This just in: Pigeon could be coming to neighborhood search results near you! For those unaware, Google’s newest algorithm update was launched on July 24th and has been nicknamed “Pigeon” by Search Engine Land. Marketers began noticing significant changes to many of their keyword rankings almost immediately and quickly started asking whether we should be bringing bread to the park or eating more squab. I’ll summarize for you here what we know about Pigeon based on the insights available to date, and why it matters.
The first and perhaps most important question to ask is, what did Pigeon do? According to Barry Schwartz, Google released this update to “provide more useful, relevant and accurate local search results that are tied more closely to traditional web search ranking signals.” Basically, search results will place a greater emphasis on the searcher’s location in traditional search results and Google Maps. Specifically, in the carousel at the top of the search page, more local results are being added to the mix. Here is one before and after example from Schwartz on Search Engine Roundtable on a search for [ice cream], which shows local results as more prevalent after the update:
In addition, in a Pigeon follow-up post on Search Engine Land, Matt McGee says, “… one thing appears to be clear: Local directory sites are getting better visibility in Google’s search results.” This statement is validated with several examples and comments showing that directory sites such as “Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and OpenTable” are now often ranking ahead of individual locations, such as a specific restaurant or hotel in more general searches. Matt offers this great example (image below): “A search for ‘Miami hotels’ shows individual hotels in the carousel, followed by nothing but directory-style pages in the organic results below — URLs from Hotels.com, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Kayak and even a list of hotels from Marriott’s website. Individual hotels don’t show until page two.”
In addition, according to McGee, prior to this update Yelp would often be left out of top search results. This was found to be the case even in branded search queries, including the term “Yelp.” Since the update was implemented, searches with the term “Yelp” now appear to be generally showing with Yelp as the top result.
Now that we have a grasp on what Pigeon is, we begin to ask how it will affect us. Schwartz says of the update, “The core changes are behind the scenes, but it does impact local search results rankings and some local businesses may notice an increase or decrease in web site referrals, leads and business from the change.” Based on my research (to be fair we have less than a week’s worth), I estimate a wide range of outcomes for businesses across the country. This sentiment is reiterated by Erika Karas of Search Engine Land who says, “Small businesses will likely notice an effect on their rankings. Whether the effect is positive or negative is yet to be seen.”
I can see some small businesses benefiting significantly from emphasis now being placed on localized search results. However, I could also see some small and medium size businesses getting pushed out of some broader, heavier traffic searches that are now prioritizing directories. McGee perhaps summarizes it best by saying, “… it looks like Yelp and other local directory-style sites are benefitting with higher visibility after the Pigeon update, at least in some verticals. And that seems logical since, as Google said, this update ties local results more closely to standard web ranking signals. That should benefit big directory sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor — sites that have stronger SEO signals than small, individual restaurants and hotels are likely to have. For those businesses and websites, local search has just gotten a lot more difficult.” The full effect won’t be realized for a number of weeks or months, but any change of this magnitude is sure to face some backlash from the businesses that are negatively impacted. Sudden changes such as the Pigeon update are just further evidence that having competent SEM professionals is extremely important to ensure your organization can roll with the punches.
Finally, the question of why requires a bit of inferring. While we can’t say for sure why Google decided to implement these changes, other than (of course) to improve the quality of search results, there are several factors that may have contributed. For one, as mentioned by McGee and earlier in the article, Yelp accused Google of favoring their own results over Yelp’s, even in branded searches. Funny that not too long after these accusations were made, an algorithm that fixes the problem is introduced. Another possible motivation for this update is to tailor to mobile users looking to do local shopping. When you are out and on your phone, it is extremely beneficial (at least in my mind) to get location-specific listings for the items you’re looking for. Google has talked before about how mobile technology is the future (including phones, tablets, wearable tech, etc…), and has reflected its priority with actions such as forcing advertisers to use the forenamed Advanced Campaigns, and treating tablets the same as desktops.
While there are many possible motivations for Google, we will just have to wait and see what happens and what they say to be sure. For now, we can only watch as the magnitude of the Pigeon update becomes more apparent. It reminds me about the scariest and most enticing part of being an SEM professional, which is knowing that, much like in Inception, the world of digital marketing can be flipped on its head at any point. Talent, adaptability, and patience are required to truly succeed. All I can say is that when the pigeons come home to roost, I plan on being ready.