Last month, Google confirmed that a local search update had taken place in the first week of December 2021. Local optimization experts who monitored rankings knew that this was a large Maps on Google update.
Business Profile Photo Requirements and Recommendations
By Yan Gilbert
Google Platinum Member, SEO Expert & Founder of Local Falcon
Google rarely confirms map updates, so this was refreshing to see, sending out a tweet on Dec 16th. Google has stopped naming updates, but SEOs at SterlingSky have dubbed this update as the ‘Vicinity Update‘ and it seems to have stuck.
As it normally goes with Google updates, Google will usually turn up some dials and turn down others, and by the end of the update a lot of what initially happened gets rolled back. Given that the update was pretty much right before many people take vacation, this gave us time for the data to come in.
In the meantime, there was a lot of first impression speculating about what the Vicinity update was all about. First and foremost, it is called the ‘vicinity update’ because it was seen to affect the proximity ranking factor the most. Tons of businesses were affected with this update across many keywords and there is still a lot of SEO chatter going on. I’m going to add my analysis to the collection.
Before & After Google Vicinity Update 2021 Analysis
Let’s take a look some before and after ranking scans using our rank tracking tool Local Falcon to give you an idea of the amount of changes that happened. Here we have a scan for a “furniture store”, and you can see that the scan performed after the update has a dramatic increase in rankings.
A lot of speculation centered around the visual changes to the three pack, where the new three pack now has the map to the right of the listings and more prominent images.
Mostly though people were wondering about the new map shape and zoom level, and the reduction of the strength of keywords in the business name.
Notice how the newer results is much more zoomed out than the previous result, and only one listing with keywords in the business name stayed in the three pack as well.
Do the Zoom Level Changes Affect Rankings?
In the above example, the zoom level was much further out in the newer result than in the older search result. However, take a look at these two images below:
The important thing to note in these results is that even though the searches are for different keywords, the same three businesses are in the display. When you take a look at the map zoom level, they are essentially the same. True, the new map is larger and so more area is displaying, but the zoom level is the same.
What this demonstrates is that Google is choosing the businesses to display and then adjusting the map to suit.
Explicit Location Searches Affected
As mentioned, the Vicinity Update was coined because it was apparent that the proximity ranking factor had been adjusted in a major way. Search queries that include a location have been affected the most, so lets take a look at an example for a search for ‘Toronto Exterminator”.
Contrary to the ‘bed bug exterminator’ map zoom level, this search has the map zoom level coming in much closer. Google has taken the ‘Toronto’ part of the search and really narrowed the focus of the results to businesses that are very close to the centroid of downtown Toronto.
Listings close to what Google determines as the center of the location, are seeing a large visibility boost for searches that contain the location in the query.
This applies to listings that are showing their address, or hiding the address. What is important is the verification of the address and the proximity to the location center.
Keywords in the Business Reduced as a Ranking Factor*
There have been a lot of examples shared in the SEO community that business that were previously ranking very well due to the presence of keywords in their business name have lost ground. If you look back to the “bed bug exterminator” screenshots above, the keyword stuffed business names are underlined in red.
Two of the three businesses no longer appear in the new updated three pack display. However, one business with keywords in the name still appears and is ranking first!
There must be something else going on…
Let’s share another example…
Here we have reporting from Local Falcon of a search for “SEO Toronto” showing five different businesses with “SEO Toronto” in the business name.
Why did one keyword stuffed business improve, while three others fell in rankings?
Three of the businesses that were keyword stuffed lost rankings for that keyword, one maintained it’s position, and one even increased.
If keywords in the business name were reduced as a ranking factor, wouldn’t all the listings be affected negatively?
But they’re not.
Clearly there is some other element in play here.
Introducing the New Business Profile Name Filter for Google Search and Maps
There already exists a proximity filter on Google Maps.
The proximity filter triggers when businesses have the:
- same location (or extremely close to each other, like inside a large office building for example)
- same primary category
Google wants to show variability in the search results so if two businesses have the same location and primary category, then the algorithm will choose one of those listings to display and demote the other.
The results concerning the keywords in the business name indicate that Google has created a new ‘Similar Name Filter’.
Here are scans for the business “SEO Toronto” (the fifth business in the graph legend above). Before the Vicinity update, they were ranking second across an extremely wide area. After the update, however, we see a strange result where most the area is dominated by alternating ‘4’s and ’20+’s.
What we are seeing is that the business is potentially still ranking well for this query, however the algorithm seems to be first deciding if the business should show at all. This results in the pattern where either the business is not ranking at all, or when chosen ranking very well (because of the ranking strength of the keywords in the business name).
Essentially, the name filter compares businesses in the same category and if there is too much overlap between the business names, which happens often when the same keywords are added, then the algorithm is choosing the best one or two to display (based on other criteria), and demoting the weaker listings.
Reviews Increased as a Ranking Factor
There is also evidence that the influence of reviews has been dialed up as well. We’ll be sharing more information about that in another article shortly. However, when looking at the graph above, the business that increased (blue line) after the Vicinity update, was the one with the most reviews, and the one with the most recent review.
What are you seeing with the businesses you monitor? Feel free to join our private Facebook group thread and provide more examples and ideas.