Understanding Google Pigeon and Local SEO

Written by: Jason Bayless | January 16, 2016

It has been over a year since search engine giant Google announced Pigeon, an updated to its local ranking algorithm. The official date of the Pigeon upgrade was July 24, 2014, and the immediate results were dramatic for small business owners who promoted their enterprises through localized search engine optimization (SEO).

In essence, the Pigeon algorithm update impacts two main components of the Google search experience: Maps and the search engine results page (SERP). Prior to the Pigeon update, searchers were treated to different results on Google Maps and on the SERP. These days, however, the results displayed by these two components are more synchronized. Localized Google search results have always been more prominent on mobile, and they used to draw information that seemed to come from a different set of ranking signals; that is no longer the case.

The Local Google Search Experience

It is easy to understand the motivations behind the Google Pigeon update. Local search has become an important paradigm for mobile users whose smartphones have location aware services. A woman looking for trendy boutiques in a downtown district wants to see a map that pinpoints brick-and-mortar locations along with Yelp reviews, ratings, street addresses, telephone numbers, hours of operation, etc.

In an effort to better serve the interests of smartphone users who need local information, Google’s Pigeon update now draws information from what it considers reputable directories such as OpenTable for restaurants that accept reservations, Kayak for hotels, Zagat for taverns, etc. With this algorithm update, Google also attempts to locate local businesses in the neighborhoods and districts where they can be actually be found; for example, instead of simply listing a historic restaurant such as Smith & Wollensky as being located in Miami Beach, the SERP will actually list it as being part of South of Fifth in South Beach.

The Google Pigeon Aftermath

As with previous Google search algorithm updates, quite a few websites were caught off guard and ended up losing some of its SERP rank that they had worked hard to cultivate through strategic SEO.

Some small business owners complained that their listings virtually disappeared after the Pigeon update. Others lamented the work they had put into their Google Plus (G+) business profiles, which had become major SEO factors for small companies a few years ago.

In 2014, G+ introduced a change entitled Google My Business. Now that G+ looks like it is breaking into pieces and slowly withdrawing from the social networking arms race, many small business owners are wondering how they should react to Pigeon.

The recommendations from many SEO experts is that small business owners should not be overly concerned if their listings took a major hit during the Pigeon update; most of those listings regained their SERP ranking later. If, however, the listing did not return to normal after a few weeks, SEO specialists recommend starting out with an audit of the data in Google My Business, which should be clear and accurate.

Another factor to consider after the Pigeon update is whether the website has been properly optimized for mobile browsers. Everything that ties localized search to mobile results should be checked by SEO professionals.

In the post-Pigeon update world, small business owners should keep in mind that Google is drawing signals from established, trusted directories. What this means for restaurant owners, for example, is that they should make every effort to make sure that their brick-and-mortar locations are visible to review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable, Urban Spoon, etc.

In the end, the impact of Pigeon should not be ignored, and small business owners should not believe that this will be the last major update that Google will implement to localized search results.