A brief history of Google’s most important local search updates

Deciphering the Google algorithm can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. The search engine giant has made many changes over the years, keeping digital marketers on their toes and continually moving the goalposts on SEO best practices.
Google’s continuous updating can hit local businesses as hard as anyone. Every tweak and modification to its algorithm could adversely impact their search ranking or even prevent them from appearing on the first page of search results for targeted queries. What makes things really tricky is the fact that Google sometimes does not telegraph the changes it makes or how they’ll impact organizations. It’s up to savvy observers to deduce what has been altered and what it means for SEO and digital marketing strategies.
What’s been the evolution of local search, and how did we get here? Let’s take a look at the history of Google’s local algorithm and its effect on brick-and-mortar locations.
2005: Google Maps and Local Business Center become

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Markets with home service ads: Service-area businesses are coming back to the local results

After my column about Home Service Ads came out last week, I got a message from Google with some great news. They told me two things:

Google plans to add pure service-area businesses (SABs) back into the local results — this includes home-based businesses.
The disappearance of results for home-based businesses in markets without Home Service Ads was due to a bug (not intentional), which Google says should be resolved soon.

So, almost a year after deciding to remove service-area businesses from the local results, I’m starting to see that Google is adding them back.
Here is an example of a search result I spotted this morning.

A few days ago, it looked like this (Notice how every listing has a directions icon — meaning the address is showing on the listing):

Although owners of service-area businesses will be extremely excited about this change, service-area businesses aren’t the only listings returning to the local results.
The return of spam
One of the good things about

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Yelp says Google violated ‘do not crawl’ provision of 2013 FTC settlement agreement

Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock.com
Yelp has sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asserting that Google is improperly using Yelp images in local search results in violation of its 2013 antitrust settlement with the regulatory agency. Yelp also circulated the letter to several members of Congress and state attorneys general, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The 2013 settlement concluded nearly two years of investigations and political maneuvering. As part of the agreement, Google said it would:
[M]ake available a web-based notice form that provides website owners with the option to opt out from display on Google’s Covered Webpages of content from their website that has been crawled by Google. When a website owner exercises this option, Google will cease displaying crawled content from the domain name designated by the website owner on Covered Webpages on the google.com domain in the United States. Website owners will be able to exercise the opt-out described above by completing a web-based

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August 22, 2017: The day the ‘Hawk’ Google local algorithm update swooped in

I recently reported on an algorithm update impacting the local results that happened on August 22, 2017. This was a strictly-local update, from what I can tell so far, which means that it had no impact on the non-local organic results.
What changed?
The update, which I have dubbed “Hawk,” was a change to the way the local filter works. To get some history here, Google actively filters out listings from the local results that are similar to other listings that rank already. Basically, Google picks the most relevant listing of the bunch and filters the rest. It’s very similar to what they do organically with duplicate content. (Note: Google is typically loath to confirm algorithm updates, usually only saying that it rolls out several updates every day, so these observations are based on an analysis of how local results have changed rather than on any official announcement or acknowledgment.)
The filter has existed for a long time to help ensure that

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Google local pack tests displaying website mentions matching your query

Google is testing displaying in the local pack results if the local website returns the keywords you searched for on their website. For example, if you search for [climate control] in a specific region, the local pack might add an additional line to the search snippet, mentioning if the website in the local listing actually has those words on their web pages.
Here is a screen shot from Matt Schexnayder of Sparefoot, who sent this tip to us:

It is unclear if this means that the local results use the local listing’s website content for ranking purposes or not. All this is telling us is that Google local is indeed aware if the local business website has the query’s content on their website.
We have emailed Google for a comment, but at this point, it seems like a limited test.
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Google upgrades flight and hotel search to provide price grid views & more

Google announced several upgrades to both their flight search and hotel search features to aid searchers in finding the most economical options for their trips.
Rolling out on Google Flights is the ability to ability to click on “Dates” to see the calendar view of date combinations with the cheapest prices highlighted in green and the most expensive in red. You can also see price graphs over time if you have a certain length of trip in mind. This feature is available on mobile and rolling out to desktop later this year. Here is a GIF of these flight search features in action:

Often, flying to different nearby cities’ airports can save you on flight costs. Google also added the ability to see all nearby airports on an interactive map, view the distance between each one and your final destination and select the most convenient airports to include in your results. Here is a screen shot of this feature:


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Google Maps Android app adds ‘find parking’ feature to show you nearest parking garage

Google Maps is making it easy for Android users to find parking options.
The Android app now has a “find parking” button on the direction card that is displayed once you search for your location. The button leads to a list of parking garages and lots near the intended location.
Users can select their preferred parking option, and the app will automatically add it to their trip, along with walking directions from the parking spot to their destination.

The “find parking” feature was rolled out in 25 US cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, DC, Detroit, Portland, Orlando and St. Louis.
In addition to its latest feature, the app has expanded its “parking difficulty” feature for Android and iOS apps to 25 international cities, including Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, London, Milan, Rio de Janeiro and Vancouver.
When available, the parking difficulty icon appears in the bottom of a direction card screen, and it ranks parking availability as “limited,” “medium” or “easy” based on historical parking data.

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Google debuts giant new look for Local Inventory Ad product search in Knowledge Panels

Last May, Google introduced the ability to find out if a local retailer had specific products in stock right from the knowledge panel listing for the retailer. Now, it’s dedicating a whole lot more real estate to the feature.
Glenn Gabe, digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive, tweeted a look at the update. Below are a couple of examples. It’s available on both mobile and desktop and goes well beyond the simple “Search items at this store link” that Google originally showed. A large section includes a search box, product category links and large product listings. On mobile, users can swipe through a carousel of product listings.

The feature is part of the Local Inventory Ads product, which enables retailers to promote products available in their locations via inventory feeds submitted to Google. The links and search results lead to Google Shopping pages.
Google is also running a test to show relevant text ads in knowledge panel listings for local businesses.

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Data: Consumers grow more demanding, impatient as brands fall behind

There’s considerable evidence that consumers are growing more impatient and less tolerant of poor or frustrating online experiences. There’s also increasing evidence that most brands aren’t keeping up with customers, creating significant risk and lost opportunities.
This gap is reflected in all the CX (consumer experience) research and reports coming out. There’s also a strong undercurrent of this theme in the Google “micro-moments” research and discussions. All the data about mobile page speeds and consumer abandonment support this idea:
The average U.S. retail mobile site loaded in 6.9 seconds in July 2016, but, according to the most recent data, 40% of consumers will leave a page that takes longer than three seconds to load. And 79% of shoppers who are dissatisfied with site performance say they’re less likely to purchase from the same site again.
Most recently, Google said that geo-modifiers (e.g., ZIP codes) have declined by 30 percent, even as local search volumes have increased:
[D]emanding mobile users now assume

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Google working to fix the ability to leave local reviews on Google Maps

For the past few hours, the ability to leave reviews on local business profiles within Google search or Google Maps has not been functioning. Google has told us they are aware of the issue and are working on a fix.
But currently, if you want to leave a review for a local listing, you are out of luck. The issue started approximately at 10:00 a.m. ET.
When you try to click the “write a review” button from any of the locations that allow you to write a review, nothing happens.

Again, Google is aware of the issue and is working on a fix.
Postscript: Google has fixed the bug at around 2pm EST. So the outage was for about 4 hours.
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