Lessons from the November 2021 Google local search update

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We look at which businesses were affected by Google’s November 2021 surprise local update, as well as how to respond if you’ve been affected.

On 16 December, Google confirmed a local search algorithm update had rolled out during the first week of the month. SEOs started reporting volatility in local results in the first few days of December but Google remained silent as the disruption intensified over the following week.

With a busy year for updates coming to a close and the holiday season in full swing, an unannounced local update was the last thing small businesses had on their Christmas list. Despite being the biggest local update we’ve seen in many years, it’s not all bad news – so here’s what we’ve learned about the update in the past few weeks.

What is the November 2021 local search update?

The November 2021 local search update came as a surprise with businesses and marketers reporting major fluctuations in the early days of December.

More than two weeks after volatility was first reported, Google finally confirmed the update started rolling out on 30 November and finished rolling out on 8 December. By this point, many in the industry were calling it the “Vicinity Update,” which refers to one of the key factors affected.

Unsurprisingly, SEOs weren’t too happy about the update catching everyone by surprise – nor the late confirmation from Google. Businesses faced a difficult year in 2021 with endless algorithm updates and the last thing small, local companies needed was a local search algorithm update as the Christmas shopping season kicked off.

Google’s Danny Sullivan responded to complaints by clarifying the search giant has “a lot of updates all the time” and that it doesn’t announce them all. However, he did concede that it does try to announce updates likely to make a noticeable difference in search rankings and admitted that failing to announce the November 2021 local search update “was a miss”.

What did the November 2021 local update affect?

This was the biggest local search update we’ve seen in many years but Google didn’t offer much info into what the update targeted. It simply told us the update “involved a rebalancing of various factors we consider in generating local search results” and linked to the following guidance on the Google support website: How to improve your local ranking on Google.

The documentation page linked to above includes a section explaining how Google determines local rankings.

“Local results are based primarily on relevance, distance and prominence. A combination of these factors helps us find the best match for your search. For example, our algorithms might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer, and therefore rank it higher in local results.”

Google specifies three key factors in ranking local results:

  1. Relevance: Relevance refers to how well a local Business Profile matches what someone is searching for. Add complete and detailed business information to help Google better understand your business and match your profile to relevant searches.
  2. Distance: Distance considers how far each potential search result is from the location term used in a search. If a user doesn’t specify a location in their search, we’ll calculate distance based on what we do know about their location.
  3. Prominence: Prominence refers to how well known a business is. Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking. For example, famous museums, landmark hotels or well-known shop brands are also likely to be prominent in local search results.

That’s all we know from Google’s delayed announcement but analysis suggests distance is the biggest factor affected by the update, leading many to call it the “Vicinity Update”.

The November 2021 ‘Vicinity Update’

The November 2021 local search update caused dramatic changes to local rankings, in many cases swapping out businesses that had ranked prominently with companies that had little or no history of ranking for the same keyword and location combo.

You can see an example from this writeup, published on Search Engine Land, where the pins show the vicinity of top-ranking businesses in relation to the user’s location.

Source

As you can see, the distance between businesses showing in the top three positions and user locations has reduced significantly.

The same report finds that businesses that include keywords in their business name also suffered in the update. As a result, companies not using keywords in their business name benefited, especially in cases where their competitors have keywords in their business names.

A key characteristic of the update is smaller, more local businesses now rank ahead of more established business names that are located further away from the user. Related to this, prominent companies with multiple locations may also see less prominent business locations situated closer to the user ranking ahead of their primary business location.

So it’s not simply a case of the nearest businesses ranking more prominently than before – there are other factors at play here. However, it seems Google is placing more weight on location and less of it on business size.

Here’s a quick summary of the takeaways from the 2021 local search update:

  • The distance signal appears to have more weight following the update
  • Smaller, more local businesses are ranking above more prominent businesses located further away from the user
  • Businesses previously ranking for searches very far from locations lose visibility
  • Companies with keywords in their business names may suffer
  • Companies not using keywords in their business name (especially those with competitors that do use keywords) may benefit
  • Secondary locations for prominent businesses with multiple locations

Is this update good news for smaller local businesses?

Based on early findings, the November 2021 local search update looks like a win for smaller local businesses. Previous to the update, prominent businesses were ranking for searches performed quite a distance away from the user. Where relevant, smaller businesses located closer to users are ranking in the top positions ahead of bigger names further away.

Assuming there is no corrective local update in the near future, this could be a big win for smaller businesses, especially those that are new to local search or finding it difficult to make traction.

The only downside is the timing of the update and the late announcement from Google. We’ve heard accounts from smaller businesses that simply weren’t ready to deal with the increased visibility and this is particularly frustrating when the update hit at the start of the Christmas shopping season.

Had the update come a little earlier and Google announced it on the day rollout started, smaller businesses benefiting from the update may have had more time to take full advantage of the increased visibility during the biggest consumer period of the year.

All that aside, any improvement for smaller businesses is welcome and there’s plenty of time to get ready for the busy periods of 2022. Smaller businesses enjoying greater visibility after the November 2021 local search update, should put measures in place to take full advantage of the increased impressions:

  • Make sure your Google Business Profile is 100% complete and up-to-date
  • Include your phone number in your business listing
  • Have someone available to take calls
  • Set up call tracking to measure phone leads
  • Track store visits following local searches
  • Promote your products in Google Shopping / organic product listings
  • Show users you have specific items in-stock, nearby
  • Encourage customers to leave reviews
  • Incentivise store visits by helping customers to book tables, reserve products, purchase for pick-up, etc.

What if you’ve been negatively hit by this update?

If you’ve suffered from this update, the first thing you should do is confirm where you’re seeing fewer impressions for searches performed further away from your business locations. If this is the case, you’ll have to focus more effort on optimising for searches performed closer to your business locations.

Likewise, if you’re using keywords in your business name, experiment with removing them to see if this has any impact on your local impressions.

If you’ve got multiple business locations, keep an eye on impressions for secondary locations to see if you’re gaining back some losses from your primary business location.

If none of that helps, check your Google Business Profile is complete and see how you can optimise your listing to incentivise store visits. If you’ve lost visibility from searches taking place further away from your business locations, look at how you can optimise your profile for relevance to win more impressions nearby.

Prominence is more difficult to optimise but you might be able to boost your profile with more Google Reviews and increased engagement with your business listing.

Finally, take a look at your analytics to pinpoint specifically what you’ve lost from reduced visibility. Are you mainly losing impressions and potentially missing out on some brand awareness or have you lost phone leads and store visits as a result.

Determine which customer actions are affected by the update so you can try to restore them from searches performed in a closer vicinity to your locations or supplement them from other channels (eg: Google Shopping).

Looking to boost your local presence in 2022?

If you need help improving your local search presence in 2022 or dealing with any of the updates from last year, you can speak to our SEO team by calling us on 02392 830281 or filling out the contact form below.

Kerry Dye profile picture
Kerry Dye

Kerry has been working in digital marketing almost since the beginning of the World Wide Web, designing her first website in 1995 and moving fully into the industry in 1996 to work for one of the very first web design companies. After a successful four years, Kerry moved to an in-house position for a sailing company, running the digital presence of their yacht races including SEO, PPC and email marketing as the primary channels. A stint then followed at another in-house role as online marketing manager. Kerry moved to Vertical Leap in 2007, making her one of the company’s longest-serving employees. As a T-shaped marketer – able to advise on digital strategy outside her main specialism – she rose through the ranks and in 2012 became the head of the Small and Medium Business (SMB) SEO team. In 2022 she became Vertical Leap's Automation and Process Manager. Kerry lives in the historic town of Bishops Waltham with her husband and daughter. When she’s not at work she enjoys cooking proper food, curling up with a good book and being a leader for Brownie and Rainbow Guides.

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