Running With The Pack: Competing in Local Search Just Got Harder

August 14th, 2015 by Amy Arnold

Overnight on Aug. 6, Google updated search results for mobile and desktop searches from local seven-pack to a three-pack. This is not just in the United States; it seems to be worldwide and rolled out at one time. It’s really early to start dissecting this change, but so far I’m not seeing much good about it.

What Does This Mean for Organic Search?

For organic search, it means it’s even harder for searchers to find you. It looks as if these changes from Google are driving consumers to a business’ My Business page and perhaps encouraging more ad spend.

Organic—Looking a Little Closer

On Mobile

Before Google rolled out this change, when a search on mobile gave local pack results, the user could immediately click on what they needed directly on the search results page, including:

  • Click-to-call
  • Click to get some directions
  • Click on the website

Now, the mobile local pack only provides a click-to-call button:

Mobile Local Pack Click Call Image

If the searcher wants to visit the website for more info, they have another click in order to navigate to the My Business page:

Navigate Google My Business Page Image

On Desktop

With the new update, I get the three-pack with no immediate click opportunities:

DesktopThree Pack Google Image - Search Influence

Update:

Ryan Schulze, Senior Account Associate, commented, on this published post with an interesting correction. (It takes a village.)  He shows how some searches on desktop are giving the website link in the 3-Pack.  It suggests different search categories have different clicking opportunities.  I would guess this is based on percentage of search performed on mobile vs desktop.

attorneys in new orleans 3 pack desktop

Back to the story …

I click on Parasol’s thinking I am going to get its website or the Google My Business listing. Instead, it drives me to the local finder with ALL of the competitors right there!

  • If you’re in the three-pack, this is not great because you have to fight the competitors again for the searcher’s attention.
  • If you’re not in the three-pack, this sort of levels the playing field. You have a chance to woo the searcher away from their initial choice.
  • If you are a searcher, it’s annoying because you have already indicated your preference with your first click, and Google forces you into an extra click to call the business. In addition, you are forced into viewing more choices after you made your decision.

Desktop searches are losing ground to mobile, but desktop isn’t dead, and it does still dominate search in some industries—usually those that skew to an older population.

This does show us that it is still incredibly important to claim and optimize a Google My Business listing. Those Google My Business listings can get your business into the desktop local finder list, which is a long list of competition, so images and reviews are still important efforts to woo the searcher over to your business:

Local Business Maps Pack Image - Search Influence

Reviews on branded search results on desktop and mobile:

Online Reviews Branded Search Image - Search Influence

Online Business Reviews Mobile Image - Search Influence

(FYI: if you’re ever in New Orleans in March, Parasol’s is a great place to be.)

Early Data on Organic Visits

I was chatting with Megan Lindsey, senior account manager at Search Influence, about the effect of this change for one client in particular. Lindsey sums it up nicely: “I imagine now since a searcher has to click on the business name and then once more on the ‘website’ button that people aren’t as inclined to keep clicking. I would think that most clients, even if they were in the top three maps results, are losing organic traffic because of it, but especially the ones who aren’t there anymore.”

The early Google Analytics data supports Lindsey’s hypothesis. I found no great winners: Several clients’ Google organic was static, and several were worrisome. These clients are local businesses that are historically very strong in their markets. Over the weekend dates, there were 20 percent to 35 percent losses in organic website traffic, which seems to have rebounded Monday to Wednesday, so it appears things are still settling down.

CLIENT A

google / organic

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 10, 2015: 179 visits

July 30, 2015 – Aug. 3, 2015: 285 visits

% Change -37.19%

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 12, 2015: 319 visits

July 31, 2015 – Aug. 5, 2015: 364 visits

% Change -12.36%

 

CLIENT B

google / organic

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 10, 2015: 161 visits

July 30, 2015 – Aug. 3, 2015: 210 visits

% Change -23.33%

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 12, 2015: 161 visits

July 31, 2015 – Aug. 5, 2015: 210 visits

% Change -6.76%

 

CLIENT C

google / organic

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 10, 2015: 36 visits

July 30, 2015 – Aug. 3, 2015: 54 visits

% Change -33.33%

Aug. 7, 2015 – Aug. 12, 2015: 58 visits

July 31, 2015 – Aug. 5, 2015: 67 visits

% Change -13.43%

 

Have Calls Increased?

The clients above usually do really well in the local pack and in organic website traffic, so let’s see what happened to their call volume. If you are a lucky business falling in the three-pack, consumers might be calling your business more now than visiting your website.

When you log into the Google My Business page and go to Insights, this is the data you get:

Phone Call Data 1 Image - Search Influence

It’s severely limited and not really insightful. The date ranges are not customizable. There is no data after Aug. 8. I have to wait until next week to get any data on effects of call volume from the three-pack rollout, and I can’t compare to the previous week. I will have to do some elementary math that surely Google could program to ensure a better user experience.

The data is summarized to the point of being so generalized it is virtually useless. This is 12 weeks of call data. I know Google can do better.

Phone Call Data 2 Image - Search Influence

It warns that call volume is “approximate and only significant values may be shown.”

Also, the call numbers could be calls from three different sources: Google Maps, search and maps for mobile. This is so frustrating for business owners. I would want to know EVERY call I received! And I would want to know where I received the calls! Google has the data, and it just isn’t sharing with business owners.

And Paid Search?

On the first day of the this rollout, local search expert Mike Blumenthal made these early comments: “I am not sure what will happen on clicks for AdWords, but those businesses that were lower in the old display may feel compelled to double down on their AdWords activity.”

I asked Jeanne Lobman, senior online advertising manager at Search Influence, to check it out and give us some input. “Those businesses that were previously only ranking in spots four to seven in the local pack (and nowhere organically) are now going to need to spend money on AdWords ads in order to be seen in the search engine results pages. Additionally, since Google has removed the website URL and the phone number from the local pack info, it could be beneficial to run AdWords in order to make sure searchers can easily find your phone number and call you (on desktop). This would be accomplished by using call extensions with your campaigns, which adds your phone number to your ad (as seen in the below example).

Plastic Surgery Google Ad Phone Image - Search Influence

On mobile, the local pack results do include the call button, but there’s no link to the website. When you click the local result on mobile, you are taken to the G+ page, which then has a link to the website. To avoid having that extra step, running an AdWords campaign on mobile ensures you can land people directly on your website with one click.”

Lobman pulled some AdWords reports to see what impact this change may have had on click-through rate. She says it’s really too early to tell any effects, but the data so far suggests there seems to be an increase in clicks and impressions but little to no change in click-through rate, conversions and conversion rate.

So Now What?

We need to give it a little more time to settle in before we make any dramatic changes. When we looked at six days of organic visitor data versus four days of data, we see big improvements, so watching the data to make smart moves is the action item.

Walk through the process that visitors might use to find your website online, and try to improve what you can control, such as adding phone numbers in your desktop AdWords ads or continuing to encourage reviews from your customers.

Your engagement online is a reflection of how you engage with your customers in real life. Providing for the searcher with easy linking from ads, Google My Business images, reviews and informative website content is a long-term plan, and it’s a good one to win trust and authority.