On July 24th 2014, a fundamental update to Google’s local search algorithm was officially rolled out in the United States. The unfortunately-named ‘Pigeon Update’ aimed to make local searches more accurate, relevant and valuable for users seeking out location-specific results. Ultimately, as with any Google update, the bottom line is to give users exactly what they want as quickly as possible. Pigeon was simply a natural reaction to the rising importance of locality in the digital sphere, and hence the higher need for efficient local search results.

Google’s big push for better local search results

Of course, Pigeon is not the only Google update that directly addresses local search features. The Venice Update in February 2012 worked to return localised search results for more general queries (e.g. searching for a generic term such as ‘Pizza’ would have the same effect as searching for a more specific phrase like ‘Pizza in London Bridge’ if you were in the same area), thus taking full advantage of location and GPS features in this mobile age. Four years later in September 2016 we had the Possum Update, which aimed at diversifying local search by filtering out duplicate listings, boosting the importance of the user’s physical location, and reducing the influence of strict location boundaries on local results.

Coming in between these two updates, Pigeon made fundamental changes to the DNA of Google’s local search by integrating it into their core organic search algorithm. In other words, local search rankings now abide by more general ranking factors that revolve primarily around great content and strong backlinks, whereas before local ranking factors mainly emphasised proximity and relevance alone. (Don’t worry, we’ll get more into what this means from an SEO perspective shortly!). The main intention here was to bring the same levels of accuracy and value seen with organic web searches into the realm of local search.

What did the Pigeon Update actually do?

With only vague remarks from Google and inconsistent fluctuations on SERPs as our guide, understanding the inner workings of any major algorithm update can be somewhat shrouded in mystery. That said, there are a few things we know for certain about how Pigeon changed local search:

  • The influence of website authority on the ranking of local listings increased
  • Google began to interpret searcher location cues more accurately
  • Map searches started using a tighter geographic radius for more precise results
  • Distance and location parameters became more specific
  • Knowledge graph results saw an increased emphasis

Narrow your focus

When we talk about ‘local SEO’ and ‘local results’, we mean ‘local’ in the strongest sense of the word. Due to the Pigeon Update rendering location parameters more precisely than ever before, Google now takes into account more than just city boundaries – think estates, neighbourhoods, boroughs, and so on. As such, the geographic radius applied by Google in local searches is a lot smaller and more specific, making results more accurate and relevant for the user. From an SEO perspective, this means that we can think about local search in much more narrow terms and Google can interpret those terms more accurately when ranking web pages. In other words, you become more likely to rank in SERPs and gain organic traffic if you capitalise on the exact details of your location with more specific content. A phrase like ‘Pubs in London’ is going to be a lot less fruitful than targeting ‘Pubs in Bermondsey’, for instance.

More accurate local search demands more accurate SEO tactics. Local businesses should be optimising their websites and content for their local consumers by targeting more specific search terms and adding a Local Business Centre listing with the proper category and location details. However, regardless of your shifting focus in location specifics, it’s always important to maintain NAP consistency across websites and listings.

Local directories: yay or nay?

Soon after the Pigeon Update was released, it quickly became apparent to disgruntled business owners and marketers that directories were enjoying a newfound prominence in local results pages. Furthermore, it appeared that they were overtaking the websites of local businesses in rankings. It appeared that Google were instead offering up directory pages upon which those business were listed. Why? Probably due to an algorithmic shift in local ranking factors toward website authority and backlink profiles – advantages mostly held by big brands such as Yelp and TripAdvisor – slightly reducing the success of individual websites with weaker backlink profiles. This was exacerbated by local businesses that had perhaps not engaged in any search engine optimisation previously.

This change in the landscape was considered by many in the SEO community to be a failing on Google’s part. For instance, David Mihm argued that the prominence of directories in local SERPs offers users nothing more than “search results within search results” – a counterintuitive solution to the task of making local search more efficient. Many also claim that Pigeon does a relative disservice to local businesses and their websites, denying them priority where it is undeniably due. But wherever you stand on the integrity of Google’s algorithm, we think it’s important for businesses to be listed on high-ranking directories anyway – so why not take advantage of the situation? You might not get much traffic from third-party listings, but if they’re primed and optimised to provide all the essential information you’re still getting your business seen. Plus, it’s a legitimate way of attaching your business to a strong domain and often gaining some of that succulent link juice!

The user knows best

While Pigeon was met with the usual sense of suspicion and urgency by businesses and SEOs in all sectors, the same can’t be said for everyday users. After all, search experiences have quickly become all the more efficient and intuitive for those craving a quick coffee or a cheap takeaway in their local area! We believe here that pushing local search forward can only be a good thing, not only for users but for businesses and SEOs looking to target specific locations and grow their brand locally. If the main purpose of Pigeon is to ‘help the user’, then it is the role of SEOs to ‘help Google help the user’.