Launch date: July 24, 2014 (US); December 22, 2014 (UK, Canada, Australia) Hazards: Poor on- and off-page SEO
How it works: Pigeon affects those searches in which the user’s location plays an important part. The update created closer ties between the local algorithm and the core algorithm: traditional SEO factors are now used to rank local results.
How to adjust: Invest effort into on- and off-page SEO. A good starting point is running an on-page analysis with WebSite Auditor. The tool’s Content Analysis dashboard will give you a good idea about the aspects of on-page optimization you need to focus on.
The release of Pigeon resulted in one of the greatest shakeups of Google’s local and local organic results to date. This update was given its moniker by Search Engine Land, an industry publication that received direct intelligence from Google about the intent of Pigeon.
Pigeon was designed to tie Google’s local search algorithm closer to their web algorithm and to improve ranking parameters based on distance and location. The local SEO community reported daily changes to local and local-organic rankings for weeks following the Pigeon rollout, including widespread replacement of the older 7-pack style of local results with packs featuring just 3 listings.
Hallmarks of Pigeon
Let’s take a look at some of the major changes that took place as part of the Pigeon update:
One of Google’s stated purposes for the Pigeon update was to connect their local algorithm more deeply to their traditional web algorithm to take full advantage of the hundreds of ranking signals that go into the web algorithm. These new ties to the web algorithm further emphasized the need for local businesses to have a strong organic web presence in order to compete for local rankings.
At the same time, Pigeon was slated as featuring improvements to Google’s ability to calculate a local businesses’ distance and location. In many cases, it appeared that the search radius had been narrowed, favoring businesses that were closest to the physical location of the searcher. For example, when searching for a query like “pizza san francisco,” a user in the North Beach area of San Francisco would receive local results narrowed to that neighborhood instead of city-wide results. The full extent of Pigeon’s impacts on the local packs were quite challenging to document since ranking fluctuations were rampant for weeks following the update, with some local SEOs theorizing that Google may have been A/B testing different results sets.
With map boundaries redrawn to a narrower radius (either as part of the Pigeon update or as a result of a concurrent A/B test) post-Pigeon, many business found themselves suddenly outside of the packs in which they were previously ranking. Fast forward several years and Google has become remarkably expert at divining metrics like the distance between a searcher and a business, and Pigeon may be seen most clearly as a step along that path.
One of the most notable outcomes of Pigeon was the loss of 7-pack local results (Google’s sets of 7 local business listings that were commonly shown when a search engine query had local intent, such as “pizza Chicago” or “attorney in Denver”). Over the course of time, Google has steadily decreased the number of local business listings it displays in its local results packs, initially starting with 10 listings and, in 2015, switching to just 3 listings per pack in nearly all cases. Pigeon rolled out one year before the mass switch to 3-packs and may be seen in hindsight as a step toward full adoption of these downsized packs. This reduction of pack size left many businesses outside of the local results, struggling as never before for local visibility.
4. As with many Google updates, the Pigeon update appeared to result in a temporary increase of spam listings making their way into the packs, emphasizing the local algorithm’s critical weaknesses as well as the need for the public to voluntarily report violations of Google’s guidelines. One particularly frustrating aspect of Pigeon surrounded Google’s ongoing and as-of-yet unresolved inability to differentiate between legitimate business names and ones that have been edited to contain exact match keywords. Local packs featuring spammy business names proliferated, pushing guideline-compliant businesses out of the packs.
Pigeon-proofing your web presence
Pigeon represents a challenge to local business owners in that, rather than chiefly penalizing bad practices, it redefined Google’s stance on relevance, taking into account some factors over which businesses have little or no control.
For example, a business can’t control the radius Google draws around the point of a searcher to yield local pack results. Even if a restaurant on the west side of a city offers the finest dining, it may be out of luck in terms of pack rankings if the human searcher happens to be located on the east side of town. Aspects like these can’t be managed by the business, but fortunately, other factors can be managed for success in a post-Pigeon landscape, including:
Emphasis on traditional, organic signals – Intelligent link building, publishing exceptional website content and growing Domain Authority all support high local and local organic rankings.
Emphasis on hyperlocal content – Creating text, video, and image content that associates your business with a specific neighborhood or local region will strengthen your authority as a resource for a narrowed search radius.
Emphasis on local SEO basics – Competing in the 3-pack environment relies on getting everything right on a basic local SEO checklist. Actions to take include improving the accuracy and breadth of your citations, removing duplicate listings, gaining favorable reviews, and many more fundamental tasks. Large brands should pay particular attention to these foundational to-dos; overlooking proper execution could be holding them back in the local rankings for their hundreds or thousands of locations.
Spam reporting – When Google fails to police its own local results, you can lend a hand. First, be sure you know Google’s guidelines to the letter, and then take steps to level the playing field for all local businesses by reporting any violations you encounter. Google may not always act on your reports, but it’s worth the effort of trying, especially if demoting a spammer may free up a higher spot for your business. Of course, never report a business just because it’s owned by a competitor. Only report those listings that are violating Google’s guidelines.