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.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

DaveH September 30, 2009 at 10:53 am

Very interesting article ;)
Maybe GLBC give more and more importance to the listings coming from YellowPages.ca. In your example, at the bottom of the page you can read: “Business listings distributed by YellowPages.ca™” for the first one but it’s not the case for All Star Chem-Dry.
What do you think??

Michael September 30, 2009 at 12:54 pm

What a timely post – many of our LBC listings have 0 impressions for the past 2 days. This appears to be completely linked to the required suggested category.

Dina Haansley September 30, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I’m very happy I stumbled upon your blog. This is some critical information, especially as I am getting ready to dive into helping local businesses improve their SEO position online. Thank you for this vital info!

Patti September 30, 2009 at 1:38 pm

I wish they’d stop changing Google Local without fixing what is broken first. Also, I don’t see how this last change is beneficial to the user. As a frequent user of Google Local/Maps, I want to see the listing with the most information and reviews first, so that I can get a better feel for the company. A listing with no reviews, no website, no citations, and no additional information is useless to the user when they have the option of a robust listing with plenty of legitimate user reviews. Google needs to just drop it and leave it alone, come back after a rest, and then think about what changes need to be made to Local. I think there’s too many minds working at once, with and against each other, on this.

Shagun Vatsa September 30, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Thanks for stopping by David! There are various factors taken into consideration when talking about local rankings. Local citations from a credible source such as YP.ca is an important factor but not the only one. Your level of profile completion along with external factors such as reviews and other citations from relevant business directories are key while optimizing for local seo. With the example I gave towards the end of the post, I’m trying to point out that businesses who have followed the best practices aren’t dominating local rankings as one would expect them to!

Mike Stewart October 3, 2009 at 7:14 am

As others have commented already, it seems to be that Google is giving special treatment to listings validated by other local directory sites. Do you also find this to be a significant factor?

Cheers,
Mike Stewart

Taiyo October 16, 2009 at 10:18 am

Hi Shagun,

I like your article and it is good to see more posts like yours with good information about Google Local SEO. Especially when there are so many posts, and posts from popular SEO websites with clearly BAD information.
For example, Search Engine Journal blatantly advised their readers to geo-spam!
Can you believe that?!

I questioned it and pointed out other articles showing that Google is cracking down on spam and that their post is spreading harmful misinformation but they seem to be ignoring it. Oh well.

About recent changes:
It is frustrating when there are so many examples like the one you mention where a listing with little optimisation, etc. ranks above a listing with many reviews and information.

I second Patti, Google needs to fix what’s broken first.

It seems to me that the importance of nearness to the centroid has increased with this recent change to the algo. Although I cannot say for sure

For example, one of my clients was ranking in the top 3 for a term. And they still are, but two competitors who weren’t even ranking in the 10 pack (now the 7 pack) are now ranking above them and the site that was in first is now toward the bottom.
Looking at the listings they have few citations, no reviews and one does not have a website.
But what they both have in common is that they are right next to the centroid…

Henry October 17, 2009 at 4:11 am

I did not fully understand the category issue and made an honest mistake. Is there no one at Google or out there who can help me to get my listing back up….there should be some sort of way…it was a mistake and no intent to spam anyone.

Shagun Vatsa October 18, 2009 at 11:58 pm

Hi Mike – thanks for stopping by. As I mentioned earlier, it is imperative for owners to submit their businesses to credible local search engines and niche local business directories in order to gain authority in the Google 7 pack. I think it is a significant ranking factor because it validates the existence of a business at the given location making it relevant for a particular search term. You can refer to my previous article, Canadian Guide to Local Citations – Updated for a list of some important Canadian local citation sources. For a US specific list, you can refer to David Mihm’s post on the BCS for local seo.

Osborne Brook SEO October 26, 2009 at 5:50 am

Google’s local is still a gray area with so many contraddictive opinions. It is a shame they do not offer some more detailed and clear guidelines so seo experts do not spend their time without being sure what the outcome of their seo practices will be.

Shagun Vatsa October 26, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Hi Henry,

Has you local business listing account been banned? If so, get in touch and I can definitely help you get your listing back up.

Shagun Vatsa October 26, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Hi Taiyo,

Thanks for your comments. How close your business is to the downtown core of a city is definitely an important ranking factor. If I were in you, I would think of creative ways in which you can change the location of your client. In the meantime, you might find it useful to refer to David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors. This survey will give you an in depth knowledge of the criteria with respect to their influence on ranking factors in Google and Yahoo maps.

Taiyo October 28, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Thanks Shagun,
I read Mihm’s ranking factors before and I try to apply them. And I think that is why all the recent tweaking Google seems to be doing is SO frustrating.

For example, I have been helping an upholstery business rank on Google Local. I have been submitting their information to a number of local directories (the ones mentioned by Mihm/Blumenthal, etc.) and it has been over 4 months since I started doing this and only one of the citations (from superpages) has been picked up by Google.

I suggested that the client ask their customers to review them on Google, they sent out an email to their best customers, and so far have had six great reviews. None of the other websites have any reviews.

From the start I also checked the most searched keywords for their location (ex: san fransisco upholstery, san fransisco window treatments) and used those as the categories.

They were ranking around the middle of the 10 pack now, with all of Google’s tweaking, they aren’t showing.

Meanwhile another upholsterer has shot up out of nowhere and is ranking first using keyword spam in their business name field…
There business name field is actually

“[biz name] Upholstery ( Window Treatments, Foam, Blinds, Furniture Repair)”

And from their site footer I can see that Yellowpages.com is doing their internet spam “marketing”

I have submitted them as spammers to Google for what that is worth…

An SEO from Vancouver replied on another of Mike’s post you mentioned elsewhere and said something that I hope Google will do in the future:

Why doesn’t Google simply eliminate keywords in the company name as a ranking factor? That would eliminate any incentive to do so.

What do you think? I wonder if Google will do this and I hope that they do because really it should not be a factor in my [possibly wrong] opinion.

It doesn’t make sense to me that a company should have extra “SEO juice” just because they put the name of their service or city as part of their incorporated business name.
That just penalises companies unique enough to not use a generic name.

Durjoy October 31, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Hi, Shagun thanks for informative blogs. Googles recent changes very frustrating. so many of my clients Gone off from the list despite their listing is highly optimized. You are right there is so many list , which dont even have web pages , photos or relevant information . This is outrageous, Google should stop it . instead google should fight spammer and fix LBC’s error .

Shagun Vatsa November 3, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Hi Taiyo – It seems like Google has made up its mind and recently rolled out new business listing guidelines which state that the business name should be the full legal name without the use of any keywords. Many other changes have been outlined, some of which are completely new.

Chair 10 Internet Marketing November 23, 2009 at 11:56 pm

Thx very much for the post Shagun. Yes, clients are very perplexed as their local Google listings have dropped or completely vanished. It is going to take good ‘ol SEO trial and error work to try to deduce Google’s new ranking factors for local results. For example, for businesses with multiple locations/stores, is it better to include the location’s neighborhood in the Google Local Listing Company Name field or not? For example, “Jerry’s Arco: Capitol Hill.” (Capitol Hill being the neighborhood). We are having some success with this.

Devin Williams December 22, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Google local was bringing the businesses I work for HUGE traffic as a result of our optimizing of the listings and the April’s changes.

This has been a huge blow to us and it’s frustrating, but understandable, because of how easy it was to manipulate Google local.

I have guessed that there was an over-customization penalty, so i began scaling everything back, but it is definately frustrated when you have put so much time to optimizing 50-100 listings and it all has to be reversed and changed.

That’s the life of SEO though…if things don’t change, we don’t have to figure them out.

My listings are still better than where they were before, but i am 100% positive that it’s not an algorithm doing the penalties, etc. If you search major keywords in large us cities especially, they are manually ordered…which is frustrating to say the least.

Hopefully the penalties are temporary and if we are “good” then they will update with the introduction of a better algorithm (probably based more upon natural search results. )

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