For people familiar with Google’s local search content & overall algorithms, it’s clear that things are changing (again).
In the lingo of SEOs, earlier this month, people began to notice that the 7-packs that typically showed up in the business search results had been replaced by 3-packs. Although many marketers were initially alarmed, the trend continued and it soon became clear that the presentation of local searches had changed.

Google's local search changes

Find out all about Google’s recent local SERP changes.

Google’s Local Search Content: What Does the Pack Thing Mean?

Before we go any further, I better define what the heck this “pack” thing is. (This is what Google refers to it as.)
7-pack vs. 3-pack simply means that Google is showing 7 locations instead of 3 when you search for a location. See example screenshot when I searched for “restaurants Austin” on my mobile Android device. It only gives me 3 results before the More button.

Back to the News Story

So within hours of the first 3-pack’s appearance, 3-packs had completely replaced all 7-packs across all vertical search rankings in every country. People were shocked. Although Google is known for rapid-fire updates, they had previously tested local changes and then rolled them out only to certain countries.
Needless to say, the rapid change to local search results has left many people wondering what happened and what comes next.

Local Search Results Optimized for Mobile

One of the reasons that Google changed the face of their local searches is to accommodate the ever-growing number of mobile searches. By optimizing their search results for mobile devices, they cater to the wide selection of their users who prefer accessing the web via smartphone.
Now, when desktop users view their search results, they will notice that it looks quite similar to the search results a mobile user would see: the 3-pack has been designed to fit perfectly onto the screen of mobile users and desktop users are along for the ride.
In light of these recent changes, the top 3 search engine spaces are hot real estate for content marketers everywhere. Although mobile users have been accustomed to 3-packs for quite some time, desktop users are just now getting the swing of things and there is a high probability that content that doesn’t make the cut of the top 3 will be forgotten by users.

How Did the 3-Pack Changes Affect Traffic?

As you can imagine, Google’s local search content doesn’t just change willy-nilly. For all of Google’s algo updates, each proposed change goes through a heavy regiment of testing and, historically, SEO’S have noticed these tests as they take place. A few SEO’s predicted the 3-pack change and local businesses with more than two competitors have begun to feel the heat.
Many SEO’s speculate that Google made the change to 3-packs because the search results in the top three spaces of Google’s presentation were getting the most traffic. These results probably garnered more clicks and more attention, but this can probably be attributed to positioning more than anything else. Even if mobile rankings operated on the 7-pack system, the top 3 fit perfectly on a mobile screen, making them far more visible to a mobile user. Unless the mobile user scrolls down, results4-7 are all but invisible.
That said, it’s likely that Google made the change because results 4-7 were simply not getting enough clicks and they wanted to streamline user experience. Many local companies, however, don’t appreciate being booted from the first page because, even if they weren’t in the top 3, being in results 4-7 still offered ample branding opportunities and provided companies with a way to get their company out there for added exposure and notability.

Changes to Addresses

In the new 3-pack results, searchers will notice that Google has made some important changes to the addresses that appear in the 3-pack queries: they’ve removed specific, numerical addresses in favor of street names and not all local businesses love it. Although this change may promote people clicking through, which is a great thing for businesses that don’t land a spot in the top 3, even clicking through doesn’t show an address on the left side of the page.
Additionally, searchers no longer see phone numbers, Google+ links or flyouts. Store hours, however, have been added.

Ability to Search for Ratings

With the new 3-pack changes, Google users can now search for businesses based solely on their ratings. This is especially crucial for restaurant-related businesses. Now that users can search based on star-ratings (two stars, three stars or four stars), it’s obvious that companies are going to find themselves competing for increased ratings. When given the chance to search only for four-star companies, it stands to reason that Google users might not be all that interested in two or three stars. This is big news for small businesses with local competitors.

What Google’s Local Search Content Change Means for SEO

All of the changes implicit in the new 3-pack structure spell some big competition for SEO’s. Now that Google has essentially lopped four spots off of prime results page real estate, the competition for the top three has become fierce. Even companies that currently have a spot in the top three local search results can’t afford to get too relaxed: a spot today does not guarantee a spot tomorrow, especially because the competition for those spots just got fierce.
This new climate calls for companies to optimize their content for local SEO by taking steps like researching keywords, creating high-quality content and developing a highly visible home page that includes the company’s name, address and phone number as well as an embedded geo sitemap. Additionally, companies that can garner additional positive customer reviews will stand a better chance of sitting pretty in the search results.

Conclusion

Although these steps aren’t shocking to those familiar with SEO, they are new for local businesses that have never done any local SEO before. In the changing climate of Google’s local searches, though, it’s obvious that companies with more than two competitors now need to begin thinking about local SEO if they want to stay afloat.