Local Marketing Update Header Image

On December 16, 2021, Google officially announced that its November 2021 Local Search Update had concluded. This update “involved a rebalancing of various factors we consider in generating local search results,” Google said and ran from November 30 through December 8.

Dubbed the “Vicinity” update by Sterling Sky’s Joy Hawkins, it seems to have been largely centered around the concept and weighting of proximity in local search rankings.

As part of her analysis, Hawkins explained, “I believe that this was an update that impacted proximity, making its weight heavier. It may have also devalued the impact of keywords in the business name.  I’m seeing uniformly that map packs have shrunk, are way more zoomed in, and are displaying a wider variety of businesses, many of which were invisible before.”

Let’s take a look at what this update entailed, who was affected, and what it means for enterprise brands.

Google’s November 2021 Local Search Update: What Happened?

As with most search updates, Google was thin on the details. Often, what we learn about the impact of a Google Search update comes from shared analysis of how search results pages (SERPs) have changed.

It’s not an exact science, as there are simply too many variables to pinpoint exactly what weighting this factor or that may have had before and after an update. Even so, the general trends we can deduce from shared experiences can help give valuable context to what your brand is seeing in your own listings.

Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable wrote of this global update, “Joy Hawkins named this update the vicinity update, which I think is a good name. She dug into the changes saying that this update was ‘mainly about proximity.’”

In her analysis, Hawkins used Places Scout to compare local listings in the legal vertical from October against post-update rankings. Among her key findings:

  • A reputable law firm with many offices but no law firm keywords in its business name (and therefore its Google Business profile listings titles) went from zero to 248 listings in the top three local results.
  • A second law firm described as “historically, the best-ranking law firm in the market” and no keywords in the business name dropped from 405 top three rankings to 211.
  • Several law firms with keyword-rich names lost top three rankings to various degrees, while others with no keywords in their name made gains.

Hawkins explained, “Businesses that previously completely dominated the entire market are almost all seeing huge declines in how many SERPs they show up in.  Specifically, businesses with keyword-rich names that dominated an entire market, that never should have, are seeing huge drops. This is also having a nice impact for businesses that were combating spam.”

In a follow-up article on Search Engine Land, Hawkins noted that the impact of this update seems to be more prominent for:

  • Lawyers
  • Home services
  • Insurance
  • Dentists
  • And many others.

She also noted that marketers are unlikely to see the impact of this update unless they are tracking rankings by distance around the business.

Did the ‘Vicinity’ Update Get It Right?

Not everyone was pleased with what their analytics data revealed in the wake of the update.

“Why are all these spammy listings with virtually no optimizations, reviews, or info on-site outranking established brands that have invested $1000’s into building information-rich brands and prominence?” one person tweeted in response to Google’s official announcement.

“There are companies with NO websites now ranking in local search, with 2.5-3.5 ratings,” added another.

One marketer pointed out that in many cities, the city center does not necessarily represent the most desirable location for search results. “Update is based on proximity to the city. However when people are searching major cities particularly for service keywords – like “best plastic surgeon Sydney”… they don’t mean actual Sydney city centre they mean the best around Sydney. The update is so literal.  It’s backwards,” she said.

According to Hawkins, those who lost the most in this update are:

  • Businesses that ranked farther away from their location.
  • Businesses with keywords in their business listing name.

Those who saw the greatest gains experienced a sort of “leveling off” of the impact of competitors having keywords in their business name. Another sort of winner from this update is the secondary locations of prominent businesses, Hawkins said.

“I’ve seen almost uniformly, across every example I’ve looked at, that the primary location for a business took a hit but their newer offices increased,” she noted.

This could be great news for multi-location brands that are looking to enhance local visibility in competitive neighborhoods and other regions.

Preparing for Google Local Algorithm Updates

Google’s advice for marketers and SEOs looking to “future-proof” their Google Business Profile listings in the wake of its November update is the same as for every other update. “General guidance for businesses remains the same as covered here,” Google tweeted, pointing readers to its ‘How to improve your local ranking on Google’ help resource.

Google’s local search algorithm weighs an unknown number of signals in each ranking decision. But, what we do know is that those individual factors fall into three main categories:

  • Relevance
  • Distance
  • Prominence

This update seems to have included elements of all three. It focused heavily on distance, perhaps increasing the weighting of a location’s proximity to the searcher.

There may have been an element of correction here for a too-heavy weighting of keywords in the profile listing name, which would be a relevance signal.

And, some of Hawkins’ findings suggest that prominence played a role, as well. Google states in the above-mentioned resource that “Some places are more prominent in the offline world, and search results try to reflect this in local ranking.” Her example of a law firm with offline prominence shooting to the top of the local results, going from zero to hundreds of Top 3 rankings, suggests this was part of the update.

You can dig into more local ranking factors and which ones experts feel are more heavily weighted in Google’s local algorithms in 2021 Local Search Ranking Factors: A Guide for Brands in 2022.

What are you seeing in the aftermath of this local search update? Reach out to Rio SEO on Twitter and share your experience, or get in touch with your Account Director if you have any questions.

You can also learn our tips and best practices for updates in our free Gearing Up For Google Updates e-book.

Gearing Up for Google Updates header image