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What Does the Changing Local Pack Say About the Future of Local Search?

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When Pigeon hit the search engine community back in 2014, it was then seen as the biggest shakeup to local SEO to date. Now, we may be seeing the first course of a worthy runner-up. It’s been about two weeks since the desktop search results for local searches changed; what originally displayed as packs of seven businesses now contained only three. Unlike occasional systematic variants, usually the result of testing or glitches, this appeared to be a firm long-term change for the search giant, as the pack of three seemed consistent across all types of searches and points of origin.

The Extent of the Changes

The Extent of the Changes

On mobile devices, users have already been used to 3-pack entries, often displaying “website,” “directions,” and “call” buttons (at least on mobile phones). The divide represented a handful of critical differences in user intentions and needs; a call button wouldn’t be warranted for desktop users, just like a full listing of seven businesses wouldn’t be warranted for the mobile user looking for fast access or a fast solution.

The switch to 3-pack mirrors the traditional mobile results quite closely; it even has “website” and “directions” buttons similar to those in the mobile pack (though the “call” button is still missing). This closely aligns the look, feel, and function of both desktop and mobile searches.

There are a handful of other changes that have arisen from the switch. For example, specific addresses are no longer listed alongside business results; the “directions” button can help users find it on a map, and the street name is listed, but the full address is no longer immediately available. For most businesses, this can be counted as a win—if the address isn’t visible for any business in the listings, a user is forced to click on at least one of them to get anywhere.

Also added is a new selectable dropdown menu that allows users to filter results based on the average user rating for each business. User-submitted reviews have been important for businesses since the dawn of local SEO, and even more important since the release of the Pigeon update. Now, Google is making them even more important—it seems unlikely that any user faced with this option would choose anything but the highest-rated businesses to explore. The only problem from this comes with a change to non-rated businesses; rather than being met with a convenient “ratings” link, unrated businesses have no easy way for new users to submit the first review for a business. This could easily stifle the momentum of any new business.

Conspicuously absent in the new 3-pack are links to each business’s Google+ page. It’s no secret that Google has been slowly phasing Google+ out of its lineup of offerings, dismantling it for its individual functions, but these links are still present in full organic search results. I wouldn’t be surprised if an update in the very near future phased out Google+ links in these traditional search entries as well.

Possible Fallout

Possible Fallout

While the disappearance of the 7-pack has been met with both warm and cold reception, the truth of the matter is that it won’t change much. It offers new possibilities for some businesses, such as encouraging more clicks with the removal of a listed address, and also some new limits, since fewer businesses are allowed that top-ranked distinction.

Businesses who previously ranked between four and seven in the local 7-pack are understandably upset about the transition; after all, they’ll no longer get a presence above the fold of organic search results. But they need not worry; for Google to make a transition like this, it’s highly likely that any results under the top three weren’t receiving much—if any—attention. People were clicking, calling, and directing their way to those bottom four results far less, so it only made sense to get rid of them entirely and streamline the experience.

Google’s Motivation

Google's Motivation

From what I can tell, and of course Google hasn’t made a formal statement about it, Google’s motivation in this transition is twofold.

First, and is usually the case with Google updates, they’re trying to improve overall user experience. If users were only clicking on the top three entries of a 7-pack, that means the bottom four were dead weight, occupying space with no discernable purpose. Users who have appreciated and clicked the convenient “website” and “directions” buttons on mobile devices similarly must have informed Google about user preferences regarding those calls to action.

Second, Google is attempting to unify the mobile and desktop realms more and more. It’s starting to make “mobile” the new standard, and apply mobile layouts to desktop displays (rather than the other way around, as in the old days). Google’s John Mueller even stated directly that Google is fine with businesses who only have a mobile version of their website (and no desktop version). How’s that for commitment to mobile as the path to the future?

No matter how you feel about the shift to the new 3-pack, or how it’s going to dictate the future of mobile search, it’s definitely here to stay. As time goes on, Google will likely work harder to align the user interfaces of mobile and desktop displays, subtly forcing users onto the mobile experience. At this point, it’s unlikely the 3-pack will change—though don’t be surprised if some advertising opportunities start to encroach on that territory.

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Samuel Edwards

In his 4+ years as a digital marketing specialist, Sam has learned the ins and outs of online marketing. Additionally, he has worked with countless local businesses as well as enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including: NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP, and human rights organization Amnesty International. Today he continues to work with and establish SEO, PPC and SEM campaigns.

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