How has Google's local search changed throughout the years? Columnist Brian Smith shares a timeline of events and their impact on brick-and-mortar businesses.

Deciphering the Google algorithm can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. The search engine giant has made many changes over the years, keeping digital marketers on their toes and continually moving the goalposts on SEO best practices.

Google’s continuous updating can hit local businesses as hard as anyone. Every tweak and modification to its algorithm could adversely impact their search ranking or even prevent them from appearing on the first page of search results for targeted queries. What makes things really tricky is the fact that Google sometimes does not telegraph the changes it makes or how they’ll impact organizations. It’s up to savvy observers to deduce what has been altered and what it means for SEO and digital marketing strategies.

What’s been the evolution of local search, and how did we get here? Let’s take a look at the history of Google’s local algorithm and its effect on brick-and-mortar locations.

2005: Google Maps and Local Business Center become one

After releasing Local Business Center in March 2005, Google took the next logical step and merged it with Maps, creating a one-stop shop for local business info. For users, this move condensed relevant search results into a single location, including driving directions, store hours and contact information.

This was a significant moment in SEO evolution, increasing the importance of up-to-date location information across store sites, business listings and online directories.

2007: Universal Search & blended results

Universal Search signified another landmark moment in local search history, blending traditional search results with various listings from other search engines. Instead of working solely through the more general, horizontal SERPs, Universal Search combined results from Google’s vertical-focused search queries like Images, News and Video.

Google’s OneBox started to show within organic search results, bringing a whole new level of exposure that was not there before.  The ramifications on local traffic were profound, as store listings were better positioned to catch the eye of Google users.

2010: Local Business Center becomes Google Places

In 2010, Google rebranded/repurposed Local Business Center and launched Google Places. This was more than a mere name change, as a number of important updates were included, like adding new image features, local advertising options and the availability of geo-specific tags for certain markets. But more importantly, Google attempted to align Places pages with localized search results, where previously information with localized results was coming from Google Maps.

The emergence of Places further cemented Google’s commitment to bringing local search to the forefront. To keep up with these rapidly changing developments, brick-and-mortar businesses needed to make local search a priority in their SEO strategies.

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2012: Google goes local with Venice

Prior to Venice, Google’s organic search results defaulted to more general nationwide sites. Only Google Maps would showcase local options. With the Venice update, Google’s algorithm could take into account a user’s stated location and return organic results reflecting that city or state. This was big, because it allowed users to search anchor terms without using local modifiers.

The opportunity for companies operating in multiple territories was incredible. By setting up local page listings, businesses could effectively rank higher on more top-level queries just by virtue of being in the same geographic area as the user. A better ranking with less effort — it was almost too good to be true.

2013: Hummingbird spreads its wings

Hummingbird brought about significant changes to Google’s semantic search capabilities. Most notably, it helped the search engine better understand long-tail queries, allowing it to more closely tie results to specific user questions — a big development in the eyes of main search practitioners.

Hummingbird forced businesses to change their SEO strategies to adapt and survive. Simple one- or two-word phrases would no longer be the lone focal point of a healthy SEO plan, and successful businesses would soon learn to target long-tail keywords and queries — or else see their digital marketing efforts drop like a stone.

2014: Pigeon takes flight

Two years after Venice brought local search to center stage, the Pigeon update further defined how businesses ranked on Google localized SERPs. The goal of Pigeon was to refine local search results by aligning them more directly with Google’s traditional SEO ranking signals, resulting in more accurate returns on user queries.

Pigeon tied local search results more closely with deep-rooted ranking signals like content quality and site architecture. Business listings and store pages needed to account for these criteria to continue ranking well on local searches.

2015: RankBrain adds a robotic touch

In another major breakthrough for Google’s semantic capabilities, the RankBrain update injected artificial intelligence into the search engine. Using RankBrain’s machine learning software, Google’s search engine was able to essentially teach itself how to more effectively process queries and results and more accurately rank web pages.

RankBrain’s ability to more intelligently process page information and discern meaning from complex sentences and phrases further drove the need for quality content. No more gaming the system. If you wanted your business appearing on the first SERP, your site had better have the relevant content to back it up.

2015: Google cuts back on snack packs

A relatively small but important update, in 2015, Google scaled back its “snack pack” of local search results from seven listings to a mere three. While this change didn’t affect the mechanics of SEO much, it limited visibility on page one of search results and further increased the importance of ranking high in local results.

2016: Possum shakes things up

The Possum update was an attempt to level the playing field when it came to businesses in adjoining communities. During the pre-Possum years, local search results were often limited to businesses in a specific geographical area. This meant that a store in a nearby area just outside the city limits of Chicago, for instance, would have difficulty ranking and appearing for queries that explicitly included the word “Chicago.”

Instead of relying solely on search terms, Possum leveraged the user’s location to more accurately determine what businesses were both relevant to their query and nearby.

This shift to user location is understandable given the increasing importance of mobile devices. Letting a particular search phrase dictate which listings are returned doesn’t make much sense when the user’s mobile device provides their precise location.

2017 and beyond

Predicting when the next major change in local search will occur and how it will impact ranking and SEO practices can be pretty difficult, not least because Google rarely announces or fully explains its updates anymore.

That being said, here are some evergreen local SEO tips that never go out of fashion (at least not yet):

  • Manage your local listings for NAP (name, address, phone number) accuracy and reviews.
  • Be sure to adhere to organic search best practices and cultivate localized content and acquire local links for each store location.
  • Mark up your locations with structured data, particularly Location and Hours, and go beyond if you are able to.

When in doubt, look at what your successful competitors are doing, and follow their lead. If it works, it works — that is, until Google makes another ground-shaking algorithm change.

Source: This article was published By Brian Smith

Categorized in Search Engine

November was all about testing for our article page group. We’ve been running A/B tests on a small percentage of the mobile audience; testing new commenting and site socialization features, variations on UX treatments and relevancy matching on ad units, as well as some improvements aimed at streamlining page flow and better surfacing of related content. We’ve also begun discovery on an overhaul of our registration and user account management experience, with an eye towards enhanced consumer identity management and a tighter platform alignment strategy.

As we move towards the end of the year we’ll be continuing and expanding our testing of new commenting and social engagement features, and planning a new and more scalable approach to prototyping and testing in 2017.

Mobile Web App (beta)

This month was an exciting one for our new mobile products team. We surveyed a portion of our users to see how they were liking the experience, and over 80% of users surveyed offered positive feedback.

We also been refining the ad experience, and we continued to tweak our user experience by adding navigation prompts and nudges to help users to navigate and explore the experience. As of November 29, we are also live with production traffic. Our social team is sharing two new mobile links every day, and our site has proven robust enough to handle more than 17,000 users in one day.

We are also hard at work preparing new mobile list experiences for the upcoming World’s Most Powerful People and 30 Under 30 lists. Simultaneously, we continue work to streamline the app framework, thus allowing us to launch apps around new list events more expeditiously.


November was a busy month for lists. It featured the launch of Best States for BusinessFinTech50NHL valuations and the Just 100 Companies, a new list ranking America’s best corporate citizens within their industries. The product team is now in full swing working on our 2016 ranking of the World’s Most Powerful People, and our signature 30 Under 30 list launching in the first week of 2017.

CMS & Data Science

During November we released several improvements to the CMS focused around tagging content and automated channel/section categorization. In the coming weeks, we'll be introducing improvements to how the CMS handles media, providing a simple, cohesive experience when adding media, andoffering more granular search options. We'll also be debuting a new Help Center, a centralized knowledge base, FAQs and community for our contributor network.

The data science and CMS teams have been collaborating to bring on a suit of features to the CMS that help authors optimize and tag their stories for improved shareability and search engine performance. This week, we released a hashtag suggestion tracker in the CMS to monitor usage and increase accuracy. Next week we’ll be debuting new headline optimization and SEO suggestions features.

Lastly, the data science team is nearing completion on a real-time data pipeline that streams live article data into structured tables where it can be analyzed in real-time, allowing us to pinpoint and react to traffic spikes on viral content as they happen.


In November,ForbesConnectpublished the Forbes Healthcare app, a designated conference app for the Forbes Healthcare Summit in New York City. In December, we will continue our efforts to expand our business development plan in order to provide a light-weight networking platform for business schools.

Level Up by Forbes

The Level Up team is now publishing its own videos on Facebook. Check out our page to watch a few and don’t forget to like the page while you are there! Additionally, Level Up’s content on Amazon Alexa is now recorded and published in audio form (previously it was only text-to-speech), and we will be live on Google Assistant on Dec 15th.

Page Performance

In recent weeks, we have been exploring new ways to maximizing the performance of our core site pages. By ruthlessly shaving off every unnecessary byte and millisecond, we can deliver the core experience as quickly as possible. When a web page loads, you often see many intermediate steps. In those first moments, the page is not an image; it is an animation. By default, the frames of this animation arise in an unintended way from technical factors. We are taking control of these early moments, designing, choreographing and engineering them. We are also working toward comprehensive page performance monitoring of every production page view, as well as automated performance analysis as part of the development process.

Author:  Nina Gould


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