In early August, Google’s local search packs shrunk…suddenly.
Within a day, the number of displayed results dropped from the typical seven to a meager three. The change impacted all devices, all locations, and all business types, including car dealers. Here are five things you should know about Google’s downsized local results, and their potential impact on the future of automotive search marketing.
1. Fewer local listings mean more competition.
Google local packs are listings that appear near the top of organic search results and contain a business’ address, contact information, and a map marker. In the eyes of Google’s algorithm, automotive dealerships are local businesses serving their immediate areas. Because of this, local packs often appear during the car-buying search process. For example, search for “Used Car Dealers” in Kansas City, and Google would serve a local pack for that area.
Before August 6, that result looked something like this:
Here is the same search after the change:
Ranking locally has been an important part of dealer search strategy for years now. And some rooftops receive a sizable percentage of their monthly organic traffic and phone leads through local listings, especially on the mobile side of things. Now, with fewer spots to occupy, proper local optimization is critical. The “snack-pack,” in short, creates an ultra-competitive landscape.
Debate continues, however, on exactly how severe traffic impacts will be. One school of thought contends the new pack might not affect traffic much at all since Google’s decision to cap the number of listings at three was based on click-through data. Very few, if any, users journey past the third result, or so the thinking goes. If this is true, traffic levels should remain stable.
The other side maintains that the 3-pack switch is rooted in usability. By limiting the results to three, Google makes local search easier for desktop users as well as those on mobile devices (who could really only fit three results on their screens to begin with). Regardless of the debate, numerous dealers have benefited from inclusion in the pack, even at a high position.
2. The changes do not stop at the number of listings.
The big news, of course, is the smaller pack, but the nature of local results has changed in other substantial ways, too. Links to businesses’ Google Plus pages are notably absent from the new 3-pack. After several re-workings, Google has yet to transform Google Plus into a viable revenue source, and the company seems to be untethering the ill-fated social platform from its search products. Removing these links is one sign that the untethering continues. The fact that businesses’ images are now being shown through Google Maps instead of Google Plus is another. But Google Plus/My Business information is still one of the most important local search ranking signals. Dealers should continue to claim, optimize, and update their Google Plus pages.
As other bloggers have noted, business ratings are much more prominent in the new system, especially for users who click through to the “More” listing screen where they can read full reviews and business knowledge graphs:
For restaurants, Google allows searchers to sort by rating, as shown below:
We don’t have any indication that Google will apply this feature to auto dealerships, but I would not be surprised if car buyers are given this functionality soon. To improve reviews, dealers should always strive to do good business and satisfy customers, especially in their service departments. Service reviews are often read by shoppers and can influence car-buying decisions. Of course, dealers should never incentivize reviews or purchase other social signals such as +1s or Followers.
Other important pack changes that you should be aware of include:
– Dealership website URL and phone number are no longer displayed. Users can still navigate to a site through the “Website” icon.
– Business hours are more prominent. Users no longer need to click through to see hours.
– Full business address is no longer displayed.
3. Ranking factors for local search remain unchanged.
Relevance, distance, and prominence. Google lists these as the key components of local search. Local ranking factors have evolved over the last few years, but our research shows the top ten have not changed with the 3-pack. As mentioned above, Google Plus/My Business optimization remains a key rankings factor, as do review quality and NAP (name, address, phone number) alignment across major citation sources.
4. Your concern that this may be a step towards “pay for play” is valid.
Here’s a quick story: Once upon a time there was a Google product called Froogle. Froogle was what is now called Google Shopping. When it was first released, the shopping business model relied on pay-per-click advertising (the same as Google search) for profitability. E-commerce retailers would upload their inventories through an optimizable feed, and their products would be displayed in the top right of search results for related queries. Rankings were determined by organic relevance. It was a wonderful opportunity for smaller sites that took the time to curate their feeds.
But in early 2012, Google reduced the number of displayed results in the shopping area, creating a space premium. Later that year, Google announced it would move to a pay for submission system, leaving marketers who relied on the free service to now pay or lose traffic and sales.
Google is already testing sponsored local packs in San Francisco for plumbing services, as seen here:
With the new 3-pack in place, this may be the way of the auto dealership, too.
Although it’s still too early to tell what’s going to happen, it’s a good idea to start preparing your dealership and your search ranking strategy for a sponsored local system. Your Dealer.com car dealer SEO team will keep you updated on any future happenings and recommended strategies.
5. Pack testing continues.
When Google opted against a phased roll out and forced the 3-pack on all, it may have done so without complete usability information. The search teams at Dealer.com are still reporting variations in the format of the 3-pack. These variations most likely mean that testing continues.
For example, in smaller population areas we see “two packs” with complete addresses and a curious ABC map scheme:
Whether your rooftop was already showing up in the top three locally or not, your goal should always be to rank as highly as possible on search engines. For now, car dealers should continue to optimize their Google Plus/My Business pages and align their citation sources as completely as possible. By striving toward complete customer satisfaction, rooftops can improve their ratings and better prepare themselves for any future changes in the nature of the 3-pack.
The slimmed-down pack could mean a significant change for your business, perhaps even more impactful than last year’s “Pigeon” update. There is no reason, however, that this can’t be a positive change for your bottom line.
Jonathan Trobaugh is an SEO senior strategist at Dealer.com