“Near me” is an innocuous little phrase that millions of searchers have been tacking on to the end of their search queries with greater frequency. Sometimes they do it at the behest of Google’s predictive search, clicking on the “near me” version of their query when prompted, but many users are finding it useful to pursue these types of searches on their own. You, too, have probably relied on a “near me” search at least once—whether it was to find a nearby hair salon or a donut shop in your area.
Of course, “near me” is just the most popular of location-specific add-ons; there’s also “nearby,” “closest,” and similar phrases. Collectively, these location-specific query variants are more than 34 times as popular in 2015 than they were in 2011, with a twofold increase between last year and today. With such an objective spike in popular usage, there’s no denying that Google is onto something big.
Search trends are volatile and unpredictable, making it hard to identify clear patterns, but with a 34-fold increase in search prevalence, the trend here is obvious. Explaining why it’s happening is a bit more complicated, but there are a handful of powerful motivators.
First, Google’s search capabilities are constantly evolving. As search marketers, we flinch whenever we hear the term “algorithm update,” but the fact that Google is so committed to improving its core algorithm is astounding. Google can now use artificial intelligence programs to identify semantic clues in search queries to give more relevant results, identify patterns in spoken human language, and perhaps most importantly, use geographic cues to generate location-specific results. As these proximity-based search results become simultaneously more advanced and more popularly recognized, it only makes sense that people would seek them out more often.
Second, mobile devices have grown to become less of a fancy tech gadget and more of a requirement for daily life. Almost every adult in the United States has a smartphone, and they put them to good use. Logically, proximity-based searches happen more often on mobile devices than desktop devices; you’re more likely to have impulsive desires or the need for immediate information when you’re on-the-go. The fact that more people are carrying around mobile devices means the number of potential proximity-based searchers has increased correspondingly.
Third, the way we use the Internet is changing. There was a time, not long ago, when Internet access required a certain location—either hardwired into a landline or connected to a then-rare local WiFi network. Now, there’s rarely a time when we don’t have Internet access, no matter where we are. We’ve accepted it as an integrated part of our reality, and as a result, we’re using it less for thought-out, premeditated research and more for instantaneous points of reference. These nearby searches have become a necessity to comply with this on-demand lifestyle.
Because the Internet has become embedded in the real world, the dimensions necessary for consideration in SEO are also becoming more embedded in reality. To illustrate my point, consider the factors responsible for generating search results for a given query in the dawn of search engine prominence; all you had to do was have enough of the right keywords on your page. As Google’s sophistication evolved, you soon had to prove yourself by establishing a network with other online authorities, develop authority for yourself, and use well-written, natural language to prove you were a valuable resource. Then, social media ranking signals came along and your social presence began to influence your rank as well.
Now, your physical location is beginning to have an impact on how you appear. Local searches were always around, but now, “near me” searches demand even more precise proximity-based functionality. If you aren’t in a place where people are searching for your type of business, you’ll get less online visibility, and less traffic as a result. Similarly, Google may factor in the immediacy of your service offerings; on-the-go searches are the product of immediate needs, so if you’re closed when a search query seeks you out, you may not even show up.
Search will continue to evolve to serve the needs of modern consumers. “Near me” searches are the product of two major trends, which will likely continue indefinitely. First, consumers will use the Internet even more intuitively, more quickly, and with a demand for even more immediate information. Second, the lines between the digital and real worlds will continue to blur. Wearable devices, like smart watches, are advancing these trends with hardware, while personal digital assistants, like Siri, are advancing these trends with software and algorithms.
If you want to retain or improve your online visibility as a business, you’ll have to prepare for this, no matter how difficult that sounds. You’ll have to optimize your web presence to serve all mediums, and ensure all your information—including your services, location, and hours of operation—are evident on a number of third-party sources. And as Google searches and mobile devices continue to evolve toward digital interfaces integrated with reality, you’ll need to be on the forefront of those trends if you want to keep your customers happy. It’s an exciting world of tech we’re entering, and if you play your hand right, you’ll reap the benefits.