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The Vicinity Update: What You Need to Know About Google’s Largest Local Algorithm Update in 5 Years

On December 8th, one of our forum users asked about some serious differences they were seeing in the local pack results.  The thread quickly started getting a lot of replies from users that were noticing similar patterns.  Earlier today, Google confirmed that this was an algorithm update that began November 30.

We started seeing significant changes around December 6th.  I spent a few hours poring over before and after screenshots of the SERPs and analyzing ranking for not just our clients, but also their competitors. I would say that this is the biggest change I have seen to the local SERPs since the Hawk update in 2017.  Although the core updates do impact the local results, they rarely have the type of impact I’m going to highlight below. There was a big update in 2019 that later turned out to be a bug (and reversed itself) so there really hasn’t been anything this dramatic in the local search world for quite some time.

What Was the Vicinity Update All About?

“Vicinity” is defined as the area near or surrounding a particular place.  This update, in my findings, was mainly about proximity.  The Possum update in 2016 really increased the proximity factor but over the last 5 years we have seen more and more businesses in competitive markets be able to avoid the proximity factor and rank very far away from their office.  That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.

I believe that this was an update that impacted proximity, making it 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. 

This update corresponds with Google changing the layout of the map pack.  Mike Blumenthal shared on Last Week in Local that Google’s new map is square instead of rectangular and the shrinking of the map size could have made it so that the viewpoint Google is looking at for that area could have changed.

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 combatting spam

This is a good example that shows the difference this is making for businesses with keyword-rich business names:

Before:


After:

Showing the Impact in Numbers:

I looked at several personal injury lawyer terms in one of the largest US cities.  We were tracking several keywords on a grid using Places Scout.  Looking at before the update (October) and comparing it to what is displaying currently, there were a lot of law firms that lost a ton of rankings.

This is the amount of top 3 rankings these firms had across the entire city for several keywords.

 

      • Law firm 1 (no keywords in the business name) – went from 0 to 248.  This is a law firm that is very well known and has tons of offices. They should rank. The fact that a firm this size had zero 3-pack rankings simply because they have no keywords in their name seemed very wrong and has been corrected
      • Law firm 2 – went from 405 to 211.  This is historically the best ranking law firm in the market.  They have a really good SEO company working with them (no, it’s not us) and spend a lot of effort and money on SEO.  They don’t have any keywords in their business name.
      • Law firm 3 – went from 220 to 26.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 4 – went from 205 to 24.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 5 – went from 192 to 103.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 6 – went from 169 to 22.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 7 – went from 136 to 79.  They have a keyword-rich business name.
      • Law firm 8 – went from 1 to 132. They have no keywords in the business name.
      • Law firm 9 – went from 63 to 107.  They have no keywords in the business name.

 

This market showed that all the law firms who completely dominated before are dominating less.  Big firms that had zero presence before now have a shot because the lawyers with keyword-rich names that previously caused them to dominate the entire market no longer have that benefit.

This market also has 3 lawyers that dominated a very specific type of law.  So, for example, their entire website content, domain names, and business name was specific to that type of law. They all saw a drop in the #1 rankings they had.

#1 Rankings (Oct 25 vs Dec 8)

      • Lawyer dominating bicycle accident lawyer terms – went from 121 rankings to just 11.  He has a keyword-rich business name as well.
      • Lawyer dominating dog bite lawyer terms  – went from 113 rankings to 105.  Although this might not seem like much of a loss, he lost all his one-boxes for dog bite terms. He used to have one-boxes all over the area he was near and these switched to 3-packs.  This makes perfect sense as he is definitely not the only lawyer that does these types of cases, his entirre website and domain name just focuses on them.  He does not have “dog bite” anywhere in his business name.
      • Lawyer dominating dog bite lawyer terms  – went from 110 rankings to just 41.  This lawyer has a keyword-rich business name.

Showing the Impact Visually:

This example is a business that dominated a massive area for several terms because very few of their competitors were investing in SEO or knew how to set up a website properly.  The top of this map to the bottom is probably a two-hour drive.  This update “fixed” this scenario so that now users will be able to see a wider variety of businesses closer to them.

 

What are you seeing with the businesses you monitor? Feel free to comment here or chime in over at the Local Search Forum thread.  Also, a huge thanks to our VPs Colan Nielsen and Dave DiGregorio for helping come up with a name for this update.

Contact Sterling Sky Inc.

If you’re a local business that needs help with your Google Business Profile (formerly Google My Business) listing, review strategy, or online presence on Google and other search engines, at Sterling Sky we can help. We offer SEO auditsconsulting, or monthly local SEO services. Contact our office today for more information.

This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. After years, sites have disappeared from local. Does not matter that our team works day and night on this, we follow Google to the T, and do everything that is expected, suddenly other businesses in our industry who obviously spend nothing on marketing are taking our place. I would like to know the thinking behind this miserable algorithm update.

    1. Agree! We are dealing with the same thing. We have clients that have been on the 3 pack since 2012 when it was 7 Pack. Google is now providing users with poor website experiences and most likely are not spending any money on marketing. C’mon Google!

  2. I do not keyword stuff but our real business name does include a keyword ‘heating & cooling’. The business that took our place does not have a well rounded profile or a website that as established as ours and to top it off we were knocked down even further by two completely fake GBP profiles. One with 5 reviews that blatantly fake and one that doesn’t even have a business URL.

  3. Stumbled across this blog post & ‘you’ via a comment in a FB to a tweet to an article… anyway, really good article with lots of info & no fluff! I have subscribed which is very rare nowadays! Cheers! Nigel

  4. We work with clients in the home services/contractor niches. Out of 78 clients we have seen very little change in local SEO. Most of the examples are in the legal niche. Has there been much change outside legal that you have seen?

    1. Hey Joe,

      Yeah, we have definitely seen movement in the home services vertical. The visual I shared in Toronto was in that space. It’s really only noticable if you are looking at grid rank trackers. If you are scanning from a zip code and just looking at a single point, it probably won’t be noticeable.

  5. I believe that keyword usage in the title will never cease to be relevant as long as the algorithm is driven by term searches.

    More and more, we’re two feet behind with updates from Google. I remember when John Mueller replied to a Twitter saying no to the question if links are required for ranking.

    We know that in practice, we can hardly achieve any SERP without links.

    Then I think….If he says yes, links are mandatory, SEO professionals would build links like crazy.

    Same case with this new GMB update, if they say that the keyword in the title is ok, or don’t pronounce, it would only open the possibility for more professionals to optimize their profiles like this.

    I have a lot of profiles here with a keyword in the name and they only go towards success. I didn’t notice any fall.

  6. How does this affect Service Area Businesses with no physical address? We have seen a change in rankings for our businesses that do not show an address. They have fully completed profiles, including weekly GBP posts and recent reviews. Their competitors have incomplete data, no reviews, sometimes no website, but show an address that is their home and not a storefront. How do we assist our customers to improve their local rankings?

    1. We’ve seen it impact businesses of all types – including service area businesses. As far as how to improve ranking, that’s not a quick or easy answer that can be summed up in a blog comment 🙂

  7. I Have been doing some testing of my Map/GMB KP Projects due to the recent Google Update which has made a big difference in several of my test projects, mostly for the better.
    It would appear from the test that the domination of the Map Pack by the “Big Boys” has now diminished considerably and the smaller, “Real” local Businesses are now rising. But not in every case I tested.
    I also noticed that even though all the keyword searches I made were from my own home PC that I was being presented with some of the new Layout “Square Map pack” on some results and yet on others the old Map pack.
    I also noted that some keywords which had previously produced a Map Pack result were now providing a Knowledge panel view. So, It is obvious that this rollout is not yet “Universal” and is still in the process of rolling out.

  8. This would be super significant if it actually help the Name Spam issue. But if it hurts businesses that actually have keywords in their name, then it’s a disappointing approach to fix this issue. There are easier ways to reduce name spam. Hopefully this update makes local search better, but I kinda doubt it will. Thanks for the heads up!

  9. In the photography genre, there’s been a drop in listings that were clearly fake or keyword-stuffed, so that’s an overall improvement. I’m seeing that across multiple UK and US cities. My own photo business that had a keyword in the profile (Added by Google, I have previously tried unsuccessfully to remove it) has dropped significantly in further away areas that I was previously in the top spots for. So, some interesting changes!

    1. We havent seen the same result over here in the UK. Previously keyword stuffed listings and dupplicates littered results for client terms. After this update we have actually seen and increase n the keyword stuffed listings and the duplicates still remain. Snet numerous requestes / edits to get the duplicates removed with NO success at all. Real local businessess with well rounded profiles and good onsite seo seem to have got no benefit from this update (at least what we can see) and the ‘spammers’ are winning even more ground. Granted the bigger players are not in the picture as much as before but it just seems to have given more ground to the spam/fake listings that are plaguing GMB 🙁

      1. So curious: did this stand , or did it correct back? Looking at the lawyers in tampa bay market everything still has keyword stuffed names… didn’t actually run it through software just anecdotally .

        1. Hey Christian,

          Yep, it definitely still stands. It doesn’t completely nullify the impact from keyword stuffing – it just minimized it. We are seeing more of an impact with this on implicit keywords (ex: “personal injury lawyer”) vs explicit (ex: “personal injury lawyer tampa”) keywords.

  10. I think we just need to be clear here, the algorithm is very flawed. Period. However, I know that I and many other SEOs have been complaining about the keyword-rich business names before since it held some of the heaviest weight for a local SEO factor. It was way too damaging and didn’t take relevant factors into consideration for so many verticals. However, this update didn’t quite work out as expected. As others here have discussed, there are GBP listings in various industries that are ranking in the 3-Pack for high-converting keywords that don’t fit the position since they have lower quality listings and websites than those that should be ranking.

    One of my clients that has keywords in their business name (plumbing & heating) dipped for “plumber [city]” though their listing and website are more complete assets than what replaced them. However, in some industries such as painting, I’ve found that this update really didn’t do anything. I’m assuming Google focused on some of the most volatile industries (like law and finance) and is continuing to roll out this update to others.

  11. Great insight. I can speak from insider knowledge that the law firms you chose to highlight all have “offline” major differences that also could be dramatically impacting their search rankings. Oddly enough one that dropped is no longer spending anywhere near what they were in broadcast tactics, while one that you highlighted that has increased rank ironically has over doubled their offline (again – broadcast) investment. Offline tactics DO impact online search – especially because it enhances quality CTR. Just some thoughts as we all muddle thru this update!

  12. I work for service-based home service biz and have seen a huge drop, about 45% since the beginning of December. Our company is one of the largest in the area with a very well known brand name and local trust (been in biz over 55 years). I work all the time making sure our site, GMB, reviews, and everything else are in tip-top shape and honest. I check all the boxes and totally white-hat. But we still are getting shafted.

    (Cross-posting this from the forums)

  13. Or google want the big bosses to invest more in google ads 🙂 i have the same problem. My rakings went down 50%. Iam sure the next weeks we will find new ways what make us happy.

  14. Hmmm, not to mention, besides being bumped ‘for cause’, I also see 2 listing who actually list the USPS as their biz address. NOT an ‘address’ at the PO. The actual PO, with a pic of the main downtown PO, to boot. Brazen and don’t care. What about that Google!?

  15. I believe that the use of keywords in the title will never cease to be relevant, as long as the algorithm is driven by term searches.

    We know that, in practice, we will hardly get any SERP without links, this is the great truth my friend.

  16. Google is now rolling additional Update to vicinity. it starts few days ago…normaly the rolling takes about 7 days…let see what will happen…

  17. Hey, great article – one thing I am trying to find out for a long while now is: “Do services have an impact on my ranking?” I have some businesses I supervise and some of them have services with long descriptions, some without and I can’t really find out what’s the impact of defining services or not. Maybe someone has more insights on this one.

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