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Google Switched To Local 3-Packs: Is There Cause For Alarm?


In August, Google rolled out an update to how it displays local results by eliminating all 7-packs and moving exclusively to mobile-optimized 3-packs.

Shortly thereafter, it appeared that the 3-packs were now consistently ranked in the top spot (below ads, of course) for any Google search that produced local results. From there, all Local SEO blogger hell broke loose:

“Google shocked the world last week when they mixed up how local results are displayed in search results.“

“GOOGLE LOCAL PACK PLACEMENT CHANGE CAUSES STEEP DECLINE IN ORGANIC BRAND CTR“

To be sure, the change appeared to be dramatic. But now that we are a month in, it appears the drama may have been more in our minds than in our traffic.

While it seemed that this update rolled out in August, in fact it has been rolling out since last summer’s Pigeon update.

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A Timeline Of Events

July 2014: Pigeon Update Rolls Out

The local algorithm appears to increase emphasis on user location, knowledge graph results and backlinks. Desktop results start to look more “mobile-ish,” kind of like the 3-packs look today.

August 2014: The “Snack Pack” Replaces The Carousel

Phone numbers disappeared from the desktop and mobile packs, kind of like the 3-packs look today.

And in fact, pack positioning in SERPs may have little impact on clicks/click-through rate (CTR).

Casey Meraz from Juris Digital conducted a post-3-pack click-tracking study, but before the pack was consistently in the #1 spot. He found that despite the new pack redesign, the top organic search results were taking up more clicks than local.

Niftily, Mike Ramsey of Nifty Marketing conducted a slightly more in-depth click-tracking study right after the 3-pack seemed to consistently show as #1 in the SERPs. His results were a little shocking (but not in the way you would expect). According to Mike’s data, more people were clicking on the organic search results despite the pack being in the #1 position.

These two studies showed that in the microcosm of their tests, localized organic search results still may be getting more clicks than the corresponding local pack results.

What About The Aggregate Impact On Big Brands? (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Embrace 3-Letter Acronyms)

RKG recently posted that these local SERP changes have been having a largely negative effect on the CTR of their multi-location national clients. But this could just be a case of where the facts may not be telling the whole story (although towards the end of the post RKG does mention the traffic could be going elsewhere in Google). RKG used Google Search Console (GSC) to measure click-through rate, but GSC data is highly suspect when it comes to local search.

In addition, GSC fails to accurately incorporate data from Google My Business (GMB); so, while localized organic CTR may have gone down, I would wager that local pack results are taking up the slack.

Here is a screenshot of one of our newer clients’ Google organic traffic. They are a multi-location brand that appears to have gotten whacked by the 3-pack rollout:

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Fortunately, a week before the rollout, we had implemented tracking of Google My Business clicks through campaign tagging of GMB landing page URLs. As you can see, the site experienced a decent jump in clicks from GMB immediately after the rollout.

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While Google Search Console CTR and Google Analytics clicks are not necessarily apples to apples, this data lines up with what we are seeing in GSC for this client. And unlike the RKG data, we are not seeing any difference between mobile and desktop patterns here.

My bet is if we combined both data sets, we’d see that the 3-pack’s impact on mobile is more significant than on desktop — it’s pretty much all you see on a mobile browser — but that multi-location brands are just gaining mobile GMB clicks at the expense of mobile organic clicks. I suppose you can call that a “steep decline in organic CTR,” but that doesn’t necessarily equal a steep decline in traffic — or, more important, in customers.

This isn’t unique to this single client. Our clients, large and small, that are succeeding in both localized organic and Google My Business search saw their traffic go up through this rollout.

That’s not to say that some local brands are not losing traffic — it’s SEO, after all. But if this is happening to you, check to make sure you are measuring GMB referrals before you hit the panic button.

What About Local Directories?

As always, whenever there is a Google update that seems to refocus SERPs on GMB, it is usually considered another nail in the coffin for directory-type sites. In this case, thus far we are looking at a mixed bag, but the bag has some ominous signals.

We looked at 20 large and small local directory clients in six different countries. Some were general Yellow Pages sites, while others were focused on specific verticals. In 75 percent of cases (all but five sites), Google traffic post-rollout was either flat or up. Two of the sites that declined were vertical directories, and I suspect that the decline was more due to slow August traffic than decreased visibility.

The more interesting data relates to two sites outside the US. In both cases, desktop traffic remained flat to slightly up post-rollout. In one case, we even saw mobile traffic to desktop URLs increase.

About two weeks after this update hit the US, we saw a disturbing trend in mobile organic traffic: While average position and CTR for business profile URLs declined slightly, clicks to these URLs stayed flat to slightly up; however, average position, CTR and clicks for category URLs (e.g., “Escort Agencies in Kazakhstan”) declined. Here’s what I think is going on:

Google searches for business names on mobile often bring up the Local Knowledge Panel for the business. The panel often has more data than can fit on a phone’s screen, so you end up scrolling to read it all; often, that takes you to the organic results, where the directories can rank well. Also, Google often shows smaller amounts of Knowledge Panel data depending on the query — so a query for {business name} + “hours” takes up a lot less real estate, leaving more room for organic results.

But when it comes to category queries, you get the 3-pack in all its glory — orange stars, pretty pictures, opening hours, etc. The incentive to scroll down to find the Yelp results is a lot less.

Again, we haven’t seen this across the board, particularly in countries where Google’s local business data is not good. But the trend seems clear.

So, What Do We Do Now?

This does not appear to have been an algorithm change. The same things that influenced rankings before are influencing rankings now. The landscape just became more competitive because there is less local-pack real estate to compete for.

If you aren’t aggressively focusing on link and citation building and on-site SEO, then you are going to have a hard time competing in the post-Pigeon world.

And because we all like takeaways, here you go:

  1. You need to be tracking GMB clicks to the website — otherwise, there’s a black hole of data. Here’s how to do it.
  2. If you are a local directory, you may have just dodged another Google bullet. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be working on that content and link-building plan we discussed a few months ago.
  3. If this update has you freaked, consider opportunities to target local queries better suited for organic clicks. For example, any local query that includes terms like “prices,” “coupons,” etc., is a research-based query that may return a local pack, but for which pack results are not particularly useful… for now.
  4. And as always…

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