Going back a couple of weeks now, Google posted a series of recent updates they’ve made to various algorithms here. Of these 40 updates, the one that seems to have had the biggest visible impact is that relating to local rankings, codename ‘Venice’. From Google’s ‘Inside Search’ blog:
“Improvements to ranking for local search results. [launch codename “Venice”] This improvement improves the triggering of Local Universal results by relying more on the ranking of our main search results as a signal”
Just to recap, the main point of this update is that if you have your location set while searching in Google, and Google deems your search query to have local intent, then some of the sites served in the results may be locally biased. To clarify – these results are aside from the local ‘pack’ of results that relates to Maps / Places listings. This update relates to regular, organic SERP listings. For example, if I search for ‘double glazing’ with my location set to Leeds, the following three listings are in the organic results:
These are all very obviously Leeds biased, and if I change my location to ‘UK’ none of these three listings appear on page one.
I thought I’d do a little more digging, to try and understand some of the specific reasons why some location specific sites are promoted over others. My initial thoughts were that there’d be a number of strong signals that determine whether a site/page should be promoted based on locality. I thought these would probably be things like:
- Websites with verified places listing (that match the location in question).
- Pages with relevant hCard address markup.
- Sites that had plenty of traditional ‘quality’ signals such as a strong, authoritative link profiles (in combination with one or more of the above factors).
- Sites that already rank well for many of the terms they target.
To my surprise, none of these things seem to be relevant. While this is by no means a controlled scientific experiment, looking at a number of keyword / location combinations gave some further insight.
Starting with the above example (‘double glazing’ in Leeds):
- City Visitor’s Leeds Double Glazing page only references Leeds in the URL, title and page content. There is no verified Google Places listing and no address microformat used. In fact, with a location set to UK, no page of City Visitor ranks in the top 100 for ‘double glazing’.
- Leedsglass.co.uk has ‘Leeds’ in the domain, page title and body content. However it doesn’t have a verified Places listing, and only has a handful (single figures) of links (most of which are low quality) according to OSE.
Looking at the same keyword but changing location to York, one of the ‘local’ sites that was promoted was square-deals.com. Interestingly, York isn’t mentioned in the domain, URL or page title. There is only one instance of York within the content of the whole page that ranks. Once again, there is no verified Places listing, the link profile is virtually non-existent and with location set to UK, they don’t appear in the top 100. When I first saw this, the only thing I could conclude was that this must be the only double glazing supplier in York. The fact that Maps listings (containing many double glazing suppliers in York) also appear in the SERPs for this keyword/location combo quashes that theory instantly.
For my own peace of mind I checked more locations and more keywords. I’ll just show one more example, as they all show a similar trend.
Changing the keyword to ‘car dealers’, with location set to ‘Manchester’ a couple of promoted sites stand out:
- Dace Motor Company (dacemotorcompany.co.uk) – as with many of the earlier examples, Manchester is not mentioned in the domain or URL, only in the title and body content. There is one address listed on the ranking page, but it is a Stockport address and so Manchester isn’t even mentioned there!
- Lookers (lookers.co.uk) again doesn’t have Manchester in the domain, URL or page title. Only once is Manchester mentioned in the body. There is no verified Places listing. What might (or might not) bear some relevance is the fact that this is a well-established website with a relatively decent link profile, and with location set to UK, ranks on page two for this keyword.
As you can see, the way promoted local sites are decided are not as you might have first thought. My conclusions so far are:
- This has nothing to do with Google Places – a verified Google Places listing bears no relevance to whether a site is promoted. Furthermore I’m yet to see an example of a promoted site that also appears in the local ‘pack’ for the given keyword. Maybe sites that rank in the local ‘pack’ are deliberately excluded from being promoted as part of the Venice update?
- Address microformats aren’t a factor, and aren’t present in any of the examples I looked at.
- Website authority bears no relevance to whether a site is promoted – in fact the majority of the examples I looked at don’t otherwise rank for much / anything, and have a very weak link profile.
- Any number of the following factors can result in promotion:
- Location in the domain
- Location in the URL
- Location on the page (title, description, body text)
But as the examples above show, you by no means need all of these.
All of this said, I found plenty of sites that based on the above, should have been promoted but weren’t. It feels like there is a definite element of randomness factored into which sites / pages are promoted!
A few other thoughts / findings I noted during my research are:
- There seems to be a limit of somewhere in the region of four sites that can be promoted for any given keyword / location combination.
- Sites don’t seem to be promoted to the top positions – usually middle of the pack positions (three to eight).
- Sites only seem to be promoted to page one – I couldn’t find any examples of promoted sites to page two. This makes sense and adds weight to the point about only certain SERP positions able to be filled by ‘local’ listings.
- Local focussed sub-pages of bigger, more generic sites are also being promoted (as seen in the City Visitor example above)
- In most cases only keywords that are likely to have a local intent seem to be promoted. That said, one of the comments left on Dave’s blog gives an example of the keyword ‘beanbag’ resulting in local sites / pages being promoted. Maybe that keyword does have a local intent (e.g. lots of people searching Google Maps for beanbag suppliers), or perhaps Google still has a bit of work to do in determining intent!
- Local businesses have a massive opportunity to capitalise on this update. Many of the example affected keywords we’ve seen are high volume, competitive search terms – keywords that will drive a significant amount of extra traffic and business to those sites lucky enough to be promoted.
I can understand why Google has rolled out this update as the thinking is very logical: matching keywords known to have local intent with local results should be great. It’s surprising though just how few factors seem to be going into determining this local promotion and how many more relevant and obvious factors aren’t used. It does feel like so many algorithm updates from Google, a little premature – and one fraught with potential to exploit it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the SERPs fill up with keyword+location domains because as things stand today, the goalposts have moved. Authoritative websites with high quality content are no longer necessary to secure page one rankings and Google needs to fill that loophole quickly for this to work for them.
Please leave your comments below!