The Google “Bedlam” / Local Search Update of November 2019
November has been a crazy month in terms of rankings volatility in local searches related to Google My Business listings, with some websites moving up and down in the SERP, without making any changes to their content. SEO experts across the web have concluded that this is the result of major updates to the Google local search algorithm. But since the trends are still reversing, from sharp falls in rankings one day, to sudden rises the next, it has been almost impossible to understand what exactly is going on and when the update will be completely rolled out.
So much so, that Joy Hawkins, an important expert in the SEO community, has dubbed the change “the Bedlam update” (where the term bedlam has been used to refer to a mental institution in the past, or at least to define a chaotic state of play). Google only confirmed the update at the beginning of December, leaving specialists and website owners in the dark for most of November. The official name they gave this update is Nov.2019 Local Search Update.
This most recent evolution has to do with local searches. Starting November 5th, many Google My Business accounts have been experiencing extreme changes with no apparent rule behind them. Some who had held strong positions on certain keywords for years were severely demoted, while on some particular days, spam entries and fake locations gained visibility on the Google Map and took their place. Then the trend would be partly inverted and the spammers removed. If you were a small business owner with a listing in Google My Business, you may have felt this in the dwindling numbers of clicks from Google referrals as well as in the GMB stats. In some cases, this is sure to have had an important impact on business as usual.
Local oriented searches are a big part of the Google universe right now. With the ubiquitous presence of smartphones, a change in search intentions was expected. People who now use Google on their phones often perform locally oriented search queries in order to find the closest business that suits their immediate needs.
And there are a few very interesting stats to back that up. Lindsay Kolowich put together a list of such stats on Hubspot, in June 2019, aggregated from other sources. According to this list, 46% of all Google searches are looking for local information. And these are not just informative searches, but action oriented, which means they hold great value. In fact, another stat in the list claims that a whopping 88% of searches for local businesses are followed by the user calling or visiting one of those businesses in the following 24 hours.
So it is fair to say that these local listings are of great value for local enterprises, large and small. With Christmas just around the corner, we are looking at a crucial time to be visible online and offline, with many business owners relying heavily on festive season sales. All the more reason for them to stay on alert for Google algorithm updates that might change the way things work.
How does the most recent Google algorithm update of 2019 impact local searches
As a website owner or an agency working for others, there is not much that you can do until this volatility settles down and we can draw some conclusions. Until then, you should not make any panic moves and just check that you are in line with the official recommendations on the Google support page, which has a section on improving local ranking.
There is a “holy trinity” of factors listed there, that are a clear indication of how the local search algorithm works, but the weight of any one of these three factors in the algorithm is unknown. Some were suspecting that the bedlam update is changing the weight distribution between these three:
Relevance - there is not much you can do in terms of relevance except make sure that your account has as much filled in information as possible. Google will determine relevance based on the information it retrieves from these details and decide whether it is relevant in connection to the search query
Distance - once again, there is nothing you can do about this. Some black hat SEO “experts” may try to trick the system by adding tons of fake locations across a city or even an entire country, to raise the odds of showing for a local search. Some of these businesses may actually have no office at all. Their success is probably short lived as they risk being reported by other users.
Prominence - this is something built in time and it has to do with branding and the reputation that a company has been slowly strengthening
Update: as of December 2, Google has released a statement explaining that local search results (based on Google My Business listings) have begun making use of neural matching, therefore causing major changes to the ”relevance” factor.
What does this neural matching mean for your business listing?
It means that there is a step forward being made and that local searches will no longer rely only on exact words matching between the query and the listings in order to determine relevance. It means that the system learns from previous queries and understands the intention of the people performing the searches. It can also do semantic analysis and look for certain textual structures in the local business details.
In this context, Google has recommended precisely what we were underlining earlier: that business owners do nothing new. They should only make sure they give accurate, relevant and complete information in their profiles. The algorithm will do the rest. One thing that we can add is that website owners should not over-optimize, in the sense of stuffing keywords in their business names or other fields in their profiles.
Google SearchLiaison representative Danny Sullivan answered a question on Twitter saying exactly that the update is “helping businesses not feel pressure they have to shove every keyword into their name”.
While Google has also stated that the main work on the algorithm has ended, they will be actively improving the system in the near future, which means rankings may still go up and down a lot for local searches. Many users are still reporting unusual top results in local search, some of them potentially spam:
Latest Google update doesn’t solve spam listings
As reported by many users, there are a lot of problems with the relevance and honesty of some of the listings on Google My Business. And the November 2019 update has not solved this yet. Browsing through the Google Map, you may find some of the following patterns:
Stuffing keywords (usually location oriented) in the business name, even if they are not part of the official name
Fake locations on the map. How can they add fake locations if they need to confirm them using the code in the Google postcard? The most common way is to simply rent a P.O. box or to have the postcard directed to a residential home, rather than a staffed office. In some cases, if verifying the address does not work using the postcard code, Google will allow the location to be verified by phone, once more enabling scammers to show up for a location they don’t actually own.
Listings imitating other businesses and redirecting to competitor phone numbers in order to steal customers
Multiple location SAB(service area based) listings, in order to rank in more areas. It is true that, for some types of activities, the business address is not relevant, if the customer wouldn’t normally need to visit the location. Take the example of a plumber who would work at his clients’ locations, not at his/her office. For these situations, the business has the option to hide the address in GMB and, instead, show an area that they service. This is being abused by some.
Referring to the last one on this list, the only way you are allowed to have multiple locations is if these are separately managed and staffed and are registered under different business names. A franchise is one such example that does not violate the rules.
Several groups on the internet are trying to fight this by encouraging users to double check the validity of map locations and business information on Google, before contacting a business. One simple way to do it is to use the Street View in order to see if there is a sign advertising the business at that address, and if the name on that sign is correct. If users suspect that the business is using any misleading tactics in order to rank higher in the local search rankings, they are encouraged to report this or edit the entry to reflect the correct information.