Google rolled out a new update targeting local search recently, which has been named Pigeon by the community. Since then, local businesses have scrambled to regain their traffic, all while waiting for the next change in the algorithm, hoping it won’t further damage their rankings.
The Yelp Problem
A large part of the incentive behind Pigeon was, very likely, something called the Yelp problem. Yelp, as you probably know, is a large and popular website filled with profiles for businesses and aggregated reviews of those businesses.
The Yelp problem is the case that, in many specific search queries, Yelp was low on the rankings. At the outset, this doesn’t seem like a problem to anyone other than Yelp’s search engine team, but that’s before the details set in. A search for the name of a business + Yelp would lead to a page full of search results with the official page for that business and several Google+ and Google Maps results ahead of the Yelp page. It seems quite obvious that a user searching with Yelp in the query wants Yelp as a result, but Google was promoting other sites – most notably their own – before Yelp’s.
This problem has existed for years and has gradually gotten worse as more focus was put on Google Places and local keywords, with less on traditional SEO factors.
Google’s solution to the Yelp problem, and other lingering issues in local search, is the algorithm update lumped under the name Pigeon. In broad strokes, the solution is less of an emphasis on local keywords and more of an emphasis on traditional SEO factors like link profiles.
One thing to note is that Pigeon is not a penalty-based update. Sites that lost traffic due to the change are not penalized; they just don’t rank as well in the new world of search. Sites that gained traffic, conversely, better fit the profile of the sites Google is striving to promote. If your site lost traffic, there’s no bullet list of problems you can fix to restore yourself in Google’s good graces. All you can do is build traditional SEO factors and hope the competition isn’t too fierce.
Another important note is that Pigeon is a new algorithm change, but Google has kept their PR team close-lipped. They haven’t named it or answered questions about it. This may be because something larger is coming down the pipe. It may be because it’s a temporary test and will be reverted. It may be because they want hype to die down and people to adjust to the new way of doing things. Whatever the reason, change is in the air, and you never know when Google will make another major update.
Promoting Directories, Punishing Businesses
There is a problem, as many see it, with Pigeon and the solution to the Yelp problem. This return to traditional SEO means that larger sites with more link juice and a larger number of ranking pages are going to dominate. Meanwhile, smaller sites – those who traditionally focused on local keywords to attempt to outrank larger sites – find those benefits stripped away.
Consider the generic service query. Looking for Pizza in Detroit, you might expect a search results list full of individual pizza places in the Detroit area. You’ll still find a few, and these few are determined as closely as possible by your geotargeting location. Most of the search results, however, will be dominated by top lists and directories. Here are the results now for “Pizza in Detroit”:
• Thrillist Detroit’s top 10 best pizzas
• VisitDetroit.com’s top pizzas
• MLive.com’s top 10 best pizzas
• Yelp’s pizza directory
• Serious Eats’ top 25 pizzas
• CityVoter’s pizza list
• Niki’s Pizza Restaurant site
• Slice’s Pizza Restaurant site
In ten results, only two of them – low on the page at that – are the official sites for pizza restaurants. Neither of them is a chain; they’re both local establishments. Chains show up in the sponsored ads and the carousel, but that’s it.
This is the way the new world works. Google promotes local resources – local directories and news sites publishing top lists – over national directories like Yelp. It then promotes those national directories over local individual businesses. Those businesses in turn have a higher ranking than national chains providing the same service.
Options for Local Businesses
Local businesses have two options to show up on the first page of Google without having to compete against directories. These options are the carousel and the local packs.
The carousel is visible on the search results page for pizza in Detroit. It’s the black stripe across the top, filled with images of businesses, star ratings, reviews, names and prices. This is strictly filled with individual service providers, some of which are chains – like Happy’s Pizza – and others are local businesses.
On the carousel, Google seems to put weight on a higher number of reviews and a higher star rating. A business with a lower average star rating can show up in a more prime position if they have a higher number of reviews, but only to a certain extent. In the Detroit example, the top business has a lower star rating than the second result, which has a higher star rating but lower number of reviews than the third; counterexamples the lot of them.
The local packs don’t show up in this particular search results page. You’ll know them when you see them; they look more like normal search results, except they lack a rich snippet. Instead, they have star ratings and address information. Local packs vary from one to seven listed businesses and are typically local businesses.
Pigeon in part removed many local packs, but they are still a viable way to promote a business compared to the search results. Thankfully, optimizing for local packs is the same as optimizing for the carousel.
A Renewed Focus on SEO
Local businesses essentially have three ways to rank in the post-Pigeon world. Each is viable, but they all require something of a shift in the way SEO is handled.
1. Traditional SEO factors. If you want to show up in the organic results, you need to focus on wide-area SEO. Local SEO has lost some power, but local keywords are still important. Rather, focus more on building links and building a positive reputation. A chain franchise is going to have a harder time than a local mom and pop business.
2. Directory links and profiles. In the example above, Thrillist, VisitDetroit, MLive, Yelp; these are all directories in some form or another. If your business shows up in a top ten list, you gain the benefits of a powerful link and a position high in the search rankings. For sites like Yelp, you can even step in to claim your business profile and optimize it.
3. The carousel and local packs. These both rely primarily on Google+ Places, which means you need to set up a profile and do everything you can to accumulate as many high rated reviews as possible. It’s not a quality over quantity situation; more reviews gives you critical mass to outrank the competition, assuming they aren’t all negative reviews.
By focusing on these three avenues of ranking success, a local business stands a good chance of maintaining their traffic and customer base, albeit from a different source.