13 Local Search Developments You Need to Know About from Q1 2023
So much has already happened in local search this year. Let’s dive into the most interesting new things we’ve seen in the first three months of 2023!
Can you believe we’ve already sped through the first quarter of the new year? So much has happened, and on the strength of the warm reception this nascent local search quarterly review received in 2022, I’m going to continue the series this year. Thank you for being a reader. Let’s dive right into the most interesting new things we’ve seen in the first three months of 2023!
A new local search ranking factor!
Joy Hawkins and her Sterling Sky squad discovered something truly new this February: selecting pre-defined Google Business Profiles services from the list that Google offers some categories of business can have a tremendous positive impact on local pack rankings. Joy’s dream team is working to see whether custom-written services have a similar effect. For now, if Google shows you a choice of ready-made services (not to be confused with service areas) in your NMX interface and they relate to your business, definitely add them! By my count this brings us up to 5 GBP factors we strongly believe directly impact rank: title, URL, categories, reviews, and now, pre-defined services.
The ABCs of…ABC
In crunchy spherical fruit news, Apple launched Apple Business Connect to make it easier for local businesses to get on the map, because, of course, you want to reach those 137k iPhone users. Mike Blumenthal has the best write-up on the new ABC features, and Moz Local customers get a collective pat on the back because their info is already being distributed to Apple Maps hassle-free. I hope to have a column coming out soon on Apple’s launch, but in the meantime, local SEOs are seeing this as one more signal (amid all the AI chat buzz) that there could be a few cracks of competitive opportunity in the Google local monolith. It can be worth major money to win even a point away from Google’s market share, and this is an interesting time in search.
BBB as trusted source in troubleshooting
In other acronymic headlines, Stefan Somborac and Ben Fisher spotted Google requesting a link to your BBB listing in one of their assistive help forms. You may encounter this when reporting problems with your listings and need to go find yourself on the Better Business Bureau site. The Better Business Bureau has not always earned good press in local search circles, but this move from Google signals that they clearly trust the longstanding organization. Might be a good time to look at how you’re rated there.
GBP products in Google Shopping results
At first, there was uncertainty as to whether this was a new feature when Colan Nielsen spotted it, but on the strength of the “wows” from the local SEO community, Barry Schwartz did a write-up on this phenomenon of products that were manually added to Google Business Profiles showing up within the search engine’s large shopping interface. In the past, I had only seen products added via the Merchant Center appear this way. Communication of local inventory remains a major hurdle for independent businesses, and this change from Google is a good incentive to be sure you’re adding products to your Google Business Profiles with help, if you need it, from my handy tutorial.
Shelfies spotted in NYC
This March, when I wrote about the nifty idea of shelfies (photos of store shelves you upload to GBP to display the breadth of your inventory), I had yet to see Google altering 3-pack visuals to feature them based on my search language. Kudos to Mike Blumenthal for capturing a live instance of this behavior for “backpacks nyc” and note that the local pack images show many products instead of a single item. I’m still not seeing this in my west coast environs, but am even more convinced now that local businesses should be taking shelfies.
NMX Profile Strength leaves us feeling a bit weak
Darren Shaw’s tweet captures the real-time letdown of finding a novel New Merchant Experience feature…only to discover it seems like a sales tool for Google Ads. Apparently, in order to get a good Profile Strength score, you need to pay. Colan Nielsen perfectly summarizes the awkwardness that is happening for agencies as a result of this debut:
Google’s rollout of the NMX was not popular, and I don’t know how it is affecting local business owner engagement with the local product, but if this metric is meant to inspire more commitment from users to completing their free profiles, it’s odd to mix it up with a paid product. A red herring, a primrose path, a bait-and-switch, gammon and spinach? Hardly a brilliant success if agencies are telling their clients to ignore this “feature”. And speaking of things that were once free…
Local Service Ads: A whole lot going on
Matt Casady wrote an excellent article over at LocalU about dentists becoming eligible to “pay to play” via LSA. If you’re marketing a new practice or helping one compete in a dense market, you can purchase the visibility you need to fill the patient roster. This sounds like good news, at a glance, but it’s also part of the ongoing saga of local business visibility becoming less “free” at Google’s house. At last count, 70 categories have become eligible for LSA and Google just keeps adding to the list.
LSA isn’t just a budgetary woe for underfunded SMBs, but a hotbed of very concerning spam. As my friends at NearMedia point out in the foregoing article, LSA’s review requirements are a temptation to engage in review spam, and both fake businesses and fake review content are ending up getting recommended by Google in this program. If you’re thinking of paying Google for leads, please read Ben Fisher’s alarming piece on LSA arbitrage and spam, complete with real-world examples of some very deceptive ads. At this point, I don’t trust Google’s “guarantee” any more than I do the local packs…I’ve just seen too much fraud to pretend that such content is uniformly trustworthy. Not to say that Google isn’t making some efforts, including:
Emergency brakes during spam attacks
Another doff of the cap to Colan Nielsen for sharing a new Google doc explaining why and how they may suspend user generated content (UGC) including reviews, images, and videos during upticks in prohibited behavior. For example, if a business becomes major controversial news and begins to receive a large number of reviews from non-customers, Google can pull the emergency brake for a period of time to defend the brand (and the quality of the index).
This capability is not new, but the documentation of the practice is noteworthy. The problem is, it’s no guarantee that Google will protect you from a spam attack. Remember that review spam may not always consist of a bunch of obviously negative reviews. There’s the erosion tactic of leaving a lot of 4-star reviews to downgrade the 5-star rating of a business, and another trick I only recently encountered of spammers initially leaving a high-star review and then sneakily changing it to a low-star one. All good reasons to continuously monitor your reviews, using software if you find this task too time-consuming. And be prepared to act quickly with this step-by-step Mike Blumenthal tutorial if your business is sabotaged
Two scoops of juicy justifications
Damian Rollison brings us some better news about UGC this quarter, in the form of double local business justifications (some of which stem from reviews) appearing on listings. Justifications are textual snippets embellishing local business listings, like the, “My whole family uses them for car repairs,” shown above.
In my 2021 column, Local Justifications are a Big Deal and You Can Influence Them, I documented the different types of justifications I saw, including reviews, websites, posts, services, menus, in-stock, and sold here. At that time, however, all justifications I encountered in my study were single. Damian’s find is exciting because of the large amount of screen space being given to a double justification, with its dual conversion pitches. Have you written a Google post lately (actually, they are confusingly called “updates” now, so have you updated your GBP with an update, lately?). Double justifications would be well worth the effort, if you’re lucky enough to get them.
Immersive views for big buildings
When I was a child, my family had a coffee table book called Above London which showcased aerial photography of the capitol. Now, everyone and their cousin can buy a drone to get these kinds of shots, but lovers of new things will appreciate this tweet from Punit of the 360 Map View that Google then talked about as “immersive view” at their memorable Paris announcement. Looking up the Getty Museum in LA on Google Maps showed me that many big buildings in the area have this treatment. If your local business is contained within a landmark edifice, you could get this eagle’s eye view of where you work.
In non-Google news
Yelp has really struggled of late to compete with Google for local mindshare, but the fellows at Near Media drew my attention to a new report from the National Bureau of Economic research finding that restaurants which get listed on Yelp see a 5% increase in sales. In fact, even if your first reviews aren’t great, you still get a bump in diners. The restaurant business is HARD and that 5% could mean a great deal.
Actually, success is always the great challenge for nearly any local business, and that brings me to my last tidbit: the new, must-read report from the Institute of Local Self Reliance on the impact of dollar stores in the US. I have read countless articles over the past few years from towns and cities where dollar stores replaced all local variety and residents are stuck with little fresh food, dismal wages, and a loss of community identity. In 2022, nearly half of the businesses that opened in the US were some type of dollar store - an unprecedented figure, and these exemplars of the race to the bottom are the exact opposite of what independent businesses are working so hard to build.
I said this was non-Google news, but I’ve come to see Google Business Profiles as some of the best armor an SMB owner can don in the fight against lowered standards of living across the country. Use your profiles, and your website, and your social media to get the word out that your business is unique, local, ethical, green, family-owned, and a key contributor to the economic localism that makes the difference between a good place to live and a difficult place to be. Keep going, and I’ll be rooting for you in Q2!