Keyword spam and keyword rich Google Business Profile names moved an average of 5.5 and 7.9 places down in search results, respectively, while business names with no keywords moved up an average of 4.1 places.
Google Business Profile names with no keywords ranked for 2 more new keywords following the Vicinity update and saw more of their keyword rankings move up in search results (0.8 places).
Google Business Profile names with 31 or more characters moved an average of 9 places down in search results.
Towards the back end of 2021, Google made a few changes to its local search and map pack algorithm in an update now known as Vicinity.
Focused on impacting proximity, the Vicinity update was seemingly designed to not only make it harder for businesses to rank when searches took place far away from their office but also to crack down on businesses with a heavy reliance on keywords in their Google Business Profile (GBP) names.
Google, in essence, appeared to make it so that less-established businesses located closer to the user would now have the potential to rank higher than the more overpowered businesses located further away. It dialed proximity up as a ranking factor, causing a wide variety of local businesses to either benefit or lose out as a result.
But, who exactly were the real winners and losers of the Vicinity update? And what impact did the use of keywords in GBP names have on local search performance? Were GBP names rich in genuine keywords, spam keywords or no keywords favored by the update?
We decided to find out.
Venturing into Vicinity
After announcing in December that it had concluded its local search update, Google released a relatively vague Tweet stating it had ‘rebalanced various factors’ that its algorithm considers when generating local search results.
Our November 2021 local search update has concluded. It began Nov 30 and ran through Dec 8. It involved a rebalancing of various factors we consider in generating local search results. General guidance for businesses remains the same as covered here: https://t.co/uyXFfmUEIR
— Google Search Central (@googlesearchc) December 16, 2021
What these factors were exactly remains somewhat of a mystery but, inspired by Sterling Sky’s own experiences of what this update did to spam, we sought to determine the impact of Vicinity on businesses with various types of GBP business name.
Had Google finally decided to push back on businesses that were using an abundance of spammy keywords within their GBP name? And, if so, did the Vicinity update achieve what it was set up to do in combatting these commonplace tactics? Let’s find out.
Using data from Google’s Local Finder, we recorded and analyzed 5,019 keyword data points from 391 US-based Google Business Profiles (GBP), assessing the impact of the Vicinity update both before and after it took place.
These GBPs were taken from a wide range of businesses across multiple industries—from plumbers and dentists to lawyers and pest control services—before being cross-compared with the relevant registered business name.
These registered business names were taken from each business’s individual website, using information from the ‘About Us’ webpage, website footer and the main logo to determine how they each referred to themselves away from their GBP profile. This process closely matches Google’s own requirements for a GBP business name:
“To help customers find your business online, accurately represent your business name. Your name should reflect your business’ real-world name, as used consistently on your shopfront, website, stationery and as known to customers.” – Google, Guidelines for representing your business on Google
The business names from the GBP profiles were then individually assessed to determine whether they contained relevant keywords, spammy keywords or no keywords, using the following definitions:
- Keyword Rich: The registered business name is either exactly the same as the GBP name, or both the GBP name and registered business name feature legitimate keywords. For example, ‘locksmith’ in ‘SupaLock Locksmiths’.
- Keyword Spam: The registered business name is either not the same as the GBP name or features keywords that are not included in the registered business name. For example, the registered business name is ‘Platinum Braces’ but the GBP name is listed as ‘Diamond Braces Orthodontist: Braces & Invisalign’.
- No Keywords: Neither the registered business name or the GBP name feature any keywords within them. For example, this would include businesses with names like ‘Lighthouse’ or ‘Exponia Development’.
Of the 391 GBP listings used within the study, 85 were identified as having ‘Keyword Spam’ in their GBP name, 149 as having ‘Keyword-Rich’ GBP names and 157 as having ‘No Keywords’ in their GBP name.
As a result of the varying sample numbers for each type of GBP name, 255 GBP listings were used within the data analysis (i.e. 85 ‘Keyword Spam’ GBP listings, 85 ‘Keyword Rich’ GBP listings and 85 ‘No Keywords’ GBP listings) to ensure fairness across the results. We then cross-compared each type of GBP name with one another, using the relevant keyword data points to assess three key areas:
- The impact of the Vicinity update on local search rankings (rankings of Google Business Profiles in the Local Finder).
- The impact of the Vicinity update on keyword ranking performance (the number of new keywords businesses ranked for).
- The impact of the Vicinity update on GBP names with varying character lengths.
So, without any further ado, what did our data show us? Let’s take it one question at a time.
Vicinity vs. Local Search Rankings
As the chart below shows, GBP profiles rich in keywords or containing spam in their name were the hardest hit in local search rankings.
Keyword rich GBP names were seen to move down an average of 7.9 places in search results after the Vicinity update, whereas spammy GBP names decreased an average of 5.5 places.
On the flipside, GBP names with no keywords in their name ranked an average of 4.1 places higher in local search results.
As such, the data clearly suggests that the Vicinity update favored businesses that didn’t have any type of keywords in its GBP name—whether genuine or spammy. This, therefore, shows that, while Google’s update may have intended to crack down on keyword spammers, it also appears to have unfairly punished GBP businesses with legitimate keywords in their names.
But could the same be said of keyword performance? Did the number of keywords that GBP businesses were ranking for prior to the update fluctuate depending on their GBP name?
Vicinity vs. Keyword Performance
Well, after analyzing the movement of keywords that each individual GBP profile ranked for both before and after the Vicinity update, we decided to investigate the extent of the impact on each type of GBP name.
As the data above shows, a similar trend was seen to that of the local search rankings, with both keyword rich and keyword spam-filled GBP names seeing small decreases in their overall number of ranking keywords, compared to GBP names which contained no keywords.
Keyword rich GBP names, on the other hand, were not only found to be the most negatively impacted by the overall change of ranking keywords, but they were also shown to rank for fewer new keywords after the update as well.
As the data above demonstrates, keyword rich GBP names ranked for fewer new keywords than GBP names with spammy keywords or no keywords at all.
This, again, suggests that GBP names without keywords were favored by Google’s Vicinity update, ranking for two more new keywords on average while also improving the performance of the keywords that they had already been ranking for prior to the update.
Meanwhile, it appears that the update has tarnished genuine keyword rich GBP names with the same brush as spammy GBP names, with Google seemingly unable to identify between the two. But is this really the case? And, if so, why?
Vicinity vs. GBP Name Length
Since our data seems to suggest that Google struggles to tell the difference between keyword spam-filled GBP names and keyword rich GBP names, we hypothesized that this could be due to the overall length of the GBP name itself. So, we decided to investigate.
Firstly, by looking at the overall data for all three types of GBP names, we can see that GBP profiles which featured 31 or more characters in their business names suffered significantly bigger drops in rankings than businesses with shorter GBP names.
In fact, GBP names with 10 characters or fewer were found to actually move up in rankings following the Vicinity update, again suggesting that Google’s update focused on favoring shorter GBP names with few to no keywords.
This finding was then further merited while delving further into the data, assessing the number of characters in each individual type of GBP name against its ranking performance.
But, that wasn’t the only interesting discovery to catch our eye.
As you can see in the chart above, GBP names that were both without keywords and less than 20 characters in length showed a steady increase in rankings.
Interestingly, however, GBP names that included spammy keywords and ranged between 21 and 30 characters in length actually showed the biggest increase in rankings, moving an average of 16 places up in search rankings.
On the flipside, spam-filled GBP names more than 30 characters in length were the hardest hit in terms of search rankings, moving down an average of 25.2 places. So, what does this all mean?
Well, for starters, it appears to suggest once again that Google struggles to decipher between keyword rich GBP names and spam-filled GBP names, punishing genuine businesses that feature a natural abundance of keywords within their GBP names.
That said, however, the data also appears to show that the Vicinity update may be using GBP character length as a proxy for spam, assessing GBP names as ‘spammy’ because of their overall length rather than their contents. This was hypothesized because GBP names of 31 characters or more were seen to show significant declines in their ranking performance when compared to GBP names under 20 characters in length.
Moreover, the research appears to suggest that Google has started to crack down on businesses that have used—and still use—keyword-stuffing techniques within their local search strategies. Instead, it appears to now be prioritizing businesses that abide by its representation guidelines, reflecting their real-world business name on their GBP listing.
What did the Vicinity update teach us?
Generally speaking, the Vicinity update appears to have favored smaller, less established businesses in local search results while punishing competitor businesses that use underhand non-Google-friendly marketing tactics.
But, as our data shows, the changes have not been entirely flawless.
As such, you may now find yourself asking what all of the information we have gathered actually means—so, how can you use our findings to ensure you stand out in local search results?
Well, we’ve got you covered. Listed below are a few key lessons we think you should take away from our research into the recent Vicinity update, using the expert advice and insights from our very own Local Search Expert, Claire Carlile.
Consider Removing Keywords From Your GBP Name
“The propensity for businesses to legally change their business names to pure keywords and modifiers looked, quite frankly, ridiculous in the map pack and businesses lost their ability to make their brand stand clearly apart from the melange of ‘me too’ businesses.” — Claire Carlile
Unless they are absolutely necessary and a part of your registered business name, Google appears to be cracking down on GBP names that contain keywords—whether they be spam or actually relevant to your business.
Since our data found that GBP names without keywords outperformed spam-filled GBP names and keyword rich GBP names in both local search rankings and keyword ranking performance, this appears to suggest that having a huge array of keywords in your GBP name might not be as beneficial as it once was.
Keep Your GBP Name Short
“The Vicinity update should hopefully encourage businesses to re-engage with the basic marketing tenets of business naming conventions. I’ve always found that a unique brand name plus the primary service keyword can work really well – for example ‘Porter’s Pizza Place’ or ‘Sparkle Co Cleaning Services’.” — Claire Carlile
Our data suggests that GBP names featuring more than 30 characters in length are becoming more frequently recognized as spam by Google, with many longer GBP names showing a poorer ranking performance following the Vicinity update.
Therefore, you should try to keep your GBP name as short and as succinct as possible to help improve your ranking performance.
Continually Monitor & Optimize Your GBP Listing
“Businesses need to be aware that using a primary product or service keyword in the registered business name can be excellent for SEO and for clearly signaling to a potential customer what the business does. However, it can also be potentially limiting if a business expands in terms of their service provision, or if the name no longer adequately describes the type or breadth of products or services that they offer.” — Claire Carlile
Since the benefit of using keywords in your GBP name appears to have been dialed down by Google, you should now put more effort into monitoring, optimizing and improving your GBP listing via alternative tried and tested strategies.
From gaining reviews to building citations, you can find out more about how to do exactly that in our detailed guide here.
Focus On Your Primary Location
While we didn’t research this area ourselves, data from Search Engine Land discovered that primary business locations took a greater hit after the Vicinity update than those with secondary office locations.
As such, try to prioritize proximity by improving your local search performance in the locations that are most relevant to your business.
Are there any other lessons you are going to take from our research into the Vicinity update? We’d love to hear your ideas, so please join the discussion by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.