Pigeon SEO Update 2 Months Later: Google Flipped The Bird at Local Search


Local business owners: Have your rankings plummeted? Did traffic fall off a cliff? No longer appearing in a crucial Google map result? You may have been affected by Google’s local search algorithm update, appropriately dubbed Pigeon by the fine folks at Search Engine Land. It’s been almost two months since the update rolled out, and while it seems the crap hasn’t yet dried, plenty of businesses have taken a direct hit.

We’ve rounded up some of the best resources on Pigeon from local search experts —from the moment the news broke to early effects and analysis, ramifications and advice on shifting strategy—and provided brief, digestible summaries for easy reference. The links are listed in chronological order so you can follow the progression of the rollout and ensuing recovery advice.

Google “Pigeon” Updates Local Search Algorithm With Stronger Ties To Web Search Signal – Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Land, July 24

Barry Schwartz broke the news at Search Engine Land on July 24. The then-unnamed* update was designed to provide “more useful, relevant and accurate local search results,” he reported. Barry summarized the changes, as shared by Google, as such: “the new local search algorithm ties deeper into their web search capabilities” and “improves their distance and location ranking parameters.” The changes, rolling out to English U.S. results, are visible in Google Web and Maps search results. Barry warned that the update would affect local search rankings and that some local businesses might see changes in referrals. No word from Google on if and when the update would be rolled out to other countries and languages.

*On July 25, Search Engine Land named the update Pigeon, lacking an official name from Google. Although the name was given because, as SEL described it, “this is a local search update and pigeons tend to fly back home,” many search marketers came to find it an apropos moniker for an algo change that crapped all over local results.

Google’s Pigeon Update Solves Yelp Problem, Boosts Local Directories – Matt McGee, Search Engine Land, July 25

In this early analysis of outcomes, Matt McGee reported that directories such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and OpenTable were seeing boosts in rankings for local search queries. He provided a screenshot of a search for “seattle restaurants” showing individual restaurants listed in the carousel and nothing but well-known directories and some local directories in the organic listings. “On that search, outside of the carousel results, an individual restaurant doesn’t appear until page three,” he said.

Matt also reported that it appears Google has fixed its “Yelp problem.” The search engine was previously showing its own local listings ahead of Yelp listings, even when the query included “yelp.” Yelp pages now show in the top organic position for those queries.

The higher visibility for directory sites such as Yelp seems logical, as the update was designed to tie local search results more closely to traditional ranking signals, and such sites have higher authority. “For [small, individual restaurants and hotels], local search has just gotten a lot more difficult,” Matt concluded.

Google 7 Packs Dropped But Probably Not as Much as MozCast Indicated – Mike Blumenthal, Understanding Google Places & Local Search Blog, July 28

In this quickie, local search expert Mike Blumenthal provided commentary on reports that the presence of local 7-packs in SERPs had dropped by 60%. “While there was a drop in 7-Pack displays in the SERPS,” he said, “the MozCast is probably overstating what the ‘average user’ is seeing.”

We’re Seeing a 23.4% Drop in Local Packs – Darren Shaw, The Whitespark Blog, July 29

Darren Shaw of Whitespark confirmed Mike Blumenthal’s theory. According to data returned by the company’s Local Rank Tracker, there was a 23.4% drop in search queries returning local packs. The difference was due to the tools’ geo-location method. Mozcast uses the “near” parameter, while Whitespark “sets the location just like how someone would in their browser.”

The Month Google Shook the SERPs – Dr. Pete Meyers, Moz, July 31

Moz confirmed that the drop in local pack results wasn’t nearly as high as initially reported. Using a new geo-location method, Dr. Pete Meyers reported that “local pack results have fallen 23.4% (in our data set) after the Pigeon update,” which matches Whitespark’s number exactly—likely a coincidence as the tools use different data sets and methodologies.

Dr. Pete provided additional analysis:

  • Some queries that lost pack results only lost them in certain regions.
  • Some queries lost packs while very similar queries gained them.
  • There are roughly the same amount of 2-packs as there were before the update, but a significant increase in 3-packs and corresponding decrease in 7-packs.

Conclusion? Pigeon is complex. The “update isn’t based on a few simplistic rules.”

Experts Weigh In On Google’s “Pigeon” Update Aimed At Improving Local Search Results – Amy Gesenhues, Search Engine Land, July 31

A week after the update rolled out, Amy Gesenhues compiled this gem of a resource, sharing local SEOs’ opinions as well as their take on the outcomes and motivations behind the update. Three distinct observations arose from the experts’ contributions. First, Google seems to be hyper-localizing desktop results, changing the radius of map results in many instances to better reflect the searcher’s location. The businesses visible within the view have changed, leading to a ranking shake-up. Second, the update appears to have reduced duplication between organic and local results. Whereas some companies might have seen both before, many are getting just one or the other post-Pigeon. Finally, several contributors pointed to Pigeon aligning with a number of other recent updates (e.g. loss of authorship photos) meant to reduce distractions/clutter in the results and better align desktop and mobile results.

With Amy’s article, we started to see advice from the pros as to how local businesses may need to adjust. Companies that previously featured prominently in local packs but had SEO-weak sites may need to focus on classic web-ranking signals to recover. Where directories have taken the place of local business listings in the organic results, businesses may need to adjust their strategies (by ensuring their presence and optimizing their profiles in the directories that do rank).

Pigeon – An Anecdotal Impact Report – Mike Blumenthal, Understanding Google Places & Local Search Blog, August 3

In this piece, Mike Blumenthal provides his interpretation of Google’s cryptic explanation of the Pigeon update and offers a case study exemplifying some of the effects. Google’s ability to better ascertain user location in mobile as well as desktop, and the resulting smaller radii around users’ presumed locations from which to draw local results, has caused the more dramatic shift in rankings, he posits. Unfortunately, tools don’t have the ability to mimic precise location (he gave the example of searching on mobile from different parts of a city), so we can’t fully understand the extent of what is happening. As searchers increasingly use mobile devices, there has been a decline in city-level searches. However, Google has a much better handle on the user’s actual location. Bottom line is that “searcher behavior is changing and Google is changing right along with it.”

The case study is a good reminder to track more than rankings. Although the company Mike detailed lost visibility in some pack results, it saw moderate increases in traffic from suburbs closer to the business location.

Picking Through Google’s Pigeon Droppings… – Andrew Shotland, Search Engine Land, August 4

In a post (and image) we could only expect from such a guy, Andrew Shotland reiterates the theory that Pigeon was “a continuation of the merging of desktop and mobile SERPs,” and sifts through some of the winners and losers of the update. SEO, web design, advertising and marketing agencies appear to be back in local pack results in most markets, while realtors and DUI lawyers appear to be out. Andrew leaves readers with this bit of advice: “The best way to understand what is happening with this update is to continue to think WWMD (What Would Mobile Do?). … It’s pretty much our assumption these days that most Google Local updates are headed in this direction.”

Google Gives No Comment On Pigeon Updates – Barry Schwartz, Search Engine Roundtable, August 5

After a possible Pigeon update on August 1 couldn’t be confirmed, Barry Schwartz reported that Google “likely will not provide future details on local search algorithm changes.”

Google Pigeon Collateral Damage & What You Can Do About it – Linda Buquet, Local Search Forum, August 5

One of the more prolific contributors to the discussions surrounding Pigeon, Linda Buquet offers examples of pre- and post-update local pack results showing bogus, dead and spammy listings. “The local search industry is pretty much in agreement that this is a bad update,” Linda says, but she believes the outcome to be collateral damage. “I don’t think the innocent businesses that are getting hurt are the target. There is something with this algo that [Google] believe[s] would offer a better search result.”

Linda offered the following bits of advice:

  • Report bad local-pack results using the “Send feedback” link at the bottom of the SERPs. For spammy or bogus listings, use the “Feedback” link for the actual listing.
  • Continue local search best practices.
  • Keep in mind that AdWords is always an option.

Is Pigeon An Acknowledgement That Google & SMBs Suck At Local? – Andrew Shotland, Local SEO Guide, August 7

Andrew Shotland seconds Linda Buquet’s suspicion that Google believes directories are better than individual business listings for local results. “I wonder if this update is also an acknowledgement that people actually prefer these national-local directory type sites v. having to hunt through a seemingly random collection of local business pages or Los Links?”

New Google Search Algorithm Update Targets Local Search Queries – Eric Sornoso, Search Engine Journal, August 13

Eric Sornoso believes that Pigeon was a boon to local businesses in comparison to national brands. “Before Pigeon, there was a strong chance that searching for pizza restaurants in Boise will return listings for major brands such as Domino’s and Pizza Hut towards the top of the SERP. In the post-Pigeon era, search results that are authoritatively local will be more prominently featured on the SERP.” Furthermore, Eric reports, local businesses that have a verified presence on Google+ may benefit from more feature-rich listings in the SERPs.

Pigeon Analysis – New Insights about this Crazy Google Local Algo & the Constant Flux – Linda Buquet, Local Search Forum, August 27

Linda Buquet is back, this time with an explanation of why many people are seeing so many fluctuations in local results: “Google is testing 2-3 versions of Pigeon on different datacenters and is rotating results. (Likely for AB testing.)”

How Google Pigeon Impacted Local Queries, and What You Can Do – Jim Yu, Search Engine Watch, September 3

Jim Yu provides further insights into the industries that benefitted and those that suffered from the Pigeon update. Among the former are hospitality, food and education; jobs, real estate, movies and insurance compose the latter. Jim added to the emerging optimization advice:

  • Think more locally and consider including neighborhood indicators in your local SEO strategy.
  • Optimize for visibility in the local carousel.
  • Continue local search best practices.

Pigeon Advice from Top Local SEOs and a Pigeon-Proofing Checklist – Miriam Ellis, Moz, September 4

Another top-notch resource, this one comes from Miriam Ellis over at Moz. Like Amy Gesenhues’ roundup of early advice, Miriam asks the experts to share the guidance they’ve given to their own clients. Among the themes, many echoing previous posts, are:

  • Think more local: Learn which geographic areas your business appears on the map for and emphasize those. If you’re located in a suburb, aim to become king of your ‘hood.
  • Consider focusing on less competitive categorical niches in which visibility may be easier to achieve.
  • Ensure you’re listed in the directories that rank well.
  • Focus on best practices for both local and traditional organic search: Get good links, create excellent content, eliminate technical issues and earn good reviews.
  • Keep calm and carry on: If you’ve been playing by the rules, resist the urge to completely scrap your marketing strategy.

Miriam rounds up all the aforementioned tips into a 6-point checklist for local businesses to Pigeon-proof their search strategy.

Post-Pigeon Best Practice: How To Optimize For Internet Yellow Pages & Directories – Chris Silver Smith, Search Engine Land, September 8

Analytics services such as SEMrush are reporting increased visits to directory sites such as Yellowpages.com, Superpages.com, Insiderpages.com, Smartpages.com and Manta.com since the Pigeon rollout, according to Chris Silver Smith. Local business review sites and vertical business directories also appear to have benefitted. “To cash in on this new paradigm, businesses must once again return to the yellow pages as a source of customer referrals.” Chris offered the following advice on how to optimize your presence in such directories:

  • Find the directories that rank well for your core terms. Visit the pages that rank and assess what you need to do to achieve visibility and prominence.
  • Consider advertising if it could enhance your prominence.
  • Use your standard local phone number, not a call-tracking number.
  • Associate your listing with all applicable city names.
  • Fully complete and optimize your directory profile and ensure there are no errors.
  • Improve your presence on review sites by offering excellent customer service, encouraging reviews (within ethical limits) and responding to feedback.
  • Keep an eye on your directory profiles as well as referral traffic to your site.

One Positive Pigeon Result: We Can Finally Ditch Ranking Reports – Greg Gifford, Search Engine Land, September 15

Finally, since rankings are still fluctuating as a result of Pigeon, comes this appeal to local SEOs to unite in ridding reports of rankings. Greg Gifford calls this a “huge opportunity to … educate our clients that rankings don’t equal success.” It’s time to deliver “better reports with metrics that really matter to the bottom line,” he says. Those include:

  • Organic traffic
  • Organic landing pages
  • Organic conversion sources
  • Google My Business impressions
  • Clicks for driving directions
  • Bonus: Manual phone tracking

Pigeon is an evolving creature, and we expect to see more in the weeks and months to come. If you’re a business owner who has been affected by this algo, keep your head up and stay alert for updates. In the meantime, if you’ve come across a great go-to guide that’s kept you sane or think we missed something important, please share it in the comments.

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