On November 5, 2009, something curious happened the the Google Universal results for geographic keywords in the Internet marketing space: they disappeared.
Search on virtually any high traffic Internet marketing keyword, and add any city you can think of, and the 7-pack appears to be gone. I watch a number of these SERPs closely, and many of these keywords have shown Google Local results for well over a year.
To test the wideness of this phenomenon, I searched on the following keywords:
- online marketing
- internet marketing
- email marketing
- search engine marketing
- search engine optimization
using the following cities:
- San Francisco
Trying every combination of the two sets, not a single Google Maps listing was returned. Other vertical media types (notably News and Video) were sometimes returned, however.
This change occurred the same time as the several hour long disappearance of phone numbers in the Google Local listings, but I suspect that is a coincidence.
For many of these keywords, Google previously even assumed there was local intent.
More general marketing keywords (e.g. [marketing san francisco]) are still returning Google Maps results. As are some longer tail keywords (including, fortunately, one for which I have the authoritative 1-pack).
Almost three weeks have gone by, so it doesn’t look like a temporary error by Google. Such things usually resolve in a week or so.
We can only assume that the change is a manual one by Google.
The SERPs for these marketing terms were a little bit spammy, but no worse than many other industries. And they were much cleaner than the locksmith SERPs.
Google’s always had a tenuous relationship with the internet marketing community (unless, of course, you’re spending a ton of money on Google AdWords). They wouldn’t be targeting this industry directly, would they?
Some might consider that evil.
On Friday, Matt McGee reported in Search Engine Land that Google is building out a national real estate search engine.
In short, Google is now including every property listed in Google Maps within appropriate queries.
As of today, these listings seem to have rolled out to all “domicile”-type queries, such as “real estate”, “housing”, “apartments”, or “townhomes”. Oddly, they don’t seem to be coming up on the main SERP for any queries; you have to click on the Maps vertical search link.
Here are some screen shot examples:
I checked a number of listings for various cities. Naturally, I could not check them all, but it does not appear that any of the listings are coming up within Google Universal Search.
I can’t imagine that will stay the case. There’s very little traffic on those vertical engines (other than News and Images). If Google wants to drive traffic to those listings, they’ll have to blend them in with the main listings.
While the implications for realtors are not completely clear, one thing is for sure, “realtor” just went up in value as a search term.
The blogosphere and twittersphere are abuzz this morning with discussion of missing phone numbers from the listings within Google Local.
Previously, there would have been phone numbers next to the Google Map listings.
There are many theories as to what has happened, including:
- They’re cleaning up the interface.
- It’s in anticipation of a new call-tracking offering from Google.
- Desire to push more traffic into clicks rather than calls.
- Bugs within the Google Local Business Center.
- Google has a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the phone numbers in their system.
A more nefarious idea comes to my mind. Take a look at a result from the paid local listings Google is testing in San Diego and San Francisco:
The paid listings have a phone number, and the free listings do not. Google wouldn’t be trying to bias the traffic to the paid listings, would they?
I think what bothers me the most is that I’ve already finished up my presentation for PubCon next week, and now I have to redo all the screenshots.
Update: Google has confirmed that it was a bug, and the phone numbers are back.
Early in the history of business listings being placed on Google Maps, your proximity to the centroid (fancy geometric term for “center”) of your city had a huge impact on your rankings. If you wanted to be on the first page for [pool hall austin, tx], you’d better be located in the center of town.
Over the last couple of years, however, Google has greatly devalued proximity to centroid as a signal in their calculations. With decent optimization, you can rank for [pool hall austin, tx] all over town.
As you can see, the seven listings are fairly evenly distributed across Austin.
However, proximity to centroid still plays a major part in your rankings in the suburbs. For many keyword spaces in smaller towns, Google does not have enough listings to fill the 7-pack. As a result, it pulls listings from the town’s neighbors, often the main city in the area.
For instance, let’s imagine you want to play pool in Cedar Park, TX (just northwest of Austin):
Only one location actually in Cedar Park made it into the top seven. The rest are pulled from the surrounding towns (and Austin). There’s clearly a bias for listings either from towns north of Austin or located in north Austin.
If you want to shoot pool in Kyle (directly south of Austin), your map might look like this:
It doesn’t appear that playing pool in Kyle is possible unless you own a table, but you’re shown listings from as far south as San Marcos and far north as well into Austin.
Only one listing, Buffalo Billiards, is found on all three map results. It is located on the world famous Sixth Street, deep in the heart of Austin. Because of its central location, it was able to fill slots in all those searches in the suburbs.
I’ve seen similar behavior on a number of keyword spaces. It’s clear that when Google is pulling listings across city lines, it would rather grab listings closer to the target city. As a result, being in the center of town still provides a real advantage when competing for listings in neighboring towns.
Not: All screenshots were taken on Wednesday, October 28, 2009, using Paparazzi. As a result of using this software, no personalization should have been in effect.
Approximately eighteen months ago, the agency I was with at that time was hired by a company in the vacation travel space. They were seeing a twenty percent drop in traffic from Google, and a nearly twenty-five percent drop in sales from Google.
Meanwhile, their internally-developed ranking tools were telling them that everything was fine. They were third on Keyword A that month, and they had been third on Keyword A the previous month. This was substantively the case for the several thousand keywords they watched.
Among other things, they hired us to determine what had happened.
The change was that Google had started returning a map with ten business listings for the majority of their keywords, which referred to specific geographies around the country. This map was pushing down the traditional, organic search listings to the point that unless you were the first or second listing, you were “below the fold”, meaning one had to scroll down one’s monitor to see the listing.
This map became known as the “10-pack”, and are driven by the Google Local Business Center. (Note: the 10-pack has recently become a 7-pack.)
One of the constants in SEO is that the further down the page you are listed, the less traffic you receive. Consequently, the addition of the 10-pack was a substantial change to Google’s SERPs (Search Engine Results Page). I would argue that it’s the biggest change since Google started placing paid listings above the organic listings on certain queries.
Most disturbing for my client was that not only was traffic from Google dropping, but sales from Google were dropping at a higher rate. Clearly, it was the most valuable traffic that was being lost.
Local SEO (aka Google Maps optimization is a new type of SEO that focuses on causing companies’ Google Local Business Center listings to be returned for particular queries.
So, does your company need local SEO?
If you wish to generate website visits, phone calls, or foot traffic from people in particular geographies, then local SEO is likely appropriate for your business.
To test this theory, you might search on Google for your most important keywords. Is the 7-pack (or one of its cousins) coming up? Even if it isn’t, if your keywords contain local intent, the map will likely be added in the future.
You even might be able to cause your Google Local Business Center listing to be returned for particular keywords, if you work the system correctly.
But that’s a topic for a later post.