Analyzing Google’s Local Search Changes
By: George Freitag, August 22nd, 2016
Last week, Casey Meraz did a great breakdown on the state of local, showing where you should be heading with your strategy and answering some tough questions about the future of local search. Today, let’s look at all the recent changes that Google itself has been making to its own local product and examine how that will help you understand where they’re heading.
This has been a big year for local search, with Google launching a ton of changes related to local, including several changes directly to their local platform, Google My Business. Marketers and brands are naturally scrambling to respond to each of these changes individually, as they should, but what about the larger implications of changes like these?
The running theme with all these changes seems to be the following three things: Google is taking local seriously, Google wants to get more local data through its crawler, and Google really, really wants more reviews. But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. First, let’s review some of the major changes that have occurred over the last few months.
1. No more descriptions for Google My Business
The most recent change to Google My Business occurred on August 3rd when Google My Business stopped accepting edits to the description. The description will still be editable through Google+, but with the way the rest of the company has been distancing itself from its social platform, that’s likely not to stick around for long.
2. Additional categories no longer supported
Additionally, though it got lost in the shuffle a bit, when they removed the descriptions they also removed the following sections from their bulk upload form:
- Ad Icon URL
- Ad Landing Page URL
- Alt Phone. Alt phone is now “Additional phones.”
- Categories. This field has been replaced by “Primary category” and “Additional categories.”
- City. City is now “Locality.”
- Payment Types
- State. State is now “Administrative area.”
3. Google+ metrics removed, additional Google My Business Insights
In a separate announcement, Google also removed Google+ metrics from their dashboard, instead providing more detailed metrics around the source of views to your GMB profile. Google My Business now shows whether customers found a business via search or Google Maps and breaks down actions customers are taking by website visits, driving direction requests, phone calls, or photos.
4. Greater support of reviews for local businesses
And in yet another announcement this month, Google released the ability for all websites to have “Critic Reviews” published directly in Google search results, next to the local businesses results. Days later, Google backed up this announcement by promoting the detailed Schema Markup needed to apply for critic reviews.
For reviews on Google My Business itself, they added the ability to respond to reviews on Google directly through the latest version of its API.
Overview of changes
And this is just within the last couple of months! So, what do all of these changes imply? Well, first off, it means that Google is making some serious changes towards local. And it should. Based on data released in May of 2016, over 50% of its traffic is now mobile and within that, nearly 30% of those searches are local!
Secondly, it means that Google is getting more confident in its own crawl data. Google wouldn’t take away a chance to get information from you if it didn’t have a good way of getting that same information by itself. We already saw this when Google removed support of Authorship and, years earlier, removed support of the Meta Keywords tag. By further distancing its local product from its social product, Google+, it implies that the data gathered from those sources wasn’t valuable. It also means that Google likely hasn’t been paying attention to any of this stuff for some time now.
This is pretty in line with everything Google has worked towards with local information. User-generated information, while invaluable, is easily manipulated. Because of this, Google often prefers to use its own data, when available. This is why that irritatingly complicated Local Search Ecosystem is so irritatingly complicated. Google needs to be able to verify its data, verify it again somewhere else, and repeat however many times it needs to to be sure.
How does this affect me?
So what does this mean for marketers and brands? There are a couple of key takeaways. First, it means that Google is becoming increasingly confident in the data that it’s getting on its own. On top of that, Google is surfacing more information about an individual business than it ever has before. Information like business hours, reviews, driving directions, social links, and more are all available directly in the search results.
While providing all of this information is potentially great from a user perspective, this is also makes Google tremendously vulnerable from a trust perspective. Every new piece of information that Google surfaces in its search results is a new opportunity for them to get that information wrong, so they’re putting themselves at a tremendous risk. They aren’t going to do this unless they can be absolutely sure and, as we know, the way they verify information is through their own crawls.
The second big takeaway is that Google is trying harder than ever to get more reviews into its platform. By distancing itself from Google+ they removed one of the biggest barriers for leaving reviews. By promoting Schema and opening up the ability for more people to have their reviews included in search results, Google is making sure that it has as much review data as possible. As demonstrated last year in another study by Casey Meraz, we know that reviews are a huge element in the click-through rate of local results.
What should I do?
Let’s talk tactics. Knowing that Google is putting more emphasis on crawl data and that it’s looking for more ways to get reviews, your job as a marketer gets pretty clear. You need to get your local information and reviews in all the places Google might look and make it easy for Google to understand.
Learn to love Schema markup
One of the most telling things about Google’s updates, in general, is that they’ve been consistently and reliably promoting Schema usage every chance they get. This means they probably like it. And the great thing about Schema is that it’s easier than ever to implement! To facilitate their love affair with Schema, Google created an easy-to-use tool, the Structured Data Markup Helper, that lets you highlight contact information, reviews, and more, then generate the JSON-LD code you can paste right in the <head> of your page. Pair that with their other free tool for testing markup, the Structured Data Testing Tool, and you have everything you need to start using Schema right away.
Make your business listing information accurate
This may seem repetitive in the local space, but that’s just because it’s true. Even if you enter all the information exactly right in Google My Business, Google still doesn’t trust it unless it can verify it against other sources. Use the free Check Listing Tool or any of the other online tools to make sure you’re not only listed on all of the most important online sources, but that your information is accurate. And not just mostly accurate — so accurate that Google doesn’t have any choice other than to completely trust your data. The one thing that will prevent Google from ever showing your business in their giant local search result is conflicting information about your business on various online sources.
Get your review strategy together
You can’t just sit around and hope for reviews anymore. According to a study by BrightLocal, 92% of people look to online reviews when deciding to use a business. We also know that people click on them in Google. And we know that Google is trying to get as many of them as possible in their own search results.
- Use Schema markup on your site for all the reviews you have on your own site. Even if Google isn’t using those now, they’re certainly acting as though they want to start.
- Monitor your reviews online and have a response strategy. With Google surfacing reviews even more in their results, you need to be sure you properly address negative reviews and take every opportunity to address the concern.
- Give great customer service. The most frustrating part of an online review strategy is that the majority of it occurs offline. Be nice to your customers and thank them for their time.
Earn good links
There are tons of great resources for linkbuilding on the Moz Blog alone, so I won’t muddy the waters with more advice. I will say that, while the Google penalties of the previous few years have been rough on linkbuilding, there’s still no question it’s still one of the most influential ranking factors in SEO as a whole, let alone in local. The only difference is that it has to be good. The one thing the Google penalties proved that Google definitely knows the difference between a good links and a bad link. Good links are good because they mean people are actually interested in your content and are legitimately trying to share it. Of course Google would want to use that as a metric. That’s the content you need to make.
Is this all you can do? Of course not. But focusing on the things Google is paying attention to is one of the best ways to make sure you’re staying ahead of the curve to make your local strategy as future-proof as possible.
Any other big changes in local that I missed? Have your own tips to stay on Google’s good side in local? Share your own thoughts in the comments below!