Many Google Places Searches Are Showing an Increased Radius For Search Results

It appears that Google has again increased the search radius for a large number of “search phrase + city” searches

Since the spring of last year, Google has been reducing the radius for displaying results on many local searches. Effectively this meant that businesses outside  the smaller radius would no longer show a pinned result. I had investigated this problem in searches as varied as “Jewerly Buffalo NY”, “Personal Injury Attorney Anchorage”, “Bankruptcy Attorney Charlotte”, “New Orleans Divorce” and “DC Accident Attorney” amongst others. In each of these cases businesses that had once shown up in the Google Places Search results were no longer found. Frequently they had dropped as many as 40 or 50 places on their head terms only.

Uniformly it appeared that Google had increased the “location sensitivity” of the search limiting which businesses would be seen. This affect has been noted in a number of industries and Google had spoken about their testing of this on NPR.

Brian Combs of Ionadas.com alerted me that the radius had once again increased to show search results from a much broader map area. In the five cases that I had looked at, the businesses that had been dropped with the decreased radius, once again showed up on the map and in the search.

Here is an screen shot of the map that showed for the search area that presented during last year and the search area presented as of yesterday on the search “Jewerly Buffalo NY“. Note the dramatic increase in distance from the centroid and the number of included pins in the newest results. Under the previous reduced radius only businesses in very close proximity to the centroid were shown. (click to view larger):

Linda Buquet documented the reduced search area in her October post  Google Places Algorithm Change – New Proximity Lockout Algo Can Cause Major Ranking Drop. The reduced radius had also been noted by Andrew Shotland in June of 2011. The reduced radius appeared to rollout in different markets at different times but its return has occurred on all of the searches I examined simultaneously.

What is going on?

In the examples that I looked at (“Jewelers Buffalo NY”, “Personal Injury Attorneys Anchorage” or “Bankruptcy Lawyers Charlotte”) were all head term, primary keyword/category searches. It effectively left some businesses without a front page presence for their primary high traffic terms that were previously ranking well.

At the time Linda Buquet suggested that Google had created a new algo. I have also heard the reduced radius referred to as a filter. However it is much more likely that Google has tweaked their existing “Location Sensitivity” routines either manually or automatically to provide new results.

“Location sensitivity” is a concept from Google’s Patent: Methods and Systems for Improving A Search Ranking using Location Awareness”. First filed in 2006 and approved in 2009, Bill Slawsky covered the details of this patent in December of 2006 .

According to the patent, Location Sensitivity is a score that may be a “function of the topic, the search query or query terms, the user or user profile, the location associated with the query or a cluster of the search results or any umber of other factors”.

The patent notes: “For example, location component may determine that users are generally more location sensitive for the topic “pizza” than for the topic “automobiles/cars,” so that users may generally be interested in documents on the topic of “automobiles/cars” that are far(ther) away from their location, whereas users may generally only be interested in documents on the topic of “pizza” that are near(er) to their location.”

Thus for any given combination of product-service + geo search the radius for the returned results can either be smaller or larger. For a highly location sensitive search that has a high number of results in a small area the radius will be smaller. For a low location sensitive search with the few results spread far and wide, the radius will be larger.

This can vary by things as diverse at the density of the geography, the density of the businesses within the geography or the clustering of those businesses in a small area. It can vary by the geo search term used defining a different sensitivity (ie radius) for zip code than city or neighborhood for example. As Bill pointed out in a recent email, it could even be affected by users retrieving more driving directions.

In the case of mobile, Google has publicly acknowledged testing and tweaking the distance of the radius on these types of search, making it significantly smaller and it is possible that they were testing the same thing on the desktop. If you haven’t listened to this interview, you should.

It could be that Google is increasing the radius as much as they are decreasing it due to the factors above. I and others in the search business are more likely to get called when a business ranking drops thus the samples set I look at was biased. The fact that it has only been noted within the last 8-10 months and by so many others, it seems likely that the radius was in fact getting smaller on some subset of searches and has once again gotten larger. Regardless if it happens to your listing on a critical search phrase it sucks. And just like the radius has again increased, it can decrease.

How can you tell if your client is suffering from the effect of increased location sensitivity and a reduced radius go forward?

First and foremost it is necessary to distinguish this situation from a penalty. Unlike a penalty, the listing will still rank for longer tail, less competitive categories or perhaps suburban or neighborhood terms. If the listing was previously showing for a primary category/city search and is now only still showing on lower volume terms then you need to consider the likelihood that the location sensitivity of your query has been increased and the search radius has been reduced.

There is a technique in Google Maps that allows a map to show a primary keyword search result plus a second search for the business on the same map. Perform the primary search, switch and create a business search. Then select the previous search from the drop down below the Map/Satelite icon so that both sets of pins are one the map. It may then be necessary to zoom out to see both search results simultaneously.

It will be quickly apparent with this technique that you are outside the radius of the main search results.

Why the results do not always serve the searcher

Google’s focus over the past 10 months on such a narrow cluster of listings is often not in the best interest of the searcher. While it might serve the mobile searcher it is much more problematic for the desktop searcher. For example in my Buffalo Jewelry example, Buffalo attracts shoppers from a wide geographic area stretching about 100 miles in any direction. My family lives 75 miles south of the city and when we say that we are going shopping in Buffalo, we usually mean to the eastern suburbs, outside the search radius. We don’t even know the names of the suburbs in that area to be able to do a more granular search. Going downtown as suggested by the search is not common nor is the selection of jewelry stores as great.

Google’s ranking algo has always had an element of distance from the center of the search area as an element in ranking. While location sensitivity could and does occur around pockets of businesses NOT in the centroid it is uncommon due to historical development patterns. This reduction of radius tends to amplify this affect, creating ever more pressure for scammers to put listings near the centroid. This may have the affect of reinforcing and perhaps even causing the tendency to reduce the search radius as more (fake) businesses are closer to the center . The technique may work in a dense urban area like NYC but in car dependent cities like Buffalo it doesn’t offer up a wide enough range of choices in the search results.

How do you cope if it happens to you?

Like taxes and the weather, there is a certain inevitability to Google. It can be frustrating and tempting to lament your loss. Sometimes though it is easier to find alternative strategies for continued success. Here are some ideas if it happens to your listing in the future:

*Be sure that your listing is not being penalized or being affected by one of the many other Google Places quirks.

See above

*Attempt to knock spammers out of Google Places so that there are fewer businesses inside the smaller radius.

Gav Heppinstall did just that and wrote it up in his post: Google Places – Cracking the Proximity Lockout Algo. We don’t know the minimum number of businesses that Google needs to create decrease or increase sensitivity. But Gav demonstrated that in at least one case, it was only necessary to knock one spammer out of the game for Google to increase the radius.

*Be sure the your website is optimized and ranks well for the phrases that you lost in local. 

With the new reduced footprint of the Local results, there is once again good opportunity for doing well in organic search phrases. If you can’t succeed in the particular local search due to vagaries of location sensitivity, you can still do well organically.

*Explore alternative categories for Google Places that are valuable and show a map that includes your location.

In the case of Barbara Oliver we switched our focus to engagement rings and diamond jewelry. While the traffic was significantly less the quality, profit per sale and conversions were much higher. It behooves you to think about this issue today and be ready to work different categories if this occurs.

*Consider opening up a shop with the main search area.

If the terms are valuable enough and if there is enough business then it might warrant your expansion. I would never be driven by Google’s fickle nature but it does behoove you to explore the opportunity for expansion.

*Always be developing alternative marketing strategies

Being dependent solely on Google’s Places search result is a bad idea from the gitgo. Having your success or failure predicated on the whims of the search giant is a roller coaster at best and plan for disaster at worst. It is imperative that you have an refine techniques that will find you customers even when Google’s search result go south.

I would love to hear if you suffered from a reduced radius, how you coped and whether your listing has returned to the search results with the recent changes. Let me know.

 

 

 

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Many Google Places Searches Are Showing an Increased Radius For Search Results by

30 thoughts on “Many Google Places Searches Are Showing an Increased Radius For Search Results”

  1. Hey Mike, so excited about this change. I’ve been trying to blog it all week and just getting my screenshots done to blog it this AM. But it sure is good news for some clients who were locked out and just popped back into the A spot!

    YEA!

  2. Linda

    It is an interesting development, that’s for sure.

    In the results I looked at, while my customers had returned, NOT all of the previously pinned results did return. There is an interesting mix of the two previous results….

    Looking forward to your observations.

  3. This may also be an explanation of why my site disappeared in October and is now back on top. So many things to factor.

  4. The increased radius may have been a necessity with the overall reduced local footprint in the SERPs. Going from 7-10 local results down to 3-5 results, while maintaining the tighter radius made for poor choices for users from a smaller subset of available choices.

    By boosting that radius, more businesses get a shot at one of those 3, 4 or 5 spots and users can graphically see by the many more little red dots on the map that there are indeed more to choose from. Maybe that will spur some users to click on the map or the More Local results links to discover other businesses other than the few shown???

  5. @Mike, excellent work again.

    Have you conducted regular tests within your own foot-print area as well? I have found that at times my clients within their local area conducting a Google search using the exact same search phrase and me (I am not in their area) gets slightly different Place results returned. So I am wondering if your foot-print can play into the location sensitivity factors.

  6. @Daniel
    yes that is a possibilty…

    @Stever
    Certainly search results quality had declined in usefulness with or without the 7 Packs…. although the reduced footprint could certainly be a reason for the change.

    We won’t know for sure and if we asked would be told “we are always experimenting and testing the results to find to improve search quality”. Or some such blather.

  7. @John S

    As much as possible I have. I have done the searches logged in and out, with personal results on and off, logged in via different users and from different computers with search histories, with different location settings etc etc.

    While I can’t rule out the affect of various personalization issues, these results were seen across enough searches and by enough disparate searchers that I am confident that something is changing at the core of the search parameters not on the user end.

  8. As much as I’m glad for the worthy businesses in other parts of the country, we in Chicago are still stymied by a VERY tight radius around the centroid. Hopefully we’re next in line for adjustment???

  9. @CC Who knows, you can never plan on Google doing anything. In the meantime try some of the suggestions in the article and see if they are of any help.

  10. @john s

    I think I misread your question. I apologize for not reading more carefully. Are you asking if the user’s location setting could affect the radius if the search area?

    The answer to is that it is possible. The patent noted that sensitivity could be a function of “the user or user profile”. I have not seen that to be the case but it is possible.

  11. @Mike,

    Yes, eggsackly. It seems possible that G may factor that in as well. Since they know my location based on my foot-print they could use that data to help improve my search experience.

  12. Mike,
    I want to be sure I’m understanding your statement:

    It will be quickly apparent with this technique that you are outside the radius of the main search results.

    Do you mean it will be quickly apparent because the other results still ranking highly are within a tight cluster that your pin is outside of, or did you mean something more than this? I’ve been waiting to ask you this question all through a long, busy work day!

  13. @John
    I have not seen this to be the case but given the broad parameters of the patent it is possible. If you find a case like this send it along.

    @Miriam
    I do mean that it “will be quickly apparent because the other results still ranking highly are within a tight cluster that your pin is outside of”.

  14. Mike: Kudo’s. A very sophisticated and educated response including one that pulls on a Google patent. As you noted the size of the radius, per the patent could rely upon

    ““function of the topic, the search query or query terms, the user or user profile, the location associated with the query or a cluster of the search results or any number of other factors”.

    …in that Google seemed to universally narrow the radii around search terms for a considerable period of time…and now seems to have universally increased the size of the radii (Chicago excepted as noted above)…we may be simply experiencing continued and continued testing by google to ascertain which radii are most appropriate for various terms.

    …and then again w/in a significantly larger city such as Chicago…maybe they’ve already seen that overall searcher patterns and results are different when one uses the city name versus other geo descriptions. who knows? not us. They are the ones w/ all the data and they aint sharing it. ;)

    I think we are always subject to their algo’s. and have to stay on our toes to deal with them.

  15. James

    I sympathize but a technical note re your article. In the patent they say ““function of the topic, the search query or query terms, the user or user profile, the location associated with the query or a cluster of the search results or any number of other factors”. I think that a “cluster of search results” may be as or even more likely a factor as being in the centroid.

    You still can’t do that much about it but if they are enough of a particular type of business within close proximity then that will define center of the search and the radius.

  16. Hey Mike,

    Yeah noticed this change about a week ago (on Monday for sure). I’m glad they opened it up. As for the “Proximity Lockout” I think you can break with sometimes if you have enough authority with citations and reviews…. assuming you are in the actually city you want to rank for.

    I also liked Gav’s idea of helping remove spam from the 2,3,7 pack too give you more leverage to get back into the GP pack. I think enough of dont take the time to do this. GP has a ton of spam to get rid of.

    I have also been leveraging regular seo and review rich snippets to compensate when i find we have client who is locked out.

    this way they can still rank above Places and still get those wonderful 5 golden stars next to their website’s listing. isn’t that what we are all really after anyways, right?

    never a dull day in local search marketing! ;)

  17. Well, Wednesday and Thursday we were seeing a 3-4 pack with a greatly expanded radius that more accuratly reflected the area (suburbia). For both localities where we have shops we were in the #1 spot. Finally all my ciation building paid off! This morning we’re back to the proximity lockout problem with a 3 pack showing and a radius of about 2 miles. The google giveth, and the google taketh away.

  18. I have a client in the auto detailing business who is located several miles outside the big city limits. However, the city name is used in the mailing address as specified by the USPS. The other point here is that the citizens who live outside the city also use the city name fairly reqularly in their searches. This is so common throughout country that I suspect is was a relevant factor in Google expanding it radius for local search, as it improves the quality of it’s service and gives people a more valuable and relevant tool to use.

  19. Hi Mike,

    I have noticed this also quite recently for many different local search queries. With the radius expansion, I have also noticed a shift from predominantly 7 pack to 3 or 5 packs. have you noticed this too?

    @Matt, its not always spam that needs to be removed gtom Google Places, sometimes its just out of date information ie a business has closed down and location not yet listed as closed etc. Either way reporting any inconsistencies has to be a good thing as far as Google is concerned.

  20. @Gav

    I noticed (wrote about) the change in the local pack display on January 26. I noticed this change on Feb 8 but others had seen it earlier. It is not clear if it occurred simultaneously or after the reduction of the local footprint. What dates did you notice both changes?

  21. Great article. I have made several comments regarding this “proximity lockout” on Linda’s blog and have spoken with her on the phone also. A few months ago, we got locked out in the dental arena in Bellevue for the city + service and service + city searches even though we have a Bellevue address (8 zip codes in the city of Bellevue and we are zip area 5). Much as the Seattle fish discussion above (Bellevue is next to Seattle), the only offices showing up for dentist were in the immediate downtown area which was very distorted. We now rank #1 for both those search terms, but without a lettered pin – I am thankful for that anyway. But as you know, without a lettered pin, your big G stars don’t show up. What is very weard is that two dentists show up with lettered pins that are 20 and 25 blocks farther from the center of the city than we are, but they have the word “bellevue” as part of there URL and we do not. So somehow the URL name must be a major factor into how your proximity is viewed with G’s new expanded radius. If as you said, you add another modifier such as “cosmetic” or “veneer” in our case to the service + city search then we are the top position AND with a lettered pin. It is all very frustrating to a lot people.

  22. @Dr Gil

    Don’t mistake correlation with causation. It seems very unlikely that domain name would be the determining factor in whether a listing is included or not in the display. Its possible, I just don’t think it likely.

    The local algo is bimodal. In that I mean that there really are two sets of rules that dictate outcomes..prominence and distance..these can be used by Google separately, together or independently so calculating which ranking criteria comes into play on any given search is nearly impossible.

  23. Also Gil the problem is not always prox lockout. Sometimes it looks like it but other factors can cause a disconnect between the site and Place page. Duplicate confusion, mismatched NAP data on site and Place page or a Place page keyword ranking penalty (again often associated with dupes.)

    So if other further out than you have map pins and you don’t I’d look for other reasons. (Note just talking in general have not looked at your market or situation lately.)

    I just did a consult for a Dentist who is almost SMACK city center so his prob is not prox. He ranks #1 for ALL his keywords. Very strong rankings for everything EXCEPT city dentist and dentist city. His problem is dupe confusion OR a penalty because all the dupes for the other Drs. have the same category – dentist. So he’s only being penalized (or G is only getting confused) for that one keyword.

    I know you’ve had dupe probs in the past so may want to investigate that end.

  24. Linda,

    That is amazing that he is in the center of town and not ranking #1 on those two terms because of other problems.

    Mike and Linda,

    Mike is right and I should know it with my strong background in statistics that correlation and cause are not related. It just seemed strangly obvious that the two far out pins had “bellevue” in their URLs. At least I won’t have to change our URL now. We continue to fight the battle of the big G giving us duplicate sites as you and I have discussed Linda. Thanks to both of you for your responses.

    Gil

  25. Been looking into this all morning. Your post summarizes the topic nicely. I have also found that the listings radius changes with population density. Makes sense as rural folks will often drive to a nearby town to consume services like dental.

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