Google Changes Local Search Display

September 24, 2015

What big display changes mean for small businesses

Do you have an uneasy feeling that something in your universe has changed recently, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? It’s not a cosmic shift, but a new local search display format from Google, which may be just as significant. As a business relying on local search results, you need to understand what has changed and what these changes mean for your business.

What Has Changed in the Local Search Display?

Analysts stress that the new format, released in early August 2015, affects the way local businesses are displayed on search engine results pages, or SERPs. Formerly, local search results and organic results would be mixed together, and displayed seven to a page, referred to as a “7-pack.”

Now, a desktop search will turn up the dietetic “3-pack,” also called a “snack pack,” bringing the desktop experience into alignment with the mobile experience. As a result, both platforms limit listings in the coveted space above the fold to the top three, plus the Google map. Users must click through to the site for most phone numbers and full street addresses, as they have been removed from the initial listing.

So far, so good — as long as you’re among the top three. How about the rest of the pack? If you fall into that fourth ranking spot or below, you’re off the page, but not out of reach. As long as users click-through, they will still be able to find you.

Additional changes include:

• An increased number of sponsored ads show above the fold in mobile search results, pushing the 3-pack businesses down further, possibly below the fold, so that only paid ads are visible.
• In many listings, photos are no longer included, and review stars are not visible.

What Does It All Mean?

In a word — competition. As fewer spots are available above the fold, the rest of the pack, especially those who were ranking in the fourth through seventh spots, will feel a noticeable drop in traffic, and certainly a loss of visibility. Smart marketers will regroup and work harder to reach the 3-pack status in their category.

One way to maintain your prior placement level is through paid ads. Another way to raise results is through the ratings system, a key factor if you have multiple competitors in your area.

Restaurants, for example, will be shown with a search option to only select businesses above a specific rating, from two stars, three stars, or four stars. If you are a restaurant, invest in efforts to raise and maintain the highest possible review ranking.

What About Traffic?

Most experts see likely challenges to all key analytics, like click-through rate, bounce rate, time on site, and quality of content. If the user experience makes it harder to find your information, no matter where your page ranks, your traffic may drop significantly.

Stay competitive by staying on top of organic SEO, because organic ranking may influence your local position as well. Increased focus on local SEO factors will become more important, using tactics like quality backlinks, accurate citations, and listings on major directories. Beyond SEO, don’t forget the marketing fundamentals, like monitoring your competition, and staying alert to changes in their tactics.

All in all, Google is narrowing the informational funnel, and it remains to be seen how users will react. Google will be watching and adjusting their choices accordingly. Businesses should be prepared to continually adapt to a changing SEO world, enlisting all available resources to stay one step ahead.

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