It’s been a few days, so by now you may have heard of the newest Google animal to be released from captivity and unleashed upon the Internet. Google Pigeon has been added to the menagerie, and no, we don’t mean 2002’s PigeonRank joke. Pigeon, though named after a decidedly benign animal, is quickly becoming a name to be feared among small local businesses.
What is Pigeon?
Google Pigeon is the name given to a nameless update that was initially rolled out in the end of July. Search Engine Land coined the name, as a way to reference the update without specifying the date, which can quickly grow confusing.
Google has remained rather close-lipped about what Pigeon does, how much it affects and what it does. So far, it primarily affects local businesses and business directories.
The Yelp Problem
Yelp publicized an issue they saw with search results. Namely, when a user performed a specific query for a business name + Yelp, one would expect to find the Yelp entry for this business front and center. Instead, the first result was often the business Google+ page, with Yelp pages taking lower priority.
This makes sense for a general search for the business name, but a search specifically looking for the Yelp page should have Yelp’s page ranked first. Pigeon changes this to be the case; if you search for a business name and the name of a directory, such as Yelp, that directory page for that business will show up at the top.
When you run a search for a local business service, Google creates a black-background, image-filled carousel with images, star ratings, review numbers, names and locations for local businesses in the area. For example, running a search for ice cream near Houston will show a list of businesses in the area providing ice cream. The carousel can be sorted in a few ways.
With all of the local businesses present in the carousel, Google now devotes more space in the search rankings to directories and review sites, rather than business pages themselves. For the Houston ice cream search, the top results are actually the Houston Press, Yelp and Urban Spoon. A handful of specific Houston businesses appear, lower on the results.
Local Businesses Declining
Pigeon claims to change the way the algorithm treats local businesses and local optimization. The goal is to provide more accurate location-based results to web users, particularly those using mobile devices and searching for local services. Rather than suggesting and promoting businesses dozens of miles away when a closer location would serve, Google will now promote those closer locations with greater accuracy. Search results will also promote directories to help find local options and read reviews.
The result of this is that many local businesses find their search ranking dropping, often off the first page entirely. Other local businesses – particularly those with up to date and active sites – will see a rise in their ranking.
It’s important to note here that Pigeon is not a penalty-based update. Panda and Penguin very much are. If your site was hit by a Panda penalty, you can track down issues and fix them to recover from the penalty.
With Pigeon, you did nothing wrong. You are not in violation of any rules, nor are you under the effects of a penalty. Recovering from a Pigeon “penalty” or drop in rankings is not a matter of fixing a problem.
Rather, if your ranking dropped, it may be because Google has determined that your business does not sufficiently meet the criteria of the search terms. If you do, and your ranking has dropped, you may need to put more work into optimizing your site for your local audience.
Reliance on Packs
Formerly, when you ran a search query for a local service, there was a very high chance you would see a pack of listings at the head of the search results. This pack was an indented listing very much like the current carousel; names, URLs, star rankings, reviews and address information for a selection of high-rated businesses providing the service in the specified area.
This pack no longer appears most of the time. It has dropped, according to Moz, from a 12% presence to only a 3% saturation. If your business relied on appearing in these packs, you will certainly have seen a hit.
Returning to Standard Metrics
Another part of Pigeon is Google returning to a heavier weight on traditional search marketing signals, rather than local signals. Consequently, it becomes easier for larger businesses and directories to outrank small businesses.
The most at-risk businesses here are the small stores that relied primarily upon being the only provider of their service in their area, thus dominating the local search results. While this market domination may still remain, targeting specific local keywords is going downhill. Instead, overall SEO metrics such as linking and positive reviews are going to matter more.
As with any Google update, audit your site to make sure you are maintaining quality standards set forth in the webmaster guidelines. High quality content, useful information, quality backlinks and other such metrics are going to be very important.
Directories are on the rise, so one of the best things you can do for your business is audit your presence on these sites. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urban Spoon and other directories all aggregate data about your business. It’s in your best interests to make sure you have claimed and filled out your profiles on each of these sites. Pictures, hours of operation, descriptions, ratings; it’s all there and it’s all important.
You should also make sure you’re responding to low ratings and negative criticism in a way that works as a customer service opportunity. Rather than allowing negative reviews to stand, work to make things right with the people who leave them. Conversely, don’t try to remove reviews unless they are plainly fraudulent; aggressive reputation management can backfire.
An All New World
Remember, Pigeon is a relatively new algorithm update. This means that Google is prone to changing things as they go along. The promotion of directories may be deemed a failed experiment, leaving local businesses an easier path to the top. The local results pack may make a return. The carousel, which has been barely affected by the whole change, may be changed. Don’t leap into action making heavy changes until things settle; research, run a PPC campaign to soften the blow and develop a plan once everything stabilizes.