Google’s continual evolution can easily derail any SEO effort. Just look back to when content used to be scraped and spun to achieve top search ranking before the Panda update was introduced and ruined many site’s rankings. Then, those who thought they had successfully avoided Panda by focusing instead on mass backlinking and citations were affected by Penguin. And while most of us, I hope, seek to operate as “white-hat” SEOs, these updates are still something that we all struggle with daily when developing best practices in conjunction with Google’s quality guidelines.
However, in the field of local SEO there has been somewhat different experience. Pigeon, released on July 24th, 2014, is a major algorithmic update that specifically affects the rankings of local search results. This is not a penalty based update, like the Panda or Penguin before it, but rather it is a change in the way that local results rank compared to organic results in SERPs (search engine results page).
Because of this, the effects of Pigeon have have been closely monitored by industry experts hoping to understand this big shake up in local rankings and how it may affect general SEO practices. However, understanding the Pigeon update as a whole is not quite as simple as stating that local search factors have been weighted differently. We must also look at some of changes that Google has made to its user experience, and the way that these changes may affect traffic.
Pigeon’s primary purpose is to do a better job at bringing together organic and local signals. This essentially means that the algorithm shows a preference towards local signals when creating a SERP for a query that contains a local modifier (e.g. “Austin” or “Dallas” when searching for “restaurant”).
An interesting development in regards to Google’s treatment of local modifiers in search queries is the hyper-localization that has taken place in the form of neighborhood signifiers. This has enabled Google to address one of the biggest problems in local search–the fact that most cities are broken down into geographically arbitrary neighborhoods.
These advancements are reportedly the result of Pigeon’s improvement on Google’s ability to rank distance and location. As a secondary result, the once wildly different results between SERPs and Google Maps will find themselves more in tune with one another.
Another big change that has taken place in the wake of the Pigeon update is the removal of the Local Carousel in favour of displaying local results in a “3-pack” This local pack, however, is now produced by fewer queries than the carousel or the earlier 7-pack would have, and seems to have been optimized for brick-and-mortar, local type searches.
The Local Pack, in most cases, appears below reviewed, paid advertisements which may divert traffic away from organic results. Though it seems to do a pretty good job of directing traffic towards the top algorithmically ranked result in the pack. Furthermore, if you chose to click “more”, you are shown the rest of the Google’s algorithmic results.
Another major change that came about after the Pigeon update is the increased value of local directories–like Yelp. Some industry voices, such as Matt McGee have speculated that this is in response to the growing sentiment that Google was valuing its only results over those of its competitors. Yelp even performed a case study which showed that Google+ listings were siphoning up to 20% of the traffic in queries where the the term “yelp” was used.
Between this and the threat of antitrust action by EU, Google has boosted Yelp and other directories like it, giving them a better ranking in local search queries. This will of course help business that have a solid presence on these directory style sites. The question is how it will affect the sites of those businesses in achieving ranking.
In all, the pigeon update has provided a far better user experience in term of local search. It also provides some unique opportunities for some local, brick-and-mortar type institutions to receive more attention than they otherwise would have. The real question is where a small, national facing businesses will land in the SERPs. It seems that this question can only be answered on a case by case basis, and will require attentive SEO campaigns to overcome any fallout from the Pigeon update.
Jacob Emmy is a Junior Marketing Associate at SEO Austin, an SEO firm based in Austin, TX. He loves to write on the topic of internet marketing when he is not busy working with his clients.