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The Many Faces Of Local Search & How It Works

By Kev | 6th Mar 2013 | Posted in Local

The prolific rise of local search is exemplified by the momentous amount of search real estate it now encompass.  With a third of search results now delivering localised results, there is the potential for local businesses to reach page one like never before. Armed with limited know-how and a relatively humble budget, businesses are capitalising on their local presence while the competition in this street fight heats up.

However, the local landscape is a lot more complicated and nuanced than it may first appear. Beyond claiming your Google+ local listing, there is a minefield of local asset management including: G+ Local, AdWords vs. AdWords Express, on-site management, local in social, rich snippets, and profile & citation management on local review aggregator sites.

Many of the fundamentals in local search still remain an enigma, so  first lets focus on the basics; what are the different types of local results and why is Google displaying them?

pubs - Google Search

Put simply Google’s focus on the localisation of search is fueled by delivering results that better satisfy a users query and, more importantly, location. There are several ways of triggering these user-centric results and among many of its local updates last year Google has decided to anchor every searcher by their IP address. Often this doesn’t work and it’s not a science, as Google is purely server hunting when trying to find you. So to be sure you’re receiving the best results near you make sure to let them know where you are.

As you can see from this example Google assumed I was in Richmond, as that’s probably where BT’s servers are. A quick change, using my post code delivered immediately better results for Clapham. After overcoming this simple glitch you can see that this local malarkey isn’t half bad, pointing me literally to the closest drinking hole.

It is also good to remember that when evaluating clients local results it is best to do the same and find the ‘genuine’ results in a given area. Beyond this I often have a quick peak at various locations to see where the rankings stand by using queries with location modifiers such as towns, cities or even counties. Either way Google will show you two types of very different results:

seven pack result

Google+ Local 7-Packs

So rarely seen in the wild, I had to take this screen grab from Google Images, so thank you Carl Bischoff’s team for documenting this, before they become extinct in search. The local 7-packs are taken directly from Google+ Local, formally Google Places, and work purely off the maps algorithm using citation and review signals as their primary differentiator.

Identifying this rare breed of result is simple, you will always see a ‘Places for [Query]’  link to the maps result above the Google+ Local results. So this local dinosaur is by no means dead but rather disguised in search while being key to maps and Google+ Local searches.

Blended Organic Results

Blended results are the newest and most revolutionary shake up of results delivery and it’s impact has turned the table on big business, gifting smaller local players the ability to compete and attract significant amounts of traffic.

blended highlightedBorn out of last years Venice update you can see what looks like a local 7-pack mixed up among what would appear to be traditional organic results, but your eyes deceive you. These blended results are in fact a hybrid of Google’s traditional search algorithm which draws signals from local when it detects the intent.

These local looking pack results are in fact genuine organic results, and draw meta titles from on-site factors like any other SERP while clicking through to websites and landing pages. As well as incorporating local signals like reviews and citations, these results also flourish with a couple of high authority linking domains.

The remaining organic results, typically above and below, don’t rank like your average page of old. Here domain authority is king so to be included by Venice you must go above and beyond traditional on-site optimisation, peppering your site / page with local identifiers such as: local titles, name address and phone number, unique local content, local links, anchor texts, and more.

This complex blend really does take SEO to new heights and is an algorithmic masterpiece, still with many unknowns.

Why do they all look so different?

In this new blended age you can now get up to 15 results per page, including a “7 pack”. But, oddly, they are continually changing from query to query, delivering different mixes of results which sometimes seem illogical.  The proportions of how many Google+ Local results is determined by the amount of local signals available in a given area. Google’s confidence, which is often an indicator to SEO competition, determines what results are shown. Many areas may only show a couple of local search results or even none at all. This all relates to how many companies have claimed and connected their Google+ listing and how the algorithm matches this query.

Ultimately Google has a big chore on their hands and they are constantly learning, which is the main reason for these vast fluctuations in results. The common dialog put forward is that Google is mixing up the results, in part to keep us guessing, but more logically to see what works in each given location. Search volume is the best way Google has of deciphering local intent, and click through rates then determine what is the best blend to match that query. By aggregating this data Google is constantly trying to deliver the best blend of results by focusing on how we actually interact with them.

The good news is, as Venice grows up and becomes more self aware, collecting more data, the rankings do tend to settle down as Google knows how to best satisfy a local query.

So What Does This Mean For Your Local Strategy?

Small and large companies alike now need to take a comprehensive view of each of their locations individually. You really get back what you put in with local so first have a look at what sort of blended results, if any, are being returned for each of your headline keywords in a certain area. This will let you see which keyword pairings produce the best localised results and will also indicate where the opportunities lie.

If you are seeing a 7-pack than it’s likely your area already has local saturation but this doesn’t mean you can’t rank, hard work and best practice implementation can go a long way. Getting among the pack results is often an easy win but getting to the top can take much longer. So analyse the competition, see how many reviews they’ve got, check out their link profile in Open Site Explorer and their citation mix in Whitespark Citation Finder. Bench marking against the competition is a valuable first step in determining what strategy to adopt.

If your blended results are only showing a couple local results than this may be an indicator that Google doesn’t have enough data to confidently display detailed local listings. This can provide an opportunity, allowing you to get ahead before Google starts to show more standardised local results.

No matter what you do, Google+ local will be the fundamental part of your local mix as blended organic rankings can be much more difficult to come by. Oddly, as Google opened up page one to local businesses, with larger corporations losing out, their focus on local signals and domain authority gifted the majority of organic rankings to large review sites and aggrogators like Yell, Thomson Local and trip adviser as this screen grab from SEOMoz’s  keyword difficulty tool emphasises:

dentists leicester - Keyword Difficulty Report - SEOmoz PRO

In this semi-competitive search for ‘dentists in leicester’ you can see that there is little chance of making it into the top 5 organic results as they are dominated by high domain authority sites. When devising you local strategy you must prioritise the battles you can win and decide if it’s worth scrapping it out for the bottom results on page one, for potentially little reward.

These are the types of decisions and research that must be carried out before devising any local strategy. For many industries such as hotels you will stand little chance of organically outranking the vast number of established review sites, so it is often better to focus all of your attention and resources on Google+ Local.



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