By Kelly Marcus
Within the past week, Google altered its local pack—the above-the-fold display of business listings for local-related searches—by trimming the typical seven listings to just three. This represents another nod to the importance of the mobile user experience while offering more SERP opportunities for organic results and paid ads.
These local listings traditionally included a business name, address, phone number and a link to the business’s Google+ page. While additions to the listings include images and hours of operation, phone numbers, full addresses and Google+ page links are no longer shown.
Clicking on the three-pack now takes users to a new Local Finder page that includes seven above-the-fold listings alongside a large map. These listings seem similar to the old seven-pack and include a complete address, phone number, hours of operation, and a website link. This expanded view may be Google’s attempt at offering the dropped businesses the opportunity to maintain some visibility and website traffic.
The new three-pack more closely resembles the hotel local pack, which is considered a separate entity. Both local packs only include three local listings with limited address information. Hotel local packs also include a room rate, thumbnail image and a more detailed description of the hotel including amenities and its star rating.
The fact that more searches now occur on mobile devices most likely played a significant role in Google’s decision to create a local search interface that displays well on both desktop and mobile devices. With the same interface used across devices, the businesses that maintain their rank at the top of the local pack will most likely see traffic and good rankings across desktop and mobile.
This is one of the first instances of Google modifying desktop search with mobile usability in mind. As most mobile queries have local intent, it makes sense that the local pack update was one of the first changes that Google adopted. As mobile search continues to surpass desktop, Google may alter its desktop interface further to align more closely with the mobile search experience.
Despite the similarities between the two device interfaces, one significant difference is the absence of phone numbers within the desktop three-pack. On desktop searches, each listing includes a website link and directions link (with the exception of restaurants, which tend to include a thumbnail image instead). On mobile, this spot is taken up only with a click-to-call button. Businesses in the local pack will most likely see a sharp increase in direct calls as well as a possible increase in desktop website traffic as users now have to click through to find detailed contact information.
The three-pack update presents new desktop organic search opportunities as there is more SERP real estate available. Previously, the seven-pack took up the majority of the above-the-fold space, but the 3-pack now allows enough space for one to three organic listings. In some cases, a single organic listing is even placed above the three-pack, potentially leading to an increase in traffic to the website holding that #1 position.
While it may seem that Google is making up for the reduction in business listings with increased organic results, the top results for local searches such as “sushi restaurants” or “hardware stores” tend to go to directory sites such as Yelp. In the cases of specific businesses returning in the top three organic results, they tend to also be listed in the three-pack and, therefore, will gain twice as much visibility as before. For example, a search of “shoe stores” returns DSW as both the 1st local-pack listing and 1st organic result, leading to twice as much visibility then with the seven-pack format.
Alongside increased organic potential, the three-pack update allows for more paid search opportunities. The map is currently placed either above the three-pack or absent, leaving the right half of the SERP to be populated with paid ads. On average, a local query can return one to eight above-the-fold paid ads. While this update seems to be focus on organic local search, it is no doubt Google’s intention to offer users more opportunities to click on paid ads, and increase their revenue in doing so.
In addition to dropping businesses from the local pack, this update seems to be placing small businesses without a website at a disadvantage. Previously, small businesses that did not have a budget for a stand-alone website could use their Google My Business page as a substitute, as it included business information and was linked to from local results. Now, Google does not appear to include any businesses in the local pack unless they have a separate website. While this mirrors Google’s previous commitment to providing users with the best experience, it seems to be a step in the wrong direction from the company’s stance on supporting small businesses that have a limited marketing budgets.
As with most local search updates, businesses should ensure their Google My Business listings are accurate and up-to-date, paying specific attention to hours of operations as this is a new element of local pack listings. Businesses should also ensure their phone number is accurate and directs users to a real person and not an automated caller response service.
As a way to battle the reduced local pack visibility and take advantage of the new organic opportunities, businesses should continue to produce and distribute local-specific content. Local content is one of the strongest influencers of local search, and with the 3-pack update, it is even more essential to a local SEO strategy.
To take advantage of the increased paid search opportunities, businesses may way to review their Google AdWords strategy to ensure they are bidding on the proper non-branded searches to make up for the lack of listings and capitalize on the increase in paid ads displayed in SERPs.
To monitor the effects of this update, businesses should look for sharp fluctuations in their organic website traffic, both on desktop and mobile. Businesses should also pay close attention to any increases in direct calls as a result of the changes to the mobile local pack.
Kelly is an SEO Analyst on the Travel Team at Acronym Media. Kelly supports the team in executing a variety of efforts including on-page, off-page, and technical optimizations with special focus on local search optimization. She has enhanced the SEO strategy for high-profile clients such as Four Seasons, Viceroy Hotels & Resorts, and Denihan Hotel Group.
Prior to Acronym, Kelly graduated from Penn State University in 2014 with degrees in Public Relations and Psychology. She has past experience in public relations, marketing, paid search, and social media.