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Understanding Google My Business & Local Search

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 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.