This article was written by Terry Van Horne and Jim Hedger, Telsec
Search engine optimization experts suggest the key to understanding a search engine’s algorithmic changes is to look at its past updates and think about what each was designed to accomplish. Behind every major algorithm update, there is always a goal or outcome that search engineers were hoping to achieve or promote.
Generally speaking, when Google makes an algorithm update, it does so because its engineers think there is a better way to present lists of information to Google users. When it comes to SEOs, changes are also done in order to keep better track of how Google operates.
About six years ago, Google began to try to localize results based on queries that might indicate that users were searching on a mobile device. The goal was to present users with the best businesses (based on traditional search factors) that were closest to the user. Since then, Google has improved its methods of deciding how to present localized information for searchers looking for products or services near them, rather than doing more general or knowledge based research.
Recently however, Google has changed its methods of selecting and ranking localized information (again).
Veteran SEO specialist Terry Van Horne started tracking search results related to business centers in 2013, more specifically, Canadian Business Centres. Van Horne was hired by a Toronto-based business centre when Google released its “Venice update”. Since then Van Horne has closely followed Google algorithmic updates that affect the way business centre search results–especifically those that include “office space”–are presented, in the hopes of understanding and explaining which factors influence search results the most.
Business Center search results are highly correlated to the evolution of personalization in search. Personalization is the movement or effort to deliver search results most relevant to the individual user. Google first started to personalize search in 2005; however that personalization was only experienced when the users was logged into a Google service such as Gmail. At the same time, Google was creating Google Local Business (GLB).
A GLB listing required information about a business’s hours and street address, which Google would verify by telephone or by mailing a postcard to that address. At this point, the address on a business website was still important but not as important as having a verified GLB address.
In 2007, universal search was introduced, blending general organic crawler based results with vertical searches such as GLB references and maps, images, news, shopping references, and video.
By 2011 personalization was fully integrated into search and it was at this time that location factors relating to businesses and search-user began to impact the SERPs for many business centers. This continued for about a year, culminating in the aforementioned Venice update in 2012 which blended local search factors with more traditional on-page ranking factors.
The Venice update of 2012 took hyper local search to the next level. Up until this time, Google used the query to determine the user’s geo-location and search intentions. For instance, a search for “pizza in New York” would probably produce a list of pizza parlours in New York City. After Venice it was looking up user’s IP address and using that to determine the location their results should reflect. Now that same search for “pizza in New York” would produce a list of pizzerias based on the location of the searcher rather than just by using the keywords entered in the query. Blending of traditional ranking factors and users’ IP were significant changes to the way Google determined Local Search Rankings.
Van Horne’s business centre client had seen their rankings slowly eroding for about a year when he was brought in in the hopes to reverse the tide. His analysis started with a traffic audit which, when breaking it down by site, showed a severe slide in search traffic. The Venice update cut their US traffic to search queries that included geographic modifiers like “Canada” or “Toronto”. This was a direct result of Google using search-user’s IP addresses to establish the geographic location that local search results should reflect.
In 2013, Google introduced Hummingbird, an update that didn’t affect local search beyond how it changed search rankings in general. Google had a problem when ambiguous words such as “Jaguar” were used in queries; Google couldn’t tell if the searcher was looking for information on an animal, a car, dozens of unique brand products, or one of several professional sports teams. Hummingbird’s focus on entity search enabled them to disambiguate many of these ambiguous search terms.
Algorithm updates are often responses to changes in how people use search engines. At this time, the third and fourth generations of Google’s Android smart phones were in the hands of search users. Google’s obsession with mobile search began a few years earlier but they now had proprietary data on how people actually used their digital products in a mobile environment.
By 2014, Google had enough data from Android users to introduce the location-sensitive Pigeon update. IP addresses only gave Google an approximate location in terms of where the searcher was when making a query. Mobile phones, on the other hand, offer extremely accurate location data.
Google wants to know where you are when making a search in order to offer any number of pieces of information that might make your search more useful or precise. Pigeon correlated user-location data with the known addresses of businesses in Google’s index to offer results based on proximity. If someone searched for office space while walking through the downtown core, Google would provide results made up primarily of businesses in or around the downtown core.
Last year Google tried to take this a step further with its 2016 Possum update which filtered businesses based on the addresses of the business as found in a Google My Business (GMB) listing or on the businesses’ website. In addition to applying a filter based on the user’s location or city, Possum filtered similar businesses that were in close proximity to each other. This was a mistake as there are numerous reasons search-users might want to access multiple vendors or resources in a single area or in close proximity to each other. Think about looking for jewellery stores at a large shopping mall for instance.
It took about two weeks before search results for Terry’s business centre client came back in relatively the same positions or ranking they enjoyed before the update was applied. Though there wasn’t a lot of chatter in the SEO community about the rollback of some sites filtered by Possum, it is easy to speculate the “office space” queries were either modified by a partial rollback or more likely a manual review of the query space by Google Search Quality personnel.
However, Google’s latest major algorithmic update isn’t Possum. It’s called Hawk, and like Possum, this update also tried to improve search results by reducing the degree to which it filtered similar businesses in close proximity to each other. However, when looking at the “office space” query space, it is obvious this has taken results to another extreme, resulting in SERPs that include far more ambiguous locations.
For instance, sites that did not rank on targeted terms like “Toronto Office Space for Rent” (searched without quotation marks) but did show up in results for broad terms like “Office Space” were suddenly included in the Top 10 organic results, and local aggregators were found in Local Packs. This shouldn’t have happened as aggregators are not themselves local businesses and was corrected within a couple weeks.
Conclusions about Google’s Hawk Update
If the current state of the office space query-space is any indication, Local Search at Google is less about location and distance alone, than it is about blending traditional ranking factors with location and distance. Aggregators with no reviews making their way into the Local Pack is an anomaly that can’t be ignored as it could suggest there is more to the Hawk update than originally assumed.
Aggregators are websites made up of user-input-information or scrapers that scan and copy content from other websites. They are often located in one city but serve information to every other city on Earth because the Internet allows them to. Some call aggregators Internet barnacles because they attach themselves to various industry query spaces and then dupe businesses into paying to be included in their directories because they spammed their way to the top of search rankings. In the end, they send low quality leads and sometimes drive good leads away through substandard levels of service. Unless you’re in the city they originate from, they likely won’t have a local address or verified street listing in Google My Business. One aggregator that constantly appeared in the Top 5 under searches conducted using the geo-modifier, “Toronto” is located in Vancouver, a city over 4,500 km (about 2,800 miles) away.
Van Horne’s business centre client lost significant ground for search queries relating to “office space” that the first assumption was it the business centre had been penalized. In fact, the website rose higher on all virtual office services, meeting and conference rooms, and training or seminar rooms. IN the past, the Top 10 results for “Office Space” queries were, for the most part, all local business centres. Real estate brokers almost never cracked the Top 10, while office space aggregators were occasionally found, and classified sites like Craigslist or Kjiji (in Canada) were found a little more regularly. Just after Google’s Hawk update an aggregator from Vancouver was in a Local 3 Pack in Toronto.
The bottom line is Hawk seems to be sticky, even if the results it is generating are sometimes stinky. The results seen relating to “Office Space” queries are likely here to stay, at least until the next algorithm update and perhaps beyond.
With this in mind, workspace operators will need to get used to, and beware of, aggregators using your content. It is likely going to happen because those aggregators are being rewarded by Google for their efforts. The best advice is to plug one’s nose and start getting listings on or in those aggregators and the free and paid classified sites you see replacing your business in the SERPs.
A lesson of SEO 101 has always been “if you can’t be #1 in the rankings, you need to take action to get into the sites that are.” Eventually Google is going to realize these result-sets are not satisfying its user’s needs and teams of engineers will be enlisted to remove them. After that happens, you’ll still have citations on those aggregators and links from the classified sites to help if Google does make a change. If not, you’ll be included in the sites that do rank in the “office space” query space.