No. 708
October 28th, 2010

A New Kind of Local Search Result: The “O-Pack”?

As you may have seen reported in *a few* outlets around the blogosphere over the last 36 hours, Google decided to roll out its new user interface (first reported by Mike Blumenthal on July 5th) for local search results yesterday.  It is a tectonic shift, both algorithmically and visually, that has left a number of publishers, and certainly spammy lead generators, catatonic today.

After a lively rapid-fire discussion with these folks via email yesterday about what to call this new kind of blended result, where suggestions ranged from “locorganic” all the way to “orgasmic” we weren’t really able to come to a consensus on anything.  Given how hard most of the hybrid words were to say (let alone type) I thought I’d propose something shorter and cleaner…

Like the “O-Pack.”

Whatever it eventually ends up getting named, a lot of very smart people have already written a lot of very insightful posts about some of the implications of this new interface; allow me to extract some of my favorite quotes below:

Impact on Business Owners and SEOs

Greg Sterling: “Previously the local and general search algorithms were distinct. I asked whether they had now been consolidated or merged in this new release and was told ‘yes.'”…Note, this was first reported by Mike Blumenthal two months ago…”I asked about this and Google said that there should be no more local results and no fewer web results after these changes. However…some of the general web results in the ‘before’ version appear to be ‘missing’ or replaced by local listings. I clicked through to pages 2 and 3 and didn’t find them.”

Commenter Plamen: @Mike do you notice the disappearance of the User Content section?

Dave Naylor: “Google Maps will be all paid (it has already started…)”

My Take: By and large, small business owners who have pursued long-term, best-practice SEO strategies across ALL fronts (organic, local, social, etc.) rather than chased Google’s algorithm, should be relatively unaffected by the change.  Those who have put their faith (and $$$) in set-it-and-forget-it, fly-by-night PO-Box-near-the-centroid type strategies are probably regretting it.  It’s clear that traditional organic factors (especially Title Tags and inbound links) are going to again be as important as they were back in 2006, before any Local results came out…but now business owners also have to be concerned with purely Local factors in addition.

The fact that Google removed the display of UGC from Place Pages signals to me that they might actually start to rely on it more than they have in the past.  Just as the “link:” command has returned ever more opaque results as that part of the organic algorithm has become more important, Google is going to continue to try to obfsucate the more important parts of its Local algorithm.  But by no means does that mean they are irrelevant.

I have to say, I think Dave’s comment totally misses the mark…as I was not actually in attendance at the SEOmoz Pro Seminar where it was recorded, however, it may be taken completely out of context.  But I actually think that the O-Pack should placate some of the gripes of traditional SEOs like Dave, Greg Boser, and others who have bemoaned the increasing prominence of the 7-pack over the last 18 months.  Sites that do extremely well organically should now be rewarded with positions further up the page, rather than getting “OneBoxed out” by the huge map.

Impact on MapSpam

Greg Sterling: “Google said that the algorithm has been improved and refined for Place Search. We also shouldn’t see any more of the ‘mapspam’ that has plagued the 7-Pack in the past.”

Miriam Ellis: “As a Local SEO, my chief feelings of concern arise from Google’s historic and current failure to combat the spam and errata in their index.”

My Take: Did data quality/MapSpam problems necessitate this shift? Necessitate is probably too strong a word.  I don’t think anyone would argue, though, that Google’s organic spam fighting team, for whatever reason (more available signals, more institutional/accumulated knowledge, and more internal resources) has been far more successful at keeping truly nefarious results out of the index than its Maps team has been able to.  A greater reliance on organic signals for rankings means that it’s much, much harder for spammers without legitimate locations to game the system.  And because O-Pack results show Title Tags rather than Business Titles, there’s less incentive to spam this field in Google Places, which is great.  (Incidentally, Mike and I both suggested that LBL’s be treated as Title Tags several years before Google’s Local Listing Guidelines came out…I, at least, am feeling somewhat vindicated this evening :D)

Impact on Adwords

Matt McGee: “Those are now pushed down the page by a couple hundred pixels. I expect this means Google will compensate by showing more paid ads in the middle column above the local listings.”

My Take: It seems to be that by far the biggest losers (other than spammers) in this new interface areAdwords advertisers from position four on down who are bidding on generic keywords with Local intent (
“dentists,” “plumbers,” “electricians,” etc.).  The fixed-position map not only moves positions 4-10 hundreds of pixels down the page, but it hides their ads and continues to draw attention from users as they scroll their way down the page.  I think this will dramatically increase the required CPC for the top three slots in the Adwords auction (and thus Google’s bottom line) for these types of keywords.

Impact on IYPs and Directory Publishers

Greg Sterling: “Now that the 7-Pack is gone how will [IYP publishers] be affected? Unfortunately for them they may be shut out almost entirely unless they’re among the clustered third party links associated with each listing.”

Mike Blumenthal: “Google is attempting to summarize ALL user sentiment about a given business in one sentence and hanging it out there for the world to see on the front page.”

Jackie Bavaro: “Instead of doing eight or 10 searches, often you’ll get to the sites you’re looking for with just one search.”

Andrew Shotland thinks that small towns represent the best remaining opportunity for directory companies to rank.

My Take: I actually don’t think this new UI is any worse for IYPs than the 7-pack was.  In a lot of categories, I’m seeing prominent sites that are in that cluster Greg talks about–like Yelp, Judy’s Book, and Citysearch–get direct clickthroughs from clustered review links right off the search result page (which they weren’t getting from the old 7-Pack).  I actually think Google is throwing directory publishers a bone here (at least for the time being).

I saw plenty of national directories ranking for explicit geographic phrases ABOVE O-Pack results for plenty of competitive queries like this one:

Back in the days of the traditional 7-pack, you’d never see well-SEO’d big players like Superpages,, or Findlaw ranking above the 7-pack for a phrase with explicit geographic intent.

AND, even when “traditional” 7-packs are returned, for phrases like the one below, the fact that the map is now over on the righthand side of the results means that Places aren’t as likely to draw as many eyeballs as they used to, if Enquiro’s famous eyetracking studies still hold true today.

Now, in no way do I think that means that the writing isn’t on the wall–the die has clearly been cast.  As I said three years ago:

[Google knows] users don’t want to sort through [its] search results only to be directed five OTHER companies’ OWN Local search results (like Yelp, InsiderPages, CitySearch, or sadly, Judy’s Book). It’s simply not in the engines’ own interest to take people away from their OWN PPC ads and into someone else’s set. That’s lost revenue, and a poor user experience to boot.

In fewer words, Jackie spells out that exact concept in the snippet above from the official Google blog.  People are going to spend more time on a SERP than they are on a website.  Despite the fact there are far more links on the SERP to click on, most of the links on O-Pack results point to Place Pages.

And now we know why Google sent all those photographers around to photograph SMBs.  Again, if the findings from Enquiro’s eye-tracking studies still hold true, thumbnail images on a traditional SERP get exponentially more attention than those without.  Given that those now point to the Place Page, and that Tags pointing to a website are no longer an option, on balance, we see Google devouring even more clicks for its own properties.

But I don’t know that Google deserves the kind of vitriol this SearchEngineLand commenter displayed.  Again, if anything, Google has thrown directory publishers a major bone with the renewed possibility of ranking organically for competitive local phrases, and getting direct clickthroughs from the SERP right to their own business profile pages.  Knowing the landing pages for Google referral traffic, this might even affect the kinds of ad products that IYPs offer going forward.  Rather than premium placement in their own search results (which are absolutely still trending to zero), enhanced or customized profile pages that allow favorite reviews, custom branding or layout, and more compelling contact information might be more appropriate.

And if I were an IYP?  I’d be submitting my content to Google. Some people in the audience snickered when I gave that answer last year on my panel at The Kelsey Group show in Los Angeles, but even then, it was clear what the only option was for continuing to receive traffic from Google in the long-term.

For IYPs, reviews are the only type of content that you have that Google wants to rank.  It’s either partner up with them or shut off the self-served display ad part of your revenue stream entirely.  Long-tail ad networks like CityGrid can still succeed in the aggregate, but only those that are not reliant on organic search traffic from Google for eyeballs.

And after I submitted my content, I’d spend the next 30-60 days figuring out how to influence when your directory will show up in Places as a bonafide review source to grab those additional clickthroughs. Demonstrating to business owners how important it is to have a presence on your directory so that their reviews will show up prominently on Google is going to be a major, and perhaps only, selling point going forward.