When you go to Google to search for something, there is an algorithm that decides what you see. An algorithm is simply an automated computer process that follows a series of steps to accomplish a specific task. Google just released an updated algorithm – Hawk – that changes the links you see when you search for a local business..

The links are displayed on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP.) At the top are paid advertisements served by Google AdWords. The links below are identified by Google’s algorithm and displayed based on the current criteria. Businesses pay attention to where they sit on that list of links – the higher they list on the SERPs, the better.

There are specific ways to increase a company’s visibility in the SERPs by applying the criteria in algorithm to their online presence. Tags on a website, meta data, back links from credible sources, online reviews, social media exposure, to name a few. “White Hat” SEO follows the rules and improves their clients ranking.

SEO consultants make a practice of monitoring the algorithm so we can be aware if anything happens that affects our clients. Google likes to be a bit secretive about their algorithms, so the roll out of Hawk was done without prior announcement or fanfare.

First Came Changes to Local Pack

What’s the local pack? It’s the way Google displays the top search results from Google My Business. Here’s an example for Chinese Food in D.C.
Notice that it only shows three results.The Local Pack used to show seven. Not only did Google shrink the number of businesses shown, note how the listings look.

No visible (much less link-able) phone number to call – no website address. But if you click on the name of the first restaurant, it brings up a second page with a much longer list of choices.

On that second page you can use the links at the top to sort the new list anyway your want. Notice the Rating – your google reviews – is the first option to sort.

Just so you know, people consider online reviews to be as credible as recommendations from a family member or friend. Taking care of your digital reputation is important.  What should also be noted that while the local pack reduced by one, the number of paid ads above it increased by one.

That happened during the last version of the algorithm called Possum. It remains the same in Hawk.

Though consumers think of Google products as free – they are billion dollar company. Google makes it’s money by delivering advertising. Keeping a balance between organic search (preferred by users) and paid ads is always on their mind.

Filters Affect Rankings

The Hawk algorithm attempts to fix a design flaw in the previous version of Possum. Possum was removing local businesses from search results based on their proximity to a competitor. So if Bill’s Auto Repair was down the street from Joe’s Auto Repair, your business would get “filtered” out of the SERPs.

Google was trying to stop companies from registering themselves multiple times with different names at the same address. For example, if Joe’s Auto Repair also registered itself as AAA Auto Repair, Foreign Auto Repair, American Auto Repair – it could knock out their competitors when customers were looking for a local repair shop.

Possum decided to filter out the same type of business within a specific geographic area. Classic case of good intention that didn’t execute well. Not only did the multiple registrations get filtered out, anyone in the general area got filtered out.  So Bill’s Auto Repair was still missing in action.

What Possum did was punish companies who manage their online presence honestly. It’s not what they intended to do but tell that to Bill’s Auto Repair.

The Good News

The good news for Bill is that the Hawk algorithm has reduced the proximity filter so that his shop will not automatically be ignored. Companies that have the same address – a typical example might be a bunch of medical practitioners sharing a building – still have the problem. But it is an improvement for companies located near each other. Businesses can’t dishonestly push their real, local competitors off the page.

Bill’s shop can follow the rules to improve placement in the SERPs and increase his visibility to local customers.

Signs of Change to Come?

You can consider this to be speculation but it’s our job to look out for customers online. When Google released Possum there was no warning.  Companies just vanished from the SERPs.It wasn’t fair and it affected local businesses – most of which are not million dollar corporations.

The criteria for those filters was an address from Google Maps which comes from Google My Business. But what if Google decides to tinker with other factors in local search?  Say that the next algorithm increases the priority of Google reviews and reduces the value of Yelp?

Maybe your listing on the Manta Small Business Directory is suddenly treated like duplicate content? Google considers quality of content in it’s algorithm, so duplicating content on multiple sites can be perceived as “gaming the system.”  Platforms like Manta or Angie’s List are currently great options for small businesses to enhance their online credibility.

Google can change their mind about that.

Possum and Hawk are a wake up call for those of us who play by the rules. Though we support the effort to stop dishonest actors from gaming their SERPs, sometimes it’s the innocent who get caught in the trap.