In September 2015, Google's Mobile Algorithm launched. It was a game changer for Google and small business owners alike.
The world’s largest search engine rolled out its new – separate – mobile algorithm, twinned with smaller changes the desktop version, designed to help searchers who are on-the-go find the local results they are looking for.
Some quick testing and observation revealed a number of differences in the way the new algorithm worked for searchers – some obvious and some obscure.
We noticed quickly, for example, that if you searched for something that would normally be associated with a local business, like “pizza parlour” or “coffee shop,” Google would give you results that were proximity-based.
It would show you the listings of businesses who were nearest to your current location, which is incredibly handy if you are looking for a new breakfast joint, or maybe a hospital, that might be just around the corner.
Implicit in that change, however, is the notion that every coffee shop, bakery, clothing store, or other related business is created equal. It assumes the searcher wants the most convenient option, regardless of possible differences in quality or individual style.
You could make the case that a discerning customer might want to know about another pizza place that’s a little farther away, or a bakery that has a wider selection or a specialty, but isn’t quite as close.
But, you could also make the case that searchers are much happier with the "easy" results they are getting now, and that these things are simply splitting hairs.
Where Local Search is Letting Us Down
As someone who enjoys a good meal (or a fine craft beer), I can tell you that settling for what’s closest isn’t always best. And things get worse when we move on to bigger industries. What happens when location becomes the overriding search signal for technical consultants, ad agencies, or manufacturers? At what point do the skills, talents, and experiences of these service providers outweigh the “nearness” of their competitors?
And for that matter, what about a firm that serves a much broader area… or even works internationally? How does local search help them, or their clients?
I would argue that in most cases it doesn’t.
Google may be helping buyers by making it easy for them to find the closest place to get a cup of coffee, but they aren’t necessarily giving assistance by steering them towards professional services firms that happen to be down the street. It might be the case that the closest provider might be more expensive, less qualified, or a worse match than another one that’s a bit further away.
To give an obvious analogy, you might want a lawyer who works close to your home if it’s time to update your will go over a mortgage contract. But, if you were seeking someone to help your business defend against a lawsuit, geographic proximity wouldn’t matter nearly as much as specialized expertise.
In many ways, Google’s seemingly proximity-centric algorithm is steering customers towards the closest answer, not the best one.
Getting Past Over-Localization
It’s only fair to point out that I have some skin in this game. My company, Kayak Online Marketing, has had a top three position (with over 80 first places) for a number of search terms related to online marketing for several years.
With Google's heavier emphasis on localized search, we've been seeing a little bit of lost ground in the US, while at the same time receiving more inquiries from Calgary than ever before. Way more.
I’ve written about the reasons"way more" isn’t necessarily a great thing for my company, or for that matter, some of the clients we could be serving. On the one hand we are fielding lots of calls from potential clients who aren’t a great match for what we offer. On the other hand, it’s made it harder for us to reach the business owners and executives who truly need our help (and conversely, for them to get expert assistance with lead generation.)
By placing us next to the closest geographic matches for certain keywords, Google is essentially comparing us with individual graphic designers, copywriters, and ad agencies, most of whom have vastly different skill sets and capabilities than KAYAK.
Seeing this, my question is this: why is Google abandoning the faithful? Why has it made things more difficult for companies like mine who have done the right things for years, only to find ourselves thrown into the same category as low quality vendors who don’t have our content, history, or credentials?
Although I don’t expect an answer from on high, I suspect it has to do with the way the algorithm is being rolled out and tested. It wouldn’t surprise me to know that the next iteration of the algorithm well take into consideration location and industry – retail and wholesale – professional and amateur – not because people like me are complaining, but because Google’s users want results that are truly relevant, not just nearby.
It’s a no-brainer that many searchers want results that aren’t overly-influenced by geography. They want a return on their investment, or the best care they can get, even if it’s not as convenient from the standpoint of locality.
In short, I’m betting that the average Google user prefers professional over proximity much of the time, and that search results are going to begin reflecting that at some point in the near future.