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Google has changed its algorithm again: getting to know Google Pigeon

Posted On: October 4, 2014

Hold on to your chair. What we’re going to tell you this month will rock your world. You won’t believe what Google just did.

What’s that? You think Google just changed its algorithm again, an innocent-sounding development that in reality will cause massive shockwaves across the Internet?

OK, fine. We telegraphed that one in the headline. And by now you’ve probably gotten used to our sarcasm. As we often note, Google is constantly evolving. It sometimes seems to change things just for the sake of changing things.

But when it comes to its algorithm to local search rankings, Google’s modifications are serious as a heart attack — and just as impactful. Every change has big ramifications for how small business websites are ranked and how well they’re displayed in search results and in other Google venues. Thus they also have big ramifications on site traffic, conversions, you name it.

Let’s start with the name

First off, Pigeon isn’t officially “Pigeon.” That’s what the update has been dubbed by Search Engine Land, a leader in industry analysis.

Because Google (secretive as ever about the specifics of its algorithm updates) didn’t actually give the update a name, SEL went ahead and named it. And because SEL is a powerful player in the industry, that’s the name many sites devoted to Internet business are going with.

Who are we to do otherwise? Pigeon is a perfectly lovely name anyway, and it fits alliteratively with previous big updates (Penguin and Panda, which we’ve covered extensively before), so Pigeon it is, at least for now. (Hummingbird doesn’t start with a P, obviously, but at least Pigeon and Penguin fit with the bird theme.)

SEL said “Pigeon is the name we decided on because this is a local search update, and pigeons tend to fly back home.” The site did something similar when Google launched its Panda update, which also didn’t have an official name at first. For what it’s worth, SEL called that one “Farmer” until Google announced its actual name was “Panda.”

Independent over corporate

For now at least, Pigeon appears to only impact local search queries made in English within the United States. It also seems to give preference to local businesses over local brands. This is good news for small businesses that have a local, brick-and-mortar presence.

For example, someone looking for coffee shops in Houston will see a Google search engine results page (SERP) that prioritizes truly local coffee shops, and the search experience is enhanced when the searcher clicks on Google Maps.

Previously, there was a good chance that searching for coffee shops in Houston would return listings for major brands such as Starbucks toward the top of the SERP. Now, search results that are authoritatively local will be more prominently featured, and they will be enhanced with relevant content.

Houston coffee shops that have a verified presence on Google’s social network, Google Plus, will benefit from having their menus, reviews, and photographs shown on the SERP.

This also means local business owners will want to ensure they’re keeping up with content marketing and social media engagement on Google Plus.

Fewer listings appearing in local searches

Google has long been pushing for providing more useful results for searchers over a high quantity of results. In other words, Google figures a searcher doesn’t necessarily want all the possible options, because that can be confusing. Instead, it wants to give the searcher what it considers the most relevant options.

How does Google make this determination? Google told SEL that the new update has deeper ties into its Web search capabilities, “including the hundreds of ranking signals [used] in Web search, along with search features such as Knowledge Graph, spelling correction, synonyms and more.” The idea is to make local search more closely replicate traditional organic search rankings.

Local is now more… local

Everyone’s definition of local is different. To one person, local restaurants are those she can walk to within a few blocks. To another, they’re all the restaurants he can visit in an entire metropolitan area. For most people, the definition resides somewhere in between.

For Penguin, Google appears to be defining local the first way: a fairly small geographic area. The radius of a search appears to be reduced significantly, delivering results limited to specific areas within a neighborhood. In other words, Google wants to prioritize the very closest options to you over ones that are farther away.

Local directory sites are more visible

Local directory sites appear to be getting a big boost, which makes sense given Google’s premium on local. For one thing, Google appears to have fixed its “Yelp problem”: It’s now showing Yelp pages at the top of search results when a query specifically includes the word “Yelp.” (This is yet another reason to be sure you’re actively monitoring your business on Yelp and promoting good reviews there.)

Before, Google search results tended to show its own local listings and content ahead of Yelp pages even when searchers specifically used the word “Yelp.” If that sounds a touch shady, well, it probably is — and Google seems to be acknowledging that with its change.

Local searches place a premium on site authority

Previously, local searches didn’t prioritize site authority as much as global searches did.

In other words, even if a particular business’s site wasn’t particularly impressive in content, search relevance, and links, it still tended to be positioned well in search results.

As long as you searched for “Greenwich Village electronics” and a business sold electronics in Greenwich Village, it probably would place well in local SERPs, regardless of whether it had a bare-bones website and had promoted itself little on Google’s business platforms, such as Google Places, Maps, Local, Plus, etc. (Remember, these have recently been combined under the umbrella “Google My Business.”)

That conflicted with global searches, where Google has prioritized businesses that focus strongly on high-quality content on their websites, strong adoption with Google My Business platforms, etc.

So Google has brought that mentality over to local search with Pigeon. Now it’s more important than ever to focus on quality content and promoting yourself in Google My Business to ensure priority placement in local search results.

What this means to you

It will take some time to understand exactly what these changes will mean to local businesses (and those who market those businesses). Google keeps getting craftier about ensuring businesses and marketers can’t game the system by learning too many specifics about the process.

Instead, Google keeps impressing on businesses the importance of focusing on high-quality websites with
strong, original, relevant content — and, of course, for businesses to do everything they can to promote themselves through Google platforms.

Reviews have been important for a while, but they’re only more important in the post-Pigeon world. As we said, local directories are getting premium placement in local search results, and most of these directories tend to include reviews.

Yelp is the leader in local business reviews, and with Yelp appearing much more overtly in SERPs now, your reputation on Yelp just becomes more significant by the day.

If you’re still not giving much credence to how you’re being reviewed on Yelp, you’re in trouble. You need quality and quantity in your Yelp reviews to ensure you’re getting maximum placement in search results and putting your best foot forward for searchers.

Additionally, check to see what other local business directories are being prioritized by Google in searches for your location and specialty. You’ll obviously want to target those directories, and if you’re not listed in some of them, rectify that issue immediately.

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