Local Pack Shrinkage: Recapping One of the Most Common Conversations at SMX East 2015

In early August, Google made some significant changes to their local search listings (affectionately referred to as the “Local Pack”). You may have unknowingly experienced this firsthand if you performed a locally focused search recently (e.g., searched for the closest pizza place in your area). Whereas before Google would include seven relevant businesses in their listings, they’ve now modified it to show only three. This change has created quite a stir for SEOs who use this type of placement to drive traffic to brick-and-mortar locations.

It’s now been two months since the Local Pack was chopped in half, and SEOs are still wondering why Google made this reduction. SEOs who’ve worked in the industry long enough have come to adopt the mantra “the only thing that is constant is change,” but that isn’t stopping us from questioning its intention (we are a naturally inquisitive group, after all). The conversations that took place at SMX East in New York City in late September was solid proof of that.

No matter what a session’s topic was, it seemed like all of the presenters made some mention to the Local Pack change. Lunch conversations turned into intense discussions about what Google would scratch next, or what other “changes” would be made under the guise of “testing” for this particular feature.

The most common 3 opinions were as follows:

The Google Lovers

“They are making adjustments so mobile users aren’t overloaded. As the search world is evolving, so is how users are searching. Google is reducing the number of listings it features so they can provide mobile users with quicker, more calculated results. It’s part of streamlining the SERP!”

The Google Haters

“This is Google’s attempt to phase out organic local listings altogether and replace them with a paid model. This change will force businesses to increase their paid ad placement in order to make up for the lost exposure caused by the cuts to the Local Pack.”

The Google Neutral

“The quality and consistency of Google’s Local Listings have been spotty at best, which has pushed users to instinctively bypass local listings, regardless of what device they’re using. The reason why they’re cutting down on the number of listings they’re showing is because they aren’t getting the behavioral response from users to support its need. If these listing were really valuable to users, and if this feature was successfully presenting the most relevant and accurate local search listings, Google would be adding more local listings instead of removing them.”

So who’s opinion is right? Unfortunately, unless you’re a Google employee, the reasoning behind this change will most likely remain a mystery. However, it seems that the experience of most local SEOs supports the Google Neutral viewpoint. A lot of them were talking about how they noticed a decrease in impressions to local listings, but nobody actually noticed a dip in traffic.

The fact that traffic has not tanked despite the dramatic reduction of featured local listings is a pretty strong indicator that this feature might not be that vital to users because they aren’t really using it to obtain information. We can chalk this up to inconsistencies in the quality of these listings: Wrong numbers, irrelevant listings or incorrect addresses are common for these types of listings, and if a user had a bad experience with local listings in the past, they’re less likely to use that feature the next time they search.This might be Google’s way of subtly telling us they aren’t able to properly serve up a Local Pack at this time, and they’re reducing the number of listings it generates until they can get it right.

That being said, you shouldn’t totally discount these listings even if they’re not driving any big wins at the moment. Refining the quality of your local listings could put you ahead of the curve once Google stabilizes the quality of this feature, and it could become a key driver when the information it generates becomes consistent and users trust it again.

PRO TIP: Make sure you’re doing what you can to optimize your listing now. Check your addresses and contact information, make sure your map pins are accurate, create valuable citations to show the value of your business, and build your review base. That way, when it’s time to carve out your section of the local market share, you’re the business in your industry with the sharpest knife and the biggest plate.

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