At the end of July, Google quietly rolled out a change to its local ranking algorithm. In the absence of an official title for the update, Search Engine Land (SEL) dubbed it Pigeon, and the name has stuck. Some industries, particularly food, beverage and hospitality, have noticed dramatic changes in the way results are displayed for local search queries. Law firms should be aware of the changes associated with Pigeon and be prepared for a shake-up in local results across industries.
Pigeon is not a penalty-based update like Panda or Penguin, both of which are aimed at scrubbing sites with low-quality content from search results pages. Instead, Pigeon is a retooling of the way the algorithm evaluates and presents local results.
Pigeon appears to be an attempt to make Google's local ranking algorithm more consistent with long-standing, national ranking factors. As a result, local search placement will be more affected by features like a website's authority, link portfolio, site architecture and content quality. Large website directories appear to be some of the biggest winners so far, which is consistent with an approach that rewards older, larger and more well-established domains.
How has Pigeon changed local results?
Pigeon's effects are not consistent from industry to industry. However, research into the update has revealed some changes common to a majority of queries:
1. Local listing packs (the Google 7-pack) are disappearing for many keywords.
The local listing pack is the series of specifically local results that appear on the first page along with an address, phone number, map and location marker. Achieving placement in the listing pack can measurably increase traffic. The local pack has not disappeared from all queries, but a large percentage of keywords are affected. Inbound marketing software provider Moz sampled data from late July, revealing a 60 percent drop in the appearance of listing packs for a variety of search queries.
Some quick testing of local queries for lawyers in the San Francisco area revealed mixed results. Searches containing the word “lawyer,” for example tended to produce listing pack results. In searches performed by Custom Legal Marketing, the terms “San Francisco bankruptcy lawyer,” “San Francisco corporate lawyer,” “San Francisco personal injury lawyer” and “San Francisco family lawyer” all returned results with local packs.
However, a slight tweak to the term caused the results to be removed in some cases. While results for “San Francisco corporate lawyer” contain a local listing pack, those for “San Francisco corporate attorney” do not. Neither of the terms “San Francisco business attorney” or “San Francisco business lawyer” produce results with a local pack, while both the terms “San Francisco bankruptcy lawyer” and “San Francisco bankruptcy attorney” do.
While lawyers have not been as hard hit as other industries, Pigeon reinforces the need to perform regular keyword research.
2. Large directories like Yelp receive more prominent placement in results.
The absence of the local listing pack does not translate into more first page space for local businesses. Google has confirmed that Pigeon connects local results more closely to standard web ranking factors, and one logical result is that larger, more established domains are seeing a benefit from the change.
In the example above, the term “San Francisco corporate attorney” did not produce results with a local pack. Following post-Pigeon trends, the results page for the query “San Francisco corporate attorney” contains two Yelp listings, a lawyers.com listing, an avvo.com listing, a superlawyers.com listing, an upcounsel.com listing and an indeed.com listing. Only three actual firms claim a place on the first page.
Some businesses have lost their first page ranking entirely with the removal of the local pack. Results for hospitality related searches like restaurants or hotels are increasingly monopolized by large directories like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Urbanspoon and OpenTable. In some cases a real restaurant may not appear until page two or three.
The situation for law firms is less dire. But Google has not hesitated to make abrupt changes in the past. Knowing how changes are influencing other categories will help you prepare a strategy for keeping rankings high in the face of increased directory influence.
3. Carousel results are a gateway to a page one ranking.
Carousel has not yet reached the legal industry. But practices that result in good carousel placement are also best practices for optimizing a Goolge+ profile. Firms should be prepared for the eventuality that Google will roll carousel out for other industries and give Google the information it is looking for now.
What can you do?
1. Maintain accurate listings on prominent directory sites. Research legal directories to determine which are most influential. You will want to maintain a presence on large national sites like Yelp and Avvo, but may need to take advantage of some lesser-know sites relevant to your practice or geographic area. Make sure your contact information is consistent and accurate on all sites. Google sees inconsistency as a sign of overall unreliability which can negatively affect rankings.
2. Continue to practice traditional marketing tactics like link-building, content marketing and social outreach. Fortunately, Google has not made and major new, unknown additions to the algorithm. The practices that have earned sites good placement for all web terms will help your firm maintain solid local results.
3. Research your keywords. In some cases, focusing on a slightly different term can influence local results.
4. Optimize your Google+ business profile. Make sure your firm is listed in the correct category and enhance your profile with a large, high-quality photo. Also make sure your phone number contains a local area code. Focus on client service so people will be encouraged to leave positive reviews.
5. Be engaged in your local community offline. In many ways online marketing is no different from traditional attorney outreach. You need to build your reputation and grow your circle of influence. When you do this offline, you earn positive feedback online, like links, reviews and social mentions, all of which increase your authority in Google's eyes.