In early August 2015, Google released a new local search display format that will have a major impact on local businesses. The update was not a change in local search ranking factors, but rather a change in the way local business information is displayed on the search engine results page (SERP).
In the past, Google displayed a variety of organic and local results. Typically, seven local results (the “7-Pack”) were shown, depending on the location and search inquiry. Following this recent update, however, we are now seeing only three local results (the “3-Pack” or “Snack Pack“).
Searchers do have the option to click for more results, but this additional step will likely have a negative impact on local businesses ranked in positions 4–7.
Another significant change is the increase in the number of ads showing above the fold on mobile results. While this doesn’t specifically apply to local mobile results, it’s sure to impact search visibility for local businesses by pushing the 3-pack below the fold.
Summary Of Changes To Local Search Results
- The local search pack in the SERPs now shows three listings instead of seven. The number of organic results remains unchanged.
- With the reduction of local search results from seven to three, many companies will need to increase local ad spend to keep consistent traffic. This is especially true now that ads may be taking up increasing space above the fold (especially on mobile).
- A large map has been added to the local search 3-pack, taking up a lot of valuable space above the fold.
- Desktop and mobile results are now in the same format. (Results still may be different.)
- Address and phone number have been removed from many local search results.
- Photos have been removed from many searches.
- Review stars are not displayed for most branded searches.
- Actual SERP display varies greatly depending on business type.
New Home Services Ads
To complicate matters even further, Google began beta testing a new local ad format for home service providers right around the time of the local display update. This new ad format is currently limited to plumbers, locksmiths, housekeepers and handymen in the San Francisco Bay area, but it is likely to expand to other locations (and perhaps other business types) at some point in the near future.
Below is a snapshot of the home service ads in action. (You can see it live by searching “San Francisco plumbers.”)
Note that the home service ads are not only prominently featured at the top of the search results, but that they actually replace the local 3-pack results on this page. This means that certain types of local businesses may be losing another big opportunity to show up in free local searches.
Google is touting these new home service ads as being beneficial for consumers because of the verification process providers must complete:
To help provide peace of mind when booking a professional through home service ads, Google requires all locksmiths, plumbers, cleaning services, and handymen to undergo a series of screening procedures, including background, insurance, and license checks, interviews, online reputation checks, and mystery shopping.
The service area business itself will likely see an increase in advertising budget once this new ad type becomes universally available.
Implications For Searchers & Local Businesses
- Local businesses will need to invest in paid advertising to maintain their previous level of visibility in local search results.
- As more searchers click on local ads — and as more local businesses invest in PPC advertising — competition and click costs will likely increase.
- New home service ads might remove the local search pack (or push it below the fold) for certain business types.
- Local businesses previously listed in positions 4–7 will likely see a drop in website traffic.
- Customers looking for phone numbers will have to look harder. This may increase click-through to the business website in some instances.
- The local search 3-pack looks very plain, often with no photos, possibly lowering engagement and reducing clicks to the website.
- Ranking in the top three in local search results is more important than ever.
This Google search for “plumbers denver” shows the impact of these changes. Notice how many ads are above the fold? Notice how the map takes up so much space that only one local listing is visible above the fold?
Overall, I think this update deals a blow to local businesses, especially those who have invested heavily in organic search but little to nothing in paid search.
The new display format will likely reduce phone calls (now that the phone number is hidden in many desktop results), as well as traffic to many businesses’ Google Local listings and websites. Local businesses will likely have to spend more money on ads to receive the same visibility in Google.
The new home service ads are an interesting development that could help prevent potential customers from hiring unlicensed or disreputable companies; however, if they end up replacing map packs, this could greatly impact businesses who have not opted into this ad format.
As usual, the big winner here is Google.