In February Google announced an amendment to their algorithm which would shoehorn in local results along with those that would normally rank for some generic search terms:
“Improvements to ranking for local search results. [launch codename “Venice”] This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal.”
For a few days this seemed to remain off the radar of even the largest SEO authorities, but a week or so after the announcement, some agencies started blogging on the subject – James Fairweather at Coast Digital published Google Venice – Location Update Questions and a few days later SEOMoz promoted one of the YouMoz blog posts to their main blog – Understand and Rock the Google Venice Update.
Following the realisation that “actually, this is probably something we should be on top of”, SEOs went about testing various methods of manipulation to determine which criteria Google was using to rank these new localised results.
Why Did Google Make This Change?
Google is on a constant quest to return the most relevant result to any particular search query, and the more information they have about the searcher, the more personalised they can make these results.
Before Venice, if you were to search for “Curry House” (a fairly generic search term) then Google’s first page would essentially be showing you the 10 most SEO’d curry house websites – not ideal if you don’t live anywhere near any of those curry houses! Now however, by using the location that your browser automatically detects, Google is able to ‘bump up’ some of the results that are known as being local. So, actually, a pretty good result!
So What’s The Problem?
I have a few issues…
- We have become accustomed to a certain level of quality in the aesthetics, ease of navigation etc. of the websites we visit. The chances of a local curry house having a really nice website are (in my experience) fairly slim. Not necessarily an issue because at the end of the day, you just want a curry, but still it grates on me slightly.
- It’s all very good and very clever if you’re looking for a curry house, but what happens if you’re searching for something that Google considers to be worthy of applying its localisation to, but in fact you don’t need this particular product or service to be local? The key here is what Google considers to be local – it’s not always correct!
- Once people work out exactly what it takes to manipulate local listings, we’ll just end up with a bunch of spammy results on the first page of Google for some really quite high volume, competitive keywords. Yes, fair enough, before this update page 1 would be full of those companies that had been carrying out SEO and actively targeting that particular key phrase, but to have been able to afford to make it there, I’d expect them to be a relatively decent and well-established business (not all the time, I know, but as a rule of thumb).
- If I want something specific to my area, I already know that I should include it in my search query – “curry house Colchester” for example.
To illustrate these 3 problems in 1 example, I’ve prepared the following case study.
Say I live in a 3rd floor flat, and I decide that I’d like to start growing my own vegetables… I haven’t got a garden, can’t be bothered with renting an allotment, and instead I decide to set up a hydroponics system in my spare room to grow my tomatoes etc. In assembling my kit, I realise that I am in need of a grow light – Google, here I come!
I search for “grow lights” with the intention of finding a website with an awesome design – the kind I’ve become accustomed to, as well as probably offering even more than just the grow lights I was after (like maybe grow tents for example).
Okay, so the first 3 results kind of do the job, but for whatever reason I decide they’re not what I’m looking for and I click on the 4th result:
Hmm… I’m being shown the directions to a store in Nottinghamshire from Colchester. That’s not exactly what I had in mind from a page ranking on Google’s first page for a highly competitive term. If I wanted a local store that I could actually visit to pick up my grow lights then I’d have searched for “grow lights Colchester”. With my SEO hat on I decide to dig deeper into why they have a page dedicated to giving me directions to their store from Colchester of all places (we’re not even a city!).
So what they’ve done it they have created a separate page for around 100 different towns and cities in the UK, and on each page they have provided directions to their store. I wonder if it’s done the trick, so I return to Google and I change my browser location to Edinburgh…
Good grief – they’ve cracked it! And not only do they rank with their local page, they’ve also taken up twice the real estate in the SERPs… completely unnecessary, but fair enough and well played to them – they’re relevant to people searching for grow lights in both Edinburgh and Colchester because they can deliver there, so why should they lose out to a local hydroponics store in Edinburgh or Colchester just because they’re not actually based there?
I think that if executed correctly, Google’s Venice update is a great idea – if I can find a local curry house without having to type in my location then that will save me at least 1 valuable second each time I search. If Google has access to all this information about me, my location and (if socially active) who speak to and am connected to, then why not use that to make my search journey all the more simple?
The problems will come when website owners cotton on to the most effective ways to manipulate local listings, and we as users end up having to sift through page after page of search results before we find what we’re after.