The Year in Local Search – 2020

The Year in Local Search – 2020

2020 has nearly come to an end (cue sighs of relief!) 

While this year presented many challenges, especially for local businesses, it also created the opportunity for triumph. Google My Business introduced more new features than ever, and we saw the good side of many organizations that strived to provide extra resources and relief to those in need.

Although we may all be glad to see the back of what’s been a pretty hectic year, we’d be remiss not to look back on all the exciting things that have taken place. For us, it’s been a year filled with GMB news, updates, and changes, and we even had some laughs along the way too, (Four Season Total Landscaping anyone?)

So, before we say “so long” to 2020 for good, we invite you to join us in reflecting upon the year in local search.

What would a year in review be without GIFs? Keep your eyes peeled throughout and let us know how many TV shows or films you recognized in the comments below!

January

January Jones GIF

Suffice to say, the year started out strongly, if not a little stressfully (when isn’t that the case for local SEOs?) We saw the introduction of new features in Apple Maps, as one of Google Maps’ biggest rivals strived to achieve feature parity through the introduction of “Collections”, real-time transit information, and indoor maps.

Arguably, what shook the local SEO community more though, was news of a featured snippets shakeup

Originally spotted by Mark Barrera, it was later announced by Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan that sites ranking in a featured snippet position would no longer be able to rank with that same URL on the same page of SERPs. 

Sure, this is old news now (literally), but at the time it shook the local SEO community and raised a whole host of questions, such as “are featured snippets worth getting?

Here’s what local SEO Twitter had to say at the time:

February

In the month of Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, and of course, National Ukulele Day (yep, it’s a thing apparently!) local SEO news was uncharacteristically quiet. Perhaps Google was recovering from the unprecedented excitement that the featured snippets shakeup caused?

What we did notice, however, was a big change in the local SERP display for users in Europe

On February 21st, what’s known as the “find results carousel” was spotted across European SERPs. This new feature saw third-party directories such as Yelp, Yell, and Tripadvisor appear front and center in local search results, like so: 

Dentists in Brighton EU SERP

At the time, there was some speculation that this update might have been Google’s response to the EU’s hefty antitrust fine

So far, this SERP feature has stayed firmly in Europe, but one BrightLocal reader did suggest they’d like to see it rolled out elsewhere:

It would be nice if they released this everywhere. A lot of people choose not to use directories, yet they take up a large portion of the SERPs. This way would allow them to be separated and other, more useful, websites to populate those positions.

Sarah, BrightLocal Reader (New Local SERP Display Puts Directories Front and Center)

March

As Spring rolled around, so too did the first effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on local businesses.

While the month got off to a positive start with the launch of our very own Local Search Industry Survey, we were soon brought down to earth as Google announced the suspension of many of its most popular features.

In a post published on Friday, March 20th, Google announced that it was temporarily disabling and limiting some key features in Google My Business.

During the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, we are taking steps to protect the health of our team members and reduce the need for people to come into our offices. As a result, there may be some temporary limitations and delays in support as we prioritize critical services. 

Google

Among the features suspended were: new reviews, review responses, Q&A, adding/claiming/verifying listings, and editing business information.

At first, it’s safe to say that this came as a huge blow to local businesses, many of which were relying on new reviews to help tide them over and keep them front of mind in hopes that they’d be a top choice to customers when they reopened. (See the #5starchallenge below…)

Additionally, GMB Product Expert Jason Brown noted at the time that Google Posts were also “failing”, due to being disabled. 

That said, GMB by no means left us high and dry. While some features were suspended, new ones were introduced, such as ‘mark this business as temporarily closed’.

April

Sadly, we’re now firmly into the Covid-19 territory of the year. As the impact of March’s news and local business closures worldwide continued to be felt, we reached out to our customers to see how they had been impacted.

We don’t need to tell you, but at this point, the landscape was looking pretty bleak. 

How local businesses are handling covid-19

Additionally, local marketers were now feeling the effects of nationwide business closures, with many of our respondents reporting losing clients and revenue.

The impact of Covid-19 on local marketers

Despite these dark times, our poll respondents remained optimistic and full of insightful tips to help each other out. Just take a look at some of the responses we received:

In down markets the most successful companies do not stop marketing, they push it. When everyone else is cutting back, it’s the perfect opportunity to move forward.

We recommend keeping calm, kind, and in contact. The worst thing that could be done is panic. Everyone is scared and the future is murky at best, but if we stand strong and craft messages of acknowledgment and hope, then the customers and clients alike will bounce back from this time of uncertainty stronger and more profitable than ever.

Fortunately, things didn’t stay this way for too long. But it’s important to look back and see just how far we’ve all come despite the obstacles thrown our way. 

Here’s to the resilience that local businesses and marketers alike have shown this year!

May

In the month that we saw Google reviews begin to return (hooray!) Google My Business rolled out three new attributes for local businesses to take advantage of.

Potentially another way to help local businesses bounce back amid difficult times, the attributes allowed local businesses to highlight how they were adapting and continuing to provide services with stay-at-home orders (and the like) in place.

Tip: Check out Ben Fisher’s guide to setting your GMB attributes.

As of May, businesses – namely restaurants – were able to specify whether or not they provided curbside pickup, no contact delivery, or dine-in. 

Sure, this may not have been the most exciting update of the year, but it provided a great deal of help to keep consumers informed and help to keep businesses in service!

Plus, we were kept busy with news of the second broad core algorithm update of the year and high flux caused by a bug with Google.

June

As June rolled around, along came more features provided by Google to help local businesses in a continually challenging time.

In an attempt to help businesses speed up their recovery from the impact of Covid-19, several new features and support measures were introduced, including: 

  • Smart campaigners getting free promoted pins in Google Maps
  • ‘Grow My Store’ report providing tips to help local businesses improve visibility
  • New details on Google’s shopping tab
  • International Small Business Week

Since Google’s announcement in June, there hasn’t been a huge amount of chatter about these items.

That said, this change definitely did signify the start of Google’s big push in getting consumers to shop local (see: the ‘Shop Local’ adverts airing in the UK right now). 

July

july by GIF CALENDAR

Remember when local SEO expert and contributor Andrew Cock-Starkey predicted that Google My Business would introduce paid aspects in 2020? It may have seemed less likely to some at the time, but in July of this year we saw a pretty controversial test taking place on GMB profiles.

On July 22nd, GMB Product Expert Tom Waddington spotted that GMB was offering the opportunity to upgrade your listing for $50 per month and get a coveted Google Guaranteed badge.

In what was arguably the biggest news of the year thus far, this news did not come as a welcome surprise to many…

In fact, the controversial test sparked concern that this potential paid option would lead to businesses not worthy of ranking simply “buying” their way into the top slot.

Meanwhile, some thought that this option could give Google too much power:

That said, the reaction wasn’t all bad. This change did spark some thought that paid-for Google Guarantee profiles could help to reduce spam somewhat, which I’m sure we’d all agree would be welcome.

August

After lots (and lots, and lots…) of Covid-19 related-local SEO news, August finally brought with it some good old fashioned Google My Business news in the form of GMB’s direct edit.

Interestingly though, this feature wasn’t entirely new.

In 2017, Google announced that users would have the ability to edit their GMB listing without leaving search. In August 2020, we simply saw an update to this existing functionality.

So now, without needing to login to the Google My Business site, GMB owners can do the following directly from search results:

  1. Update profile information
  2. Create posts
  3. Reply to reviews
  4. Add photos

While a version of this feature had existed for a while, news of the Direct Edit experience did seem to raise some concerns, such as “does the Direct Edit experience pose a threat to agencies?”

It seemed that some feared this could lead to clients trying to make edits to their listing more frequently, as well as blurring the agency/client relationship line.

Fortunately, any concerns were soon put to rest and seemed to blow over pretty quickly.

September

September was yet another filled month for local SEO news, with the highly anticipated Local Search Ranking Factors survey being released by Whitespark. We also witnessed many changes to the fast-evolving Local Services Ads by Google.

Google’s Local Services Ads have been around for a while now, and they continue to be a popular choice for local businesses to gain more paid exposure in SERPs.

And if 2020 showed us anything, it’s that LSAs are showing no signs of slowing down. During September we saw two major changes to Google feature…

Firstly, bidding was introduced to a select few beta testers. While LSAs had previously been available at flat sums — making them an affordable and accessible option to many SMBs — this news meant that LSAs became even more competitive.

It’s safe to say that this news wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the local SEO community, who often found LSAs to be an affordable, low-maintenance way to help local businesses gain visibility.

By some, the move to auction-based bidding seemed like Google prioritizing profit over user experience:

Soon after, LSAs were finally rolled out across Europe. Previously, the ad option had only been available to the US but as of September 2020 LSAs are now available to 10 countries throughout Europe: Germany, UK, France, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain. 

In 2020, it’s clear that Google’s been placing even more emphasis on LSAs, so keep your eyes peeled for yet more changes in 2021.

October

In the spookiest month of the year, yet more exciting GMB news emerged.

Spotted by Sterling Sky’s Colan Nielsen, Google began beta testing ‘Preview Call History’ in the GMB dashboard.

In the past year, call tracking has become even more popular and encouraged, with services like CallRail fast gaining popularity.

And, although call tracking is important, it’s definitely a function that has caused some confusion in the past (Where does the call tracking go? Does it interfere with NAP? And so on.)

So, the introduction of native call tracking (even if it does have limited reach) could be very much welcome. 

Regardless, it seems like this is very much early doors right now, but watch out for call history previews next year.

November

As if 2020 hadn’t been stressful enough, in November we had elections, holidays, and lots and lots of local ranking fluctuation.

While November might have been a pretty quiet month for local SEO, there was one local business that took center stage, occupying headlines globally…

Enter: Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

The unsuspecting gardening firm based in Philadelphia made headlines when it was chosen to host a press conference by Donald Trump and his team on November 7th. 

Naturally, that’s not where the press conference was supposed to be hosted – but somewhere along the line, it had gotten mixed up for the Four Seasons premier hotel chain.

What might have begun as an awkward scheduling snafu was an absolute success story for this small business. 

Sure, it might have resulted in some negative GMB reviews (which have since been dealt with) but the press that Four Seasons Total Landscaping received was priceless.

And, as we know, press pays! According to Business Insider, the small gardening firm has made a whopping $1.3 million in merch sales alone.

In what’s been a testing year, this piece of lighthearted news among tense times can surely be seen as a triumph for SMBs.

December

With the holiday season upon us and the end of year in sight (cue more sighs of relief) you’d think that local SEO news would take a day off and give us a rest, but alas!

Always trying to keep us on our toes, Google rolled out its third and final broad core algorithm update of the year on December 3rd, leading to rankings flux and all-around stress from the local SEO community.

Although the dust hasn’t quite settled yet, we can expect that (as always) there will be winners and losers from this algorithm update.

In the meantime, all we can do is hold on to our hats and not make any drastic decisions before we know what’s changed (however tempted we may be!)

Here’s to 2021!

So, among everything else, it’s been yet another busy year for local SEO. But importantly, it’s heartening to know that in testing times the local SEO community, agencies and SMBs alike, are able to overcome the hurdles thrown their way.

From all of us at BrightLocal, we sincerely hope that 2021 brings with it a brighter, better year for local businesses and marketers. No matter what, we’ll be here bringing you the latest news, guides, and support through it all. 

What was your favorite news item of the year? Let us know in the comments below!

P.S. Want to test your local SEO news know-how from each month? Check out our Local Quizness series – the ultimate challenge for local SEO news lovers.

Stephanie Newton
About the author
Stephanie Newton
Stephanie is responsible for managing BrightLocal’s community outreach and engagement, as well as producing and managing content to help inform and educate the local SEO community.

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