A client approached our SEO Specialists, reporting a significant drop in organic traffic over a period of a year or so.
They had been investing in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) techniques, ranking pages on their site for hundreds of local search terms , with search queries that included a town and a service.
Our first investigation was to analyse the usual suspects; drops in rankings or a reduction in search volume.
Current rankings were pretty strong. Hundreds of search terms were ranked in the top three organic results. Since no ranking data was available from the previous year, we analysed Google Analytics data to compare organic traffic landing on relevant pages on the website, noting an alarming trend that each had suffered a decline across all devices.
Desktop traffic had dropped the most, with mobile organic traffic more moderate and in some cases, even staying constant.
This wasn’t a device-specific issue. Mobile search had increased and continues to – more and more users are searching the web using mobile devices. That increase was counteracting the decrease the site was suffering.
Analysing Google Trends data, our SEO Specialists established that this wasn’t a market trend either. Volumes had remained constant, or increased slightly.
Frustratingly, traffic hadn’t suddenly plummeted on a specific day, or even during a particular week or month. That would have help identify the cause; an algorithm update, a significant site change perhaps. No, this was gradual, over a period of a year, even allowing for seasonal variation in search behaviour.
With more analysis of a range of different search terms, we discovered a significant pattern; location searches for services (electrician Portsmouth) had suffered a drop, but location searches for events (exhibitions Portsmouth) had not.
That revealed the cause of the reduction in local organic traffic; Google had changed the way it presented search results for local searches.
More specifically, searches which represented physical and permanent locations such as shops, hotels, restaurants, accountants and Digital Marketing agencies were affected. Searches which represent temporary locations like fairs, concerts and such were not affected.
From 2016, Google subtly introduced changes to how local search results were presented; the Local Stack.
What is the Local Stack?
– Product searches are more likely to present Google Shopping ads rather than standard AdWords text ads.
– Local searches are more likely to present local business results (or Google Maps results).
– Somewhere in that set of results, Google also delivers organic results.The Local Stack is effectively a set of relevant results from Google Maps, created by businesses using Google My Business.This image below shows Google search results for a local business:
This is what had significantly changed in that period.
In 2016, Local Stack results were less prominent for location searches. Fewer results were shown, with more text ads and the Organic Stack showing higher up the page.
In 2017, the Local Stack dominates results for those same location searches, more local results are listed in that stack, pushing some of the AdWords text ads to the bottom of the page and more importantly for us, pushing organic results below the fold.
On mobile devices where there’s less screen to go around, the Local Stack dominates even more.
Positions within the Organic Stack had remained constant or had improved. The reason this website was earning less local organic search traffic was not due to rankings, it was a significant change in the presentation of local search results.
How to Combat The Drop in Local Search Traffic:
Local businesses wanting to attract local search traffic should still invest in Search Engine Optimisation. There’s still a ton of free traffic available, even if you get a smaller percentage than in 2016. It’s still worth optimising pages to rank for local search terms and earning some local links.However, making sure you have a solid, well-optimised, verified Google My Business page is also strongly recommended. If you want to regain that lost organic traffic, your business needs to be ranked high in the Local Stack.
In your Google My Business page, relevance signals are important – correct business categories, your business description includes relevant, semantically related search terms and so forth, but there are two equally critical ranking signals which we explore in this video from ”How to Improve Your Google Local Listing.”