How Google May Diversify Search Results by Merging Local and Web Search Results

Google has come under fire the last year or so from critics who claim that the search engine has been providing too many pages from some of the same domains in search results. It appears that this has had them looking at ways that they could provide more diversity within those results. A patent granted to Google earlier this year describes one approach that could have an impact on both local search rankings and Web rankings for authority pages for business entities.

The impact of this approach would be that when these authority pages ranked highly in both Web results and local search results, Google might merge listings for the two, so that the Web search result no longer appears within search results for a specific query and the local search result is potentially boosted higher in results as well.

In the past, I’ve written about How Google Universal Search and Blended Results May Work, describing how Google might decide when and where to include multiple listings within Web search results from different vertical search types, such as local results, images, news articles, videos, and others. Each of these different types of results might be ranked based upon their relevance to a query, and might be included within results based upon how meaningful those results might be to the query and the intent of a searcher.

Under this new approach, Google might look for the same page ranking highly in Web search results and local search results when those pages are authority results with the second search results. As authority results for a specific business entity, these are the pages that have been chosen to be associated with the business entity when it is displayed in local results. The authority page of the business entity is the homepage of the business entity. If an authority page ranks highly in both web results and local search results, that URL may be merged so that it only appears one time in the search result as a local listing.

The patent tells us that this might happen when the local search result ranks above a certain relevance threshold for the query, and possibly based upon the distance of a searcher to the location involved, with a searcher’s distance from the business entity as a factor as well. These combine results might then appear before other results in response to a query.

We are given two “advantages” from Google following this approach. The first is that we receive a more diverse set of pages in response to a query. The second is that the overall quality of results is improved.

The patent is:

Merging search results
Invented by Rasika S. Kumar, James R. Muller, Jacqueline Frances Bavaro, Jack Menzel, Amit Singhal, and Eugene Nudelman
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,392,394
Granted March 5, 2013
Filed: May 4, 2010

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for merging search results. In one aspect, a method combines search results responsive to a query that are obtained from a local search engine and a universal search engine such that the combined search results are ordered and presented in a way that emphasizes certain business entities in the results.

Why Show the Local Result?

The way that local results are displayed in Google means that in addition to including a direct link to the authority page (home page) for the business, a local listing also provides information that a searcher can use to compare the most highly ranked local listings, including such things as user ratings for the business, prices, locations, categories of businesses, and others.

The merged results are referred to in the patent as “combined local results”, and the listing of results as local results might be reordered when they are displayed based upon the original ranking of each result in Web results in respose to a query.

Where local search results are displayed within web results may depend upon the relevance and quality of both the local results and the web results. If there are a lot of authority pages at the top of the web results, then the combined local results may be placed at the top of the rankings:

For example, if the highest ranked universal search result does not refer to an authority page or two out of the top three universal search results do not refer to authority pages, the re-ordered local results are inserted after the third highest ranked universal search result. Otherwise, the re-ordered local results are inserted before the highest ranked universal search result. In further implementations, if the highest ranked universal search results refer to different business entities, the re-ordered local results are inserted before them.

In further implementations, the insertion position can be determined based on a comparison of the overall quality of the local results as compared to the quality of the web results where the higher quality results are placed before the others. Other ways of determining the insertion position are possible.

Implications

Imagine that you had a page that was returned in both local search listings and organic Web results in response to a query. The organic web result might have been in the top twenty rankings for the query, and may have been the home page or main URL for the domain, and could be said to be the authority page for the business. Under this patent, the organic web result might disappear, by being merged or combined with the local search result. It might also then rank higher in those local results, and the local results might move higher within the combined Web results as well.

More results from more domains are shown to searchers this way, and pages that rank well for both local and web search may also be shown higher.

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50 thoughts on “How Google May Diversify Search Results by Merging Local and Web Search Results”

  1. Hmmm. So that begs a question – If my competitor ranks above me because their listing was merged, should I focus more on local-specific methods of improvement (citations, +Local page), or more organic (links, content, etc) based improvement?

  2. Hi Jared,

    It probably depends upon how well your page might rank in both local search and Web search as to which you might want to focus upon first. This combining of local and web broadens the range of signals that are required for having a combined result, and to get one might mean making sure that both types of signals are attended to – there appears to be a threshold that needs to be attained for both to get the merged treatment.

  3. Another one to get our heads around. I think your final implications cleared it up for me.

    Something I’ve noticed was the case when using an alternate URL for the places entry would enable a domain to show up in both the organic and places sections. I considered it to be part of their no duplicates in the results policy. This clarifies that it’s a more specific effect.

    The scenario is when a business has multiple locations so each places entry goes to a sub page and not the better ranking home page.

    This adds a new angle. Having the places entry use the ranking URL may help the places entry get a better spot.

    And it seems this patent is about all universal results and not just places. Are there any others where this can happen. Video, images?

  4. Hi Tiggerito,

    Thanks. The patent claims section seems pretty much focused upon business entities and authority pages for those. What you’re saying about having sub-pages ranking and not being merged goes with that – so a franchise location (within a sub-directoyr) might not be merged if the URL isn’t an “authority” page for local search purposes.

    While the patent focuses upon universal results, it doesn’t seem to include high ranking video or images as a result that might be merged in this way – the focus seems to be upon the same URL that might rank well in both Web results and in local results, to prevent that from being shown twice within a set of search results.

  5. I think this makes a lot of sense, it’s not difficult for Google to ascertain local search intent, either though explicit use of the town/county or through the nature of the thing being searched for (certain services people will want a local provider – e.g. dentist, hairdressers, DIY stores).

    More and more Google are looking at the ‘big picture’ of a website’s profile and I think seriously making people do Local SEO well might be the kick up the behind some of them need. It might further help reduce local SEO manipulation if people have to to multiple things well in order to rank.

  6. My Australian website with the tysaustralia.com domain is aimed at the US audience yet it is also ranked in Google.au. The merging would be damaging to me.

  7. The case of merging the organic web result with the “Places” listing for the corresponding business has been observed for quite some time and a lot of people complained, because while before they could easily get both an organic result and a Places result on first page, now it is harder. A great workaround is to use the homepage as the landing page for the Places listing (the landing page is (almost) always the one that is directly associated and “merged” with the listing), and additionally optimize a “location page” that is specifically targeting the same location. It was demonstrated by Mike Ramsey in his presentation at SMX West last year (check here: http://niftymarketing.com/smx-west-presentation-about-onsite-seo-an-interview/ slides 10-12)

  8. With more frequency I’ve seen Google completely absorb an organic listing into a places result, especially when logged in at a certain location or including a GEO-centric keyword like “restaurants in Atlanta“.

    The websites that seem to do well are the ones like Yelp, Restaurant.com, or any other directory-like website that has local implications. Google seems to sprinkle their “local” landing pages within the top results – I.E. restaurant.com/restaurants-in-atlanta. To me, those are the sweet spots to be in.

  9. It sounds like a great idea but there are always people that suffer when Google makes changes as harsh as this. I hope this helps to fix the domain crowding issue, which is still very much prevalent for “care home” related terms. I have several clients which could benefit from this as they have both organic and local results in the top 3… Seems more logical to rank them high with a single result, so I’m happy :)

  10. This could prove very useful for some local developers, who don’t have the power of a world-wide known company. I hope this will help me expand my business, by aiming a local target (which is directly interested by my products). Still, it’s a lot of work to do to reoptimize all my online-stores…

  11. Google isn’t doing a very good job serving local results. I hope most people can see this like I do. It’s like they roll out one update, test it for a couple weeks, then switch back or try something completely different.

    That’s chaos. Google should be more delicate testing these new SERPs (local or not). Otherwise you’re just creating inconsistent search results, which will make people lose trust in Google.

    I feel like there’s a group of 10-20 individuals working on Google’s algorithm saying “Let’s try this”, “No let’s try this”, “No let’s combine your two ideas and try this”. Also known as group think.

  12. Google nixed all our local search results a few years back anyway. Not ours specifically targeted in a personal sense. They just took the axe to local searches for ‘Denver web design’, ‘Denver SEO’ etc- and this happened across all markets- had quite a conversation rolling on it on Google forums.
    And a big G employee did step in at some point and let us know that yes they deliberately targeted folks like us because of our ability to ‘game the system’.
    Seemed a bit unfair and cost us some business- but then who says big G has a duty to be fair? And what does ‘fair’ mean in this context anyway?
    Right now as you all know they have their guns blazing for SEOers as their $60 bn approx revenue last year from PPC was not enough apparently- it’d work for me..

  13. Bill: From my perspective that is an interesting and meaningful patent. Thanks for writing about it and presenting it to us. This is an issue on which I’ve been focused on for years.

    I suspect they implemented this some months ago. I’ve been following certain websites that represent local businesses for years that have tremendous strength relative to their competition. Several months ago I saw some merges into the PAC or local results, wherein before they had organic results above the PAC/local results.

    For one of these sites I noticed on one variation on a used keyword phrase (with the city name) and a variation on the service the website showed in an organic ranking above the pac, and above an “authority site” (yelp)

    for a different variation on the service (and city name) the site was ranked within the pac. I’d suspect for this second variation it might represent the description in this patent as it applies to a merged result.

    From the long perspective this has been a presentation issue with which google has been dealing for years, subject to its complex rankings systems. Recall there was a time when a search phrase would generate an enormous single map for a certain business, taking up a lot of screen real estate. On the left would be a link to the main site with site links. Cripes, there could be secondary pages underneath that. It would give a single entity huge control over the top of the search page.

    I’ve had some of that and I might have some data that I can connect to it when I created slides of this phenomena.

    I have to go back and take a look at Mike Ramsey’s presentation from a year ago that Nyagoslav referenced. I’m not sure if they are connected or not.

    Here is a perspective to dwell on: Suppose in the past prior to google redoing presentations in this manner, it found that on certain presentations when a site had what is now described as “authority” presence, (even though that term wasn’t in use back then) it dominated the top of the page with a lot of results.

    I wonder what happened on the overall ppc click through rates??? Were there less clicks overall on ppc b/c the organic results were so overwhelmingly pointed to a single answer????

    I don’t know. I do know though how many clicks we got in those periods when we had that domination. That is just an observation on my part..suggesting there may be a connection to ppc results, that are unsaid in this new presentation. Of course I don’t know…but I’m suspicious. :D

    Lastly, from a long perspective…in a way this could have the same impact of possibly spreading around the clicks as with I suspect the visual carousel might be doing with up to 20 pictures on the top of a page for a search for a restaurant, hotel or amusement type search.

    All things to ponder. Thanks for the write up.

    Dave

  14. Hi Martin,

    It’s not always obvious that a query that doesn’t include a geographic aspect to it evidences a local search intent, and sometimes queries don’t and Google might interpret them as having a local intent. I do agree with you that encouraging people to both optimize for local search and to optimize for geographic search will be a step towards reducing manipulation in search results.

    Businesses could rank well in the past in local search without having a web page at all, and it’s possible that doing that makes a better local search though. That’s something to explore further.

  15. Hi Ty,

    I’m not so sure that this merging will be damaging to you without spending more time with your site. Does your site rank well for a specific location in Australia, or is it about the whole country? Does the URL for the home page rank well in local search for specific locations in Australia? Is your home page the authority page for your business in local results for your business? If your page isn’t ranking in local search in Australian results, this may not impact your site in any way.

  16. Hi Nyagoslav,

    Good to hear that you’ve experienced this in the past, because that helps identify it as a behavior that Google has been experimenting with for a while. The workaround you suggest looks like one that should work under the description and claims that the patent provides. The patent tells us that a merger will only happen if the organic Web listing is the same URL used as an authority URL for the business (which should be the home page for the site).

    Mike’s slides seem to show two different scenerios – optimizing an interior page for organic results, which should avoid merging it and the local search results. A couple of slides later, he shows that linking to the interior page in a Google Plus profile will get that one to be the local search result, with a well optimized home page URL showing in web search results. That would avoid merging as well, except that the patent doesn’t cover the use of a Google Plus page using an interior page as the local page result. The patent talks about the local search result being the “authority” page for a business, which wouldn’t be an interior page. Mike shows Google accepting an interior page as the authority page.

    The good news is that might just avoid the merging of results. The bad news is that when merger of those happens under the patent, it seems like the resulting combined ranking result would rank higher than a non-merged local result. Is it better to have two lower ranked pages in Google’s results for a query, or one higher ranked results? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I read the patent.

  17. Hi Curtis,

    Thanks. The patent does include some discussion of third party sites like Yelp, but doesn’t necessarily indicate any benefit to them when a merger like what is described in the patent takes place. It’s often not a bad idea to be listed in those types of sites anyway, to help improve your local rankings, and having both on the first page of results if possible isn’t a bad place to be in.

  18. Hi Adam,

    I’m leaning towards the benefit of a single higher ranked results than two results that are ranked a little lower. But I agree that a change like this can be harsh, with people wondering where their great organic web result disappeared to. Having to explain what happened to clients can be tough, especially if they preferred having more real estate within search results even if those might rank lower. Domain crowding doesn’t seem fair, at least unless yours is the site crowding the search results. :)

  19. Hi Alan,

    Good question. :)

    If you’re working with sites that have local presences, working towards building both a great organic ranking and a great local search ranking should benefit you regardless of the fact that your business isn’t a world-wide known company. A company that is a franchise or a chain isn’t going to have it’s home page URL ranking in local search results for a specific location. So if the home page of Pizza Hut ranks in the top ten for an organic web search result on a query for [pizza], and there’s an organic local result for pizza hut for [pizza] as well, the “pizza hut” local result isn’t going to be the home page URL for Pizza Hut, so the two won’t be merged and ranked higher as described in this patent.

    The extra work is worth the doing.

  20. Hi Kyle,

    Google has been doing a lot of experimentation with local search recently. But historically it hasn’t seen a lot of changes, and a lot of the patents I’ve written about that go back 7-8 years still seem to be working as described. I think local search has been pretty consistent over the years in terms of relying upon prominence, distance, and relevance to rank pages. Most of the recent changes appear to be more about how local search results are displayed in search results.

  21. Hi Ally,

    Your preaching to the choir here. As an SEO, I’m another of those groups that doesn’t show up in local search results that appear in Web results. It’s been like that for years, and I’m not sure that I remember that SEOs where ever blended into Universal Search results. I don’t think they ever were.

    There are people who write a lot about a bias that Google might have against SEO businesses, but regardless of whether there is or there isn’t such a bias, those are the cards on the table. Many of those articles point out bias that has other explanations that are as much valid, if not more so.

  22. Hi Dave,

    Thank you very much. I love local search myself. :)

    I agree that Google likely started applying this months ago, at the very least, and that’s been my personal experience as well.

    There was a point in time when some sites would take up a tremendous amount of real estate on a search result page, and it’s still possible to do that under a mix of different algorithms that might be applied to sites showing in results. It does seem like some of those have been dialed back a little, in the interest of providing more diverse search results.

    Mike’s observations are interesting, and hopefully he might be willing to share a little more of his experience.

    That “authority” designation has been around for a long time – I have a link towards the top of the post to a post I wrote about it in 2006. It’s at the heart of this merger process. The results that are merged from local search and web search have to be the authority page, otherwise they won’t be merged.

    Regarding PPC, I’m not sure that Google is willing to have organic web results influenced by whether or not there’s also a sponsored ad for the same URL. I wrote a post a number of years back about a Microsoft patent filing that suggested that they might remove high ranking organic results if there were PPC results for the same page in the search results. There were a lot of criticisms of the idea in comments to the post, and I’ve wondered if Google would ever do the same thing, and thinking about the blow back they might receive if that was ever suggested. I would imagine that would significantly hurt their advertising dollars.

    The visual carousel isn’t mentioned in the patent, and doesn’t sound like it would work following the processes in the patent. Would Google merge a web search result with a local carousel result? I’m not sure that they would. If they did, would they do something to “increase” the ranking of that local result, such as moving it more to the left on the carousel, since people reading English at least read from left to right? Again, I don’t know.

  23. Wow! I’m glad to have found this site. I have a client that we ranked in the #1 spot on the first page of Google organic (in their city) for over 2 years. Suddenly, they appeared in the Google maps at the top but disappeared from the first 25 pages of organic. Also, an x newspaper company sold them a paid ad campaign and used the keywords we had them already ranked in. So we don’t know what caused Google to suddenly merge them but I am sad to see this happen. We worked hard to get to the top and it is too easy for companies to get on Maps without doing SEO properly. We had a competitor that seems to have had the same thing happen so we think that Google just finally got around to merging this category. I’d like to announce my vote to have Google target and reduce the presence of business directories (YP and YULP). It seems like the opposite is true.

  24. Local and global have different perspectives and the decision of Google in this regard is proving good as well as bad.
    If we talk about certain services, products then local searching is fine but if we talk about information then I feel that it must be free from any physical boundary.
    After all, Internet has been responsible for making this world a global village but this kind of segregation may drift a gap once again.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it has been helpful to clear a bit on my thoughts.

  25. Like Ty said. We have a number of websites that are aimed directly at certain countries, therefore this could be seriously damaging.

    Thanks

  26. This sounds like a good direction for Google to take. I agree that over the past 6 months especially, it seems that the same sites keep showing up on the SERPs – only in different forms. The worst is when a site shows up at the top of the ads, then in the regular listings, and also in the local results! 3 times is simply redundant!

  27. Hi Chris,

    Given this kind of combined local search results, it’s become harder to rank well in local search results if the other people ranking in local search result also ranked well in Web search as well. For some categories in some places, it’s never been easy to rank well in local search results, too. For example, ranking for the term “lawyer” in Philadelphia can be tough.

    I don’t think we’ll see Google roll back this change, so having a page other than your home page ranking well in web results is your last resort if you want to get another organic result to appear and rank well.

  28. Hi Ashutosh,

    This kind of merging some results may benefit some sites that rank for queries with a clear local intent. Where it probably does get murky as to the benefit is when a query might not have that clear a local intent, and yet Google is still showing local results. Google usually doesn’t show local results when the intent isn’t too clear, but there are times when you see some and wonder why maps results are appearing.

  29. Hi George,

    It’s possible that Google might show some “local” results when you’re targeting a page or pages for different countries. I’m not sure that this merging of results is going to hurt that as much as it might help by giving you less results to compete against by adding more possibility for diversity of results.

  30. Hi Charles,

    I’m not sure that we have a say in whether or not Google moves forward with this. They already seem to be combining search results.

  31. Hi Lee,

    Some people define spam as “sites positioned above mine.” If your site is the one that has lots of listings prominently displayed in search results, it’s not a bad place to be. But it removes options for searchers who want to have choices, to be able to compare and choose. Google has come under fire over the past year or so for the lack of diversity in search results, and they make it pretty clear that one of the reasons for this particular patent is to offer results that are more diverse, and to move higher quality results up in search listings. It’s probably a step in the right direction.

  32. Google does a lot of testing in different local markets. We use a variety of VPNs that have different geographic locations. When you do this you see a wide diversity of results and types of listings. Even when you sign out of Google they are basing results on your IP address. For my market, results are all over the place. Sometimes you get the traditional seven pack and the next day you may get a five or ten pack. I don’t know if we are in a test market or what.

    What surprises me is that I never see the large SEO sites doing a study on local results.For a restaurant there results are pretty consistent. When I look at our own ranking for web design it’s all over the place. I always ask new clients how they found us and they always say they searched on Google. When we sign out and search ourselves for web design we come up anywhere from second to can’t even find us.

    I’m really thinking about doing a coffee shop tour and doing screenshots. I think a lot of people will be surprised at the amount of variances I see in the algorithm.

  33. That means we should focus more on local otherwise our competitor will win because of merging, Its really useful info, thanks Bill

  34. First off wow great post and comments have been reading for awhile as it is compelling content. I have a site that is found in the carousal in the 2nd position(from left) but the organic listing is not found. I have been adding more high PR links but it seems it will not budge out of the depths of Google. EMD but I have been very careful in my anchor text so I am sure its not that any suggestions?

  35. Hi Chris,

    Thanks. If the home page for the site was ranking in the organic results previously, it’s possible that Google may have merged that Web search result with the local result into a combined local result, which would mean that it would no longer rank in the organic results anymore, regardless of how many high PR links you point at it. You could try optimizing an interior page on the site for that term, and pointing some high PR links at it, if you feel that it absolutely essential to have an organic listing in those results as well.

  36. Thanks for your input Bill! Aside from the Google Maps and organic search merge, I just checked a client for “auto repair cityxx”. The results are 4 Yelp auto repair shops, local competitor, my client, local competitor, Edmunds list, Angie’s List, and YP at #10. So 7 out of 10 are middlemen type sites. A few months ago Yelp only had a couple of listings on page one. Normally we can outrank them. To us, Google’s algorithm changes have benefited middlemen sites. If this keeps happening we will start a ton of them and so will thousands of other developers. I hope they find a way to keep these sites from outranking most of the local businesses.

  37. Chris, I’ve had similar issues with Yelp. For one particular keyword, I get 3 yelp links in a row, followed by a “Houzz” link, and then my clients. It’s quite frustrating. Anybody know of any particular ways to outrank Yelp pages? Or is it just the usual?

  38. Yes i think this is already in place. Google is valuing local search more than organic at the moment.

    Also google is changing results as per personalized search as well. So that means if someone is logged into a gmail account and he searches something and visits a page.

    Next time when he searches same keyword google shows the visited page above others and also says visited at which date.

  39. I’ve been having problems for years where directory sites outrank my clients for their money keywords. It will be interesting to see if these types of mergers help or harm them.

  40. In some sectors of business all that is required to appear in a localised Google page 1 search result is a Local Business listing. If you’re really lucky then there won’t be enough similar businesses in the same location to cause the Local Business listings to rotate each time the page is loaded.

  41. Hi John,

    There definitely is a difference depending upon the location and the category of a business in terms of how difficult or easy it might be for a site to rank well both Organically and in local search. If there aren’t enough of a specific type of business in a specific area though, Google may not show any local results at all.

  42. I am already seeing the merging of local results into the SERPS for some search terms in Google UK. My domain is nowhere near strong enough to rank for some highly competitive terms such as “business cards” but when I do a google search (not logged in but where my location is set to my locality) I can see one of my website’s pages on the second page.

  43. “Hi Bill!

    I believe that this is such a great idea but there are people who suffer every time Google make some changes like this. Thank you very much for sharing this and I am looking forward to read more of your articles.

  44. Thanks.

    The timing of this post was really good – the day after I posted it, I got a question from a co-worker asking if I had any thoughts on why a client’s high ranking organic result had disappeared. I checked, and they also had a high ranking local results (#1 on the first page for the query in question, and it had moved up in local results), and this change fit. This confused the client, but when we explained that it probably resulted in them being #1 for the query on the first page, that did make them feel better.

  45. Bill, you are the only SEO I know of that keeps such a close eye on Google’s patents. I have to say your knowledge is pretty impressive even if most of it is speculative. I just recently discovered your site and I’m very glad I did.

    That being said, I am a REALTOR and local SEO is everything to me. I just recently finished building out a site that allows consumers to search properties in my area but out ranking the major portals like trulia, zillow, and realtor.com has proven very difficult. I’m hoping if this patent is implemented that will change. Great article. Thanks for the info.

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