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New Place Search Shows Google's Commitment To Local

Today Google formally rolls out its new presentation of local results, called “Place Search.” It offers a dramatic change to the look and feel of SERPs on Google.com. The first and most obvious change is that the “7 Pack” is gone. And there appear to be some fairly major SEO implications, which should provide many hours of enjoyment for the SEO community as it tries to reverse engineer the algorithm.

The changes won’t come as a surprise to close Google watchers. A number of people previously spotted Google testing these pages in the wild and have written about them in some detail, including Chris Silver Smith, Mike Blumenthal, David Mihm and Andrew Shotland. Google sees the changes as an extension or evolution of universal search in the local context.

Google said that the algorithm has been improved and refined for Place Search. We also shouldn’t see any more of the “mapspam” that has plagued the 7-Pack in the past. Previously the local and general search algorithms were distinct. I asked whether they had now been consolidated or merged in this new release and was told “yes.”

On to the physical SERP changes. The best way to make this concrete is to show the “before” and “after” pages.

Place Search

Immediately below are two screenshots for the results to the query “San Francisco Dentist.” The first page below is an “old” SERP with my annotations. Below AdWords comes the “7 Pack,” which is followed by mostly local web results. This was the “old” arena for third party local SEO.

Here’s the new page for the same local dentist query:

Visually the page has changed quite a bit. The map has been moved to the right column and “floats” or scrolls down the page as users move down results. The 7-Pack is gone, as mentioned, and a richer presentation of local results with images fills the entire SERP.

Selected third party sites referencing the particular dentist are “clustered” with the listing. From my spot checking, these clustered sites appear to be mostly the same sites that appear on Place Pages under “reviews from around the web.”

As mentioned Place Pages now appear with each listing on SERPs. This will raise the profile of Place Pages considerably and increase usage accordingly.

In my quick checking yesterday it seemed that I was seeing the map and local results appear more frequently than I remember for ambiguous or category queries without geo-modifiers. I asked about this and Google said that there should be no more local results and no fewer web results after these changes. However for this particular dentist query some of the general web results in the “before” version appear to be “missing” or replaced by local listings. I clicked through to pages 2 and 3 and didn’t find them.

I did, however, find the same web results continue to show up in response to a query for “sushi.”

Places Mode

In cases of ambiguous queries, if Google isn’t sure whether users are seeking local information, there’s another type of result that will appear, which Google refers to as “Places Mode.” This SERP may show some local information (indicated by the red pushpins) intermixed with general web results. Here’s an example for the query “museums”:

To see just local results, you can now click the “Places” icon in the left vertical nav, which replaces “Maps.” Previously, clicking Maps took users directly into Google Maps. Like the other icons Places is now a filter that triggers new results and keeps users on the Google.com SERP.

Here’s the same “museums” result after being filtered by Places, which brings up the all local Place Search results:

Implications of Place Search

How should we think about Place Search and its impact on users and “the market”? Is it a major change? Is it merely incremental? Beyond the significant visual changes to the page, as I suggested I think there are going to be some fairly major SEO implications flowing out of this.

Local SEO was starting to focus on “getting into the 7 Pack.” That’s all gone now. Now, fully fleshed out Place Pages will assume much greater importance, as will being present and reviewed in the various sites featured in the “clustered” links. I’m sure someone will put together a pretty comprehensive list quickly but Yelp is one of the winners here, as are Citysearch, Insiderpages, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, Yahoo Local, Judysbook and others depending on the category. I will leave more nuanced SEO discussions to others more knowledgeable than I.

I’ll say one more thing however. Third party publishers (such as local and vertical directories) that had been relying on Google for traffic found some time ago that the available space for their links was diminished by the 7-Pack. Now that the 7-Pack is gone how will they be affected? Unfortunately for them they may be shut out almost entirely unless they’re among the clustered third party links associated with each listing.

Take the following example for “Denver Plumbers.” The first screen is the “old” page, with the highlighted section showing a link to directory Superpages.

The new Place Search features only local businesses on the first page. Again, unless publishers are among the clustered links they will likely have to resort to paid search now to gain exposure on page one of Google. I haven’t had time to do extensive or systematic checking on this, but I would imagine this pattern carries through across all local categories.

Upon further investigation I was able to find a couple of instances where directory sites sill appeared so the impact on local publishers may not be quite as severe as it appears at first blush. In the context of a search for “Chicago Dentists,” for example, I found a Yelp and Superpages link above the local results:

Google’s Commitment to Local (and Mobile)

In the near future these SERPs will also come to mobile search. But more generally the changes reflect Google’s commitment to local and its overall importance in Google’s strategy and product development.

Google began its discussion with us yesterday with a repeat of its previously released statistic: “More than 20 percent of searches on Google are related to location.” The key words in that sentence are “more than.”

By making local results (and Place Pages) more prominent than even they were before, users will likely respond with more local queries and rely on Google more heavily for local information. The overall volume and percentage of queries on Google seeking local information may in turn increase.

Stepping back and looking at the totality of Google’s efforts in local and local-mobile I’m struck by the scope of the commitment that Google has made. From Android and local-mobile search to Place Pages improvements, to the new simplified Boost ads, Click2Call, location extensions and expandable map ads in mobile — and now Place Search — it’s more than impressive, it’s totally comprehensive.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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