Contextual Search: What You Need to Know About Local SEO
Read our local search engine guide on Google's serious efforts to make Contextual Search a reality.
How Google Ranks Local Businesses in Search Results
This Local SEO Guide's purpose is to explain what is happening in local search results across major search engines. Particularly Google. It doesn't outline all of the ways to get a #1 spot in Google search results, but it does guide you through the most important changes in how Google is ranking local search results.
Below you will find the 8 major ranking factors Google uses to determine where your local business will be displayed.
The 8 major search engine ranking factors above outline key areas Google evaluates. Within each area are hundreds of individual components to be indexed and reviewed. Each individual component is measured and scored. The aggregate or total of all of the individual components creates a PageRank (a real one... not the garbage Google released to the public).
The page's rank is really just a total score. When a user searches for something using Google the search engine delivers the most relevant web pages it can find and displays the pages in order of their score. The most relevant showing first.
Great websites make it easy for Google and other search engines to find, understand, and index their pages in the search engine. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is just the process of making it easier for search engines to do just that. Local SEO takes additional factors into consideration based on the unique search type.
Using the algorithm or formula mentioned above, Google calculates the appropriate rank for each keyword or phrase. Successful search engine results require the use of artificial intelligence to deliver results. In fact, Google became the dominant search engine based on its ability to apply sophisticated algorithms to identify, index, and display relevant content in mass.
Google became the dominant search engine after taking users away from Yahoo's human-curated search engine. Ironically for Yahoo, the Google algorithm's entire purpose is to deliver the most 'human' results possible (at a scale of billions). The path to humanity is no easy task -- just ask Data, Wall-E, or the Iron Giant. Besides being able to acquire new information, algorithms and robots need to learn to recognize intent and sentiment.
Google wants to be human because its purpose is to deliver the kind of relevant search results you would get from talking to a friend, colleague, or expert.
The first step for Google in its efforts to act like a human is the Google Panda Update. Often Google makes regular (daily) changes to the way web pages are evaluated and scored. When a large update to the algorithm takes place, Google announces and names the update.
Google’s Panda update was a major step towards Google interpreting the web from a human perspective. Before the update it had become increasingly common to see search pages littered with low quality pages just because they had been optimized for SEO but otherwise provided no value.
The first version of Panda was rolled out over a period of months and dealt primarily with sites that had strong global factors indicating that they were of low quality. Content farms, having a high ad-to-content ratio, excessive amounts of interlinking were all correlated with websites that may have met algorithmic guidelines of the past that were now being addressed.
In successive versions of the Panda and other updates Google started to take a look at the user data related to website quality. They found ways to track sites with high bounce rates through tracking returning searchers, the data from the Chrome browser and even putting together sizable teams of human quality raters to gather data on how to algorithmically identify quality.
The results of the Panda update were that websites dedicated to taking advantage of search without adding value through the content they provided saw significant drops, eventually dropping off almost completely over a period of years.
Below is an example of a site hit incredibly hard by the Panda Update -- Mahalo. The site contains little to know real content useful to searchers as the image shows.
The Penguin update took an in-depth look at the link profiles of websites to more accurately understand which links truly recognized this website as a source of credibility and which ones had been generated for SEO value. Big shifts during this time included:
- Directory links, link wheels and manipulative 301 filters losing value
- Increased recognition of links coming from low quality sections of the internet
- Removal of many black hat SEO strategies such as purchasing expiring domains for their links
The rollout of Penguin eventually led to the creation of the disavow tool that allows webmasters to remove the positive value provided by a link in exchange for removing its potential negative value.
The Penguin update was a critical step in Google's progress towards recognizing the value of websites in a human way. Links have always been the backbone of search engines to recognize what the most credible resources are online in a dynamic way. Penguin allowed Google to create significant negative consequences for those who were caught manipulating search results.
The disavow tool while not technically part of the Penguin update came as a result of needing to help quality websites reform their low-quality seo practices and fix their link profiles.
This was a critical part of Google's ability to recognize quality links as webmasters submitted large quantities of data for them to integrate into the Penguin algorithm. It gave them the initial data set to make link recognition more human.
Hummingbird was a very unique change to Google, it wasn't so much an update as it was a change to the entire Google search algorithm. Matt Cutts said that it impacted about 90% of search results on release although the impact was small (at first). Hummingbird was one of Google's first major steps to address semantic search which strives to take into account the intent or real purpose of search queries.
The eventual impact of this change was a large expansion in the power of Google's Knowledge Graph where Google was better able to serve searchers with immediate and contextual answers to their queries.
This was a significant step towards humanizing Google from the perspective of a searcher, searchers always wanted the the most trustworthy, fast and reliable way to access their information. Having Google step in to provide content was a large leap towards providing a better experience for a searcher. Examples of this change included mathematical conversions, quick facts, song lyrics, etc. being displayed directly in the search results page rather than through a link.
This was controversial because many sites had valued the relationships they could build with searchers through providing these simple answers and tools. These changes signify Google's future intent by showing their willingness to confront the legal and relational issues to expand it's influence on the entire search funnel when possible. For now we're seeing simple answers and tools provided but this is a trend we should expect to continue in the future. You can see an example of this in the image below this section.
Larry Page in 2013 on the expansion of the Knowledge Graph in an earnings call: “ The Knowledge Graph does run on the right hand side where the ads also run. Prospect there could be some short-term impacts on that, but I think the primary thing is getting people better answers is really good for our business."
Beyond providing Knowledge Graph fertile ground for expansion the impact Google Hummingbird has had on search results has been mostly an invisible layer. The public recognition of the update signifies Google's future direction and it has been speculated that Google will naturally dive deeper into language processing and algorithmic detection of context but the outputs of this haven't become clear yet.
Pigeon was the most significant local search update that Google has released. Some of the major changes that have been noted in Pigeon include:
- Increased diversity of origin and type in local results
- Area of service and distance quality improvements
- Yelp and other directory specific searches increasing in ranking
- Local results relating more closely to global results
- Decrease in local ranking packs
Pigeon represented Google's closing the gap in many areas that local had been lagging behind other methods of search and the impact was very significant. Most importantly it seems Google has taken major strides in understanding the context behind a local search. Building on the back of the Hummingbird update, local results now reflect more realistic intentions of a local searcher (which are often varied by the nature of their encapsulating many different types of intent).
Taking the history of these algorithm changes and updates it gives you an understanding of where Google is heading. We should expect a significant increase in the focus on contextual language processing, better interpretation of how words that may not be within close proximity can still have a significant impact on the relevance of the the entire webpage to a given search query. The potential for mobile technology changes related to GPS, searcher location, more significant user data research will continue to unlock new ways for Google to access human intent and map it algorithmically.
Below are a few definitions to words we will be using throughout the case study.
National Results: A result that pointed directly to a home page or a top level landing page from a national brand (example: movingcompany.com)
Local Website: A result that pointed directly to a local website that has a city/regional presence (example: joeslocalmoving.com)
Yelp: Singled out from “review" sites, since it's a hybrid of review, content, and business information.
National "Localized" Page: A result that pointed to a national branded website page that is targeting a specific city, state, or region (example: movingcompany.com/movers-in-las-vegas)
Website Names: Any additional websites that show up that don't exactly fix the above categories, yet take up search result real estate (Movers.com, Mover.io, Thumbtack, Craigslist)
This was a continuing trend from a year ago. A short-tail keyword such as “movers" provides little context yet still had more than half of the results focused on local results in 2014. Now in 2015, we see an extreme amount of variety of contextual search results such as:
- Yelp Review Pages
- Local Websites
- Exact Match Domain Brands
- National Site with Localized Pages
- "Best" or "Top" list of companies
- Occasional National Site Home Page
For top service brands wondering why they are losing ground for major keywords, it's not because your sites are magically losing authority. It's because the major trafficked short-tail keywords provide almost zero context, so Google has decided to even the playing field by dispersing results that are most likely to provide the most context.
For years we have been preaching to our local clients that while content is king, providing the right context will ultimately drive highly relevant traffic that matters.
Even a year ago, simply adding some context to a search limited the number of local websites on the top of the results. Fast forward to today, their are only 3 national results that appear on the first page. At the time of this case study, it appears that Google has emphasised national brands at the top of the results but then has let positions 4-10 be dominated by contextualized search results.
Another big takeaway comparing last year to this year is that the national result ranked #4 last year for “moving companies” no longer shows up on the first page of the same result. If you're a major brand and have noticed a drop-off in traffic, this could be a strong indicator of what happened.
For long tail keywords, these often provide the most context. Meaning in theory, Google won’t need to provide contextualized search results since the context is already in the keyword. Here is what we found.
Search results that focus primarily on long tail keyword “long distance moving companies” in 2015.
As search queries get longer and provide more context, national websites take precedence over local websites.
What’s weird about this result is that this is somewhat the opposite of what SEO’s were initially taught about targeting long-term keywords, “if you are a smaller less branded website, focus on going after long-tail keywords to compete with the big guys”.
While this might be a one-off instance (in every major market tested), what we are seeing is contextualized search for local is evening the playing field for both big and small businesses alike. Longer keywords appear to help big brands, while shorter keywords help small companies.
We have scraped the top results from the top 50 cities of the United States to draw an outline of what the typical results page would be based on queries short and medium tail queries with little context (Ex: “Houston Movers”, “Houston Moving Companies”). The results are both encouraging and discouraging depending on the size of your business.
Overall we see that based on the localized search query, national branded sites are no longer showing up. As a matter of fact, we see a variety of search results that Google is attempting to bring context to within the search.
- We see two yelp pages that are often in the top 5 search results (either focused on a business or on a search results page).
- Yelp & review sites show up frequently
- “Best" or “Top X" show up from major websites such as thumbtack
- Mix of local websites and national branded local pages.
As you can see, local based search results are providing plenty of opportunity for local businesses, national brands, review sites a near equal opportunity to rank well. The results are almost no different compared to regular search queries.
So what does this all mean?
The whole concept in contextualized search isn't new. However, if you are in the local space then what we are seeing is almost “reset" button to compete with big brands. This goes back to the Google = Human concept. When we take off our marketing goggles and think about what we are looking for in terms of search results for local services, we simply want one thing - The correct result
In other words, if users aren't providing context in search queries, Google will.
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