The above functionality still exists, but now Google is experimenting with putting a filter menu to the left of the organic results, like this, with a “nearby” filter marked with a map pin. I wanted to understand whether this proliferating feature is actually making results more localized, because it would be such a great thing if true.
If you click that “nearby” filter, Google modifies your search (e.g., from “Christmas ornaments” to “Christmas Ornaments Nearby”) and can give you a local pack:
What we see in the pack itself is pretty standard. Basic contact info, a review star summary, a category, a photo, and an emphasis on local justifications like “In Stock, Updated Today” and “Seen By Shoppers.”
Clicking on the “In Stock” justification still appears to bring up the Google Business Profile of that business, with its Pointy-based product menu:
These Pointy listings are still not directly transactional — they direct the user to contact the store or go to the website to shop:
Meanwhile, clicking on the “Seen by shoppers” justifications makes a new GBP pop up within the interface. I am mostly seeing a prioritized review summary highlighting mentions of my keywords “Christmas” and “ornaments,” but Mike Blumenthal has also spotted it bringing up Google Q&A (another reason to ask and answer your own FAQs in that feature!).
Again, no shopping is exactly happening here. It’s simply an emphasis on either products or attributes a searcher is, assumedly, looking for. So, let’s look at the organic results. Has selecting the left nav “Nearby” filter localized the results to make them more local and/or more transactional? This is what I’d like to know.
How local are the ‘nearby” filtered organic results?
This exercise has brought two obstacles to light for me:
It’s hard to talk about data from infinite scroll SERPs. It was easier when you could say “5/10 of page 1 entries” or “50% of the top 10 results.” So, I’m just going to have to pick a number because I can’t calculate anything out of infinity. I’ll go with the top 20 organic results for this experiment, with product blocks, paid results, and any SERP features subtracted.
Monopoly makes it hard to understand local landscapes online. When towns across a large region have the same big stores, it’s difficult to tell whether results are actually being localized or if Google simply has a really limited set of options to display because of the prominence of just a few large brands. I’m going to have to judge the top 20 organic results by whether or not they actually have a nearby location.
Only 20% of the top 20 organic results feature brands that have a location in the city of search. This makes 80% of the SERPs not truly local because they are beyond city borders.
Beyond the city borders, only 20% of the top 20 organic results have a location within 10 miles of the city of search. For some items, and in some parts of the US, it’s normal to drive this far to access goods and services, so while these results can’t really be considered hyper-local, they are still local-ish.
Another 15% have a location within 20 miles of the city of search — again, not truly local.
This makes 45% of the organic results using the “Nearby” filter truly remote… more than 20 miles away.
If I were to drive to the nearest location of all 20 businesses featured in the “Nearby” top 20, my average driving distance would be 292.46 miles. For multiple brands featured in the results, the nearest location was thousands of miles away.
So, in sum, just 20% of the “nearby” filtered results are truly hyper-local, within easy walking or driving distance inside the city of search. Another 35% would require going outside city borders and driving as much as 20 miles to access them. I have friends in parts of the country where 20-mile drives are standard to access basic goods and services because their hometowns no longer feature essentials, but that would be the definition of a community that lacks local necessities.
Could Google have localized the organic SERPs more for this search?
My next question relates to whether the organic SERPs accurately depict the local availability of Christmas tree ornaments. Do the SERPs reflect reality? Only 4 of the 20 businesses listed in the top 20 had a location within the city of search, with the other 16 spaces being given to more remote entities. Are there really only four places in the town that sell this merchandise?
The answer is a big ‘NO’! There are dozens of places to buy these goods in the city of search, including many small boutiques, but they are absent from the top 20, giving way to big-name brands further away. Most tellingly, the local pack gives away the lack of true localness in the SERPs that follow it:
Is the “nearby” filter localizing the “product blocks”?
So, if this newly prominent filter nav isn’t substantially localizing the organic SERPs, could it be that it’s localizing the SERP feature I hear loosely called “product blocks” that look like these unlabeled/unsponsored entries:
When clicked on, each item yields a popup that contains product reviews and directs you to the website to purchase, rather than being directly transactional:
The “visit site” link takes you to a product page rather than a location landing page. In the instance below, I was taken to a page for an ornament I would have needed to drive 65.1 miles to purchase because the Target nearest my search centroid doesn’t carry it.
Google is aggressively pushing this format right now. My sample SERP has a product block after every three organic SERP entries across the top 20 results. A vast amount of screen space! But when I looked at all the product blocks in my results, I saw the same phenomenon: they mainly feature big brands, many of which have no store in the city of search, including utterly remote entities like Amazon. One thing I did notice was that there were multiple blocks solely taken up by merchandise from Target:
You’ll note in the above that Google is disclosing that there is a store nearby (1.3 miles away from what I’m guessing is the city centroid), and could this be that this is their attempt to localize the product blocks? Even if the store nearest me doesn’t actually stock these items?
Because the SERPs don’t represent the diversity of actual local options, could Google be filling this SERP feature with the one big brand store whose inventory they have substantial access to, knowing there is actually a nearby location of this brand, even if it doesn’t stock the items being featured? Including mileage in the blocks in the particular example makes me suspect that this might be the most evident effect of the “nearby” filter… not on organic SERPs, but on in-SERP product blocks. If so, it’s not working very well, given the distance between me and the Wondershop Champagne Tinsel Ball at a Target location an hour and a half away.
I would be such a fan of the “nearby” filter giving new prominence to diverse local brands, particularly SMBs. What worries me about this current SERP is how it reinforces big biz bias, making it seem like the main places to shop are non-independently-owned stores that require quite a bit of fuel to get to, when I know, for a fact, that people within my example city can buy tons of Christmas ornaments from little hardware stores, pretty nurseries, local booksellers, sole proprietor furniture shops, interesting antique shops, and a variety of home decor and craft boutiques. Google’s SERPs make it look like the big box is the only game in town (or 65 miles away), and that concerns me because it has the flavor of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If what’s in the SERPs influences where people shop locally, small businesses are in trouble with this type of representation (or lack thereof).
It has to be said that the fault of this isn’t entirely on Google’s shoulders. That popup for the Champagne Wondershop Tinsel Ball is pulling all of its information from Target’s extensive product landing page for that item. Google can’t show results for inventory it doesn’t know about, and small local businesses often lack the time or budget to fully use all of Google’s features or build out websites as sophisticated as those of multi-national enterprises. When I look at the websites and listings of the small brands I know sell holiday decor in this town, I see a general lack of sufficient SEO and marketing, contributing to their invisibility on the web.
At the same time, Google has never fully succeeded at outreach to the SMBs that make up the majority of its local business index, so support and partnership opportunities have continuously been left on the table. It’s little wonder that SEOs, in general, cite Google’s apparent bias towards featuring big brands in their SERPs, and this appears true even with the wider roll-out of this “nearby” filter menu. Bigness seems to win out over diversity, even when talking local. Still, there are two sides to the story of why that is: nearly 20 years have gone by since the introduction of Google Maps, but Google’s index still doesn’t fully represent real, local commercial landscapes because SMBs in many categories have yet to embrace all the work/benefits of maximum visibility fully. There just hasn’t been a full connection on either side yet.