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The ‘Vicinity’ Update: Google’s Biggest Local Search Algorithm Update in Five Years

The ‘Vicinity’ Update: Google’s Biggest Local Search Algorithm Update in Five Years

Many local businesses have noticed huge fluctuations in their local search rankings over the last few weeks, with Google now confirming an important update to the local algorithm. 

Rolling out between November 30th and December 8th, this update has been named ‘Vicinity’ by Sterling Sky. This is the largest change to the local algorithm since Possum in 2016 and has caused widespread ranking disruption.

Google confirmed the update in a tweet on December 16th:

What’s Vicinity All About?

This update is named after the fact that it seems to primarily target proximity as a ranking factor.

Although proximity has long been an important signal for local search results, it’s also been the case that businesses can optimize to successfully rank far from their actual business location. 

Through the Vicinity update, Google now appears to be clamping down on this, which will naturally make local search results more relevant to the user. In terms of the benefit to businesses, this gives them a greater chance to rank well in relevant local searches, as they’ll be competing less with businesses that are further away. 

When it comes to adding keywords into the business name of a Google Business Profile (GBP) listing, research from Sterling Sky found that the update has decreased the potential advantage of doing so.

The Sterling Sky data revealed that businesses using keywords (inappropriately) in their name have now largely seen a drop in search rankings. This is likely to be a win for the businesses who have consistently followed Google’s guidelines on keyword stuffing, and for those who have invested their time in fighting name spam.

Local search expert Claire Carlile said, “I’m excited to think that this update has dialled down the impact of keyword stuffing in business names.

“I’m seeing a whopping amount of increased map visibility for a business in the healthcare niche that now has increased prominence as the competitor listings that were keyword stuffed have slipped down the rankings. I’m super interested to know what other people are seeing!”

Local Search Ranking Changes

Towards the end of the Vicinity update rollout, significant changes to local search volatility were picked up by our Local RankFlux tool.

Local RankFlux tracks daily keyword ranking movement to measure fluctuations and identify suspected updates to Google’s algorithm, providing a score out of ten for each day. 

During the period of the rollout, search volatility rose gradually to peak at 6.2. 

Latest Local Rank Flux Score

As you can see from the data above, search volatility slowly returned to normal levels in the wake of the November 2021 local search update.

The huge ranking fluctuations were observed across a wide range of different industries within the local sphere. 

Here’s an example of how the ranking of a key search term varied for one business during and after the rollout.

December 1st: 

Local Search Grid

December 15th:

Ranking Results Local Search

As you can see from the two images above, the business in question has increased its rankings in the immediate local area. 

The Possum Update

Before Vicinity hit, Possum was the last big change to the local search algorithm. Rolling out in 2016, Possum served to better filter the results in the Local Pack and Local Finder. This largely meant that if several businesses of a similar nature were operating out of the same building, that most of them would be filtered out of the results.

At the time, local SEOs also theorized that Possum was placing more emphasis on proximity as a local ranking factor, and also that it decreased the influence that the organic authority of a website has over Local Pack/Finder rankings.

Google Local Pack Redesign

The Vicinity update was released around the same time that Google made design changes to the Local Pack. The redesign means that over the coming weeks, all Local Pack results will return a list of three results on the left with a map on the right. The old design—which features three results below a map—has been the norm since 2015.

The new Local Pack design:

Local Pack Redesign

As local SEOs began sharing sightings of the new Local Pack design in early December, many were also reporting big changes to rankings and traffic. Some attributed this to the redesign, whereas others were turning their attention to a potential algorithm update. 

While commenting on the redesign, Google said it’s “constantly exploring ways to connect people with the helpful information that they’re seeking.” As the Vicinity update rolls out alongside the new Local Pack, it remains to be seen if this will provide a better search experience for local consumers, and better search traffic for local businesses.  

What does the Vicinity update mean for local business owners?

In the tweet confirming the change, Google said, “General guidance for businesses remains the same”, alongside a link to guidelines on how to improve local rankings. 

The guidelines explain that the algorithm determines results based on relevance, distance, and prominence—so nothing’s changed here. Within this advice, Google also suggests that in order to boost visibility, local businesses should:

  • Enter complete data
  • Verify locations
  • Keep opening hours accurate
  • Manage and respond to reviews
  • Add photos

As Google continues to develop the local search algorithm, it’s to be expected that the user experience is always going to be at the heart of any resulting changes. 

Local businesses will have to continue to adapt to the landscape and closely adhere to the guidelines in order to achieve sustainable search success. 

Have you been affected by the Vicinity update? Let us know all about it in the comments below!

Alix Coe
About the author
Alix was a Content Marketing Manager at BrightLocal. They focused on sharing insights into the world of local SEO, with a particular interest in reporting on the latest industry news.

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