What's the Future of Google's Local Search?

Highlights of Google Maps over the past five years and predictions on where it's going.

Google is making a powerful push to become the undeniable leader in providing local business information to online searchers. In the past year, Google has made the greatest concentration of changes and testing regarding Google Maps since it first made its appearance in 2004 as Google Local, and the rate of change has accelerated greatly over the past three months.

I have absolutely no inside information from Google Maps. This is simply speculation based on five years of watching and listening to what goes on at Maps. Here are the highlights:

In February 2009, Google began testing what has since been dubbed as the K Pack, where the maps that appeared next to the 10 pack in the Web results began showing additional markers — not just those for the businesses listed in the 10 pack but also for other nearby businesses that didn’t make it into that enviable position. This is useful for searchers who may be more interested in a business’ location than anything else. It’s also good for all businesses listed in Google Maps, except for those that already appear in the local pack.

In April 2009, Google began showing the Local 10 Pack for searches that didn’t include geo-modifiers. This sweeping change rattled the world of local search and clearly signaled Google’s confidence in its ability to interpret local search intent.

In June 2009, Google instituted new Local Business Listing reports. These reports appeared only to those who claimed their listing and showed rudimentary data regarding impressions, Web site visits, requests for driving directions, and the terms used in searches for which their listing was seen. Tracking Local Search is a fractious puzzle and this addition allows Google to better show the value of a Maps listing to business owners, whether they have a Web site or not.

In October 2009, the Google Local 10 Pack became the seven pack. The first reactions were that it was simply done to make room for the new Local Listing Ads (see below). However, the seven pack actually takes up the same amount of real estate in the SERPs (define) as the 10 pack did. Reducing the crowding does make the remaining information easier to read. Perhaps the thinking is the listings will get more attention with more “white space” in them.

Google suspended the creation of the traditional local business ads in AdWords accounts and began testing flat rate Local Listing Ads in certain niches in the San Diego and San Francisco markets. Ads were priced by category and location and the monthly cost remained the same regardless of the number of prospects delivered to a business’ Web site, place page, or phone. Google also tested Google Voice call tracking in conjunction with the flat rate ads, which was required. The testing wound down in December, but the concept will be rolled out again in more markets as soon as Google gets it running the way it likes.

Google also briefly tested displaying the seven pack without including phone numbers in the listings. The phone numbers went missing for less than a day. Matt McGee received this statement from Google in response to his inquiry about it: “For a few hours this morning phone numbers were not displayed as part of local universal search results on Google. This was a small bug, and we quickly fixed it.” However, some people (including me) think Google was testing to see how click-through and call-through rates in the seven pack and the Local Listing Ads were affected by the change.

In October 2009, Google also published new Business Listing Quality Guidelines that make it very clear what is and is not acceptable in Google Maps listings going forward. This sets the stage for aggressive spam scouring within the Local Business Listings. We can only hope Google is moving quickly on this front and putting some teeth behind it. Spammers have little incentive to cease and desist without feeling real pain and others need to see more fairness in the system if Google is to get widespread respect and recognition as the best source of information about local businesses.

In late November 2009, Google began testing another type of display for some AdWords pay per click ads. The ads show up with a blue balloon and appear in the sponsored search area, some above the seven pack and some in the right column. They display the business’ full address and phone number, along with the ad copy, and are no doubt part of the process for deciding whether AdWords, Local Listing Ads, or some new hybrid will rule their advertising for local businesses.

Google is clearly looking for a winning combination of local ads and local business listings to display when queries for local business products and services are made. We don’t know if it will be a different display for different people, places, and industries or if it will be standardized. However, it’s obvious that we’re in the midst of a sea change for local search at Google. Keep your ear to the ground, stay flexible and hold on for the ride!


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