Google’s Recent Changes to its Local Algorithm

by Shagun Vatsa on September 29, 2009

Google has recently rolled out a series of changes to its local algorithm which have the local SEO community on their toes and have caused many business owners to voice their concerns through frustrated and angry threads on the Google Maps Help Forum. These recent algorithmic updates include:

  • Category customization & spamming penalties
  • Google One Box gains authority over the 3 & 10 pack
  • Introduction of Google Place pages
  • Sudden drop in local rankings of business listings

Let’s take a closer look at some of these concerns:

Custom Category Penalization

Google is now penalizing businesses for utilizing custom categories and geo targeted phrases in the category fields. The Local Business Center now demands at least one suggested category to be used while uploading business listings on the maps. In order to show up for more search related keywords, business owners choose to enter multiple keyword rich and geo targeted categories ignoring the strict guidelines provided by Google. In response, Google has penalized such listings by dropping their local map rankings drastically. However, not all businesses are paying the price for this change as yet. According to the conversation Mike Blumenthal had with Chris Silver Smith, Google is currently detecting such listings based on manual checks and running detection scripts to inspect all listings with geo targeted phrases. With Google now showing suggested and custom categories in regular map search and Google Places, it won’t be long until all spammy listings are penalized.

The Domination of Google One Box

Another interesting observation was the appearance of the Google One Box for several broad searches such as “Toronto Bankruptcy” or “Personal Injury Lawyer Calgary“. While fruitful for the business which has this authoritative positioning, others have left concerned messages on the Maps Help Forum. In some competitive Canadian markets, we are even seeing the 3 pack instead of the usual 10 listings. It is still unclear why Google is favoring only one or few businesses in a market of plenty.

The overall consensus is that it’s becoming more difficult for businesses to take advantage of this low hanging fruit. However, by following the basic guide to optimizing for Local SEO and engaging with your local community by attracting reviews to your business listing can help re-gain local positioning.

Sudden Drop in Local Rankings for Various Businesses

My twitter feed received numerous RT’s and replies to my tweet about observing a major drop in rankings for many businesses across Canada and US. Many regular dominators lost their top local positioning to other businesses. Upon researching further, I also noticed that unoptimized local listings gained prime positioning in the maps over the optimized ones. According to Mike Blumenthal’s pie chart on how to make your local profile 100% complete, businesses that have implemented some or most of the best practices are still behind in their rankings to business listings with little or no additional information.

Google Map Rankings

Uoptimized Google Local Listing

Better Optimized Local Listing

As you can see in the example above, the first result for “Toronto Carpet Cleaning” shows an unoptimized local listing with no additional information about the business, no website or email address, photos, videos etc. The business which ranks number 9 in the 10 pack is better optimized with additional information, photos, citations and even has a user review.

This 10 pack used to show a different set of optimized local businesses as of yesterday but due to today’s sudden changes, search has shown a completely different set of results. In response, many businesses have posted their plea of help and concerns on the Maps Help Forum regarding their loss in local rankings.

Google is definitely making ranking factors more vague for Local SEO experts to understand and implement. It is also effecting the DIY business owners who largely depend on the traffic they recieve from Google maps. I would be interested in knowing your thoughts as a Local SEO or a business owner with regards to the recent update in Google’s local algorithm.