Google search changes again. There are Panda changes and Penguin changes, now Hummingbird changes, and Google has removed keywords from our Analytics, and we have to figure out what to do with Google+ and Google Local Business listings aka Google+ Local (or is it Google+ Local Business Pages this week?). What is an innkeeper to do? How can you keep up with all the changes, in order to make sure your business is successful?
As one of my teachers (far too long ago, now) used to say, “When you are up to your ears in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp.” He meant, of course, that the pesky details that force themselves on your attention will often keep your focus away from your real objective. In this case, the details of each change in the online marketplace can keep you from working toward your ultimate goal.
More Google search changes
In addition to the changes mentioned in the opening paragraph, there are two very recent major changes from Google that clamor for your attention. The first, and older of the two, is the carousel in local search. Not all searches result in a carousel, but this is changing and growing as Google rolls it out. It places a black-bordered filmstrip-style carousel at the top of the search results, with photos related to the search result to catch your eye. The second is that Google has made all searches “secure” searches (meaning they use a secure https connection), with the result that Google no longer reports keywords from its searches in Google Analytics.
Neither of these two changes is minor. Being in the carousel means you show up (with a photo) at the top of the search results. Historically, we’ve considered how we rank in the search results (SERPs) for particular keywords – not knowing the keywords people use could be a big problem.
We can choose to focus on these alligator problems, and work hard to trick Google into giving us what we want, or we can go on with draining the swamp so we can overcome any such issues.
These two new changes are opposite sides of the same Search Engine Optimization (SEO) coin. The carousel is driven by various search ranking criteria (like keywords, links to your site, reviews, etc.) that Google uses to determine the results. Keeping the keywords from Analytics impacts how we can evaluate our SEO efforts.
We can spend time trying to get into the carousel, which may work well, until Google changes the way it handles the search results. We can try some techniques to recapture some of the keyword data in Analytics, which is fine, until the next change which alters that. At best, then, these would be short-term solutions.
What is the “drain the swamp” or longer-term solution?
There is both a general answer, and a more specific answer with several specific parts. The general answer is that Google has told us, for quite a number of years now, that quality pages (rather than pages stuffed with keywords, for example) would rank well. Continuing to use high-quality pages will help. Google has also created its Business Pages to allow businesses to claim them and complete all the information that Google wants to have so it can deliver high-quality search results for searches (including local and mobile searches). Doing the things Google has suggested to provide them with that information will help you rank well in the search results, including local and maps results. Ranking well there is the stepping-stone to the carousel.
Here’s how you can build quality content for Google’s search and local results:
- Create content that is relevant to the searches you expect visitors to use (to see how frequently a particular search is used, if you have an AdWords account – even if it is not currently active – use the Keyword Planner tool under the Tools and Analysis menu)
- Make sure your content contains keywords that show the relevance of your pages (just because Google doesn’t show us keyword data doesn’t mean they don’t continue to use it – and a recently-released report shows that Bing still relies on keyword content, too)
Create unique and relevant page titles for each of your pages (Google may rewrite them in the SERPs, but the better yours is, the better chance you have of a visitor clicking on it)
- Make sure the page URLs are descriptive, but not stuffed with keywords. Definitely don’t use parameters (like www.example.com/?q=2134)
- Use Google Authorship by putting Author and Publisher tags on your pages so Google will associate the page with your Google+ account and business page
- Claim your Google+ Business listing and complete all the information requested, and include high quality photographs of your business (if you get in the carousel, these will be used there), then follow others, encourage guests to follow and +1 your posts, etc.
- Make sure you have a +1 button and a Google+ share button on your website to encourage guests to share – both Google and Bing use these social signals in determining placement.
Encourage guests to review you on Google. Google didn’t build all that review capability for no reason. Reviews are a strong signal of your relevance and value.
How does this play out in real life?
First of all, of course, this is all dependent on how you implement the different steps, and what Google decides to do with them. Consequently, no one, not even the person who cold calls you claiming they can, can guarantee to get you better placement. Imagine, if everyone in your town did everything perfectly, who would be on top? Exactly.
And, of course, there are different ways of looking at who is on top. On top for what phrase? In what type of search? There are types of searches? Who knew?
For now, we’ll explore this outside of the carousel. By experimenting, phrases of the form “location lodging” (e.g., “chicago lodging” or “new orleans lodging”) usually bring up a carousel. Except in areas with smaller population, these carousels don’t usually include B&B’s.
Going to Google search from a laptop, with cookies and cache cleared, and searching one of the areas of the country with a high number of B&B’s, we get a commonly-found search result form (right). Our phrase, “door county bed and breakfast” brought up ads at the top, followed by three organic listings and the local “7 pack” (letters A – G from the map), and then additional organic results.
Doing the same search with Maps (clicking on the Maps link at the top, the map at right in the organic results, or the link at the bottom saying “See these results on a map”) yields a slightly different result. The first 8 spots (A – G) are the same as the 7 pack, except that the first two places are reversed (A in the 7 pack is B on maps, while B in the 7 pack is A on maps).
And then there is mobile search. Sometimes in the past, mobile search was different. Some time ago, it started to look suspiciously like the Maps search. Now it is identical to the 7 pack mixed into the organic results. That may mean that the top organic search results (the three above the 7 pack) do not show up in the mobile search unless/until they would appear on the map.
What does all that mean? Google search changes frequently, so the answer may be a moving target. However, looking at these results, it seems that whatever else is going on, the number and quality of Google reviews is important, but it is not the determining factor of placement. That is, reviews are important and you should have them, but they will not guarantee placement.
It seems to be the understanding of most search experts that the carousel takes its results from local results. That, and the high ranking in mobile, means that getting high local ranking is the best thing you can do for your search traffic.
How do you improve your local ranking? Follow the steps outlined above. Pay particular attention to quality of content, authorship, claiming your local business page, and social media signals.