I’m on a Gondola! – What’s happened to local rankings?
Google announced a series of updates on February 29th including the Venice update which affected local search results. They described it as:
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.
They also mentioned a new system to improve local results saying:
Improved local results. We launched a new system to find results from a user’s city more reliably. Now we’re better able to detect when both queries and documents are local to the user.
The effects were immediately noticeable with local results appearing more prominently in the SERP’s for big search terms and changing depending on location. Kevin from SEOptimise did a write up on this here. The thing that was personally interesting, was when I went into Linkdex and looked at the rank tracking for one of our clients:
This is the rank tracking for “laser hair removal London”. As you can see, on the same day Venice was implemented it jumped 7 places to a respectable position 5, and then further up to 4 in the SERP’s. As much as I would love to claim that amazing white-hat link building got these gains, looking at their back-link portfolio shows about 5 guest post links and a few directories over the last few weeks., It’s a relatively competitive keyword so it’s unlikely that anything other then an algorithm caused this sudden boost. The spike a couple of weeks earlier looks suspiciously like Google running an early test of the change.
So why is this important? Venice or one of the other changes gave the site a good boost, so what? Looking at historic data, the site had always ranked around tenth for the term, but had never previously appeared in the local 7-box. As a business and website, this was probably for two reasons:
- They are a small business competing in an competitive market, which is full of big businesses pursuing concerted link building campaigns.
- They are targeting London, but are about 5 miles outside the center; all the competitors are far more central.
It’s wasn’t all doom and gloom though, on the plus side:
- The on-site SEO is good.
- Although the link numbers are low in comparison, they have some good links.
- They’re otherwise relatively well optimised for local.
So back to the ranking change. When you run the query “laser hair removal London”, with location set to London you get:
It had gone from nowhere in local to ranking position 2, which meant when Universal was triggered it was position 4 overall. The Linkdex data hides how large the move was by not distinguishing between the standard SERPS and local. Search Metrics showed that, prior to the appearance, the website had been in position 102 before – a massive jump. Meanwhile, the page in the standard SERPs that Linkdex had been monitoring had disappeared to be replaced by the local listing.. This disappearance of the organic page in the SERPs was true for all the local results on this page. I thought that perhaps Google had removed any page that was associated with a top ranking local page from organic results. However, after some research I found some pages that were ranking in the 7 box, and had the same page ranking in organic on page 2. I have yet to find one on page 1 though, which makes me think Google is combining the results so there is no duplication between Places and Organic on the first page. In effect the page that you have connected to the places page doesn’t get included in page 1 organic.
One change I was glad to see was that a site that had always ranked 2 in the local box because of an exact match domain, and central address (literally nothing else, the site was bare) had dropped considerably! Gold star for Google!
I thought I would dig a bit deeper so I decided to run some queries and see if I could uncover some more information as to how Venice is acting on local and universal results. I wanted to see if I could prove what had changed to cause such a dramatic change in local rankings. I selected a number of queries, then ran them through Search Metrics and looked at the local, universal rankings for the week before February 29th and comparing it to now. I found 10 sites that had experienced a massive gain, and 10 that had a massive loss, and then looked at a number of factors that were taken from the David Mihm top 10 local ranking factors (and my own knowledge) to try and find a correlation. My findings are outlined below:
Proximity to Centre
- As I knew North Wood Clinic had good local and always seemed to struggle due to proximity I immediately tested this. I found some supportive evidence in an “electrician London” result that had experienced a huge local gain and was quite a way out of the city centre. Unfortunately I also found a number of results that had experienced big wins that were already in the city centre. It definitely had an impact, but perhaps wasn’t the massive, glaring single reason I was after.
Previous Organic Ranking
- I looked at how the sites had been ranking in organic for the selected keyword before 29th Feb. I had a thought that perhaps if they had been ranking well (or badly) Google had factored it into how they ranked in local. I found most of the sites had lost out, were ranking very poorly in organic but then a lot of the winners were as well so it discounted this theory somewhat.
Local Search Ranking Factors
- I made a list of the top 10 from local factors referenced in David Mihm’s report. I went througha all the winners and the losers noting which of the criteria they met in order to see if there was a pattern. The main correlation were that 8 of the losers didn’t have a crawlabe address or local phone number on the page , where as all but one of the winners did. That said, I have found it difficult to explain why the 2 that did had such a huge drop, I had an in depth look at their sites and nothing jumped out.
Reviews and Links
- I looked at reviews in order to gauge whether these had affected the big winners and losers. This was only a skim job to see if there was any obvious correlation. There wasn’t. North Wood has only 3 reviews, and others with significantly more had been dropped down below it. The same went with links, although I didn’t conduct a full back link profile, a look over Linkdex’s excellent link analysis didn’t show anything that jumped out and smacked me in the face.
- A couple of other things to mention before I move on to my takeaways is this. I saw some crazy, seemingly inexplicable local results during my searching. I will be writing another post on this very soon. The other point is that these changes could be a combination of factors, or another one of the 40 changes listed. I just wanted to include the word gondola in my post title so chose to look at Venice.
Based on my very limited research there are a couple of things you can takeaway. Obviously the Venice update has made local search more important then ever. As well as the swapping of organic results, we have also noticed some big winners and losers in the 7 box (which probably isn’t actually anything to do with Venice). Without having any conclusive evidence as to what exactly has caused these (and I expect it’s a whole host of reasons) I can safely sit on the fence and say that being well optimised for local is paying off even more. Following advice for local best practice seems to be working better then ever (groundbreaking advice right there)! Making sure you have a crawlable address and local phone number on your local landing page seems extremely important, and in North Woods case being a bit out of the city centre has become less of a hindrance.
Another takeaway from all of this is the apparent merge of results on page 1. There is no more doubling up on if the page associated to the places page was also ranking top 10 before. The strategy here is to do as a few others have, and get yourself special local pages to attach to the places page, and then get another page for the search term ranking well by building links/having appropriate content on it.
I realise my research throughout this article has been very limited. In an ideal world I would like to run hundreds of tests to see if I could find some concrete evidence but I simply don’t have the time. Still I hope you have found this interesting and its given you a few things to consider at least. If anyone wanted to ask any further questions, or is up for collaborating on some further tests either comment or tweet me @Andy_Cooney!
Note: As I was uploading this I noticed a very comprehensive evaluation of local ranking factors here. They actually ran more then 10 queries and seemed to use some madness called science to work out how important local ranking factors are. Well worth learning from.