Location Prominence and Differences in Local OneBox and Google Maps

Mike Blumenthal poses an excellent question in his post Google changes Local OneBox Ranking algo! Or do they?.

He asks why local results that show up in Google’s enhanced OneBox results for certain queries are different than searches for the same terms in Google’s Local search. It’s something that I’ve wondered too, and Mike has done some research that shows different results from OneBox to Local Search.

The Location Prominence Patent Application

We were discussing this a little, and I suggested that the difference was because there was a difference in the maps shown, and the sizes and boundaries of those maps.

I based this conjecture upon a Google patent application which talks about the concept of “location prominence” which I described in a post titled Google Local Search Patent Application on Ranking Businesses at a Location.

Under the patent application, if a searcher uses something like a zip code, then the results returned may be focused around some geographic center based somehow around that specific zip code. Less precise geographic information in a query triggers a different result.

Precise Queries and Geographic Location Information

If searchers use less precise geographic location information, such as a city name, or city and state name (a city can have more than one zip code), then the search results returned may be based upon something else, such as the map shown that the person is searching upon or a center point around multiple zip codes. Here’s a long snippet that explains how this may be important:

[0038] When the search query includes information regarding a geographical area, then the broad area may be identified from the search query. For example, if a search query includes the phrase “Mountain View,” then the broad area may be identified as “Mountain View.” A set of “zcodes” may be identified that correspond to the broad area. A “zcode” may refer to a postal code, such as a U.S. Postal Service zip code in the United States or something similar to a zip code outside the United States.

[0039] The set of zcodes corresponding to the broad area may include those zip codes that have been allocated to the geographical area associated with the broad area. For the Mountain View example above, assume that the set of zcodes includes the zip codes 94039, 94040, 94041, 94042, and 94043. To compress space, the zcode sets may be stored as a series of ranges. In the case of Mountain View, the zcode set may be stored as 94039:5, which corresponds to the zip code range of 94039 to 94043. If a zip code is unallocated to any other broad area, then it may be added to the range of a surrounding or adjacent zcode set. For example, if the zip code 94044 is unallocated, then it may be added to the Mountain View zcode set.

[0040] When the search query does not include information regarding a geographical area, then the broad area may be identified in another way. For example, when the user is accessing a map, the entire visible map area within the map window may be considered the broad area. In one implementation, the user may access a web site associated with a map provider, such as Google maps. The user might zoom in or zoom out on the map, move the map left or right, and/or provide an identifier relating to a geographical area of interest, as necessary, so that the broad area is within the map window. The interface provided by the map provider may also permit the user to enter the search query identified previously.

According to that, a search for a business in “Mountain View” might be centered around a geographic location that includes all five zip codes.

Also, if a query doesn’t provide helpful enough geographic information, the results that are returned may be limited to the boundaries of the map shown, and instead of using a centerpoint based upon zip code may use a centerpoint based upon the map.

Testing Location Prominence

Based upon that information, I come up with a hypothesis that if I used specific zip codes as my geographic information in a search, that my results from local OneBox results and Local search results should be the same or at least very close, even though the map sizes were different.

I decided to use 10 zip codes picked at random, and look at results for two different types of businesses – restaurants and doctors. My results are in the table below. If my hypothesis is right, the businesses that show up in OneBox and Local results should be most likely the same for both, and in the same order.

In the table below, if the results between the two search types were different I list the Local Search result first, followed by the OneBox result, with a slash between the two. If there is only one business listed in that rank order (1,2,3), then the result was the same for both types of searches

Business Zip City Maps/Onebox
Restaurant 80202 Denver 1. Westin Tabor Center

2. Palace Arms Restaurant

3. Hotel Teatro

Restaurant 45240 Cincinnati 1. Papa John’s Pizza: Forest Park

2. Wendy’s

3. Skyline Chili

Restaurant 45482 Dayton 1. Take-A-Break

2. Lucky Dragon

3. Dayton Racquet Club/Chantille’s Restaurant

Restaurant 01011 Springfield 1. Main Street Station

2. Classic Pizza

3. Mc Donald’s

Restaurant 35203 Madison 1. Lisa’s Lunchbox Inc

2. Long John Silver’s

3. Hacienda Mexican Restaurant

Restaurant 78201 San Antonio 1. Jacala Mexican Restaurant

2. Dave & Buster’s

3. India Cuisine Simi’s

Restaurant 90402 Santa Monica 1. Fathers Office

2. Giorgio Baldi Ristorante

3. Chez Mimi Restaurant

Restaurant 97201 Portland 1. Hilton Portland & Executive

2. RiverPlace Hotel

3. Heathman Hotel Restaurant

Restaurant 32801 Orlando 1. The Westin Grand Bohemian

2. Manuel’s on the 28th

3. Orlando Marriott Downtown

Restaurant 30302 Atlanta 1. Sophie’s Bar and Restaurant, Inc

2. Ginger Bay Cafe

3. New York NY Salad & Deli/The Restaurant

Doctor 80202 Denver 1. David Drucker, M.D., P.C

2. University of Denver: Counseling and Behavioral Health

3. Laser Vision Center Downtown

Doctor 45240 Cincinnati 1. Riverside Medical Center

2. Diller Philip MD

3. Orson Austin MD

Doctor 45482 Dayton 1. Bhat Maryanne MD

2. Schriber Robert a MD

3. Morgan Heather MD

Doctor 01011 Springfield 1. Satin Sol DMD /Cutler WM Phys

2. Stuart Marylou DDS/Greenspan Melissa Phys

3. Greenspan Melissa Phys/Satin Sol DMD

Doctor 35203 Madison 1. James M Lewis Ophthalmology

2. Smith Robert w MD

3. Harrell Lindy MD PhD

Doctor 78201 San Antonio 1. Clinica Del Norte Pediatrics

2. Arriola Homero C MD

3. Zuschlag Ella MD

Doctor 90402 Santa Monica 1. Elander Eye Medical Group

2. Lerner Robert G MD

3. Nancy Rosser Inc

Doctor 97201 Portland No Onebox
Doctor 32801 Orlando 1. Orlando Plastic Surgery

2. Napolitano Heidi J MD

3. Nadjafi Morteza MD

Doctor 30302 Atlanta 1. Felner Joel M MD

2. Diabetes & Endocrinology Assoc P C/ Ambroze Wayne L MD FACS Fascrs Jr

3. Ambroze Wayne L MD FACS Fascrs Jr/Diabetes & Endocrinology Assoc P C

Analysis of Results

The patent application provides a number of different possible ranking considerations that may be used to decide which results to show in a specific area. It also gives us an insight into what area it might focus upon to display results from, based upon the information that is provided in a query.

Someone searching by a specific zip code, in a city that may have multiple zip codes, may be purposefully constraining his or her search to a specific area, and the results that show up may use a location based upon a center point around that zip code.

Someone searching based upon city name may not be as concerned about limiting results to one zip code, and instead the results shown are going to be partially influenced by the boundaries of a map that displays those results.

A search limited to a specific zip code seems to have very similar results regardless of whether the search results are in the OneBox or Google Local, with a couple of exceptions. A larger sample size and more detailed analysis is likely called for to understand why the differences exist.

Conclusion

It makes sense that the OneBox results are only from the portion of the map that they present to searchers.

If that searcher then goes to the local results where they see a larger map covering a greater area, the results may change order because there are more results to display over a greater area – if the search query used provided less precise geographic information such as a city name.

If the query used more precise information, such as a single zip code, then the results should either be the same, or very similar.

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35 thoughts on “Location Prominence and Differences in Local OneBox and Google Maps”

  1. By george, I think you’ve got it!

    Nice piece of work….leaves me wondering though about the change in the Buffalo results over time that I saw in my tests….but it stands to reason that Google is changing and testing over time.

    Mike

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    I just posted a comment in your post about some of the things that Google might be looking at that might cause those rankings to change over time.

    I do think that they are trying different things out, and that when they have access, or fail to have access to information for some types of business, or other kinds of information, that it might cause changes in rankings.

    For example, one factor that I mention there is that if they are ranking businesses by a distance from the center of a zip code, and they are doing that by a straight line from the center point (of the area that the zip code covers), if they can now estimate a reasonable travel time, and a business that is a little further away takes less time to actually get to, they might revise rankings to list the business that is faster to get to from the center point a little higher than one that might be a little closer using a straight line.

  3. Good research Bill. I’ve been monitoring my search traffic for years off analytic tools. The business and industry tends to draw search queries that are either regional or focused on major cities. hardly any zip code queries and similarly hardly relatively few town queries.

    On the town side, the business site has relatively strong rankings for the business terms and I have sprinkled town names throughout the content (success stories). Consequently the site has tended to show #1 at G for search queries with town name and the business service.

    having said that….it is only one industry.

    I checked the data and trends against the leaked aol data. I think I’ll similarly check the aol data against restaurants and doctors a la bill’s test.

    I’m wondering how people actually search.

    There are 2 dynamics working here….one is how G is ranking the data within its onebox/maps presentation for geo type queries and secondly how the public searches.

    Kudo’s though Bill. Nice research.

    BTW, my rankings and visibility are taking a hit on some of my best terms due to this installation of the maps/onebox listing. Now I’ve gotta get to G maps group and start complaining along with everyone else. LOL (not really!!!!)

    Dave

  4. Thanks, Dave.

    I’m not sure that I’ve seen many zip code searches either. My experiment above did show that zip code searches provided results that were substantially similar from the OneBox to the Local Search results – because the map boundaries were mostly ignored. That’s what I wanted to see, to test if the behavior suggested in the patent would actually work during searches.

    Using a region or city name, especially ones that involve more than a single zip code are likely going to give different results from the OneBox to Local Search. We’ve seen from Mike’s data that tends to be true.

    I think that because there’s a bigger map in Local Search than the OneBox – providing more choices and possibly a different centerpoint that could be based upon the center of the map (or the center of multiple zip codes) instead of the center of a specific zip code.

    It will be interesting to see what kinds of results you get looking through the AOL data.

    I know that we won’t ever get a chance, but I’d love to see Google’s data on how this enhanced OneBox has changed user behavior when it comes to these types of business/location searches

  5. Bill:

    With regard to the last paragraph…I can tell you its changed a lot.

    I can tell from my analytics….the phrases where the onebox/map shows and dominates the top of the fold it has either improved or destroyed my traffic for the relevant geo phrase.

    It has a huge effect. Of course Google knows better than us…but I’ve seen the impact rather dramatically.

  6. That’s what I’m seeing, too.

    I’m wondering though, if more businesses are verifying their address information, and making updates, and a greater percentage of people are clicking through the “local search” link to visit the maps pages – or are they just looking at, and clicking on the top three results?

  7. Those are questions only Google knows. Have you see the size of the google groups for G maps. The groups are getting larger, and as Mike noted the complaints are extensive. Still, as they grow they are a teeny percentage of total small businesses.

    As to the 2nd question, again only G knows. Regardless I’m seeing dramatic changes on terms where the maps come into play. I’m guessing they are clicking to the sites directly off the maps showing within normal search. (strictly a guess!!!!!)

  8. Re: Growth in G maps.

    Bill: Mike Blumenthal referenced this…and here is the citation from Comscore….
    London, U.K., January 31, 2007 – comScore Networks, a leader in measuring the digital age, today reported the top worldwide Web properties for December, ranked by unique visitors. According to the analysis, Worldwide Internet usage increased 10 percent from December 2005 to December 2006. The Search/Navigation category, which includes the three sites that draw the largest worldwide audiences, grew 9 percent, led by Google (the Number 2 site worldwide), which rose 13 percent in worldwide visitors in 2006. Microsoft and Yahoo! Sites each grew 5 percent worldwide during 2006, ranking first and third, respectively.

    “Google’s popularity has been driven in part by its international appeal as well as the rapid uptake of some of Google’s applications beyond traditional Web search,” said Bob Ivins, managing director of comScore Europe. “Examples include the 40-percent year-over-year growth in visitors to Google Image Search, the 71-percent growth in visitors to Gmail, and the 62-percent growth in visitors to Google Maps.”

    That figure represents growth before the widespread use of G maps into organic search…so I’m sure we will see much more growth.

    So far I see maps with city/town names. Haven’t checked it w/zip codes. I don’t see maps with state queries within organic search.

    So I’m just hypothesizing that growth into actual maps usage will correspond to some function of the relative usage of town/city name queries versus state/larger geographic regions. Add to that natural migration into advanced search applications, etc.

    Should be significant, I’d guess.

  9. Thanks for the stats, Dave. I’ll be looking forward to comparing them to future reports of usage.

    I think that your hypothesis is a good one. I suspect that we would only see OneBox maps for state queries if people started doing those kinds of searches while using Local Search. I don’t expect them to.

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  13. I disagree. I submitted 4 branches of a company which has a chain of emergency locksmiths, to the local search. Three of the branches were in Allenstown, PA. The company is called 24/7 Emergency Locksmith Service, and has 450 branches. They provide prompt emergency service based on the location of each branch.
    All of the listings received high ranking on the map search for emergency locksmith service. However, not one of the companies is currently listed on the Mapbox. In most cases, the location of the branches of this company is closer to the center of the geographical area being searched than companies getting into the mapbox. When searching for emergency locksmith service in Allentown, for example; only one company in the mapbox is closer to the center of Allentown than at least one of the branches of the company I am submitting.
    What also surprised me is that none of the companies that made it into the mapbox have web sites, while my company has a web site which refers people to emergency locksmith centers all over the country.
    All four branches are locked out of the mapbox even on zip code searches for emergency locksmith services; even when such a search triggers a mapbox.
    I do wonder if this will change in time as the listings are only 4 days old. I have seen companies move in and out of the mapbox over time.

  14. I think location is the key driver in Google maps, age and quality of site i suspect would have some relevance to the ranking. Also Google likes to see reviews from customers at different ip addresses. We have tried this with our double glazing shop web site and had success with ranking for local keywords.

  15. Hi Lee,

    I think that there are likely a good number of additional factors that Google looks at for ranking businesses in Google Maps, but those are good ones to start with. Glad to hear that you’ve had some success.

  16. Thanks for the post. Few days back, i got a query on where the client was really sceptical about local listings as he was suspecting that local listing of his site is the reason his sites has dropped out of the top 10. So pls dont consider that if your site is added on local directories, there may be a chance of site NOT doing well.Google make changes now and then to improve the way their engine retrieves, evaluates, ranks and then displays their results. Just be updated with latest guidelines and techniques.

  17. Hi Shannon,

    You’re welcome. We know that there are many reasons why a page may not rank as highly as it once did – they may make changes to their site, the other sites showing in the search results may make changes to their sites, or the search engine may change around the way that it ranks pages. It can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint any one reason. Being newly included in local listings shouldn’t be one of those, but who knows for certain. I agree with you that people should pay attention to the changes that they can see, but I would recommend also focusing upon working upon doing things to constantly improve a site, for visitors and for search engines, even if it’s just a little bit every day.

  18. I just posted a website to google local and I did see a little drop in the rankings but I don’t think it was because of that. I find that google local is the best spot to sit on the search engine. When I search for most things I use it

  19. Hi Keegan,

    I agree. Google local can make a difference for many sites. Depending upon the type of site, and the goods or services it offers, Google local does have the potential to increase traffic, visits, contacts, etc.

  20. I thought that Google map listing was easy. But even after many days of submission, my listing was not shown in local Google map results. But after reading you posts, i got some clear tricks and tips to bring up my listing in local business listings of Google

  21. Hi Pratish,

    There are a number of steps that you can take that make it more likely that you will show up in local search results, and in maps results showing in web searches. But, even if you take those steps, if others have done so as well, you may still not be ranked highly in those results. That’s were something like location prominence may play a role.

  22. Having recently done a google places listing for a local double glazing company I have made some changes to the description in google place by optimising the title and description putting the keyprase first and found this straight away move the client into top 4. When link building his listings as well it moved him further. Local searches are becoming more prominent for users.

  23. Hi Les,

    One aspect of ranking for Google Places involves how relevant a listing might be to a query that it might be found for, so the change you made likely does account for your higher ranking. Local searches definitely are appearing more frequently in organic search results from what I’ve seen.

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