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Local search changes on Google: how to compete in 2015

If you’ve happened across this article, there’s a good chance that you’ve noticed that Google has changed how it’s displaying local businesses. The July 2015 update has altered the search experience for a huge number of businesses and industries.

This can understandably be upsetting for you as a UK small business owner, as local search results could well be a big tasty slice of your bread and butter. But there are several things that you can do to help yourself continue to reach local customers.

"No reviews can actually be worse than some poor reviews..." - find out why later on!

So, that’s why we’ve put together a quick-Q&A style section followed by some SEO tips that you can take away and work on. Because, like our company slogan says, we’re here to Build Businesses Online.


“Why don’t I appear on Google Maps anymore?”

The short answer is: you probably do still appear on Google Maps, but the display has changed and your company may have slipped off the radar.

The longer answer is: the new local results show only three primary businesses as opposed to as many as seven. This first screenshot is a search for “electrician in Edinburgh” taken from May 2015:

Local Search Display May 2015

What you see is paid advertising results in the first three placings, then one organic result – a business directory (Yell.com). Then you see the start of the Local Search/Google Places entries, seven in all. This next one is just three months later, this week: Local Search Display Aug 2015

Now, the bulk of the paid advertising has been phased out in the first column, in favour of a large Google Maps display and then three related business links. You’ll also notice a link at the bottom, “More electrician”, which will bring up another 17 businesses in what some SEOs are calling the "Local Finder" display, as below: Local Finder Display

The first point of note is that the Local Finder results are ranked rather than being scattered, meaning that users will be more likely to focus on quality results over the closest one.

Another of the interesting points to take from this is that one of the top three entries had exactly zero Google reviews but still placed on the podium, even if in bronze medal position. A quick review of their online footprint reveals a five-star Yell.com review and several local directory listings.

This tallies with the findings of SEO industry giants Search Engine Land, who revealed that local directories appeared to be benefitting from Google’s Pigeon update. So, as we’ll explain shortly, it’s time to look at directory listings once more.


“How do I get my business back on Google Maps?”

The short answer is: local directory listings and genuine, positive reviews from customers.

The longer answer is: make a concerted effort to ensure your online footprint establishes you as a local company, and also try to get more testimonials in digital form.


The down-low on directories

Why are directories useful for local search? Well, if you look through the links of our local search examples, you’ll notice a few recurring names:

  • Yell.com
  • Yelp.co.uk
  • 192.com

You’ll also find a variety of specialist electrician directories, Edinburgh business directories, and Scottish business directories. Since the update, Google have also notably removed Google+ pages from their local display results, using just Map entries for reviews instead. It seems that dedicated local directories are back in the picture!

That means you need to find out which directories are worth using, as poor quality links can be bad for your search rankings. Luckily, you can find some guidance in section A of our SEO tips for local search. But next, let’s talk reviews!


Recognising reviews

In tandem with the quiet death of Google+ page links, the search engine giant appears to be scaling up the significance of reviews on third party directories. There is evidence both in the Search Engine Land blog and our own example above.

So we have to consider that focusing intently on good reviews is fairly essential for appearance in local results. Take a look at section B of our SEO tips below to see what this means for you. In the meantime, we do have alternatives…


“What if I can’t get my site to appear in these Google Map displays?”

The short answer is: choose one of these three alternatives: 1) on-page optimisation for organic search results using local keywords, 2) paid advertising, or 3) social media promotion.

The longer answer is: as many people use Google to find local businesses, it is obviously an important source of revenue. But it isn’t the only way to be found.


Opt for organic?

Detailed research by the SEO gurus at Moz found that many users still favour organic search results, even if they start “below the fold” (that’s “you need to scroll down to find them” to you and me).

So that means if your webpages are optimised for the right local keywords, there’s every chance that someone will bypass the Map results and go straight to your website! Take a look at section C below if you are interested in using organic search to improve your search visibility.


Plump for paid ads?

If you’re willing to part with more cash, you could always consider paid advertising for a (hopefully) first page placing. But it is worth noting that by our own calculations, Moz’s experiments totalled a study of 347 clicks from 3 examples. The breakdown below shows that more people trust organic results over paid:

Type of Click #Clicks Total Clicks
Paid 57 16.4%
Top 3 Local 108 31.1%
More Local 39 11.2%
Organic 143 41.2%
Total Clicks 347

You’ll also notice, however, that paid advertising is bigger than the local results outside of the “top 3”, so it is definitely still an option.


Spread the word on social?

Finally, using targeted social media campaigns is another way of getting your company onto people’s radars. This will not take a lot of money, but as our posts on how to flog yourself on Facebook or promote yourself on Pinterest suggest, it will take a bit of time and effort.


SEO tips for local search: our conclusions

As suggested above, there are a few areas where you can take action to ensure that you have a better chance of getting custom from local search. Ideally, you should look at all three to cover your bases, but you should focus on any areas where you may be weaker than the pack first.


A. Finding relevant directories

As we mentioned before, what we are seeing is an increase in the prominence of local directory listings for certain searches and sectors. For example, Search Engine Land point out that their searches for “seattle restaurants” returned well-known directory-style sites such as Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, and OpenTable in organic results.

And there’s more: local newspapers and magazines featured prominently, as well as international newspaper reviews and reputable blogs. But potentially the biggest shock was that an individual restaurant didn’t appear until page three!

Local SEO for UK customers doesn’t seem to be so much different, as our SEOs found that searches for restaurants and pubs in Devon and Kent villages frequently showed results in amongst TripAdvisor reviews, local newspaper articles, and food blogs. This means you should potentially do four things:

  1. Do a Google search for “ near ” and see if any directories appear on the first page results
  2. Check if you have any automatically generated profiles waiting to be claimed on these directories
  3. Search for your competition by name, and see if they are registered with any special local and/or industry directories, and then note them down
  4. Consider adding yourself to these specialist directories too – please note that some may request payment. We do not recommend using paid directories unless you’re sure they are of very high quality and offering genuine benefits
  5. See if any newspapers or bloggers have written reviews about your competitors too – you could contact them to ask about a review of your own

B. Getting golden reviews

We’ve been stating this as part of our SEO service for ages now, but good reviews not only send signals to Google, they also give potential customers more confidence. The Moz article on user click behaviour featured some interesting experiments where they tracked user search activity and interviewed the “subject” afterwards.

The major revelation was pretty important: no reviews could actually be worse than some poor reviews. Most of the participants reported that review stars were a factor in the decision making process, so it’s fairly essential to ask for customer testimonials in digital form.

This means asking happy customers to leave reviews on your social networks and directory listings, rather than paper or e-mail testimonials. If you receive these, put them on a Testimonials page on your website, but try to encourage reviews on sites like:

  • Google Maps – all local businesses
  • TripAdvisor, Yelp – hospitality and hotels
  • Checkatrade, Yell - tradesmen

Please note: we’ve gone on record before as stating that it is not a good idea to ask non-customers to set up dummy reviews (we’re not saying you would, as we’re sure you’re totally legit!). Google has sophisticated algorithms to detect false reviews, and if they think they’ve found one, they may delete genuine reviews alongside them.

So please make sure that all customer reviews a) don’t arrive in the space of a week, and b) aren’t from people who have no profile picture and no review history. Blank new profiles can look like false profiles!

Anyway, having review stars could where your top three rivals don’t could be a swinging factor in a customer’s decision making process, so not being in a “podium finish” could still be okay.


C. Optimising for organic search

There’s nothing new here: we’ve already discussed how to optimise for local search in previous articles on how to write:

The importance of using locational keywords organically in the correct areas is now amplified. In particular, the page that is linked to your local search profile should be optimised. This will most likely be your home page, but follow your equivalent link as in the image below to be sure.


That’s all for now!

Hopefully you can take some heart from our ideas, even if you aren’t showing in the top three local results for your industry or sector. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to share them on social media: we’re here to help!

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