Did you see a rise or drop in your local SEO rankings in recent weeks? We finally have a clear answer from Google about what happened.
Google was actually surprisingly open about how they have recently implemented neural matching into local searches.
I must say, as an SEO expert who has been in the game for a long time, this could be the first time ever that Google has actually confirmed what was going on in great detail.
The bottom line: Google is relying on neural matching for local searches, and it’s a big-ass deal.
What This Means
We like the way Google called this a “super-synonym system.” This means it is now matching local searches using a word related to the search intent, instead of the script verbiage.
Simply put, Google will look beyond the words used in a local search and the words in a business’ name and description to generate results.
In Google’s example:
Ok. That’s a bit abstract.
Think of it this way. It will do a better job of linking searches for “My heat has died” to results for local HVAC professionals. Neural matching seeks to lock into the searchers’ true intent to give them better results.
Who Will This Help?
The first group this will likely help is local businesses whose name may not contain any keywords to help local searchers find them. This could include a law firm simply called “Killian and Associates” or a preschool centre simply called something like “Helping Hands Academy.”
Their specialty or offering isn’t literally in their business name, which has traditionally made optimization an issue as they compete against businesses called “Toronto Real Estate Law” or “South Scarborough Preschool.” This has been a challenge for older and legacy businesses that were named long before they had to worry about Google. Or, they valued branding more than SEO when naming the company.
These businesses will now potentially rank better for local searches, provided they have a well-written and well-optimized Google My Business listing.
Of course, there are about 10,000 other little things that will impact how these businesses rank locally, such as the quality of their reviews and the quality of their backlinks. However, neural matching and the Bedlam Update could help them.
Who Will This Hurt?
It’s not clear who this update could hurt. All of the SEO consultants out there (myself included) will need more time to pour over the data. So far, we have seen some companies drop ranking for broad keywords like “dog groomer” while rising for local keywords like “dog groomer Toronto.” But, I will say it is far too soon to draw any real conclusions just yet.
Meanwhile, as with any Google update, jilted business owners and webmasters grabbed their torches and took to Twitter to express their outrage that this update had killed their traffic or business.
Furious publishers blamed this update for traffic drops and their articles disappearing from their previous position in the SERPs and results carousels. Many also scoffed at Google’s recent claims they are seeking to reward quality content with recent measures like the BERT Update (more on that later) and claimed Google is now rewarding low-quality content or black hat tactics.
While we sympathize with these publishers and marketers, there is no concrete evidence that this is the case. A few anecdotal complaints do not add up to a trend.
BrightLocal has already noticed some “yoyo-ing” in their data and said flux could be “the new normal.”
Business Name Keyword Stuffers
This update is also expected to help ensure that business name keyword spammers will no longer be rewarded. This levels the playing field, so to speak.
In the past, you might have seen some business owners and marketers stuff obvious keywords into their GMB info and even their business names in an attempt to win the local SEO war.
This is spammy as hell and looks awful. It’s also against Google’s rules, as they clearly state, “Including unnecessary information in your business name is not permitted, and could result in your listing being suspended.”
Google typically issues one of two types of suspensions for this:
- Soft Suspension: You lose the ability to manage your listing, but the listing is still live on Google Maps
- Hard Suspension: Your listing and reviews are completely removed from GMB and Google Maps
Unfortunately, they also don’t seem to have a system to find these keyword-stuffed-business names without someone else reporting them.
Of course, there are other businesses that will try to cheat the GMB system by setting up multiple keyword-rich business names with different phone numbers.
This is also not allowed. Unfortunately, it’s very much report-based to catch the spammy businesses out there.
However, the introduction of neural matching and the Bedlam update takes more of the local SEO focus away from the business name and is poised to take big steps towards fighting GMP spam.
Is This Part of the BERT Update?
The Bedlam is coming on the heels of the BERT update, so there has been a lot of questions about whether or not Bedlam is part of BERT. They both start with “B,” they’re both AI-based, and they’re both aimed at the algo gaining a better understanding of a searcher’s intent to produce better results.
However, Google’s Danny Sullivan cleared the air when he said that Bedlam and BERT are two separate things.
BERT continues to be rolled out incrementally for search queries across 70 languages all over the world.
BERT applies Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (hence the name, BERT) models to both ranking and featured snippets in Search, to help Google’s Search algo better understand those queries. This was their self-professed biggest update to Search in 5 years and one of the biggest updates ever.
One major thing that both BERT and Bedlam have in common is the list of things you can do to optimize for them:
- That is all
Speaking of which…
What You Can Do About the Bedlam Update
People in the SEO community and small business owners don’t like to be told there is nothing we can do about a major Google update. It makes us feel uneasy. However, that’s exactly what we’ve been told for the Bedlam update.
However, you can feel a bit more comfortable and confident around update time if you’re already doing all of the right things. I’ve said many times that if you’re doing the right things, you should be excited about the next update. Your hard work will likely be rewarded with a boost. However, if you’re doing the wrong (blackhat) things, you need to be very nervous about the next update. All of your results may disappear overnight.
That’s not to say the people who saw a drastic drop following the Bedlam update were all doing the wrong things. I don’t know the specifics of their campaigns. However, I will say that relying on shortcuts and blackhat SEO tactics set your results up to be very disposable. They can disappear just like that.
All you can do to prepare and optimize for Bedlam is keep doing good old-fashioned proven local SEO tactics.
Local SEO Tactics That Complement the Bedlam Update
Bedlam does give you a golden opportunity to revisit your local SEO tactics. It also gives us an excuse to review them with you.
So, here is what your business needs to do to rank locally after the Bedlam update, and the update after that, and the update after that…
1. Your Google My Business Listing
Did you know about 80% of Google My Business listings have incorrect or incomplete information? That’s pretty mind-blowing when you consider it has a 100% chance of hurting your local SEO ranking.
That is basically gift-wrapping SEO clout, sales leads, and foot traffic to your competitors. Your Google My Business listing is one of the most crucial elements of local ranking success. It’s also completely free to update and optimize, so don’t waste this opportunity.
Start with the absolute basics. Make sure your NAP (name, address, and phone number) is correct. Moz has identified your NAP information as the #1 ranking signal. If you change locations or add a second location, make sure that Google is the first one to know.
Next, you will want to choose your Google short name. If you haven’t logged into your dashboard since 2018, you need to do this today. This is different than your business name. This is a short name to give Google an idea of who you are and what you do. It can also tell them where you are and what areas you serve.
You get 32 characters and can change this 3 times a year. So, it’s best to keep it simple, yet descriptive. Go with something like YourNameYourLocation. If you were a Lululemon store in Liberty Village, you could go with Lululemonlibertyvillage.
Now, we’re going to craft the perfect business description. There are a few Dos and Don’t for this according to Google’s Guidelines.
- Stuff this section with keywords
- Add any promotions or prices to this section
- Mislead the customer in any way
- Add links of any sort
- Tell your company’s story
- Add any numbers that act as social proof (i.e. “With over 5000 current subscribers…”)
- Mention why they should choose you over the other guys, without mentioning prices
- List as many of your products and services as possible, without keyword stuffing
Next, you will want to choose the appropriate business category and subcategory. Moz has stated that this is the 4th most important ranking factor from GMB, so you will want to be as thorough as possible.
There may not always be a logical choice or match for your business. Businesses in the food service industry may have an easier time finding categories and subcategories than a business in the professional services space. However, do the best you can and check out Google’s support page if you have any questions.
Now, you’re going to upload high-quality photos of your business. Google advises you to:
- Add at least three great exterior photos to help customers recognize your business
- Add at least three great interior photos to show customers what your business feels like inside
- Add at least three photos of products that you sell
- Add at least three photos that are representative of the services you offer
- Add at least three photos of the food or drinks you serve
- Add at least one photo of each of your common areas
- Add at least three photos of your most popular guest rooms
- Add at least three photos showing your management team and your employees
If it comes down to you and a business with no (or low-quality) pictures, you will likely win the business.
2. Earn Great Reviews
Your online reviews do more than send foot traffic to your location and web traffic to your site. They are a major ranking signal for SEO.
But, what can you do to earn more good ones? Isn’t the secret to great reviews providing the best possible service? No. It may seem like you have to take a passive role in online reviews and hope for the best. But you can do much more than that.
How to Get More Positive Yelp Reviews
The first blocker is that Yelp doesn’t let you do very much. For example, you’re not allowed to actually ask for them, online or in person. Other sites are less rigid and allow you to ask. However, Yelp’s rules clearly state that you’re not allowed to:
- Ask for reviews in person or in your marketing materials/ signage
- Collect reviews via a survey
- Offer discounts or promotions in exchange for reviews
Breaking these rules can earn you a punishment that ranges anywhere from an embarrassing banner on your listing that flags you as a cheater for 90 days, to being removed completely.
So, what can you do?
One of the first steps you can take is to make sure your Yelp listing has the most up-to-date information and offerings. Just like your Google My Business listing, this is free to update and can make or break you right away.
You can also display Yelp stickers at your location. These stickers don’t ask for reviews, but they do say “People love us on Yelp.” Of course, you’re not allowed to make your own.
How to Get More Positive Google Reviews
Google’s guidelines are far more relaxed than Yelp and just as crucial. There is no specific data that tells us how much Google will weigh one of their reviews compared to one from another site like Yelp or Hotels.com. However, it’s just best to assume your Google reviews are one of the most important parts of your off-page SEO strategy.
The good news is you can ask for them. However, you can’t do anything shady like exchange reviews with another business, or offer discounts for reviews.
You can also invest in an online reviews/ reputation management software tool that will help you track and respond to all of your customer comments. They can also help you “intercept” a negative review before it goes live, and speak directly to the reviewer to see if there is anything you can do to make it up to them.
3. Keep a Clean Link Profile
The quality and quality of the links pointing to your domain is the other massively important element of your off-page SEO strategy and cannot be ignored.
You could have great reviews and publish the highest quality of content. However, your SEO results will still be dragged down by a dirty link profile. You need to ensure that only relevant and respected sites are pointing at your domain.
If the local newspaper reviewed your business and linked to your home page, that’s an amazing link that can send you up the rankings. Meanwhile, if you have an old link to a spammy site out there somewhere, it could be keeping you off of the front page right now.
Audit Your Link Profile
Make it your New Year’s resolution to audit your links and address the less desirable ones.
Start by using tools like SEMRush or ahrefs. Both will do the job, but we recommend ahrefs. This is just an amazing SEO tool that can do a lot more than just audit your links. You can also use it to get a new level of keyword research and we can’t recommend it enough.
Follow this guide to help you get a 360-degree view of all of the links pointing to your site and see how to address the bad ones.
If you want to build more quality links, your best bet is to hire a link building agency. Hey, I know a guy!
At the same time, go ahead and delete any of those guest post opportunity emails that you will get. Most of them are low-quality and spammy. They will likely do you more harm than good.
4. Create Better Content
This section will apply to both the on-page content for your site, or any the off-page blogs or guest posts you produce.
A few years ago, you may have focused on writing 4-8 “pretty good” SEO blogs that were good enough to publish. Now, you’re better off focusing on writing 2-4 “really good” ones. Google’s recent updates (both the Bedlam and BERT) focus on rewarding quality content that engages users. Focus on quality over quantity.
But, isn’t “Good” content subjective? No, not really.
Turn Negative Comments Into Amazing Content
You have two really big advantages when it comes to creating better content than the other guys. The first is your brain, which contains all of your industry-specific knowledge and experience.
The second is one of the most under-utilized: Your pipeline into your target audience’s pain points.
Too many companies write about what they think the customer wants to read. They ignore data that tells them exactly what their audience is begging them to write about.
You need to start pulling content topics and titles from:
- Longtail keyword research (ahrefs is great for this)
- Social media comments. Look at both you and your competition’s sites
- Online reviews. Again, both you and your competition
- Q&A Forums like Quora
Take what you see here and turn it into “user-inspired” content that speaks directly to their questions and pain points.
Also, talk to your front-line sales staff and customer service team. Ask them to speak frankly about:
- The questions they answer every day
- The most common complaints/ compliments they hear about you
- The most common complaints/ compliments they hear about your competition
- How they win most customers
- How they lose most customers
Take the good and the bad and turn it into a content calendar. It is some of the most valuable SEO research you’re ever going to get. Don’t waste it.
Choose Better Images
Most small businesses (and smaller marketing firms for that matter) don’t have the budget for an expensive account with Shutterstock or Adobe Images. However, that doesn’t mean you have to settle for boring images in your blog or your social feed.
The ability to take high-quality on-site images is another huge advantage you need to start taking advantage of in your content.
People react to seeing local images. It helps establish you as the local expert in your area and users will be more likely to look at your content or buy from you.
If you’re a clothing store, take high-quality pictures of people wearing your clothes in easily-identifiable places in the city. If you’re a realtor, take high-quality images of the local properties you’ve helped close deals on. If you’re a restoration service, take great before-and-after shots from the actual job sites. For god’s sake, someone on your crew must have a decent camera on their phone.
Even if they are “meh” pictures, you can do a lot to dress them up with creative text, filters and cropping from free sites like Canva.
Don’t let the crazy-sounding name fool you. The Bedlam update is not something you really need to be afraid of, if you’re doing all of the right things.
Again, there is nothing new that you really need to do to prepare for it, nor anything special you can do to optimize it. All you can really do is do the work. Follow tried and tested local SEO tactics and avoid spammy shortcuts.
Follow the steps we’ve shared today to optimize your on-page and off-page SEO presence and you will survive this Google update and all of the ones that come out in 2020.