Google Hawk’s Impact on Local Search and Your Business

Nicole Grodesky
By Nicole Grodesky

Last month Google quietly rolled out its algorithm update named “Hawk.” While the tech giant has remained silent on the recent changes, Hawk is shaking up the SEO and local business community in a big way. That’s because the Hawk algorithm addresses a few concerns brought on by last year’s Possum update, and hopefully evens out the playing field for all. The changes are minor but very significant, making it crucial that SEO professionals and business owners fully understand how Hawk’s changes might affect their overall SEO strategy.

Unlike other updates, Hawk only affects local search results. Companies vying for top spot in search rankings aren’t affected by this update at all, but your neighborhood mom-and-pop shop is. Before diving into Hawk’s changes, let’s backtrack to Google’s last big algorithm shift: Possum.

The Possum Update

In 2016 Google rolled out a massive change to its local search algorithm with very little fanfare. In fact, the company didn’t even acknowledge the change as it views algorithm updates as a natural part of their quest for search engine improvements.

For the SEO community, however, Possum was a very big deal. It was the first major update since 2014, affected only local search results, and was a huge win for mom-and-pop shops that wanted more visibility in local search.

Interestingly, the update had a few bugs in the geo-filtering algorithm that inadvertently knocked some local businesses in similar industries out of search results completely. Business owners thought they had disappeared from search results when in reality, the business was merely hidden, or “playing dead” just like a possum would, hence the name.

The Proximity Paradox

To shed some light into this problem, imagine that you and a competing nail salon have operations down the street from each other. With Possum, a consumer searching for keywords “best nail salon near me” might only see your competitor in her search results but not you. That’s because Possum would push out businesses in similar industries and in close proximity (same building or same street for example) out of its local search simply because your competitor had better organic ranking and keyword relevance than you.

Related: What is a Local SEO?

Clearly, Google did not intend to give anyone a competitive advantage over another. Quite the contrary, the technology company was trying to improve search results for consumers and businesses by cutting out what looked like duplicate listings. Historically Google has been very harsh with companies that try to manipulate the system with duplicate content, so Possum was meant to address this issue. Only problem was, a lot of innocent businesses suffered as a result.

 

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Possum Pros For Local Businesses

Despite these bugs having negative ramifications for several local companies, Possum still had a lot to offer, creating a 64 percent change in search engine results pages (SERPs) according to one study. A few key changes included:

Location becomes paramount

Business proximity was one thing, but for Google, end user location started to weigh heavily in thelocal search results due to an increase in mobile device usage. Pew Research reported that 68 percent of Americans owned a smartphone in 2015, one year before Possum came to life. In 2016, 95 percent of Americans reportedly owned a cellphone “of some kind” according to another Pew Research study. That is a big leap in mobile device ownership and usage in the United States. Google noticed the trend and likely caught on that consumers were conducting more local searches from their mobile devices than ever before.

To understand how this plays out in real life let’s say that a company in Chicago sees their listings drop in rank for their offices in Boston. Even though they’re using the same search terms, the user’s physical location  — an IP address from an office in Chicago – determines how the results appear on the page. The user isn’t physically near the Boston office, so Google “zooms out” to give the consumer a bigger picture of the area, meaning a few businesses drop off the local listings.

Now if an employee in the Boston office conducted the same search using the same keywords, the results might look a lot different. That’s because Google assumes that if you’re searching for a business in another location far from you, you are less likely to know the area well and need a bigger view of what is around. Depending on the end user’s location, which can be determined from a mobile device,  Google decides whether to zoom in or out like it does on a map.

Proximity filters

Before Possum, Google’s proximity filter was very sensitive to city limits. If a business was located just outside the city’s border, they were unlikely to appear in search results. This was problematic for consumers and business owners located in or around city limits. If a consumer living in the city searched for local coffee shops nearby, a relevant business a mile away in the next suburb would not appear in the search results because of the strict proximity filter. This gave some companies an unfair advantage in local search and did not align well with Google’s objective for fair and accurate search results. The Possum update essentially tightened up the proximity filter giving local businesses outside city limits the visibility they deserved.

Search term order gains relevancy

Finally, Possum refined its keyword search terms filter to make the order of search terms more important than the keywords itself. For instance, a user searching for “San Diego dog trainer” would get different results if using key terms like “Dog trainers in San Diego County.” As you can see in the side-by-side comparisons below, this effectively bumped some local businesses up the rankings while others disappeared entirely. This gave the SEO community an opportunity to test a variety of keyword terms even if they were similar.

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How Hawk Swooped In To Save The Day

It may have taken a year, but Google delivered a major fix to its Possum bug with the Hawk update. As always, Google has stayed mum about the change, but SEO professionals are applauding the shift.

Among its primary benefits, Hawk’s algorithm now boosts business’ online presence by loosening up its proximity filter. Previously, the filter was so strict that if several law firms with different specialities resided in the same building and shared the same address, they were competing for a single spot in Google search results despite serving different clients. It is not uncommon for service-based companies to set up shop near one another so this proved very problematic under Possum.

Hawk swooped in and gobbled up its predecessor with this change, allowing businesses like the different law firms and the nail salons mentioned earlier to appear in local search regardless of their close proximity to one another. Companies that had previously been left out of search results might see a spike in online traffic now, which is good news for companies and consumers.

What Happens Next?

It is too soon to tell just how big the Hawk algorithm will affect local search results, but SEO experts and businesses have a lot to look forward to. In order to take advantage of these changes, it behooves all companies to revisit their current SEO strategies and start monitoring how Hawk is affecting their online presence. Here are a few things to start acting on now.

Related: Top Local SEO Ranking Factors

  • Monitor your site traffic: If your business has seen a spike in online traffic, now is a good time to look at what you can do to turn those leads into customers. Reassess your marketing strategy to determine if you have the right tools in place to attract, convert and retain the leads pouring in. In addition, you may need to review your current technologies. Is the increase in traffic causing delays with your web host provider? Is your website easy to navigate? Most likely the Hawk update will not negatively affect how well your website is running, but it never hurts to pause and review what is working well and what can use some improvement.
  • Encourage more online reviews: With more customers coming in and using your services, there is more opportunity to get online reviews that will boost your ratings. Remind your customers to leave reviews and monitor them closely.
  • Upgrade your content: More visibility means more leads, and your online content should help boost your online presence. Consider adding more content in the form of videos, blog posts or white papers that focus on your local market and customer. And do not forget to optimize your content with relevant keywords to make it more effective for your business.
  • Review your SEO strategy: This is an excellent time to review your business’ current SEO strategy. Be sure to monitor how the algorithm changes are affecting your SEO efforts and make changes from there. This is especially important if you were one of the local companies who monopolized search results during the Possum era. There is a lot more competition in your area now and you will need to update your SEO game plan accordingly.

The Hawk update was a necessary part of the local search evolution, and as always Google is likely to tweak and refine it again. Every local company should take advantage of the new algorithm to draw more eyeballs to their website and attract new customers. Diligently tracking all SEO elements will give businesses a clearer picture of how Hawk can benefit their online reputation and revenue until the next big update quietly rolls out again.

 

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Nicole is a Senior SEO Strategist with experience in technical SEO, SEO keyword strategy, content strategy, and Local SEO. She has experience with enterprise level Local SEO initiatives that manages multiple business locations up to over 300 stores nationwide. Her Local SEO expertise is in managing Google My Business accounts and building local citations to create an authoritative local presence for business owners.