In this chapter we put a magnifying glass on Google's Local algorithm. You will learn about Google Pigeon, The Map Pack and Google My Business.
The fact that more and more searches are being made on mobile devices means that it’s never been more difficult for a local business to rank well in the search results.
In this section, we’ll take a closer look at Google’s Local algorithms and how you can optimise your website to rank well in the search results.
What is Google Pigeon?
On July 24th 2014, Google released one of it’s biggest algorithm updates specifically implemented for local search in the US.
It was later rolled out to the UK, Canada, Australia and beyond in December 2014.
It was coined the Pigeon update by Search Engine Land because “this is a local search update and pigeons tend to fly back home”.
The aim of Pigeon is to provide users with more useful, relevant and accurate local search results that are closely tied to the traditional organic search ranking signals along with search features like the Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.
Key Takeaways From Google Pigeon
1. Closer Connection Between Local Algorithm and Web Algorithm – Google created a closer connection between their local algorithm and their traditional search algorithms by enhancing hundreds of ranking signals for both Google Search and Google Maps.
2. Local Directories Saw Improvements in Ranking – Google updated how it treats local directories that are driven by user content and customer reviews like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and more.
3. Changes to the Local Pack – A key change in the local search results was in the number of results in the Local Pack (more on this later!) – which dropped from seven or ten, to just three.
4. Emphasis on Location and Distance – Pigeon’s intent was to serve users with the most relevant and accurate results by favoring results within a certain radius and relevancy of the user’s query. The algorithm enabled Google to return better results for queries that where the user included both the conventional term for a local neighborhood and the colloquial term i.e. “Birmingham” and “Bham”.
5. Spammy Results Appeared In the SERPs – The update resulted in a temporary increase of spam listings that made their way into the search results as well as other glitches like Expedia being listed as a hotel in New York City.
6. Pigeon Likely Saw Several Refreshes Since the Initial Roll Out – Google have not explicitly confirmed or denied that further updates were made to Pigeon, however it told Barry Schwartz that it “probably won’t detail all the changes to local search algorithms”. This suggests that it’s highly likely that further enhancements have been made to Pigeon since its initial release in 2014.
As we’ve already seen, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness is an extremely important factor when it comes to SEO in general – but EAT is just as important, if not more so, for local campaigns.
Smaller, brick-and-mortar businesses have to focus far more on convincing local searchers that their business deserves to be considered as they do not have a brand name to live off like the big players in the game.
Although at first this may be seen as a disadvantage, this can be spun into something of an opportunity, as it opens doors to a whole host of improvements such as quality content, satisfying user experience (UX), and increased conversions.
This part of local SEO is perfect for showcasing the human side of search, as the nature of local search is so different from conventional web surfing.
When looking for a pizza restaurant, for example, the quality of the food is something that is experiential; it’s out of our control. In contrast, the process necessary to get this pizza is something we can have a say in.
This is where EAT comes into play, and allows us to hone in on the things users want to see when deciding what the best place is. They will want to see things that can allow them to relate – the business’ history, the story behind how the founder created the pizza recipe, the inspiration behind the restaurant’s design etc – essentially, it’s about highlighting the unique selling points that you can showcase to set yourself apart from your competitors.
In fact, in Section 2.6.1 of its Quality Raters Guidelines, Google specifically tells its evaluators to look at the reputation of the website, or the creator of the content.
The above further emphasises Google’s focus on looking at the prominence of a local business’s website to determine its relevance for a search query.
Want to see what your website’s online reputation is?
Let’s go through an example of how we at SUSO would go about doing this using simple site searches:
- [japanese canteen -site:thejapanesecanteen.co.uk]: A search for Japanese Canteen that excludes pages on thejapanesecanteen.co.uk.
- [“thejapanesecanteen.co.uk” -site:thejapanesecanteen.co.uk]: A search for “thejapanesecanteen.co.uk” that excludes pages on thejapanesecanteen.co.uk.
- [japanese canteen reviews -site:thejapanesecanteen.co.uk] A search for reviews of Japanese Canteen that excludes pages on thejapanesecanteen.co.uk.
- [“thejapanesecanteen.co.uk” reviews -site:thejapanesecanteen.co.uk]: A search for reviews of “thejapanesecanteen.co.uk” that excludes pages on thejapanesecanteen.co.uk.
- [“japanese canteen” site:hardens.com]: A search for Japanese Canteen” that includes pages on hardens.com, a reputable guide for restaurants in the UK – use this to see if your business or brand has been mentioned on other reputable sites like Wikipedia, The New York Times, BBC etc.
If you want to find out about the reputation of your content creators or team members (which is something that Google’s evaluators also look at):
- Try searching for their name or alias
The Map Pack
When searching for a local query online, Google often displays a map among the general organic search results without the need for you to perform another click or action.
This is known as The Map Pack – which is also referred to as ‘The Local Pack’ or ‘The Snack Pack’,
The Map Pack is comprised of three components:
1. Map results related to your search query pulled from Google Maps
2. A 3-point (previously 7-point) list of businesses with their NAP data (name, address, phone, etc.)
3. Organic search results – these are the normal search results you’ll see on any query
For example, when you search for “italian restaurant covent garden”, Google displays a Map Pack at the top of the results.
Followed by the organic search results directly beneath it.
And this is how The Map Pack is displayed for mobile users.
We already know that Google’s understanding of language (and importantly the understanding of intent) has improved greatly with the help of NLP, so it’s worth noting that Google doesn’t just show local results for keywords containing a specific location like the example above.
That’s why, even if you search for general keywords like ‘italian restaurant’, Google still displays The Map Pack as it thinks that your search needs a set of local results.
We’ll show you how to optimise for the Local Map Pack in the next few sections of this module.
Google My Business
GMB is a free tool provided by Google to help local business owners manage their presence online. Claiming and optimising your business on Google My Business (GMB) is effectively the cornerstone of local SEO, and ranking in the Map Pack.
According to Moz, GMB is one of, if not the number one local ranking factors for both “map pack” and organic results.
Regardless of whether you are a new or established business, if you aren’t sure whether you have a listing, start by searching for your brand/company on Google.
If one already exists, you will have the option to claim ownership of it.
Below is an example of an unclaimed listing.
If one doesn’t exist, you can create your GMB listing by following the steps laid out here.
Now that you’ve created, claimed and/or verified your listing, let’s take a look at how you can go about optimising it.
1. Business Name
Make sure your business name is exactly the same as the brand name you want people to know you as.
Do NOT fall into the trap of including keywords within your name as this is against Google’s GMB guidelines.
Likewise, do NOT use the name that the business is registered under, you want to make it as easy as possible for the user to find you.
2. Business Locations
You should state the physical location of the business in the location section of GMB.
Here are some useful guidelines for entering your address:
- If you have a real physical office or location, use that address.
- If you work remotely, list the home address of the person closest to the primary area that your business serves.
- If you have a virtual office, DO NOT use this address—not unless this office is “staffed during business hours” because this would also be against GMB guidelines. Instead, use your home address.
Your service areas require a slightly different approach.
In the past, service-area businesses had no control over what their GMB listing displayed in terms of the areas they serve because they were set as a distance around where the business is physically located.
Now, Google grants the option to provide cities, metropolitan areas, and postal codes to signal where you offer your products and services. Note, in November 2019, Google limited the number of service areas you can list to 20.
If you do not have a business that serves customers where you are located, you should leave this blank and simply state where the business is located.
3. Primary Category & Categories
Your business categories are those services that you deliver to your customers, Google allows you to choose one primary category, and additional categories that are relevant to your business.
Google has a database of lots of categories for you to choose from.
Taken from Google’s very own GMB guidelines, when selecting your categories, ensure that you:
- describe your business as a whole
- don’t add multiple categories to list all of your products and services
- specific i.e. choose “Nail salon” instead of “Salon”
- use additional categories to let customers know more about the specific services you provide i.e. if you manage a supermarket that includes a pharmacy and deli, you would choose “Supermarket” as your primary category and add “Pharmacy” and “Deli” as additional categories.
1. Go to their maps listing page
2. Right-click to view the source code
3. Press “Ctrl + F” and search for the “primary category”
4. Enter the category name that is listed on their GMB listing as your primary category!
It is important to bear in mind that your category is just one of many factors that can affect your local ranking on Google.
4. Website and Phone Number
This one’s pretty straightforward.
It may be the case that Google API is pulling information from other external sources that may no longer be accurate.
So ensure that the most up to date version of the website URL and phone number is added.
You can find more helpful tips here.
Don’t forget to add tracking to your website i.e. https://www.yourdomains.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=local&utm_campaign=gmb_listing
5. Business Description
The business description is pretty self explanatory – it’s additional information that tells the users about your business and operation.
Your business description should:
- Be succinct and generic but should convey enough detail so that Google and users fully understand the basis of what your business provides.
- Include information on the services and products that you offer, as well as your mission and the history of your business.
- Highlight what makes your business unique.
- NOT be misleading or contain inaccurate information
- NOT contain any links whatsoever.
- NOT include any promotional content i.e. exclusive offers/deals i.e. “50% off first orders!”
6. Operating Hours
Add your regular business hours.
Make sure that these operating hours are accurate – there’s nothing worse than checking a business’ opening time and planning a visit, only to arrive and find that it’s closed!
Photos are a crucial optimisation for GMB, as they allow users to virtually ‘visit’ your business, and get a sense of your business. Of course, adding photos also proves that you are what you say you are.
Photos showing the inside of your location are invaluable in this regard, and it is recommended that as much of your office/shop/location is showcased as possible.
A standard storefront shot along with the company logo is also best practice here.
You can also add images of your:
- Identity – logo, cover images, etc.
- Team – your team in action, around the office/store
- Anything that showcases your business
As per Google’s guidelines, ensure that photos are in either JPG or PNG format and that they are the correct size.
As of June 2019, Google is rewarding businesses who fill out all of their information by displaying their logo at the top right hand side of their GMB profile.
Google (and other search engines) want to see that people are choosing your business, but are also taking the time to leave their opinion on it.
This is because reviews provide a valuable insight into your business for both businesses (to make improvements) and their prospective customers (to give them more of an incentive to support you as a brand).
Google Business Reviews
Google Business reviews will help your business to stand out as they appear next to your listing in both Maps and Search.
Here are some of the best practices and top tips on how to encourage your customers to spread the word about your business and ultimately get reviews on Google:
- Remind customers to leave a review – importantly however, remind them how easy and quick it is to leave a review.
- Reply to existing reviews – whether the review is positive or negative, replying to reviews builds your customers’ trust as it shows that you value their input.
You can also reply to GMB reviews via the Google My Business dashboard, however note that this can only be done if you have verified your GMB listing.
- Create a Google Review link – adding a share link to receipts/email confirmations ensures a constant stream of reviews from visiting users as customers can simply click on this link to leave a review.
To do this, simply login to your GMB account and head over to the “Get more reviews” card.
It’s worth noting that Google doesn’t encourage you to incentivise reviews (i.e. offering customers a discount on their next purchase if they leave review) as reviews are only valuable if they’re honest and don’t show any bias. In fact, it violates their review posting guidelines!
In short, customer reviews are almost certainly a ranking signal that Google looks at when it comes to local SEO.
In fact, they’ve pretty much confirmed it in this statement: “High-quality, positive reviews from your customers will improve your business’s visibility and increase the likelihood that a potential customer will visit your location.”
Review Sentiment Detection
Unsurprisingly, the sentiment behind a customer review is also considered as a ranking signal for Google. A patent granted to Google in 2013 titled “Sentiment detection as a ranking signal for reviewable entities” sheds some light as to how Google is able to rank “reviewable entities based on sentiment expressed about the entities”.
Apart from just places, the patent also treats “restaurants, hotels, consumer products such as electronics, films, books, and live performance” as entities.
How The System Works
Let’s take a look at how this system works in practice:
1. The review text for the entity is identified.
2. A sentiment score is assigned to the text.
3. A ranking score for the entity is generated for the entity and stored.
The storage mechanism is called the Entity Review Data Repository, this may contain both structured and unstructured reviews.
Structured reviews tend to include a numerical rating system (i.e. five star rating) and review text which are collected from a network of “known review websites such as Google Maps, TripAdvisor, Citysearch or Yelp” as well as books, newspapers and magazines.
Unstructured reviews tend to contain opinions about the reviewable entities but are not constricted to a particular format. These kinds of reviews can be found on “blogs, emails, newsgroup postings”.
It’s important that the system looks at both structured and unstructured reviews.
For example, in a restaurant review, a customer may provide a four star rating and leave the following comment: “Food was great, but service was very poor”.
A system that only looks at the star rating wouldn’t take into account the fact that the customer perceived the service as “very poor”. This clearly is of importance for users who are searching for restaurants that not only provide great food, but also great service.
As seen from the figure above, The Entity Review Data Repository is also made up of several other components:
- Entity Sentiment Database – stores “textual reviews from structured and unstructured reviews of the Reviewable Entity”.
- Entity Rating Database – stores “ratings of the entity from structured reviews in the Entity Ratings Database”.
- Entity Ranking Database – combines and stores “information from the Entity Sentiment Database, the Entity Rating Database and the User Interaction Database used to rank the reviewable entities”.
- User Interaction Database – stored “user interaction metrics generated from monitoring user interactions with search results associated with entities”.
We are also given a glimpse into what kind of information Google is storing in these databases.
The Sentiment Database is split into tuples that have multiple parts. For example, there is a tuple for the Entity ID, Entity Type and one or more reviews.
Reviews have their own:
- Review ID – unique identifier for the Review.
- P(entity) – “represents the likelihood that the Review is about the Entity”, also referred to as the Entity Value.
- P(sentiment) – “represents the likelihood that the Review contains a sentiment about the Entity”, this may be categorical (i.e. low, medium, high) or a numerical score.
- Textual Review – the textual component of the review itself.
The patent explicitly states that the “Entity Rankings are used as signals to rank the set of Ranked Entities when displaying the Ranked Entities as search results” and that this “can be combined with other signals”.
Google provides the following example of how this may be applied in practice: “For example, a user who enters “sushi” as a search query will receive an ordered list of Ranked Entities of Entity Type “sushi restaurant” ranked according to Entity Ranking”.
To summarise, review sentiment serves as a crucial role in how Google perceives your business or website, which in turn, may influence how you appear in the SERPs.