With another three months left in the year, some might say it’s too early to begin predictions for major local SEO trends in 2015; but I say, if Wal-Mart can put out Christmas decorations on October 1st, then I can think about what might happen to the local niche in the SEO universe now.
What’s Happened This Year – Major Local Shake-Ups
2014 was a pretty big year for SEO. For one thing, Google rolled out its largest update to its local algorithm in years in July, when it introduced the world to Pigeon. Pigeon did two major things that changed the local SEO landscape: it reduced the number of local map “packs” or groups of results, and seemingly increased the relevancy of local search directories. In short, what local searchers see now is significantly different than what they would have seen this time last year.
In addition to releasing Pigeon, Google also gave a much needed overhaul to how local businesses can interact with their online presence with the introduction of Google My Business, a relaunch of their Local Business management suite, which had been mingled but not merged with Google+ since 2012.
With these initiatives, Google set out to improve both the engine and the chassis of the local SEO vehicle in 2014; now I’d like to take the wheel and go down the road a bit for a peek at 2015, particularly as it pertains to mobile and local search integration.
Why should Local SEOs care about Mobile?
Local and mobile go together like horse and carriage and here’s why: studies have shown that four out of five local mobile searches led to a purchase, with a conversion rate of 80%, higher than any other device including desktop. If we’re including tablets, then it’s relevant that 81% of tablet users report using their tablets to do local searches, and tablet ownership was found to be up 60% year over year.
If you like numbers, there’s stats on stats on stats to support the ever-growing importance of mobile to local SEO:
- One in three of ALL searches occur right before a customer is about to enter a store
- 50% of consumers using a smartphone visit a location within one day of their local search. For computers and tablets, that number is a significantly lower, 34%.
- 19% of consumers made unplanned visits to a location after seeing a relevant local ad served up via smartphone.
On top of that, every SEO worth their weight will advise their clients to optimize their SEO around major holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas, and mobile/local shows more growth around holidays than any other channel. A study from 2012 shows that mobile device searches for restaurants spiked 359% in the couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day. Desktop searches also spiked, but at a relatively lower 142%. Flower-related mobile device searches increased by 227%.
Of course, for those of us whose eyes glaze over when looking at numbers, there’s only one way left for us to know that mobile is going to be important to Google’s efforts in the next couple of years: they told us.
The Mobile/Local Singularity is Upon Us
We know a couple of things already about how Google is treating mobile, and all the information we have reveals one thing: Google knows everyone will be searching on mobile by 2015. In fact, Google’s Matt Cutts predicted that most people would be searching in mobile by the end of 2014.
We’ve seen this trend begin to manifest itself in Google SERPS in 2014. For example, Google now officially recommends that your website utilize responsive design, a practice which eliminates the desktop/mobile separation, and treats your website like one landmark which can be seen from different windows.
In local SEO, Google’s renewed mobile focus was evident in its Pigeon update, which took several steps to make its entire SERP seem more mobile-friendly such as fewer map “packs” in several important niches (as noted above), and the map packs which remain are smaller in number. A recent study found map packs containing seven results to be down by almost 12%, while map packs containing three results are up 16%. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in the quality of the search page. All of this serves to make the SERP appear more smooth and less cluttered, and If you were designing something to look good on smaller mobile screens, isn’t this something you would do?
Another recent study by Local SEO Guide shows that while many brands were initially wary of Pigeon, the reduction in map packs actually increased the CTR to their local landing pages—especially landing pages for longer-tail queries. This means that less busy, more “mobile-like” search results may provide an advantage to brands going forward.
Even visually, it’s pretty obvious that Google is designing its local results to be less and less like the traditional ten blue links, and to be more and more like its designed-for-mobile product Google Now.
Compare this screenshot of Google Now to a local SERP page Google was recently showing:
The contemporary organic Google search result, on the left, clearly resembles the mobile-designed Google Now much more than it does a traditional Google SERP.
The mobile singularity may not have arrived quite yet, but it’s clearly on its way. But, what can local SEOs even do about it?
Growing Your Local Presence in a Post-Pigeon/Mobile World
- Build a responsive site, if you can. It’s rare enough that Google tells webmasters something concrete about local SEO to significantly change best practices, but their announcement that they think responsive design is better for users than adaptive is that kind of announcement. Although it’s impossible to know for sure, it seems likely that having a responsive designed site will allow Google to more easily crawl, index, and potentially rank all your site’s local landing pages.
- Focus on directories. One of the other major changes brought about by Pigeon is that local directories and aggregators—everything from Yelp to Citysearch—seem to be ranking better than they were before the update. That means it is more important than ever to make sure your client’s local business information is optimized within the major directories such as Yelp or TripAdvisor, as well as aggregators such as Yellow Pages, because these pages are going to be capturing more targeted traffic than previously.
- Focus on the landing page (and make it hyperlocal). As I mentioned above, non-maps-based organic sites seem to be getting more traffic as a result of the reduction in maps results. While that should be enough of a reason to renew focus on your local landing pages, also consider whether you’re being local enough when targeting customers.
Considering how likely it is that a consumer who is out and about will come into your store, you want to make sure the consumer has a chance to find you in his Google results, even if he’s a couple blocks away from the “radius” that your business supposedly serves. Just like effective location targeting when running a paid campaign, you want to speak to customers where they are.
One feature of Pigeon is that settings for specific neighborhoods, which only ran as tests before, are now fully available. Creating a landing page per neighborhood, for example, may catch that consumer. Consider, for example, how different the concept of a query like “Haircut New York” is from the concept of “Haircut Brooklyn” and then, to take it further, how different “Haircut Brooklyn” is from “Haircut Williamsburg.” Focusing on hyper-relevancy says to target all three instead of the catch-all “Haircut New York.”
- Focus on social – The third leg of the “solomo” tripod. Although I haven’t heard the term in a while, there was a time when “solomo,” a portmanteau of “social”, “local” and “mobile” was all the rage. Since we’re covering local and mobile, social, therefore, deserves a shout out.
For example, Foursquare, once known only for its check-ins and mayoral nonsense, recently spun off that feature into a completely different app called Swarm, and is instead repositioning its core product as a socially-driven local data and sentiment aggregator, a.k.a. “the location layer for the internet.” Since Foursquare is blatantly moving in a local services direction, it’s worth the effort to create and optimize Foursquare profiles for appropriate clients.
Not to be outdone, Waze announced that “drivers can share information about local businesses and residences with other Waze users, providing tips and photos of places they’ve visited.“ This is another addition into the local space from a socially powered app. That means Waze just became another very important channel for your clients local SEO presence.
Finally, consider implementing Facebook Open Graph markup and Twitter card markup on your local landing pages, so that any users who may share your local landing pages socially are sharing it using pre-optimized wording which can definitely encourage CTR.
Future of Local SEO is Now
There might still be time to pick a Halloween costume, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about what SEO and local SEO are going to have in store for us in 2015, and more important, how big a role mobile is going to play. For now, focus on the optimizations described in this post, and enjoy the ride.