Pack to a 3-Pack, several other changes to local search listings have been implemented. If you are a student of local SEO, you probably know that one of the rules is that you should include as much information as possible about your business, or that of the business whose website you want to optimize. This includes a consistent business name, physical address and phone number. Providing this information seems logical enough, considering that this is for local listings, where the customer may want to visit in person. Yet with this new update, Google has removed the exact address and phone number from the listing.
Street names are still listed. If search engine users want the street number or phone number, they will now have to click through to the business website or map. For mobile listings, however, there is a “call” option that lets users call the business with the push of a button.
There are a few other changes as well. Another feature missing from listings are Google + links. This seems to be consistent with the long term trend of the search engine distancing itself from Google +, a social function that never quite lived up to expectations.
While reviews are still visible, they are now simply labeled as reviews and not Google Reviews. Still another change is that business hours are now listed right under the business name and location. This is a useful feature, as users can now see at a glance whether a business is open at any given moment or not.
What do these changes mean for local businesses and SEO services who work on behalf of local businesses? First of all, with Google you can never be sure how long any particular policy will be in effect. For all we know, the 3-Pack is simply a short term experiment and next week the 7-Pack will be back. At the same time, it’s practical to focus on the present reality. For now, that means dealing with the new status quo of the 3-Pack.
First and foremost, this makes local SEO more challenging. Getting into the top three is obviously more difficult than reaching the top seven. Even if you have managed to get featured in the top three, you can be sure that you will have fierce competition from those businesses wanting to take your place. So you have to work that much harder now, either to improve or to maintain your current status.
If you are new to local SEO, or you have not had much success with it in the past, you should become familiar with all of the elements that Google deems important. For example, be sure to list your business hours. Even though physical address and phone number are no longer featured, you should still include them so people can find this information if they click through to your website. As with any type of SEO, make sure that you are using a good variety of keywords in your local listings. You can support your local listings with links from social media sites, YouTube videos, your own blog, guest blogs and other sources.
Because it’s now harder than ever to be listed by Google search, it’s also a good idea to give potential customers other ways to find you. Being listed on sites such as Yahoo and Live Search gives you some additional options in case you can’t make it to the top three in Google. Local businesses should also focus their attention on review sites such as Yelp. In addition to drawing customers directly from these sites, this can help improve your Google local rankings.
It’s impossible to predict what the future of Google local search will be. This latest change is sure to disrupt many businesses and SEO agencies who were accustomed to dealing with the old layout. SEO, however, is something that’s always in flux. Since you never know when Google might change the rules, all you can do is keep up with the latest changes and make sure you are doing everything possible to optimize your site.
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