By Peter Prestipino, Editor-In-Chief
When Google released its Pigeon update in late 2014, few knew just how significantly the results pages would change and ultimately how sophisticated the search engine itself would become in relation to identifying queries with local intent - but that is exactly what has happened.
Search engine optimization (SEO) has always been a very "dynamic" practice, where changes in how the engines index and return websites and their content determine how a digital presence is optimized. This is quite evident in recent changes to the Google Local pack.
Google essentially rolled out an update in early August in how it displays local businesses within its results pages. Instead of the 7-pack of listings that most consumers and Web professionals grew accustom to since the Pigeon update, Google now only displays three local listings. And there are even more changes that SEOs would be wise to understand if local website optimization is their responsibility.
In addition to the number of listings returned, Google has also replaced the exact address with the street name only, removed phone numbers and Google+ links, and added opening and closing times. When users click on the title of a listing today, they are presented with (and redirected to) more details on that business (within a popup that is overlaid on a map along with up to 20 other listings). Only when a user clicks specifically on the website icon in the listing pack will their click end up on a website.
The good news (and what is generating the most discussion among SEOs) is that the frequency with which the 3-pack is being displayed has increased dramatically, along with local websites' visibility in the search results. Recent research from SEO Clarity, for example, revealed that the new local listing format shows in the #1 rank position 93 percent of the time, a big increase from the 25 percent of the time that the old 7-pack was shown in the first position. As it stands today, the new format seems to be the standard across nearly every keyword with local intent. Clearly, this is not the local search optimization that enterprises planned for, so what can and should they do?
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Accuracy and completeness of data in Google My Business, as well as relevance and quality signals on-page (presence of name, address and phone number data) are still incredibly important to local SEO, but these factors are still not what will ensure placement in the 3-pack (at least not alone). Google has long been on a mission to localize its results (no mystery there) and there have been plenty of updates (e.g. Pigeon) to validate that claim. While traditional local SEO still works (claiming and optimizing a company's profile and ensuring more detailed information like open/close times and categories is included and updated as needed), top positions can only be achieved by establishing authority - and that means building lots of quality local links over time.
There's no shortcut to building links (e.g. it takes time), but when one knows what to spend that time doing, they'll find the rewards are that much greater. If there is a secret however, it is to focus almost exclusively on building links through active involvement in a community or with prospective audience/customers and participating in the conversations about the product provided. From sponsoring local charity events to establishing relationships with media/publishing websites in the company's area, even offering local groups discounted services, a commitment to involving a brand with the happenings of a local population is, and will likely always be, the secret to local SEO success.
Google, and any search engine for that matter, can only take cues from the Web about what's important - on a local level as much as globally. If an SEO can influence (and optimize) the authority signals sent to Google and other engines, a brand will be better off for it - particularly for local queries.
Local SEO isn't easy - even for experienced digital professionals. There is as much competition offline as on these days, but if you have the patience, work ethic and a willingness to engage in some trial and error along the way, you'll start seeing results in no time and benefit from the effort well into the future.