The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
Local search marketing is a form of publicity unlike any other because of its potential for creating positive social change.
July 2022 is Independent Business Month and the perfect moment to reinvigorate our work as local SEOs by reflecting on the meaningful bigger picture to which we’re contributing. I’ve heard European social commentators say that you can’t publish books in America with the word “virtue” in their titles, but when an independent business owner opens their doors, it instigates a true virtuous cycle. When marketers have the honor of entering that cycle, we’re participating in something even more important than “traffic”, “conversions”, or “growth”; we’re contributing to the force for good known as localism.
It can be an outcome of continual work with analytics and statistics to slip into viewing everything as a numbers game, but in local, each of those numbers is a real individual, a neighbor with a story, with needs. This month, we have the opportunity to re-center people, community, and environment by considering the definition of localism and seeing how our work in local SEO matters.
A definition of economic localism
I can’t say it better than this:
“Localism is about building communities that are more healthy and sustainable – backed by local economies that are stronger and more resilient. It means we use regional resources to meet our needs – reconnecting eaters with farmers, investors with entrepreneurs, and business owners with the communities and natural places on which they depend. Economic success is measured less by production than by providing a decent standard of living for the most people while living in harmony with natural systems.” – Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BAILLE)
In other words, instead of mere profits being the ultimate goal of this way of participating in civic life, localism strives to reduce suffering by building a community that actually functions well for everybody who lives in it – what the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. might have termed “a glorious and healthy place to inhabit”.
The benefits of localism
Local wealth for local needs
The most immediate and obvious benefit of economic localism is that the money you spend keeps circulating amongst your neighbors. As illustrated above, you buy a bike and put money into the pocket of the local bike shop owner. On their lunch break, the bike shop owner cycles down the road for lunch and hands your money over to the local restaurateur. After work, the restaurateur takes your money to the local hardware store to pick up some locally-grown veggie starts for their home garden. The next morning, the hardware store owner is using your money to pay part of their electricity bill to the community-owned utility. A few weeks later, an engineer at the utility company is using your money to donate to a new bike path being made in your community so that there are safer places for cyclists like you to ride.
In sum, a community built on localism recycles its money so that it can be dedicated to local people’s needs and projects, but a community without this model becomes increasingly under-funded because its wealth is leaking away into the wallets of national, multi-national, and remote entities with no stake in local life. When your community needs a new fire engine, repairs to the town hall, or schoolbooks, the money is there within the city instead of lost forever to the coffers of Walmart or Amazon where the CEOs have no thoughts about your local needs. So, basic economic localism begins with ensuring that local wealth is recycled instead of extracted, but this is just the first of its benefits and we’ll look at a few more that deserve priority focus.
Healthy, green communities
Environmental protections and localism go hand in hand, rooted in the acknowledgement that we have no life, no business, no anything without the Earth. Local delivery of your essential needs cuts carbon emissions in half vs. remote ecommerce shopping. Meanwhile, the central location of typical Main Streets means people can choose to walk, bike, or drive a much shorter distance to shop, while big box stores (which usually take up formerly-open or agricultural lands on the outskirts of cities) tripled pollution from driving between 1969 – 2009. George Washington University links two million annual new cases of pediatric asthma to driving our cars, meaning the less we use fossil fuel vehicles, the better our children can breathe. And as for formerly-green spaces acting as the healthy ecological lungs of your whole community, an economy driven by localism can defund big box sprawl and restore wetlands, waterways, and farmlands where megastores and asphalt used to be.
Political will and power
At the most hyperlocal level, towns and cities running on localism can shape their own economic landscapes. Communities have repeatedly demonstrated the power to keep big boxes out and diverse small businesses open so that shoppers have some very meaningful choices at their disposal. Buy Local associations and related groups also have real power to help sway local elections and policies which determine how towns and cities develop and grow, directly impacting life quality for all residents.
Zooming out on the map, these local actions can have national benefits. A dilemma facing conscientious consumers is when their need for everyday goods collides with the dominance of monopolies that fund undesirable politicians and policies. The distress is real when, for example, a shopper becomes aware that there have been some 500 shootings at US grocery stores since 2020 and discovers that the chain where they shop is funding candidates or legislation promoting the sale of assault weapons. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees “life, liberty and safety of person” for all people, but if a big brand doesn’t uphold these conventions, resulting in the deaths or terrorization of its customers, ethical people will not want to do business with that company. When one town refuses to let such a business operate in their community, it is one small victory; when multiple towns do the same, it can govern the behavior and fate of that brand at a national level.
Human well-being and enjoyment
The American Psychological Association finds that our chances of premature death are cut in half if we are protected from suffering loneliness and the Cambridge Journal of Regions proposes that there is a direct tie between local health and the proportion of small businesses in a community. When your local business owners, farmers, artisans, educators, and public servants know you by name, you experience the kind of quality social interactions that are a safeguard against isolation, despair, and untimely mortality.
Localism can not only help you live longer, but it can make the savor of your years so much richer, with there being unique and interesting things to see and do in your town. Americans take 2.29 billion domestic trips every year, and when you think about the impulse to visit other places, it can’t be so that you can experience the exact same big boxes and fast food franchises in millions of cities! Rather, you want to walk and taste the real New Orleans, or San Francisco, or Seattle. If your town is host to a famous garlic festival, or apple fair, or chili cookoff, guard this regional richness from the kind of corporate homogeneity that would make colorless carbon copies out of vivid places to be alive. Localism can actually make the difference between human suffering and human joy.
The honor of working in local SEO
I confess to getting very excited whenever I think or talk about this: local SEOs have the skills to help shape towns and countries they actually want to live in. All those years we put in studying search and local commerce have actually empowered us to directly promote the independent businesses which bring the multiple benefits of localism to life. In fact, we can think of our abilities as a toolkit for rebalancing the economy, society, and even the planet.
How does that work?
It’s quite simple: any time your work results in an independently-owned small business outranking a corporate one, you are making it easier for local shoppers to choose localism.
It’s a struggle to compete against the endless marketing budgets of national brands, but your skills at performing deft competitive local audits and quickly seeing a path towards greater independent business visibility are actually a key contribution to helping the public discover and choose a more humane and habitable future. In fact, filling your client roster with an eye to localism aligns your work life with the dignity of immigrants who own about ¼ of small US businesses, with minority-owned US businesses which are 99.9% SMBs, and with a massive and necessary reduction in everybody’s carbon footprint. It’s estimated that Americans will spend about ⅓ of their total lives at work; it’s heartening to know we have an option to commit all those hours to public good.
Our opponents won’t quit any time soon. We can slide into feeling helpless when our Twitter feeds are comprised of news about Amazon greenwashing Earth Day while allegedly underreporting its unsustainable carbon emissions, Walmart paying its employees such low wages that the company has become the nation’s largest recipient of welfare, and Target union busting while Starbucks threatens to close a shop where workers managed to unionize.
Local SEOs, happily, are not powerless, because we can choose to be sure that there are other highly visible places for people to buy food, books, clothes, housewares, and a cup of coffee. We can embrace the honor of using our substantial marketing skills to amplify the narrative of localism, in partnership with our clients, to address the societal heartaches that hurt us most and get busy on the must-do work of healing the planet. No small tasks, perhaps, but what a tantalizing offer life is presenting us with to resolve to market for the common good.
Local Pack Header Specificity Vanishes while Local Packs Downtrend
The author’s views are entirely his or her own (excluding the unlikely event of hypnosis) and may not always reflect the views of Moz.
In July of this year, Dr. Peter J. Meyers and I published a report analyzing an element of Google’s local results we termed “local pack headers”. About a month after publication, members of the local SEO community, like Colan Nielsen, began noticing that the extraordinary diversity of headings we had captured had suddenly diminished:
Today, I’m doing a quick follow-up to the manual portion of our earlier study in an effort to quantify and illustrate this abrupt alteration.
A total sea change in local pack headers
Between July and November of 2022, 83% of our previously-queried local pack headers underwent a complete transformation of nomenclature. Only 17% of the local pack headers were still worded the same way in autumn as they had been in the summertime. Here is a small set of examples:
In our manual analysis of 60 queries in July, we encountered 40 unique local pack headers – a tremendous variety. Now, all specificity is gone. For all of our queries, headings have been reduced to just 3 types: in-store availability, places, and businesses.
Entity relationships remain mysterious
What hasn’t changed is my sense that the logic underpinning which businesses receive which local pack header remains rather odd. In the original study, we noted the mystery of why a query like “karate” fell under the heading of “martial arts school” but a query for “tai chi” got a unique “tai chi heading”, or why “adopt dog” results were headed “animal rescue services” but “adopt bunny” got a pack labeled “adopt bunny”. The curious entity relationships continue on, even in this new, genericized local pack header scenario. For example, why is my search for “tacos” (which formerly brought up a pack labeled “Mexican restaurants”, now labeled this:
But my search for “oil change” gets this header:
Is there something about a Mexican restaurant that makes it more of a “place” and an oil change spot that makes it more of a “business”? I don’t follow the logic. Meanwhile, why are service area businesses, as shown in my search for “high weed mowing” being labeled “places”?
Surely high weed mowing is not a place…unless it is a philosophical one. Yet I saw many SABs labeled this way instead of as “businesses”, which would seem a more rational label, given Google’s historic distinction between physical premises and go-to-client models. There are many instances like this of the labeling not making much horse sense, and with the new absence of more specific wording, it feels like local pack headers are likely to convey less meaning and be more easily overlooked now.
Why has Google done this and does it matter to your local search marketing?
Clearly, Google decided to streamline their classifications. There may be more than three total local pack header types, but I have yet to see them. Hotel packs continue to have their own headings, but they have always been a different animal:
In general, Google experiments with whatever they think will move users about within their system, and perhaps they felt the varied local pack headers were more of a distraction than an aid to interactivity with the local packs. We can’t know for sure, nor can we say how long this change will remain in place, because Google could bring back the diverse headings the day after I publish this column!
As to whether this matters to your local search campaigns, unfortunately, the generic headers do obscure former clues to the mind of Google that might have been useful in your SEO. I previously suggested that local businesses might want to incorporate the varied local pack terms into the optimization of the website tags and text, but in the new scenario, it is likely to be pointless to optimize anything for “places”, “businesses”, or “in-store availability”. It’s a given that your company is some kind of place or business if you’re creating a Google Business Profile for it. And, your best bet for featuring that you carry certain products is to publish them on your listing and consider whether you want to opt into programs like Pointy.
In sum, this change is not a huge deal, but I’m a bit sorry to see the little clues of the diversified headers vanish from sight. Meanwhile, there’s another local pack trend going on right now that you should definitely be paying attention to…
A precipitous drop in overall local pack presence
In our original study, Google did not return a local pack for 18% of our manual July queries. By November, the picture had significantly changed. A startling 42% of our queries suddenly no longer displayed a local pack. This is right in line with Andrew Shotland’s documentation of a 42.3% drop from peak local pack display between August and October. Mozcast, pictured above, captured a drop from 39.6% of queries returning local packs on October 24th to just 25.1% on October 25th. The number has remained in the low-to-mid 20s in the ensuing weeks. It’s enough of a downward slope to give one pause.
Because I’m convinced of the need for economic localism as critical to healing the climate and society, I would personally like Google to return local packs for all commercial queries so that searchers can always see the nearest resource for purchasing whatever they need, but if Google is reducing the number of queries for which they deliver local results, I have to try to understand their thinking.
To do that, I have to remember that the presence of a local pack is a signal that Google believes a query has a local intent. Likely, they often get this right, but I can think of times when a local result has appeared for a search term that doesn’t seem to me to be obviously, inherently local. For example, in the study Dr. Pete and I conducted, we saw Google not just returning a local pack for the keyword “pickles” but even giving it its own local pack header:
If I search for pickles, am I definitely looking for pickles near me, or could I be looking for recipes, articles about the nutritional value of pickles, the history of pickles, something else? How high is Google’s confidence that vague searches like these should be fulfilled with a local result?
After looking at a number of searches like these in the context of intent, my current thinking is this: for some reason unknown to us, Google is dialing back presumed local intent. Ever since Google made the user the centroid of search and began showing us nearby results almost by default for countless queries, we users became trained not to have to add many (or any) modifiers to our search language to prompt Google to lay out our local options for us. We could be quite lazy in our searches and still get local results.
In the new context of a reduced number of searches generating local packs, though, we will have to rehabituate ourselves to writing more detailed queries to get to what we want if Google no longer thinks our simple search for “pickles” implies “pickles near me”. I almost get the feeling that Google wants us to start being more specific again because its confidence level about what constitutes a local search has suffered some kind of unknown challenge.
It’s also worth throwing into our thinking what our friends over at NearMedia.co have pointed out:
It could be that Google’s confidence is being shaken in a variety of ways, including by regulatory rulings, and local SEOs should always expect change. For now, though, local businesses may be experiencing some drop in their local pack traffic and CTR. On the other hand, if Google is getting it right, there may be no significant loss. If your business was formerly showing up in a local pack for a query that didn’t actually have a local intent, you likely weren’t getting those clicks anyway because a local result wasn’t what the searcher was looking for to begin with.
That being said, I am seeing examples in which I feel Google is definitely getting it wrong. For instance, my former searches for articles of furniture all brought up local packs with headings like “accent chairs” or “lamps”. Now, Google is returning no local pack for some of these searches and is instead plugging an enormous display of remote, corporate shopping options. There are still furniture stores near me, but Google is now hiding them, and that disappoints me greatly:
So here’s today’s word to the wise: keep working on the organic optimization of your website and the publication of helpful content. Both will underpin your key local pack rankings, and as we learned from our recent large-scale local business review survey, 51% of consumers are going to end up on your site as their next step after reading reviews on your listings. 2023 will be a good year to invest in the warm and inclusive welcome your site is offering people, and the investment will also stand you in good stead however local pack elements like headers, or even local packs, themselves, wax and wane.