What a loaded question.
For those of you that don’t know what the “Pigeon” update is, let’s start there.
Pigeon was the code name given to the local algorithm (or “equation” for non techies) update Google released on July 24th 2014 that affects local searches specifically. What does that mean for you, the local business? It means that any search terms you come up for on Google in your city were affected. If you were ranking well before, you may not be ranking well now, and vice versa. Your competitors also may have gained a lot on their Google ranking or slid. Not everyone’s rankings made a drastic change but if you keep a close watch on your industry/city Google results, you’ll likely notice that these results changed at least a little bit on that day and for some industries and cities, changed dramatically.
We’re not going to use this article to examine the effects of Pigeon which have been heavily documented already. Here are some links to great articles on that already:
- Google “Pigeon” Updates Local Search Algorithm With Stronger Ties To Web Search Signal
- Experts Weigh In On Google’s “Pigeon” Update Aimed At Improving Local Search Results
- Pigeon Advice from Top Local SEOs and a Pigeon-Proofing Checklist
For this article, all you need to know is that effectively, what Pigeon did, was shake up the Local SEO universe to the point where we’re now reevaluating how the local algorithm or equation works. Before Pigeon, the Local SEO community felt like they had a pretty good grasp on what worked and what didn’t. If you focused on what I call the 5 Pillars of Local SEO (Google My Business Page, Citations, Online Reviews, What Your Website Says About You, What Other Websites Are Saying About You), you were bound to do well.
Now, however, with the seeming “shift” in the local algorithm, the local SEO community is starting to question what is working and what isn’t working as many local businesses actually dropped out the Google results when Pigeon hit while others gained.
The recent analyzation of local results and why Google ranks local businesses in the order that they do Post-Pigeon has left a lot of people puzzled. Particularly, why are certain people ranking in the local pack but not in the organic section?
Why is this a big deal?
Because beforehand, if you ranked well in the organic section, you normally ranked well in the local section.
“Organic Section” & “Local Pack Section” Defined
First off, I want to define the “local pack section” vs the “organic section” for those of you that don’t understand what all this means.
Here’s a screenshot of a normal Google search results page for “Roofing Dallas TX”
The red section is what is traditionally called the “organic section”. The green section is what is traditionally called the “local pack section” or results. The blue section are ads controlled by Google’s Adwords product but we’re not covering that here. I just thought it would be a helpful education piece.
Why the distinction between the red and green section?
Because the two sections look very different and are actually governed by different algorithms or equations.
If you notice, the “organic section” (red box) has the title of the website, the URL (or website address), and a description. Contrast that to the “local pack section” (green box) where the title is actually the business name, the URL or website address is still present, but there is the noticeable lack of a description as well as the addition of a link to their Google+ page and Google reviews as well as a listing of their physical address and their phone number.
As you can see, these sections are different.
The two sections are also under the governance of two different algorithms and are consequently affected by different ranking signals. While the two algorithms are relatively similar, the “local pack section” (green box) algorithm or equation encompasses all of the ranking factors of the “organic section” (red box) such as how appropriate and relative your website is plus a few more signals such as the aforementioned Google My Business Page, Citations, & Online Reviews.
In simple terms, the green section looks at the same ranking signals the red section looks at, plus a few more.
Pre-Pigeon, the local pack algorithm or “local algorithm” actually relied very heavily on the organic algorithm that affected the “organic section“.
Post-Pigeon, however, people are starting to wonder whether new ranking factors are being heavily considered that we don’t know about yet due to the flux of changes reported when Pigeon went live. Local business rankings on Google flew all over the place. Some local business saw their Google ranking go up, some down, while some oddly stayed the same.
Let’s examine this in a little bit more detail.
What Are The Different Signals Post-Pigeon?
I would personally go way far out, on a limb, and say there aren’t any. Google may have slipped a few new ones in there but none that are making a dramatic difference I don’t think.
For those of you that don’t believe me, just stick with me, I promise it will make sense when I’m done.
When Google released Pigeon they noted two distinct things:
- That the new local algorithm now ties deeper into their web search capabilities (green section).
- The the new local local algorithm improves Google’s distance and location ranking parameters.
While Google isn’t bound by law to release every little detail on everything they changed, I think it would be safe to take them at their word on this update. I don’t think they added anything major and I do think the major change here was a deeper tie of the green section to the red section.
Then why the confusion? Why are search results dramatically different than they were before? And particularly, why are some people ranking in the local pack of search results and not in the organic section? If Google really initiated a deeper tie of the green section to the red section, then why are we seeing the exact opposite in some instances ala people showing up in the green section and then on page 10 of the red section.
Pigeon’s Cousin: Penguin
Pigeon and Penguin aren’t really that related. It’s kind of like your cousin’s cousin-by-marriage who shows up to the annual July 4th family BBQ and while talking to him you keep thinking to yourself, “Who do you know here again?”
Penguin is Google’s code name for one of their penalties.
There are really only 2 penalties, more or less, that we’re aware of (the other is lovingly labeled “Panda”). Penguin exists, as a surface level explanation, to punish people blatantly trying to game Google’s ranking system.
Now, don’t start worrying. If you’re a local business and the phrases “Black Hat SEO”, “PBN”, “Link Exchanges”, & “Optimized Anchor Text” don’t mean anything to you, you’re safe.
This penalty really only exists to catch the hardcore SEO’s that are trying to game the system. It is highly, highly unlikely that you as a local business would ever run afoul of this penalty.
However, it’s worth knowing about as Penguin is probably the culprit of you not being able to understand why one of your competitors ranks really well in the local pack but not in the organic section.
Unbeknownst to almost the entire local SEO community it seems, Penguin actually doesn’t affect the local search results. The local pack seems to act like a buffer against it. Which is extremely odd as you would think Google would make sure anyone caught by Penguin was banished from all ability to rank well.
The “buffer” we’re talking about means that if you were penalized by Penguin and took a death drop to the bottom of the red section (page 4 or worse), you would still survive in the green section. Odd, right?
If you were to go back and type in “roofing dallas tx” into Google and you knew what to look for, you would see that a whopping 5 out of the 7 businesses in the local pack don’t rank well organically (4th page of Google or further) while they rank very, very well in the local section.
You can see how this would create tremendous confusion among the local SEO community when the rule we knew before to be true which was, “If you rank well in the organic section you will rank well in the local section,” now seems to be utterly wrong (also, props to Linda Buquet of Catalyst Marketing for being the first person to really push this theory that I was aware of, even if I didn’t agree at the time I became a believer Linda!)
I actually was fooled a bit myself for a awhile. I even started doing an analysis of certain cities and industries after Pigeon hit because I was so confused. After about an hour of looking at Facebook likes, social metrics, Google+ driving direction requests, and anything else Google may be taking more into account, I decided to start checking into the penalty issue on a hunch.
Amazingly, in every city/industry I checked, every single search result could be explained through this explanation: if Company A was ranking high in the local pack but not in organic, they were under a Penguin penalty.
I would check for a Penguin penalty and 99% of the time, sure enough, they had been hit by Penguin.
They had hired some Local SEO companies to engage in tactics that Google had deemed unworthy of their search results and had popped them.
They got caught.
In fact, if we go back to the “roofing dallas tx” screenshot, those same 5 of the 7 of the local businesses in the local pack are under a Penguin penalty right now.
Considering the local pack acts as a buffer and protects the local business from getting penalized from Penguin, this explains 99% of the local results I’m seeing.
It explains the discrepancy between why local businesses can rank in the local pack but not in the organic section.
My conclusion is that, for the most part, nothing has changed. Everything is still ruled by the red section. If you rank well there, you will rank well in the local pack unless you’re penalized. In fact, I think Google’s release notes further cement this by admitting there’s a closer tie to traditional web rankings now more than ever.
While there are rumors of wild fluctuations in rankings on a day to day basis, almost every search result I have seen, 99% I would say, can be explained through this theory.
If you’re a local business and would like me to do an analysis of your particular market to see if this is true of you, just drop a comment at the bottom here and in it make sure you tell me the search phrase you typed into Google and the 7 business websites that are ranking for you in the local pack.
Also, if you just want to say something, feel free
While the University and our blog is all for local businesses, I do have a few follow up articles that aren’t appropriate for this audience that go into further, nerdy, techie-SEO detail, such as:
- Testing a few of these examples out in a detailed case study.
- How can you tell if you have a Penguin penalty?
- What about the other 1%? (explained through exact matches)
- Why is this now just happening after Pigeon? (that’s a myth actually, it’s always been happening it’s just getting larger press now)
- Spammy listings are now showing back up Post-Pigeon, what does this mean?
- “The the new local local algorithm improves their distance and location ranking parameters” this is actually happening and there are examples out there of this I can show. Might would blow your mind.
- Old, penalized, or “stuck” listings are showing again Post-Pigeon. What does that mean?
- The lack of focus on backlinks from the Local SEO community and why that is an issue.
I wouldn’t mind guest blogging for your blog on any of these topics. They’re great topics which will reveal a lot about Pigeon & Penguin but they are just inappropriate for the audience of any blogs that I manage. If you would like this content on your website, send in a contact form or email me at joshua.mackens at tutelarymarketing.com and we’ll work something out.